(Featured Image - The American Flag, Source: The Sleuth Journal)
Parts of this post have appeared before; it is rewritten and presented in preparation for this week’s Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideals Worth Fighting For?”
On Thursday and Friday of this week, “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideals Worth Fighting For?” will gather leading public intellectuals, lawyers, students, professors, writers, politicians, business people, philosophers, and citizens to think together about what American ideas, if any, can inspire Americans to sacrifice and struggle for the common good.
In 1956, as Russian tanks bore down upon Hungary and the short-lived freedoms of the Hungarian revolution, the director of the Hungarian News Agency sent a telex to the world. As Milan Kundera reports in a 1984 essay in the New York Review of Books, this Hungarian newspaperman, facing imminent death, ended his dispatch “with these words: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.”” The lesson Kundera draws is that the question of Europe—what Europe is and what it means for Europeans—had shifted from Western Europe to Central Europe. No one in London, he writes, would say “I am prepared to die for England and for Europe.” And while Russian dissidents like Solzhenitsyn were prepared to die for their country, it was not Europe that inspired them. Rather, it is in the countries of Central Europe where the idea of Europe came to express a value and an ideal for which lovers of freedom would make the ultimate sacrifice. As Kundera writes, ““To die for one's country and for Europe”—that is a phrase that could not be thought in Moscow or Leningrad; it is precisely the phrase that could be thought in Budapest or Warsaw.” The center of Europe has moved, it seems, to central Europe—a fact that helps put the current Ukrainian controversy in context.
The story of the Hungarian News Director was told by Rob Riemen yesterday at “What Europe: Ideals to Fight For Today,” a conference in Berlin asking the question: What values or ideals today might Europe fight for? Riemen quipped that the Hungarian news director may have been the last man willing to die for Europe. But as Europe confronts not only a financial crisis but also the political crisis in Ukraine and the prospect of a rising Russian enemy in the east, there is the question: Will Europe come together and stand up for something like European values in the face of Russian forces intent on holding onto a Central European state? Are there any values today that Europe is willing to fight for?
That question was put directly by the American scholar and advocate for Ukrainian democracy Timothy Snyder in his keynote address at the conference. Snyder, who has been writing widely about the Ukraine crisis in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, claimed squarely that the question of Europe is going to be answered in the Ukraine. The Ukraine, he argued, is a test case for whether Europe is just a dream or whether it will finally become a reality. Snyder downplays the extremist elements of the Ukrainian protests, arguing that extremists in Ukraine represent only 3-5% of the population, far less than in Hungary or even in France. Rather, the Ukrainian revolutionaries on the Maidan are European idealists who are risking their lives for the idea of Europe. Like the Hungarian news director 60 years ago and unlike Western Europeans in London, Paris, and Berlin, Ukrainians are the ones putting their lives on the line for the chance to become part of Europe.
Snyder spent much of his speech and the bulk of the question and answer session arguing the Ukrainian revolution is mild, democratic, and non-fascist. As Snyder was speaking, a small group in the Ukraine calling themselves the Right Sector surrounded the Ukrainian Parliament demanding the resignation of a government minister. Here is how the New York Times reports the standoff:
“The presence of masked, armed demonstrators threatening to storm the Parliament building offered the Russian government an opportunity to bolster its contention that the ouster of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, a Moscow ally, after pro-European street protests last month was an illegal coup carried out by right-wing extremists with Western encouragement. In fact, the nationalist groups, largely based in western Ukraine, had formed just one segment of a broad coalition of demonstrators who occupied the streets of Kiev for months demanding Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster.”
Even if Snyder is right and the Ukrainian revolutionaries are more like European democrats than the extremists imagined by Russian propaganda, it remains to be seen whether the corrupt oligarchs of Ukraine will permit the formation of a meaningfully democratic and liberal government oriented towards Europe. For Snyder, this is an existential question not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe. He believes that Ukraine will orient towards Europe and then argues that the future of Europe will flourish or wither depending on whether Europe welcomes its Ukrainian brothers and sisters into the European Union and protects them against the anti-European Eurasian axis centered in Russia. Europe, he insists, rise or fall on the question of how it handles Ukraine.
