The crisis must matter.
The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.
The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.
It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.
We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.
According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:
We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once. Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.
Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.
Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.
Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.
Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age. It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.
There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.
If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".
Student debt in the United States is now around $1 Trillion. This debt is inextinguishable, which means that banks and policy makers have insisted that young people be more responsible for their bad financial decisions than adults or corporations, both of which can, of course, free themselves from un-payable debts through bankruptcy. Not so for students whose massive indebtedness is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.
A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that educational debt burden is crushing America’s young. Here is a chart from Pew.
Walter Russell Mead glosses the Pew report in this way:
The [Pew] study reports that one in five American households is now saddled with student debt, 15 percent more than in 2007. And the amount of debt households are carrying has also grown: the average debt burden is now more than $26,000.
Worst of all, the debt burden is heaviest for those who can least afford to carry it:
[W]hether computed as a share of household income or assets, the relative burden of student loan debt is greatest for households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum, even though members of such households are less likely than those in other groups to attend college in the first place.
The idea of sending our poorest members to college is born of a noble impulse. And many of these young people are indeed given full scholarships to elite colleges. But it is one thing to pay for the brightest and most industrious of our young people to go to college. It is something else entirely to tell others, those who did not earn a scholarship of some sort, that it makes sense for them to borrow tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a diploma from a third or fourth tier school, or even a for-profit college. There is a perversity in this system that saddles young people with possibility-denying debt.
Books by some of our speakers at last week's "Does the President Matter?" conference.
Steven Mazie over at Big Think has a good essay reflecting on day one of the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair." Mazie looks at three reasons to be skeptical of the claim that the President matters, or that it matters who is elected president.
1. Mitt Romney and President Obama are uncannily similar in a host of ways.
2. Structural constraints on the presidency radically limit the ability of chief executives to act in the domestic arena.
3. Presidential campaigns do not attract candidates with true leadership skills.
In each case Mazie offers thoughtful comments on the way that president does and does not matter. Above all, his essay explore the paradox at the heart of last weekend's conference: That the President is ever more powerful and certainly has enormous political and symbolic power, and yet, on the big questions that matter most to many people, the president seems powerless to change the culture of politics in Washington. Just last weekend President Obama, campaigning in Florida, said: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
Mitt Romney jumped on this statement to condemn Obama and make the case that Obama had abdicated leadership. That was not Obama's point, which was that the President is not able single handedly to change the political culture. Whether Obama is correct or not, his statement reflects a frustration that many in and outside Washington share.
Read Mazie's take on the conference. You can also watch all of the talks from the conference on video here.
Decompression: Before my hands heal I should sit down and find a way to wrap this up. I have been out of the desert (Black Rock City) for over a week now. I am back in the state of ‘normalcy,’ and yet I cannot help to feel that this ‘normal’ world is the exception. Have I been bedazzled, indoctrinated by some paganistic ritual? Did the “party” get me?
“Playa hands,” or feet, is the term used to describe what happens to ones hands, and feet, when they are overexposed to the conditions of the desert. They begin cracking -- “playafied” -- like the desert floor itself. Moisturizer helps, but the secret is to spray them down with vinegar every morning -- something about alkaline, acidity, etc...
I was out there for almost three weeks. Blood had begun to escape through some of the cracks. Yet, amid the sensory overload that is Burning Man -- coupled with the knowledge that whatever happens in the desert is hyper-transient -- your bodily concerns become secondary to the need to engage the world created for you. You celebrate despite the discomfort, or maybe even in part driven on by it. You don’t want to miss anything.
My hands have almost healed, new skin appearing underneath. I miss the damage. I miss what Burning Man proved.
I was moved towards Burning Man by the stories of others. What most attracted me to these stories were the themes of ritual, ceremony, and story telling. What I experienced, as a byproduct of being there, is the stuff I do not want to leave behind -- the concepts of ‘intent of environment’ (architecture and guiding principles), and ‘currency of gratitude.’ To feel complete, my new skin must now make space for these.
For this past week I have been needling my brain to pin down the difference between ritual and ceremony. I find it easy to mix them up. Why is there such confusion? Ultimately, I have come to see ritual as a loosely prescribed set of practices, or intentions, while ceremony is the celebration, or interpretation, of the prescribed by the practitioner. Certainly some anthropologists and theologists will find fault with my definitions. Well, I challenge you to bring me another set and if it reveals itself to be an exercise beyond semantics, I will be happy to sacrifice my hard won approximations. But that’s the catch, isn’t it? Definitions are the products of their society. They move, evolve... disappear. They are ‘approximate,’ in accordance to the pressure exercised upon them by what I call The Social Body -- our communal practices, beliefs and values, toys (inventions), cultural narratives, and the principles we deduce from the tangible matter of our environment.
Maybe what’s most worth exploring in the road towards a definition of ritual and ceremony is the location of the struggle itself: Why do we so struggle in defining them? What does this say about our society, and its practices? In the simplistic thinking somewhat necessary to engage such questions I had hoped to use my time at Burning Man as an aperture into the society at large. I brought my child brain, the one asks to see before judgement -- the one open to signs of proof.
What burning Man provides is a scaffolding of a society, a set of pillars (in its principles and architecture) to be built upon, and filled in by the participants. It is in this movement, from the scaffolding -- from the available structures -- towards the experience, that ‘ritual’ is made into ‘ceremony.’ It is where meaning is formed, and body is found. The concept of the ‘social body’ implies more then mere existence, or survival, more than just the fractals of society; it is a narrative, it is consciousness (a self-aware organism, capable of self correction), it is the accumulation of meaning.
The set of principles for this experimental society (Burning Man) are “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” To survive, and thrive in the desert, and to feel a part of the experience, one must find their own relationship to these principles, otherwise the experience will be tedious and lonely.
The other part of the scaffolding is the architectural intent. There is the city (its streets), its coordinates measured in the units of time, and thus when you arrive at a place you arrive to a time -- time is appropriated into a location (brings us closer to the definition of ‘being here’ doesn’t it?); there is the Playa floor, a space for various art installations; the camp space, the themes to be supplied by each individual camp, each camp identifying its own purpose; the Man, to be empowered with whatever meaning one finds necessary to bring to it; and the Temple, a spiritual space to be used for remembering loved ones, the execution of weddings, and a creative space for communion. There is also Center Camp, where you will find lectures, performances, coffee (it is in fact the only place where you can “buy” something). A friend of mine described Center Camp as “the heart of Burning Man.” Maybe because this is where the exchange of stories, connectivity, takes place.
The scaffolding of ritual is provided (a labor intensive process on the levels of planning, recruiting, development, and construction). In my conversation with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, he summed up the intention behind this social scaffolding like this, “I am, we are, it is.” He was not pointing to himself, or to the structure of the Man, rather, the gesture was towards the “participant.” No further elaboration is given. Meaning is not handed out here, nor is it imposed. What is implied by this is that the highest level of “participation,” is to give meaning. This is “radical inclusivity.” No ones experience is void. You can come here for a great party, or to say goodbye to a passed parent. You can have your own vision quest after sunrise, way out in deep playa, or you can don the outfit of a renegade and strap yourself up in the Thunder-Dome, just to see how you feel in the costume of primal power. All experiences are affirmed, accepted. The forms are created for you, and you fill in the space. Two experiences may further elaborate on this.
One night I was warned to wear white. “The white procession,” is what I was told. After being out all night, meeting people, seeing art pieces on the playa and dancing, we made our way to the temple for sunrise. After a night of being engulfed in noise and neon lights, we arrived at the wooden, ornate temple. The quiet, a gesture of respect to the space, was hyper-pronounced all around us. People praying, crying, meditating, talking in the open space. There were pictures and poems and notes stapled to every reachable surface of the structure. As the sun began to rise a small ensemble of musicians began to play soft wooden instruments. More and more people showed up, wearing white. Some in intricate feather outfits, some on stilts, some in a simple white shirt and seersucker pants (well, me!) -- the playa was flooded in white. I have been to spiritual spaces from Eastern Europe, to Europe, to the U.S., but the power of that space, its sincerity, was unlike anything I have ever experienced (I have no elegant words for this -- it was really something “I have never experienced”).
