Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
30Mar/126

The Supreme Court as Truthteller

I spent an exciting day at the College of Arts and Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology. Along with Matthias Bormuth, Morris Kaplan, and our host Michael Steinman, we enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion centering around Hannah Arendt's essay Truth and Politics, but reaching deep into Arendt's thinking about law and politics as well.

Much of the discussion at our seminar discussed the status of the Supreme Court as a truthteller. Arendt saw the great innovation of the American form of government to be the shift of the seat of authority to the Supreme Court. By authority, Arendt means that pre-political claim of obedience that flows from tradition, religion, or possibly from charisma. In Rome authority was located in the Senate, and the Senators

"held their authority because they represented, or rather reincarnated, the ancestors whose only claim to authority in the body politic was precisely that they had founded it, that they were the 'founding fathers'. Through the Roman Senators, the founders of the city of Rome were present..."

In America, authority was vested in the Supreme Court. The Justices, like the Roman Senators, hold their authority because they had no power themselves, since they "'possessed neither Force nor Will but merely judgment.'" The Justices' authority comes not from power, but from their being linked back to the founders as interpreters of the founding moment, thus as a continuation of the constitutional convention in permanent session.

How the Supreme Court and its justices tie themselves back to the founding moment as reincarnations of the founding fathers partakes, of course, of the mysterious. The initial success of the American Constitution resulted from the founders causing the US Constitution to be worshipped. This worship depended upon and allowed an ambiguity to persist in the sense and understanding of the Constitution, on its becoming both ‘an endurable objective thing’, on the one hand, and yet one that could be approached from many angles and many interpretations. It must be amendable and changeable, and yet impervious to any subjective states of mind or influences of will.

The miracle of the Constitution’s foundational authority – it being worshipped as both a text and a continual reincarnation of the founding revolutionary act – is made possible only by a prior miracle – the miracle of beginning. As Arendt argues throughout her work, all men ‘are equipped for the logically paradoxical task of making a new beginning’.  As beginners, we men are uniquely capable of understanding the mysterious way in which a beginning can also rest on ancient and unyielding foundations. Since men are themselves, as part of the human condition, beginners who can and do appear in the world to start things anew – since men are thrown into the world that we must respond to – thus are we uniquely open to the idea of finding in the first and foundational act not only an arbitrary deviation but also an authoritative principle.

For men, therefore, the act of beginning anew is not an arbitrary deviation from the foundation. The foundation is in the past, and yet it remains a forceful part of everyday practice.  The beginning, Arendt argues, ‘carries its own principle within itself, or, to be more precise, that beginning and principle, principium and principle, are not only related to each other, but are coeval’.  As beginners, men are open to the claim of the beginning and foundation as an origin that carries with itself a principle and thus simultaneously allows for augmentation and conservation. 

Arendt's locating of authority in the Supreme Court is part and parcel of her respect for the American Constitution and for federalism. The seat of American freedom is, in Arendt's understanding, the diffusion of powers and the refusal of absolute sovereignty in the American system of government.

It is, I think, worth recalling that the present arguments about the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court concern precisely this question of federalism. If the Court holds the Act unconstitutional, it will be because we live in a constitutional republic defined by the separation of powers including the division of power between a centralized national government and de-centralized state governments. According to this theory, liberty is best protected by diffusing power. The federal government has the right to regulate commerce. But to hold that people who do not purchase health care are engaged in interstate commerce is to say that the government can regulate anything we do, even non-commercial activities, simply by insisting that we buy something and then calling it commerce. By this theory, the act removes any and all limits on federal power and violates the constitutional idea of the diffusion and separation of powers.

I have no idea what Arendt would have thought of the Affordable Care Act. Clearly the Act is both flawed and ambitious, and it carries both much that is good and some that is less so.

But it does seem undeniable that the Affordable Care Act is a significant expansion of governmental power, both the power of the federal government over the states as well as the power of government over individuals. It confirmation would be another step in the long chain of 20th century cases eroding the separation of powers that Arendt held so important a bulwark for human freedom.

As the debate around the Affordable Care Act rages on, and as the judges retire to their chambers to commune with our ancestors, it is well worth your time to revisit Chapter Four of Hannah Arendt's defense of  On Revolution. It is your weekend read. Click here to download.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
30Mar/121

Contending with Youth Crime

There has been much attention paid to the arguments before the Supreme Court concerning the 2010 health care law. And such attention is entirely justified, for the upcoming decision will have a decisive impact on the availability and quality of medical care for millions of Americans. But we should not forget another question that has recently come before the Court: whether it is constitutional for states to sentence juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole.

This case raises important questions not only about the purpose of criminal prosecution and incarceration, but also about our conceptions of personhood and the legal, moral, and other boundaries we construct between youth and adulthood. These issues have been on my mind a great deal these days: as part of my work with the Bard Prison Initiative, I am currently teaching a writing-oriented anthropology course entitled “Youth and Youth Politics” to two groups of incarcerated students. But they came even more pointedly to the fore as I was listening to the March 24th edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” This broadcast reported on a recent gathering that brought families of victims together with families of offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. Significantly, all those in attendance hope that the Supreme Court would declare such sentences unconstitutional.