If Ukraine is the test case for the future of Europe, the European future looks bleak. The European Union was born from a deep wish for security and prosperity. Governed by consensus and centered around a monetary union, the European Union seems incapable of acting boldly to protect anything but its most basic financial interests. Faced with threats to Ukrainians claiming the mantle of Europe, European leaders are paralyzed. Germany receives the bulk of its oil from Russia and is unwilling to risk economic pain that would come with sanctions. The United Kingdom relies on the billions invested by Russian Oligarchs in British tax havens and London real estate and is unwilling to accept asset friezes that would threaten the inflow of dirty Russian money. And France has opposed an arms embargo on Russia because it has a contract to supply Russia with two warships worth $1 billion. Amidst austerity and with little sense of common purpose outside of peace and prosperity, the European Union has almost no ability to think the Ukrainian conflict through the political lens of a clash of ideas or a clash of civilizations.
Snyder called upon Europe to do just that. He argues that Europe must recognized that in Russia and the growing Eurasian Alliance Europe finally has an enemy, one that sees Europe as a threat. The question, he insisted, is whether Europe will grow up and finally act collectively to oppose a growing existential threat. The Ukraine crisis, he argued, is the test case that will decide the future of Europe.
The problem is that Europe is nearly existentially unable to articulate common ideals for which they will fight. Europe shies from articulating a vision of itself as exceptional or distinct in ways that are worth defending. Not only does Europe lack a common language or a heartfelt national anthem, but also it lacks a sense of what Europe means. Numerous speakers including Walter Russell Mead sought to defend an idea of European integratin and solidarity, but none offered an answer to the oft-repeated question, “What are European ideas to fight for today?”
The contrast between Europe and the United States was frequently cited at the conference, and it is helpful to compare the two. In the United States there is a clear national sense of what it is we stand for and those ideals for which we will fight. These are perhaps best expressed by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…. [We] here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
As Seymour Lipset writes in American Excptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, “The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being “the first new nation,” the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d’être ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln’s emphases on the country’s “political religion.” There is, Lipset writes, an “American Creed” that includes five fundamental (if contradictory) values: 1) liberty; 2) egalitarianism; 3) individualism; 4) populism; and 5) laissez faire.
Whether one agrees with Lipset’s articulation of the American Creed, the claim of American exceptionalism has been central to the American self-understanding as well as the American willingness to imagine itself the guardian of a particular idea of justice throughout the world. Here is one articulation of the exceptionalist idea from John F. Kennedy, from a speech he gave to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1961.
“I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider”, he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”
President Barack Obama recently articulated a similar view in a speech at the United Nations:
“Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness to the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up, not only for own interests, but for the interests of all.”
For all the controversy around American exceptionalism and the disdain for it on behalf of many intellectuals, the American belief in its destined role as the guardian of constitutional democracy and self-government has indeed led America to put aside self-interest in the pursuit of idealistic aims.
The point of departure for these reflections as well as for the “What Europe?” conference (sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and Bard College Berlin) was a sentence by Hannah Arendt from her essay “Tradition and the Modern Age.” In that essay, Arendt writes:
“The rebels of the 19th and 20th centuries fought against tradition. They were occupied with critique and destruction of past and authoritative structures. Today, in the wake of the fact of the break of tradition and the loss of authority, we face the ominous silence that answers us whenever we ask: “What are we fighting for?”
Amidst the loss of assured and common values in the wake of the loss of tradition, one great challenge today is the articulation of those common values and shared ideals that can still bind and inspire us and compel us to fight and suffer something beyond our narrow self-interest. The problem of Europe today is that the European Union is still ideologically barren, or if it has an ideology, it is a patently pedestrian ideology of economic security. As Ulrike Winkelmann of taz Berlin said at the conference, the Financial Times is the de facto newspaper read by European Union officials in Brussels. There is neither a European newspaper nor a European vision except for the maintenance of peace and economic growth. The problem for Europe as it faces the emergence of a real enemy on its Eastern front is that it means little to say “Give me peace or give me death.” At some point Europeans will either forge a common ideal for which they will collectively struggle, sacrifice, and even fight, or the European project will prove itself to be the mirage that Timothy Snyder hopes it is not and President Putin is seeking to prove it to be.
The video of Timothy Snyder’s speech will be available soon on the Hannah Arendt website. Until then, you can read his latest essay in the New York Review of Books.