I can tell you more of that morning, the conversations, the white anonymous mask I had carried with me, the umbrella we found, the way this umbrella became empowered through a dance, through the power of movement and intention, when an art-car showed up with a music group called the Human Experience, how that empowerment became an opportunity for someone to say goodbye to her mother who had passed two years ago. How the anonymous mask, as more people in white arrived, as people celebrated the space and the new day, was endowed with personality of the dancers behind it. But I will simply say that ‘we filled the space,’ and allow you to unpack this meaning. Did my scientifically educated mind attempt to balk at this scene? I am trained to bring skepticism, but skepticism is only useful in service to a greater goal -- to seek out what is true in the arena of living. Otherwise it becomes a defense against its initial intention. To be disarmed, to be taken-in by a communal experience, to sense the meaning of the practice, is to be a living part of the ‘social body.’
Another morning we had wondered out to deep playa, where the installations are few and far in between. There we stumbled upon a smaller temple (about 20 feet high) made of diamond shaped wooden pods -- a hive. Inside sat a man with a hot stove and four people joining him in a circle. On a low table before him were five glass ramekins filled with tea. As we approached he took two more out of his bag and added them to the already existing ones, making the pattern of a diamond on the table, now reflecting the shape of the pods. We accepted the invitation. On a cold desert morning a hot cup of tea is the power of the sunrise. Soon my partner took out a ceremonial orchid fragrance and offered it up to the others. We sat there in the quiet, warmed up and without hurry, without any knowledge of the time. Tea, orchid fragrances, tarot cards, all become an invitation to converse -- to join, to exchange, to fill-in the space. We sat for two hours and the tea master told us of his camp and how it was their mission to keep tea in this space, and his fiance and work with a non-profit music space on the West coast. There were individual pods about forty yards off to one side of the structure, the side that faced the central playa and the camp spaces. Later I found similar pods scattered throughout the playa, including inside the base of The Man. Call it metaphysics, call it the construction of myth, but after the tea experience, every time I saw one of the pods, I could not help but to feel the transmission of that experience. The space of ritual became empowered through the formation of our ceremony, and the experience felt transmitted through association from portal to portal. Is that not the fabric of culture and meaning? Is that not how we once created a society worth participating in? Practices, intention, invitation, and room for interpretation, is that not the scaffolding of purpose and faith?
If I had to mold that space into a single definition I would call it an ‘intentional space holder.’ The camp, committed to keep a tea going in that structure, held space for participants -- for the arrival of stories (the people that bring them, and the articles that facilitate them). And this is another crucial memento that I carry from Burning Man. How often do we sit down and create a story between us? How versed are we today in exchanging myth? We exchange information at a rapid pace, having now been conditioned to advertise ourselves at every opportunity. We lobby the enterprise of self, and self today is an entity that is simply trying to survive -- survive in a plethora of other voices. We seek “hits,” and, “tweets,” attention to a carefully crafted mask. With painful detail we foster an identify that can “sell” and we update its status in a witty, seemingly effortless, “I have nothing to hide” fashion, so that we become “liked,” so that our circle of “network connections” can explode. We, each, becoming conditioned to present a face on a book, but without dimensions to it. How are we known? Do we now even know what to be known is? How many, or how few, of our actions are intentioned with the creation of meaning? How much in our repertoire of communication comes from a departure from the the practice of being seen, a false conditioning to define ourselves through the limiting shapes of business, career, education, ‘appropriate‘ culture defined beliefs -- assimilation? Assimilation, but to what? Have we each become a corporation of isolated creatures -- human inc.? And have we fallen into the practice of survival (holding ground) rather then the practice of exploration (creating space)? These are lofty questions, I know. And yet, is not our struggle in defining “story telling” and “connectivity” similar to the struggle in defining “ritual” and “community?” Could this struggle of definitions point towards us having taken for granted the initial pillars of community forming? Having moved away from something essential, could we have paralyzed the ‘social body?’
I have no clear answers to these questions. Only the sense that some of what I experienced at Burning Man helps to redirect my personal exploration of these subjects back to an older mode, to a practice that I had already sensed absent, yet one which when I am faced with, I recognize as essential. In part, this rerouting is somehow centered in the principles behind the event.
For those looking for more tangible examples to the power of “participant,” consider this: Burning Man, for a week the third largest city in Nevada, has almost no crime rate. It is a city that literally leaves nothing behind in trash, or MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) as it is called here. Everyone brings their own trash bags and collects MOOP while on the playa. In fact, when a group of Nevada policy makers came to examine Burning Man their collective surprise was centered on the absence of both public trash receptacles, and trash. Participants take pride in their society -- there is ownership of the ‘social body.’
Finally, I move to “intent of environment” and “currency of gratitude.” Once I left Black Rock CIty, and drove back into “our” society, I experienced a sense of vertigo. At each new scene I encountered my mind worked to solve the riddle of intention. At a starbucks, I wanted to ask the barista, what is the theme of your camp? What experience are you charged to awake in me? When I order one of your “luxurious hot chocolate beverages for the sophisticated palate” what am I inviting? What are the articles of facilitation within this camp? At a strip-mall outside of Reno I asked, what is the purpose of this installation? What does this space inspire? What psychic and creative pressure does it exercise on me? I had become sensitive to these questions.
We float from one “must do” to another, from one operational space to the next. Our practice has become ‘to-accomplish,’ ‘to-get-done,’ a checklist of survival before we come back to the safety of homes and return to sleep. We know a thing by what it does, by what it does for us, but not what it does to us or what it ‘impresses’ upon us. We have become too busy in the ritual of ‘getting-by’ to examine this question. No wonder the irony of Frank Gehry having been tapped to design the new Facebook campus speaks so loudly to us (even if we’re not sure of the words): An abstractionist tapped to give tangible form to the institution that most clearly provides us with the venue through which we can best abstract the condition of being. The questions our our being are finally visible in the structures which surround us -- that’s the irony we now interact with. Arthur Koestler, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and others, had predicted and observed this movement -- the emergence of space that comments on the loss of self. And now we live within this triangle -- self, our physical structures, our virtual structures -- uncertain which is the commentary, which is the creator, and which is in service of which.
Lastly I want to comment on the major form of currency at Burning Man. As mentioned earlier the exchange of money is extremely rare. Yet, there is exchange. Millions of dollars are spent yearly by individuals and groups, just to create an experience. I talked to a computer engineer who had been coming to Burning Man for five years. “It changed my life,” he said. “How?” “It made me want to give more, without asking for anything in return.” Such a cliche, right? You give without asking for anything in return, and you receive the gift of gratitude. Such a cliche, right..? And yet, this is the most obvious currency at Black Rock City. Each person is provided with an opportunity to form an experience for another. From the grand structures that hold space for everyone, to the theme camps that invite you to join them and pour gifts upon you -- from drinks to ice cream, to food, to conversation, to workshops, to tarot readings, to music, to showers and espresso, costumes, to confessionals, to the Thunder-Dome, to tea ceremonies, to trinkets and bracelets and other handcrafted articles of remembrance, to the extent of the human imagination. Such a cliche? Right? No competition, no “one-upmanship.” ‘You are invited,’ they say. You, are enough.
It is in the examination of such cliches that maybe we can begin a return to that place where we lost meaning. When did we decide that we are too busy, too smart, to be truly humanist? What made us this? The humanist tradition asks us to examine our being on every level -- the concentric circles of community (world, culture, self -- it, we, I). To use the full spectrum of our gifts in examining the state of being. To not hold “contempt prior to investigation” because such a state can lead one to loose the trail, and a skill once in service (skepticism) becomes a master -- a true state of purposelessness. Maybe it’s time to stop and reexamine our society, to allow for our deepest and most personal, and maybe most essential questions and concerns on the state of being, to catch up to the gifts of our inventions.
The creating of space: I cannot get away from this idea. This is what Burning Man does. It creates a space (a space for meeting, for discovery, serendipity, a space for creating) and I, pressurized (or inspired) by this space -- its subtle intentions, architecture and principles -- am left to empower this space with meaning, to fill in the forms. I am endowed with the magic of meaning making. From ritual to ceremony I make matter -- I make this time (this space) matter.
Left to my own devices I perform the rituals of living, but without the movements of meaning. I struggle to empower the mask.
We have passed to the end of the existential age. Someone declared God to be dead. Science, with all its promise and discovery, has too failed in filling in the shapes of existence. Consumerism, the god of the 20th century, has also, ultimately, failed to provide us with the kind of purpose that leads to a greater belonging, or safety. The internet age, having initially promised to connect us, is now making us even more isolated. The onus is placed on us. On the individual. In this age of the spectator (internet, TV, emotional removal from the immediacy of our world) we are left to create a ceremony of our existence, to question our rituals, to define the space of our community, and our coordinates within it -- to become participants. To bring the social body back to a state of being.
