Sunday, June 12, 2016

First Amendment Lies

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From: Hannah Arendt Center

Date: Sun, Jun 12, 2016 9:56 AM

To: bigredjbird@hotmail.com;

Subject:Amor Mundi Newsletter - June 12th, 2016

Corey Robin, while considering the recent jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas, argues that Thomas' attempt to expand free speech rights for advertisers owes a debt to Hannah Arendt. 

"When the First Amendment protects political speech-including, importantly, political speech that is false-it is precisely, Thomas seems to be suggesting, this dimension of speech that lies at the boundaries between fact and fiction that it is protecting. At the heart of this kind of political action, then, is a straddling of that elusive space between what is, what is not, and what might be. Machiavelli understood that; Hobbes understood that (Leviathan's massive power is generated in part, as I've argued, by healthy and alternating doses of illusion and reality); Nietzsche did, too.

In the modern era, however, no theorist explored that dimension of political action-in both its toxic and tamer variants-more than Hannah Arendt. The toxic variant was to be found in all manner of totalitarianism, as well as in the lies of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. The tamer variants, however, were found in that dimension of action that involved elements of novelty and initiation, in an appreciation that politics is not the realm of Platonic Truth, a deep structure of what is, beneath the surface or behind the scenes, but of multiple and dissonant perspectives on stage, which provide an occasion for persuasive speech and artfulness. Though Arendt was not nearly as hostile to factual truth as some would have her be, she did offer, between the lines of some of her essays, an appreciation of the art of the liar, for she saw that art as related, in some ways, to the political arts more generally. The liar is an actor, in the literal sense, and politics, as Arendt reminds us, is a theater of appearances. But the liar is also an actor in the political sense: she seeks to change the world, turning what is into what isn't and what isn't into what is (this is the part that made Arendt so nervous, as it reminded her of the totalitarian ruler). By arraying herself against the world as it is given to us, the liar claims for herself the same freedom that the political actor claims when she brings something new into the world: the freedom to say no to the world as it is, the freedom to make the world into something other than it is. It's no accident that the most famous liar in literature is also an adviser to a man of power, for the adviser or counselor has often been thought of as the quintessential political actor. When Iago says to Roderigo, "I am not what I am," he is affirming that the liar, the dramatic actor, and the political actor all subscribe to elements of the same creed. The advertiser operates in a similar realm between truth and illusion. She, too, seeks to use the arts of illusion to create new realities. Thomas seems to be emphasizing that dimension of the advertiser's art."

Robin is correct that Arendt understands the political role of the liar. Politics for Arendt is about opinion and some opinions are absolutely essential to our liberal democratic world. For example, the idea that "All men are equal" is one of those lies, those fictions, that Arendt argues is a great achievement of modern politics. Of course not all men are equal in any factual sense. But the political conviction that we are politically equal underlies the possibility of politics. Such is the kind of political lying that Arendt recognizes as important.

As central as Lying may be to politics, certain lies corrode politics. The lies we should worry about, Arendt writes, are those active lies whereby facts are denied and alternative realities are created. When deception, spin, and propaganda become the driving forces of politics, facts retreat behind the need for consistent talking points and coherent narratives. The essence of totalitarian rule is the elimination of those facts and persons whose reality counters the coherent fiction underlying the state. And even in non-totalitarian states, the reduction of facts to simply another opinion corrodes the common sense and shared world that underlies a civil and engaged political sphere. The possibility of politics depends upon the continued availability of commonly accepted facts and pre-political truths that bind a polity together.

In a time of seemingly infinite information, we are experiencing unprecedented doubt about facts. All kinds of "authoritative" claims made by leading public figures turn out to be little more than thin air. Facts, as Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.

While Arendt understood that lying could be useful and even was the essence of some politics, she also knew that the loss of factual truth in the political realm is an existential threat to politics and also to human life in general. Arendt rejects the classical maxim fiat justitia, et pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish); instead she endorses the reformulation: Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus. Let Truth be done, though the world may perish. Her point is simple: We cannot give up on truth-even if it means the end of the world! This is because the loss of truth leads to the loss of the world. Without truth, without the ability to say what is, there is no permanence, no common world. The danger is that when truth disappears, the world wobbles. We lose our bearings. We lose what holds us together-the common sense and common assumptions-that are the furniture and stability of our human world.

