Shirley Jackson published her story The Lottery in the New Yorker this week 66 years ago, on June 26, 1948. It is a powerful and disturbing story about a small and happy New England town where once every year the residents select lots to choose one person who will be stoned, presumably to death. Jackson unfolds the story gradually, and the atmosphere of celebration on lottery day helps hide the dark turn The Lottery ultimately takes in its final paragraphs. The shift amongst the townspeople from the lighthearted conviviality to cold-blooded stoning is shocking and deeply unsettling.
Is there such a thing as too much free speech? The Editors at N+1 think so. They posted an editorial this week lamenting the overabundance of speaking that has swept over our nation like a plague:
A strange mania governs the people of our great nation, a mania that these days results in many individual and collective miseries. This is the love of opinion, of free speech—a furious mania for free, spoken opinion. It exhausts us.
The N+1 Editors feel besieged. And we can all sympathize with their predicament. Too many people are writing blogs; too many voices are tweeting; too many friends are pontificating about something on Facebook. And then there are the trolls. It’s hard not to sympathize with our friends at N+1. Why do we have to listen to all of these folks? Shouldn’t all these folks just stop and read N+1 instead?
Of course it is richly hypocritical for the Editors of an opinion journal to complain of an overabundance of opinions. And N+1 acknowledges and even trumpets its hypocrisy.
We are aware that to say [that others should stop expressing their opinions] (freely! our opinion!) makes us hypocrites. We are also aware that America’s hatred of hypocrisy is one of few passions to rival its love of free speech—as if the ideal citizen must see something, say something, and it must be the same thing, all the time. But we’ll be hypocrites because we’re tired, and we want eventually to stop talking.
Beyond the hypocrisy N +1 has a point: The internet has unleashed packs upon packs of angry often rabid dogs. These haters attack anything and everything, including each other. Hate and rage are everywhere:
The ragers in our feeds, our otherwise reasonable friends and comrades: how do they have this energy, this time, for these unsolicited opinions? They keep finding things to be mad about. Here, they’ve dug up some dickhead writer-professor in Canada who claims not to teach women writers in his classes. He must be denounced, and many times! OK. Yes. We agree. But then it’s some protest (which we support), and then some pop song (which we like, or is this the one we don’t like?), and then some egregiously false study about austerity in Greece (full of lies!). Before we know it, we’ve found ourselves in a state of rage, a semi-permanent state of rage in fact, of perma-rage, our blood boiled by the things that make us mad and then the unworthy things that make other people mad.
Wouldn’t it be nice of public discourse were civil and loving? I too would prefer a rational discussion about the Boycott, Diversity, and Sanction movement. I would be thrilled if the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could join forces to fight political corruption and the over-bureaucratization of government that disempowers individuals. And of course I would love it if those who religiously attack Hannah Arendt for her opinion that Adolf Eichmann was a superficial and banal man responsible for unspeakable evils could find common cause with those who find her provocative, moving and meaningful.
Of course it is exhausting dealing with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. And there is always the impulse to say simply, “enough! I just don’t want to hear your opinions anymore.” This is precisely what N+1 is saying: “We don’t care!”
We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.
Underlying N+1’s ironic distance from the arena of opinions and discord is a basic anti-political fantasy that opinion is a waste of time, if it is not destructive. Wouldn’t it be better to skip the opinions and the battles and the disagreements and just cut straight to the truth? Just listen to the truth.
Truth is not an imperative, but something that must be discovered. Unlike liquid opinion, truth does not always circulate. It is that which you experience, deeply, and cannot forget. The right to not care is the right to sit still, to not talk, to be subject to unclarity and allow knowledge to come unbidden to you. To be in a constant state of rage, by contrast, is only the other side of piety and pseudoscience, the kind of belief that forms a quick chorus and cannot be disproved. Scroll down your Facebook feed and see if you don’t find one ditto after another. So many people with “good” or “bad politics,” delivered with conviction to rage or applause; so little doubt, error, falsifiability—surely the criteria by which anything true, or democratic, could ever be found.
What N+1 embraces is truth over opinion and escapism against engagement with others. What they forget, however, is that there are two fundamentally opposed routes to truth.
In one, the truthseeker turns away from the world of opinion. The world in which we live is a world of shadows and deceptions. Truth won’t be found in the marketplace of ideas, but on the mountaintop in the blinding light of the sun. Like Plato’s philosopher king, we must climb out of the cave and ascend to the heights. Alone, turned toward the heavens and the eternal truths that surf upon the sunrays, we open ourselves to the experience of truth.
A second view of truth is more mundane. The truthseeker stays firmly planted in the world of opinion and deception. Truth is a battle and it is fought with the weapons of words. Persuasion and rhetoric replace the light of the sun. The winner gains not insight but power. Truth doesn’t emerge from an experience; truth is the settled sentiment of the most persuasive opinion.
Both the mountain path and the road through the marketplace are paths to truth, but of different kinds. Philosophers and theologians may very well need to separate themselves from the world of opinion if they are to free themselves to experience truth. Philosophical truths, as Hannah Arendt argues, address “man in his singularity” and are thus “unpolitical by nature.” For her, philosophy and also philosophical truths are anti-political.
Politicians cannot concern themselves with absolute truths; they must embrace the life of the citizen and the currency of opinion rather than the truths of the philosopher. In politics, “no opinion is self-evident,” as Arendt understood. “In matters of opinion, but not in matters of [philosophical] truth, our thinking is discursive, running as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality.” In politics, truth may emerge, but it must go through the shadows that darken the marketplace.
What Arendt understands about political truths is that truths do indeed “circulate” in messy and often uncomfortable ways that the n+1 editorial board wishes to avoid. Political thought, Arendt argues, “is representative.” By that she means that it must sample as many different viewpoints and opinions as is possible. “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” It is in hearing, imagining, and representing opposing and discordant views that one comes to test out his or her own views. It is not a matter of empathy, of feeling like someone else. It is rather an imaginative experiment in which I test my views against all comers. In this way, the enlarged mentality of imaginative thinking is the prerequisite for judgment.
When Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann that he was possessed of the “fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” because he did not think, what she meant was that he was simply incapable or unwilling to think from the perspective of others. His use of clichés was not thoughtlessness itself, but was evidence that he had barricaded himself inside an ideological cage. Above all, his desire to make others including Jews understand his point of view—his hope that they could see that he was a basically good man caught up on the wrong side of history—was for Arendt evidence of his superficiality and his lack of imagination. He simply could not and did not ever allow himself to challenge his own rationalizations and justifications by thinking from the perspective of Jews and his other victims. What allowed Eichmann to so efficiently dispatch millions to their deaths was his inability to think and encounter opinions that were different from his own.
In the internet age we are bombarded with such a diversity of angry and insulting and stupid and offensive viewpoints that it is only naturally to alternate between the urge to respond violently and the urge to withdraw.
It is easy to deride political opinion and idolize truth. But that is to forget that “seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.”
Political thinking requires that we resist both the desire to fight opinions with violence and the desire to flee from opinions altogether. Instead, we need to learn to think in and with others whose opinions we often hate. We must find in the melee of divergent and offending opinions the joy that exists in the experience of human plurality. We don’t need to love or agree with those we find offensive; but so long as they are talking instead of fighting, we should respect them and listen to them. Indeed, we should care about them and their beliefs. That is why the N+1 manifesto for not caring is your weekend read.
Francis Fukuyama has a new essay up on “The Decay of American Political Institutions.” Fukuyama begins with a basic point that is undeniable, and is artfully made manifest in George Packer’s National Book Award Winning The Unwinding: “Many political institutions in the United States are decaying.” There are many reasons for that failure. But in Fukuyama’s analysis, two reasons stands out: First, the American penchant for addressing political problems through law, and second, the legalized corruption of interest groups. What unites these two culprits in Fukuyama’s grand synthesis is that both are born out of what he sees as a fundamentally American distrust of government.
Distrust of government means, Fukuyama writes, that American politics has elevated the judiciary to a position of power unlike other democracies. And this has led our political institutions to decay.
The decay in the quality of American government has to do directly with the American penchant for a state of “courts and parties”, which has returned to center stage in the past fifty years. The courts and legislature have increasingly usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient. The steadily increasing judicialization of functions that in other developed democracies are handled by administrative bureaucracies has led to an explosion of costly litigation, slow decision-making and highly inconsistent enforcement of laws. The courts, instead of being constraints on government, have become alternative instruments for the expansion of government. Ironically, out of a fear of empowering “big government”, the United States has ended up with a government that is very large, but that is actually less accountable because it is largely in the hands of unelected courts.
Fukuyama knows bureaucracy can be problematic—the rule of nobody, in Arendt’s formulation—but at least bureaucrat rule is rule. In his telling, the problem is that U.S. has developed a huge bureaucracy that we don’t trust and thus limit through lawsuits, injunctions, and constitutional challenges. So we have the worst of both worlds, a large unelected and anonymous bureaucracy that is itself disempowered and neutered by an even more powerful unelected and anonymous judiciary.
Because there is “too much law,” the bureaucracy doesn’t work. What is more, the combined power of an anonymous bureaucracy and an anonymous judiciary has led to our present crisis of representative democracy, one in which Americans of all political persuasions feel that government is a foreign occupying power that is unanswerable to them. This leads in turn to a distrust of all government, a cynicism that “further reduces the quality and effectiveness of government by reducing bureaucratic autonomy.”
The fact that Americans distrust government means that they place increasing judicial and legislative roadblocks in front of governmental decisions. There is the famous multiplication of agencies and competing authorities, which offers multiple points for influence by lobbyists. As long as so many different agencies have the power to veto or slow down governmental action, government is stymied. “The longstanding distrust of the state that has always characterized American politics had led to an unbalanced form of government that undermines the prospects of necessary collective action. It has led to vetocracy.” Lobbyists thus have an outsized power to capture authorities and disproportionately impact legislation, which furthers cynicism about government. These problems are deeply ingrained in American values and in our Constitution, which makes them unsolvable. Which is the depressing note upon which Fukuyama ends his essay:
Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document. Persuading them to rethink its most basic tenets short of an outright system collapse is highly unlikely. So we have a problem.
What is striking is how Fukuyama is unable to find resources in the American Constitutional system that might reinvigorate our political institutions. It is as if the American distrust of government means that American democracy is unsalvageable. At times of partisanship, it will lead to Civil War or sclerosis. There is no alternative.
It is a mistake—although one commonly made—to understand the U.S. Constitution as one dominated by a mistrust of governmental power and thus marked by institutions designed to limit governmental power. The genius of the American Constitution, as Hannah Arendt argues, is not the limitation of power, but the multiplication of powers. More important than the three branches of the Federal government in Arendt’s account is the preservation of multiple levels of federal, state, county, city, and village power. The Congress’ power was limited not simply by the President and the Judiciary, but by the states and local authorities. The grant of powers to Congress was limited and expansion of national power was to be constrained by the power of local institutions.
What Arendt saw in a way Fukuyama ignores is that Americans don’t distrust power so much as they distrust the concentration and centralization of power. It his been quintessentially American for citizens to engage in government, especially local government, and to take active part in public debates about political questions. From their arrival in the New World, Americans formed councils, engaged in public affairs, and empowered democratic institutions. The federalist elements of the Constitution provide ample support for vibrant democratic and local institutions.
Beyond the judicializaiton of politics and the rise of a corruption by lobbyists, another cause of the present decay of American politics is the increasingly national approach to government and the hollowing out of local institutions. There are many other causes for the increasing concentration of power and the loss of local institutional power, but there are plenty of resources for reinvigorating local self-governmental institutions in the American political tradition and in the Constitution itself. Yes, “we have a problem.” But there are always ways forward.
Francis Fukuyama’s analysis of our current political decay is powerful and important. It is your weekend read.
