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Amor Mundi: Citizenship and Civil Disobedience

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.


Thank You!

We’d Like to SayA Special Thank You to All Who Attended This Year’s Conference, “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience!

We are thrilled so many of you attended, watched, and enjoyed our 11th annual conference “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience.” The talks and discussions were exciting, with probing questions and the kind of provocative thinking Hannah Arendt inspires.

If you’d like to watch the conference, or revisit particular talks, you can view the webcast in its entirety here.

We are also making available the text version of Roger Berkowitz’s introductory address: “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience: Reflections on Civil War and Civil Disobedience,” which you can read below.

Don’t forget to mark the date, October 10 and 11, 2019, for next year’s conference: “Racism and Anti-Semitism.”


Happy Birthday Hannah Arendt!

October 14th is Hannah Arendt’s birthday. Here is her letter on “love” to James Baldwin
“Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive;  you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.

"Citizenship and Civil Disobedience: Reflections on Civil War and Civil Disobedience"

In the years leading up to the Civil War, there were more than 70 violent clashes between Representatives and Senators in Congress. In her book “Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and Road to Civil War” Joanna Freeman tells a story of a raucous antebellum Congress replete with bullying, dueling, and fistfights. Even now amidst the bitter animosity that pervades Washington, DC, it takes some effort to imagine our elected officials engaging in regular canings, duels, and fistfights, or to learn that they were brandishing pistols and knives and even flinging the occasional brick in the Capitol Building. But all this was happening in Congress in the two decades before the Civil War.

The fighting culture in Congress reflected the country at large. In four months during 1835 alone, there were 109 riots across the United States. The murderous battles of “Bloody Kansas” in 1850 actually played out a mini-civil-war between pro-slavery Missourians and anti-slavery Kansans from the North.  And John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry unleashed a tide of anger on both sides of the national divide over slavery.

While the violence in Congress began with Southern Democratic Congressmen intimidating Northern abolitionists, something changed in 1856. Suddenly, a new class of Republican Congressmen decided to fight back. The abolitionists stood up to intimidation from the South and met threat with defiance and force with force. As a result, the 34th Congress was the most violent in history and culminated in the barbaric caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner after his “Crime Against Kansas” speech. The speech insulted Southern slaveholders by name, insinuating that they were holding on to slavery at least partly for reasons of sexual mastery. This led Representative Preston Brooks-a relative to one insulted Senator-to walk up to Sumner and cane him mercilessly until Sumner was carried away bloody and barely conscious.

I bring this up not to suggest we are about to have a second civil war–although I don’t rule out that possibility. Last year, Foreign Policy Magazine asked a group of National Security Analysts to evaluate the chances of a civil war in the United States over the next 10 to 15 years. The answers ranged from 5 to 95 percent. The average was 35 percent. And this was before the Unite the Right March in Charlottesville.  Keith Mines, a special forces officer turned diplomat estimated the probability of war at 60%. He said:

“Violence is “in” as a method to solve disputes and get one’s way. The president modeled violence as a way to advance politically and validated bullying during and after the campaign.  Judging from recent events the left is now fully on board with this, although it has been going on for several years with them as well – consider the university events where professors or speakers are shouted down and harassed, the physically aggressive anti-Israeli events, and the anarchists during globalization events. It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.”

Well, it is like 1859–and it is not.

Hannah Arendt reminded us not to see too much wisdom in history. She warned repeatedly that the present is always unprecedented and we must look upon it fresh.  But in her essay “Civil Disobedience,” Arendt writes that history can teach us about the causes of revolution.

“If history teaches anything about the causes of revolution…it is that a disintegration of political systems precedes revolutions, that the telling symptom of disintegration is a progressive erosion of governmental authority, and that this erosion is caused by the government’s inability to function properly, from which spring the citizens’ doubts about its legitimacy. This is what the Marxists used to call a ‘revolutionary situation,’-which, of course, more often than not does not develop into a revolution.”

It is fair to say that we are today in at least some version of a revolutionary situation, one in which large numbers of citizens reject the legitimacy of our established institutions.

This week in the New York Times, Emily Badger offered an insight into the depth and breadth of the popular anger against the Establishment. Even today, two years into the Trump Presidency, 47% of Trump supporters feel like strangers in their own country. At the same time, 44% of those who disapprove of Trump report they feel like strangers in their own country. It is not simply that people disagree; an overwhelming majority of Americans-people in power and people out of power, persons of color and white people, and women and men-all feel alienated, rootless, and powerless in their own country.

We are at one of those rare moments at which the country sits on a pivotal point amidst a conflict of fundamental values.  At such moments, as in the 1850s, violence and even civil war are very real possibilities.

We should not be shocked that violence is a possibility in America today. One of the most prescient observers of America, Hannah Arendt well understood how the United States is a fertile ground for violence. In her essay “Is America By Nature a Violent Society?” Arendt writes:

“It seems true that America, for historical, social and political reasons, is more likely to erupt into violence than most other civilized countries.”

