By Laurie Naranch
“In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world, while their physical identities appear without any activity of their own in the unique shape of the body and the sound of the voice. This disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is . . . is implicit in everything somebody says and does."
-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
To be reduced to a “what” for Arendt is to deny the uniqueness of each individual. That individuality is disclosed through acting and speaking together. For Arendt politics is about collective action rooted in and created through shared space. Acting and speaking together in the appearance of a public world provides the possibility for disclosing “who” one is. That is, while Arendt mentions that “what” somebody is may relate to “qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings,” we also know that “what” somebody is – just a Jew, woman, disabled, or disgusting – is a way of denying the uniqueness of a person with a proper name. Narration of the “who” is essential to both ethical and political life.
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.
Andrew M. Schocket thinks he knows why the American Revolution is such a fertile ground for rhetoric in contemporary American politics: "the American Revolution was indeed unusual, as is its relation to the American present. Unlike many other countries, the United States can point to a period of less than two decades as its seminal founding moment. Most other nations have either multiple founding moments or have lived through various evolutions. Unlike the United States, most countries trace their origins to ethnicity and language, rather than to the establishment of a particular political structure. The United States retains its governmental form from the federal constitution that served as the Revolution's crowning achievement, and so its citizens look to the people who established that form as authorities on it. Most other countries have been through multiple iterations of their national governments. The founding generation of the United States was a particularly articulate bunch, whose vast public and private writings have been preserved, ever at the ready. Few other nations have a single generation of leaders that happen to have left such a wordy legacy, always available for apparent authority and, perhaps, exploitation." Schocket's reflections come from his new book, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, which is about the continuing fights over the founding documents of American government--fights, he argues, about nationalism and belonging. Hannah Arendt too saw our continuing worship of the U.S. Constitution as central to the American ideal of freedom, but Arendt argued that the substantive innovation in American constitutional democracy was the abolition of sovereignty: "The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same." The truly innovative idea of American government for Arendt was to so multiply sources of power on the federal, state, and local levels so that powerful institutions throughout society would exist to resist tyranny whenever it would begin to emerge, as undoubtedly it does. The real danger to American freedom, in Arendt's reading, is the rise of centralized government bureaucracies that undermine the power-based institutions of civic life. Read more about Arendt's view of American democracy here.
Bard College President Leon Botstein was asked by James Traub about the moral core of running a Liberal Arts College. Botstein's answer is well worth hearing. In part, Botstein talks about the lesson he learned as a child of immigrants and how it has affected his understanding of how to run a liberal arts college: "The moral of the story is that we learned two things. Which have stuck with all of us. One is that if you are ever in the position of privilege, which we as immigrants never expected ourselves to be, you have an obligation to do the right thing and to do the right thing now. You cannot excuse not acting on behalf of what is right and what is needed. You have to imagine that what went wrong in the Second World War among other things was the failure of ordinary people to stand up for what was right. We never expected ourselves to be in a position to help. We turned out to be in such a position. And it informs what I do.... We run, public, not charter schools, high-school early colleges, that reach underserved populations: Two in NYC; Two full high schools; a one-year college prep program in Harlem Children's Zone; A full high school in Newark; One in Cleveland and we're opening one in Baltimore. And a one-year program in New Orleans. We're a private college, unendowed. And we're running these public institutions." He was then asked: "Is this by the way, as a practical question, is this an affordable expense for a school like Bard, that is barely surviving?" Botstein's answer: "It is the wrong question--because you have nothing to lose. The people who are risk-averse are the rich, who become like Fafnir in Wagner's Ring. You know in Wagner's Ring, the gold is cursed. The two brothers fight each other over the gold. Fasolt gets killed. And Fafnir gets the gold and what does he do? (From the viewer's point of view for the next 12 hours in Valkyrie and Siegfried,...) In real life, for a long time, until Siegfried becomes mature, he sits immobilized, having turned himself into a dragon guarding the gold. So what was the gold for?"
Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone tells the story of Michael Winston, a whistleblower who has both been celebrated as a hero for exposing fraud at Countrywide Financial and sued and penalized to an extraordinary degree. "This is the age of the whistleblower. From Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden to the latest cloak-and-dagger lifter of files, ex-HSBC employee Hervé Falciani, whistleblowers are becoming to this decade what rock stars were to the Sixties--pop culture icons, global countercultural heroes. But one of America's ugliest secrets is that our own whistleblowers often don't do so well after the headlines fade and cameras recede. The ones who don't end up in jail like Manning, or in exile like Snowden, often still go through years of harassment and financial hardship. And while we wait to see if Loretta Lynch is confirmed as the next Attorney General, it's worth taking a look at how whistleblowers in America fared under the last regime." We venerate whistleblowers because they have the moral courage to stand up in the face of bureaucratic evil and do the right thing. But such moral actors are also disloyal and even lawbreakers, leading them to be scorned and punished. Taibbi details the way that Winston and others have had their lives destroyed after first being venerated for being heroes.
