Amor Mundi: Understanding Trump
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.
Writing for the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman argues that Donald Trump has been so successful because he embodies the spirit of our age. Looking at Trump through the lens of Hegel, Rachman sees Trump as a “world-historical figure”.
I doubt Mr. Trump has much to say about Hegel. But he may be the kind of instinctive statesman that Hegel described – a figure who has harnessed and embodied forces that he himself only half-understands. By contrast I fear that Mr. Macron, learned though he is, currently looks more like the embodiment of a dying order.
There is something to be gained and something to be lost in viewing Trump this way. On the one hand, it seems entirely right to say that he embodies the spirit of our age: A technologically fueled, self-obsessed, economy of excess. On the other hand, thinking about Donald Trump as a world-historical figure implies that there was something inevitable about his rise to power.
It is difficult to deny that Donald Trump is an historic president. And many are trying to make sense of what is happening in American politics today, to understand what effect Trump’s legacy will have on the institutions of democracy. But understanding must at times refuse the desire for sense making, as Hannah Arendt teaches us. When we try to make sense of something-when we strive to make the extraordinary fit into pre-established patterns-we risk failing to see what is happening before us. And this is important because how we come to understand Trump’s Presidency is as important as Trump’s presidency itself.
Hannah Arendt was wary of Hegel’s idea of the understanding of history because it sought to make history rational, to make history makes sense. By seeing history as the unfolding of a rational narrative, Hegel foreclosed the possibility of political action and human freedom. In her unfinished work on Marx, recently published in Thinking Without a Banister, she writes:
From the viewpoint of the history of ideas, one might argue with almost equal right that the thread of tradition was also broken the moment that History not only entered human thought but became its absolute. Indeed, this had happened not with Marx but with Hegel, whose entire philosophy is a philosophy of history, or rather, one that dissolved all previous philosophic as well as all other thought into history. After Hegel had historicized even logic, and after Darwin, through the idea of evolution, had historicized even nature, there seemed nothing left that could withstand the mighty onslaught of historical categories…For Hegel, thinking historically, the meaning of a story can emerge only when it has come to an end. End and truth have become identical; truth appears when everything is at its end, which is to say when and only when the end is near can we learn the truth. In other words, we pay for truth with the living impulse that imbues an era, although of course not necessarily with our own lives. The manifold modern versions of an antagonism between life and spirit, especially in the Nietzschean form, have their source in this historicization of all our spiritual categories that is, in an antagonism between life and truth. What Hegel states about philosophy in general, that “the owl of Minerva spreads her wings only with the falling of the dusk,” holds only for a philosophy of history, that is, it is true of history and corresponds to the view of historians.
If we view Trump through this Hegelian framework we risk essentializing what is happening within American politics. The determinism of Hegel’s world-historical framework delimits our possibility of understanding this political moment by defining politics as the unfolding of history. This form of thinking for Arendt has grave consequences for politics and political action which is primarily defined by our capacity to make new beginnings. If history is universal, then there can be no true new beginnings, because the outcomes of all actions are predetermined. Arendt urges us to move beyond the utilitarian measures of cause and effect in thinking, so that we can better come face-to-face with the world as it is.
Trump’s presidency is not an inevitable outcome of history. And it is not the foregone conclusion of presidential power in America. It is something entirely new, and if we attempt to look past that right now because we feel like we have to make sense of Trump as a president, then we are going to miss what is happening before our eyes.
A Heartbreaking Coincidence
Bari Weiss was bat mitzvahed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where on Saturday amidst services, an antisemite named Robert Bowers began gunning people down while shouting “All Jews must die.” Weiss says what must be said, and says it beautifully.
“As with many synagogues in America, the doors to Tree of Life and Pittsburgh’s other shuls on Saturday mornings did not have any security and were open to all comers. We live according to our values – the ones that Robert Bowers appears to despise.
One of the shooter’s obsessions on social media was HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish organization originally founded in the late 1800s to resettle Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Today it rescues Jews and non-Jews facing persecution all over the world.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Bowers shared a link to an event called Refugee Shabbat, a national initiative organized by HIAS, of which Tree of Life was a participating synagogue. “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” he wrote on a social networking site often used by alt-right activists and white nationalists.
Just this morning, he posted: “HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The heartbreaking coincidence is that the Jewish emphasis on the open door, on welcoming the stranger, is exactly what the Jews of Tree of Life and the Jews of every synagogue big and small in every far-flung corner of the globe were reading about this Shabbat morning….
We are living in an age when anti-Semitism is on the rise here at home. You need only think of last year’s chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, or the president’s constant attacks on “globalists,” “international bankers” and “the corrupt media,” all of which are commonly associated with Jews in the minds of anti-Semites. It isn’t at all surprising that these rhetorical tropes have translated into acts of violence – according to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents rose by 57 percent in 2017 – even if Mr. Bowers also reviled the president as insufficiently nationalist. “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation,” he wrote.
Every Jewish community in America will now have to make sensible decisions about how to ensure that they are not the next victims of someone like Mr. Bowers. But those hard choices should not make us forget the core values that make communities like Squirrel Hill what they are: welcoming, big-hearted and profoundly decent. One of the gifts of the Jewish experience in America is that because we have been so welcomed and so safe here, these values have been able to flourish.”
