Elie Levine, ’16
“A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow,” Hannah Arendt, a German-born American philosopher and political theorist, once wrote. Her words emphasize the meaninglessness of a life lived in the public eye. Elsewhere in her work, she stresses the unique ability of the private realm to nurture the human soul. But what happens when we lose our privacy? What is happening to the private realm?
The Hannah Arendt Conference at Bard College this year tackled that question. Early in the morning on Thursday, October 15, BHSEC’s Class of 2016 emerged from the privacy of our homes to board buses bound for Bard, whose campus is nestled in the Hudson River Valley, in Annandale-On-Hudson, NY. The conference’s titular theme was “Surveillance and the Private Life: Why Privacy Matters.”
The significance of the issue of privacy in our time cannot be understated. More and more frequently, Americans are bombarded with computer-screen advertisements professing to sell us a product we may have absentmindedly Googled or mentioned in previous emails. Edward Snowden’s controversial exposés of the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) extensive data collection activity in June 2013 continues to inform our usage of online media.
The question of privacy is not only an issue of incredible political moment. In fact, it seems strange that privacy has been politicized at all in recent years, because the issue of privacy evidently deals with what goes on behind locked doors, both physical and mental. In the first speech of the conference, Leon Botstein described the view of privacy espoused by the conference’s namesake, Hannah Arendt. Botstein is the president of Bard College. Arendt believed that the highest possibilities of human experience could only flourish in the private realm. In our society, Botstein said, we don’t think seriously about the arts. Care for privacy would indicate and nurture a more global respect for the importance of thinking independently, originally, without clichés. The private realm is responsible for encouraging the growth of creativity and individuality.
Roger Berkowitz, whose speech followed Botstein’s, is a professor of political studies and human rights at Bard. Berkowitz critically outlined the political implications of Botstein’s artistic interpretations of Arendt. Citing legions of modern technologies that allow us to to accomplish tasks more easily, but less privately, Berkowitz stirred doubts in the minds of many audience members. Berkowitz’s four talking points were four problematic objections to the idea of a private space: “Privacy is Inconvenient,” “Privacy is Dangerous,” “Privacy is for Paedos [Pedophiles]” (here, he expounded upon the common adage that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to lose), and “Privacy is Anti-Democratic.” He explored the additional pains we must take to preserve our privacy, the occasionally classist and racist arguments made for the preservation of privacy, and the largely negative reception Arendt’s justifications of privacy received when she published them.
Speakers and panel members that followed Berkowitz included David Brin, an emphatic, energetic, even arrogant science fiction writer who sprinkled his speech with obscure academic jargon; Rochelle Gurstein, a historian whose lecture was difficult to follow because she “read from the paper the whole time,” a student remarked; Anita L. Allen, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; Jerry Kohn, an Arendt scholar; Hans Teerds, an architect, and Ashkan Soltani, a researcher for the Federal Trade Commission. The speaker guaranteed to turn the most heads was Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower himself, who appeared via satellite stream from Russia on Friday, October 16. As quoted by Roger Berkowitz, Snowden remarked that today’s children “will never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves—an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.” Unfortunately, BHSEC did not see the live streaming of Snowden’s speech at Bard College. Interested students attended a streaming of Snowden’s talk at BHSEC on Friday.
BHSEC Y2 students attended a morning of classes and ate lunch in the college cafeteria. In the afternoon, some students toured the campus, while some attended more conferences. Reham Mahgoub, a Y2, said that the first session of lectures was more concrete than the second. The buses resurfaced in Union Square nearly 12 hours after they had left for the day. Students returned home full of political and academic discourse and a heightened sense of BHSEC’s place in Bard’s larger academic network. “I thought it was really eye-opening,” Mahgoub remarked.