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
In the New York Times, Roger Berkowitz takes on what he calls the new consensus emerging in responses to the new "Hannah Arendt" movie, that seems to be resolving the vitriolic debates over Arendt's characterization of Adolf Eichmann over the last 50 years. This new consensus holds that Arendt was right in her general claim that many evildoers are normal people, but was wrong about Eichmann in particular. As Christopher Browning summed it up recently in the New York Review of Books, "Arendt grasped an important concept but not the right example." As Berkowitz writes, this new consensus is founded upon "new scholarship on Eichmann's writings and reflections from the 1950's, when he was living amongst a fraternity of former Nazis in Argentina, before Israeli agents captured him and spirited him out of the country and to Israel. Eichmann's writings include an unpublished memoir, "The Others Spoke, Now Will I Speak," and an interview conducted over many months with a Nazi journalist and war criminal, Willem Sassen, which were not released until long after the trial. Eichmann's justification of his actions to Sassen is considered more genuine than his testimony before judges in Jerusalem. In recent decades, scholars have argued that the Sassen interviews show that Arendt was simply wrong in her judgment of Eichmann because she did not have all the facts." As tempting as this new consensus is, it is wrong, Berkowitz argues. Read his full argument here.
Geoff Dyer, flipping through the catalogue of a recent Gary Winograd retrospective at SFMoMA, considers the way that the street photographer presented what he saw: "the pictures didn't look right, they were all skewed and lurchy, random-seeming and wrong. They were, it was felt, an unprovoked assault on the eye... We were accustomed to viewing the world through a set of conventional lenses that Winograd wrenched from our face, making us conscious of how short-sighted we had been." Winograd's still pictures, in other words, act on their viewers, betraying our sense of the world, shifting it out of focus, and therefore revealing it for what it is.
Tony Horwitz uses the upcoming 150th anniversary of Gettysburg to zoom out and consider the changing historical narrative about the American Civil War, in the process offering up an important reminder that history is a living, changing thing: "the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is too narrow a lens through which to view the conflict. We are commemorating the four years of combat that began in 1861 and ended with Union victory in 1865. But Iraq and Afghanistan remind us, yet again, that the aftermath of war matters as much as its initial outcome. Though Confederate armies surrendered in 1865, white Southerners fought on by other means, wearing down a war-weary North that was ambivalent about if not hostile to black equality. Looking backwards, and hitting the pause button at the Gettysburg Address or the passage of the 13th amendment, we see a "good" and successful war for freedom. If we focus instead on the run-up to war, when Lincoln pledged to not interfere with slavery in the South, or pan out to include the 1870s, when the nation abandoned Reconstruction, the story of the Civil War isn't quite so uplifting. "
Computer scientist and writer Jaron Lanier critiques the present digital economy with a close look at the evolving relationship between technology and power. To make his argument for change, he insightfully reinterprets what many consider to be a paradox - that the pairing of technology and power at once enriches and erodes the agency of individual actors. Companies like Google are so valuable, he argues, because they control enormously powerful and expensive servers-he calls them Siren Servers to emphasize their irresistible allure-that allow it to manipulate aggregate activity over time. "While people are rarely forced to accept the influence of Siren Servers in any particular case, on a broad statistical basis it becomes impossible for a population to do anything but acquiesce over time....While no particular Google ad is guaranteed to work, the overall Google ad scheme by definition must work, because of the laws of statistics. Superior computation lets a Siren Server enjoy the magical benefits of reliably manipulating others even though no hand is forced ... We need to experiment; to learn how to nurture a middle class that can thrive even in a highly automated society."
Discussing her recent essay in Harper's, writer Rebecca Makkai talks about her experience of her grandfather, whom she knew as a yoga instructor who lived in Hawaii, who was also the principal author of Hungary's Second Jewish Law, which passed in 1939. At one point, she strikes a particularly Arendtian note: "There's also the fact that it's just very difficult, psychologically, to reconcile the face of a real person with one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century. It's not the same as looking at someone who's personally violent, likely to reach out and hit you. This guy is chopping up papaya on his balcony, telling jokes, and I think we have an instinct to forgive, to see just the best in that person, to see him at just that moment. (The irony being that this is what he and his colleagues failed to do - to see humans in front of them.)"
Roger Berkowitz will be in attendance at the Moviehouse in Millerton for a discussion after the 4:00 pm screening of "Hannah Arendt" and before the 7:00 pm screening.
July 16, 2013
Following the 7:40 pm showing of "Hannah Arendt" at the Quad Cinema on 13th St. in N.Y.C., there will be a Q&A with Roger Berkowitz about the film.
July 21, 2013
Following the 6:00 pm showing of "Hannah Arendt" at Symphony Space on Broadway and 95th St. in N.Y.C., there will be a Q&A with Roger Berkowitz about the film.
The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast" The Educated Citizen in Crisis"
Olin Hall, Bard College
Learn more here.