The Tree of Life
John Podhoretz also reflects on the shooting in Pittsburgh.
“The synagogue in Pittsburgh is called the Tree of Life. The name is a translation into English of the Hebrew phrase etz chaim. We sing those words as the Torah is put away on every Shabbat. They are words from the Book of Proverbs: “She is a tree of life for those that cling to her and all who do are happy.” The “she” in that sentence is “wisdom,” and the verse that precedes itis especially poignant in light of what has happened: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” Today the paths of peace were befouled by a monstrous anti-Semite who stormed the Tree of Life shouting something about Jews needing to die as he murdered and injured and then shot at some cops for good measure.
In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. In a classic act of anti-Semitic violence, which is what this is, Jews hear the echoes of every violent anti-Semitic act that has preceded it in history. And we hear those echoes because they are there. That which motivates Jew-hatred today is what has motivated it from time immemorial-the poisonously attractive idea that Jews need to be extirpated because our existence is an offense or a threat to an existing larger order. The blessing of Jewish life in America is that this notion has largely been consigned to the dregs from which today’s human malignancy rose. Despite the fact that most hate crimes in America are aimed at Jews, the actual number is vanishingly small-especially compared to France, from which Jews are now fleeing, and England, whose Labour Party is in the hands of an actual Jew-hater.
Because we are obliged by the sickness of our political culture to analyze every despicable event in a manner designed to confirm our priors, we have already, mere hours after the barbarity, sunk into a nauseating discussion about how much blame to assign to the president for this unspeakable act. The obvious answer is: None. Donald Trump should be assigned no such blame, even if the shooter were the president of the Donald Trump Fan Club, because he pulled no trigger and committed no crime. Period. To do that, to assign blame, is to whitewash the crime itself and the criminal’s responsibility for it. He becomes a cultural robot, seized by an evil collective unconscious that drove him to his crimes.”
Yascha Mounk agrees with John Podhoretz that the President is not at fault for the bombings and the shootings. But Mounk finds that the President is morally culpable for the increase in violence and antisemitism.
But the emerging press reports about the synagogue shooter indicate that his political beliefs were more complicated. He was a staunch anti-Semite. A few hours before he set out to kill as many Jews as he could, he echoed a vile conspiracy theory that blames George Soros for most of America’s evils-the same conspiracy that the president himself validated as recently as Friday. And yet, unlike the man suspected of manufacturing the mail bombs, one of which was sent to Soros, the Pittsburgh suspect does not appear to have been a fan of the president’s.Rather, he regarded Trump as a “globalist” who had sold out to the Jewish world conspiracy.Most likely, we’ll never know whether one fewer inflammatory tweet or one more conciliatory speech from the president might have averted the massacre in Pittsburgh. And yet, Trump’s reckless determination to crank the temperature of American politics up to the highest possible setting was likely a contributing factor. And that’s why the best analogy for understanding Trump’s responsibility for the rising tides of civic violence in our country may hail from the world of science.Scientists cannot definitively determine whether any one particular storm is caused by climate change. But they know that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events have increased due to global warming. In the same way, it is impossible to definitively ascribe any one particular hate crime or terrorist attack to extreme political rhetoric. But it is clear that the kind of violent and dehumanizing language that is the hallmark of Trump’s political style is likely to increase the number of such crimes. That is enough to make the president morally culpable for an overall increase in civic strife, even if we cannot know whether he is causally responsible for this or that specific act of violence.
There is hand-wringing across the internet about whether to blame the President and others for for the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue and also for the attempted pipe bombs sent to many of the public critics of the President. The massacre was apparently committed by someone who saw Trump as insufficiently antisemitic and even as part of the Jewish global conspiracy. The pipe bombs were sent by a Trump fanatic. In both cases, for the crimes themselves, no, the President is not at fault. John Podhoretz is absolutely right: we must be clear who the criminals are.
President Trump is neither an antisemite nor a terrorist. Both Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayoc Jr. are terrorists and should be tried as such. By the way, I should add if it needs to be said, Bowers is an out and out racist. I say that because Yascha Mounk writes this on Twitter:
The editor has spoken: You cannot, in 2018, call the murder of Jews in the United States racist in a left-leaning publication, because apparently we’re too white to be the victims of racism (but not too white to be murdered).
The question of racism is actually central to understanding these murders. Jews are being murdered for being Jewish. But what does “Jewish” mean in this context?
Robert Bowers did not likely know many Jews. His determination to kill Jews, that “All Jews must die,” had very little to do with Jews understood as a religious minority. It also has little to do with Jews as a people with a 5,000 year history. Bowers’ anger at “Jews” was apparently motivated by his anger at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) that is dedicated to helping refugees and immigrants settle in the United States. A “Jew,” for Bowers, is someone who gives succor to immigrants and refugees that are invading the United States.
But the fact that Bowers did not have much experience with Jews does not mean that he was not an antisemite and a racist. As Hannah Arendt understood so well, “Antisemitism does not come from hatred of the Jews, but instead,… it is the other way round: hatred of Jews is an early form of antisemitism, an antisemitism trapped in religious form.” While some antisemites do hate Jews, antisemitism itself is a secular and racist ideology. It is a political tool that can be used even in countries with few Jews and where Jews are not actually in power. One pervasive underpinning of that ideology is that all Jews as Jews are foreigners, a fifth column of ungrounded universalists, and a nation of globalists that poison national unity.