It is now more than 50 years since Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem. It is neither her best nor her most important book, yet it does contain essential and important insights. Above all, it offers us the example of a man who, as Arendt saw and understood him, moved fairly seamlessly from being an anti-Semite to a genocidal murderer. Arendt asked: How is it that Eichmann and others like him morphed so easily from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer?
Arendt’s book is justly famous because it posed this deeply important question and offered an answer that has, over time, come to be seen as persuasively right. In short, it is the case that modern systems of administratively organized murder and criminality depend upon the collaboration and work of many people who, while they support the general goals of the regime, would not otherwise imagine themselves criminals and murderers. These people act out of conviction, but they seek to justify what they do in clichés and bureaucratic language. They take pride not only in their dutifulness, but also in their initiative and support for carrying out the goals of the regime. Ordinary in many ways and far from being cold-blooded killers, they nevertheless willingly and even enthusiastically participate in an administrative machinery of death. They are able to do so, Arendt suggested, because they close themselves off from others and come to think in an echo chamber where they hear and credit no opinions that challenge their own. This shallow thoughtlessness—Arendt elsewhere calls dumbness—is what she names the banality that allows modern regimes of evil to cause such horrifically and decidedly non-banal evil.
What amazes me is how the centrality of her insight is still clouded over by an exaggerated and misplaced anger and contempt. How is it that 50 years after her book appeared and 75 years after Kristallnacht, some American intellectuals still have little better to do than attack Arendt for the tone of her book, the offense of certain phrases, and her use of the word “banal”? Aren’t there more important questions than the ultimately unknowable question of whether Eichmann—the example Arendt used—was or was not truly thoughtless? There must be more important things for intellectuals to be indignant about.
A case in point is the two-part series of essays published by Mark Lilla in the last two issues of the New York Review of Books. Lilla, a distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, begins the second of his essays, “The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator,” with these reflections:
A half-century has passed since Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was first published. Yet somehow we can’t escape it. Even today historians of the Final Solution do battle with her misguided thesis that Adolf Eichmann, the cold-blooded engineer of the Nazi killing machine, was himself but a cog in it, a self-deceived simpleton who made evil seem banal.
If Lilla is so upset that so much attention is lavished on Arendt’s book, why does he once again begin with it? Moreover, why does he insist on criticizing Arendt for things she never said? Let’s consider Lilla’s characterizations of Arendt’s arguments—characterizations that are tossed off, repeated by many, and quite simply are false.
Lilla first accuses Arendt of calling Eichmann “a cog” in the Nazi killing machine. This is a common complaint, one made famous by Deborah Lipstadt, whom Lilla cites approvingly. But where does Arendt say this? The simple answer is nowhere.
The “cog theory” comes up sparingly in Eichmann in Jerusalem, but wherever it does, Arendt decidedly rejects it. Consider this paragraph from section IV of her report, where she discusses what she calls “Eichmann's muddled general outlook and ideology with respect to “the Jewish question.”” She writes:
Eichmann admitted, as he had in the Sassen interview, that he “did not greet his assignment with the apathy of an ox being led to his stall,” that he had been very different from those colleagues “who had never read a basic book [i.e., Herzl's Judenstaat], worked through it, absorbed it, absorbed it with interest,” and who therefore lacked “inner rapport with their work.” They were “nothing but office drudges,” for whom everything was decided “by paragraphs, by orders, who were interested in nothing else,” who were, in short, precisely such “small cogs” as, according to the defense, Eichmann himself had been. If this meant no more than giving unquestioning obedience to the Führer's orders, then they had all been small cogs - even Himmler, we are told by his masseur, Felix Kersten, had not greeted the Final Solution with great enthusiasm, and Eichmann assured the police examiner that his own boss, Heinrich Müller, would never have proposed anything so “crude” as “physical extermination.” Obviously, in Eichmann's eyes the small-cog theory was quite beside the point. Certainly he had not been as big as Mr. Hausner tried to make him; after all, he was not Hitler, nor, for that matter, could he compare himself in importance, as far as the “solution” of the Jewish question was concerned, with Müller, or Heydrich, or Himmler; he was no megalomaniac. But neither was he as small as the defense wished him to be.
Arendt revisits the “cog theory in her postscript. Here is what she writes there:
We heard the protestations of the defense that Eichmann was after all only a “tiny cog” in the machinery of the Final Solution, and of the prosecution, which believed it had discovered in Eichmann the actual motor. I myself attributed no more importance to both theories than did the Jerusalem court, since the whole cog theory is legally pointless and therefore it does not matter at all what order of magnitude is assigned to the “cog” named Eichmann. In its judgment the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government. But insofar as it remains a crime - and that, of course, is the premise for a trial - all the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant, are in court forthwith transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say, into human beings. (italics added)
In the only mentions of the “cog theory” in her book, Arendt dismisses it as untrue and shows how even Eichmann rejected the cog theory and took pride in seeing himself as someone driven by conviction rather than by mere obedience. What Eichmann believed in is difficult to discern, which is why Arendt calls his thinking on the Jewish Question “muddled.” By this she means, it is unclear what were Eichmann’s real motivations. At times Eichmann spoke of helping the Jews emigrate (his first job from 1933-1939). At other times he said he “regarded the Jews as opponents with respect to whom a mutually acceptable, a mutually fair solution had to be found.” Arendt assumed he was an anti-Semite as well and discredited his claims of philo-Semitism. In the end, she found his thinking muddled. What was clear, is that Eichmann supported the Nazis enthusiastically. He was hardly a mere cog.
I hope we can put the “cog theory” to rest once and for all. It is repeated ad nauseum. But nowhere does Arendt embrace it. On the contrary, she rejects it.
Lilla also writes that Arendt “made evil seem banal.” One wonders what he means by such a statement. In fact, Arendt contrasts the horrific evil of the Holocaust with Eichmann’s inability to think from the perspective of others—banality not of what he did (evil), but of his person. When Arendt comes to actually offer her own opinion on what should happen to Eichmann—that he must be killed—she argues the true reason he needs to be executed is simply because of the extraordinary evil he has done.