One of the great intellectual institutions in the United States has just been reinvigorated. The NY Times Magazine--until recently a sickly image of its former self--arrived this weekend not only bigger and printed on weightier paper, but newly committed to the world of letters. One example of the new Times Magazine will be the repeating column on photography by Teju Cole. In his first column, Cole writes of some of his favorite imagistic chroniclers the Civil Rights Movement, first among them Roy DeCarava. He begins with a description of DeCarava's "Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963": "One such image left me short of breath the first time I saw it. It's of a young woman whose face is at once relaxed and intense. She is apparently in bright sunshine, but both her face and the rest of the picture give off a feeling of modulated darkness; we can see her beautiful features, but they are underlit somehow. Only later did I learn the picture's title, 'Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963' which helps explain the young woman's serene and resolute expression. It is an expression suitable for the event she's attending, the most famous civil rights march of them all. The title also confirms the sense that she's standing in a great crowd, even though we see only half of one other person's face (a boy's, indistinct in the foreground) and, behind the young woman, the barest suggestion of two other bodies. The picture was taken by Roy DeCarava, one of the most intriguing and poetic of American photographers. The power of this picture is in the loveliness of its dark areas. His work was, in fact, an exploration of just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph, or how much could be imagined into those shadows. He resisted being too explicit in his work, a reticence that expresses itself in his choice of subjects as well as in the way he presented them.... All technology arises out of specific social circumstances. In our time, as in previous generations, cameras and the mechanical tools of photography have rarely made it easy to photograph black skin. The dynamic range of film emulsions, for example, were generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensitivity to brown, red or yellow skin tones. Light meters had similar limitations, with a tendency to underexpose dark skin. And for many years, beginning in the mid-1940s, the smaller film-developing units manufactured by Kodak came with Shirley cards, so-named after the white model who was featured on them and whose whiteness was marked on the cards as 'normal.' Some of these instruments improved with time. In the age of digital photography, for instance, Shirley cards are hardly used anymore. But even now, there are reminders that photographic technology is neither value-free nor ethnically neutral. In 2009, the face-recognition technology on HP webcams had difficulty recognizing black faces, suggesting, again, that the process of calibration had favored lighter skin."
Aminatta Forna wonders why we need canons: "Forty years ago the great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o argued against the idea of national canons. There should, he said, be a single department with a single word on the door and that word should be LITERATURE. A perfectly excellent idea, it seems to me, which naturally never came to pass. Instead, the study of literature became fragmented by the politics of university departments. Categories were added: American literature, post-colonial literature, comparative literature, women's literature. The creative output of the world's writers was hived off, territory was staked out and defended. In university departments no doubt this stuff mattered, because it came with opportunities for funding, career advancement and empire building. (In fact, it has been interesting to observe in recent times something of a reversal of fortunes, as English departments in British universities have their funding cut, while in the US a diverse student body has begun to insist on a range of subjects to reflect their interests. We will have to wait and see what long-term impact these changes will have.) All this classifying, it seems to me, is the very antithesis of literature. The way of literature is to seek universality. Writers try to reach beyond those things that divide us: culture, class, gender, race. Given the chance, we would resist classification. I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply 'writer.'"
In an essay about the rhetorical strategies engaged in Mein Kampf, Albrecht Kaschorke suggests that the book, rather than more modern forms of communication, is the great form of dictatorial communication: As different as the works of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Mu'ammar Gadhafi are in style and ideology, the bibliocentric orientation of their regimes is something they have in common. In simplified, ideal-typical terms, we may speak of the book as the symbolic center of the totalitarian system. It forms the sacral center of a state propaganda that otherwise employs more modern media: radio, film, and television. The book is given out to party cadres, even to the entire population, and assumes the character of a constitutional document; at a minimum, it is endowed with an authority to which tribute must be paid in the regime's public displays and within its power networks. The book's guiding idea is to provide a durable foundation for a political formation that has emerged from the tumultuous events of war and revolution and is extremely precarious when it comes to legitimacy and stability. Consequently, the book serves a quasi-religious function and is meant to inherit the mantle of the holy books of the great world religions. This explains the tension between, on the one hand, the use of technical and industrial media by the regime's propaganda and, on the other, the archaizing rituals carried out around the sacral book, blending bibliophilic splendor, fetishism, talismanic touching, and other forms of magical performance in a peculiar syndrome."
Ta-Nehisi Coates, eulogizing David Carr, tells the story of how Carr hired him to his first journalism job: "In the February of 1996, I sent David Carr two poorly conceived college-newspaper articles and a chapbook of black-nationalist poetry--and David Carr hired me. I can't even tell you what he saw. I know that I immediately felt unworthy--a feeling that never quite faded--because I was a knucklehead and a fuck-up. But what I didn't then know about David Carr was that he'd written and edited the knucklehead chronicles, and published annual editions wholly devoted to the craft of fucking-up. I think that David--recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human--knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it, the way Bob Hayes ran with it, because the fear was not of anything earthly but of demons born from profound shame and fantastic imagination."