If you have not already heard the report, I would recommend that you take a listen (and not merely read the text available on the NPR website). Aside from the power of the emotions expressed, I appreciate the way it neatly outlines and complicates the terms of debate. On the one hand, it presents the viewpoint of Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association, who sketches the potential reasons for long criminal sentences in starkly dichotomous terms. “Is it the goal [of prosecution and incarceration] to rehabilitate someone to see if they change? Or is the goal to do justice for the victims and others?” He inclines to the latter position, as is evident in the brief he filed that urged the Court not to overturn life sentences without parole.

On the other hand, the NPR report also includes the perspective of people like Mary Johnson, a mother whose son was shot and killed at a party by a sixteen-year-old boy. In the immediate aftermath, she regarded her son’s killer as an “animal”: “I wanted him charged with first-degree murder, imprisoned for the rest of his life.” But she now contends that retribution and rehabilitation cannot be easily separated from one another, and she suggests that offenders should not be defined for the entirety of their lives by the crimes they committed as young people.

This report does not offer nuanced arguments for one position or another on the constitutionality of life sentences without parole. But by providing a vivid account of how some people have sought to work through, and live with, the conundrums of “juvenile crime,” it offers a useful starting point for reflecting on our own moral intuitions.

You can listen to the excerpt here.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
29Mar/120

Michael Weinman on the Power of Composed Speech

Michael Weinman - "Pedagogy or demagogy: The dangerous dunamis of the rhetor's art."

Lecture presented by the Arendt Center on the evening of March 27, 2012

Michael Weinman from ECLA of Bard in Berlin spoke Tuesday night and began with a simple claim: "My subject is the power of composed speech." In order to work out the relationship between power and composition (or in other words between ordered discourse and binding force) he opened a trajectory from Aristotle's Rhetoric to Arendt's "Truth in Politics" to contemporary political rhetoric.

Weinman's reading of the Rhetoric focused on the books one and two. In the first book he placed particular emphasis on the role of enthymemes, which he provisionally defined as a kind of syllogism. Within the second book, he highlighted the example of anger as one pathe, one of the "sources of change on account of which people differ in accordance to their judgments." By appealing to common emotion, the speaker can establish a common ground for his argument. In his next step, Weinman developed a parallel between Aristotle and Arendt's idea of storytelling as a means of political narrative that maintains the "factual texture" of the world while still allowing for a limited type of lying that as a "little miracle" demonstrates our freedom in relation to automatic processes.

The third and final step of the talk affirmed a rhetorically committed political practice against purely rational discourse. In Weinman's view, following Aristotle and Arendt, rhetoric must be employed in order to ensure that discursive space "touches the world" (Weinman). In closing he replied to a news article referring to the anger of Americans in the current political situation. While the author suggested that this might not be such a bad thing, Weinman went a step further, saying that anger should be affirmed - not encouraged but recognized as a potential affective basis for discourse that might cut across ideological divides.

The audience posed questions related to Weinman's implicit conception of pedagogy, the specific spheres of relevance of different types of rhetoric for Aristotle, and the relationship between rhetoric and truth.

Recalling the Arendt Center’s conference last fall on the challenge of telling the truth in an age without facts, Weinman’s specification of the "miracle" of the small lie adds depth to the Arendt’s idea of storytelling that creates significance without abandoning greater factual context. In opening this perspective, however, it also raises the question of the precise relation between these necessary small lies and a dangerous greater disavowal of the world as it is.

Michael Weinman is presently a visiting academic at ECLA Bard. He has previously taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, and in the Department of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, Israel.

Weinman has published several books including the recently published,  Language, Time and Identity in Woolf’s The Waves: The Subject in Empire’s Shadow  and  Pleasure in Aristotle’s Ethics.

Watch the lecture here.

-Jeff Champlin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
29Mar/121

The Art of Reading

"St Catherine of Alexandria Reading a Book" by Onorio Marinari (1627-1715).

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
28Mar/121

Pensions: The Unraveling Fiction

How big is the pension crisis in the United States? As I wrote last week, The Pew Charitable Trust has issued a report that there is a whopping $1 trillion dollar gap between the pensions promised to state public employees and the money that has been set aside to pay those pensions. But I also said that many people think that gap is actually much bigger.

The states' calculations assume a rosy 8% or even 10% return on their investments. The Pew report shows that even with those unrealistic assumptions, there will be a $1 trillion gap, since the states are underfunding their pension funds even based on optimistic returns.

Recently, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times talked to a few academics about the question and learned why the gap is actually $3-5 trillion dollars, and not simply $1 trillion. The basic problem is that low interest rates (now around 2%) mean that the investment on pension funds is not returning close to the hoped for amount. As Tett reports:

Thus academics, such as Joshua Rauh of Northwestern University, think that if a more realistic rate of return were used, this would reveal that state pension funds are now underfunded to the tune of $3tn-$4tn. Other observers are even gloomier. “This $4tn figure is a lower bound,” argues Robert Merton, economics professor at MIT. “Liabilities as reported by state and local governments seem to creep steadily up with each report due to ‘actuarial losses’ or overly generous assumptions about mortality and worker behaviour. In recent years, these have added growth of about 4-5 per cent per year to total liabilities.” And, of course, the longer that US interest rates – and bond yields – remain ultra low, the worse this underfunding gap becomes.

Tett's essay makes for a sobering read. As she rightly points out, this problem cannot be ducked forever. Remember, the 2009 bailout that President Obama pushed through was $900 billion, slightly under $1 trillion. We are talking about a shortfall in state budgets of $3-5 trillion in coming years. This is enormous and the effect on state governments and public services will be disastrous. But the very worst effect will be on all of those public employees who have been counting on contractually guaranteed pensions who will, I fear, learn what workers in Rhode Island and Alabama recently learned: such contractual guarantees don't mean much.

What does it mean to have a fact-based politics? This is a question that Hannah Arendt struggled with. First in her writings on totalitarianism, she saw that at the core of totalitarian regimes was the need to keep alive a coherent fantasy that motivated the mass movements supporting the regimes. When inconvenient facts appeared, they simply had to be eradicated.

Later, writing during the Vietnam war and in response to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argued that lies came to serve not totalitarian movements, but well-meaning idealists and technocrats who convinced not only others but even themselves that their lies were in the service of a winnable and noble cause.

Today we face the unraveling of a huge fiction. While the United States is still a wealthy country, we are not as wealthy as we have pretended to be over the last 15 years. But instead of addressing this self-deception, we are continuing to demand higher pensions and better medical care without actually asking who is going to pay for such services. It is a nice slogan to say that pensions and healthcare are human rights. But the current way we are achieving such human rights is by lying to ourselves, and, most pointedly, to the public employees who will see their promised pensions and healthcare evaporate during their retirement.

It would be nice if one of the Presidential candidates in either party would actually discuss the crisis in state pensions. But that would require courage and leadership, not to mention a willingness to have an honest conversation about the fact that this country continues to live beyond its means and promise benefits it cannot afford.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
27Mar/120

The Nation’s War, the War’s Nation

U.S. involvement in twentieth-century warfare has mobilized conceptions of American nationhood in ways that have blurred, affirmed, and redrawn the boundaries of collective belonging in complex ways. That was the central message of Richard Slotkin’s lecture, “The War Bargain: Military Conflict and the Democratization of American Citizenship,” held at Bard College on Thursday, March 22nd. Slotkin, an emeritus professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, has written extensively on the role of the frontier in American national mythology. During this talk, however, he was primarily concerned with the “platoon movie,” a genre of 1940s Hollywood film that relied on the small military unit to envision a pluralist, multiracial America.

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most political figures and public commentators defined America as a white if not pointedly Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation that secured its standing as a civilized polity, in no small part, through its frontier conquests of “savage” Indian and Latino populations. As Slotkin noted, a similarly racialist conception of American nationhood also prevailed in the years leading up to World War I. Although at the time more than one third of U.S. residents had been born abroad, the federal government continued to define the American nation as a community of common blood and bodily constitution in a manner that excluded most immigrant and minority groups.

This conception of nationhood began to shift with American participation in World War I. Slotkin argued that the need to raise “an army of millions” compelled the federal government to incorporate recent immigrant and non-white minority populations into the country’s military forces. In order to achieve such incorporation, key federal agencies constructed a new social bargain that promised to reward loyal military service with new forms of national inclusion. In the process, they redefined the American nation along liberal egalitarian and hyphenated lines. Immigrant and minority soldiers could thereby proclaim themselves American while continuing to affiliate with their ancestral groups and countries of origin.

This bargain proved tremendously successful: Blacks, Jews, Italians, and Irish enlisted in disproportionate numbers, even when they were not naturalized U.S. citizens. But Slotkin contended that it was also marked by telling contradictions and concerted opposition. On the one hand, the new conception of American pluralism went hand in hand with a racially tinged demonization of the German enemy. Indeed, wartime propaganda did not so much repudiate as recycle prevailing American stereotypes by attributing animalistic Black sexuality, Asian deviousness, and cunning Jewish self-interest to the German people. On the other hand, the new dispensation contributed to a significant racist backlash: the years following the war witnessed a spate of race rioting and lynching, often with Black veterans among the targets, while increased efforts to exclude Jews and Eastern Europeans culminated in the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act.

These efforts to re-conceive the nation and its military forces resurfaced in the platoon movies of the 1940s, when the federal government once again sought to rally the nation’s varied constituencies to the war effort. Hollywood producers, in cooperation with federal agencies like the Office of War Information, created films like Bataan (1943) and Sahara (1943), which portrayed America’s military units as cohesive social worlds in which racial integration appeared self-evident. As Slotkin rightly observed, these films’ inclusion of Asian and Black soldiers was particularly radical given that actually existing military units were still segregated along racial lines, as were many of the theaters in which audiences viewed the movies.

Nevertheless, Slotkin argued, these films continued to deploy figures of racial animosity in at least two ways. First, a predilection for ethnic and racial hatred was projected onto the Nazi or Japanese enemy in a manner that justified the American war effort and the films’ imagining of national pluralism. And second, white soldiers in these films did impugn the Japanese (in particular) in overtly racist ways, but such diatribes were commonly accompanied by imagery of American transracial cooperation or of Asian soldiers who turned a blind eye to anti-Japanese racism. In the end, then, these films retained a racialist idiom, but they also cast it as more palatable and legitimate than the one adopted by America’s foes.

-Jeff Jurgens

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
27Mar/120

Fran Lebowitz on Thinking

"Think before you speak. Read before you think.

-Fran Lebowitz

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
26Mar/122

Pensions and Pariahs

My post on the Public Pension Crisis has found an intriguing embrace. It has been taken up with gusto by a series of good government groups who are sounding the alarms about the pension crisis.  I am heartened they responded so favorably to the essay.  Indeed, I have to admit I am pleasantly surprised that so many well meaning people are trying to sound the alarm about the danger unfunded pensions pose. Many of the commentators added important comments of their own, and are worth reading: State Budget Solutions, Republic of Costa Mesa, and Statehouse News Online.

One unified theme of the responses is that they sought to enlist the Arendt Center as a non-partisan or left-wing authority. Repeatedly, these groups emphasized that the fact that the Hannah Arendt Center was writing about the issue of pensions was evidence that the pension crisis is not simply an issue for right-wing fanatics. A headline in one newspaper blared: "Another lefty organization calls for pension reform."

I understand this felt need. While pensions are not a partisan issue, or need not be, they have somehow become one. This is largely a result of recent history in Wisconsin and elsewhere. But the fact is that both parties have fed at the trough of public union largesse and both parties are now struggling, with grave difficulty, to turn off the spigot. It seems that politicians are so accustomed to financial and organizational support of public employees that reform is deeply unpalatable. This is true even though many democrats, as I argued in my post, understand that pensions are threatening to devour the funds necessary for basic governmental services. It does seem that to simply point out facts today is to risk being branded a right-wing nut.

It is important to point out that the Arendt Center is neither a left nor a right organization. Nor is it non-partisan or bi-partisan. As Frank Keegan, the most astute of the bloggers who picked up our post rightly puts it (citing our own mission statement, thank you!), the Center aims simply to think about political and ethical issues in the spirit of Arendt.  Keegan writes:

Let them try to put that [right-wing extremist] brand on the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College, which describes itself as "an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt. ....an intellectual incubator for engaged humanities thinking ... that elevates and deepens the public argument that is the bedrock of our democracy."

Keegan correctly and respectfully read through our website and noted that the Center aims to promote thinking about politics in the spirit of Arendt, by which we mean neither left, nor right, nor bi-partisan. Thinking, is always of necessity opposed to all ideological positions and is even pallid to the idea of bi-partisanship.  Keegan thus also quotes our description of Hannah Arendt herself:

"No other scholar so enrages and engages citizens and students from all political persuasions, all the while insisting on human dignity, providing a clear voice against totalitarianism, and defending freedom with extraordinary intelligence and courage."

Others were less careful. The editors who drafted the headline for Will Swain's column were careless: "Another lefty organization calls for pension reform."  Swain himself, who I now know to have been writing very smartly about the crisis, is more circumspect. On the one hand, he writes: "Arendt was a lefty." But Swain continues to add, "there was nothing dogmatic in her politics." The second part is true, but the characterization of her as a lefty is suspect, even if it is a widespread conviction.

Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, once made the mistake of characterizing Arendt as a left intellectual. Arendt responded forcefully:

"I am not one of the "intellectuals who come from the German Left." You could not have known this, since we did not know each other when we were young. It is a fact of which I am in no way particularly proud and which I am somewhat reluctant to emphasize—especially since the McCarthy era in this country. I came late to an understanding of Marx's importance because I was interested neither in history nor in politics when I was young. If I can be said to "have come from anywhere," it is from the tradition of German philosophy."

Arendt had many allegiances on the left; but equally so on the right. Just this month Irving Louis Horowitz, the great sociologist who died last weekend, published a new volume of essays on Arendt titled: Hannah Arendt: Radical Conservative.  But Arendt was neither a radical conservative nor a traditional liberal. As she describes herself, rightly, she was a thinker.

Thinking is dangerous to all "isms," party programs, and ideologies. The Arendt Center seeks not to offer solutions or prescriptions, but to think about politics. That is why the main point of my essay was less about economics and more about the way that the pension crisis is challenging the independence and vibrancy of government itself. The hope is to make clear how the problem with pensions is rooted deeply in habits and conventions of our government and our thought, as well as to show it to be dangerous to both politics and freedom.

Another way to understand Arendt is as a conscious pariah, a term she lovingly steals from Bernard Lazarre. Throughout her life, Arendt was obsessed with those people whose outsider status made them pariahs. She held, however, that being a pariah could be advantageous if one consciously embraced that outsider role and became a conscious pariah, a rebel in the name of truth. Similarly, all those who want to tell the truth must, Arendt sees, adopt the role of a conscious pariah and abandon all claims to social and political success. The conscious pariah/rebel/truthteller must live in isolation and seek the truth outside of the public sphere.

Nothing perhaps distinguishes Hannah Arendt from her peers more than her insistence on standing aloof as a conscious pariah. It is from that apartness that flows the radical independence of her thought. Neither left nor right, neither capitalist nor socialist, and neither liberal nor conservative, Arendt looked at every issue from radically fresh viewpoints. That independence is in large measure the secret of her continuing appeal.

Whether the Arendt Center can claim that same independence and authority is, of course, a huge question. We do not presume to speak in Arendt's voice or as her equal. However, the pension crisis is ripe for Arendtian thinking. It is at root about the corruption of politics as well the idea of the public realm. There is simply a presumption by too many today that working for a public institution means that one is by definition working in the public interest. This is a mistake, and rethinking the nature of public employment is one of our most pressing tasks.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
26Mar/121

Some Reflections on Anoka-Hennepin

“And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?”

—Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock”

Within the last two years, nine teenage students in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin public school district have committed suicide (and many more have attempted to). The driving force behind this “epidemic” is the persecution, by other children at the district’s middle and high schools, of students perceived to be gay.

The persecution is encouraged by prominent local individuals and organizations, and until recently was allowed to continue by virtue of a school district policy of nonintervention.

That much was reported, in much greater and highly affecting detail, in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s February 2 article in Rolling Stone, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens.” The most recent developments were taken up by The New York Times: the federal government has finally intervened in the name of civil rights, forcing the Anoka-Hennepin district to adopt new anti-harassment policies and to agree to five years of monitoring by the departments of Justice and Education.

Setting aside the particular minority group concerned, the immediate question in Anoka in 2012 is the same as in Little Rock in 1957: can a socially unwanted minority be excluded, by a combination of official policy and casual intimidation, from public education? Hannah Arendt’s difficult answer to the Little Rock question (difficult because prejudice had nothing to do with it, and she thus had no common cause with those who answered in the same way) was: yes, because the school is a social space subject to the laws of free association, not a political space subject to the laws of equality. What Arendt insists on is that the government must not “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults … have confessed being unable to solve themselves.” Hence her outrage that the push for desegregation had begun in the schools, rather than where she urgently wanted to see racial equality realized, namely in marriage law. (Would her insistence on the fundamental political right “to marry whom I please” extend to gay marriage? An interesting but tangential question.)

I do not think Arendt would be similarly able to dismiss the situation in Anoka as not politically relevant, because the social conflict playing itself out there is inseparable from a set of political conditions to which Arendt’s own thoughts on government call our urgent attention. In scenes reminiscent of her Origins of Totalitarianism, the public sphere has been so utterly vacated of authority that the social has become the political to dizzying effect, and even the official agents of the government appear as just another social interest group struggling to exercise power on the ground. Local officials act in accordance with whatever group happens to have the upper hand at the moment; the prevailing law is not written down; and in the midst of this, a new tactic of political violence emerges with startling effectiveness.

Children make the ideal agents of this violence, not because they do not realize the violence they are doing—on the contrary—but because, being children, they instinctively know how to carry out this violence against other children, which adults never could, and because they lack the moral impulse to stop it, in other words, the ability to think for themselves. In harrying those of their peers who have been designated as “gay,” they are precisely not thinking for themselves.

They are being cruel, as children will be, but in order for their cruelty to take on the degree of directedness and organization that it has—for it to become conscious of “gays” as a group to be eliminated—adults logically have to be thinking for them. Indeed, the decision to remove homosexuality from the schools came from parents and from the prominent local antigay movement. At first it was merely a decision to remove any talk of homosexuality, to silence anyone who might defend homosexuals. There was no need for the adults in question to envision the violent path things would take from there. There was no conspiracy to speak of. Once the objective of removing “gay influence” was in place, the children themselves knew how best to achieve it; among them, as Erdely documents, there was never any doubt that the object of the game was to force “gay” kids to kill themselves.

Thus a peculiar combination of town hall strategy and schoolyard tactics spontaneously generated a form of organized, fatal violence for which, amazingly, nobody is directly responsible. Besides the parents and the children, the third set of  (non)agents in this scenario is of course the school employees. I’d like to focus in on the particular reasons for their inaction, because they reveal the heart of this problem, the baffling failure of authority and of political structure.

The district policy that specifically prevented school staff and teachers from intervening to stop the antigay harassment in school was referred to as a “neutrality policy.” In official language, “neutrality” consisted in the stipulation that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.” The vagueness of this language notwithstanding, the real effect of the “neutrality” policy consisted in its becoming an unwritten law. The official language was never published in any official district policy handbook, never conveyed to employees in writing at all; after its adoption, the policy was promulgated purely by word of mouth. This already incredible circumstance allowed the interpretation of the policy to expand even further, to the point where it was understood that adults in the schools were not to mention homosexuality in any context whatsoever, under the threat of losing their jobs. This meant that when confronted with instances of anti-gay harassment, they would reliably err on the side of inaction, out of concern that any action they might take could be held against them.

What governed the teachers’ conduct was thus more rumor than policy, but the enormous influence that the antigay movement wields over the Anoka-Hennepin school board, not to mention the broader local community, meant that the threats were real. The “neutrality” policy was drafted by the antigay movement, submitted to the school board, and adopted with no changes. At no point, then, did elected officials engage in legislating this policy. There are, to be sure, strong ties between the local antigay movement and the region’s congressional representative, Michelle Bachmann, but these ties do not lead through the political structure; they stem from Bachmann’s involvement in private organizations.

This means that a public official had both the motive (sympathy with the antigay movement) and the means (though, I must note, there is no extant allegation that she exercised them in this case; probably, she did not have to) to act upon local school policy as a private, interested party. All the while, the proper local authority over this type of policy—the elected district school board—functioned at every turn not as an independent deliberating and decision-making body but as a symbolic functionary. That they voted, five to one, to accept the recent agreement with the Department of Justice only underscores the total helplessness of their proceedings, since they had also voted to institute the “neutrality” policy in the first place. They merely perceived that for a moment, the Justice Department had the upper hand, and aligned themselves with the temporarily prevailing authority.

In this light, statements such as that of the district superintendent that “[w]e have people on the left and the right, and we’re trying to find common ground on these issues” can be rephrased as: we have no way of deciding between our public duties and the demands placed upon us by private interest groups. In fact, the federal government is perceived in Anoka-Hennepin as just another private interest group, included among the “people on the left.” The reaction to the recent Justice Department settlement was to immediately frame it in terms of the local power struggle: an effort to “abolish conservative moral beliefs,” as a local activist told the Times. This points to another weakness of the government’s intervention: what is the likelihood that a future Department of Justice (perhaps under the administration of a conservative Republican president, say) will decline either to follow up on this agreement or to take similar action should the situation in Minnesota replicate itself elsewhere?

To reiterate: what ultimately allowed political violence to enter the schools was the fact that the teachers declined to intervene, and the teachers did so because if they acted in accordance with their public duty (which would obviously be to protect their students’ physical safety), they risked real retribution at the hands of private groups wielding effective power over them. Faced with a choice between their own financial security and the physical security of their students, teachers tended to prioritize their own interests. This is a perfect concrete instance of the phenomenon of “polycracy” that Greg Moynahan discussed in a recent essay on this site. Polycracy, which Arendt described in The Origins of Totalitarianism, arises when multiple instances of authority place demands on a person to act in multiple different ways, and the person in question is unable to discern which authority has the higher claim on her obedience. In general, when one’s public office calls on one to act in a way that might be damaging to one’s social position, one ought to be able to declare without much hesitation that the public good has the higher claim on one’s obedience. But under conditions of polycracy, such criteria for deciding vanish, replaced in every particular instance by an unspoken calculation of which authority wields de facto power over the others. In Anoka-Hennepin, the power was with the antigay movement. The fact that it has just now shifted to the federal government—where it seems unlikely to remain for long—does not address the underlying vacuum of authority, especially of local authority.

One final remark. The persecution of “gay” students in Minnesota, as elsewhere, was never really about their sexuality as such. Not all of the targeted students were “really” homosexual—as if teenagers’ sexual orientations were that stable to begin with. As Arendt emphasizes in “Little Rock,” a minority group must appear as such within a larger body politic; it is quite literally their perceptible appearance (voice, skin color, etc.) that determines their separate status. What marks so-called “gay” kids as different is obviously not their sexual activity. It is other kinds of behavior: the way they dress, talk, and otherwise express their individuality. The victims of antigay harassment are almost always described in terms that have nothing to do with sexuality as such: they are “sensitive,” “offbeat,” “stylish,” “bookish,” “musical,” etc. These are the attributes that other children use to identify them as targets. I wonder if what antigay movements really want to eliminate from the public sphere is not precisely these qualities, which can be found in individuals of all sexual preferences, and which together point to the more fundamental qualities that Arendt most prized in human beings: individuality and thinking.

Thinking is connected to fundamental human difference and individuality, both in that people differ from each other fundamentally with respect to their way of thinking and in that it is by thinking that we puzzle over and come to grips with everything that distinguishes us from one another. “Gay” behavior was, in this case, a visible expression of original thinking. Truly original thought is always found in a minority of people, and the attempt to make minorities disappear is secretly the attempt to make original thinking disappear.

-Stephen Haswell Todd

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
26Mar/120

Michael Weinman on Aristotle, Rhetoric, & Pedagogy

The Hannah Arendt Center Presents

Michael Weinman

"Pedagogy or demagogy: The dangerous dunamis of the rhetor's art."

March 27th, 2012 at 7:00 PM  Olin 102, Bard College

Weinman notes: "My subject is the power of composed speech. While it is by no means unusual to note that rhetoric is terribly powerful, I believe you might hear something uncommon. For, while most discussions of the influence of rhetoric focus on the ways in which it distracts, distorts and dissembles—in short, on the ways that rhetoric minimizes or even abolishes the power of truth in political discourse—I aim tonight, drawing upon the classical analysis of the speaker’s art offered by Aristotle, to sing its song of praise. I shall not pretend that the common attacks on rhetoric are false. Rather, I will show that it is precisely because they are true that we need to cherish and cultivate this art, albeit in a fashion diametrically opposed—in the manner of an antistrophe—to way it is generally practiced. If rhetoric is generally practiced as the tool of the demagogue, mine is the praise of the antistrophic rhetoric of the pedagogue. Decrying the tool itself because of it demagogic use, I shall try to persuade you, undermines our own capacity to deploy the tool pedagogically, at our peril. "

Michael Weinman is presently a visiting academic at ECLA Bard. He has previously taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, and in the Department of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, Israel.

Weiman has published several books including the recently published,  Language, Time and Identity in Woolf’s The Waves: The Subject in Empire’s Shadow and  Pleasure in Aristotle’s Ethics.

You an learn more about Weinman's work here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
26Mar/120

Human Rights Project Welcomes Rebecca Hamilton

The Human Rights Project at Bard College

Presents Rebecca Hamilton

"Fighting for Darfur: The promise and peril of mass movement advocacy for human rights."

She will speak tonight, March 26, 2012 at 5PM, in RKC 103 at Bard College.

Rebecca Hamilton is a journalist at Reuters. Over the past year she has been a Special Correspondent on Sudan for The Washington Post, a Pulitzer Center grantee, and a fellow at the New America Foundation. She has written up her multi-year investigation into the impact of the U.S.-based citizen advocacy movement on Darfur policy in Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide.

In recent years she has conducted over 150 interviews with policy-makers on Sudan within the previous and current U.S. administration, interviewed those deployed to Sudan with the African Union, and spoken with both the survivors and the perpetrators of the atrocities in Darfur. In partnership with the National Security Archive she has obtained the declassification of 600 cables related to U.S. policy on Sudan. Her writing has been published in a range of outlets including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Christian Science Monitor and The International Herald Tribune.

Born in New Zealand, she moved to Australia at 15. She was awarded a Knox Fellowship to attend Harvard and graduated as a joint degree student from Harvard Law School (Juris Doctor) and Harvard Kennedy School (Master of Public Policy) in 2007. Before beginning to work full-time on Fighting for Darfur she worked as a lawyer at the International Criminal Court. She currently resides in New York and is admitted to the New York bar.

She will be discussing her recent book on Darfur and the activist movement that grew up in response to the violence there, "Fighting for Darfur":

http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=397886

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
23Mar/120

The Humanity of Shame

One of the great surprises upon arriving at Bard College was meeting Norman Manea. Manea, who was born in Romania, spent four years as a child in a concentration camp, many more as a dissident, and finally relocated to NYC and Bard College. He is a prolific and exciting writer, the author of novels, memoirs and essays, and a generous colleague. The Hooligan's Return tells the exciting story of his return to Romania with Bard President Leon Botstein and his reconnection with his homeland.

In 2009, Manea gave the Wyliam Philips Lecture at The New School for Social Research. The lecture, "20 Years After the Berlin Wall: Monuments of Shame," which has only been published in Spanish as "Monuments de Vergonya." The lecture judges the consequences and meanings of the revolutions of 1989. It is not a moral judgment, but rather a remembering of the lands, places, and languages from which Manea was exiled. At the end of his talk, Manea also makes a fascinating proposal.

Manea begins his lecture with reflections on the revolutions of 1989. For one thing, freedom is not the simple blessing it is often thought:

As slavery has to be learned, step by step, in order to survive its terror and tricks, freedom must also to be learned, step by step, in order to face its chances and competitions, its rewards and restrictions.

In his novels, Manea is ever alert to the way that bourgeois comforts offer a false sense that the freedom to choose amongst restaurants or living accommodations can actually deflect us from the experience of freedom. As have many who lived under the evils of totalitarianism, Manea recognizes that there is a kind of freedom in brutal societies as well:

My dream throughout my postwar life was to find an inner resistance against the ubiquitous external pressure.

Living within yourself, it turned out, was for me the mode of resistance; it formed a center for the moral being, a means of separating from a corrupt and corrupting environment, a hope, however uncertain, for maintaining your conscience with integrity. Reading and writing were a shelter, even if menaced, and the best therapy against the poisonous spread of lies and hypocrisy.

Manea saw also that the outbreak of freedom in 1989 was going to bring dangers as well as hopes.

In addition to a "cheap and manipulated populism," that pervaded the public discourse of the new “democratic” politicians, there were of course the cheap freedoms of revenge, xenophobia, pornography and mass entertainment. This is to be taken in stride, and yet also not. We must always be alert to the morphing of freedom into its opposite:

One of the most outrageous examples of this sort of quick change act occurred in Romania, where a former court-poet of the Ceausescu clan, a fierce nationalist and anti-Semite, Comrade Corneliu Vadim Tudor became the leader of a new extreme right party called, no surprise, Great Romania. Changing only a bit the cosmetics of his old slogans, this noisy old-new agitator was elected a member of Romania’s Parliament, even becoming at one point a serious candidate for the Presidency. Today, comrade Corneliu is a member of the European Parliament. Nobody can say that afterlife isn’t interesting...

We don't have "a real alternative to freedom." We must make do with its defects and shortcomings, since the dangers of the "free system are as bad as the dogmatic remedies ranged against them. Indeed, in the end, the question always comes down to freedom – and it is right that it should.

In the interest of living with freedom, Manea closes his speech with an intriguing proposal, one that he argues would go a long way towards keeping the question of freedom present before our eyes. He writes:

Some ten years ago I proposed something very much non-utopian, and I would like to revisit that proposal. It was in an intervention I made to the famous Walser Debate of 1998 in Germany. As some of you may recall, the esteemed German writer Martin Walser, in his acceptance speech on receiving the Peace Prize of German Booksellers Association at the Frankfurt Book Fair warned against the “permanent representation” and the “monumentalizing of German shame.”

My response was to suggest that every country -- and I emphasize again every country and every people -- should complement its monuments of heroism with monuments of shame. This would mean recalling a nation’s wrong doings towards other countries, other people and also to its own people.

To love our neighbors as ourselves may also imply scrutinizing ourselves with the same objectivity as our neighbor and not to do to others what we don’t like to suffer ourselves. It is probably good therapy to look at ourselves with the same exigency as we look at others, to put ourselves in the shoes of others in order to understand their otherness. Aren’t modesty and humility and self questioning a desirable and sound exercise for being truly human?

There are such monuments to shame. Some that I recall vividly are the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, two of the most extraordinary and provoking memorials I have ever encountered. I have no idea if it is good therapy, as Manea writes, to put ourselves in the shoes of others. But it does make for an exercise in being truly human. 

For your weekend read, I recommend an excerpt from The Hooligan's Return, available here.

Even better, order The Hooligan's Return here.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Mar/121

Ashcroft on Leadership

I came across this quote by John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show.

"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."

Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best. Plato distinguishes between shepherds and kings. Shepherds care for their flocks. Kings lead. There is an important distinction to be recalled.

What Ashcroft doesn't say is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both break the law. But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law. A great leader shows the earlier law to have been wrong and forges a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example. Raskolnikov knew that leaders and criminals were of a kind; he also knew he was not the great man he wanted to be.

Ashcroft also forget to mention that it is one thing for a President to call on people to reach their highest selves beyond the law. It is another thing altogether for the Attorney General of the United States.

Our problem today is that we are too afraid of Presidents who might lead, and for good reason. The quality of our leaders is weak. They cannot be trusted to lead us without constraints. The result is we recoil from leadership and our politics loses all spontaneity, all freedom, and all possibility of starting something new.

—RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
22Mar/120

Economic Inequality

If inequality matters, is it rational? David Grusky writes that much of the economic inequality in our economy is irrational, the result of rules and practices that irrationally keep pay high for a small group of college graduates and CEOs.

While many argue that inequality needs to be addressed by higher taxes,  Grusky argues  that inequality has causes deeper than the system of taxation:

But the takeoff in inequality cannot be explained by tax policy alone. To the contrary, as economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have shown [see their response to Grusky], there has been a dramatic rise over the last 30 years in pre-tax income inequality. The share of pre-tax income flowing to the top 1 percent of households increased from less than 10 percent in 1975 to more than 20 percent now. This spectacular increase in market inequality is of course exacerbated by changes in after-market taxation. However, because the takeoff in inequality is mainly generated within the market, we should look to market institutions to understand its main causes.

Grusky shows that beyond tax raises, it might be better to focus on two other causes of inequality: unequal opportunities in education and unjustified CEO pay. Since there remains a premium paid for college education and especially for elite college educations, increasingly the educational opportunities and preparation of more people would be one way to address income inequality. And since CEO pay has skyrocketed beyond market justification through the use of toothless boards of directors and suspect compensation consultants, leading to economic rewards beyond market justification.

Read more.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Mar/120

Arendt’s Notes

Introduction to the third edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism with Arendt's notes.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.