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Amor Mundi: The Academy Undressed

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.


The Academy Undressed

The Academy Undressed

For the past year three scholars have been submitting papers to top journals specializing in the fields of activism and grievance studies. Several of their papers have been published, including a 3,000 word excerpt from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, rewritten through the lens of intersectionality theory. The stunt, intended to “expose how easy it is to get ‘absurdities and morally fashionable political ideas published as legitimate academic research,’” was a redux of the Sokal Affair. In 1996 Alan Sokal, submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal in postmodern cultural studies. Sokal’s piece was published in their “Science Wars” issue and argued that quantum gravity is a social construct.

These hoaxes reveal a devastating truth about the flagging integrity of disciplines and disciplinary journals. If a piece is in vogue, appeals to the ideological persuasion of the editors, and sounds legitimate, there is a good chance that it will be published. The politics of the writing are more important than the rigor of the research. As Quillette writes, “The news that these journals are nakedly ideological will not surprise many of those who work within the disciplines of the humanities in the modern academy. Now the ticking off of buzzwords seems to stand in for checking the quality of scholarship or the coherence of arguments.”

Yascha Mounk calls the new scandal “Sokal Squared” because it is much bigger than its predecessor. While Mounk reminds us that much work in the Academy is important and excellent, he insists that we come to terms with the fact that some academic emperors are truly wearing no clothes.

—Samantha Hill

“Sokal Squared doesn’t just expose the low standards of the journals that publish this kind of dreck, though. It also demonstrates the extent to which many of them are willing to license discrimination if it serves ostensibly progressive goals. This tendency becomes most evident in an article that advocates extreme measures to redress the “privilege” of white students. Exhorting college professors to enact forms of “experiential reparations,” the paper suggests telling privileged students to stay silent, or even binding them to the floor in chains. If students protest, educators are told to take considerable care not to validate privilege, sympathize with, or reinforce it and in so doing, recenter the needs of privileged groups at the expense of marginalized ones. The reactionary verbal protestations of those who oppose the progressive stack are verbal behaviors and defensive mechanisms that mask the fragility inherent to those inculcated in privilege….

It would, then, be all too easy to draw the wrong inferences from Sokal Squared. The lesson is neither that all fields of academia should be mistrusted nor that the study of race, gender, or sexuality is unimportant. As Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian point out, their experiment would be far less worrisome if these fields of study didn’t have such great relevance.

But if we are to be serious about remedying discrimination, racism, and sexism, we can’t ignore the uncomfortable truth these hoaxers have revealed: Some academic emperors—the ones who supposedly have the most to say about these crucial topics—have no clothes.”


On Saturday Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as the 114th Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The senate building was barricaded as the historic vote took place just after 3:30pm, amidst national protests, acts of civil disobedience, and dissent. The contested nomination may represent a turning point for the court, which is now being heralded as the most conservative bench since 1937.

The Supreme Court has never been apolitical, but it has striven to imagine itself as principled, a body of law at a remove from power politics. That impartial image has taken a hit in the last half-century. In the 1960s the Court threw itself behind the nationalization of the Bill of Rights and the expansion of civil rights; it earned the love of progressives and the ire of conservatives. Beginning in the 1980s, the conservative Federalist Society began an effort to educate and empower a new generation of young and conservative legal scholars. With the confirmation of Kavanaugh, the current Supreme Court is dominated by Federalist Society alumni and is poised to roll back much of the progressive jurisprudence of the late 20th century.

The use of the Supreme Court to push through political victories that cannot be won through legislation risks undermining our constitutional system. As Hannah Arendt argues, the source of the authority of the American government is grounded in the unique American worship of the Constitution. American Constitution-worship depends upon and allows an ambiguity to persist in the sense and understanding of the Constitution, on its becoming both “an endurable objective thing” on the one hand, and yet one that could be approached from many angles and many interpretations on the other. It must be amendable and changeable, and yet impervious to any subjective states of mind or influences of will. Because the Supreme Court is, in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase, ‘“a kind of Constitutional Assembly in continuous session,’” the Court bases its authority on a reverence for—and a claim to be reenacting—the founding experience of the nation. It is this intimate weaving of “foundation, augmentation, and conservation” into a single cloak of constitutional authority that Arendt understands to be “the most important single notion which the men of the Revolution adopted.” Like Roman Senators, the Court Justices must remain at all times founders who regularly experience the revolutionary thrill of foundation and beginning. The Court was, Arendt saw, a constitutionally authorized space of both freedom and authority.

Even as Arendt saw the Constitution as the foundation of American authority, she recognized its authority was tenuous. It is even more so today amidst what Duncan Kennedy calls a “distinctive loss of faith” in legal argumentation, even amongst lawyers. As Arendt warned, the loss of constitutional authority is an existential question for American constitutional democracy.

