Amor Mundi: The Absence of Fascism
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.
A Letter from Roger Berkowitz
The tradition of liberal constitutional democracy is on the defensive. Reinvigorating democracy requires more than platitudes; we must re-think and re-imagine democracy. In such an effort, there is no more invaluable guide than Hannah Arendt.
Our 11th Annual Conference, “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience,” explored outbreaks of civil disobedience and what they mean for a meaningful politics. Theda Skocpol, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Kenyon Adams, Micah White, Chantal Mouffe, and more explored the rise of citizen engagement, from the Tea Party to the Trump Resistance movement, from peaceful democratic protests in South Korea to the recent wave of teachers’ strikes in middle America. You can watch a complete video of the conference by clicking below.
In 2019 the Arendt Center will focus on the rising tide of hate sweeping across the globe. President Trump’s ruthless cynicism reflects and draws out underlying currents of antisemtism and racism that persist in the US and abroad. Political dog whistling about globalists, the insulting of immigrants, and fear-mongering in general have emboldened antisemites and racists. Our annual Fall Conference, “Racism and Antisemitism,” will build upon Arendt’s understanding of antisemitism as a racist fantasy, a political ideology that justifies oppression, and even annihilation, of Jews as foreigners who instigate the problems of the world.
Arendt’s approach to racism as an ideology begins with her distinction between racism and race thinking. Race thinking is an opinion, a prejudice. Prejudices are, of course, frequently wrong and dangerous. Yet, prejudices are deeply human and are “an integral part of those human affairs that are the context in which we go about our daily lives.” Prejudices are part of the fabric of a plural world in which people prefer the company of some rather than others. It is better to acknowledge prejudice than engage in the dangerous and flattening rhetoric that denies fundamental differences. More importantly, Arendt reminds us that anti-racism cannot mean the elimination of all prejudices. Instead, politics is the activity of challenging and transforming unjust prejudices, which requires self-reflective thinking and judgment. Save the date:
The Hannah Arendt Center 12th Annual Conference
Racism and Antisemitism
Oct. 10-11, 2019
Members Attend Free!
Racism and Antisemitism
Oct. 10-11, 2019
Members Attend Free!
A part of our democratic crisis is rooted in the increasing inability to speak with people with whom one disagrees. The Arendt Center’s Campus Plurality Forum (CPF) aims to address this hyper-polarized national debate over free expression on campus by providing intellectual skills, effective tools, and replicable models to tackle the wide range of disputes that threaten to undermine democratic values such as: race and racism, gender and sexuality, political power and historical injustice, and socio-economic inequality. Toward that end, the Campus Plurality Forum is developing an integrated program of applied research, clinical courses, traveling workshops, and investigations of contested political, ethical, and cultural flashpoints.
The “Courage to Be” Seminars continue with incredible courses and lectures asking, how does one act with moral and political courage in a world increasingly defined by bureaucratic institutions that undermine responsibility? The 2019 Courage to Be Lecture Series will feature acclaimed community organizer and social entrepreneur, Rana Abdelhamid; CEO of Village Health Works and leading advocate for the most impoverished people, Deo Niyizonkiza; and Executive Director of Citizen Action New York, Karen Scharff.
What would it mean to refresh liberal-constitutional democracy in the 21st century? The Arendt Center has inaugurated a new institute dedicated to this very question. The Bard Institute for The Revival of Democracy through Sortition (BIRDS) aims to be a space for considering innovative projects that think creatively about citizen engagement in government. Our 2020 Annual Conference will focus on the strategies for Democratic Revival. If you want to learn more about sortition, you can watch this conversation we hosted with David van Reybrouck and Zephyr Teachout.
Our Virtual Reading Group continues as a regular series in which we engage our members in a vigorous and spirited conversation around selected texts from Hannah Arendt. This year, we examined essays from the recently published Thinking Without a Banister, edited by Jerome Kohn. In 2019 we will be reading Hannah Arendt’s first book Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess. The VRG is free and open to all new and renewing members.
Every Sunday, the Hannah Arendt Center releases its signature publication, Amor Mundi. We deliver essays, commentaries on current events, our Quote of the Week, videos, and selections from the HA journal directly to your inbox. Subscriptions are free to all who sign up. Subscribe and read the latest edition of Amor Mundi here.
