Amor Mundi 04/17/1604-17-2016
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.
Pope Francis flew to the Greek Island of Lesbos and returned with 12 refugees. It was, he said, “a voyage marked by sadness.” The Pope rightly called the refugee crisis “the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War.” And in traveling to witness the refugees first hand, the Pope had a message. “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and desperate need and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”
Seyla Benhabib has also recently visited a refugee camp in Greece, at the old Athens Airport, Ellinikon International. “On an early Friday morning in March, we approached the grey shaped non-descript institutional buildings at about 10 am. They could have been part of a warehouse, a factory, a military base. The first thing I noticed was a young boy of 9 or 10, who together with his father, was sweeping the front steps of a room inside the flat building that must have housed them. On the other side of the lot, were rows of tents of all colors such as hikers and campers use. Ahead of us, on the balcony of what was once the airport’s main terminal, hung a clothes-line, extending the whole length of the building, with multi-colored shirts, pants, skirts, and scarves waving around in the wind. One could have encountered such a scene of everyday normalcy on any camping site in the world. Except that nothing is normal when you are a refugee. Everyday life, driven by the needs of the body, asserts itself in ways that lets you take nothing for granted?—?whether you will wake up in the same room or tent the next morning; whether you will have access to bathrooms; whether there will be a doctor to tend to your wounds or illnesses. Suspended between the home that you have lost and the uncertain destination that awaits you, your sense of time is also warped: should one wake up the children? Ah yes, but there is no school or playground for them to go to, is there?”
Since the emergence of masses of stateless refugees in Europe after World War I, only two “solutions” have been offered to the problem of masses of stateless peoples seeking refuge. As Hannah Arendt wrote over 50 years ago, “From the beginning everybody had agreed that there were only two ways to solve the problem: repatriation or naturalization.” Repatriation efforts are destined to fail because it is simply neither a practical nor humanitarian option to return refugees to countries in which they are not welcome an where they will be endangered by persecution, war, or famine. The refugees are quite simply not deportable. But naturalization efforts also fail, Arendt writes, because naturalization is by its nature a process designed to address claims of “single individuals…. The whole process broke down when it became a question of handling mass applications for naturalization: even from the purely administrative point of view, no European civil service could possibly have dealt with the problem.” The result in the 1930s, as also today, is that the arrival of masses of stateless refugees meant that the refugees became a class of illegal aliens, people living in a country deprived of citizenship, the right to work, and the right to residence. “The stateless person, without the right to residence and without the right to work, had of course constantly to transgress the law.” And for such people who are in essence “illegal” residents, the temptation for nation states is to follow the inexorable logic of illegality and submit refugees to the unimpeded authority of police—the creation of refugee camps that are concentration camps, that concentrate refugees in defined spaces where they can be controlled, a policed no-man’s land that exists between the two impossible solutions of repatriation and nationalization.
Benhabib is clear-sighted about the tragedy that refugees pose to the nation-states of Europe. In a recent essay on the Hannah Arendt Center blog, Benhabib rehearses the legal situation by which Europe, but not Turkey, is bound by international conventions that prohibit the repatriating of refugees, those who are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This is one reason for the March agreement between Europe and Turkey to have the refugees returned to Turkey where they can apply for naturalization into Europe on a case by case basis. Of course all this does is remove the problem of refugees and the reality of policed concentration camps from Europe to Turkey. As Benhabib writes, “Unable to face their own daemons of racism, Islamophobia, human rights violations, and sheer egotism, European leaders instead have chosen to shift the burden to Turkey. Boats carrying refugees to Turkey are now aided by the NATO fleet’ navigational devices. The asylum seeker is now being treated not only as if s/he were a criminal who needs to be detained; he or she has become the enemy who needs accompanying by military force. The logic of the EU-Turkey agreement is to relieve Greece minimally of the burden of newcomers this summer, help reduce political pressure upon the government of Angela Merkel after her set-backs in Germany’s recent regional elections, and discourage future refugees from attempting the crossing across the Aegean Sea. But refugees whose needs are desperate have already started exploring other routes of passage across North Africa, via Libya to Italy, and to a lesser extent, from Morocco to Spain. They are even moving across northern Russia, crossing the route into Finland. Emerging out of the ashes of the Holocaust and with the painful memory of refugees who not only were not granted asylum, but who, in the words of Hannah Arendt, were eventually rendered “superfluous peoples,” the European Union is today facing an existential predicament that puts in question its very raison d’etre.”