Arendt's worry is that when truth is impossible, when truth disappears, when the world wobbles, the result is cynicism. As she writes: "It has frequently been noticed that the surest long-term result of brainwashing is a peculiar kind of cynicism-an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established." In other words, the danger from a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will win out-that is highly unlikely. Rather, the danger posed by the demise of factual truth is the victory of cynicism, the belief that it is simply not possible to "say what is." What cynicism means is that the sense of factual truth from which we take our bearings in the real world is wasting away. -RB

In January, 2015, Brock Turner raped a 23 year-old woman after a party at Stanford University. He was recently found guilty of three felonies, including "sexual penetration of an unconscious person." The judge in the case sentenced Turner to 6 months in prison. In the wake of that decision, the victim's statement addressing Turner at the trial was published by BuzzFeed and has gone viral. She writes:

"[Turner] has done irreversible damage to me and my family during the trial and we have sat silently, listening to him shape the evening. But in the end, his unsupported statements and his attorney's twisted logic fooled no one. The truth won, the truth spoke for itself. You are guilty. Twelve jurors convicted you guilty of three felony counts beyond reasonable doubt, that's twelve votes per count, thirty six yeses confirming guilt, that's one hundred percent, unanimous guilt. And I thought finally it is over, finally he will own up to what he did, truly apologize, we will both move on and get better. Then I read your statement. If you are hoping that one of my organs will implode from anger and I will die, I'm almost there. You are very close. This is not a story of another drunk college hookup with poor decision making. Assault is not an accident. Somehow, you still don't get it. Somehow, you still sound confused. I will now read portions of the defendant's statement and respond to them. You said, Being drunk I just couldn't make the best decisions and neither could she. Alcohol is not an excuse. Is it a factor? Yes. But alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked. Having too much to drink was an amateur mistake that I admit to, but it is not criminal. Everyone in this room has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much, or knows someone close to them who has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much. Regretting drinking is not the same as regretting sexual assault. We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away. That's the difference."

Our understanding of rape has undergone a much-needed revolution. For centuries, rape was a crime of violence, forced sex. If there was no violence, or if the victim did not resist and put up a "hue and cry," then there was no rape. Over the last 50 years, rape has been untangled from violence. It is now a crime based in lack of consent. The question is not whether violence is used to overcome lack of consent, but whether the victim consented. Rape is simply non-consensual sex (violent or not). Which has led to debates about what consent means. In many states, including both New York and California, to take two large and representative states, consent must be affirmative and ongoing. It cannot be implied and it can be revoked at any moment. The crime of rape is understood as having sex without explicit, affirmative, and ongoing consent.

The revolution in our understanding of rape is one of the great victories of feminism. The revolution is based in a core insight of modern feminism, that not only the male sexual imaginary but also the female sexual imaginary is and has been produced by centuries of male domination and the male imaginary of sex. The romance of sex, the titillation of the demure, the supposedly masculine desire to overcome resistance, and the need for passionate and silent submission-Not to mention the availability of bodies for spousal bodies for sex on demand-have been denaturalized and re-imagined as products of a male-centered society. Sex is increasingly seen as a moral as opposed to a lustful or physical act, one based in mutuality and consent rather than passion and abandon.

This re-imagination of sex is of course controversial, even amongst feminists. Many women oppose the moralization of sex. Some find empowerment in butch sexuality. Others find satisfaction in seeing sexuality as a relationship of power, either through submission or domination. And some women are worried about the feminization of sex, either because they enjoy masculine sexuality or because they worry about what the feminist revolution in sexuality is doing to some men. None of this, of course, challenges the fact that Brock Turner raped his victim behind a dumpster. It is a testament to the power of the revolution in our understanding of rape that a jury found Mr. Turner guilty of three counts of rape. -RB

Wyatt Mason in the New York Times offers a feature on the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. Mason engages Jones in conversation and thematizes the courage and confrontation involved in a real conversation.