“In view of the strange fact that Constitution-worship in America has survived more than a hundred years of minute scrutiny and violent critical debunking of the document as well as of all the ‘truths’ which to the founders carried self-evidence, one is tempted to conclude that the remembrance of the event itself—a people deliberately founding a new body politic—has continued to shroud the actual outcome of this act, the document itself, in an atmosphere of reverent awe which has shielded both event and document against the onslaught of time and changed circumstances. And one may be tempted even to predict that the authority of the republic will be safe and intact as long as the act itself, the beginning as such, is remembered whenever constitutional questions in the narrower sense of the word come into play.”

The memory of the beginning of the national founding along with the authority of the Court and the Constitution is flickering dimly. Reflecting on the momentousness of the nomination and confirmation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Samuel Moyn argues that “everything now depends on how liberals and progressives decide to respond to the hard fact of right-wing control of the imperial judiciary.” The answer, Moyn argues, is obvious: the United States is supposed to be a democracy, not an empire. Affirmative action, abortion rights will be eroded or swiftly deadened, while the first amendment is used to protect corporate interests. Moyn emphasizes the devastating effect this could have on democracy in America. He writes,

“The United States still looks to the higher judiciary to act on behalf of the country’s principles and values, even when basic study proves that judges are partisan and that partisanship only increases when they are given the power to decide the highest stakes questions. The mythology of constitutional law dies hard. The notion that empowering judges would serve progressive outcomes is a flickering star that collapsed long ago, and it is long since time to accept the dying of the light. A legal culture less oriented to the judiciary and more to public service in obtaining and using democratic power in legislatures at all levels is the sole path to progress now. In fact, it always has been.”

But it is also possible that the movement of the Court to the right will save American democracy. That will happen only if all Americans recall that politics is supposed to be fought on the battlefield of the local, state, and national legislatures rather than the courts. It is time to return to politics and to return politics to its rightful place. That would require a reinvigoration of citizenship. And it may also mean a renewed commitment to civil disobedience. These are the topics of the Hannah Arendt Center Conference Citizenship and Civil Disobedience which will happen this Thursday and Friday. If you can’t join us, sign up to watch the live webcast.

—Roger Berkowitz

Privacy for Sale

There is a cafe in Providence, Rhode Island that allows students to “pay” for coffee, but not with money.The Japanese branded Shiru Cafe makes money from selling the students personal information to corporate sponsors.

“To get the free coffee, university students must give away their names, phone numbers, email addresses and majors, or in Brown’s lingo, concentrations. Students also provide dates of birth and professional interests, entering all of the information in an online form. By doing so, the students also open themselves up to receiving information from corporate sponsors who pay the cafe to reach its clientele through logos, apps, digital advertisements on screens in stores and on mobile devices, signs, surveys and even baristas.

According to Shiru’s website: ‘We have specially trained staff members who give students additional information about our sponsors while they enjoy their coffee.’

The website for the Japanese-owned cafe also explains Shiru’s mission and philosophy: ‘Through a free drink we try to give students some information which sponsor company would like to inform exclusively for university students to diverse the choices of their future career.'”

Quote of the Week











Read the Quote Of The Week article by Roger Berkowitz here

Journal Feature: Show me the birth certificate! How America’s internet-enabled conspiracist media culture is destroying American Politics

by Jonathan Kay

Lewis Lapham, who spoke from this podium earlier in the day, said something interesting. He said, “The truth doesn’t have a big fan base. It’s not a popular product.” That really echoed for me because that is exactly what I heard from certain publishers when I pitched my book about conspiracy theories. At first, they were excited, “Oh, you’re writing a book about conspiracy theories. Great! You believe the lizards are taking over…or maybe some kind of zombie apocalypse?” I said, “No, no, no this is a book against conspiracy theories – a book about how we all have to be more rational.” The publishers became much less excited. They said, “Well, it sounds a little dry.” But then, Adam Bellow, an editor at Harper Collins, took a chance on me. And for that, I am grateful. The result was my book Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, which came out earlier in 2011.

I think it is important to talk about this subject at a conference dedicated to the subject of “truth-telling,” such as this – because conspiracy theories are both a symptom and a cause of a media culture and an Internet culture that promotes nonsense, for reasons I’m going to explain.

Read the full Journal Feature by Jonathan Kay here.

Video Feature: Nadia Murad Shares Nobel Peace Prize

Earlier this week, Nadia Murad shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her “uncommon courage in recounting her own sufferings and speaking up on behalf of other victims.” In 2016, Nadia spoke at the Arendt Center at Bard about the Yazidi genocide and sexual slavery. 

Nadia Murad Shares Nobel Prize

Watch Nadia speak here.

Posted on 7 October 2018 | 8:35 am

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