American propensity to violence coexists with the country’s deep respect for law….

Read the rest of this Introduction to the Conference here.

Disobedience and Hereness

Volkavaisk Bundists, 1905.

Molly Crabapple follows the clues from a drawing by her great-grandfather Sam Rothbart to tell the history of the Bund, a revolutionary society founded in Vilna in 1897. Continuing the theme of Civil Disobedience, Crabapple describes the Bund:

“[T]he Bund was a sometimes-clandestine political party whose tenets were humane, socialist, secular, and defiantly Jewish. Bundists fought the Tsar, battled pogroms, educated shtetls, and ultimately helped lead the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Though the Bund was largely obliterated by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the group’s opposition to Zionism better explains their absence from current consciousness. Though the Bund celebrated Jews as a nation, they irreconcilably opposed the establishment of Israel as a separate Jewish homeland in Palestine. The diaspora was home, the Bund argued. Jews could never escape their problems by the dispossession of others. Instead, Bundists adhered to the doctrine of do’ikayt or “Hereness.” Jews had the right to live in freedom and dignity wherever it was they stood.”

Months after the Bund’s founding, its agitators traveled to Volkavisk, where they spread the doctrine of labor rights among the young apprentices like Sam. Under the Bundists’ influence, the apprentices went on strike. The bosses brought in strikebreakers. Running battles spilled from the streets into the synagogue itself, where Bundists and the employers’ goons went after each other with clubs, in scenes Sam later reimagined in watercolors. Not that Sam stayed on the sidelines, simply looking on. “I took part in strikes and sabotage,” Sam later wrote. “I became a revolutionist.” The violence won the apprentices a radical new right: Saturday evenings off of work.”

Talking to Yourself

Thinking, Hannah Arendt argues, is a conversation one has with oneself. Arendt’s model for thinking is Socrates. In the Life of the Mind and also her essay Socrates, Arendt emphasizes Socrates’ discovery that solitude is “the necessary condition for the good functioning of the polis.” Socrates’ solitude is marked by what Arendt names the dialogue of the “two-in-one,” the fact that when he is alone he is not alone but “by himself.” Socrates is actually with his other self. This other self–figured as Socrates’ daemon–is that divine voice to whom Socrates goes home; he is that “very obnoxious fellow who always cross-examines him.” The daemon is what interrupts the individual’s sovereign and unitary self. The importance of thinking, and hence of solitude, is that thinking interrupts the oneness, certainty, and confidence that allows ideology to overwhelm thought. The Socratic thinker is a gadfly who stings citizens and also himself and thus arouses them from the satin sleep of conformity to the activity of thinking.

The inner voice is not simply a Socratic invention. According to Philip Jaekl, new work in psychology has discovered the importance of self-talk in the development of human consciousness and creativity. He writes:

“‘I think, therefore I am,’ the 17th-century philosopher René Descartes proclaimed as a first truth. That truth was rediscovered in 1887 by Helen Keller, a deaf and blind girl, then seven years of age: ‘I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no world … When I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something,’ she later explained, ‘I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.’ As both these pioneers knew, a fundamental part of conscious experience is ‘inner speech’ – the experience of verbal thought, expressed in one’s ‘inner voice’. Your inner voice is you.

That voice isn’t the sound of anything. It’s not even physical – we can’t observe it or measure it in any direct way. If it’s not physical, then we can arguably only attempt to study it by contemplation or introspection; students of the inner voice are ‘thinking about thinking’, an act that feels vague. William James, the 19th-century philosopher who is often touted as the originator of American psychology, compared the act to ‘trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks’.

Yet through new methods of experimentation in the last few decades, the nature of inner speech is finally being revealed. In one set of studies, scans are allowing researchers to study the brain regions linked with inner speech. In other studies, researchers are investigating links between internal and external speech – that which we say aloud…

Such voices have been reported by noted individuals throughout history, says Fernyhough. The Greek philosopher Socrates described what he called a ‘daemonic sign’, an inner voice warning him that he was about to make a mistake. Joan of Arc described hearing divine voices since childhood – the same ones that influenced her motivation to help in the siege of Orleans. The 15th-century mystic and autobiographer Margery Kempe wrote about inner conversations with God. Sigmund Freud was not immune: ‘During the days when I was living alone in a foreign city … I quite often heard my name suddenly called by an unmistakable and beloved voice.”

The Great Constitutionalist

Adam Gopnik argues that Frederick Douglass is one of the great American Constitutionalists, and one of the most creative readers of the U.S. Constitution.

“Frederick Douglass, who has been called the greatest American of the nineteenth century, grew up as a slave named Frederick Bailey, and the story of how he named himself in freedom shows how complicated his life, and his world, always was. Frederick’s father, as David W. Blight shows in his extraordinary new biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (Simon & Schuster), was almost certainly white, as Douglass knew early on, and there is something almost cruelly parodic in the grand name the child slave was given: Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Escaping to freedom in 1838, at the age of twenty, and needing a new name—in part as a declaration of a reinvented self, in part for the practical necessity of eluding the slave-catchers—he chose to become Frederick Douglass, in honor of a character in a Walter Scott poem. (He added an extra “s” for distinction.)

