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Amor Mundi: Racism and Antisemitism

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.


Racism and Antisemitism

Antisemitism has suddenly inserted itself into the questions of privilege and racism in the wake of the marches in Charlottesville and the attacks in Pittsburgh. What is not often recognized, however, is that White nationalist groups in the United States are founded upon an antisemitic ideology. Few have made this point more clearly than Eric Ward, who has spent years studying and infiltrating White nationalist groups. Ward notes in an understatement, that “Not a lot of Black folks show up at gatherings like the Preparedness Expo, one site in an extensive right-wing counterculture in which White nationalism is a constant, explosive presence.” He is deeply aware that as a Black man, he is viewed by White nationalists as subhuman, someone who should be excluded from the White nation they hope to build. But what Ward learned from his experiences with White nationalists is that their extreme racism is built upon a foundation of antisemitism.


From the time I documented my first White nationalist rally in 1990 until today, the movement has made its way from the margins of American political life to its center, and I’ve moved from doing antiracist organizing in small northwestern communities to fighting for inclusive democracy on a national level, as the Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice program officer at the Ford Foundation until recently, and now as a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Yet if I had to give a basic definition of the movement—something I’ve often been asked to do, formally and informally, by folks who’ve spent less time hanging out with Nazis than I have—my response today would not be much different than it was when I began to do this work nearly thirty years ago. American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core.

That last part—antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism— bears repeating. Let me explain.

The intricate links between antisemitism and racism were at the center of Hannah Arendt’s thinking about totalitarianism and imperialism. That connection is the subject of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2019 Annual Conference “Racism and Antisemitism” on October 10-11, 2019. Save the Date.

Checking Privilege

Robert Boyers interviews Phoebe Maltz Bovy about her book The Perils of Privilege. Boyers begins by citing Bovy’s argument that privilege is a malleable concept so that pretty much anyone can be called privileged in some context. He asks, what is the point of continuing to use the term privilege given the lack of specificity? Bovy answers:

The concept of privilege took hold in part because of the term’s malleability. That is, it’s a way of suggesting that your opponent is aloof, oblivious, and insensitive on some profound level rooted in their experience. And I use the word “suggesting” intentionally – a privilege-check doesn’t have to line up with reality. Many privilege call-outs involve one well-off white person calling out the privilege of another, but doing so in a way that discreetly obscures the accuser’s own (identical) identity categories.

If privilege call-outs were simply about marginalized people alerting the not-marginalized (in whichever area) to their experiences, then it would be easy enough to support this. But that’s not how privilege discourse always plays out. It’s very often about privileged people finding rhetorical ways of portraying themselves as underdogs.

To which Boyers responds:

Not so sure I agree that it would be easy enough to support this if those call outs were aimed at the “not marginalized” by the “marginalized.” In the first place, don’t you mistrust those very terms, “marginalized” and “not marginalized”? After all, they derive from a time when attention was rarely paid to the kinds of injustices now central to the American conversation. Though we can surely agree that race relations are not where we want them to be, and that white supremacy in particular has unmistakably reared its very ugly head in this first year of the Trump presidency, and that we have a long way to go to reverse the systemic inequality that has long been a feature of American life, the notion that black people are “marginalized” seems to me somewhat misleading. Beyond that, I’m not sure that privilege call outs can conceivably affect the situation in a beneficial way, and I suspect that they are mainly apt to stir self-righteousness in the callers, and bitter resentment in those on the receiving end. More, they encourage the callers to feel that there is no need to make important distinctions as regards privilege—that is, as regards degrees of privilege, and efforts on the part of those who are privileged to use their privilege in salutary ways. The privilege call out is in this sense what I would call a blunt instrument, and I see no reason to suppose that it would be otherwise if the callers were mainly what you call marginalized people.

Cynicism Unbound

The Trump administration is marked not by ideology but by unrepentant cynicism. Nothing exhibits this more clearly than the appointment of Matthew Whitaker as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. Bret Stephens makes clear just how corrosive Whitaker’s appointment actually is.

Of all the ways in which Donald Trump’s presidency has made America worse, nothing epitomizes it quite so fully as the elevation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States. Intellectually honest conservatives — the six or seven who remain, at any rate — need to say this, loudly. His appointment represents an unprecedented assault on the integrity and reputation of the Justice Department, the advice and consent function of the Senate, and the rule of law in the United States.

Sex, Gender, & Post-Structuralism

Claire Lehmann interviews Camille Paglia for Quillette. Their conversation focuses on the decline of Western universities and the rise of post-structuralist theory in the 1970s, and moves to the contemporary #metoo movement and the need for a new map of the gender world.