From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog
This week on the blog, Ian Storey in the Quote of the Week looks at the implications of the recent Supreme Court same sex marriage rulings. Jeff Champlin considers Arendt's reading of Kant, offering a new way to think about judgment. Hannah Arendt's thinking is brought to bear on the Paula Deen scandal. And, for your weekend read, Roger Berkowitz looks at the moral implications of financial inequality.
The New York Times tells the story of Benjamin Goering. Goering is 22. Until recently he studied computer science and philosophy at the University of Kansas. He felt “frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name.” So Goering dropped out of college and went to San Francisco, where he got a job as a software engineer.
I applaud Goering for making a risky decision. College was not for him. This does not mean he wasn’t smart or couldn’t cut it. He clearly has talent and it was being wasted in courses he was not interested in that were costing him and his family many tens of thousands of dollars every year. In leaving, Goering made the right decision for him. Indeed, many more college students should make the same decision he did. There are huge numbers of talented people who are simply not intellectuals and don’t enjoy or get much out of college. This is not destiny. A great or good teacher might perk them up. But largely it is a waste of their time and money for them to struggle through (or sleep through) classes that bore them. If anything, the forced march through Shakespeare and Plato make these students less engaged, cynical, and self-centered as they turn from common sense to the internal pursuit of self interest in partying and life in private.
The story should raise the big question that everyone tiptoes around in this current debate about college: Who should go to college?
The obvious answer is those who want to and those who care about ideas. Those who see that in thinking and reading and talking about justice, democracy, the scientific method, and perspective, we are talking about what it means to live in a large, democratic, bureaucratic country at a time of transition from an industrial to a information-age economy. College, in other words, is for those people who want to think about their world. It is for people who are willing and eager to turn to the great thinkers who came before them and, also, the innovative scientists and artists who have revealed hidden secrets about the natural and the human worlds. It is, in other words, for intellectuals. And this of course raises the “E” question: the question of elitism.
It is folly to think that everyone is or should be interested in such an endeavor. In no society in history have intellectuals been anything but a small minority of the population. This is not a question of privilege. There is no reason to think that those who love ideas are better or more qualified than those who work the earth, build machines, or engineer websites. It may very well be otherwise.
Hannah Arendt was clear that intellectuals had no privileged position in politics. On the contrary, she worried that the rise of intellectuals in politics was specifically dangerous. Intellectuals, insofar as they could get lost in and captivated by ideas, are prone to lose sight of reality in the pursuit of grand schemes. And intellectuals, captivated by the power of reason, are susceptible to rationalizations that excuse wrongs like torture or suicide bombing as means necessary for greater goods. The increasing dominance of intellectuals in politics, Arendt argued, is one of the great dangers facing modern society. She thus welcomed the grand tradition of the American yeoman farmer and affirmed that there is no need to go to college to be an engaged citizen or a profound thinker. The last of our Presidents who did not attend college was Abraham Lincoln. He did just fine. It is simply ridiculous to argue that college is a necessary credential for statesmanship.
While intellectuals have no special claim to leadership or prominence, they are nevertheless important. Intellectuals—those who think— are those people in society who stand apart from the mainstream pressures of economy and influence and outside the political movements of advocacy and propaganda. In the Arendtian tradition, intellectuals are or can be conscious pariahs, those who look at their societies from the outside and thus gain a perspective from distance that allows them to understand and comprehend the society in ways that people deeply embedded within it cannot. Those who stand apart from society and think are important, first because they preserve and deepen the stories and tales we as a society tell about ourselves. In writing poetry, making art, building monuments, writing books, and giving speeches, intellectuals help lend meaning and gravity to the common sense we have of ourselves as a people.
One problem we have in the current debate is that College has morphed into an institution designed to do many (too many) things. On the one hand, college has historically been the place for the education of and formation of intellectuals. But for many decades if not many centuries, that focus has shifted. Today College is still a place for the life of the mind. But it is also a ticket into the middle or upper-middles classes and it is equally a job-training and job-certification program. Of course, it is also a consumer good that brands young people with a certain mystique and identity. For many localities colleges are, themselves, job creation machines, bringing with them all sorts of new businesses and throwing off patents and graduating students that reinvigorate local communities. The university is now a multiversity, to invoke Clark Kerr’s famous term. When we talk about college today, the debate is complicated by these multiple roles.