The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.
To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.
Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015
The film is based on the newly discovered diaries of Heinrich Himmler. Watch a trailer here.
Monday, February 23, 2015
Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 6:00 - 9:00 pm
"Natality and its Vicissitudes"
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:00 pm
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, March 6, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
"Arendt's Critique of Modern Society as an Analysis of Process Imaginary"
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Etienne Tassin discusses how we can use Arendt to understand the political success of those demonstrators who rallied together in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in the Quote of the Week. Leo Tolstoy provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We appreciate Arendt's collection of books on Marxist capitalism in our Library feature. And we congratulate our post-doctoral fellow Michiel Bot on receiving the Witteveen Memorial Fellowship in Law and Humanities at Tilburg University for the summer of 2015.
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
In The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz writes about the deadening impact of loneliness and how it can ravage our body and our brain. She traces modern interest in loneliness to Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a psychoanalyst whose "1959 essay, 'On Loneliness,' is considered a founding document in a fast-growing area of scientific research you might call loneliness studies. Over the past half-century, academic psychologists have largely abandoned psychoanalysis and made themselves over as biologists. And as they delve deeper into the workings of cells and nerves, they are confirming that loneliness is as monstrous as Fromm-Reichmann said it was. It has now been linked with a wide array of bodily ailments as well as the old mental ones. In a way, these discoveries are as consequential as the germ theory of disease. Just as we once knew that infectious diseases killed, but didn't know that germs spread them, we've known intuitively that loneliness hastens death, but haven't been able to explain how. Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer's, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer - tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people." The turn toward biology situates loneliness as a mental and a physical illness, one to be combated with public health programs. Shulevitz traces the efforts to medicalize loneliness, as well as programs to treat loneliness as a problem of inequality. And yet, in the end, she suggests that humans have incredible resources to fend off loneliness: "[T]here's something awe-inspiring about our resilience, too. Put an orphan in foster care, and his brain will repair its missing connections. Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a supernatural being, and your score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale will go down. Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or a church can lead to what Cole calls 'molecular remodeling.' 'One message I take away from this is, "Hey, it's not just early life that counts,"' he says. 'We have to choose our life well.'"
Loneliness was a constant theme in Hannah Arendt's work. In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, published in 1950, Arendt writes: "Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals." Totalitarianism depends upon "the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class." Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. "The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships." Stripped of the political, social, and intellectual traditions that historically bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. As Paul Morrow writes, "Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political - and overvalue social or commercial - interactions." And Bill Dixon adds: "To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one's place in the world completely. The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of 'uprootedness' and 'superfluousness' that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism. Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway. Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone."
David Bromwich reviews Laura Poitras' Citizenfour and argues that it shows Edward Snowden to be a modern hero, a courageous conscientious objector in the war on privacy: "An incidental strength of Citizenfour is that it will make such casual slanders harder to repeat. Nevertheless, they are likely to be repeated or anyway muttered in semiprivate by otherwise judicious persons who want to go on with their business head-down and not be bothered. It must be added that our past politics give no help in arriving at an apt description of Snowden and his action. The reason is that the world in which he worked is new. Perhaps one should think of him as a conscientious objector to the war on privacy - a respectful dissident who, having observed the repressive treatment endured by William Binney, Thomas Drake, and other recent whistle-blowers, does not recognize the constitutional right of the government to put him in prison indefinitely and bring him to trial for treason. His action constitutes a reproach to the many good citizens who have learned what is happening and done nothing about it. That, too, is surely a cause of the resentment that has a hard time finding the appropriate adjectives for Snowden." Bromwich is right that listening to Snowden in the movie is to be in the presence of someone of integrity: "The undeclared subject of Citizenfour is integrity - the insistence by an individual that his life and the principle he lives by should be all of a piece. Something resembling an aesthetic correlative of that integrity can be found in the documentary style of Laura Poitras." What Snowden, Poitras, and Bromwich show is that the core of privacy is integrity. It is thus the integrity of the person that is under attack in the age of surveillance.
In an essay about how it is for teachers, both now and in the past, Jonathan Zimmerman says he thinks he's figured out what's happened to teaching in America: "the federal Race to the Top program sponsored by the Obama administration encouraged schools to use students' test scores in evaluating individual teachers. The primary responsibility of teachers is no longer to encourage good behavior in future citizens, as Horace Mann insisted. Instead, it's to ensure that they get the right answers on a high-stakes test. The shift in goals has unfortunately done nothing to alter the tedious, anti-intellectual practices of American teaching. If anything, the strong commitment to 'academic' goals has probably made teaching less academic - so far as the quality of learning is concerned - and more routinized than it was before. When teachers were hired for their inborn ability to 'nurture' schoolchildren, many derided or disregarded their intellectual capacities. Now we've created a system that is so firmly tied to scholastic achievement - as narrowly defined by standardized tests - that no serious scholar would want to teach in it."