Antisemites are racists because they mobilize abstract ideas that activate a racial imaginary that leads people to think something is wrong with Jews in general. Racism plays on coherent fantasies that frequently have no factual support. The fact that many of those in the Trump administration who are most actively opposing the entrance of refugees into this country are Jewish does not interfere with the racist fantasy that Jews-the Jew in general-are a foreign people seeking to undermine the nation.
It is this core faith of antisemites-that all Jews are the enemy because they are as Jews part of a global elite that will undermine national unity- that has been activated by President Trump. He himself does not ever say the words. But the President doesn’t criticize that paranoia; indeed, he feeds upon it. He even encourages it.
On Friday, just moments after he called for unity in the wake of the bombings at a White House event, President Trump spoke about “globalists” who are cheating American workers. He spoke the word “globalists” with spite, apparently prompting several audience members to shout “Soros” -meaning George Soros who was a target of one of the bombs apparently sent by Cesar Sayoc Jr.-and others in the audience to shout “lock him up”; in response, Trump laughs and repeats “lock him up.”
Even if the President himself won’t call those elements Jews, the incessant focus on Jewish names and Jewish-led conspiracies rings clearly to those who have ears for such things. Chris Farrell, the head of Judicial Watch, said on Saturday on the Lou Dobbs show on Fox that the caravan moving through Mexico is being funded and directed by the “Soros-occupied State Department.” And Kevin McCarthy, the Majority leader of the House of Representatives, first pinned a tweet to the top of his Twitter page and then deleted it, which said: “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election!”
The paranoia and conspiracies around a globalist cabal whose named leaders all happen to be Jews is one essential source of the President’s politics that he calls a movement. And in the lead-up to an election, the President is using that mania to motivate his base. Movements need to constantly be moved and motivated, and that means they need to be fed constantly a narrative that guarantees the coherence of their worldview. A movement grounded on the premise of restoring national power at a moment of national powerlessness needs to be continually reminded that our country is under attack by external and dangerous elements.
Alexander Soros, writing before the killings in Pittsburgh, put his finger on the problem: What President Trump has done in the United States-as Viktor Orban has done in Hungary-is to give permission for hate-fueled antisemitism and racism to move from the fringes to the center of society.
But something changed in 2016. Before that, the vitriol he faced was largely confined to the extremist fringes, among white supremacists and nationalists who sought to undermine the very foundations of democracy.
But with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, things got worse. White supremacists and anti-Semites like David Duke endorsed his campaign. Mr. Trump’s final TV ad famously featured my father; Janet Yellen, chairwoman of the Federal Reserve; and Lloyd Blankfein, chairman of Goldman Sachs – all of them Jewish – amid dog-whistle language about “special interests” and “global special interests.” A genie was let out of the bottle, which may take generations to put back in, and it wasn’t confined to the United States.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán launched an anti-Semitic poster campaign falsely accusing my father of wanting to flood Hungary with migrants. This included plastering my father’s face onto the floor of trams in Budapest so that people would walk on it, all to serve Mr. Orbán’s political agenda.
Now we have attempted bomb attacks. While the responsibility lies with the individual or individuals who sent these lethal devices to my family home and Mr. Obama’s and Ms. Clinton’s offices, I cannot see it divorced from the new normal of political demonization that plagues us today.
Thinking Itself is Dangerous
This review first appeared on October 22 in the Los Angeles Review of Books
Donald Trump’s political rhetoric relies upon brevity and repetition. Slogans like “Make America Great Again,” “Lock her up,” “Drain the swamp,” “Build the wall,” “America first,” and “fake news” fill his speech. His canned language paints an unflattering portrait of a person unable to think past himself. Even his knack for dominating media cycles with manufactured crisis and boorish morning tweets is beginning to seem routine in its predictability. Like a script he is unable to sway from, he moves between self-flattery and disparaging anyone he finds outside his favor.
In the wake of Trump’s presidency, many people have reached for the work of Hannah Arendt to begin to understand what is happening in American politics. Since the election, The Origins of Totalitarianism has been selling at record numbers. And while Origins distills various elements of totalitarianism, like the collapse between reality and fiction, the breakdown of law, and the decline of the nation-state, it also touches upon a thornier subject to handle in its final pages: thinking.
In the last chapter, Arendt comes to what she calls the common ground of totalitarianism: loneliness. Why loneliness? Because loneliness forecloses our ability to think freely by destroying the fundamental fact of human existence, plurality:
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them, for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Ideological thinking forecloses our ability to discern by flattening the plurality of the human condition, destroying our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, right and wrong. If we want to safeguard democracy from threats of tyranny, fascism, and totalitarianism, we have to address the question of thinking. And that is precisely what this new volume of Arendt’s work in Thinking Without a Banister does. Perhaps even timelier than Origins, this thoughtfully curated collection directly tackles the relationship between thinking and politics.