It is difficult to raise such issues today because they smack of elitism. Since college-educated people think they are superior to those without a fancy diploma, their egalitarianism then insists that everyone should have the same experience. We are not supposed to entertain the idea that some people may not want to go to college. Instead, we are told that if they had a better education, if they knew better, if they just were taught to understand, they would all want to sit in classrooms and read great books or do exciting experiments.
We are stuck today with what Hannah Arendt called, in a related context, the “democratic mentality of an egalitarian society that tends to deny the obvious inability and conspicuous lack of interest of large parts of the population in political matters as such.” In politics, Arendt argued that what was needed were public spaces from which a self-chose “élite could be selected, or rather, where it could select itself.” Similarly, in education today, colleges should be the spaces where those who want to select themselves as an educated élite might lose themselves in books and experiments and amongst paintings and symphonies. There is simply no reason to assume that most people in society need to or should be interested in such an endeavor.
One reason the question of elitism is so present in debates about college is the disgusting and degenerate state of American public high schools. If high schools provided a serious and meaningful civic education, if they taught not simply reading and writing and arithmetic, but history and art—and taught these well—we would not need to send students to remedial education in college where they could be taught these subjects a second time. While many academics wring their hands about making college available to all, they might do much better if they focused on high schools and grammar schools around the country. If we were to redistribute the billions of dollars we spend on remedial college education to serious reform efforts in high schools, that money would be very well spent.
To raise the question of elitism means neither that college should be open only to the rich and connected (on the contrary, it should be open to all who want it), nor that the educated elite is to be segregated from society and kept apart in an ivory tower. When one reads Shakespeare, studies DNA, or dances with Bill T. Jones, one is not simply learning for learning's sake. Few understood this better than John Finley, Greek Professor at Harvard, who wrote General Education in a Free Society in 1945. Finley had this to say about the purposes of a college education:
The heart of the problem of a general education is the continuance of the liberal and humane tradition. Neither the mere acquisition of information nor the development of special skills and talents can give the broad basis of understanding which is essential if our civilization is to be preserved…. Unless the educational process includes at each level of maturity some continuing contact with those fields in which value judgments are of prime importance, it must fall short of the ideal.
What college should offer—as should all education at every level except for the most specialized graduate schools—is the experience of thinking and coming to engage with the world in which one lives. College is, at its best, an eye opening experience, an opportunity for young people to learn the foundational texts and also be exposed to new cultures, new ideas, and new ways of thinking. The ideas of justice, truth, and beauty one learns are not valuable in themselves; they are meaningful only insofar as they impact and inform our daily lives. To read Plato’s Republic is to ask: what are the value of the ideas of good and the just? It is also to meditate on the role of music and art in society. And at the same time, it is to familiarize oneself with characters like Socrates and Plato who, in the world we share, epitomize the qualities of morality, heroism, and the pursuit of the truth wherever it might lead. This can also be done in high schools. And it should be.
It is simply wrong to think such inquiries are unworldly or overly intellectual. Good teachers teach great texts not simply because the books are old, but because they are meaningful. And young students return to these books generation after generation because they find in them stories, examples, and ideas that inspire them to live their lives better and more fully.
As Leon Botstein, President of Bard College where the Hannah Arendt Center is located, writes in his book Jefferson’s Children,
No matter how rigorous the curriculum, no matter how stringent the requirements, if what goes on in the classroom does not leave its mark in the way young adults voluntarily act in private and in public while they are in college, much less in the years after, then the college is not doing what it is supposed to do.
The basic question being asked today is: Is college worthwhile? It is a good question. Too many colleges have lost their way. They no longer even understand what they are here to offer. Faculty frequently put research above teaching. Administration is the fastest growing segment of university education, which is evidence if anything is that universities simply do not know what their mission is anymore. It is no wonder, then, that many of our brightest young people will begin to shy away from the thoughtless expectation that one must attend college.
All around us, people are opting out of college. The mania for online education is at least in part fueled by the hunger for knowledge from students and others who do not want or need to attend college. The Times highlights Uncollege and other organizations that advocate “hacking” your education. Recall that Lincoln was better schooled in the classics of poetry and politics than most every college educated President who followed him. At a time when many colleges are so confused and trying to do so many things, they often do none well. It may be the case today that we need to evolve new networks and new organizations where intellectualism can flourish. And it may be small liberal arts colleges that are more flexible and more able to make that transition than large, bureaucratic research institutions.
The real question this debate needs to raise, but avoids, is: Who should get a college education? The answer, “not everyone,” is one few want to hear. And yet it might be the beginning of a real conversation about what a college education is for and why we are today so often failing to provide it to our students.
I spoke with my daughter this morning. She is seven. I asked her what she thought of Mitt Romney's speech. She answered: "Both he and President Obama tell lies simply to get elected." Now I know she is to some extent parroting what she hears around our dinner table and the playground. But there is something deeply disheartening in her seven-year-old cynicism. There is a deep sense not only that our politicians lie, but also that the Presidency is a broken institution. That the President is captive of interests special and not-so-special. That the President is trapped in a bureaucracy impervious to change and that the President, whomever he or she may be, cannot really change the perilous course on which our nation is headed. This indeed is the topic of an upcoming conference, "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
There are myriad sources for this pessimism that one hears from seven-year-olds, college students, and adults. It is markedly different from the idealism that swept the country four years ago personified in Barack Obama. More so than any time I know of, there is a sense of total hopelessness; a feeling that neither party and no potential president can possibly change our course for the better.
To understand this ennui, one must take President Obama's failure seriously. That failure is simple. He became President amidst the perceived failure of the presidency of George W. Bush. The Country desperately wanted a change. At the same time, the financial crisis threatened to overwhelm the nation. The President offered hope. He embodied all of our dreams, offering a way forward, out of the excesses of the Bush era and towards a re-enlivening of basic American values of freedom and fairness. There was, in the President's own words, a demand for a "new era of responsibility."
The force of Mitt Romney's Convention speech on Thursday was his expression of disappointment in the President. This strikes me as a non-partisan statement and that is its strength. It is hard to find even the most stalwart of President Obama's supporters who will disagree with this assessment. Where does it come from? Why has Obama disappointed us?
One answer comes from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the leading thinkers of Presidential rhetoric of our time. Jamieson has given analyses of many of President Obama's speeches, and his found them deeply wanting. In her 2010 address to the American Political Science Association, she says:
In other words, Barack Obama was never as eloquent as we thought he was. A person matched a moment with rhetoric in a context in which the audience created something heard as eloquence. Widely labeled as eloquent, he creates expectations for his presidency that he cannot satisfy in the presidency barring that he is Abraham Lincoln with the Gettysburg Address or a Second Inaugural in his pocket.
So on the one hand, Obama set the expectations for himself too high. That may be, but it is also the case that he became President at a time of great crisis. Maybe it wasn't a Civil War, but the financial crisis does threaten the future of the United States. One fault of the President is that he has continued to describe the financial crisis as a temporary setback, one that will cause some pain but will pass. He has not taken the financial crisis seriously enough, and categorized it for what it is, a crisis. By refusing to do so, he has lost the opportunity to become a crisis President.
In a recent post, I discussed Roberto Magabeira Unger's insistence that we need a wartime President now without a war, one who rallies the nation to change and sacrifice towards a future goal. What Obama has refused to do is present his vision of where we should go. He speaks about change, but doesn't offer a sense of what that change might be. In Jamieson's analysis, he has failed to provide a rhetorical speech that offers us "a digestive sense of what this presidency is going to do."
A digestive statement for Jamieson is something like John F. Kennedy's question: "Ask not what your country can do for you..." As Jameison writes, such statements "sound as if they're sound bites until you realize that there's a definition underlying a presidency in those kinds of statements." Kennedy meant something with his question, something he backed up with the idea of the Peace Corps and public service.
The problem with President Obama's rhetoric, and thus his presidency, is that he has yet to find such a digestive statement that defines what he cares about and what he believes this country is about. As Jamieson writes, there is nothing like Kennedy's invocation of the Peace Corps or communal sacrifice that defines or articulates Obama's vision for America. There is no theme of "transformation of generational identity." She writes: "Indeed, I would challenge you to give me a phrase that is memorable at all, that defines who we are and where we're going under this presidency."
Jamieson's critique of the President is harsh. But I think it is accurate. That is the reason why Romney's claim of disappointment strikes me as powerful. Whether Romney offers an alternative is hard to know, since he himself seems to change his opinions and views weekly. That said, President Obama has his work cut out for him. He must show us that he can articulate a response to the disappointment people feel and provide the hope that he can still get the country back on track, even after three years of failing to do so.
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.
In thinking about what the President will say on Thursday, I encourage everyone to read Jamieson's analysis of the past failure of Obama's rhetoric. It is your weekend read. And if you want to think further about the challenge of the president to lead in times of crisis, think about attending the Hannah Arendt Center's upcoming conference, "Does the President Matter?"