In the New York Times, seven writers reread some of their old work and write about how they feel about it all this time later. Marilynne Robinson, for example, tries to recall what it was like to write Housekeeping: "In writing 'Housekeeping' I was trying to recover the appearance and the atmosphere of a very particular place, northern Idaho. When I wrote it, I had not spent much time there for almost 20 years. So it was very much an exploration of memory that I was engaged in. I thought I was writing an unpublishable book, so I was undistracted by other considerations than my own interest in the workings of memory and the ability of language to evoke what I 'saw' in memory. I found that the common old question 'What was it like?' stimulated recollection and recruited words and images that made my sense of the thing remembered, a place or a smell or the glint of light on water, much more accessible to me than I could have anticipated. It became a discipline for me, always to keep a scene before my eyes and to be ready to value and explore any detail that presented itself to me with an especially pungent or plangent specificity. I wrote much of the book in a darkened room. This was not intended as part of the experiment, but it may have contributed to it. My memories were often as bright as dreams and often as highly detailed. Only the place is actually remembered in the book. None of the characters or events are real. The point was to let my imagination take on the colorations of memory and interpret the place, as music might do."
In an interview with Questlove Thompson, an interview that's as much about music as anything else, Cornel West defines courage: "But we all live in fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the working through and overcoming of fear. Brother Martin had fear. He just wouldn't allow fear to determine his behavior. As human beings, everyone has stuff coming at them, and a certain kind of fear. But courage is being true to yourself, true to a sense of integrity. And that's what is more and more difficult."
In her National Book Awards acceptance speech, Ursula K. Lu Guin explains why she loves, and fears for, literature: "Books aren't just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable - but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words. I've had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don't want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn't profit. Its name is freedom."
In a piece about the resurfaced allegations of rape against Bill Cosby, Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that he, like all writers, lives in history, with his own context and biography. Knowing that is a kindness - one, he suggests, that an ethical journalist must transcend: "The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else's salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby's moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I'd ever written. It was not enough. I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality - and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible. I don't have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away."
Film Screening & Director's Discussion: Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 5:00 - 8:00 pm
Roundtable on Academic Freedom
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Bard College Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Johannes Lang discusses Arendt's critique of obedience in political and moral matters in the Quote of the Week. Carl Sagan provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we remember a talk George Kateb gave at our 2011 annual fall conference on the ideal of governmental transparency. And we appreciate Arendt's impressive collection of Goethe's works in our Library feature.
President Obama’s recent speech laying out his plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Syria (or in the Levant as he prefers to call it) hasn’t drawn that much rhetorical analysis. But some have noted its strong appeal to American exceptionalism.
Back in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin called out President Barack Obama for carrying out a foreign policy based in American exceptionalism. Around the same time conservatives in the GOP argued that President Obama was abandoning American exceptionalism, pushing a secular and even socialist agenda that leads him to apologize for American greatness. According to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon.
Now comes Peter Beinart who writes in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself.
The core of the first part of Beinart’s argument concerns a generational shift regarding the place of religion in American society. That younger Americans are fundamentally changing their attitudes toward religious life is a theme Beinart has written about often. In short, one pillar of American exceptionalism has been its religiosity. America has long been the most religious of the western democracies. But the current younger generation is an exception.
For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.” But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age. In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.
Beinart’s point is that the younger generation is less religious and thus less tied to one of the core components of American exceptionalism than previous generations of Americans. That he is right is apparently beyond dispute. And it is not unimportant.
The deflation of religion removes one of the pillars that has long-distinguished American life. For Tocqueville, religiosity was necessary in a democratic country, as it gave the people a moral language to restrict the unimpeded longings of individualism. Religion also feeds the confidence and sense of purpose lends to the American project its jeremiad-like quality. And this is nowhere better illustrated than in Philip Freneau’s 1795 poem “On Mr. Paine’s Rights of Man:”
So shall our nation, formed on Virtue’s plan,
Remain the guardian of the Rights of Man,
A vast republic, famed through every clime,
Without a kind, to see the end of time.
The religious roots of American exceptionalism are well established and form the central argument of Deborah Madsen’s book American Exceptionalism. Madsen traces the doctrine to 17th century Puritan sermons and poetry, including Peter Buckley’s famous “Gospel-Covenant sermon” that proclaims,
We are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth; the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore not only the Lord our God, with whom we have made covenant, but heaven and earth, angels and men, that are witnesses of our profession, will cry shame upon us, if we walk contrary to the covenant which we have professed and promised to walk in.
