Michael Ignatieff in the New York Review of Books writes that the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East has proven Hannah Arendt right about the inevitable failure of human rights declarations in the face of political crises. "The Paris attacks make it easy to forget a scandalous fact: 3,329 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year. Still more are drowning every week. They are drowning in sight of the island of Lesbos in Greece or off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Others are dying trapped inside refrigerator trucks on the roadside in Austria; they are dying inside the Channel Tunnel, trying to reach Great Britain; as the winter darkens, some may die of exposure on the trek up through the Balkans. Later generations will ask how European leaders let this happen. Hannah Arendt, exiled in 1933, stripped of her German citizenship in 1937, later taking flight from Vichy France and finally reaching New York in 1941, also wondered how Europe had betrayed the stateless in her own time. In 1948, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she observed that it was citizenship that gives human beings the 'right to have rights.' As for stateless persons, she concluded, they ought to have rights simply because they are human, but her own experience had taught her a different lesson: 'If a human being loses his political status, he should, according to the implications of the inborn and inalienable rights of man, come under exactly the situation for which the declarations of such general rights provided. Actually the opposite is the case. It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.' The passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Refugee Convention in 1951, and the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953 was supposed to give the stateless the right to have rights. States who signed these documents were not allowed to let stateless people drown in their waters and were not supposed to send them back home if they were likely to be tortured; they were entitled to a hearing to make their claim to stay. Anyone, in the words of the Refugee Convention, who fled a 'well-founded fear of being persecuted' had a right to claim refuge in any country that ratified the convention. Thanks to the human rights revolution after 1945, Europe thought it had proven Arendt wrong. Now that we have seen a dead toddler face down, washed up on the gravel of a Turkish beach, Arendt may have been right after all. The Refugee Convention of 1951 has been overwhelmed by the reality of 2015."
Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal has a different read on the refugee crisis, which he rightly calls "one of the worst humanitarian disasters since the 1940s." For Mead, the refugee crisis has its roots in the failure of two civilizations: "What we are witnessing today is a crisis of two civilizations: The Middle East and Europe are both facing deep cultural and political problems that they cannot solve. The intersection of their failures and shortcomings has made this crisis much more destructive and dangerous than it needed to be--and carries with it the risk of more instability and more war in a widening spiral. The crisis in the Middle East has to do with much more than the breakdown of order in Syria and Libya. It runs deeper than the poisonous sectarian and ethnic hatreds behind the series of wars stretching from Pakistan to North Africa. At bottom, we are witnessing the consequences of a civilization's failure either to overcome or to accommodate the forces of modernity. One hundred years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and 50 years after the French left Algeria, the Middle East has failed to build economies that allow ordinary people to live with dignity, has failed to build modern political institutions and has failed to carve out the place of honor and respect in world affairs that its peoples seek.... In Europe and the West, the crisis is quieter but no less profound. Europe today often doesn't seem to know where it is going, what Western civilization is for, or even whether or how it can or should be defended. Increasingly, the contemporary version of Enlightenment liberalism sees itself as fundamentally opposed to the religious, political and economic foundations of Western society. Liberal values such as free expression, individual self-determination and a broad array of human rights have become detached in the minds of many from the institutional and civilizational context that shaped them." While Europe is trying to maintain humanitarian values, the embrace of absolute values is bringing Europe to a breaking point: "Under normal circumstances, the rights-based, legalistic approach can work reasonably well. When refugee flows are slack, the political fallout from accommodating them is manageable. But when the flow of desperate people passes a certain threshold, receiving countries no longer have the will (and, in some cases, the ability) to follow through. Ten thousand refugees is one thing; 10 million is another. Somewhere between those extremes is a breaking point at which the political system will no longer carry out the legal mandate. To pretend that this isn't true is to invite trouble, and Europe is already much closer to a breaking point than Brussels or Berlin would like to admit." For Mead, the great mistake that Europe and the West have made is to insist on a noble and idealistic program of human rights while being singularly unwilling to embrace the corollary of such a platform. This includes their willingness to use military force to prevent countries like Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan from failing and thus sending an untenable number of migrants into Europe. A humane refugee policy, Mead argues, can only work if the West takes up its responsibility to help guarantee the security of people against ruthless tyrants and "the brutal fanaticism and nihilistic violence of groups like Islamic State."