Post-structuralism, along with identity politics, made huge gains in the 1970s, as the old guard professors proved helpless against a rising tide of rapid add-on programs and departments like women’s studies and African-American studies. The tenured professoriate seemed not to realize that change of some kind was necessary, and thus they failed to provide an alternative vision of a remodeled university of the future. I myself was lobbying for interdisciplinary innovation in the humanities—something that remained highly controversial right through the 1980s, when there were fierce battles over it where I was then teaching (during the merger of the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts with the Philadelphia College of Art to form the present University of the Arts). Another persistent proposal of mine has been for comparative religion to become the undergraduate core curriculum, an authentically global multiculturalism.

Quote of the Week: Arendt on Crisis

by Charles E. Snyder

The civil disobedient shares with the revolutionary the wish to “change the world,” and the change he wishes to accomplish can be drastic indeed.

– Hannah Arendt

Acts of civil disobedience in the U. S. are public expressions of an old and venerable tradition of voluntary association. Inspired by a common interest, disobedient citizens associate to collectively violate certain laws. The violated laws might be local, state, or federal. Such acts manifest publicly when an organized minority believes that normal channels of political reform are ineffective, or when established authorities persist in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are subject to serious contestation. The interest of a dissenting minority is to make some change in the configuration of political power, even if that change involves simply preserving the rights and freedoms prescribed by the Constitution.

In Arendt’s view, a spirit of critical dissent against the monopolization of power originally brought American law into existence. She thought of the U.S. as a unique political environment, one in which citizens can actualize the power to remedy the episodic crises plaguing representative government. The remedy involves the renewal of that dissenting spirit embodied in the old revolutionary experience of the colonists. The experience created a new concept of law based on the strength of mutual promising. Social and political organization relies on this capacity to make and keep promises, which in turn secures voluntary consent and grants power to citizens as a people, territorially bound by law. Voluntary consent depends on the right to dissent, or disobey, in the event that a segment of the people in power breaks the promises inscribed into law. The mutuality of promising implies, then, the power to rebuke or even revoke the authority delegated to institutions that fail to abide by the terms of the original agreement. So far, the stakes of politically motivated law-breaking in the U. S. are evident.

But by inserting the world into the account of civil disobedience, Arendt mystifies the American experience of citizen dissent. Note her citation of John Locke’s metaphysical statement: “Things of this world are in so constant a flux that nothing remains long in the same state.” Extending Locke’s reflection, Arendt affirms that change is “inherent in a world inhabited and established by human beings, who come into it, by birth, as strangers and newcomers (νέοι, the new ones, as the Greeks used to call the young), and depart from it just when they have acquired the experience and familiarity that may in certain rare cases enable them to be “wise” in the ways of the world.” The world, Arendt thought, offers a relatively stable habitat for newcomers and inhabitants.

Let’s suppose that Arendt is right about this (and Locke too). Why are such thoughts significant for civil disobedience? Even if the relative stability of the world is true, opinions about “the world” are irrelevant to citizens of civil disobedience qua citizens. Citizens certainly have opinions about how things are. The core idea, though, is that disobedient citizens unite in opposition to the way established authorities act and break promises. Clearly, the unity in question does not involve dissenting citizens reaching a common opinion about “the world.” Citizens join in open dissent against an established majority in the American government, because something must be done in response to the policies enacted by that majority. United in the spirit of citizen dissent, citizens may have conflicting opinions about the condition of the world, some might even doubt whether there is such a thing as “the world,” and yet still be able to associate with other citizens in common interest with respect to the law. In short, civil disobedience in the U. S. is territorially bound because American law is territorially bound.

That said, defenders of Arendt’s invocation of the world might retreat to a weaker, less rhetorically amplified thesis than the quote of the week. A slight revision to the quote might settle the issue - for, it is not “the world” that the disobedient might “wish to change,” but rather some part of the world, the part which inhabitants share as fellow citizens under law. The revision would ascribe to the organized minority an idea of the U. S. as one part of a larger whole. It would also commit the association to the idea that a change in the U. S. is de facto a change in one part of the world. And if such change follows, the partition would entail that “the world” is some mereological whole, such that each and every partition of the whole participates in some way in the composite of a world-whole. But if, then, the U. S. is one part of some larger and more comprehensive world-whole, and some part of its legal or political system changes, does it necessarily follow that “the world” as a whole has changed? Is it not conceivable for some association of disobedient citizens to emerge with a very particular and localized opinion on the waywardness of an established authority in the U. S., on the local, state, or federal level, and yet put aside their views, if there are any to put aside, concerning the condition of the world-whole? Not only is it conceivable, it seems wise for the association to deliberate and act without any notion of the world, and to focus its efforts for change within the circumscribed domain of American politics, whether local, state or federal.

The issue with the revision is that it doesn’t actually weaken Arendt’s ascription of the wish to “change the world.” At best, the ascription is rhetorical hyperbole; the modest revision that disobedient citizens wish only to change a part of the world plunges the group into intellectual subtleties. Arendt’s account would then commit the metaphysical fallacy of composition. The fallacy of composition occurs when the alleged parts of a whole are mistakenly thought to be transferable from one to the other. In any case, ideas about the mereological whole of the world would impede the voluntary association of disobedient citizens with ideological dispute; the conflicting world-views of trans-humanists, neo-Marxists, libertarians, naturalists, and so on may threaten to dissolve the common opinion of the association, eroding the potential of divergent minds for free association and localized collective action.

Today most Americans are idle and despondent as citizens. Some propose, invoking Arendt, a revival of town council government, local and situated spaces where Americans are encouraged to engage in acts of voluntary self-government, to learn how to protect themselves against rising tyrannies of established majorities. To reanimate the Jeffersonian project of local self-government, or revitalize the spirit of civil disobedience among citizens, common opinion and common interest would have to emerge concerning issues and promises that pertain to specific communities and specific institutions at a local level. As Arendt noted in another context, “To be a citizen means among other things to have responsibilities, obligations, and rights, all of which make sense only if they are territorially limited.”

Journal Feature: Is Protest Political

Adapted from a presentation by Micah White for the 10th Annual Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Crises of Democracy.”

Thank you for the introduction. It’s a real honor and a privilege to be here, so thank you so much to Roger and Tina for organizing. When I heard the president of Bard give that talk—I went to Swarthmore—I was like, wow! I wish I had gone to Bard, because that was an extremely sophisticated and interesting analysis of the situation that didn’t just fall into the liberal and progressive paradigms, or into conservatism. It was beautiful. So it’s actually a real great honor to be here.

I think all of us in this room understand the importance of this topic that we’re discussing, the crises in democracy, and I think that we understand also the severity of this topic. We are talking about a situation where, if things go the wrong way, it’s like nuclear Armageddon or something. This is a serious topic that we’re discussing. I think at the same time, if we’re going to find a way forward, then we do need to break out of our comfort zones, and I really appreciated Leon’s talk for starting to do that. So I’m going to preface my brief introduction—I’m going to give a very brief introduction, and then we’re going to go on to a conversation—by saying that I’m going to say some things that are going to make you uncomfortable. You know, it just happens inevitably that I do this, and so I’ve started to give all my talks first, and I say this because to me it’s very important that when you hear something that makes you uncomfortable, don’t run from it. Mark it down, write it down, because the best ideas are often the things that make us uncomfortable. I’m going to say things that are going to make different people uncomfortable for different reasons. So just take a note of it.

All right, let’s get into it. So the topic of this conversation is “Is protest political?” I’ve been an activist my entire life. I’ve been protesting since the age of 13. I’ve always been an independent activist, an outside activist. When I was 28 I came up with the idea for Occupy Wall Street in collaboration with Kalle Lasn, the founder and editor of Adbusters. I was working at Adbusters magazine at the time. So the two of us came up with the idea. We released it into the world. Ultimately, it spread to eighty-two countries.

So my entire life has been activism. I have a 2-year-old son now, and I’m dreaming about, oh, wouldn’t it be so beautiful if he becomes an activist even greater than I. And so I’ve started to teach him the basic concepts of activism.

He’s two. He’s born with an innate sense of activism, as all toddlers are, because they cry and they protest and they get things. But I’ve started to talk to him about these concepts. What are these words, what are these words that we use? So the first word we learned together was activism. And if you talk to him and you say to him—first, if you say, “Are you an activist?” he says yes. And then if you say, “What does an activist do?” he says, “Change the world.”

That’s beautiful, right? I think it’s really great. The first time he did that it really brought tears to my eyes. But today, as I was preparing to come to this conference, I said to him, “What is protest?” And he looked at me kind of quizzically. And if he doesn’t know what something is, if you say, “What is protest?” and he doesn’t know what it is, he just says, “What is?” So he said to me, “What is? What is protest, Dad?” And then all of a sudden I realized, well, that’s very complicated to explain right now, because I think—and this is one of the arguments that I want to make—I don’t think protest actually exists right now; and this gets at the question, is protest political?