When Arendt died on December 4, 1975, she had just begun typing the third volume of what would become her final work, The Life of the Mind. A single page was found in the register of her typewriter with the heading “Judging” and two epigraphs. Arendt died beginning, thinking about judgment. And while we will never have these final volumes in their completion, this new collection of essays, lectures, interviews, addresses, book reviews, and conference presentations compiled and edited by Jerome Kohn, strikes at the heart of Arendt’s work, bridging the space between thinking and judging.
Thinking Without a Banister culls together Arendt’s unpublished work from 1953 to 1975. The pieces cover a wide range of topics from the Hungarian revolution to American presidential politics, to Martin Heidegger’s concept of thinking, to reflections on the reception of Eichmann in Jerusalem. The texts brought together here offer a sound introduction to key ideas in Arendt’s writing, while adding nuance to her already published work for more familiar readers. Kohn’s sharp footnotes provide valuable contextual and biographical information, and should be read by anyone interested in Arendt’s life and writing. The incisive framing of the volume draws Arendt into our contemporary political moment, opening with the sobering reflection that “[t]he Republic of the United States of America has been in a state of decline for more than fifty years.” Here, Arendt’s works on freedom, politics, culture, revolution, thinking, and judgment are brought together to highlight her desire to revive political freedom and public happiness in a world endlessly defined by wars, revolutions, and violence.
In Arendt’s Denktagebuch, thought journal, she famously asks: “Is there a way of thinking which is not tyrannical?” The answer to this question appears in part in this volume: to think without a banister. If thoughtlessness was in part to blame for the rise of the Third Reich, then non-tyrannical thinking might provide a countermeasure against fascism.
Nearly every piece in this volume touches on the topic of thinking. The title itself comes from a panel discussion that was organized in 1972 on “The Work of Hannah Arendt” that Arendt herself insisted on participating in:
I have a metaphor which is not quite that cruel, and which I never published but kept for myself. I call it thinking without a banister. In German, “Denken ohne Geländer.” That is, as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold on to the banister so that you don’t fall down. But we have lost this banister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And this is indeed what I try to do.
Arendt’s metaphor for thinking moves from her experiences as a German Jewish refugee during the Holocaust. Thinking about politics, she begins from the premise that there are no banisters we can hold on to. That is, there are not concepts, categories, or moral judgments we can take for granted in a world where concentration camps exist. With the phenomenal appearance of totalitarianism, and collapse of tradition and authority in the 20th century, the common categories of “good” and “bad” could no longer be relied upon to provide guidance for how to think, judge, and act in the world. This is why she described thinking as “stepping up and down a staircase, caring for the great burden she bore, without the support of a banister on either side.”
Reading through Thinking Without a Banister focuses the reader’s attention on the activity of thinking, while illustrating the work of thinking in Arendt’s own writing over time. In his introduction, Kohn writes: “The hallmark of Arendt’s work is its demonstration that the activity of thinking is the condition sine qua non of understanding events that make less and less sense in their appearance on the surface of the world.” She ends the preface for The Human Condition with the axiom: “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” She describes her collection of essays in Between Past and Future as “exercises in political thinking.” And when she came face-to-face with Hitler’s logician Adolf Eichmann, she was struck by his profound inability to think despite his apparent capability:
Eichmann was rather intelligent, but in this respect he was stupid. It was his thickheadedness that was so outrageous, as if speaking to a brick wall. And that was what I actually meant by banality. There’s nothing deep about it — nothing demonic! There’s simply resistance ever to imagine what another person is experiencing, isn’t that true?
The claim that lies at the heart of Arendt’s conception of thinking is that thinking is a means we have to prevent evil in the world. Eichmann was able to commit such unthinkable acts because he was unable to “think in the place of every other person.”
Several of Arendt’s pieces in Thinking Without a Banister illuminate thinking as an activity in this way. In an interview with German historian Joachim Fest, “As if Speaking to a Brick Wall,” she says,
There’s an English idiom, “Stop and think.” Nobody can think unless he stops. If you force someone into remorseless activity, or if he allows himself to be forced, then you will always hear the same story. You’ll always find that an awareness of responsibility can’t develop. It can only happen in the moment when a person reflects — not on himself, but on what he is doing.
This idiom for thinking comes to life for Arendt in the figure of Plato’s Socrates, who embodies the thinker par excellence and is illustrated in the similes that Socrates relies upon to describe himself to his interlocutors in the dialogues: the stingray that paralyzes, stopping us to think; the gadfly that irritates, arousing us to thought; and the midwife that births empty ideas, so that we must continually engage in the activity of thinking.
Drawing from Plato and Immanuel Kant, Arendt describes thinking as a two-in-one conversation, “a silent dialogue between me and myself.” This two-in-one requires solitude, self-harmony, and an ability to imagine the world from the perspective of another. It also requires a sense of fidelity to oneself. So that, when the chips are down, as Arendt used to say, one is able to hold one’s self accountable.
This way of thinking teaches us to ask questions rather than answer them. To ask, “What is happiness? rather than: What are the means to attain it?” Arendt’s argument for two-in-one thinking might appear apolitical or even anti-political, but she is after something essential here. The act of inquiry draws us nearer to the object, concept, or idea that we are contemplating. If we ask about happiness, we will become happier. This seems counterintuitive in a culture where we are constantly inundated with how-to lists and wellness articles that promise to bring us happiness, peace, success, and wealth if we simply do certain things. Arendt was pushing against the emphasis on action over thinking in modern-day society, where it is far easier to do than think.
