Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
28Feb/141

Privacy and Politics

ArendtWeekendReading

In the most recent NY Review of Books, David Cole wonders if we've reached the point of no return on the issue of privacy:

“Reviewing seven years of the NSA amassing comprehensive records on every American’s every phone call, the board identified only one case in which the program actually identified an unknown terrorist suspect. And that case involved not an act or even an attempted act of terrorism, but merely a young man who was trying to send money to Al-Shabaab, an organization in Somalia. If that’s all the NSA can show for a program that requires all of us to turn over to the government the records of our every phone call, is it really worth it?”

Cole is beyond convincing in listing the dangers to privacy in the new national security state. Like many others in the media, he speaks the language of necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world, but suggests we are trading away too much and getting back too little in return. He warns that if we are not careful, privacy will disappear. He is right.

gorey

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

What is often forgotten and is absent in Cole’s narrative is that most people—at least in practice—simply don’t care that much about privacy. Whether snoopers promise security or better-targeted advertisements, we are willing to open up our inner worlds for the price of convenience. If we are to save privacy, the first step is articulating what it is about privacy that makes it worth saving.

Cole simply assumes the value of privacy and doesn’t address the benefits of privacy until his final paragraph. When he does come to explaining why privacy is important, he invokes popular culture dystopias to suggest the horror of a world without privacy:

More broadly, all three branches of government—and the American public—need to take up the challenge of how to preserve privacy in the information age. George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report all vividly portrayed worlds without privacy. They are not worlds in which any of us would want to live. The threat is no longer a matter of science fiction. It’s here. And as both reports eloquently attest, unless we adapt our laws to address the ever-advancing technology that increasingly consumes us, it will consume our privacy, too.

There are two problems with such fear mongering in defense of privacy. The first is that these dystopias seem too distant. Most of us don’t experience the violations of our privacy by the government or by Facebook as intrusions. The second is that on a daily basis the fact that my phone knows where I am and that in a pinch the government could locate me is pretty convenient. These dystopian visions can appear not so dystopian.

Most writing about privacy simply assume that privacy is important. We are treated to myriad descriptions of the way privacy is violated. The intent is to shock us. But rarely are people shocked enough to actually respond in ways that protect the privacy they often say that they cherish. We have collectively come to see privacy as a romantic notion, a long-forgotten idle, exotic and even titillating in its possibilities, but ultimately irrelevant in our lives.

There is, of course, a reason why so many advocates of privacy don’t articulate a meaningful defense of privacy: It is because to defend privacy means to defend a rich and varied sphere of difference and plurality, the right and importance of people actually holding opinions divergent from one’s own. In an age of political correctness and ideological conformism, privacy sounds good in principle but is less welcome in practice when those we disagree with assert privacy rights.  Thus many who defend privacy do so only in the abstract.

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When it comes to actually allowing individuals to raise their children according to their religious or racial beliefs or when the question is whether people can marry whomever they want, defenders of privacy often turn tail and insist that some opinions and some practices must be prohibited. Over and over today, advocates of privacy show that they value an orderly, safe, and respectful public realm and that they are willing to abandon privacy in the name of security and a broad conception of civility according to which no one should have to encounter opinions and acts that give them offense.

The only major thinker of the last 100 years who insisted fully and consistently on the crucial importance of a rich and vibrant private realm is Hannah Arendt. Privacy, Arendt argues, is essential because it is what allows individuals to emerge as unique persons in the world. The private realm is the realm of “exclusiveness,” it is that realm in which we “choose those with whom we wish to spend our lives, personal friends and those we love.” The private choices we make are guided by nothing objective or knowable, “but strikes, inexplicably and unerringly, at one person in his uniqueness, his unlikeness to all other people we know.” Privacy is controversial because the “rules of uniqueness and exclusiveness are, and always will be, in conflict with the standards of society.” Arendt’s defense of mixed marriages (and by extension gay marriages) proceeds—no less than her defense of the right of parents to educate their children in single-sex or segregated schools—from her conviction that the uniqueness and distinction of private lives need to be respected and protected.

Privacy, for Arendt, is connected to the “sanctity of the hearth” and thus to the idea of private property. Indeed, property itself is respected not on economic grounds, but because “without owning a house a man could not participate in the affairs of the world because he had no location in it which was properly his own.” Property guarantees privacy because it enforces a boundary line, “ kind of no man’s land between the private and the public, sheltering and protecting both.” In private, behind the four walls of house and heath, the “sacredness of the hidden” protects men from the conformist expectations of the social and political worlds.

In private, shaded from the conformity of societal opinions as well from the demands of the public world, we can grow in our own way and develop our own idiosyncratic character. Because we are hidden, “man does not know where he comes from when he is born and where he goes when he dies.” This essential darkness of privacy gives flight to our uniqueness, our freedom to be different. It is privacy, in other words, that we become who we are. What this means is that without privacy there can be no meaningful difference. The political importance of privacy is that privacy is what guarantees difference and thus plurality in the public world.

