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.
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.