Listening to so many electioneering voices talking about how "I would solve the Mid-East crisis," "how I would handle terrorism in this country," "how I would solve the immigration problem," "how I would reverse an economic downturn," (etc. etc.) one may be startled to hear that in politics it is not the self that matters but the world. In a sense, all great political thinkers and actors have known that, but it was Hannah Arendt who most forcefully articulated it. We live in a world that is more densely populated than ever before and whose bulk has shrunk through the instantaneity of electronic communication. These are the conditions of political dangers of the first order, as we see daily, all over the world. Yet where do we find public voices with world views? Neither among the candidates nor the people. When Arendt writes that "Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world," she says that the imagination of and preservation of the common world is of greater meaning that our individual lives. And when she continues, "Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake," she reiterates that all who engage in politics must strive to act in ways that elevate the glory of our common world above ourselves. One reason to keep returning to Arendt's writing and thinking is because she so forcefully reminds us that the public world is always endangered and in need of political actors with the courage to act and speak in ways that are surprising, captivating, and unnerving. The Hannah Arendt Center is dedicated to bringing Arendt's bold and provocative style of thinking about important political and ethical questions to a broad audience. You can read about what we do here. Please consider becoming a member and supporting our work.--RB
Joseph Epstein writing in the Wall Street Journal relays a basic truth of our time: meaningful civic discourse has been replaced by hardened opinion. "In 1952, during the first Eisenhower-Stevenson election campaign, I asked my father for whom he was going to vote, fairly certain of the answer (Adlai Stevenson). He surprised me by saying that before making a decision he was waiting to see which way the columnist Walter Lippmann was going. Lippmann, though he would have much preferred to lunch with Stevenson, went for Eisenhower. He did so because he thought the great war hero had a better chance than Stevenson of closing down Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunt. Is there anyone today waiting to see what a newspaper columnist thinks before deciding how to vote? Is there a political columnist in America not already lined up, his or her leanings unknown and unpredictable? Is there anyone in the country, period, not intransigently locked into his or her opinions? What would it take for any of us to make a Lippmann-like move, rising above personal preference and partisanship, to cast a vote for the good of the country instead of against people we loathe? Maybe it doesn't matter. After all, we have only our national civility to lose." At a time when candidates from all parties and all affiliations patter on about their poll-tested political truths, I would vote for nearly any candidate who in the midst of a debate stopped, looked at one of his or her colleagues, and said: "You know, you're right. You've convinced me I was wrong." What I would give for politics to return to being about persuasive speech instead of stale truths.--RB
Dinaw Mengestu writes of his exile from a country he never knew: "My father, of course, eventually stopped with the stories. He might have done so because we no longer asked him to tell us them, or because we were old enough to read on our own, or because it was the mid-1980s, and Caterpillar, where my father worked, was going through a round of layoffs that would bankrupt my parents' plans of buying their first home. Or perhaps he stopped because suddenly, everywhere we turned, Ethiopia, or one tragic version of it, was staring back at us. There it was on the evening news, dying of hunger, and there it was in the well-intentioned questions of strangers who must have been baffled to hear my father declare that he was a political exile, one who had fled a civil war, the same one that was helping cause the famine. I became conscious around then of my father's politics and that growing consciousness meant eschewing childish things. I saw how he read and watched the news with an almost religious devotion. I remember him voting for Reagan as a newly minted US citizen, because Reagan, like my father, hated the communists, both in Russia and the ones who had taken over Ethiopia. I remember staying up past my bedtime to watch the news of the US bombing of Libya. It was a strangely celebratory mood in our apartment--my father applauding the president as he spoke from the Oval Office, and then, later, calling the White House to share his overwhelming, wholehearted support. The Libyans weren't communists, but Gaddafi was a tyrant, just like Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam. On the scale of things, Tripoli wasn't that far from Addis Ababa, and now, after that evening, who knew where in Africa America's bombs might land next. My father was certainly a political man before fleeing Ethiopia in 1978 while on a business trip to Italy. He came from a prominent family, had a good corporate job working with Ethiopian Airlines, and had imagined himself in politics once he was more established. He told me that when he left Ethiopia, he always imagined it wouldn't be for long; he expected the communist government that had taken over in 1974 to quickly fail, and when it did, he, like thousands of other refugees in exile the world over, would rush back home to save the country. When my mother, sister, and I arrived in Peoria in 1980, he must have already begun to learn to live by a different narrative. We were digging our heels deeper into America, but time and even distance were irrelevant when it came to the politics of home. By the time we moved to the suburbs of Chicago seven years later, I had thoroughly absorbed my father's secular faith. At nine years old, I considered myself a conservative, a Reagan-loving Republican. I wore sweater vests to school and on Sunday mornings sat through the morning news shows as American foreign policy, which was what my father loved most, was debated. In the evenings, my father and I developed a new bedtime ritual. We traded in the amoral, mischievous monkeys for issues of US News and World Report. I read about foreign and domestic policy over my father's shoulder, ignoring what I didn't understand, trying hard to commit to memory what I did."