Turning against contemporary political theory that emphasized action over thinking, Arendt wanted to return to the activity of thinking as a form of action in itself. Pushing against the fixity of concepts and categories, Thinking Without a Banister begins in the historical rupture with Arendt’s unfinished book on Karl Marx, and lectures on the breakdown of “The Great Tradition” and “Authority in the Twentieth Century.” Arendt criticizes Marx’sunderstanding of history and describes him as holding “a firm belief in the dialectical nature of historical development.”
Dialectical thinking is determinant, which for Arendt means that it forecloses the possibility of new beginnings, because history is always turning back upon itself. Her criticisms of Marx pivot around his understanding of labor, which lies at the center of his philosophy. For Marx, labor is the defining quality of man; it is his ability to transform the natural world into objects through the labor of his body. In Arendt’s view, instead of thinking about people as unique individuals capable of reason, word, and action, Marx leveled all to their bodily capacities, to animal laborans. If the point for Marx was to free people from the laboring activity, which could only be achieved through labor, then what were people being liberated to? Marx turned the Western tradition of political theory upside down, orienting our gaze away from the life of the mind toward the life of action.
Arendt critiques Michael Polanyi for similar reasons. In “Challenges to Traditional Ethics: A Response to Michael Polanyi,” Arendt attacks Polanyi’s “Beyond Nihilism” and Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology for their methodological approach to contemporary political problems, arguing: “[B]oth authors […] are strangely unconcerned with the most obvious question their own considerations raise, namely, which task or purpose, if any, is left to thinking at all?”
Any reductive mode of thinking that might foreclose plurality chips away at freedom. Our shared human condition is one of plurality, that fact that “men and not Man inhabit the earth.” This understanding of plurality is essentially embedded in the way that Arendt approached her work. Thinking is necessarily conditioned by the world that we share in common. How we think about the world shapes the world that we live in, and the world that we live in shapes the way that we think. The relationship between thinking and politics relies upon our experiences in the world. “What is the subject of our thought? Experience! Nothing else! And if we lose the ground of experience then we get into all kinds of theories,” Arendt says in response to Christian Bay. If we lose our common ground of experience, then our ability to think for ourselves is compromised.
Many of the pieces in Thinking Without a Banister move from political experiences of the day: the release of the Pentagon Papers, the threat of McCarthyism, Vietnam, technological advancement, the Space Race, the specter of nuclear war, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Watergate scandal, the fallout from Eichmann in Jerusalem. In each, Arendt returns to familiar concepts like tradition, authority, and freedom to begin to understand what is happening.
In “Letter to Robert M. Hutchins,” she calls for a constitutional amendment to protect citizenship for all Americans. In “Reflections on the 1960 National Conventions: Kennedy vs. Nixon,” Arendt considers the first televised presidential debate and the ways in which the American political party machine and polling data alienate voters. In “Is America by Nature a Violent Society?,” a short and powerful essay, Arendt reflects upon the vital relationship between voluntary associations and freedom of speech to American democracy. She also worries about the threat intensifying presidential sovereignty posed to the separation of powers, and the ways in which government surveillance could undermine the integrity of private life.
Despite the difficulties facing American democracy, Arendt imagined a form of public happiness in civic participation which rings through many essays. In “The Freedom to Be Free,” she discusses the passion and desire for political freedom that moved the founding fathers. In “Action and the ‘Pursuit of Happiness,’” which was delivered at an American Political Science Association conference in 1960, she discusses happiness as a political virtue that we might be able to experience through political participation. This essay seems especially potent now in our increasingly demoralizing political environment. It is challenging to associate any notion of happiness or joy with politics, but for Arendt public happiness is indispensable to the lifeblood of democracy. And she found hope for revitalizing citizen participation in Jefferson’s desire to establish a council and ward system, to make government as local as possible.
Arendt’s idea of public happiness is connected to her understanding of thinking. Today, the expansive nature of bureaucracy, the spread of invisible government, and the privatization of the public realm eclipse our ability to experience public happiness. The possibility of public happiness rests upon a well-guarded private realm. And while Arendt’s separation of private, social, and public are never fully fixed, the ability to discern between them is essential to safeguarding freedom and the integrity of thinking.
The volume ends where Arendt’s work ends, with reflections on poetry and thinking. Nestled between “Preliminary Remarks About the Life of the Mind” and “Remembering Wystan H. Auden, Who Died in the Night of the Twenty-eighth of September, 1973,” is a fragment titled “Transition.” This brief excerpt from the end of Thinking highlights the relationship between thinking, willing, and judging. Arendt writes,
[I]t is tempting indeed to justify this need to think solely on the grounds that thinking is an indispensable preparation for deciding what shall be and for evaluating what is no more and therefore submitted to our judgment, whereby judgment, in turn, would be a mere preparation for willing. […] But this last attempt to defend the thinking activity against the reproach of its practical uselessness does not work. The decision at which the will arrives can never be derived from the mechanics of desire or the deliberation of the intellect that may precede it.