“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”
—Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?
This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter? The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.
This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.
If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.
And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?
On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.
This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.
Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief. In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.
No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.
Every President comes to Washington promising reform! And they all fail. According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:
If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.
On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:
The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.
The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible. All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.
For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.
The question "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:
“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”
So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”
What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.
The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.
When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.
Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence." To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.
Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.
One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.
This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:
Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.
All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.
Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:
"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."
My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.
What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.
But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law. Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.
In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.
In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.
These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.
Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.
Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask: might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.
At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.
Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.
It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.
I don't know if the president matters.
But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.
In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you. If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.
Watch Roger's opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.
The winners for the Arendt Center's second annual thinking challenge have been chosen. The competition was fierce and we received a large number of high quality entries from multiple countries on multiple continents. But, these entries stood out to our judges:
Mamfatou Baldeh T.
Congratulations to our winners! Click here to read the winning submissions.
Wach the Live Simulcast of the Hannah Arendt Center's Fifth Annual Conference:
Does the President Matter?
A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair.
Friday, Sept. 21 10 am - 7 pm
Saturday, Sept. 22 10 am - 6 pm.
At a time when books, not to mention scholarship, are in perpetual retreat, let's celebrate the surprising (if partial) victory in the battle to maintain the NY Public Library as a place to do meaningful research. For the last year public intellectuals across New York have been mobilized to oppose the Public Library's decision to relocate most of the 4.5 million books currently available to scholars in the 5th Avenue main reading room to a storage facility in New Jersey. Such a move would have made scholarship at the library inconvenient, to say the least.
One of the great pleasures of the NY Public Library (aside from the majestic Rose Reading Room) is the confidence that if you come across a reference you want to check, you can place your request in one of those cute little tubes and know that within 20-30 minutes your book number will appear and you will have your book. It is a magical place to do research, and the decision to replace the books with a more public friendly collection was a real blow to the scholarly community in New York.
So kudos to the Library and its President (and my former boss) Tony Marx for listening to the protests. As the NY Times reports,
Responding to objections raised by scholars, writers, artists and others, the New York Public Library has revised its plan to remove most of the books from its flagship Fifth Avenue research center to make room for a circulating library. Library officials said that an $8 million donation would help pay for enough new storage space to keep 3.3 million of its 4.5 volumes at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, at 42nd Street.
As the father of an introvert I have been truly grateful for Susan Cain's recent mission to raise awareness of introversion and also the power of introverts. From her TED Talk to her book, Quiet, Cain has shown that our traditional bias towards extroverts can be both damaging and misguided. While children are prodded and rewarded for fitting in and playing gregariously with others, it is often the children who prefer the quiet of an imaginary friend that develop the independence, conviction, and clarity that may one day blossom into the surprising creativity of bold leadership.
In an essay in last Sunday's New York Times, Cain responded to recent comments that President Obama is hobbled by the fact that he is an introvert, that he does not like people, and that he is "concealed inside “a layer of self-protective ice."" She makes the important point that introverts often do like people, they just prefer intimate conversations and social situations to back-slapping expressions of outward gregariousness.
Cain also points out that both Obama and Mitt Romney are introverts, which means that whichever candidate wins the election, we will soon live through our second consecutive introverted presidency. That, writes, Cain, is a good thing. For Cain, introverts can be and often are excellent leaders.
Many of this nation’s finest leaders have been extroverts — but plenty have not. Jim Collins, in his study of the best-performing companies of the late 20th century, found that they were all led by chief executives known primarily for their fierce will and dedication — and were often described with words like “reserved” and “understated.”
Cain adds as this quote from management guru Peter Drucker:
“The one and only personality trait the effective [leaders] I have encountered did have in common, was something they did not have: they had little or no ‘charisma’ and little use either for the term or what it signifies.”
I fully accept Cain's basic claim that charisma is overrated and that the charisma of ideas can trump the charisma of social grace. That said, what the introverts Barack Obama and Mitt Romney share also is a technocratic faith. Romney believes, seemingly above all, in data. This is why he drives conservatives crazy and why he seems so fake in his attempts to appeal to the faithful of the right. Obama believes in nothing if not experts and commissions, which is why he surrounds himself with Ph.D.s and technocrats who continue to advise him on this program or that program. Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, Romney and Obama are nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of pragmatic optimism, that with a bit of hard work and rational analysis we can master our situation and make it better.
The problem with Romney and Obama is not that they are introverts, but that they are so struck by the power of expertise that they lack the power of ideas. At a time of crisis, when technology and globalization are bringing revolutionary changes to the fundamental assumptions of the way we live, people have lost the faith that our political leaders understand these transformations and have a vision of what our future might be. This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations, and how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This should be both a scary and an exciting election. Instead, it is small-minded, ugly, and boring. Introverts or extraverts, these candidates are not the leaders we need.
This weekend the Hannah Arendt Center hosts a conference “Does The President Matter?" The conference ask public intellectuals, thinkers, artists, and business people to reflect on what kind of Presidential leadership might matter in the 21st century. Speakers include Ralph Nader, Bernard Kouchner, Rick Falkvinge, John Zogby, James Zogby, Jeffrey Tulis, Eric Liu, Todd Gitlin, Anne Norton, Walter Russell Mead, Bernadette Meyler, Richard Aldous, David Greenberg, Kevin Gutzman, Wyatt Mason, Leon Botstein, and many more. Please join us for the conference at Bard. You can also watch the conference via live simulcast on our website.
“To paraphrase several sages: Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.”
― Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
Every once in a while an art project comes to town that reminds us of the beauty and wonder of the creative arts—and also appeals to our love for books. One such arrives today. Inspired by the transporting and joyful act of browsing, “A Bookmobile for Dreamers” is a multimedia chamber opera for live theremin, electronic sound, and video projection. The most recent collaboration between composer and thereminist Elizabeth Brown and artist Lothar Osterburg, creator of the video portion, the opera centers upon a dreamlike model world incorporating real time video and stop motion animation with onstage playing by Brown.
The Arendt Center caught up with our Bard colleague Lothar Osterburg and asked him a few questions.
“‘A Bookmobile for Dreamers’ is about the lost experience of browsing through stacks of books and the joy of discovering the unexpected by pulling out the neighboring book on a whim,” Osterburg explains. Surely we have all experienced those magical moments which occur amongst a stack of books when, due to serendipity, a whim, or just plain luck, one picks up a seemingly random book and is carried away to a plane of existence so remote and exhilarating that the experience, in hindsight, strikes one as absurdly life affirming. Through their latest work, Osterburg and Brown reflect upon this quality of living attainable through the printed word. Pressed to describe what occurs when we read, Osterburg writes: “In short: it is an act of discovery and exploration without the need to leave one’s physical space.”
The dreamlike world which envelopes the reader is evoked by Osterburg through the combination of various film techniques, in order for the viewer to “have a reading like experience with room to fill the voids with their own imagination, without the over-simplification and hyper-realism of most commercial films. Timing is part of this, and I try to move on quickly to leave a faint impression that leaves the viewer with the want for more.”
The vitality of the work radiates from the conversation formed between Osterburg’s video and Brown’s theremin. The theremin, an electronic instrument invented in 1928 by Lèon Theremin, produces its unique sound without any physical contact from the player. The instrument’s two metal antennas respond to the motion of the player’s hands, resulting in changes in oscillation frequency of the tone alongside changes in amplitude. This allows Brown the opportunity to respond to the video with her whole person – physically as well as musically.
The conversation between the video and theremin playing is perhaps best exemplified by the roles Brown plays as actor and reader in the performance, and the audience will sometimes find her responding to herself. “In the ‘theremin sculpture,’” Osterburg reveals, “she is stepping outside her body to play a choir with herself. The theremin generates the sound just as virtually as the video sets the stage, which is as virtual as the world we enter when we read.”
While Brown and Osterburg have collaborated on many projects, this is the first time they chose to incorporate a person directly with the video. The move was appropriate for the project, however, as it serves to blend the ethereal nature of reading with the all too tangible elements encountered in the act. By “stepping in and out of the video, [Brown is] referencing the incredible presence a read story can take on when you are engulfed in reading, when suddenly the phone rings and tears you back into the other world.”