According to Madsen, this religious sense of distinction and purpose translated easily to a rationalist project as well. Benjamin Franklin embraced the exceptionalist rhetoric but covered it in a rationalist patina, arguing the “providence” is a “rational principle that controls the operation of the world.” For Franklin, American newness meant that it was “unhampered by the complexities of European history and unburdened by a sophisticated class system and structure of inheritance.” Thus, Madsen writes, America “offered an unrivalled opportunity for the establishment of a democratic society based on rational principles…. Franklin represents the American errand as the creation of a secular state that is purified of the corruption of European politics and a social structure based on inherited title.”
By the time Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the vision of the United States as a unique and exemplary democracy marked by a distinct approach to freedom and equality had established itself in the nation’s psyche.
The United States of America was understood not simply to be one country amongst many, but it was “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The survival and success of the United States was hardly a local matter, but was a grand experiment testing whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Americans understood that America mattered as an example for the world.
Seymour Lipset summed up the idea of American exceptionalism in his 1996 book American Excptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.
The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being “the first new nation,” the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d’être ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln’s emphases on the country’s “political religion.”
For Lipset, the “American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” Exceptionalism, he argues, doesn’t mean American is better than other countries. It means that America “is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier. Exceptionalism is a double-edged concept.”
There have always been opponents of what Godfrey Hodgson calls The Myth of American Exceptionalism. And there is the question of how fully different races and classes have embraced the idea of American exceptionalism. But overall, the myth has had some basis in sociological reality. Americans were more religious than other democratic and liberal states. Americans believed they had more economic mobility, and saw their country as the first truly multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy; one that developed in fits and starts towards an ideal of equality over 200 years.
So what does it mean when this idea of American exceptionalism is in retreat? Beinart traces the increasingly suspicious attitudes of the young to traditional tenets of American exceptionalism in foreign affairs and also in economics.
When conservatives worry that America is not as economically exceptional anymore, they're right. A raft of studies suggests that upward mobility is now rarer in the United States than in much of Europe. But if America's exceptional economic mobility is largely a myth, it's a myth in which many older Americans still believe. Among the young, by contrast, attitudes are catching up to reality. According to a 2011 Pew poll, young Americans were 14 points more likely than older Americans to say that the wealthy in America got there mainly because "they know the right people or were born into wealthy families" rather than because of their "hard work, ambition, and education." And as young Americans internalize America's lack of economic mobility, they are developing the very class consciousness the United States is supposed to lack. In 2011, when Pew asked Americans to define themselves as either a "have" or a "have-not," older Americans chose "have" by 27 points. In contrast, young Americans, by a 4-point margin, chose "have-not." According to the exceptionalist story line, Americans are all supposed to consider themselves "middle class," regardless of their actual economic fortunes. For seniors, that's largely true. According to a 2012 Pew study, they were 43 points more likely to call themselves "middle" than "lower" class. Among young Americans, by contrast, the percentage calling themselves "middle" and "lower" class was virtually the same.
Perhaps the most interesting generational change Beinart identifies is what he calls the loss of American civilizational self-confidence, which he ties to our loss of religious feeling.
[A]s conservatives suspect, Americans' declining belief in our special virtue as a world power really is connected to our declining belief in our special virtue as a people. And the young are leading the way. A 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while almost two in three Americans over 65 call themselves "extremely proud to be American," among Americans under 30 it is fewer than two in five. According to a Pew study in 2011, millennials were a whopping 40 points less likely than people 75 and older to call America "the greatest country in the world."
Young Americans, in fact, are no more "civilizationally self-confident" than their European counterparts. When Pew asked respondents in 2011 whether "our culture is superior" to others, it found that Americans over the age of 50 were, on average, 15 points more likely to answer yes than their counterparts in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. Americans under 30, by contrast, were actually less likely to agree than their peers in Britain, Germany, and Spain.
It is easy to worry about the effects of the loss of exceptionalism in America, but hard to deny the truth that America is, today, increasingly less exceptional than in the past. Beinart is worried and rightly so. For what would a country be that had no common ideals? It would be a geographic entity held together by fear and bureaucratic inertia.
So Beinart holds out the hope that, in the end, Americans will reinvigorate their mythic exceptionalism. His prescription is a war on inequality that will return our faith to America as the land of economic mobility. If we can break down the Republican coalition with the plutocratic one percent and between Republicans and religionists, we could re-inspire both religious and economic exceptionalism that have undergirded so much of the progress toward social and racial justice in American history.
What Beinart’s hoped for return of American exceptionalism forgets is that historically what most distinguished America from other nation-states in Europe and elsewhere was its uniquely federalist and decentralized and constitutional structure—something that has long been abandoned and is a distant memory in today’s national security state. Not only Tocqueville in the 19th century but also Hannah Arendt in the 20th century saw in the United States a unique and exceptional country, one that for Arendt was fundamentally different from all European countries. The difference, for Tocqueville, was in America’s incredible multiplication of distinct power centers at all levels of government and society. Arendt agrees, arguing,
The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny and the same.
