Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
8Nov/130

The Threat to the Humanities

ArendtWeekendReading

The Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee has published an open letter on the recent threats to universities and to the humanities in particular. The threat, however, is not limited to universities. As Coetzee writes:

All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.

What Coetzee names the “traditional duty to foster the common good” may smack a bit of nostalgia. And yet, it is the case that at times in history government has allowed for and enabled the flourishing of a meaningful public sphere where a plurality of people jointly pursue noble collective endeavors. The civil rights movement in the 1960s was one such endeavor, as was the founding of the United States as a land federal constitutional democratic republic instituted to preserve the freedom of self-government. In Europe we can point to the emergence of social democracy as another collective act to bring about a public world. And yet all public actions are opposed by the liberal bourgeois desire realized in representative democracy, the demand that government simply leave us alone to pursue our private lives.

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Universities are not the only spaces for articulating the common good in society. But they do serve an important role in that project. For liberal arts universities, at their best, exist to foster independent and thoughtful persons. What universities have been, since their inception, are institutions that stand apart from society. They are places where slowness and reflection flourish in contradistinction to the speed and busyness of the everyday world of business. In reading Plato, exploring the wonders of DNA, and reciting Shakespeare, young people grapple with the greatest thoughts and works and discoveries that our human civilization has produced. They ask themselves what they think of these works and they come to have their personal opinions. That is what it means to think for oneself, or, as Arendt calls it in her native German, Selbstdenken. For Emerson, a liberal arts humanist education is where we acquire the backbone that girds our self reliance.

Coetzee offers two reasons why he believes that universities will disappear as incubators of such independence. First, he writes that universities are being financially punished to the extent that they imagine themselves as autonomous, independent, and critical of society. In response to the mobilization of universities in the 1960s and 1970s, governments and boards of trustees around the world are fighting back:

The response of the political class to the university's claim to a special status in relation to the polity has been crude but effectual: if the university, which, when the chips are down, is simply one among many players competing for public funds, really believes in the lofty ideals it proclaims, then it must show it is prepared to starve for its beliefs. I know of no case in which a university has taken up the challenge.
The fact is that the record of universities, over the past 30 years, in defending themselves against pressure from the state has not been a proud one. Resistance was weak and ill organised; routed, the professors beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial newspeak they are perforce having to acquire.

Coetzee also offers a second reason for the decline of the university as an important cultural-political institution: “there are too few people left who really believe in the humanities and in the university built on humanistic grounds, with philosophical, historical and philological studies as its pillars.” What Coeztee means is not simply that people are abandoning Shakespeare for computer science. It is rather that the professors and students who read Shakespeare and Plato don’t believe in the importance of the very books they read.

We can see this is the kind of overly-specialized writing and research coming out of research universities, where scholars too often (obviously with exceptions, but they are rare) seek to produce highly specialized and erudite studies that seek to say something new or original but have little to do with the books or the thinkers they are writing about.

We also find this same loss of belief in the humanities in the ever-increasing talk about using the humanities to teach basic literacy or critical thinking “skills”, in the parlance of recent jargon that dominates committees discussing educational reform. Here is Coetzee:

Even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses - courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enroll - one course to be entitled "Reading and Writing", in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled "Great Ideas", in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

In other words, to argue that what students need are simply skills is to abandon any actual defense of the humanities. While skills can be taught through the humanities, they can likely be taught as well and more cheaply in other ways. Attempts to defend the humanities because they inculcate useful skills does not and cannot defend the humanities themselves. Whether those skills are themselves useful is an open question; the bigger question is whether there are easier ways to acquire those skills then spending years reading and writing about old books.

The only true defense of the humanities Coetzee recognizes is one that defends them on their own grounds: that humanities are good in themselves.

I believe, you will have to make a stand. You will have to say: we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society.

What I take Coetzee to mean is that the humanities—by which I understand the humanist inquiry into literature, philosophy, politics, science, and art—teach people to pursue their truths by standing on the shoulders of giants.

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What the humanist education does is both teach us to love the world as it has been handed down to us and also to make it our own. That is why education is both conservative and revolutionary.

Very much in the spirit of Arendt, Coeztee is calling for just such a conservative and revolutionary idea of the humanities, one that is quite out of tune with the current professional and intellectual trends reigning in academic institutions. His letter is short and worth your attention. It is your weekend read.

-RB

28Oct/130

Revolutions

Arendtquote

“When the Revolution [sic] devoured its own children like Saturn and was like a gigantic Lava [sic] stream on whose surface the actors were born [sic] along for a while, only to be sucked away by the undertow of an undercurrent mightier than they themselves.”