“A Bookmobile for Dreamers” will be shown Today, Tuesday, September 18, 2012 from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm at Bard’s Campus Center, in the Weis Cinema. For more information, contact Melody Goodwin at 845-758-7674 or email email@example.com
Asked in July if Occupy Wall Street has been successful, Todd Gitlin—renowned social historian, former President of Students for a Democratic Society, and author most recently of Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street—responds:
"OWS has been successful because we are talking about it. You now see bumper stickers that say 99%. I was just in upstate NY and I saw a candidate running for office with a sign that says: The candidate of the 99%. It is now legitimate to talk about inequality and the domination of American by a plutocracy, by an oligarchy of the super wealthy. No it is not successful in the sense that it has not delivered concrete results."
As the election has heated up OWS has faded even further from consciousness. At a time when we are about to pick our next leader, the leaderless rhetoric of OWS is out of step.
That said, Gitlin is right that many of the pressing issues underlying the OWS movement have insinuated themselves into public discourse. It is unlikely that without OWS President Obama would be focusing so clearly on raising taxes on those he calls the wealthy (by which he means those who earn over $250,000 per year). Indeed, if there is one core issue that seems to demarcate President Obama and Governor Romney it is the question of their differing attitudes towards wealth and taxes.
Gitlin, who is speaking next week at the Hannah Arendt Center’s conference “Does The President Matter?", is clear-headed about the movement's failures but remains optimistic about its future. Gitlin’s optimism, his hope for a movement that many other see as dead, is heartening. There may also, surprisingly, be a grain of truth in his rosy scenario.
Gitlin understands that the future of OWS is not in what it has been, but in what it has not yet imagined. After a lull in the movement, OWS, he writes, may well birth “individual initiatives combined with community spirit, assisted by technical ingenuity and the ability to learn from experience,” to shift the values that caused the crisis in the first place. If OWS is to bring about change, it will be because against its own anti-leadership rhetoric, it has and continues to produce new leaders.
"Leadership," Gitlin writes in Occupy Nation,
"is not abolished when movements don't designate spokespersons and leaders refuse the label, any more than prisons are abolished when they are designated as correctional facilities. In all social groups, leaders emerge. They emerge in the course of action when acts of leadership take place. Leaders prove themselves. Some are labeled leaders, some are not. Some accept the label, others reject it. Those who get the reputation for leadership get treated as leaders. It is as simple (and as complicated) as this: Leaders are persons whom others follow—admire, heed, recognize."
In imagining the fecundity of Occupy Wall Street's birthing of new leaders, Gitlin focuses on that aspect of OWS that was most surprising, new, and wonderful: Its determination to open up a space for being together, thinking, and talking in public. He quotes one OWS member as saying: "Something has been opened up, a kind of space nobody knew existed." There was, in the encampments, "a public place to go to, where attention could readily be paid, and individuals had faces and stories." Above all, Gitlin writes, the Occupiers were "creating a space where leaders and ideas could emerge."
In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:
"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries."
The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the presence or lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives.
What Gitlin's account of Occupy Nation makes palpable is that amidst all the excesses and competing narratives, there are still some people who aspire to be real revolutionaries. Whether that small group will produce leaders of revolutionary potential is, of course, something we cannot know. But at a time of political paralysis amidst the political, economic, and ecological crises of our time, any movement that might give birth to new leaders is something to be welcomed.
So this weekend as we prepare for next week's conference "Does the President Matter?" pick up Todd Gitlin's Occupy Nation. You can also here him speak at Bard College on Friday, Sept. 21. And you can have him sign your book then.
Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology
Common wisdom has it that the U.S. now faces an “obesity epidemic.” Ample statistical evidence would seem to support this claim. According to recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sixty-eight percent of adults, and thirty-two percent of children and adolescents, qualify as obese or overweight as determined by the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is the biomedical measure of “healthy” and “unhealthy” weight currently employed by most doctors, researchers, educators, and policymakers in the U.S. (and a growing number of other countries).
The public health response to this state of affairs, initially launched by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in 1997, has been promoted as a “war on obesity” or a “war on fat” that echoes the militaristic rhetoric of other governmental campaigns (against poverty, drugs, and terror[ism], for example). This war effort has consistently conceived of obesity as a medical abnormality or disease that can be remedied through concerted social and political intervention. Health professionals and policymakers have regularly enjoined Americans to diet and exercise so that they might achieve—and then maintain—a normative body weight and shape. In addition, political figures like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and First Lady Michelle Obama have publicly thrown their support behind measures that encourage healthy eating and regular physical activity.
Public reactions to the war on fat have varied a good deal. Most of its advocates argue that the campaign is a necessary response to a serious threat to the nation’s health and health care system, while some of its detractors contend that, at its extreme, it unduly interferes with individual Americans’ ability—or right—to eat, drink, and otherwise attend to their bodies as they find appropriate. Other critics focus on what I consider to be a more significant issue: the lived consequences of the war on fat, particularly for those young people who are its main targets.
To my knowledge, Hannah Arendt never directly engaged with the state’s role in the biomedical health of society and polity, but I suspect that she would have regarded the current campaign with skepticism. If her essay “Reflections on Little Rock” is any indication, she would be troubled by the ways that today’s children and adolescents are being asked to scrutinize their food choices and physical activity and thus bear the burden of a public health problem that ultimately derives from this country’s political economy of food production and consumption. In addition, she might well insist that children are “first of all part of family and home” and should therefore be shielded “against the demands of the social and the responsibilities of the political realm” (pp. 241-242 in The Portable Hannah Arendt). Indeed, she might even consider the war on fat to be a troubling infringement on parents’ private right to “bring up their children as they see fit” (p. 242), a right to which they are entitled even if they fail to conform to society’s prevailing conventions and customs.
This line of argument certainly possesses its own consistency and coherence. But I would suggest that it remains open to question on two (if not more) counts. First, it implies that young people’s diet and exercise are ultimately matters of private discretion in a fashion that is troublingly close to some industry objections to the war on fat. It thereby offers little basis to challenge the ways that corporate “big food” has invoked individual choice to defend dietary habits and tastes that it has not merely cultivated, but profited from handsomely. Second, and more broadly, this line of argument proposes a sharp distinction between public and private that prevents us from grasping the ways that young people—whether we like it or not—are implicated in larger political debates and struggles. Moreover, it does not really equip us to grasp how public discourse, including government-sponsored injunctions to diet and exercise, can mold individual sentiments, attitudes, and sensibilities.
This last issue is a central concern in anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh’s article “Weighty Subjects,” which appears in the most recent issue of American Ethnologist. Much of Greenhalgh’s argument turns on her analysis of student essays written for “The Woman and the Body,” a lecture course she taught at the University of California, Irvine from 1995 to 2011. Inspired by Michel Foucault’s work on governmentality and bio-power, Greenhalgh argues that the ultimate product of the war on fat is not a large number of thinner, fitter bodies, but rather a great deal of intimate and public “fat talk.” Such fat talk either instructs heavyset people about how they can attain a normative body or else derides their “excessive” weight as a mark of personal shame and failure.
In Greenhalgh’s analysis, this pervasive stream of fat talk induces all too many young women and men to adopt a “fat” subjectivity, even if they do not formally qualify as obese or overweight according to the BMI.
Building on a close reading of several students’ essays, she asserts that these “fat subjects” come to treat their weight as an essential component of their selfhood and social (un)acceptability. They engage in forms of exercise, dieting, and more extreme self-denial that may result in some temporary weight loss but which often pose major health risks in the long run. And they internalize the moralizing idioms of fat talk to the point where they ultimately hold themselves responsible for their weight and their frequent inability to achieve a normative body. Fat talk and the larger war on fat thereby resonate with the broader neoliberal turn in American public life, which holds individual self-governance, not industry regulation and other structural measures, as the preferred response to pressing social problems.
In sum, Greenhalgh’s objections to the war on fat ultimately rest not on the notion that local, state, and federal government is intervening (illegitimately) in a realm of private decision-making, but rather on the evidence that the preoccupation with obesity is creating significant emotional suffering for a considerable number of people. Like many other anthropologists, she thereby underscores how the political realm does not merely impinge on intimate senses of self and personhood, but actually works to produce them.
I am on the road this week so in place of a normal post, I am presenting an ongoing Arendt-related work by the artist Kika Thorne, titled Work Labor Action. I plan to post about what contemporary art can learn from Arendt’s definitions and distinctions between Work and Action later this Fall. Kika is a friend of mine, and it was only after telling her about this blog that I discovered she has made work about Hannah Arendt since 1999. If you know of artists who have made work about Arendt, or dealing with her scholarship, please share some links in the comments.
The captions below are by the artist.