The problem, as Arendt saw it, was that willing was replacing thinking in the modern age. Instead of stopping and thinking, we began asking the old Kantian question, “What should I do?” And instead of reflecting upon our experiences in the world to think about politics, we followed Descartes, who convinced us not to trust our own eyes and ears. For Arendt, this twofold turn away from thinking led to disastrous consequences, cutting us off from our essential capacity for thinking and judgment.
In order to experience public happiness, we need to preserve the sanctity of the private realm. The private realm is where we go when we go to think. Away from the glaring light of public life, between the “four walls,” as she calls them, we are able to retreat from the world of appearances and take refuge in solitude. Solitude, which is necessary for that two-in-one conversation, is only possible when we can be alone without being lonely, when we can exist freely away from the eyes and ears of others. We may act in concert with others, but we think in private by ourselves.
In Thinking, Arendt considers “the question of where we are when we think.” Today we might ask: “Do we have space to think?” According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics annual American Time Use Survey, people spend about 17 minutes a day thinking and another 17 minutes reading for personal pleasure, compared to the nearly three hours a day they spend watching television. With the continuous onslaught of news media, reality television, and social media, the advances in technology seem to be abetting a climate that makes thinking seem passé. Thinking “is a profitless enterprise as far as results are concerned,” Arendt says, which is to say that its profitlessness is what makes it so valuable to the world.
The crisis of democracy that we are facing in the United States is also an existential crisis. This is evident in unprecedented suicide rates, which have increased nearly 30 percent in the past 20 years. The drug epidemic continues to claim 115 lives per day. Of American adults over the age of 60, 20 to 43 percent say they experience frequent loneliness.
I want to say that the thinking activity the way Arendt imagined it will help ease the angst caused by the state of the world today, and will help us fight against Donald Trump, the rises of illiberalism, and the crisis of democracy; that if people could turn away from their screens, turn away from social media, and turn toward the world, there would be more experience to think from. More life to live. But it is always easier to accept rhetoric, false truths, and easy answers than to engage in self-reflective thinking. Thinking has never been easy. And taking away people’s certainty, however flimsy it may be, by challenging their convictions has always been a dangerous activity. This is why Arendt said, “The notion that there exist dangerous thoughts is mistaken for the simple reason that thinking itself is dangerous to all creeds, convictions, and opinions.” After all, it is why Socrates was sentenced to death.
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Journal Feature: Free Speech on Campus: A Battle of Narratives
I am giving this talk out of a little bit of frustration with the way people talk about free speech issues on campus. I’m going to elaborate on what I refer to as the “Simple Theories” about what’s going on on college campuses; taken together, the overall point is that what goes on is more complex than any simple theory.
Simple Theory Number One: PC Run Amok
The threats to free speech on campus arise from “political correctness run amok.”
I would like to stress that I do not love the term political correctness. I feel like I have to use it because we do not have other terminology for the phenomenon it describes. To be clear, there is some truth to each of these “simple” theories, and we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have certainly seen many cases that fit the cliché of “PC run amok.” Let’s look at a case, one of the biggest cases of the past year, and see how well this narrative fits.
At Northern Michigan University, if a student went to the counseling services and reported being raped or experiencing depression or anxiety, they would later receive a letter from the dean of students’ office telling the student not to talk to friends about any “suicidal or self-destructive thoughts.” If they did, they would be disciplined. One version of the letter widely circulated online begins compassionately enough, reassuring students that “folks at NMU care about you and want to make sure you are okay.” But it continues ominously: “Engaging in any discussion of suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions with other students interferes with, or can hinder, their pursuit of education and success in the NMU community. If you involve other students in your suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions, you will face disciplinary action.” This letter was sometimes also sent to students who did not mention anything about self-harm or suicide. One student, who sought counseling after a sexual assault and reported no self-destructive or suicidal thoughts, received a version of the letter that concluded, “My hope is that, knowing exactly what could result in discipline, you can avoid putting yourself in that position.”
Administrators at NMU admitted that they sent the letter to between 25 and 30 students each semester. To me, this is absolutely insane. Aside from being a clear example of prior restraint on student speech, one of the most serious infringements of First Amendment rights, many experts agree that peer support is an important part of suicide prevention. Anyone who knows anything about mental health knows that telling anyone that they are a burden to their friends is bad enough, much less saying that to someone who is depressed or suicidal. To go further and instruct them to stop talking to friends — to essentially force depressed and suicidal students to isolate themselves — is about the worst thing that can be done. One former NMU student who received the letter recounted that it was “degrading and debilitating beyond belief,” and reported that her “collegiate career was ruined.”
So why did Northern Michigan University require this? Whose narrative does this fit? Is the case against this practice a liberal case? Is it a conservative case? How can we make sense of it? It certainly does not seem to fit Simple Theory Number One. So the theory of “It’s just political correctness” is overly simple and not entirely explanatory. But I have a second Simple Theory, one I expanded upon in my book Unlearning Liberty in 2012:
Simple Theory Number Two: Admins Run Amok
The threats to free speech on campus arise from the expansion of the administrative class at universities.
We are witnessing the era of administrative overregulation; university administrations are now regulating aspects of students’ lives that were once considered off-limits.
Consider the University of Hawaii at Hilo, where, in 2014, administrators told students that they could not hand out copies of the Constitution or protest the National Security Agency outside a tiny free speech swamp (really a puddle) on campus. They had to ask for permission to use the area two weeks in advance.
Consider, too, the 2015 case at California State Polytechnic University–Pomona: a student was protesting cruelty to animals and was told that he was not only required to remain inside a tiny free speech zone but also had to ask in advance for permission to use it. The school even required him to wear a badge signed by an administrator that explained that he had been granted permission by the university in order to engage in his free speech activities.
All three of the schools I have mentioned are publicly funded state schools. The First Amendment applies to each of them. Their restrictions on speech are unconstitutional, yet they and others continue to unlawfully restrict free speech. So what narrative does this fit? Is it political correctness? Or do cases like these at California Polytechnic and Northern Michigan University actually fit my simple theory of administrative overreach? I believe they do. But I also acknowledge that even my theory of administrative intrusion is overly simple and does not entirely explain the excessive regulation of speech that is happening on campuses.
The Title IX Twist
You may have heard about the Laura Kipnis case, that of a feminist professor who wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that certain dramatic interpretations of Title IX are disempowering and infantilizing to women. In the essay, Kipnis also mentioned some details (which were, at the time, already public) about Title IX investigations and lawsuits at her school, Northwestern University.
The next thing you know, Kipnis was being investigated under Title IX for writing an article criticizing the overreach of Title IX. In the bizarre and Kafkaesque institutional investigation that ensued, Kipnis had to repeatedly push the school to provide her with information about who her accusers were, what the charges against her were, and what those charges stemmed from. What ultimately resolved her case was that she wrote another article for the Chronicle of Higher Education and blew the whistle on the university’s lengthy, unfair, and unfounded investigation. Within days of the article’s publication, Northwestern dropped the case.
The Kipnis case inserts a twist into our narrative, one that cannot be explained simply as administrators overadministering. It is not that administrators at Northwestern and other universities are acting from out of nowhere or imagining phantoms. There are reasons they are investigating professors like Kipnis and banning the handing out of the Constitution.
Administrators across the academy are being incentivized to overreact. That is partially because of the Department of Education and the aggressive and expansive enforcement of Title IX. In 2013 the Department of Education, of its own accord and relying on no precedent, wrote a new definition of harassment, a “blueprint” it said every college should follow. This definition is unconstitutionally vague and broad.
This “blueprint” defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” Gone is the standard that the conduct be “objectively” offensive and gone is the requirement that conduct be “severe” or “pervasive.” Now any “unwelcome” conduct of a sexual nature is to be considered “harassment.”
If I could get the “blueprint” definition of harassment in front of a judge, I can all but guarantee it would be laughed out of court because it is so inconsistent with existing First Amendment law. In fact, FIRE is sponsoring ongoing First Amendment litigation against Louisiana State University, on behalf of a tenured female associate professor who was fired for alleged “sexual harassment.” What did she say? The university punished her for the occasional use of profanity and sex-related language in teaching her adult students about the interactions they could expect in the real world. When her firing sparked outrage and criticism in the national media, LSU claimed the Department of Education’s “blueprint” definition of sexual harassment required her termination. In a statement to the press, LSU claimed to be just following orders, arguing that it was simply following “the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights’ [sic] advisements.”
Administrators are being nudged into overreacting partly because of an overbroad definition of Title IX. But there is another reason that administrators are intrusively overregulating, and it emerges from a more recent phenomenon. This brings us to my third Simple Theory.
Simple Theory Number Three: Students Run Amok
The threats to free speech on campus arise in response to the increase in student demands.
I have been distressed over the past couple of years by the fact that, instead of asking for freedom of speech, students are in some cases asking for freedom from speech (as I titled a booklet I wrote). For most of my career, the single constituency on campus that most reliably demanded freedom of speech had been students, particularly poor and minority students, nontraditional students, and people who felt like they did not fit in. In many situations, they understood free speech better than their professors, and they certainly understood free speech better than administrators. That started to change a couple of years ago.
For example, by 2014 the University of California system had come up with a list of microaggressions — small, usually unconscious slights that a person might commit that have either racist or sexist undertones, or could be otherwise construed as in some way demeaning to marginalized people — and trained deans and department chairs to avoid saying them. As an aside, I am fascinated by the topic of microaggressions, and I think we should absolutely be studying it, but we should not create corresponding regulations or policies. Once administrators have the power to define what constitutes a microaggression, the administrators’ definitions pretty quickly look like a list of things you should not say.
The UC system’s list included statements like “America is a melting pot”; “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”; and “America is a land of opportunity.” We also find ridiculous circumstances like at the University of New Hampshire, which determined that “problematic” language, “demean[s] people based on personal characteristics,” and as a result, UNH administrators created a list of “bias free” terms the university preferred to more common, problematic terms. Words like Caucasian, Arab, and American were listed as “problematic,” and the terms white people and European-American individuals were preferred to Caucasian; Western Asian people and Northern African people were preferred to Arab; and U.S. citizen and resident of the U.S. were preferred to American.