Natasha Lennard and Brad Evans wonder at the relationship between violence and our smart phones: "It is certainly right to suggest the connections between violence and media communications have been a recurring feature of human relations. We only need to open the first pages of Aeschylus' 'Oresteia' to witness tales of victory in battle and its communicative strategies--on this occasion the medium of communication was the burning beacon. But there are a number of ways in which violence is different today, in terms of its logics intended, forced witnessing and ubiquitous nature.... One of the key arguments I make throughout my work is that violence has now become the defining organizational principle for contemporary societies. It mediates all social relations. It matters less if we are actual victims of violence. It is the possibility that we could face some form of violent encounter, which shapes the logics of power in liberal societies today. Our political imagination as such has become dominated by multiple potential catastrophes that appear on the horizon. The closing of the entire Los Angeles city school system after a reported terrorist threat yesterday is an unsettling reminder of this. From terror to weather and everything in between, insecurity has become the new normal. We see this played out at global and local levels, as the effective blurring between older notions of homeland/battlefields, friends/enemies and peace/war has led to the widespread militarization of many everyday behaviors--especially in communities of color. None of this can be divorced from the age of new media technologies, which quite literally puts a catastrophic world in our hands. Indeed, not only have we become forced witness to many tragic events that seem to be beyond our control (the source of our shared anxieties), accessible smart technologies are now redefining the producer and audience relationships in ways that challenge the dominance of older medias. A notable outcome of this has been the shift toward humanized violence. I am not only talking about the ways in which wars have been aligned with humanitarian principles. If forms of dehumanization hallmarked the previous Century of Violence, in which the victim was often removed from the scene of the crime, groups such as ISIS foreground the human as a disposable category. Whether it is the progressive liberal, the journalist, the aid worker or the homosexual, ISIS put the human qualities of the victims on full broadcast."
Lisa Ruddick wonders at the contemporary state of academic writing: "Is there something unethical in contemporary criticism? This essay is not just for those who identify with the canaries in the mine, but for anyone who browses through current journals and is left with an impression of deadness or meanness. I believe that the progressive fervor of the humanities, while it reenergized inquiry in the 1980s and has since inspired countless valid lines of inquiry, masks a second-order complex that is all about the thrill of destruction. In the name of critique, anything except critique can be invaded or denatured. This is the game of academic cool that flourished in the era of high theory. Yet what began as theory persists as style. Though it is hardly the case that everyone (progressive or otherwise) approves of this mode, it enjoys prestige, a fact that cannot but affect morale in the field as a whole. The reflections that follow focus largely on English, my home discipline and a trendsetter for the other modern language disciplines. These days nothing in English is 'cool' in the way that high theory was in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand, you could say that what is cool now is, simply, nothing. Decades of antihumanist one-upmanship have left the profession with a fascination for shaking the value out of what seems human, alive, and whole. Some years ago Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick touched on this complex in her well-known essay on paranoid reading, where she identified a strain of 'hatred' in criticism. Also salient is a more recent piece in which Bruno Latour has described how scholars slip from 'critique' into 'critical barbarity,' giving 'cruel treatment' to experiences and ideals that non-academics treat as objects of tender concern. Rita Felski's current work on the state of criticism has reenergized the conversation on the punitive attitudes encouraged by the hermeneutics of suspicion. And Susan Fraiman's powerful analysis of the 'cool mal' intellectual style favored in academia is concerned with many of the same patterns I consider here. I hope to show that the kind of thinking these scholars, among others, have criticized has survived the supposed death of theory. More, it encourages an intellectual sadism that the profession would do well to reflect on. Why has it been hard for this community to shift away from norms that make ruthlessness look like sophistication, even as dissenting voices are periodically raised and new trends keep promising to revitalize the field? The reflections that follow, in proposing some answers, touch on the secret life of groups." The "critical barbarity" Ruddick describes bears a close resemblance to the joy in destruction that Hannah Arendt describes in the war-time German elite. Both are born from what Arendt calls the "justified disgust" at a decadent public world. And yet when that disgust allows itself to find joy in destruction rather than a will to repair, there is a chance for what Arendt calls the alliance of the elite with the mob. Which is why amongst the criticism of the mob-like elements in politics so many of the elite can barely restrain a smile, proof that they are right in their disdain for our world.--RB
In The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead reports on the politics of college cooking: "The horror of 'cultural appropriation' has struck Oberlin, where dining hall staff have apparently offended the sensibilities of students by mixing various types of ethnic food. The New York Post reports: 'Students at an ultra-liberal Ohio college are in an uproar over the fried chicken, sushi and Vietnamese sandwiches served in the school cafeterias, complaining the dishes are "insensitive" and "culturally inappropriate." Gastronomically correct students at Oberlin College--alma mater of Lena Dunham--are filling the school newspaper with complaints and demanding meetings with campus dining officials and even the college president. General Tso's chicken was made with steamed chicken instead of fried--which is not authentically Chinese, and simply "weird," one student bellyached in the Oberlin Review. Others were up in arms over banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches served with coleslaw instead of pickled vegetables, and on ciabatta bread, rather than the traditional French baguette.' Doing horrible things to foreign dishes is an authentic and time-honored American tradition."
About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the "Banality of Evil" when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for theNew Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt's life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta's biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.
Wednesday, April 8, 2016
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA
This week on the Blog, Richard Barrett reflects on Arendt's understanding of authority and depth in the Quote of the Week. Aristophanes discusses how one can escape the entanglement of a baffling thought in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Kate Bermingham shares her love of Arendt's ability to both love and break from political theory tradition in this week's Library feature. Finally, we encourage everyone to make a year-end contribution to the Hannah Arendt Center.
About Amor Mundi
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.