That “evil violates a natural harmony” is, Arendt writes, the non-banal and “supreme justification” for why Eichmann must be executed. Against modern criminal law theories that see punishment as a response to the intent of the wrongdoer, Arendt argues the opposite: that Eichmann must be punished—regardless of his intent—because of the evil he has done. Here is what she says:
Foremost among the larger issues at stake in the Eichmann trial was the assumption current in all modern legal systems that intent to do wrong is necessary for the commission of a crime. On nothing, perhaps, has civilized jurisprudence prided itself more than on this taking into account of the subjective factor. Where this intent is absent, where, for whatever reasons, even reasons of moral insanity, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is impaired, we feel no crime has been committed. We refuse, and consider as barbaric, the propositions “that a great crime offends nature, so that the very earth cries out for vengeance; that evil violates a natural harmony which only retribution can restore; that a wronged collectivity owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal” (Yosal Rogat). And yet I think it is undeniable that it was precisely on the ground of these long-forgotten propositions that Eichmann was brought to justice to begin with, and that they were, in fact, the supreme justification for the death penalty. Because he had been implicated and had played a central role in an enterprise whose open purpose was to eliminate forever certain “races” from the surface of the earth, he had to be eliminated.
The evil of the Holocaust was barbaric. It violated the order of the universe. To say that Arendt saw evil as banal is simply a willful misreading of her book.
The word “banality” appears once in a book of 250 pages that is filled with expressions of shock and horror at Nazi doings of evil. When Arendt does speaks not simply of the “banality of evil,” but of the “fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality of evil,” she refers to Eichmann and people like him who are able to justify their participation in truly evil acts by justifying themselves according to clichés, rationalizations, and deceptions. To do so, she argues, requires a lack of thinking, where thinking is understood as thinking from the perspectives of others. That is the kind of shallow banality that enables ordinary men to do evil. It is hardly to describe evil itself as banal.
Finally, in Lilla’s first essay on Arendt (thinly disguised as a review of the new film by Margarethe von Trotta), Lilla trades in the lately popular fallacy that newly discovered interviews of Eichmann by Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen prove Arendt mistaken about Eichmann. Lilla claims that a quotation full of ellipses offers such glaring proof of Eichmann’s thoughtful monstrousness that, had Arendt known this “new” information, she “would have to concede” she was wrong.
Here is the chilling quotation from the Sassen papers that Lilla offers.
The cautious bureaucrat, yeah, that was me…. But joined to this cautious bureaucrat was a fanatical fighter for the freedom of the Blut I descend from…. What’s good for my Volk is for me a holy command and holy law…. I must honestly tell you that had we…killed 10.3 million Jews I would be satisfied and would say, good, we’ve exterminated the enemy…. We would have completed the task for our Blut and our Volk and the freedom of nations had we exterminated the most cunning people in the world…. I’m also to blame that…the idea of a real, total elimination could not be fulfilled…. I was an inadequate man put in a position where, really, I could have and should have done more.
This quotation shows the ferocity of Eichmann’s character. It shows him to be fully committed to carrying out the Final Solution, which, of course, was one of Arendt’s main arguments—that Eichmann did not simply obey, but supported the Nazi regime. It shows Eichmann was not simply a cog, again a point made by Arendt. It shows that Eichmann put himself under his “Volk,” the German word for Nation or People. He repeats this point often in the Sassen papers, that he was prepared to sacrifice himself, his conscience, his morality, and his life for the good of the German Volk as articulated by Adolf Hitler. And it shows that Eichmann refused to ask for forgiveness for what he had done. He shows no remorse and even feels guilty that he did not accomplish the task eventually assigned to him after 1941, to help exterminate the entirety of the 10.3 million Jews in Europe. In short, these citations show Eichmann to be a god awful man.
Lilla offers this citation to make a different point, however, namely, to accuse Arendt, not simply Eichmann. It is intended to prove that Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. Because of this quote, “we now know [Arendt’s argument] to be utterly indefensible.” What is more, in an astounding act of ventriloquism, Lilla writes: “Arendt, [if] were she alive, would have to concede.”
The problem with Lilla’s assertion is that Arendt was aware of the material he quotes. Partial transcriptions of the interviews—including the quotes Lilla cites—were published in two volumes of Life Magazine in 1960. Arendt read those interviews; she suspected they were not fully reliable, but understood them to give a sense of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, his boastfulness and stupidity—all congruent with the 70 pages of Eichmann’s 1956 memoir written in Argentina that she also read. In short, Arendt had seen many of the damning quotes from the Sassen interviews and concluded that, if anything, they supported her interpretation. If Lilla wants to argue that Arendt got Eichmann wrong, fine: he should make his case on its merits, not on assertions of her ignorance of essentials of which she was not ignorant.
Arendt saw Eichmann as an anti-Semite. Might she have underestimated the extent of his hatred? Perhaps. Having read as much of Eichmann’s writings as I have been able to get my hands on, I am convinced that Eichmann was a virulent anti-Semite. So much so that it is clear to me that his hatred of Jews must have played some significant role in his willingness to participate in the Final Solution. But none of that in any way contradicts Arendt’s argument.
There is a difference between virulent anti-Semitism and genocidal mass murder. Both in Jerusalem and Argentina, Eichmann describes pangs of conscience—not about killing Jews, but about killing. The fact is that from 1933-1940 Eichmann’s anti-Semitism led him to enthusiastically support and carry out first the policy of helping Jews to leave Germany and second the policy of deporting them from Germany. After the Final Solution was decided upon, Eichmann expressed reservations about it in both Argentina and in Jerusalem. He made it very clear that he was against killing and that he never personally killed anyone. This point—as irrelevant as it was to the trial—was important to him. What shocked Arendt was how he so quickly overcame his conscientious resistance to killing. His anti-Semitism—clearly part of the explanation—cannot alone explain how, or why, he so easily overcame his initial resistance to the physical extermination of the Final Solution.