"Conversation, for Jones, is itself an artistic event. Confrontation is at its heart, and his tactics are varied and surprising." The way Jones and Mason talk about conversation reminds one of Hannah Arendt's faith in political conversation. For Arendt, politics is never about truth. Politics is allergic to truth and trades in opinions. The effort in politics is to persuade others of your opinions or, if that proves impossible, to carve out a common space for the agreement of multiple opinions. In a similar vein, Jones's newest project is called analogy, a Greek work [ana-logos] meaning to speak back or to speak again. An analogy is a kind of conversation between similar concepts. As Mason writes: "Surrounded by family, Jones's current artistic dialogue with himself and his audience mines that territory. "Analogy" comes from the Greek analogos, meaning "proportional," with respect to a thing or person's share, allotment, lot. The importance of Dora's story, Jones has said, is that she lived through a time of unspeakable barbarity, which took the lives of her younger sister and numerous other family members, and yet she emerged free of cynicism and bitterness. "I'm bitter as hell yet about slavery," Jones said in a talk at Bard last year. "I'm really angry. I've accepted that I'm always going to be angry. And here you have this woman, whose mother's side of her family were deported to Auschwitz," he said, speaking now as if his mother-in-law were there with us. "How dare you, Dora, come out of that war and say people are basically good?"" The conversation between Jones and his mother-in-law is one aspect of Jones' ongoing conversation with himself, his friends, and his audience. It is a conversational jousting Jones excels at. As Mason continues:  "I  saw Jones's jousting mode last spring, before an audience at Bard College where I teach. His company had just performed an early version of the first part of "Analogy," called "Dora: Tramontane," which draws on his mother-in-law's personal history, that of a Jewish girl in a Jewish family that, like so many families of the era and the region, was, during the war, vandalized by fate. After the performance, during a Q. and A. with Jones and his company, the moderator asked a question about what it takes for someone like Dora to stand up and resist, and whether a piece like this can inspire people to act. Jones took the question seriously. "I am making this work to satisfy my artistic desires," he said, "but behind it I'm also trying to make a work that might be like in the black church, when somebody stands up and says: 'Yes! I have a problem!' They say it to the community. 'I am weak! I wanna be strong!' And somebody in the community says. 'Amen! I hear you! I hear you!' And that's why the black church has been a political organ. Literally, it starts there. Now, what's your church? And those of you who are breeding and having children, what is the creed that you will demonstrate every day?" Jones's question to the audience wasn't entirely rhetorical. He had given, and now he wanted the students to give back. "What about you?" he later asked one of them. "What are you pushing against? Is this your world? Do you feel this world wants you?""

Sharon LaFraniere, Daniela Porat, and Agustin Armendariz in the New York Times offer a multi-part essay on gun violence in America. They report that on 358 days last year four or more people were killed or wounded in a gun attack. The result of these 358 attacks was 462 lives lost and 1,330 people injured, many of them bystanders. Their stories attempt to give names, faces, and sense to the loss to these gun-related deaths.

"The Elks Lodge episode was one of at least 358 armed encounters nationwide last year - nearly one a day, on average - in which four or more people were killed or wounded, including attackers. The toll: 462 dead and 1,330 injured, sometimes for life, typically in bursts of gunfire lasting but seconds. In some cities, law enforcement officials say a growing share of shootings involve more than one victim, possibly driven by increased violence between street gangs. But data are scarce. Seeking deeper insight into the phenomenon, The New York Times identified and analyzed these 358 shootings with four or more casualties, drawing on two databases assembled from news reports and citizen contributors, and then verifying details with law enforcement agencies. Only a small handful were high-profile mass shootings like those in South Carolina and Oregon. The rest are a pencil sketch of everyday America at its most violent."

"I'm acquainted with Hungarian-style self-pity; it's on display in an image that is ubiquitous here. I walk down the corridors of a municipal building and see the image plastered on the wall. A car passes, and it's emblazoned on the bumper. I'm riding the tram, and the man next to me has it appliqued on his backpack. There it is again on cocktail napkins, truck flaps, ashtrays, salt-and-pepper shakers, tattooed biceps. The image is a map, a diagram of aggrievement, delineating the "amputation" of Greater Hungary. After World War I, the 1920 Treaty of Trianon granted the country its long-sought independence while simultaneously stripping it of two-thirds of its landmass and three-fifths of its population. The map presents the country as a butchered torso, surrounded by its four severed appendages, which were redistributed to adjacent postwar states. The treaty was nearly a century ago, but Trianon's "mutilation" is the subject of endless and lugubrious lamentation in contemporary Hungary, invoked compulsively, ritualistically, in political oratory, newspaper editorials, TV talk shows, and sporting events. At some point in every nationalist rally and demonstration, the favorite cry against Trianon will go up: "Nem, nem, soha!" ("No, no, never!"), the Magyar equivalent of "The South Will Rise Again." Hungary's modern troubles-a reeling economy, a faltering currency, a relatively bleak future compared with its formerly Communist neighbors-have revived this ancient sense of having always been done wrong. The United States has never been sliced and diced like Greater Hungary. Nonetheless, after a half century of misbegotten wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, economic downturns and deindustrialization, and blue-collar and middle-class decline, the virus of self-pity is running in the country's veins. It infects the Trump rallies whose crowds bemoan a nation no longer "great," the Tea Party assemblies where family members of "the fallen" from our most recent failed conflicts are paraded for applause, and all those municipal flagpoles from which POW/MIA banners have been flying since Vietnam. Feeling sorry for ourselves has become a chronic condition, proudly showcased. Our national mope-fest might seem like the end result of a new civic humility. Instead, it is the means to an end-an end that is decidedly unhumble. Victimhood becomes the enabler of brutality."