Of course, Fox News fixated on the word American and thought calling it “problematic” was totally offensive. I grew up with a lot of friends from Central and South America, so I am very familiar with the argument that everyone from the Americas is an American. But the “problematic” word that I thought was most horrifying was Arab. I have a lot of Lebanese friends, because I used to work in a Lebanese restaurant, and they proudly identify as Arab. Now they are being told by the University of New Hampshire that being called “Arab” is “demeaning.” I wonder if UNH actually consulted anyone who was actually Arab when they created that list. It reminds me of an episode of The Office called “Diversity Day,” when Michael Scott asks one of his beloved employees, Oscar, how he self-identifies. Oscar replies, “Well, I’m Mexican,” and Michael’s clueless response is “Is there a term besides Mexican that you prefer? Something less offensive?” Which is, of course, the most offensive thing he could have said.
The Chalk Trauma
Let’s look at a different kind of example. If you have heard of any recent case involving student oversensitivity, you might be familiar with what got dubbed “The Chalkening.” At Emory University, someone wrote the words “trump 2016” in chalk on the sidewalk, and students said they felt like they were under assault and were traumatized by it. One student summed up students’ reaction by saying, “I think it was an act of violence.” Protesting students who wanted to speak with administrators stood outside the administration building chanting, “You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!”
What concerned me most was the university president saying, in response, that they were going to find out who committed the chalking by looking at footage from a closed-circuit camera, and that if any students were involved, they would go through the conduct violation process. That only lasted until he remembered that students are allowed to chalk at Emory. If you are allowed to chalk “hillary 2016,” you have to be allowed to chalk for the other guy too.
The Popularity Contest
Why is this happening? In 2010, the Association of American Colleges and Universities asked members of the campus community whether it was safe to hold unpopular positions on campus. I do not love their study, the prompt is not precise or clear, but even back in 2010, when I think it was comparatively safer to disagree on college campuses, only 40 percent of incoming freshmen said that they strongly agreed that it was safe to hold unpopular points of view, and, by the time they left, only 30 percent of seniors thought that. The more exposure students had to the academy, the less likely they were to think it was safe to disagree. The most pessimistic group? Faculty. Only 16.7 percent of faculty members strongly agreed with the statement that it was safe to hold unpopular points of view on campus. If you did that survey today, I think the percentage of students and faculty who think it is safe to hold unpopular views would be a lot lower.
I understand the concerns that students have about hurtful or hateful speech, but I do not agree with them. I’m an old-fashioned First Amendment advocate. I find it really concerning and poorly thought out that so many students (43 percent, in fact) believe that schools should disinvite controversial speakers. These students do not seem to understand that many of their own heroes or idols might be considered “offensive” to other students or administrators and could therefore be disinvited under this logic.
There is a clear disconnect between millennials and the rest of America when it comes to attitudes about censoring offensive statements about minorities, for example. It has been shown in all sorts of studies that, even though everybody in America is trained to say “I believe in freedom of speech,” when you actually look a little deeper into millennial attitudes, there is an idea that speech codes are good and that you can have positive censorship. That concerns me a lot.
My Grand Theory of Censorship on Campus
Universities have maintained the modern incarnation of speech codes since the late ’80s. At FIRE, we define a “speech code” as any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large. We rate schools as red, yellow, or green. If FIRE finds that a university’s policies do not seriously threaten campus expression, that college or university receives a “green light” rating. A green light rating does not necessarily indicate that a school actively supports free expression in practice; it simply means that the school’s written policies do not pose a serious threat to free speech. A “yellow light” institution maintains policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict only narrow categories of speech. A “red light” institution is one that has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech or that bars public access to its speech-related policies. Simply, red means the school maintains policies that are laughably unconstitutional for public institutions or that clearly violate the freedom of speech they claim to offer at private ones. The classic example of a red-light speech code is a ban on “inappropriately directed laughter.” Seriously. Such a code appeared at two different colleges: the University of Connecticut and Drexel University.
There are many hidden reasons why a lot of these crazier situations happen, and that is the unfortunate intersection between America’s litigiousness — I say that as a lawyer; we sue each other far too much — and the Department of Education guidelines and standards that are in many ways not particularly clear and in other ways extremely troubling. The Department of Education has the power to remove all funding from universities that do not comply with its mandates. That is a death sentence for a lot of universities, so they overreach in order to avoid running afoul of the Department of Education’s whims. It also seems clear that ideology and groupthink play a role, and it would be irresponsible of me not to mention that. However, the overbureaucratization of universities is a prime factor in the situation on campuses today. There has been a massive increase in the administrative class at universities, and we are paying through the nose for it. The cost for the 100 most expensive schools in the country is between $55,000 and $70,000 a year. To most people, that sounds crazy. But you might assume, at least, that the outrageous cost is for world-class professors. Increasingly, though, that money is going toward administrative costs.
How we end up in the kinds of situations we see on college campuses today is much more complex and multifaceted than the caricatures some people create. What we do to prevent them has to start with a nuanced understanding of all the major factors at play that pose a threat to free speech on campus.
Greg Lukianoff is an attorney, New York Times best-selling author, and the President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)
Posted on 28 October 2018 | 12:04 am
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