Arendt saw that Eichmann’s original reservations at being involved in mass murder dissipated quickly as he justified mass murder, consoling himself with clichés, and hoping others would understand and forgive him. This dumb shallowness is what Arendt called Eichmann’s banality. Arendt’s point was that Eichmann—beyond being an anti-Semite—thrived upon the power and meaning he got from being a Nazi. There is simply no reason to think that the quotations from the Sassen Papers that Lilla offers—quotations Arendt had read—would make her change her mind. To say they would is to free oneself from the obligation of understanding her argument.
Arendt asked how Eichmann morphed from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer. Her critics owe her the courtesy of engaging the depth of her argument, something Lilla’s false claims of superior knowledge free him from having to do. Fifty years on, it is time to get beyond “gotcha” accounts that dismiss the seriousness of her work and, instead, take Arendt’s arguments seriously.
When all this is said, there is much to recommend in Lilla’s two essays. Especially in his consideration of Claude Lanzmann’s film The Last of the Unjust—a spirited defense of one of the worst of the Judenräte Benjamin Murmelstein. Lilla displays good sense in questioning Lanzmann’s defense of Murmelstein’s rationalizations for his collaboration. Further, in his first essay, Lilla rightly considers and rejects the most slanderous and pernicious arguments that Arendt blamed the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. His discussion of Arendt’s account of the Judenräte is balanced and informative. He rightly sees that the anger over her characterization of the Jewish leaders was largely overblown, based on taking offending phrases out of context.
In the end, it is important to read essays like Lilla’s, if only to understand the liveliness of the sadly-continuing controversy around Eichmann in Jerusalem. Mark Lilla’s “Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth” and his “The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator,” are your weekend reads.
Peter Ludlow in the Stone remarks on the generational divide in attitudes towards whistle blowers, leakers, and hackers. According to Time Magazine, “70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. This fits a general trend, one heralded by Rick Falkvinge—founder of the European Pirate Parties—at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last year, that young people value transparency above institutional democratic procedures. Distrusting government and institutions, there is a decided shift towards a faith in transparency and unfettered disclosure. Those who expose such in information are lauded for their courage in the name of the freedom of information.
Ludlow agrees and cites Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolf Eichmann for support of his contention that leakers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning acted justly and courageously:
“In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called “the banality of evil.” One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolf Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their “proper” roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing — or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.”
Ludlow insists: “For the leaker and whistleblower the answer to [those who argue it is hubris for leakers to make the moral decision to expose wrongdoing], is that there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord. Systems are optimized for their own survival and preventing the system from doing evil may well require breaking with organizational niceties, protocols or laws. It requires stepping outside of one’s assigned organizational role.” In other words, bureaucratic systems have every incentive to protect themselves, thus leading to both dysfunction and injustice. We depend upon the actions of individuals who say simply: “No, I can’t continue to allow such injustice to go on.” Whistle blowers and leakers are essential parts of any just bureaucratic organization.
Ludlow’s insight is an important one: It is that the person who thinks for himself and stands alone from the crowd can—in times of crisis when the mass of people are thoughtlessly carried away by herd instincts and crowd mentality—act morally simply by refusing to go along with the collective performance of injustice. The problem is that if Snowden and Manning had simply resigned, their acts of resistance would have had minimal impact. To make a difference and to act in the name of justice, they had to release classified material. In effect, they had to break the law. Ludlow’s claim is that they did so morally and in the name of justice.
But is Ludlow correct to enlist Arendt in support of leakers such as Snowden and Manning? It is true that Arendt deeply understands the importance of individuals who resist the easy path of conformity in the name of doing right. Perhaps nowhere is the importance of such action made more markedly manifest than in her telling of the mention of Anton Schmidt when his name appeared in the testimony of the Eichmann trial:
At this slightly tense moment, the witness happened to mention the name of Anton Schmidt, a Feldwebel, or sergeant, in the German Army - a name that was not entirely unknown to this audience, for Yad Vashem had published Schmidt's story some years before in its Hebrew Bulletin, and a number of Yiddish papers in America had picked it up. Anton Schmidt was in, charge of a patrol in Poland that collected stray German soldiers who were cut off from their units. In the course of doing this, he had run into members of the Jewish underground, including Mr. Kovner, a prominent member, and he had helped the Jewish partisans by supplying them with forged papers and military trucks. Most important of all: "He did not do it for money." This had gone on for five months, from October, 1941, to March, 1942, when Anton Schmidt was arrested and executed. (The prosecution had elicited the story because Kovner declared that he had first heard the name of Eichmann from Schmidt, who had told him about rumors in the Army that it was Eichmann who "arranges everything.") ….
During the few minutes it took Kovner to tell of the help that had come from a German sergeant, a hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence in honor of the man named Anton Schmidt. And in those two minutes, which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question - how utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told.
For Arendt, great civil disobedients from Socrates to Thoreau play important and essential roles in the political realm. What is more, Arendt fully defends Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers. It seems, therefore, that it is appropriate to enlist her in support of the modern day whistleblowers.
There is, however, a problem with this reading. Socrates, Thoreau, and Ellsberg all gave themselves up to the law and allowed themselves to be judged by and within the legal system. In this regard, they differ markedly from Snowden, Manning and others who have sought to remain anonymous or to flee legal judgment. For Arendt, this difference is meaningful.
Consider the case of Shalom Schwartzbard, which Arendt addresses in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Schwartzbard was a Jew who assassinated the leader of Ukranian pogroms in the streets of Paris. Schwartzbard stood where he took his revenge, waited for the police, admitted his act of revenge, and put himself on trial. He claimed to have acted justly at a time when the legal system was refusing to do justice. And a French jury acquitted him.
For Arendt, the Schwartzbard case stands for an essential principle of justice: that to break the law and act justly, one must then bring oneself back into the law. She writes:
He who takes the law into his own hands will render a service to justice only if he is willing to transform the situation in such a way that the law can again operate and his act can, at least posthumously, be validated.