Ocean Voung, in the New Yorker, remembers what happened when he, an immigrant from Vietnam who had trouble writing in English, tried his hand at poetry for the first time:

"My family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1990, when I was two. We lived, all seven of us, in a one-bedroom apartment in Hartford, Connecticut, and I spent my first five years in America surrounded, inundated, by the Vietnamese language. When I entered kindergarten, I was, in a sense, immigrating all over again, except this time into English. Like any American child, I quickly learned my ABCs, thanks to the age-old melody (one I still sing rapidly to myself when I forget whether "M" comes before "N"). Within a few years, I had become fluent-but only in speech, not in the written word.
One early-spring afternoon, when I was in fourth grade, we got an assignment in language-arts class: we had two weeks to write a poem in honor of National Poetry Month. Normally, my poor writing abilities would excuse me from such assignments, and I would instead spend the class mindlessly copying out passages from books I'd retrieved from a blue plastic bin at the back of the room. The task allowed me to camouflage myself; as long as I looked as though I were doing something smart, my shame and failure were hidden. The trouble began when I decided to be dangerously ambitious. Which is to say, I decided to write a poem. "Where is it?" the teacher asked. He held my poem up to the fluorescent classroom lights and squinted, the way one might examine counterfeit money. I could tell, by the slowly brightening room, that it had started to snow. I pointed to my work dangling from his fingers. "No, where is the poem you plagiarized? How did you even write something like this?" Then he tipped my desk toward me. The desk had a cubby attached to its underside, and I watched as the contents spilled from the cubby's mouth: rectangular pink erasers, crayons, yellow pencils, wrinkled work sheets where dotted letters were filled in, a lime Dum Dum lollipop. But no poem."

"We live in a country where minorities frequently face worse outcomes than their white counterparts and where racial fault lines cut deeply through our public life. Right now, schools and school systems across the country are confronting a question that our society at large will need to answer in the coming years: Do Americans have the will and understanding to build a more inclusive, and less deeply segregated, nation? In many parts of America-urban, rural, and suburban-that will require a radical upending of the status quo.  As public school students diversify, qualities such as empathy, self-awareness, open-mindedness, and understanding are more important than ever in our teachers-just as they will be for all of us in an increasingly diverse society. Teachers will need to have the capacity to serve not just as instructors but also as cultural brokers and social leaders, aware of their own biases, empathetic when confronting difference, comfortable with change. In 15 years covering public schools, I've met scores of dedicated, inspiring teachers. But I've also seen educators fail to connect a child's moodiness or fatigue to her homelessness and hunger. I've seen teachers devalue their students' culture and language-arguing, for instance, with a child over whether the common New Orleans expression beaucoup (slang for "a lot") is an actual word. I've seen them underestimate and undervalue the power of family in poor communities, assuming that low-income children come from broken homes or have unreliable parents. Our teachers, most of them hardworking and committed, can't be everything to every kid. But we all pay a price for a lack of tolerance or understanding in the classroom. It ripples into society, chasing children as they enter young adulthood. If a child acts out because he is hungry, for instance, and receives punishment but no support, he can grow alienated from schools and learning, reducing the likelihood that he will thrive in work or in life."

Wed. June 1 - Wed. June 22

The Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science and The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College Presents: A Global Dialogue in Courage with Drs. Joe Loizzo and Roger Berkowitz.

What do political philosopher Hannah Arendt, spiritual leader H.H. the Dalai Lama, existential theologian Paul Tillich, and non-violent activist Mahatma Gandhi have in common? For all four, moral courage is at the center of their ethical and political visions, and is vital for the future of humanity and of our planet. Embodying the traditions of Western philosophy, Buddhism, Christianity, and Indian non-violence, these world leaders stand together as torch-bearers of human wisdom and courage. In this four session dialogue, we bring these brilliant minds together to ask how courageous action can rekindle the innate clarity we need to make our lives more meaningful and impactful.

Four Wednesdays: 7-9 PM
June 1, 8, 15, 22, 2016

For more information, click here.

Each class is $25, or attend the entire course for $100.


Registration is now open for our ninth annual fall conference, "Real Talk: Difficult Questions about Race, Sex and Religion," occurring on OCTOBER 20-21, 2016Sign up now!

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.


Until next time,
The Hannah Arendt Center
Become a member of the Hannah Arendt Center here.

Hannah Arendt Center, P.O. Box 5000, Annandale, NY 12504
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