Our dedicated team at the center continues to grow. Roger Normand brings 20 years of experience in international human rights to lead the Arendt Center’s effort to pluralize and deepen intellectual engagement through the Campus Plurality Forum. Mark Williams Jr., Bard College ’18 who founded and led the Arendt Center’s “Tough Talks” lectures, is working with Roger Normand to lead CPF Workshops at Bard and around the country. Craig Rothstein joins us as our Media Coordinator in charge of our websites and online programs. We also welcomed an incredible group of fellows: Senior Fellows include Wyatt Mason, Thomas Bartscherer, Ann Seaton, and Zephyr Teachout; The National Endowment for the Humanities/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Fellows are Micah White and Chiara Ricciardone; and the Klemens von Klemperer Post-Doctoral Fellow is Libby Barringer.
This year we added another stellar team of student fellows to our center: Misbah Awan, Livy Marie Donahue, Angela Woodack, Emily Walshin, Adrian Costa, Charlotte Albert, Saul Amezcua, Tyler Williams, and April Perin Wogenburg. We also welcome our returning student interns; Annah Heckman, Paris Adorno, and Sacha Medjo-Akona [Marketing Interns], Isabelle Emma Menuez Santana and Maeve Schallert [Program Fellows].
More than ever our world needs Hannah Arendt’s fearless and bold inquiry into the political need to fight cynicism with active citizenship.
The Hannah Arendt Center is an intellectual space for passionate, uncensored, and non-partisan thinking that reframes and deepens the fundamental questions facing our world. We aim to nurture bold and provocative thinking that seeks, in the spirit of Hannah Arendt, to “think what we are doing.”
We cannot do it without you! We are grateful for your continued support of the Hannah Arendt Center. Please help by renewing your membership, or by making a year-end contribution to the Center today!
Membership has its perks! The first 10 people to join at the $100 level will receive a free 2018 Conference T-shirt. All new and renewing members will receive a conference scout book too.
A large part of our annual budget, including our annual conference, is supported by contributions from members like yourself. Your support is necessary and deeply appreciated. We wish you a very thoughtful and provocative holiday season, and hope to see you at Arendt Center events in 2019!
Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College
The Absence of Fascsism
Dylan Riley refuses to ask the obvious question. To seek analogies between the present and fascism “treat[s] the past as a storehouse of disconnected examples to be pulled out for weaving morality tales or constructing yardsticks against which they measure the contemporary moment.” Instead, we need to ask: why, given the many similarities between the 1930s and our own time, we have not seen the rise of fascism?
For the issue is not to explain why, in the aftermath of a severe financial and economic crisis in the capitalist core, accompanied by a massive upward transfer of wealth by ruling centrists, blue and red, right-wing—and, in a few instances, left-wing—outsiders have come to power, but rather why these politicians have largely remained within the established framework. In short, the question is not why our contemporary politics resembles those of the 1930s, but why it does not. For this, it is necessary to take the comparison seriously, systematically contrasting the era of classical fascism—roughly, from 1922 to 1939—with the present period, in order to enable greater theoretical and political clarity about the situation today. I do so along four comparative axes: geopolitical context, economic crisis, relations of class and nation and, finally, the character of civil society and of political parties. I focus here on the Trump administration rather than generalizing for the whole spectrum of contemporary right-wing parties and leaders. As Achin Vanaik has shown for the case of India, in his comparison of Modi’s hegemony to that of Nehru, each new right needs to be carefully located in its domestic political-cultural context before they can be meaningfully aligned with each other. To situate the usual suspects in their home environments would lie beyond the scope of this article.
The Color Yellow
Yair Rosenberg considers Alice Walker’s embrace of antisemitism. Walker has long traded in antisemitism and last year published a poem “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud” that, as Rosenberg writes, “blames all the world’s ills, from Israel to America, on the ancient Aramaic compendium of Jewish law and lore, and checks nearly every anti-Semitic box, from attacking Jews as Christ-killers to claiming that Jews view gentiles as ‘sub-human.’” Most recently, Walker recommended in the New York Times the book “And the Truth Shall Set You Free” by David Icke, a book that once again wildly and repeatedly trades in virulent antisemitism. For Rosenberg, the question is no longer whether Walker is an antisemite. It is why she has never before been held to account for her widely disseminated antisemitism?
Why has Walker escaped accountability for so long? Perhaps it is due to her Israel politics, which have been used to confuse the issue. Walker is a prominent supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, famously forbidding The Color Purple from being translated into the language of Hebrew. Because Walker—like Icke—is a strident critic of Israel, her defenders—like Icke’s—have dismissed allegations of anti-Semitism by claiming they are merely an attempt to quash her criticism of the Jewish state.
Quote of the Week: Hannah Arendt and the Miracle of the New
Ken Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, and instructor at DePaul University in Chicago. His most recent book, “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt – A Tyranny of Truth” is published by Bloomsbury. You can find more of his work at kenkrimstein.com.
The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.