What allows Schwartzbard to serve the end of justice is that he took the risk of putting himself on trial and asked a court of law and a jury to determine whether what he did was just, even it were also illegal. By doing so, Schwartzbard not only claimed that his act was a matter of personal conscience; he insisted as well that it was legal if one understood the laws rightly. He asked the representatives of the law—the French jury—to publicly agree with his claim and to vindicate him. He had no guarantee they would do so. When they did, their judgment brought the justice of Schwartzbard’s act to the bright light of the public and also cast the legal system’s inaction—its refusal to arrest war criminals living openly in Paris—in the shadow of darkness.
When I have suggested to colleagues and friends that Snowden’s flight to Moscow and his refusal to stand trial makes it impossible to see his release of the NSA documents as an act of justice, their response mirrors the argument made by Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg—who turned himself over to the police after releasing the Pentagon Papers—has defended Snowden’s decision to flee. The United States of 2013, he argues, is simply no longer the United States of the 1960s. When Ellsberg turned himself in, he was released on bail and given legal protections. He has no faith that the legal system today would treat Snowden with such respect. More likely Snowden would be imprisoned, possibly in solitary confinement. Potentially he would be tortured. There is every reason to believe, Ellsberg and others argue, that Snowden would not receive a fair trial. Under such circumstances, Snowden’s flight is, these supporters argue, justifiable.
I fully admit that it is likely that Snowden would have been treated much less generously than was Ellsberg. But aside from the fact that Snowden never gave the courts the chance to treat him justly, his refusal to submit to the law makes it impossible for his act of disobedience to shine forth as a claim of doing justice. He may claim that he acted in the public interest. He may argue that he acted out of conscience. And he may say he wants a public debate about the rightness of U.S. policy. He may be earnest in all these claims. But the fact that he fled and did not “transform the situation in such a way that the law can again operate and his act can be validated,” means that he does not, in the end, “render a service to justice.” On the contrary, by fleeing, Snowden gives solace to those who portray him as a criminal and make it easier for those who would to discredit him.
All of this is not to say that Snowden was wrong to release the NSA documents. It is clearly the case that the security state has gone off the rails and become encased in a bubble of fearful conformity that justifies nearly any act in the name of security. We do need such a public conversation about these policies and to the extent that Snowden and Manning have helped to encourage one, I am thankful to them. That said, Manning’s anonymity and Snowden’s flight have actually distracted attention from the question of the justice of their acts and focused attention instead on their motives and personal characters. They have, by resisting the return to law, diluted their claims to act justly.
It is a lot to ask that someone risk their life to act justly. But the fact that justice asks much of us is fundamental to the nature of justice itself: That justice, as opposed to legality, is always extreme, exceptional, and dangerous. Arendt knew well that those who act justly may lose their life, as did Socrates and Anton Schmidt. She knew well that those who act justly may lose their freedom, like Nelson Mandela. But she also knew that even those who die or are isolated will, by their courage in the service of justice, shine light into a world of shadows.
Peter Ludlow’s essay on the Banality of Systematic Evil is well worth reading. He is right that it is important for individuals to think for themselves and be willing to risk civil disobedience when they are convinced that bureaucracies have lost their moral bearings. It is your weekend read. And if you want to read more about Arendt and the demands of justice, take a look at this essay on Arendt’s discussion of the Shalom Schwartzbard case.
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.
How does the rise of a secret, inscrutable, and unaccountable security bureaucracy in the United States impact law-abiding citizens? This is a crucial question as many of us struggle to understand the domestic spying programs unveiled by Edward Snowden. In one such program, Xkeyscore, low-level NSA analysts are permitted to “mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.” It is arguably true that the government needs to be able to act in extraordinary ways to protect the country at a time of world terrorism. It is equally true, however, that once such information is available and held by the government, it is likely that it will be abused. Information is easily transferred. If the government collects and holds data on citizens, that data will eventually be misused, whether by the government or others. One case in point is Laura Poitras. In Peter Maass’ must-read cover story in last week’s New York Times Magazine, he tells how since 2006 Poitras has been on government watch lists because of rumors falsely spread about her. While winning awards and producing lauded documentaries, she was repeatedly detained, met with armed guards, and had her computers and notes taken, searched, and held for weeks—because of secret and ultimately false rumors. And all before she got involved with Edward Snowden. Now Poitras—who has helped to bring Snowden’s revelations about the illegal excesses of government surveillance to light in a responsible manner—may never be able to enter the United States again without being harassed and arrested. It is important to balance the need for security against the rights of citizens and the essential American right of free speech and meaningful dissent. But how did it happen that the Attorney General of the United States of America had to write to the President of Russia assuring him that if Snowden were extradited to the U.S. he would not be tortured? As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, when he turned himself in after publishing the Pentagon papers, he was freed on bond pending trial. Would the Obama administration’s justice department have treated Snowden that way? There is in the end a fine line separating the surveillance of terrorists and the harassment of citizens. Maass’ article sheds light on the surveillance state through the personal story of one woman. Wherever you come down on the question of national security surveillance, it is an essay that you should read.
Laura Miller reviews Jesse Walker's new short history of American conspiracy theories, For Walker, the conspiracy theory is a kind of national past time, with some conspiracy or another widely discussed within many disparate demographics. Miller delves into why this might be: "As Walker sees it, our brains are predisposed to see patterns in random data and to apply stories to explain them, which is why conspiracy theory can be so contagious. Although conspiracies do exist, we need to be vigilant against our propensity to find them whether they are there or not. The most sensible outlook would appear to be that of Robert Anton Wilson, who concluded that “powerful people” could well be “engaged in criminal plots” but who found it unlikely that “the conspirators were capable of carrying out those plots competently.” Or, I would add, of covering them up effectively."