Arendt understood that what truly made America exceptional was its decentralized system of power, that the states did not surrender their powers to the Federal government, but that that Federal government should check the powers of the states and the considerable powers that still remained with them. By multiplying power sources, the American constitutional republic created a system that both prevented one sovereign power from acquiring tyrannical power and, equally importantly, insured that local power structures would persist that would give individual citizens reason and incentive to engage in the American practice of democratic self-government.
Arendt’s love for America, as she expressed it in her last interview, was for a country that refused to be a nation-state. “America is not a nation-state and Europeans have a hell of a time understanding this simple fact.” As a country and not a nation, America was comprised of a plurality of persons and groups that each could found and support their own institutional bases of power. Politics in America had no center, but proceeded according to the contest of local and dispersed groups. And what unites all Americans is one thing: “citizens are united only by one thing, and that’s a lot: that is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.” The Constitution in the United States is not just a scrap of paper. I it “a sacred document, it is the constant remembrance of one sacred act, and that is the act of foundation. And the foundation is to make a union out of wholly disparate ethnic minorities and regions, and still (a) have a union and (b) not assimilate or level down these differences.” It was this view of the United States as a country that did not require the assimilation or leveling down of meaningful differences that so impressed Arendt. It was American pluralism free from a nation-state that Arendt found so exceptional.
In the same interview, however, Arendt expressed her fear that the exceptional American pluralism that she found in the country was coming to an end. And the culprit, she identified, was the rise of the national security state.
National security is a new word in the American vocabulary, and this, I think, you should know. National security is really, if I may already interpret a bit, a translation of “raison d’etat.” And “raison d’etat,” this whole notion of reason of state, never played a role in this country. This is a new import. National security now covers everything, and it covers, as you may know form the interrogation of Mr. Ehrlichman, all kinds of crimes. For instance, the president has a perfect right… the king can do no wrong; that is, he is like a monarch in a republic. He’s above the law, and his justification is always that whatever he does, he does for the sake of national security.
Arendt expressed a similar worry about the rise of a national security state in American in 1967, when she wrote:
There is no reason to doubt Mr. Allan W. Dulles’ statement that Intelligence in this country has enjoyed since 1947 “a more influential position in our government than Intelligence enjoys in any other government of the world,’ nor is there any reason to believe that this influence has decreased since he made this statement in 1958. The deadly danger of “invisible government” to the institutions of “visible government” has often been pointed out; what is perhaps less well known is the intimate traditional connection between imperialist policies and rule by “invisible government” and secret agents.
If American exceptionalism is about religious freedom and religious passion, if it is about equal rights to participate in government, if it is about populism, and if it is about a moral vision of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” then American exceptionalism is incompatible with the increasingly large, centralized, and bureaucratic security state that has emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Whether the security sought is national or economic security, the demand that a central government secure our freedoms lives in tension with the basic desire for freedom understood as self-government. It is the loss of that American tradition more than any other that underlies the waning belief of Americans in their exceptionalism. And for that loss, both parties are at fault.
While Beinart misses the connection between national security and the decline of American exceptionalism, his presentation of that decline is convincing, important, and troubling. His essay is well worth your time.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to her book: Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) lead into Part Three (Totalitarianism). Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism is what Arendt calls metaphysical rootlessness and metaphysical loneliness.
Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The loneliness of modern humanity is multifaceted. It is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The image of the factory worker laboring repetitively on a conveyor belt is forever associated with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman describes how middle class Americans had lost their meaningful connections to religion, to class, and to family. They take their values increasingly from a mass culture and they become malleable and subject to the influence of propaganda and advertising.
“Metaphysical rootlessness,” Arendt argues, is both the “basic experience” of modern society and also the generative impulse behind ideological racisms (which Arendt distinguishes from older non-scientific versions of racism). Without a core of personal and collective identity, the lonely mass man is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” Racism is based in hatred of a world in which lonely and rootless people are confronted with their meaninglessness, their belonging to no place, and their superfluousness. It is these masses that seek to build an imaginary and coherent togetherness based on race. Thus is rootlessness characteristic of all racism and all totalitarianism.
In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, Arendt writes: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals.” Totalitarianism depends upon “the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”
The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. Stripped of these meaningful institutions of transcendence, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. Arendt ask repeatedly, how are we to make life meaningful, how are we to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives?
If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone?
In the guise of a review of George Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason suggests at least three paradigmatic answers to this question “How do I die?” The answers are represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Saunders. In brief, Wallace combats the loneliness and inattention of the distracted masses by writing prose that is so seductively difficult that it demands attentiveness and thus membership in a community of readers. Franzen seeks the antidote to loneliness in palpable scenes of connection amidst the wreckages of modern relationships. For both Wallace and Franzen, connection is to be found in the cultivation of quintessentially modern relationships.
Saunders is notable for pursing a different path through the wilderness of contemporary isolation. Instead of external connections, Saunders is a master of the inward journey we must make alone. For Mason, there is an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:
In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.