The refugee problem can seem far away from American shores. But Benhabib argues that it is wrong to think that is the case. “Although this crisis has revealed the Achilles’ Heel of the European Union, let us admit that refugees coming from war-torn regions of the world in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria as well as Eritrea, Somalia and the Sudan are not only Europe’s responsibility. The United States has failed to respect the “Pottery Barn” principle once so clearly articulated by Secretary of State Colin Powell: “You break it, you own it.” We have caused much of the military chaos in these countries by our interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Mired in an ugly election campaign, the United States is simply failing to live up to its moral and political obligations to the refugees. We are also letting our European allies down by underestimating the threat this situation poses to the future of the EU itself. Blessed by the vastness of the Ocean between us and Europe and the MENA region we remain disgracefully smug watching the human misery unfold on other shores!” —RB
In a long and fascinating interview with The Utopian Magazine, David Bromwich discusses the potential to reunite the American people. “The people I respect most as political observers say something like this. “At this moment in American life, local politics – at the level of district, town, city, and sometimes state – affords the best chance for people interested in reform to have an effect. People, that is, interested in accountability, interested in such things as guarding against the disasters that are already following from global warming.”
You’ve seen some actions of this kind in New York, with Cuomo and his ban on fracking, at the local level in Connecticut, in California, with a good governor imposing restrictions necessary for the state to get along in a time of drought. It is citizens’ groups that can help with this, in settings small enough to allow citizens to know each other. The idea that reform may come from a single charismatic politician seems to me not always entirely irrelevant, but it’s a peculiar accident, maybe an accident that could have been avoided if we’d known enough, that Obama could have seemed such a plausible charismatic leader. He probably believed he was himself. But he was not equipped to play that part once he got to the presidency. So one shouldn’t underestimate the relevance of individuals in this, and certainly our academic culture tends to underrate the importance of individuals, but the structures that we’re talking about are very large ones – the national security state, the connected bureaucracy – and I take some admonition from a train of thought I’ve learned from the principled libertarians: There is a terrible bargain that unites the far right – the jingoes, the imperialists, the advocates and puffers-up of American power, and on the other hand the good-hearted liberals of the welfare state. And that bargain is dependency on the state. The right and the left both enter into the bargain, where there are artificial limits drawn around the amount of resistance that they offer. The right-wing Republicans hate the welfare state – they sincerely think that it corrupts individual morale. And the left-liberals who believe in the welfare state are commonly opponents or at most lukewarm believers in American imperialism, they don’t care much for our wars abroad, but they’ll sign onto those wars because that’s the price of getting support for the state they believe in implicitly for other reasons. The far-right Republicans correspondingly limit their resistance to state power domestically, including the abuse of state secrets and domestic surveillance, because they want the continuous expansion of America abroad. This terrible bargain has created limits on the kind of criticism one gets of the reach of state power, from both of the major parties. The exceptions are the conservative libertarians who are not just property libertarians, the ones, I mean, who are interested in civil liberties, and that includes people who want the NSA not to be spying on them – they come from the right very often these days – and it includes even people who fervently support the right to bear arms: they’re afraid of the Bureau of Firearms and what it may do if it gets out of hand. On the left you can number the ACLU and a few others, but I wish there were more libertarians on the left. That’s one of the changes I’ve seen in my lifetime, I’ve seen it happen in the last twenty years – it dates back from Clinton – that the concern with civil liberties on the left is greatly diminished. You get things like speech codes and the innovation of “hate crimes” and other new sorts of prescriptive lawmaking, a regime of preventive ethics that has nothing to do with Constitutional liberty. These are fashionable innovations that come from the left.”
Sarah Jeong notes that, in a digital economy, information is money and money is information, and that means that, as we move closer and closer to a cashless economy, money is always surveilled: "In a cashless society, the cash has been converted into numbers, into signals, into electronic currents. In short: Information replaces cash. Information is lightning-quick. It crosses cities, states, and national borders in the twinkle of an eye. It passes through many kinds of devices, flowing from phone to phone, and computer to computer, rather than being sealed away in those silent marble temples we used to call banks. Information never jangles uncomfortably in your pocket. But wherever information gathers and flows, two predators follow closely behind it: censorship and surveillance. The case of digital money is no exception. Where money becomes a series of signals, it can be censored; where money becomes information, it will inform on you."
Salman Rushdie remarks on the anniversary of the passing (four hundred years ago) of both Shakespeare and Cervantes, and notes the similarities, and influence, and importance, of the two: "As we honour the four hundredth anniversaries of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, it may be worth noting that while it’s generally accepted that the two giants died on the same date, 23 April 1616, it actually wasn’t the same day. By 1616 Spain had moved on to using the Gregorian calendar, while England still used the Julian, and was 11 days behind. (England clung to the old Julian dating system until 1752, and when the change finally came, there were riots and, it’s said, mobs in the streets shouting, “Give us back our 11 days!”) Both the coincidence of the dates and the difference in the calendars would, one suspects, have delighted the playful, erudite sensibilities of the two fathers of modern literature. We don’t know if they were aware of each other, but they had a good deal in common, beginning right there in the “don’t know” zone, because they are both men of mystery; there are missing years in the record and, even more tellingly, missing documents. Neither man left behind much personal material. Very little to nothing in the way of letters, work diaries, abandoned drafts; just the colossal, completed oeuvres. “The rest is silence.” Consequently, both men have been prey to the kind of idiot theories that seek to dispute their authorship.A cursory internet search “reveals”, for example, that not only did Francis Bacon write Shakespeare’s works, he wrote Don Quixote as well. (My favourite crazy Shakespeare theory is that his plays were not written by him but by someone else of the same name.) And of course Cervantes faced a challenge to his authorship in his own lifetime, when a certain pseudonymous Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, whose identity is also uncertain, published his fake sequel to Don Quixote and goaded Cervantes into writing the real Book II, whose characters are aware of the plagiarist Avellaneda and hold him in much contempt.Cervantes and Shakespeare almost certainly never met, but the closer you look at the pages they left behind the more echoes you hear. The first, and to my mind the most valuable shared idea is the belief that a work of literature doesn’t have to be simply comic, or tragic, or romantic, or political/historical: that, if properly conceived, it can be many things at the same time."