President Obama gave a speech this week promising to take on university tuition. It is a worthy goal at a time of skyrocketing student debt. But the devil is in the details and here the details include a universal assessment board that will rank how well schools prepare students for employment. The idea is to allow students and parents to know which schools are the best return on their investment and to shame colleges and universities into cutting costs and focusing more on preparing students for gainful employment. There are many questions that could be asked, including whether we are better served spending money to make college more affordable or by actually turning high school—which is already free and mandatory—into a meaningful experience that prepares students for work and citizenship? But philosophical questions aside, does such assessment work? Not according to Colin Macilwain, writing in the Scientific Journal Nature. Discussing “Snowball,” a system designed to assess British Universities, Macilwain writes: “A major problem with metrics is the well-charted tendency for people to distort their own behaviour to optimize whatever is being measured (such as publications in highly cited journals) at the expense of what is not (such as careful teaching). Snowball is supposed to get around that by measuring many different things at once. Yet it cannot quantify the attributes that society values most in a university researcher — originality of thinking and the ability to nurture students. Which is not the same as scoring highly in increasingly ubiquitous student questionnaires.” As assessments become a way of life, it is important to recall their unintended ill-effects.
In an essay about the ways that Iran's regime has used the deaths of "martyrs" to political advantage in the past and how opponents of the regime used that same rhetoric to push the opposite way following the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009, Mehdi Okasi describes his own youthful push back as an American-Iranian visiting Tehran as a teenager: "I ignored my family’s warnings, and carried my copy of The Satanic Verses with me throughout Tehran: to coffee shops, internet cafes, even the park. I held it in my hand as I walked around the city, placed it on tables as I ordered in restaurants, or on the counter at the local bakery where my sweet tooth was placated daily by cream pastries layered with jam and rolled in crushed pistachios. I even made a point of opening it in view of police and soldiers. But to my disappointment, no one paid me any attention. When I visited the many bookstores around Engelob Square, I asked booksellers if they had a copy squirreled away. My question didn’t inspire rage or offense. They didn’t gasp in disbelief or chase me out the store with a broom. Instead, in a rather bored tone, they informed me that the book wasn’t available in Iran. When they learned that I was visiting from America, they added that I could probably find a copy at so-and-so’s bookstore. Like anything else that was forbidden, you only had to know where to look and how to ask for it."
Ta-Nehisi Coates has spent part of the summer learning French in Paris. His continuing education in a foreign tongue, and his decision to pursue that education in a place where that language has spoken, has revealed to him the arrogance of native speakers of English; Coates tells his friends that he wishes more Americans were multilingual and "they can't understand. They tell me English is the international language. Why would an American need to know anything else?" For his own part, Coates seems to have been dissuaded of that particular notion simply by venturing into the world outside of his door; humility and empathy have been his prizes. "You come to this place" he says "and find yourself disarmed. You see that it has its own culture, its own ages and venerable traditions, that the people do not tremble before you. And then you understand that there is not just intelligent life in outer space, but life so graceful that it shames you into silence."
The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"
Olin Hall, Bard College
Learn more here.
Critical thinking is possible only where the standpoints of all others are open to inspection. Hence, critical thinking, while still a solitary business, does not cut itself off from ‘all others.’ To be sure, it still goes on in isolation, but by the force of imagination it makes the others present and thus moves in a space that is potentially public, open to all sides; in other words, it adopts the position of Kant’s world citizen. To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.
-Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, 43
Arendt’s appeal to the “enlargement of the mind” of Kantian judgment is well known and is often discussed in relation to Eichmann’s failure to think and recognize the world’s plurality. To the extent that we find lessons in these discussions, a prominent one is that we might all be vulnerable to such failures of judgment.
While recognizing how easy it is for us to not think, especially in the bureaucratic structures of the contemporary world, I want to focus here on the moments of thinking and judgment that do occur but fail to garner recognition.
I was recently involved in a discussion about educational and other support programs in prisons around the country. During the conversation, someone made the observation that these programs seem to appeal especially to women. It was the case that each of the women in this conversation had been involved in some prison program, either as an attorney or an educator. But the observation was intended, of course, to go beyond this relatively small group.
I don’t know whether it’s true that many more women than men are involved in programs like Bard’s Prison Initiative or the Innocence Project or any number of such programs. But what struck me about this conversation was that despite no one claiming to possess any knowledge beyond his or her personal observations, many seemed relatively certain about the possible explanation about this phenomenon (or non-phenomenon): that women might have a greater capacity to empathize with others, not because we are innately sensitive beings, but because we can more easily recognize the suffering of others and respond to that suffering.
Many readers of Arendt will immediately react to this description with Arendt’s critique of empathy in mind. For Arendt, empathy destroys critical thinking to the extent that it tries to “know what actually goes on in the mind of all others” as opposed to the comparing our judgment with the possible judgments of others (Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 43). In trying to feel like someone else, empathy makes it impossible to respond politically, as it destroys the distance between individuals that makes a response to another as other possible.
But if not empathy, what might better describe those, whether they are women or men, who are open to the sufferings and injustices of others? The answer, I submit, is critical thinking.
For Arendt, critical thinking is necessarily imaginative, as it requires that the thinker make “the others present.” The presence of others is not achieved by imagining what goes on in each of the minds of these imagined others. Rather, this presence is what allows one imaginatively to construct a public space in which one’s actions are visible to other people.
Critical thinking thus most importantly lies not in the ability to compare our judgment with the possible judgments of all others, which is what is often stressed in discussions of Arendtian judgment, but rather in the adoption of the position of Kant’s “world citizen.” Adopting such a position is less about imagining others as such and more about recognizing that one is always putting oneself out there for others to judge. Insofar as it is necessary to construct the audience to which the thinker presents herself, the imagination of others is the first step to critical thinking, but only the first step. Critical thinking is, as Kant writes in “What is Enlightenment?,” “addressing the entire reading public” such that that one presents oneself for judgment by this learned group of which one purports to be a member. Like a politician or a writer or an actor, the critical thinker acts with the understanding that she will be judged not just by friends, lovers, or like-minded compatriots, but by an entire learned public whose judgments are tempered neither by love nor even self-serving support.
The space in which women moved has always been “public” to the extent that women who acted always did so with the knowledge that they are opening themselves up to the judgment of others. Thus acting takes courage and a true living of the motto of the enlightenment “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!” (Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”).
But acting also necessarily engages critical thinking in another sense: one’s actions are always public to the extent that in acting one presents oneself for judgment to the world and discloses oneself. The thinking of women might, in this way, have been “forced” into the realm of the critical, for as solitary as the activity of thinking necessarily is, it occurs in a space in which the others are present by not only the “force of imagination,” but also the force of history. Thus, if certain professions, causes, or activities do draw relatively more women than men, part of the explanation might be that women think more critically. The world that one sees, with all its injustices and its suffering, does not move one to action or service. But this world is not the world in which one thinks or acts. Rather, one moves in and responds to the imagined one in which what one does is meaningful because one’s actions are being judged and because as vulnerable as one might feel in being judged, judgment brings along with it the implicit recognition that what one does is visible to others and, quite simply, that it might matter.
Arendt’s understanding of judgment is closely tied to Kant’s Critique of Judgment for a good reason: she herself builds her ideas directly on Kantian judgment. But reading Arendtian judgment through Kant’s shorter piece, “What is Enlightenment?” opens up to us aspects of the former that have previously been obscured. And it opens us up to acts of thinking, judgment, and courage to which we are often blind. Again, I don’t know that more women than men engage in work that supports prisoners and advances the cause of prisoners’ rights. But I don’t think it is controversial to say that the perception that they do exists and that women’s ability to empathize with others, whether because of their backgrounds or simply because they are women, is frequently an accompanying discourse. This could be the right explanation. But it could also be an expression not only of prejudices of what women are, but also of an insufficiency of our conceptual vocabulary to capture what it is that is going on in a way that does not simply reassert these prejudices.
Of late there has been no shortage of commentary on the ten years that have passed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Much of it has focused on the justifications for the war provided by members of the Bush administration, the lingering consequences of the invasion for President Obama and other policymakers, and the often harrowing experiences of American soldiers. These are certainly matters that should be discussed at length.
But U.S. public discourse continues to say little about the impact of the war on Iraqis themselves or about their efforts to survive and interpret it.
Much of it also remains tightly focused on the era after 9/11, as if those day’s events rendered the longer arc of Iraqi history—including the part that the U.S. has played in it—more or less irrelevant. To the extent that the country’s past is addressed at all, it commonly reduces “sectarianism,” “tribalism,” and other shibboleths to intrinsic and timeless features of Iraqi (and wider Arab and Islamic) life.
Two recent contributions on Jadaliyya (www.jadaliyya.com), a blog and e-zine published by the Arab Studies Institute, offer a counterpoint to these prevailing trends. The first is an interview with historian Dina Rizk Khoury related to the publication of her recent book, Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Resistance (Cambridge, 2013). As Khoury rightly notes, most of the discussion in the U.S. has failed to recognize the fact that Iraqis spent the last twenty-three years of Baathist rule in a state of nearly continuous military conflict. First there was the Iran-Iraq War, then the Iraqi seizure of Kuwait, then the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuring embargo, and finally the most recent American invasion and occupation.
Under such conditions, Khoury argues, war became a matter of normalcy and bureaucratic governance that insinuated violence into the fabric of everyday life in Iraq. At the same time, it created recurring crises and ruptures that reshaped the structures of state authority and citizenship. And it enabled the Iraqi state to fabricate a myth of soldiering and martyrdom that, in the long run, helped to recalibrate Iraqis’ notions of national belonging along ethnic and sectarian lines. Wittingly or unwittingly, the actions of U.S. policymakers after the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion have reinforced Iraq’s societal divisions and the prevalence of violence as a mode of political action.
The second contribution is a commentary from Orit Bashkin, “The Forgotten Protagonists: The Invasion and the Historian.” Bashkin has written extensively on the politics of pluralism (The Other Iraq, Stanford, 2010) and Jewish displacement (New Babylonians, Stanford, 2012) in twentieth-century Iraq, but here she focuses on the present and future conditions of historical scholarship. She contends that our knowledge of the Iraqi past has grown in significant ways over the past decade. (If we take Melani McAlister’s book Epic Encounters seriously, this outcome should hardly surprise us: American cultural, scholarly, and geopolitical interests in the Middle East have long been tightly intertwined.) Such expansion has been facilitated in no small part by the relocation of the Baath Party archives to the U.S. in 2008. This move has allowed professional historians ready access to a crucial corpus of texts on Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Yet Bashkin also worries that the prospects for historical knowledge production will be decidedly less rosy in the years to come. In particular, many of the other materials on which historians of Iraq rely—Ottoman records, collections of poetic and theological writings, museums, archaeological sites, and so on—have been or are being destroyed in the wake of the U.S. invasion.
As a result, it will be considerably more difficult for scholars not simply to reconstruct the Iraqi past, but also to comprehend how Iraqi citizens relate to it. In particular, we will be less able to grasp the imperial and colonial practices, post-independence state policies, and other forces that have forged the country’s current ethnic and religious cleavages. And we will be less able to understand the multiple and competing nostalgias that now proliferate among Iraqi citizens. Such nostalgias include the ambivalent and paradoxical longing for the days of Saddam Hussein, when (in Bashkin’s words) “at least there was some sense of law and order.”
American public discourse is in desperate need of commentary that positions present-day Iraqis as complex actors who both shape and are shaped by the flow of local, regional, and global histories. As Khoury and Bashkin suggest, the current focus on the past ten years is both literally and metaphorically short-sighted. And yet, for a variety of reasons, lengthening our gaze will be easier said than done.
This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,” a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.
Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":
You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.
The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.
At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.
Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.
To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education.
The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.
The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.
Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.
Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.
What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!”
At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:
To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!
At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.
Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.
It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.
Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.
That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?
According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand. Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet. Build a personal website.”
None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.
What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.
Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.
We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.
One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.
I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,
The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.
I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.