What’s curious is that this was a completely Southern choice, a tribute to the culture he was escaping. The South, as Mark Twain protested at length, had long been hostage to a cult of Walter Scott’s neo-medievalism, one of the opiates of Southern “gallantry” that justified the concentration-camp culture as a leisurely and gracious one, a myth so durable that it shaped the most successful American movie ever made, “Gone with the Wind.” But the choice is also a reminder that the wind in Romanticism, and in Walter Scott, could blow both ways, toward liberal nationalism and self-renewal as well as toward feudal nostalgia and hierarchy. Douglass’s new name was as much a rejection of his slave name as was Malcolm X’s rejection of his birth name, Little—but in this case the chosen name denoted not an absence but a presence. The name he chose inscribed him within a cultural tradition that he had been forced to inherit and chose to remake. This insistence on seeing past the evils of the Enlightenment in search of the light that was still left there made him one of the most radical readers of the American nineteenth century. No one was ever a more critical reader of the Constitution, or, in the end, a more compelling advocate of its virtues.”

What does it mean to love the world? Hannah Arendt and Amor Mundi

by Samantha Rose Hill

In Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch (or ‘Thinking journal’) there’s a short entry on “Amor mundi — warum ist es so schwer, die Welt zu lieben?” “Love of the world — why is it so difficult to love the world?”

The day after the 2016 US presidential election I wrote a small piece for the Hannah Arendt Center newsletter Amor Mundi. Caught in the throes of grief, shocked, and uncertain of the future, I said that now we had to learn to love the world. Arendt’s provocation in that moment gave me a sense of calm and purpose, something to hold on to.

In moments of distress we often turn to poets and poetic thinkers to provide a sense of place and solace. W.H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Arendt. It’s not a coincidence that George Orwell and Arendt are selling in record numbers right now, 16 per cent above the usual rate. Publishers are running new prints of The Origins of Totalitarianism and even Theodor Adorno’s epic work The Authoritarian Personality. We’re at a cultural moment where we’re looking for understanding.

Readers looking to Arendt’s Amor Mundi for a form of political love might at first be disappointed. Amor Mundi—love of the world—is not love in any sense we’re commonly used to. There is, however, a challenge to think about what it means to be committed to the world, to care for the world despite its horrors. There is a provocation to embrace one another in our difference and to meet one another as fellow human beings. There is also a radical critique to be found of more common forms of love, which are destructive of difference and plurality.

Read the full article here.

Quote of the Week

Read the Quote Of The Week article by Jeffrey Champlin here

Journal Feature: What is a True American?

Anand Giridharadas and Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz: Let me begin by introducing our guest for this panel, Anand Giridharadas. I first encountered him a couple months ago when I read his book The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas. I had known very little about the book when it came out, but it’s one of those that you read very quickly with gratitude for the author. It is a real pleasure to have Anand here. He writes the “Admit One” column for the New York Times arts pages and the “Letter from America” feature for the New York Times global edition.
Anand was born in Cleveland and raised there and in Paris, France. He has been a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, and today he appears regularly on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and The Daily Show. He is ABD (all but dissertation) at Harvard in the Government Department; instead of a degree, he has a Daily Show degree, which is worth more, I am sure.
One of the beauties of The True American-which has been made into a film-is that it tells a beautiful and compelling story. There are at least two main characters in the book. Anand, could you talk to us about the character Rais and give us a sense of what he is about?
Anand Giridharadas: Thank you for having me. This book is a true story, a work of book-length journalism. I say that because what I am going to tell you sounds untrue, but it indeed happened, and it happened in America. Additionally, I think it has a lot to tell us about what it means to be American today. It is about two men, and you have asked me to introduce the first of them.
Raisuddin Bhuiyan, who goes by Rais, is like so many of the people who came to this country over the generations. He is a striving immigrant who is from Bangladesh originally, and he came to America in 1999. Let’s remember that people came for various reasons over the generations. Some people came here out of desperation, some people came here flee- ing persecution, but a lot of people who came here were fleeing perfectly decent circumstances, decent to everybody else around them except them. And that is actually a big part of the American story. We are peopled by people who couldn’t stand things that their brothers or sisters often could. Rais was one of those.
Adapted from a panel discussion that took place at the 2015 Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Does Privacy Matter?” Read the full text here.

Video Feature: Uday Mehta on The Courage To Be

Uday Mehta at the Spring 2015  
“Courage To Be” Dinner Lecture Series
“The Courage to Be” project explores the philosophical and religious foundations of moral and spiritual courage.  The project sponsors new research and fosters curricular innovations that ask: Why it is that some people have the spiritual courage to act conscientiously, where others abandon themselves to mass movements?

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Posted on 13 October 2018 | 9:54 pm

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