Mason’s essay is subtle and profound. It is your weekend read. And if you have the time, read Saunders’ masterful short story, "The Falls", which Mason discusses at length in his essay. Best of all, order Tenth of December. I spent a few rapturous days reading Saunders’ stories this summer. They can warm your January as well.
“[T]o the extent that they had a positive notion of freedom which would transcend the idea of a successful liberation from tyrants and from necessity, this notion was identified with the act of foundation, that is, the framing of a constitution.”
-Hannah Arendt, "On Revolution"
The year just gone by marked the centenary of B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, often referred to as the ‘father of the Indian Constitution’, even though it was a claim of paternity that he vigorously rejected in later years (for reasons we shall soon get to). Ambedkar is a remarkable, and in some ways paradoxical member of that exclusive club of great constitutional founders. The significance of his influence in the framing of the Indian Constitution is incontrovertible. Yet, he was in many ways an outsider to the class of political elites that assumed power at the moment of India’s independence from British colonial rule. Politically, he remained an opponent of the Congress Party, the party that dominated the anticolonial struggle as well as the postcolonial government for decades. More significantly, his status as an outsider was marked most starkly by him being a Dalit, an “untouchable” from one of the lowest rungs of India’s caste hierarchy. Unlike most of the members of the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar experienced in his own life the degrading and dehumanizing aspects of caste oppression, and devoted his public life to the cause of eradicating the caste system. As an outsider in this double sense, both in terms of his opposition to the dominant political party, and hailing from the most marginalized and oppressed sections of the society, the story of Ambedkar’s relationship to the Constitution illuminate certain paradoxes of new beginnings that only those at the margins can illuminate.
Let us return to Arendt’s quote. There are three elements in the quote that reflect themes that run through "On Revolution." First, one finds here an elaboration of two concepts that engaged her for much of her life: freedom and beginnings, from an explicitly political standpoint. Freedom, as a political concept, is understood as the collective capacity of human beings to create a new political reality. Emerging in moments of revolution, what marks this political freedom is its ability to institute, to create a new and secure public space. It gives political actors the ability to author their own political world. It is, in that sense, world-making.
The quote then identifies this world-making act in a particular form – that of “framing of a constitution”. The fulfillment of the promise of freedom generated by the revolutionary moment is the making of a new constitution. What political freedom brings forth then is something specific – new institutions and constitutional structures, which acts as bricks and mortars for the new world that has been created, and creates the concrete space where freedom can become a political reality, and not an abstract concept. Lastly, it names ‘tyranny’ and ‘necessity’ as the two conditions from which freedom is marked, a point which we will return to later.
Ambedkar’s participation – especially in a central capacity as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee – in the making of the Indian Constitution was in itself an interesting fact. As a consistent opponent of the Congress, especially its leader M.K. Gandhi, and as one who was deeply weary of the upper caste leadership of the Congress, one can wonder why he accepted the position offered to him. One possible answer that could be gleaned from his extensive interventions during the constituent assembly debates is a cautious hope that the Constitution would succeed in creating a new institutional structure that could ameliorate, and even eliminate, the most pervasive forms of unfreedom experienced by Indians. That a constitution would succeed in not merely marking India’s liberation from colonial rule, but in creating a new political world free from the hierarchies and dominations of the past.
Ambedkar’s belief in the significance of this new possibility was evident in an extraordinary speech he made at the floor of the assembly, whereby he laid out a strong case as to why after the commencement of the constitution extra-constitutional political actions should be delegitimized. Now that free India has a constitution of its own, written and instituted in the name of “We the People”, extra-constitutional political mobilizations should be replaced with contestations through constitutional paths. This argument is especially significant given that one of those ‘extra-constitutional’ forms of actions Ambedkar mentioned in this speech was the Gandhian method of civil disobedience that had garnered wide prevalence during the struggle against colonial rule.
Here we see a distance developing between Arendt and Ambedkar. Arendt despite the importance she accorded to domesticating the revolution through creation of institutions, remained skeptical of constitutional law emerging as the only acceptable language of political action. In ‘On Revolution’ itself she goes on to ask, in an uneasy tone, “if the end of revolution and the introduction of constitutional government spelled the end of public freedom, was it then desirable to end the revolution?” The moment of constitution making was identified by Arendt with the notion of a “positive idea of freedom” not in a transcendental but an immanent way. What made it special was not simply the institution of some higher order value system, but that it was a sublime expression of creative political act – a political world making par excellence. The freedom inheres not in the ideal form of ‘a constitution’, but in the act of constituting, which reveals the essential human agency for self-reflexively creating the world that one inhabits.
The resuscitation of this creative agency was at the heart of Arendt’s political thought. In the landscape of mid-twentieth century, in an increasingly bureaucratized space of human existence where collective action became dictated by the rationale of ‘necessity’ and the ‘tyranny’ of governmentalized calculations, Arendt sought in politics a space where human beings could collective reclaim their ability to make their own world from which they have been alienated. To this end (as Hanna Pitkin has pointed out) sets of binaries emerge in her work – freedom is contrasted with necessity, action with behavior, polis with oikos, and politics with ‘the social’.