Arendt develops her thinking on privacy most explicitly in her essays on education. Education must perform two seemingly contradictory functions. First, education leads a young person into the public world, introducing them and acclimating them to the traditions, public language, and common sense that precede him. Second, education must also guard the child against the world, care for the child so that “nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The child, to be protected against the destructive onslaught of the world, needs the privacy that has its “traditional place” in the family.

Because the child must be protected against the world, his traditional place is in the family, whose adult members return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls. These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. This holds good not only for the life of childhood but for human life in general…Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however, strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.

The public world is unforgiving. It can be cold and hard. All persons count equally in public, and little if any allowance is made for individual hardships or the bonds of friendship and love. Only in privacy, Arendt argues, can individuals emerge as unique individuals who can then leave the private realm to engage the political sphere as confident, self-thinking, and independent citizens.

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The political import of Arendt’s defense of privacy is that privacy is what allows for meaningful plurality and differences that prevent one mass movement, one idea, or one opinion from imposing itself throughout society. Just as Arendt valued the constitutional federalism in the American Constitution because it multiplied power sources through the many state and local governments in the United States, so did she too value privacy because it nurtures meaningfully different and even opposed opinions, customs, and faiths. She defends the regional differences in the United States as important and even necessary to preserve the constitutional structure of dispersed power that she saw as the great bulwark of freedom against the tyranny of the majority. In other words, Arendt saw privacy as the foundation not only of private eccentricity, but also of political freedom.

Cole offers a clear-sighted account of the ways that government is impinging on privacy. It is essential reading and it is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
24Jan/132

The Rationality of Breaking the Rules

Controversy is raging around Thomas Friedman’s column today advising the presumptive Secretary of State John Kerry to “break all the rules.”

In short, Friedman—known for his faithful belief that technology is making the world flat and changing things for the better—counsels that the U.S. ignore hostile governments and appeal directly to the people. Here’s the key paragraph:

Let’s break all the rules. Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.

Foreign policy types like Dan Drezner respond with derision.

Friedman's "break all the rules" strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials.  Worse, he's recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran.  This is the worst kind of "World is Flat" pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy.  God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman's advice.

I’ll leave the debate to others. But look at the central assumption in Friedman’s logic. If the leaders of a country don’t agree with us, go to the people. Tell them our plan. They’ll love it.  But why is that so? For Friedman and so many of his brothers and sisters on the left and the right in the commentariat, the answer is: because our proposals are rational. Whether it is Friedman on Iran or Brooks on the economy or liberals on gun control or conservatives on the budget, there is an assumption that if everyone would just get together and talk this through like rational individuals, we would agree on a workable and rational solution. This is of course the basic view of President Obama. He sees himself as the most rational person in the room and wonders why people don’t agree with him.

This rationalist fallacy is wrong. Neuro-scientists tell us that people respond to emotional and non-rational inputs. But long ago Hannah Arendt understood and argued that the essence of politics is neither truth nor reason. It is plurality and opinion. The basic condition of politics is plurality, which means people need to come together and pursue a common good in spite of their disagreements and differences.

For Arendt, Western history has seen politics had come under the sway of philosophy and thus the pursuit of rational truth instead of being what it was: a space for the public engagement of different opinions. The tragedy of the last 50 years is that philosophical rationality has now been supplanted by technocratic rationality, so that politics is increasingly about neither opinion nor common truths, but technocracy.

One lesson Arendt took from her fundamental distrust of unity and rationality was the importance of the diffusion of powers and her distrust of centralized power. Her embrace of American Constitutional Federalism was neither conservative nor liberal; it was born from her insistence that politics cannot and should not seek to replace opinions with truths.

Friedman wants rational truth to win out and believes that if we just talk to the people, the veils will fall from their eyes. Well it doesn’t work here at home because people really do disagree and see the world differently. There is no reason to think it will work around the world either. A thoughtful foreign policy, as opposed to a rational one, would begin with the fact of true plurality. The question is not how to make others agree with us, but rather how we who disagree can still live together meaningfully in a common world.

-RB

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
16Nov/110

Civil Disobedience & O.W.S.

Given Mayor Bloomberg’s clearing of Zuccotti Park just shy of the OWS two-month anniversary, and the escalating tensions between police and protesters at Occupy sites across the country, a cluster of questions surrounding the meaning and uses of civil disobedience come once again to the fore.  In particular the violent altercations at the University of California, Berkeley--a campus with a long legacy of civil disobedience—force us to reconsider the role of this specific form of dissent.

Hannah Arendt considered civil disobedience  an essential part of the United States’ political system.  By revisiting some of her main ideas on the issue we can more fully appreciate how the civil disobedience carried out by the OWS movement both harnesses and re-imbues the public realm with political energy.