John Jeremiah Sullivan considers the importance of tennis to David Foster Wallace: "David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis because life gave it to him—he had played the game well at the junior level—and because he was a writer who in his own way made use of wilder days, turning relentlessly in his work to the stuff of his own experience. But the fact of the game in his biography came before any thought of its use as material. At least I assume that’s the case. It can be amazing how early in life some writers figure out what they are and start to see their lives as stories that can be controlled. It is perhaps not far-fetched to imagine Wallace’s noticing early on that tennis is a good sport for literary types and purposes. It draws the obsessive and brooding. It is perhaps the most isolating of games. Even boxers have a corner, but in professional tennis it is a rules violation for your coach to communicate with you beyond polite encouragement, and spectators are asked to keep silent while you play. Your opponent is far away, or, if near, is indifferently hostile. It may be as close as we come to physical chess, or a kind of chess in which the mind and body are at one in attacking essentially mathematical problems. So, a good game not just for writers but for philosophers, too. The perfect game for Wallace...For me, the cumulative effect of Wallace’s tennis-themed nonfiction is a bit like being presented with a mirror, one of those segmented mirrors they build and position in space, only this one is pointed at a writer’s mind. The game he writes about is one that, like language, emphasizes the closed system, makes a fetish of it (“Out!”). He seems both to exult and to be trapped in its rules, its cruelties. He loves the game but yearns to transcend it. As always in Wallace’s writing, Wittgenstein is the philosopher who most haunts the approach, the Wittgenstein who told us that reality is inseparable from language (“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”), and that language is inseparable from game (both being at root “part of an activity, a form of life”).
Maurice Chammah's father emigrated to the United States from Syria; many years later, after his death and as the crisis in Syria deepens, he discovered that his father had briefly returned to his homeland during the 1970s. He tells the tale of his father's trip and, in so doing, he teases out the complications of being mizrahi, that is, of being both Arab and Jewish: "Some of my father’s friends and relatives also saw in his life a certain story about the modern Middle East, one of a deep-rooted hatred of Jews that made it necessary for them to seek safety outside the Arab world, and for Israel to protect them from Muslims. Some Jews take this a step further, accusing Arab societies of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and at times, these accounts seemed to collapse the lives of Jews from Arab countries, like my father, into a grand European narrative, more based on the overwhelming horror of the Holocaust and a passion for Israel than on his actual experiences. Some of my own memories of my father read as purely Middle Eastern—I remember him singing in Arabic while dancing with a handkerchief around the living room—while others spoke to a Judaism that was secular but nostalgic. He lit candles and said prayers on Friday nights, a yarmulke atop his shiny head. He sent me to weekly classes at a liberal synagogue, where the rabbi taught a magnanimous, empathic Judaism that leaned on the Torah’s commandment to “show your love for the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Around Passover, the yearly commemoration of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, comparisons to the American struggles against slavery and for civil rights were common. The cantor played acoustic guitar as the children sang “Go Down, Moses.” I didn’t know until much later that the song was an African American spiritual. In college, when I discovered how many other students supported Israel’s most hawkish tendencies, I bristled against a Judaism I felt was drawn together by a bitter solidarity that saw anti-Semitism in every criticism of the country and embraced a militant aversion to outsiders, to “strangers.” In subconscious protest, I began to study Arabic and travel throughout the Middle East. I met my wife, Emily, in an Arabic class, and I traveled to Israel to meet my father’s siblings. They still spoke the Arabic of their native Aleppo, but they hated Palestinians and had few qualms about the Israeli settlement of the West Bank. When, one night, Emily asked me if my father had also resented Muslims or Arabs as a whole, I didn’t have an answer. Suddenly forced to see my views of him as an Arab and a Jew as being in conflict, my inability to imagine my father’s feelings about the city he escaped—where whatever political views he held must have found their seeds—became nearly as important as my inability to remember the voice and gestures that preceded his illness. Of the many conversations we never had, this absence overshadowed the others."