She sought to recover that space, marked by the first half of those binaries, through thinking, speech and action in concert in the public realm. It was based on mutuality and reciprocity – captured in her well-known discussion of the faculty of ‘promising’ – conducted amongst human beings who spoke and acted towards each other as equals political beings. These words and deeds, properly political in nature, produced and maintained the space for freedom against ‘tyranny’ and ‘necessities’. She refused to seek foundation for this space in something outside of those words and deeds – either in a sovereign will, or in some form of desirable social condition achieved via analysis and transformation of social relations. The space was produced and maintained through the continual act of producing and maintaining it.
The most significant aspect of the ‘revolution’ that precedes the constitution – as Arendt showed through her stylized reconstruction of the American revolutionary experience – was therefore not any pure claim to an absolute break or fundamental change of a socio-economic fact, but the creation of a condition where human beings can collectively come together to self-reflexively create author their own political world. This was the great good fortune of the American revolutionaries that Arendt talked about. They had through their lived experience and associational forms generated the necessary praxis for this form of speech and action much before the revolutionary event or the constitutional moment came about. The condition for the realization of freedom in America according to Arendt was, as Bonnie Honig writes, “brought into being avant la lettre” so to speak. In that instance, the letters of the constitution reveal, express and institutionalize something whose conditions in a conceptual form was already conceived. The birth could not happen without conception.
One can say that for Arendt it created a space for political theory free from both political theology and social analysis. The constitution is the supreme achievement borne out of such a theory in praxis.
What was Ambedkar’s assessment of the possibility for such an achievement in India? In his concluding speech, he noted what he called the ‘contradictions’ inherent to the process of making a constitution. “On the 26th of January [the day the Constitution was adopted] we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we shall be recognizing the principle of one man, one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of economic structure continue to deny [this principle]. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradiction? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so by putting our democracy in peril.” Note the foreboding tone of the last line. Ambedkar here is not voicing a simple discomfort about the existence of inequities in the Indian social life. Rather, he voices a far deeper concern about the limits of political theory to accomplish the work of creating a space where freedom “is not a concept but a living reality” without the attendant work of social transformation. Despite the extraordinary achievement of liberation from colonial rule, and the constituting of a polity with full political rights, Ambedkar suggests that the path of becoming republican citizens, for Indians, cannot run through the terrain of political theory alone and eschew the treacherous field of social theory. One cannot meaningfully talk about the sphere of freedom without also at the same time dealing with the sphere of necessity – not because one shouldn’t, but because one cannot. Dealing with only one only ends up generating a “contradiction’ that would imperil the whole project. Given this predicament, the endeavor of making a constitution for India had to concern itself with the social question – with “necessities” – which Ambedkar supported. Nevertheless, in the subsequent years after the constitution was brought in force he became increasingly weary of the potential of the constitution-making project to create any meaningful condition of freedom for the people of India. As the preeminent leader of those who were the most marginalized in the Indian society, he was acutely aware of this limitation. In 1953, only three years after the Constitution came into force, he remarked: “My friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quiet prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out.” It was a spectacular act of renunciation from a man still referred to as the father of the Indian Constitution. This renunciation, it must be underlined, was not of the nature of a Jeffersonian demand for generational renewal of the revolutionary moment. It was not a lament about the extinguishing of the revolutionary flame. Rather, it was an expression of the frustration with a social revolution that never happened, and the related disavowal of the faith he once held in the constituent moment to truly birth a new political reality.
The question worth thinking through here is not just about the specificities of the Indian history. Rather, it concerns the nature of political theory itself, and the enduring question that Arendt took as the central concern of that theoretical endeavor – freedom. In the context of the late twentieth century landscape, and what she took to be alienating and fatal encroachment of the ‘social question’ on the sphere of human collective action, Arendt was unwilling to ground her conception of freedom – and of politics – on an analysis of social conditions under which human beings live. Her response to the challenges of twentieth century political life was to draw upon the experience of late eighteenth century colonists who, in Tocqueville’s phrase, were ‘born equal’ rather than having to become so. The horizontal practice of concerted action and mutual promises, harnessed in town halls and churches, could show a way towards creating a space for practicing and theorizing politics free from the clutches of necessity, and its attendant social analysis and calculus. The supreme achievement of that late eighteenth century moment – making of the constitution – provided a template for a political and reflexive collective world making act, free from the technocratic calculus of social transformation. Yet Ambedkar’s own journey – as the preeminent constitution maker coming from the margins of the Indian ‘social’ as Arendt would call it – and its tragic denouement demonstrates the limits of that vision. It shows that in creating the space for agonistic political freedom, one cannot ignore the weapons being wielded through social power. