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Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Is Democracy Over? ~Amor Mundi 5/18/14
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.
Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk argue in a long essay in The Nation that the democratic moment is passing if it has not yet passed. Meaney and Mounk build their argument on a simple critical insight, a kind of "unmasking" of what might be called the hypocrisy of modern democracy. Democracy is supposed to be the will of the people. It is a long time since the small group of Athenian citizens governed themselves. Modern democrats have defended representative democracy as a pragmatic alternative because gathering all the citizens of modern states together for democratic debate is simply impossible. But technology has changed that. "As long as direct democracy was impracticable within the confines of the modern territorial state, the claim that representative institutions constituted the truest form of self-government was just about plausible. But now, in the early twenty-first century, the claim about direct democracy being impossible at the national level and beyond is no longer credible. As the constraints of time and space have eroded, the ubiquitous assumption that we live in a democracy seems very far from reality. The American people may not all fit into Madison Square Garden, but they can assemble on virtual platforms and legislate remotely, if that is what they want. Yet almost no one desires to be that actively political, or to replace representation with more direct political responsibility. Asked to inform themselves about the important political issues of the day, most citizens politely decline. If forced to hold an informed opinion on every law and regulation, many would gladly mount the barricades to defend their right not to rule themselves in such a burdensome manner. The challenge posed by information technology lies not in the possibility that we might adopt more direct forms of democracy but in the disquieting recognition that we no longer dream of ruling ourselves." In short, democracy understood as self-government is now once again possible in the technical age. Such techno-democratic possibility is not, however, leading to more democracy. Thus, Meaney and Mounk conclude, technology allows us to see through the illusions of democracy as hypocritical and hollow. While it is true that people are not flocking to technical versions of mass democracies, they are taking to the streets and organizing protests, and involving themselves in the activities of citizenship. Meaney and Mounk are right, democracy is not assured, and we should never simply assume its continued vitality. But neither should we write it off entirely. Read more in the Weekend Read by Roger Berkowitz.
Narenda Modi is a corruption-fighting son of a tea merchant who has risen from one of India's lowest castes to be its new Prime Minister. He is also a member of an ultra-nationalist organization who is alleged to have enabled anti-Muslin pogroms and has until now been banned from traveling to the United States. An unsigned editorial in the Wall Street Journal gushes: "Mr. Modi's record offers reason for optimism. As governor for 13 years of Gujarat state, he was the archetypal energetic executive, forcing through approvals of new projects and welcoming foreign investment. Gujarat now accounts for 25% of India's exports, and the poverty rate has plunged. As the son of a tea-seller, Mr. Modi also has a gut sense of the economic aspirations of ordinary Indians." In a longer essay in the same paper, Geeta Anand and Gordon Fairclough speak of India's "post-ideological moment": "Voters from different castes and regions, rural and urban areas, the middle class and those who want to be middle class-all turned out to vote for Mr. Modi. 'This is a big shift. It is the beginning of a post-ideological generation, not left-centered,' says Shekhar Gupta, editor in chief of the Indian Express newspaper. 'This is the rise of Indians more interested in themselves. They are aspirational, and they are united in their impatience.'" And yet, in the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra warns: "Back then, it would have been inconceivable that a figure such as Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat accused, along with his closest aides, of complicity in crimes ranging from an anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002 to extrajudicial killings, and barred from entering the US, may occupy India's highest political office. Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder's belief that Nazi Germany had manifested 'race pride at its highest' by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or ''Hinduness'. In 1948, a former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as 'child-breeding centres'. Such rhetoric has helped Modi sweep one election after another in Gujarat."
Subscriptions to academic journals can run into the $1,000s. What is more, after a publication and review process that takes years, the articles are frequently barricaded behind firewalls for years more. Robert Darnton, despairing over inaccessibility of academic journals and what that means both for both research and the public good, notes that there is, in fact, some hope in any number of organizations looking to align the interests of authors and readers both: "the desire to reach readers may be one of the most underestimated forces in the world of knowledge. Aside from journal articles, academics produce a large numbers of books, yet they rarely make much money from them. Authors in general derive little income from a book a year or two after its publication. Once its commercial life has ended, it dies a slow death, lying unread, except for rare occasions, on the shelves of libraries, inaccessible to the vast majority of readers. At that stage, authors generally have one dominant desire-for their work to circulate freely through the public; and their interest coincides with the goals of the open-access movement." The new model of open-source academic publishing seeks to subsidize peer review by charging a fee for submission. Good idea.
Hardly any idea is more in vogue these days than 'critical thinking.' There is even a National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking that defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, and evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. Isn't that what we are supposed to be teaching our children and our students? Not according to Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University. In "The Stone" in the New York Times, Roth argues that students-and not only students-are too critical in their approach to texts and ideas. "Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication, especially when coupled with an acknowledgment of one's own 'privilege.'The combination of resistance to influence and deflection of responsibility by confessing to one's advantages is a sure sign of one's ability to negotiate the politics of learning on campus. But this ability will not take you very far beyond the university. Taking things apart, or taking people down, can provide the satisfactions of cynicism. But this is thin gruel." Critical thinking is important. First, however, learning requires submission to the text, the facts, or the thinker. Too often, students and even professors skip the hard work of learning and proceed directly to criticism. As I am constantly telling my students, first try to understand Nietzsche before you decide if he is right or wrong.
In an essay on the racial-bias in the death penalty, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: "When [Ramesh] Ponnuru suggests that the way to correct for the death penalty's disproportionate use is to execute more white people, he is presenting a world in which the death penalty has neither history nor context. One merely flips the 'Hey Guys, Let's Not Be Racist' switch and then the magic happens. Those of us who cite the disproportionate application of the death penalty as a reason for outlawing it do so because we believe that a criminal-justice system is not an abstraction but a real thing, existing in a real context, with a real history. In America, the history of the criminal justice-and the death penalty-is utterly inseparable from white supremacy. During the Civil War, black soldiers were significantly more likely to be court-martialed and executed than their white counterparts. This practice continued into World War II. 'African-Americans comprised 10 percent of the armed forces but accounted for almost 80 percent of the soldiers executed during the war,' writes law professor Elizabeth Lutes Hillman."
Omar Encarnación argues in Foreign Affairs that we should pay attention to Pope Francis not only because of his well-remarked attention to economic inequality. "More surprising than Francis' endorsement of economic populism and even liberalization theology are his views on social issues, homosexuality in particular, which suggest an even deeper Latin American influence on Francis' papacy. On a flight back from Brazil last July, he told reporters: 'If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?' Then, in an interview in September, he called on Catholics to 'get over their obsession with abortion, contraceptives, and homosexuality.' Most recently, in an interview in March, Francis insinuated that he supported same-sex civil unions and that the church would tolerate them -- for economic reasons. 'Matrimony is between a man and a woman,' he said. But moves to 'regulate diverse situations of cohabitation [are] driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care.'"
Dahlia Schweitzer praises the work of photographer Cindy Sherman for daring to reveal what's beneath: "After all, Sherman's photographs are an encyclopedia of body language, identities performed with carefully arranged figures. The body is a collection of limbs used to convey roles, personalities, and situations. Each gesture, each object, is loaded with meaning. Her photographs are never casual snapshots or self-portraits. Rather, they are explorations of arrangement and archetype. She questions stereotype and learned behavior through her compositions and subjects, and through the diorama-like environments she creates for each scenario. She exposes the ruptures under the surface by taking everyday life and shifting it off-kilter, examining society's expectations for appearance and behavior. Her photographs work for the attention they bring to that which does not fit, to the exact point of the tear."
Babette Babich speaks with Roger Berkowitz and Tracy Strong in a long conversation touching upon Hannah Arendt, the Margarethe von Trotta film, managerial governance, totalitarianism, the Eichmann case, Stanley Milgram, evil, democracy, Martin Heidegger, and politics in the 21st century.
This week on the Blog, Jennifer M. Hudson in the Quote of the Week compares Thomas Piketty to Arendt's approach to populism and technocratic rule. And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz argues that claims portending the end of democracy are overstated.