Work Labour Action
Photographs document the project on the streets of Toronto (1999), Vancouver (2001), New York (2007). Each poster approx. 30" x 36" Blueprint (black).
The title(s) of the book(s) she was writing at the time the photograph was taken is written in 9pt Times New Roman font at the bottom of each poster. eg. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958)
Work Labour Action was also wheat pasted onto the walls of Murray Guy, NY for a show that Lee Plested curated in 2007 called Street. For this exhibition I had the opportunity to put the posters all over New York, including near the New School, which houses part of her archive.
The Convention season has unleashed an avalanche of half-truths and untruths. Some see this as politics as usual. Others claim we are living in a post-truth world. Stephen Colbert has long understood that our present condition has transformed truth into truthiness.
One response to our new practice of political lying is the rise of the fact finder. In general, I am all in favor of fact finders. When they labor in obscurity at, say, The New Yorker—or as I once did long ago at the Washingtonian Magazine—fact finders are supposed to check the facts referenced in an article and make sure that those factual nuggets are accurate: Does Mr. Green really live on 22 Wiley Street? Did he purchase a yellow car last year for $37,000? Is his house really worth $21 million? When I did this at the age of, I think, 18 before the Internet became what it is today, I spent my summer running over to the public records office and looking through the real-estate transactions of the rich and famous. We would not want to insult someone by saying he had paid less for his house than he really did.
Today, there is another kind of fact finding of increasing prominence: political fact checking. It is a different beast entirely. The most well-established of these is Politifact, which has the “Truth-o-Meter” that rates the truth or falsity of public claims on a spectrum that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Other sites deliver similarly clever reports on the statements uttered by politicians during the course of the campaign. Part marketing and part well-intentioned policing of a discourse divorced from reality, these fact checkers are trying to bring sense and seriousness to political debate. What they are actually doing is making the problem worse.
The reason for this is that what is being checked today are less facts and more opinions. Take for example the recent anger over Mitt Romney’s advertisement and the continuing Republican claims that the Obama administration is trying to gut the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. Politifact and CNN and many other fact-check organizations labeled the ad a lie. Here is what Politifact said about it:
Romney’s ad says, "Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
That's a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs -- HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.
The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: "They just send you your welfare check." The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is "designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!
On the other hand, here’s what The Daily Caller’s Mickey Kraus had to say after he fact checked a CNN fact check that had come to the same conclusion about Romney’s welfare ad as Politifact had:
The oft-cited CNN-”fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:
The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare roles as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.” Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.
I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.
But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all. Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive. But the point of welfare reform isn’t to get more people onto welfare .
How is it that Kraus and Politifact could have fact checked the same statement (with Kraus even claiming that he was fact checking the fact check) and yet have come to different conclusions? Why is that all the fact checking that is going on today is not leading to a more truthful debate? Why is it that Republican campaign operatives say they will not be governed by fact checkers? Shouldn't fact checkers be helping to keep political discourse grounded in truth? Actually, not.
The basic confusion here is that between a fact and an opinion. As Hannah Arendt argues in her prescient essay “Truth and Politics,” facts and opinions play very different and equally important roles in politics. Facts are essential insofar as they provide the ground and the sky on which and under which we live. It is crucial to have and accept common facts, for without agreed upon facts we cannot share a world with others. If I know that the President was born in Hawaii and you know he was born in Kenya (or doubt at least he was born in Hawaii) then we simply don't trust each other. We can't talk to one another. We don't share the same world. And we cannot politically live together in good faith as we try to actualize the common good.
Because facts of these kinds are so important, the rise to mainstream prominence of conspiracy theories that question the President's citizenship or insist that President Bush and his administration faked 9/11 are deeply destructive of our political world. Such destructive facts are always present in politics, and yet it is also the case that at certain periods they gain more credence and credibility than at other times. Now is clearly one of those times.
There are many reasons for the splitting of the common-sense world, but one at least is the speed and ruthlessness of change in our modern world. As people are dislocated, uprooted, and unsettled, they naturally seek certainty in what is increasingly an uncertain world. Arendt labeled this phenomenon homelessness and rootlessness.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explores how the spiritual and material rootlessness of the 20th century have made people today uniquely susceptible to grand narratives provide clear and simple explanations for complicated and often upsetting events. That Jews were the root of Germany's problems or that collective ownership in the Soviet Union could usher in a utopia were stories contradicted by myriad facts. One core element of totalitarian times is that people prefer the security of a coherent narrative to the uncertainty of reality. People latch on to ideologies because they provide meaning and security. What Arendt saw is that the uncertainties of the modern era have made people so needy for such ideologies that they will sacrifice truth to fiction.
There is no doubt that the Internet eases the dissemination and also the force of conspiracies, as people can click through hundreds of links and never leave what is in essence an echo chamber of ideological purity. When people fall into such rabbit holes, they are enveloped by a world that seems real and is difficult to penetrate from the outside.
For that reason it is important to starkly and loudly confront ideological fictions. President Obama was right to launch his "Fight the Smears" website in 2008 to contest and disprove the smears about his religion and citizenship. Many of the fact-checking sites that now exist emerged out of a similar initiative, and in this sense they are deeply important.
But these sites today have gone beyond their original mission of checking facts. It is a fact that welfare reform was passed. It is a fact that the President's administration offered waivers to states to change how the reforms are implemented. As far as I know it is a fact that Republican governors requested those waivers. Whether these waivers go against the spirit of the reforms and whether they are wise, however, those are matters of opinion. No amount of fact-checking can tell you whether what the President did “guts” welfare reform or strengthens it. These are opinions about which reasonable people can and do differ.
While facts are essential to provide us with a common world that we share and in which we can advocate for our particular opinions, opinions are the life-blood of politics. Politics is the activity of people who, while sharing a factual world, come together to talk and act in public. Since people are different, their opinions will differ and they will seek to persuade each other that one way of handling welfare is better than another. That is the beauty of politics, the incessant talking and debating and compromising and leading through which common decisions are made.
That we today seek to transform opinions into facts is, at least in part, a result of our desire for clear answers. We live in a time when we have little patience for meaningful public engagement. We want government to work, which means we want it to keep the roads safe and the borders sound. We want our water to be clean and our food to be safe. And we want children to be fed and the sick to be healed. We don't much care how this is done so long as we can live comfortably and securely and go on with what is really important, namely our private lives. In essence, what we dream of today is a technocratic government that gives us much and demands from us very little.
If government is to work like a well-oiled machine, we need to input the correct facts. This leads us to insist that there are indeed such correct facts, even when we are confronted over and over again with evidence to the contrary. If there is a totalitarian element of modern politics, it is the technocratic insistence that if we simply all agreed on the facts and analyzed them correctly, our problems would be solved. It is no accident that both Mitt Romney and President Obama are technocratic pragmatists. Romney may have more interest in the power of data, but the President has an equally profound faith in the power of experts. Both appeal to the technocratic demand of an electorate desperate for clarity, certainty, and coherence in at a moment of profound upheaval.
As important as facts are, it is just as important to remain clear about the border between fact and opinion. Instead of gimmicky truth-o-meters, which give the illusion that political questions have easy answers, we need to encourage people with different opinions to discuss them in good faith. But the plague of fact checking what are in fact opinions has the opposite effect, since it proceeds on the assumption that opinions are true or false and that one who differs from you is a liar. The effect of fact checking in 2012 is to further polarize discourse and make political discussion almost impossible.
Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.
The problem today is that when confronted with opinions we don't like, we demand not arguments and other opinions but facts and objectivity. Ironically, it is the very demand for facts and objectivity in politics that leads to ideological organs like Fox News and CNBC. Because people insist on technocratic clarity in the mess that is politics, they now gravitate towards those news organization, blogs, websites, and communities that deliver them coherent narratives.
—RB (with assistance from Josh Kopin)
“Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.”
I flew back from Germany Friday and sat next to a young woman from Berlin. The young woman was attending Humboldt University and was studying to be a teacher. Like many in Germany, her undergraduate education was a professional one. On another plane between Zürich and Berlin I met a young man in a technical university, studying to be an electrician. This is one of the things that most strikes one about the differences between young people in Germany and the United States. In the U.S. both these young people would be pursuing liberal arts degrees, delaying concerns about a job or a career until after college. In Germany, they are aiming at a technical education preparing them for specific jobs.