Berkeley Professor Celeste Langan, participated in a civil disobedience action on the university campus, and was treated harshly, to say the least.  Her description of the encounter reminds us just what can be involved in this form of protest:

"I knew, both before and after the police gave orders to disperse, that I was engaged in an act of civil disobedience. I want to stress both of those words: I knew I would be disobeying the police order, and therefore subject to arrest; I also understood that simply standing, occupying ground, and linking arms with others who were similarly standing, was a form of non-violent, hence civil, resistance. I therefore anticipated that the police might arrest us, but in a similarly non-violent manner. When the student in front of me was forcibly removed, I held out my wrist and said "Arrest me! Arrest me!" But rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed. The injuries I sustained were relatively minor--a fat lip, a few scrapes to the back of my palms, a sore scalp--but also unnecessary and unjustified. "

Arendt noted that the most basic, yet the most crucial quality of civil disobedience is the necessity of joining oneself to others. This political binding to one's fellow citizens often becomes physicalized through the specific tactics of demonstration, as Langan testified.

Bard College Professor Verity Smith, reminds us of the important distinction Arendt made between civil disobedience and conscientious objection, the latter the expression of individual resistance, while the former inherently a collective enterprise .  “Civil disobedients,” Arendt wrote in the essay “Civil Disobedience,” “are nothing but the latest form of voluntary association…they are thus quite in tune with the oldest traditions of the country.”  Arendt saw civil disobedience as an invigorating and hence indispensable element of the U.S. political system she so deeply admired.  How though, does this type of voluntary association represent what she called an “American remedy” for  “the failure of social institutions, the unreliability of men, and the uncertainty of the future”?

For Arendt, civil disobedience ultimately sustains the democratic process by interrupting the authority and sovereignty of the state.  Arendt saw undivided sovereignty as perhaps the greatest threat to democracy.  Undivided sovereignty effectively disintegrates plurality and the multiplicities within the space of appearance that are required for authentic political life. She argues that it is not conflict but stasis and homogeneity that deadens the body politic. Hence, by producing fissures in our political ground, civil disobedients, according to Arendt, are actually fortifying it.

This apparent paradox takes us closer to Arendt’s conception of politics as one in keeping with the Roman augure, which connotes a process of both restoration and of change. On Revolution provides us with a more thorough treatment of this essential dynamic, which OWS civil disobedience also serves to illustrate. The concepts of 'inherit' and 'invent' (to borrow Smith's terms), are not mutually exclusive but deeply connected and often simultaneous activities involved in the process of political renewal. The OWS civil disobedients both draw on historical precedents (such as the 1969 student protests at Berkeley that appropriated and converted university land into the ‘People’s Park’), while also attempting to inaugurate a novel moment. This is no contradiction, it is simply the truth of beginnings, political and otherwise:  things are born, utterly unknown and unforeseeable, from that which is entirely established and given. This is the law of both politics and life.

This is precisely what Arendt so highly esteemed about the American Constitution and the processes it engendered, the possibility of a document whose re-visioning was not its renunciation but its perfection. Yet, it is this seemingly paradoxical principle that we still have so much trouble in grasping, especially when it comes to matters of protest and civil disobedience.  Pressed between bandana and baton is it possible to appreciate that the very acts that in some sense, threaten the political nexus, are necessary for its endurance? We have become less and less able to accept the precept that both Arendt and Montesquieu found to be fundamental to a healthy political sphere, which Smith states as, “the startling notion that contestation is actually a form of reverence, and even preservation.”

While we might be ready to accept Arendt’s formulation of the role of civil disobedience theoretically, and in certain historical contexts, the present protests at Zuccotti Park and Sproul Plaza pose particular challenges to it. I would wager that, if asked, many of those engaged in these movements would state that they do not want to fortify but to dismantle the current political framework.While Arendt saw the clamor of civil disobedience as part of the grander political opera, many season ticket holders are looking to unsubscribe this season. Part of the reason Arendt’s theory of dissent doesn’t quite jive with the OWS disobedients is because the protesters, whose voices Arendt identified as being so vital, were culled from the upper crust. As Smith mentions “elites act to invigorate but not replace mass democratic politics and representative institutions, acting as a kind of supplement to constituted governments so that democratic ideals do not ossify.”  The aim of many in the OWS movement is not to provide an occasion for enhancement, but rather for the overturning, of the current system.

It remains to be seen if this desire to overturn will be reabsorbed back into the existing ground or continue to expand and strengthen its outgrowths.   As the pitch of protest heightens, and police begin disbanding the demonstrations, OWS still displays the energizing power of voluntary association that Arendt trumpeted. The acts of civil disobedience are inevitably a testament to, and reveling in, the capacity for the public assembly, a bedrock of the very democracy the movement seeks to disturb.  As J.M Bernstein remarks in his essay “Promising and Civil Disobedience”, even those acts of dissent that aim to break away from the status quo can never unfetter from it fully.  Civil disobedience, he writes, “is always dependent on the radical past it exceeds and the repressive present it repudiates.”

And yet, as Arendt saw it, implicit in acts of civil disobedience such as those at Occupy sites, is dissent’s opposite; consent.  Which is to say that what the OWS disobedients are succeeding in doing is making legible the consent of those who continue to subscribe to the political process they consider malign.  Their persistence in the face of police and the ensuing arrests, serve to suggest that there is an alternative to the current form of political governance that is perhaps more worthy of our authorization—and it involves what Arendt considered to be a distinctly American remedy.

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