-Hannah Arendt, "Revolutions - Spurious and Genuine" (unpublished)

This quote, whose telling typos will be addressed below, is from an unpublished typescript by Hannah Arendt, written for a lecture in Chicago in May 1964, titled “Revolutions – Spurious and Genuine”. The first lines read: “Not my title. I would hesitate to distinguish.” While Arendt rejects the suggested binary definition, her talk offers different sets of distinctions:

First, modern revolutions like the French or the American Revolution imply a change that is radical enough to be experienced as an entirely new beginning. A new beginning that no one can escape, because it affects “the whole fabric of government and/or society.” This call for radical change doesn’t just protest bad government. Citizens who are in the streets for a revolution don’t limit themselves to complaining, “We are badly ruled,” but they claim, “We wish to rule ourselves.” The revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990, and most recently the revolutionary events in Egypt and other countries of the Middle East are probably the most prominent events of this kind in contemporary history. At the time of Arendt’s talk, the Cuban Revolution was the most recent example: she thought it was primarily a coup d’état, yet “most certainly” a revolution.

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Second, Arendt distinguishes between social and political upheavals – a distinction we know from her book “On Revolution,” published one year before the lecture in Chicago. Revolutions like those in France in 1789, or Russia in 1905, came to be primarily about the abolition of social misery and inequality, while the American Revolution, for instance, was about building political liberty, according to Arendt. This section of the paper is one of the rare occasions in Arendt’s work where she also addresses America’s “hidden social question,” i.e. the “institution of slavery” and its aftermath. Arendt is puzzled that America’s extremely mobile society and economy resisted change, keeping African-Americans stuck at the bottom of society while many – often poor – immigrants were easily absorbed. Does the civil rights movement call for a revolution in response to this turmoil? No, Arendt says, for it doesn’t claim to change the whole fabric of the society; rather, it is fighting for access to this society. There is a revolutionary aspect to the movement’s political fight “against those laws and ordinances of states which are openly discriminatory,” Arendt remarks, but changing the “whole fabric” isn’t on this agenda either, for the civil rights movement had the Federal government on its side.

In the final section of her talk, Arendt returns to the initially rejected distinction between spurious and genuine – because she does think it is productive when we ask, “Who are the revolutionists?”

On the one hand, there is the concept of a founder, originating in the American Revolution: “a kind of architect” who builds a house that provides stability because those who inhabit it are fleeting, they come and go. “Freedom needs a space to be manifest,” Arendt notes, continuing: the “more stable a body politic is, the more freedom will be possible within it.” Whether the process of life housed by this founder is ruled by the law of progress or not, is secondary.

Yet the concept of progress is still central to how we usually conceive of politics. The conservatives tend to be against it, the liberals tend to be for it up to a certain degree. The revolutionists, however, believe in it, and they believe that true progress requires violence. They’ve been holding this belief with and since Marx, Arendt recalls, with whom she competes for the metaphor of “birth.” Whereas for Marx the pangs of birth must accompany every meaningful political development, for Arendt birth manifests the human capacity for a totally new beginning.

The metaphors of infinite progress as an infinite process “were all born … during the French Revolution,” Arendt notes. They were born, when not only the Jacobins around Robespierre, who represents the cruelties of the rule of “terreur,” but also the slightly more moderate Girondists around Danton had lost control:

“When the Revolution [sic] devoured its own children like Saturn and was like a gigantic Lava [sic] stream on whose surface the actors were born[e] [sic] along for a while, only to be sucked away by the undertow of an undercurrent mightier than they themselves.”

The typos in this passage are maybe the most telling signs of Arendt’s deep struggle with this concept of progress. By having the actors being “born” instead of “borne” on the stream of revolution, she not only conflates the two Marxian ideas of unstoppable progress that necessarily comes with the pangs of birth, but also inscribes her critique into Marx’s concept by allowing the possible reading of actors being born – in Arendt’s sense of an individual new beginning within plurality – upon this process. Marx’s idea of the swimmer “controlling” the stream of history in Arendt’s eyes is an illusion, as she noted in her Thinking Diary. In the face of the atrocities of the 20th century the question would rather be “how to avoid swimming in the stream at all.”

The undercurrents of Arendt’s typos reveal that her debate with Marx, despite the fact that the lecture is written in English, is simultaneously pursued in German – their shared native language. Arendt capitalizes “Revolution” like a German noun; she did the same earlier in the paragraph with “Progress,” and she does it again with the gigantic stream of “Lava.” (I’ve outlined the significance of the “plurality of languages” in Arendt’s political writing and thinking in a different “Quote of the Week” you can read here.)

Here, I’d like to show in conclusion how Arendt through the German resonances in her talk subtly invites a poet into her conversation on revolution. “The revolution devours its own children” has become a common expression, but the way in which Arendt quotes it “like Saturn” translates exactly the wording from Georg Büchner’s pivotal play Danton’s Death. Arendt’s private German copy of the play is marked up in interesting ways. Among the sentences she underlined is for example Danton’s “We didn’t make the revolution, the revolution made us,” which reflects upon the intricacies of agency and intellectual leadership in political turmoil. A sentence many intellectuals — even some of Arendt’s friends — were painfully oblivious to during the “National Revolution” of 1933, which troubled her for decades.

arejdt

We revolutionaries are “no more cruel than nature, or the age we live in,” says St. Just, Robespierre’s hitman, whose name literally means Saint Justice, in a passage from Danton’s Death that Arendt also marked: “Nature follows her own laws, calmly, irresistibly; man is destroyed wherever he comes into conflict with them.”

Büchner’s dialogs are largely based on historical sources from the French Revolution. They flesh out Arendt’s fine allusions e.g. to the fatal might of tropes like “the stream.” “Is it so surprising,” St. Just asks in the same passage Arendt marked, “that at each new turn the raging torrent of the revolution disgorges its quantum of corpses?” Echoing Marx’ metaphor of the irresistible stream of history and progress, Arendt is mindful of the date where these thoughts found their form.

Speaking of being mindful of dates – only a few days ago, on October 18th, Georg Büchner’s 200th anniversary was celebrated.

(The full document of Arendt’s lecture in Chicago will soon be published on www.hannaharendt.net)

-Thomas Wild

9Nov/120

A Milestone Election

The re-election of Barack Obama is a milestone. Barack Obama will always be remembered as the first black President of the United States. He will now also be remembered as the first black two-term President, one who was re-elected in spite of nearly 8% unemployment and a feeling of deep unease in society. He is the black President who was re-elected because he seemed, to most Americans, more presidential, more trustworthy, and more likable than his opponent—a white, Mormon, representative of the business elite. Whatever you want to say about this election, it is difficult to deny that the racial politics of the United States have now changed.

President Obama's re-election victory and his distinguished service have made the country a better place. The dream of America as a land of equality and the dream that our people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character—these dreams, while not realized, are closer to being realized today because of Barack Obama's presidency and his re-election.

There are some who don't see it that way. There is a map going around comparing the 2012 electoral college vote to the civil war map. It is striking, and it shows with pictorial clarity, that the Republic strongholds today are nearly identically matched with the states of the Confederacy 150 years ago. For some, this is an indictment not only of the Republican Party, but also of the United States. The argument made on Facebook and beyond is that the country is still deeply divided racially; that this election brought out the deep-seated racism underlying the country.

Election Results 2012

 

There is also the fact that Twitter apparently was awash in profoundly racist commentary after the election. According to the blog Floating Sheep, the worst of the racist commentary was concentrated in states that Mitt Romney won. Mississippi and Alabama were the states with the largest number of racist tweets on election night.

This could be evidence of a real racial problem. But I don't see it that way. Of course there are some people who are less trusting of a black President. But around the country, voters approved gay marriage, Latinos voted in record numbers, women swept into office, and we re-elected a black President to a second term. To see this election as a confirmation of racist intransigence is overly pessimistic.

Yes, Mitt Romney won the white vote, but he received 59% of the white vote; not exactly a landslide given that the country has real problems. Among white voters over 65, Romney received 61% of the vote. But among white voters under 29, he received only 51% of the vote, a sure sign of things to come. And the white vote was only 72% of the national vote, a record low. As David Simon writes in "Barack Obama and the Death of Normal":

The country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play — on a national level, at least — the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals. ... This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against each other, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.

This is all good news.

And yet, we should not celebrate too loudly. Race still matters in these United States. How it does and why is changing, and will continue to change.

Amidst the progress, one fact remains stubbornly true: black Americans still lag behind white Americans in metrics of education, employment, income, and success. Nearly 5% of black men are in prison in the United States, compared to 1.8% of Hispanic men and .7% of white men.

More than 70% of babies born to black mothers are born out-of-wedlock. When looked at honestly, the problem with race in this country remains stark. It is too big a problem to be swept under the carpet.

And yet that is what is happening. The Obama Presidency has not been kind to blacks. Here is how Frederick C. Harris puts it in the New York Times before the election:

[F]or those who had seen in President Obama’s election the culmination of four centuries of black hopes and aspirations and the realization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community,” the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality. The tragedy is that black elites — from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members — have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.

Walter Russell Mead makes a similar point in a rich essay published in The American Interest over the summer. He writes:

Many hoped that the election of the first African-American President of the United States meant a decisive turn in the long and troubled history of race relations in the United States. And indeed President Obama’s election was a signal success for the American racial settlement of the 1970s. But at the moment of its greatest success, that settlement—call it the Compromise of 1977—was beginning to unravel, as evidenced by the fact that President Obama’s nearly four years in office to date have witnessed decades of economic progress and rising political power in black America shifting into reverse.

The housing bubble and its crash have disproportionately impacted black and Latino Americans, who most recently achieved the dream of home ownership. And the loss of jobs in manufacturing and public unions have disproportionately impacted blacks, since these were important routes through which black Americans have entered the middle class. The results for blacks in this country are harrowing. As Mead reports:

Black unemployment under President Obama hit 16.2 percent (June 2011). The median net worth of black households collapsed, falling by 59 percent between 2005 and 2010, wiping out twenty years of progress and plunging to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first term. By comparison, the net worth of white households only fell by 18 percent from 2005 to 2010. The gap between black and white net worth doubled during the Great Recession, and the “wealth gap” between the races rose; the median white household had 22 times the net worth of the median black household. Moreover, the damage to black prospects will not soon be repaired. Indeed, if we now (as seems likely) face a prolonged period of austerity and restructuring in government, there will be fewer job openings and stagnant or falling wages and benefits in the middle-class occupations where blacks have enjoyed the greatest success.

What is more, those national statistics like unemployment, exclude inmates in our nation's penitentiaries. Were we to add the 5% of black men in prison into those cumulative statistics, the situation would look even more perilous.

Mead's essay, The Last Compromise, is essential reading. He argues that race relations in America are marked by three main historical compromises. The first compromise, in 1787, is well known. Including the counting of slaves as three fifths of a citizen and the granting of slave states equal representation in the Senate, this original compromise allowed the country to emerge as a democracy without dealing with the obvious scar of slavery.

Image taken from The American Interest

The Civil War led to what Mead calls the second major compromise on Race that moved the nation forward without actually granting rights to blacks. In the compromise of 1877,

the white South accepted the results of the Civil War, acknowledging that slavery, secession and the quest for sectional equality were all at an end. The South would live peacefully and ultimately patriotically in a union dominated by Northern capitalists. White Southerners might complain about Northern banks and plutocrats (and they did for decades), but they would not take up arms. For its part, the North agreed to ignore some inconvenient constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction period, allowing each Southern state to manage race relations as its white voters saw fit. In particular, the North allowed the South to deny blacks the vote while counting them for representational purposes.

As Mead writes, this compromise was a disaster for blacks. And yet, there was some progress. Denied the vote and made second-class citizens in much of the country, and faced with continued violence and oppression, blacks could, nevertheless, work to create a small and thriving middle class.

The compromise of 1877 last about 100 years until, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, a new compromise emerged. This compromise of 1977 brought with it desegregation of public institutions, affirmative action, the entry of blacks into government and civil service, voting rights, and the chance for success. But it came with a dark side. As Mead summarizes:

At its core, the compromise offered blacks unprecedented economic opportunity and social equality, but it also allowed for the stern and unrelenting repression of inner-city lawlessness and crime. Blacks who were ready, willing and able to participate in the American system found an open door and a favoring wind; blacks who for whatever reason were unable or unwilling to “play by the rules” faced long terms in prisons where gang violence and rape were routine.

The election of President Obama shows the promise and the limits of our current state of race relations. On the one hand, black Americans in the middle and upper classes live in a society that if it is not color blind, is at least open to success, entrepreneurship, and leadership by black Americans. On the other hand, the misery of the black poor continues, largely invisible. This is not simply a racial matter, since it is poverty in general, and not only black poverty, that is ignored. There are many impoverished white people. But it would be dishonest to deny the racial components of poverty.

The 2012 election is a milestone. It proves that 2008 was not a fluke, and it shows that most of the United States will vote for the candidate they feel is better, no matter that candidate's race. This is an enormous achievement and one to celebrate. In many ways the future looks bright. But that is no excuse to refuse an honest confrontation of the problems many black Americans continue to have. President Obama has largely avoided the issue of race, for obvious reasons. It is time to insist that we bring the issue to light.

One good way to begin is to read The Last Compromise by Walter Russell Mead. It is well worth the price of subscription to The American Interest. It is your weekend read.

-RB