The liberal arts can be and often are an extraordinary opportunity for young people to embrace the complexity and richness of human life on earth. A liberal arts education can transform one's life, helping a young man or woman to find meaning in life, in art, and in nature. As someone who dedicates himself to liberal arts writing and teaching, I have an enormous faith in and love for the determination to teach young people broadly and widely.
And yet, as much as I value and believe in the liberal arts, we should not think that it is a necessity for everyone. This has been one of our mistakes, to insist, against all good evidence, that a liberal arts education is the path to being both a good citizen and a successful person. Many have come to think that only someone with a B.A. or a liberal arts degree is educated, a prejudice that defies human history as well as our own experience.
I had a good friend who grew up in Switzerland and learned to build organs. He could walk through a forest and hear the wood play in the wind and pick precisely that tree whose fibrous inners would produce the most vibrant tones demanded of professional organ players. To think such a person uneducated would be folly. He was in tune with the natural world and with music in a way that few musicians ever would be. And yet it is precisely people who are skilled at doing things—from building organs to fixing pipes, from fixing electronics to growing food, and from cooking dinner to building a deck—that are increasingly absent in our modern society.
A number of years ago Matthew B. Crawford wrote a book Shop Class as Soulcraft. The book had two simple theses. First, that skilled work was deeply important. It teaches judgment, mastery, and engagement with the world around us, with the things that in Hannah Arendt's sense, make up our physical world. Second, that American high schools increasingly do not teach shop classes or home economics classes or auto repair classes, classes that used to instruct young people in the art of fixing and understanding the mechanical world around us. Crawford argued that while high schools were ditching shop class in favor of college prep, it was actually the case that more and more of the jobs available in our society were ones that required a physical skill at building and fixing things. Not only were we losing out economically, but also our educated elite was increasingly separated from those who know how to do things.
Crawford is right. And one result of the bias against skilled labor he highlights is the persistent disconnect between sky-high unemployment and increasing job openings. Businesses report a shortage of qualified workers. There is, in other words, a skills gap. Jobs are available, but they are not the jobs young people want to do.
Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel, has written open letters to both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama expressing his thoughts on the grounds for the skills gap. (Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds) This skills gap is but a symptom of what Rowe believes to be a fundamental problem facing this country – the growing emotional disconnect between the general American population and skilled labor.
“We have embraced a ridiculously narrow view of education,” wrote Rowe in his open letter to Governor Romney this past Labor Day."
Any kind of training or study that does not come with a four-year degree is now deemed ‘alternative.’ Many viable careers once aspired to are now seen as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ and many of the jobs this current administration has tried to ‘create’ over the last four years are the same jobs that parents and teachers actively discourage kids from pursuing.
The irony underlying the emotional disconnect with skilled labor is that these jobs are just what they claim to be – skilled – and require diverse education across a number of fields, a far cry from the bleak picture transfixed in the minds of many parents and teachers concerning these careers. In the manufacturing industry, for example, machinists are typically required to be adept at computer programming and geometry. These jobs are not avenues for opting out of an engaged and intelligent lifestyle, rather, they represent in many ways the beautiful symbiosis that may exist between education and practice.
Far from the “alternative” label given careers in skilled trades today, these professions were once described as possessing qualities uniquely apt for democratic peoples. Alexis de Tocqueville has a chapter in Democracy in America dedicated to the question of why Americans are drawn to the practice of science (such as skilled trade jobs), and writes that “In America the purely practical part of the sciences is cultivated admirably, and people attend carefully to the theoretical portion immediately necessary to application; in this way the Americans display a mind that is always clear, free, original, and fertile…” A far cry from the “vocational consolation prizes” these professions are deemed today.
Hannah Arendt also decried the "lost contact between the world of the senses and appearances and the physical world view." And Arendt understands that it is practical persons—plumbers and technicians—who will better be able to re-establish that lost contact that many educated people and scientists feel in the face of the physical world.
There is no doubt about our disconnect from physical and skilled labor, there is only the question of what to make of it. Mike Rowe writes,
Forty years ago, people understood that sweat and dirt were the hallmarks of important work. Today, that understanding has faded. Somewhere in our economy’s massive transition from manufacturing to financial services, we have forsaken skilled labor, along with many aspects of our traditional work ethic.
Skilled laborer positions are still financially lucrative. Many machinists, for example, make about $60,000 a year and some have the opportunity of making as much as $100,000 a year with overtime, but these jobs are no longer celebrated as worthwhile and honorable positions, and this, Rowe argues, is why so many Americans fail to consider these careers.
Rowe argues that we need to confront the social stigmas and stereotypes attached to skilled-labor so that we may begin to reevaluate the jobs which for years now have been underappreciated despite their necessity. There was “a time when Work was not seen as a thing to avoid,” Rowe wrote in his concluding remarks to President Obama, “When skilled tradesmen were seen as role models, and a paycheck was not the only benefit of a job well done. We need to recapture that sentiment. We need to celebrate, on a bigger scale, the role models right in front of us.”
—RB (with assistance from David Breitenbucher)
“Everything that is appears; everything that appears disappears; everything that is alive has an urge to appear; this urge is called vanity; since there is no urge to disappear and disappearance is the law of appearance, the urge, called vanity, is in vain.‘Vanitas vanitatum vanitas’—all is vanity, all is in vain.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, 796
Arendt writes this entry in her Denktagebuch in September 1970. She is 63 years old and long familiar with the law of disappearance. For years the record of her thoughts has been interrupted by mention of the death of friends and mentors: May 1951 “[Hermann] Broch died on 30 May and was buried on 2 June 1951”; February 1969 “Jaspers dies”; November 1968: “Tonight I dreamed of Kurt Blumenfeld… in the dream I didn’t know that he was dead.” The following month the law would bear down again and she would write an entry beginning: “On 31 October Heinrich died…”. Within a little over four years of her husband’s death she would herself be gone.
“Vanitas vanitatum vanitas.” This could be despair. It could be that dreadful thought that forces itself on us in moments of grief and anxiety, the thought that a life’s endeavor has been for naught, that all our achievements have turned out to be worthless. It could be the distress at the Nietzschean reflection that not only must we each die, but this human race and this earth will eventually disappear without trace. Perhaps it is the same as the horror Sophocles savors when he warns us: “Not to be born is, past all prizing, best; but, when man has seen the light, this is next best by far, that with all speed he should go thither, whence he hath come.”
It could also be frustration at the sheer urgency of the desire to rush into full view when thinking is always conducted in darkness and quiet, at a remove from the world. It might be a distaste, for instance, for glib self-promotion that stands in for political action on the part of candidates for public office, or for everything about the modern university that insists that “research” be published prematurely, rendering it hypocritical, superficial and irrelevant (Denktagebuch, 703).
Yet, though her frustration is real, and though she grieves, Arendt uses the word vanity without judgment. A few weeks ago Ian Storey introduced a “Quote of the Week” that came from the same late period of the Denktagebuch, and wrote movingly of the sense of end that suffuses these last entries. (It’s beautiful and touching and well worth your while.) He writes also of the shades of Arendt’s response to our endedness, from bitter sadness to old contentment. In the same way, she reacts to the vanity of our beginnings both with an austere refusal of even the fantasy of immortality and wonder that any of it came to be at all.
After all, no one asks to be born. No one demands to come into the world as if birth were a special favor, a privilege granted to some but not to others. We’re propelled into the light of day before we know it, by an urge that has nothing to do with ego and does not belong to us any more than it belongs to our parents or our species. We share it with everything alive. However, if we think of it as a great surging drive towards life or survival, it threatens to diminish thinking and overwhelm the senses as a great unfathomable force; if we think of it as a drive to appear it produces instead the refinement of difference and the delight of variegation.
In these same years Arendt reads about biology and studies up on the science of genetics. She reads the work of the philosophical zoologist Adolph Portmann whose most remarkable studies concern the vast variety in the size, shape and color of butterflies (The Beauty of Butterflies, 1951). Instead of submitting the phenomenon of this variety—and butterflies make up just one terrifically flamboyant example—to the demands of natural and sexual selection as in the mainstream of evolutionary theory, Portmann identifies an Aristotelian desire to appear. Arendt adds to this an existential claim for recognition and even praise. “All that appears wants to be seen and recognized and praised. The highest form of recognition is love: volu ut sis.—The wonder implies affirmation” (Denktagebuch, 701). The moment our surprise at the color of a butterfly turns into wonder that it should have somehow come to be and come to be precisely this color, we affirm its existence. We could never have called up in imagination all the colors of butterflies’ wings, and no-one could have planned the immense series of mutations and other tiny contingencies that brought them all into existence but, exposed to a small section of their uncalled-for variety, astonished by it, wondering at it, affirming it, we will that it be. This is what it means to love the world.
This love comes as a sort of gratitude, even if we’re not sure whom we should be grateful to. Believers thank the creator god. Arendt may not believe—at least not like that—but she reaches for the word blasphemy and so also for a sense of something sacred that needs protection from profanity. In October 1969 she writes: “The desire for earthly immortality is blasphemous, not because it wants to overcome death, but because it negates birth” (744). The problem is not that we want to play God by refusing to die, but that we balk at making way for a new, different world. From her reading in genetics she knows the role of genetic mutation in the generation of natural variety and the many millions of mistakes that had to happen to produce the living world we see. She has noted Portmann’s bon mot: “One of the surest methods for the regular occurrence of new [genetic] combinations is that peculiar game that biologists call sexuality.” What is sacred, then, is the fact of all those butterfly wings, all the fish scales, animal ears, nose shapes, eye colors, skin tones, smiles that could easily have happened in some other way but that appear to us now, just as they are, the needlessly glamorous and constantly renewed results of contingency.
All vanity, yes, and all in vain, certainly. But praise be.
For those of us who believe that the U.S. and much of the world must make major changes, the presidential election can be little other than frustrating. Neither candidate is expressing a meaningful version of where we ought to go and how we can get there. The result will be that we abdicate our human responsibility to think collectively about our future and try to bring ourselves there. We will, then, give ourselves over to the social and technological trends that operate outside and to some extent beyond political control. This is precisely the worry Arendt expresses in her prologue to The Human Condition.
Walter Russell Mead, who will be speaking at the Arendt Center's conference "Does the President Matter?", has a good post today on the inconsequential nature of the presidential election. Here are the core last two graphs.
Our problem is that the time isn’t ripe: the real work of our society right now isn’t about political competition. It is about re-imagining, reinventing and restructuring core institutions and professions. Our health care system is wasteful and poorly organized and if in the next generation we don’t fundamentally reorganize it the country will go broke. Our educational system from kindergarten through grad school needs a variety of upgrades and innovations. Mass employment through manufacturing cannot support the kind of middle class society it once did; conventional big box retail cannot do it; government employment and subsidies can’t do it. Americans must find new ways to organize themselves for work and production, and we must learn to produce different (better and more interesting) goods. We must complete the transition from a late stage industrial society to an early stage information society and it’s something that nobody has ever done before in the history of the world.
Neither party, it must be emphasized, knows what to do about these issues. To a very large degree the solutions are outside politics. Policy and therefore politics will play a significant role ultimately in either furthering or retarding the changes we need, but so much of the shape of the future is still unknown that nobody can really tell us what should be done and in what order to create the best possible conditions in which a brighter future most quickly and most stably emerge.
You'll do well to read the rest.
In a recent post I outlined the President's challenge in his Convention speech thus:
The crises the President inherited are not his fault. It is disgusting to hear Paul Ryan and others blame the President for every problem in the United States. And despite Mitt Romney's impressive past history, his willingness to change his positions regularly and disavow past achievements raises serious questions about his own ability to lead. And yet, it is undeniable that after three years, the financial crisis is still with us and the political crisis is worse than ever. At some point, the President must take responsibility for his failure to address these crises and offer hope that he has a plan to address them in the future. That is the President's challenge during his convention speech next week. To somehow try to answer the criticism that after three years, we still don't know what it is that President Obama believes in and how he wants to respond to the financial and political crisis that he inherited.
Obama did make it clear that he and Mitt Romney offer two fundamentally different approaches to politics and to American life. The Republicans and Democrats do represent different versions of what it means to be Americans in the 21st century. There is a choice of values.
What the President did not do, however, is to show us that he understands the depth of the crisis we continue to struggle through or that American life as we have known it is changing radically. Nor therefore did he outline his vision of where he wants it to go. Eliot Spitzer seems to get this right:
Through this haze, however, a fundamental choice on values and policy did emerge—a choice clarified by the brilliance of Bill Clinton in his deconstruction of the Republican agenda and praise for Present Obama has done. Yet the reality of today's job numbers—only 96,000 net new jobs created and a work force participation rate of 63.5 percent, the lowest in 30 years—reaffirms what we already know: We are still in a serious crisis.
All of which is what left me feeling a bit empty after the president's speech: What exactly is the agenda for the next four years? His priorities are surely better than those of the Republicans. And give him credit: He even spoke directly about global warming. But it is not clear to me that he is ready to push for the genuine control of health care costs that might ensure that the government can afford the investments in the areas that most need it: education, infrastructure, basic R&D, and protection of the safety net for the poor.
The President may win simply because his values are understood to be better than Mitt Romney's and the Republican Party's. He at least understands that political life and patriotism demand that we see ourselves as part of a common project, not simply as a collection of radically atomized individuals. But in an individualistic age, in which we live, people need to believe in grand projects if they are to feel part of something bigger than themselves. The President continues to fail to provide such a narrative. In other words, he is not making the case that the President can and does Matter.
“That the arts must be functional, that cathedrals fulfill a religious need of society, that a picture is born from the need for self-expression in the individual painter and that it is looked at because of a desire for self-perfection in the spectator, all these notions are so unconnected with art and historically so new that one is tempted simply to dismiss them as modern prejudices.”
-Hannah Arendt, "Crisis in Culture"
Today, within the context of contemporary art, post-Marcel Duchamp, post-Sherrie Levine, it’s no longer interesting to ask the question “What is art?” Anything and everything can now be appropriated into art’s frame or become part of an artwork. In Andrea Fraser’s words, “It’s art when I say its art.”
When we approach contemporary art with Hannah Arendt in mind, however, we must begin by understanding what she means when she uses the word, “art.” She works with a traditional idea of what art is. And she is quick to point out that what constitutes art for her may have little to do with what constitutes art for a given population in a given point in time. When we speak of art today in the current discourse surrounding contemporary art, we speak differently from Arendt. Which is reason enough to consider her definition.
One case in point is the cathedral. It is not a coincidence that Arendt chooses an ornate cathedral to exemplify her definition of art, since art for Arendt is distinguished by having no utilitarian purpose. A cathedral is a place of worship, and thus may serve a purpose. And yet a cathedral itself serves no purpose. The people of Chartres, for example, could gather and worship without their infamous building’s spires and rose window. These elements were made, to quote Arendt, ad maiorem gloriam Dei [for the greater glory of God]. Chartres Cathedral possesses qualities above and beyond any functionality. Art, for Arendt, is this totally non-functional thing that exists in the world merely to appear. Art objects may—and almost always do—have other purposes, yet this is not what qualifies them as art.
Art, as Arendt understands it, must also be free from its commodification in the art market. When art is commoditized, it is subject to becoming just like any other consumer commodity, which can be purchased, consumed, and therefore destroyed. Still, I don’t believe that an art object’s status as a commodity necessarily disqualifies it from constituting Arendt’s definition as art. As many contemporary critics, such as Diedrich Diedrichsen, have pointed out, art is not a regular commodity, and it is not assigned value or circulated in the same way, even if it is given a price tag.
“Beauty”—another fraught term in contemporary art discourse - is the quality that makes something last forever, and constitutes the world of appearance. Obviously, this quality is threatened by commodification, which, in theory, reduces art to dollar signs, making a painting’s value equal to that of a luxury apartment. And like a luxury apartment, when it circulates freely in the market, it is subject to demolition. Although, even when art is not circulating in this market, it is subject to destruction.( In the example hyperlinked, it is merely art’s comparison to monetary values that became “rationale” for its destruction. This museum director is what Arendt would call a “philistine”.)
The term “beauty,” like the question “What is art?”, is contentious mainly because it has ceased to mean anything. As the idiom goes, “it is in the eye of the beholder.” Not so, according to Arendt, who deploys this quality normally defined by its subjectivity and indefinability, in a super definitive and specific way. Beauty is the quality that transcends all needs and makes something last through time, and it is not a subjective descriptor. Following Kant, she argues that the person who judges whether or not something is beautiful must put themselves in the place of others who are judging the work in the same time and place, and they must produce judgments to “woo the consent of everyone else” (here I quote Arendt, quoting from Kant) in the hopes of coming to some eventual agreement about what is beautiful.