— Hannah Arendt, “The Human Condition”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with making new things: paintings, drawings, comics, cartoons, ads, stories, trumpet solos. I’ve put bread on my family’s table by figuring out new ways to tell the story of, for example, why people should protect themselves from the sun, why they should purchase Duracell batteries or use the American Express Card or by finding fresh, new, unexpected ways of making people laugh at a cartoon image of a man stranded on a desert island. That’s why Hannah Arendt’s observation on the magic of the “new” struck such a chord. (The opening chord of The Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night?”)
But, at the same time, a lifetime’s experience working in the mines of what people call “being a creative” has taught me two major things: One, it’s really hard to come up with new ideas and, two, although everyone says they want fresh, new creative ideas – they really don’t.
New ideas are scary. Being confronted with the “new” makes the little hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Newness isn’t warm and fuzzy. That’s all because new ideas fly in the face of Darwinian survival instincts. By their very definition, truly new ideas do things “wrong,” (at first at least.) On the contrary, in order to survive, most people have been wired to play the safe game. The percentage game. Defense.
But not all people.
Because, just as much as we are afraid of the new, it also enchants us. New things sing a siren song, shine a light, keep the wolves we can’t always see or hear at bay. Want proof? Try this. If you really want to quiet a room and command attention, if you want to see people lean in, repeat after me. The next time you’re in a meeting, or at dinner with friends, or with family, say, “I’ve got an idea.” All eyes and ears will fall on you.
Ideas are currency. Ideas, new things, unexpected stories provide people with irreplaceable clues for living.
And Hannah Arendt understood the double-edged sword of the new completely. She sometimes referred to this phenomenon as natality. St. Augustine, a key inspiration for her, said “”That there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody.” Rather than defining life by death, Arendt saw life as a sequence of births — of people, of thought, of action, of newness.
For her, this ability to make new stuff is the essential product of freedom. And freedom is the stuff of newness. They feed each other. That’s why she so abhorred stale, clichéd thinking. True, doing things the way they’ve always been done, without “thinking,” without “making,” is easy. It’s not scary. But, without the challenge of making things anew, clichéd thinking often devolves into stupidity. Or worse.
What’s more, coming up with new things isn’t only scary, it’s hard work. The “new” is elusive.
Say I’m working on a cartoon. Or a new chapter. The minute I alert my brain that I’m setting out to come up with an idea, the idea knows it. And it runs and hides. The surest way not to come up with a fresh idea is to try harder to do it.
Only by indirection, indiscretion, and dare I say it, sometimes even inebriation, will the elusive gnome known as an idea peek out from the shadows. Consider this, most common question posed to cartoonists is “where do you get your ideas?” The best answer I’ve ever heard to that one was by the legendary early twentieth century writer and cartoonist Milt Gross when he responded, “If I knew where, I’d be there right now getting them!”
With all due respect to Mr. Gross, Hannah Arendt put it much more elegantly and poetically when she said, “they come in the guise of a miracle.”
I must confess I was taken aback when I read this kind of reasoning coming from so sharp and unsentimental a mind as Arendt’s. “Miracles” are not the usual province of virulently truth-telling political philosophers. But her phrase reminded me of something I once read in an interview with the great film director Stanley Kubrick; “A great story is a miracle.”
A great story works in spite of statistical odds. A great story bypasses our fear, and satisfies our desire for novelty, for natality. And a great story does the legerdemain of “revealing meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
Without the kind of “miraculous” new ideas, no matter how scary they might be, we are frozen in time, and in place. We are like those tiny gnats from prehistoric times, caught in amber.
One of the things I’ve learned from working on cartoons and stories and my recently published comics biography of Hannah Arendt is how much humans are defined by what I call geography. Our setting, the physical space we inhabit, forms us. So much so, I’ve coined the phrase, geography is destiny.
But so is human creativity; our scary, miraculous, uneasy, but eminently satisfying capacity for coming up with “the new.” In the face of that, I’ve come to understand that the messy business of being a creative is even more critical than, say, a way for me to pay the rent. Everyone must be a creative, and I would argue, everyone is. The fact that you’ve dodged Darwinian extinction to sit at your desk (or stand on the subway) and read this proves it. New ideas are what we human beings use to navigate our way through the geography we inhabit. To realize our world, as we want it to be. To live.
Journal Feature: Hannah Arendt and the Narratable Self
by Laurie Naranch
This essay was published in HA Journal, vol. III.
In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world, while their physical identities appear without any activity of their own in the unique shape of the body and the sound of the voice. This disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is… is implicit in everything somebody says and does. —Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
To be reduced to a “what” for Hannah Arendt is to deny the uniqueness of each individual. That individuality is disclosed through acting and speaking together. For Arendt, politics is about collective action rooted in and created through shared space. Acting and speaking together in the appearance of a public world provides the possibility for disclosing “who” one is. That is, while Arendt mentions that “what” somebody is may relate to “qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings,” we also know that “what” somebody is—just a Jew, woman, disabled, or disgusting—is a way of denying the uniqueness of a person with a proper name. Narration of the “who” is essential to both ethical and political life.
Drawing on this insight from Arendt, the Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero argues for a vision of the self as a “narratable self.” In Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood (2000), Cavarero disputes the dominant vision of self-narration as emerging from the old idea of the independent will who writes his or her own autobiography without dependence on others. Instead, Cavarero argues for a fundamentally dependent view of the self, a view that shows how our autobiographies are given to us by others. This autobiographical-biographical practice is what Cavarero finds in women’s consciousness-raising activities in the 1970s. She also draws on other tales of “self” disclosure, from Odysseus, Orpheus, and Scheherazade to those found in the settings of Milan and New York City bookstores.
For example, Cavarero relates the story of Amalia and Emilia, two women in Milan who are enrolled in a 150-hour adult education class. (These types of classes started with trade union movements and became part of the practices of women’s groups as well.) As Cavarero notes, the story of Amalia and Emilia emerges in one of the most famous books of Italian feminism, Don’t Think You Have Any Rights (1987). Amalia reports the story of her friend Emilia, who dies prematurely at age fifty-three. Emilia was struggling to write her life story, which she never managed to tell or write in a beautiful or coherent way. Her friend Amalia, the one who could narrate more potently, realizes that following their exchanges in writing, she knows the story of her friend so well that she writes it for her. Emilia carries the typed story with her in her handbag: pulling it out, reading it, overcome with emotion at the recognition of her self.
The episode “almost seems like a transposition of the Homeric Ulysses to the outskirts of contemporary Milan.” (55) There is the weeping with emotion at the recognition of one’s story narrated by another. But these are not strangers, and this is not a tale of heroism that may live on for centuries, tales that Arendt often praises. Instead, as Cavarero puts it:
Of course, Emilia could have written her autobiography with her own hand—in fact she tried. Like Arendt, we nonetheless begin to suspect that what prevented her from successfully completing the undertaking was not so much a lack of literary talent, but rather the impossibility of personally objectifying the material of her own desire. (56)
That is, “the who of Emilia shows itself here with clarity in the perception of a narratable self that desires the tale of her own life-story” (56). But it takes the other to recognize this desire. Therefore, “the political thought of Arendt, reinterpreted in light of feminist experience” helps us to better understand the ontological desire for a self that can come through the political act of narration among friends. This equality does not mean that each person is in the same position of expertise or that there is no recognition of power. Quite the opposite: yet through the relation of narration, each is dependent on the other.
Although Cavarero doesn’t use this language explicitly, we can see this as a democratic exchange. This is particularly challenging when addressing situations of structural inequality based on colonization or class or racial privilege, as she herself briefly acknowledges. It’s also an open question as to where the act of interpretation or translation may be in this view of the “narratable self.” Nonetheless, the concept of the narratable self allows for a vision of the self that is different from the individualist horizon whereby we are “different or equal” to those in front of us with whom we “establish rules for living together” (88). Instead, the other “embodies the constitutive relationship of our inscrutable identity”(88).
This intervention—in fact, we could say “invention”—of the self at the level of an embodied philosophy and political practice is also usefully drawn upon in the emerging practice of narrative medicine. At Columbia University Medical Center, the Program in Narrative Medicine revolves around these insights. As its mission statement says:
Narrative Medicine fortifies clinical practice with the narrative competence to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved by the stories of illness. Through narrative training, the Program in Narrative Medicine helps physicians, nurses, social workers, mental health professionals, chaplains, academics, and all those interested in the intersection between narrative and medicine improve the effectiveness of care by developing these skills with patients and colleagues.
How can narration disclose the “who” of a person and not the “what” of a category? How does this lead to a philosophy, politics, and practice of health that is ethical and democratic? It is through the disclosure/creation of a “who” not a “what.” And we could ask both Adriana Cavarero and the executive director of the Program in Narrative Medicine, Dr. Rita Charon (M.D., Ph.D. in English) more about this idea of the narratable self and narration. If you are in the Albany area next academic year, both will be on Siena College’s campus as part of a yearlong symposium on the philosophy of Cavarero. Both are deeply inspired by and critically engaged with Arendt and narration—as we should be too.
Video Feature: The Unmaking of Americans
A panel discussion with Joan Richardson and Ann Lauterbach, with Kennen Ferguson as a discussant. Moderated by Laurie Naranch.
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