I think that protest either doesn’t exist or is fundamentally broken. And I want to say that because I think that authentic protest, which would be protest that’s actually aimed at political goals such as capturing sovereignty, doesn’t exist.

What do we do when we protest? Let’s take a step back. What are activists doing when we protest? Well, one thing that we’re doing is, I think that we’re acting out a story about democracy. What we’re doing is we’re trying to manifest some sort of collective will. You know, if you look at the Declaration of Independence, or even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it contains within there the central core myth of democracy, which is that the authority of the government rests upon the consent of the governed. Okay? So from an activist’s perspective, what we’re doing when we do large- scale marches or occupations is we’re saying, look, we’re showing you our discontent. We’re manifesting a sovereignty that’s higher than our elected representatives. We are a democratic force, a force of democracy, or the manifestation of true democracy.

And my argument would be that, actually, that doesn’t work anymore. And that trying to manifest that particular form of sovereignty, the popular sovereignty of the streets, doesn’t work. It doesn’t exist. And so, that protest is broken is connected to this question of the crisis in democracy. I think that there’s a second aspect to this, which is that—I just want to say, historically, sometimes I start to think about, well, when did this happen, this transition moment? I think one of the key moments in the kind of death of popular sovereignty, or the breakage of protest, was really the February 15, 2003, global antiwar march. If people remember that day—I was there, I almost got trampled by a police horse, I was in New York City. The entire world—it was amazing—the entire world protested together on one day, saying no to the war. We had one demand. If you look at the pictures of London, it was like 100,000 people with one sign that just said no to the war. And George Bush got on television, and he said, “I don’t listen to focus groups.” I don’t listen to focus groups. He called all of the global protest a focus group. And one month later he went to war. I think this was the defining moment when Western democracy basically said no: the people cannot manifest a sovereignty greater than us outside of elections through street protest. And I think activists don’t want to believe that form of sovereignty is dead. That’s the essential myth of activism. Why would we want to accept that, you know?

The second thing I want to say about protest is that I actually think that one of the fundamental problems is that activists may be unconsciously sensing that sovereignty is broken somehow, or protest is broken; that activists, especially on the left, are not actually revolutionaries anymore. They’re actually not political. They actually don’t believe in taking sovereignty and governing. And this always blows my mind, because I say this, and then people are like, no, no, that’s not true! But then I say, well, do you actually want to overthrow Trump and then govern? And they’re like, nooooo. And if you actually talk to most activists, they don’t, either out of some naïve anarchism or some sort of fear—like, if we did that, then we would become like Stalin. The left has so much trauma around the revolutions of the twentieth century that I think that we just don’t really believe in that anymore. So I think that protest has become—like you’ve all heard this phrase—we changed the discourse, right? We’ve changed the discourse.

So what is that? It is not revolution; that’s social marketing. And so protest has become social marketing, a very effective form of social marketing. Occupy Wall Street—this is amazing. We launched Occupy Wall Street with no money. Within about a month 50 percent of Americans had heard of the movement. That’s amazing. The same thing happened with Black Lives Matter. With almost no money at all you can create something, an idea, that 100 million people can hear about. So from a social marketing perspective protest, is extremely valuable and amazing and great, and you can spread memes, you can change the discourse, you can raise awareness. But you cannot take political power.

So what does that mean for activists moving forward? And then I’m going to go into this conversation. It means that there are only two ways left to capture sovereignty, okay? You can win wars, or you can win elections. That’s it. Those are the only two ways remaining for people to capture sovereignty in our world. Donald Trump demonstrated that winning elections is possible. Groups like ISIS have shown to a limited extent that maybe you can do some sort of war route. So I think you can use protest to win elections, or you can use protest to win wars; but you cannot use protest alone to capture sovereignty. And I believe in the elections route. I think strategically, morally, I think there are countless reasons why elections should be the way that we should go.
I ran for mayor in a tiny rural town; we can talk about that experience. But the main takeaway that I want to get across is that I think that the concept that we need to be really thinking about now is, where does the sovereignty of the people derive from? Where does it come from? And if it is true that we live in a situation where the basic myth of democracy—that the authority of the government derives from the consent of the people—is no longer true, then I think we’re in a very dark situation. And I think as activists we have to acknowledge that situation and then fight back by trying to capture sovereignty as quickly as we can, and that means building a social movement that can win elections.
Thank you very much.

Video Feature: Why Elections Are Bad For Democracy

The Hannah Arendt Center is excited to host a new initiative, The Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition (BIRDS). You can sign up here for the BIRDS newsletter that will cover efforts to bring innovation to democratic practice.

Posted on 10 November 2018 | 3:40 pm

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