Consent about what is beautiful is important because it determines what is preserved over time. What unfolds in “Crisis in Culture,” the essay from which I’m drawing and to which I will continue to refer in these posts, is what happens to art and “culture” (which I will have to save for another week) within “mass society.” Or, what happens to the world of appearances, a necessary condition for politics, when everything is produced in order to be consumed (and therefore destroyed)?
“Let us reflect, if we wish to be brilliant. Too much improvisation empties the mind in a stupid way. Running beer gathers no froth.”
― Victor Hugo
We face a challenge of leadership; there is a void in our body politics that remains to be filled. First, expectations of the president need to re-evaluated. The public’s perception of the president is unrealistic and inflated. A CBS News/New York Times poll in March 2012 reported that 54% of people believe the president “can do a lot” about gas prices.
Our economic recession adds another dimension to the public’s bloated expectations. In the wake of the 2008 economic recession all eyes turned on what the President-elect would do once in office. People believed and still do that the President had the ability to fix the global economic meltdown. The public expected the President to solve our economic problem without understanding that in the globalized neo-liberal regime markets are highly connected. It is no longer possible for a single country to ameliorate the effects of an economic meltdown.
The president will only matter in this century if it is first addressed how we perceive the president. He is neither a deity nor a dictator. His actions in an increasingly filibuster-happy congress are limited. The public’s expectations must be re-evaluated and shaped to accept reality. The president cannot solve all our problems; the very fabric of the American constitution prohibits the president from securing more powers. The justified fear of an autocrat prohibits action. This tradeoff was accepted by the founding fathers and it must now be accepted again.
Once expectations are adjusted, how then does the president matter? The president will matter as long as he can engage citizens in our democratic process. The pervasive idea that democracy is simply voting has filled the minds of millions. The civic and democratic institutions lie asleep in times where the market prevails. People have given up on government; they see it as an artifact to be studied in history books. The president must see his role as protector of our democracy; he must be its biggest champion. This cannot only be done through rhetoric alone. The president must help foster an engaged citizenry that actively participates in our democracy.
The danger to our politics does not come from terrorist it comes from a citizenry that is not informed, does not participate, and could care less. When the media suggests the president must rise above politics the only way that can be done is to address the inherent problems in our current political system. It is to remind citizens of the price paid by their forefathers for political rights. The president must become the chief persuader thereby helping bring citizens into the political fold. The only way for the president to matter in this century is for people to see him as a protector of this great experiment and not merely as passerby.
These leaders will come from the left and the right alike, engaging citizens should not be a partisan issue. They must also come with a historical understanding of our democracy and American institutions. This does not mean they will rise from academia, but that their understanding cannot be informed by current political debates but rather by history. New political leaders must accept a non-politicized history that seeks truth.
Facts have become politicized, each side molding it to their own advantage. Objective truths are irrelevant because each side has been allowed to massage it. On August 28, 2012 New Jersey Governor Chris Christie lied by omission. He gave the keynote address at the Republican National Convention claiming that there has been a New Jersey come back. That his policies have worked and all it takes is serious leaders to tackle our problem. He claims he cut the state deficit while decreasing taxes. The governor forgets to mention he also cut pensions, teachers, firefighters, and many others. What is more glaring is New Jersey’s unemployment rate at over 9%. The myth is created allowing Governor Christie to become a hero in the Republican Party. The truth does not lie with either party. A new leader must inform citizens of the reality rather than try to score political points. This may be impossible but it is the only way that the president will matter.
People are tired of the partisan bickering; Obama’s unemployment rate is just as bad as Governor Christie’s and yet both sides claim victory. A president will not matter until he can acknowledge the fundamental problems at hand. For a leader to matter he must stand for something greater than his own party. He must stand for citizen participation and access to information. A leader would not claim victory but would relate to citizens the problems we face and the solutions they believe will solve it. They must acknowledge when those solutions do not work. It is a pragmatic president that will matter in this century, one who is willing to suffer the consequences of failed policies for democracies sake.
The Millennial generation will inherit a troubled world by the year 2040. Their ability to lead will prove extremely important. They will be the heirs to the American dilemma. The hope is that they rise and fill the leadership void not as past generations have done, but as new leaders different and emboldened by a fight for a vibrant participatory democracy. It is John Dewey that should inform what a new president needs to fight for. “[T]he task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.”
 John Dewey, “Creative Democracy—The Task before US
Here is the official trailer for the much anticipated Margarethe von Trotta film, "Hannah Arendt." It will debut at the Toronto International Film Festival this month.
It can be dangerous to tell the truth: “There will always be One against All, one person against all others. [This is so] not because One is terribly wise and All are terribly foolish, but because the process of thinking and researching, which finally yields truth, can only be accomplished by an individual person. In its singularity or duality, one human being seeks and finds – not the truth (Lessing) –, but some truth.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Book XXIV, No. 21
Hannah Arendt wrote these lines when she was confronted with the severe and often unfair, even slanderous, public criticism launched against her and her book Eichmann in Jerusalem after its publication in 1963. The quote points to her understanding of the thinking I (as opposed to the acting We) on which she bases her moral and, partly, her political philosophy.
It is the thinking I, defined with Kant as selbstdenkend (self-thinking [“singularity”]) and an-der-Stelle-jedes-andern-denkend (i.e., in Arendt’s terms, thinking representatively or practicing the two-in-one [“duality”]). Her words also hint at an essay she published in 1967 titled “Truth and Politics,” wherein she takes up the idea that it is dangerous to tell the truth, factual truth in particular, and considers the teller of factual truth to be powerless. Logically, the All are the powerful, because they may determine what at a specific place and time is considered to be factual truth; their lies, in the guise of truth, constitute reality. Thus, it is extremely hard to fight them.
In answer to questions posed in 1963 by the journalist Samuel Grafton regarding her report on Eichmann and published only recently, Arendt states: “Once I wrote, I was bound to tell the truth as I see it.” The statement reveals that she was quite well aware of the fact that her story, i.e., the result of her own thinking and researching, was only one among others. She also realized the lack of understanding and, in many cases, of thinking and researching, on the part of her critics.
Thus, she lost any hope of being able to publicly debate her position in a “real controversy,” as she wrote to Rabbi Hertzberg (April 8, 1966). By the same token, she determined that she would not entertain her critics, as Socrates did the Athenians: “Don’t be offended at my telling you the truth.” Reminded of this quote from Plato’s Apology (31e) in a supportive letter from her friend Helen Wolff, she acknowledged the reference, but acted differently. After having made up her mind, she wrote to Mary McCarthy: “I am convinced that I should not answer individual critics. I probably shall finally make, not an answer, but a kind of evaluation of this whole strange business.” In other words, she did not defend herself in following the motto “One against All,” which she had perceived and noted in her Denktagebuch. Rather, as announced to McCarthy, she provided an “evaluation” in the 1964 preface to the German edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem and later when revising that preface for the postscript of the second English edition.
Arendt also refused to act in accordance with the old saying: Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus (let there be justice, though the world perish). She writes – in the note of the Denktagebuch from which today’s quote is taken – that such acting would reveal the courage of the teller of truth “or, perhaps, his stubbornness, but neither the truth of what he had to say nor even his own truthfulness.” Thus, she rejected an attitude known in German cultural tradition under the name of Michael Kohlhaas. A horse trader living in the 16th century, Kohlhaas became known for endlessly and in vain fighting injustice done to him (two of his horses were stolen on the order of a nobleman) and finally taking the law into his own hands by setting fire to houses in Wittenberg.
Even so, Arendt has been praised as a woman of “intellectual courage” with regard to her book on Eichmann (see Richard Bernstein’s contribution to Thinking in Dark Times).
Intellectual courage based on thinking and researching was rare in Arendt’s time and has become even rarer since then. But should Arendt therefore only matter nostalgicly? Certainly not. Her emphasis on the benefits of thinking as a solitary business still remains current. Consider, for example, the following reference to Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at MIT and author of the recent book Alone Together. In an interview with Peter Haffner (published on July 27, 2012, in SZ Magazin), she argues that individuals who become absorbed in digital communication lose crucial components of their faculty of thinking. Turkle says (my translation): Students who spend all their time and energy on communication via SMS, Facebook, etc. “can hardly concentrate on a particular subject. They have difficulty thinking a complex idea through to its end.” No doubt, this sounds familiar to all of us who know about Hannah Arendt’s effort to promote thinking (and judging) in order to make our world more human.
To return to today’s quote: It can be dangerous to tell the truth, but thinking is dangerous too. Once in a while, not only the teller of truth but the thinking 'I' as well may find himself or herself in the position of One against All.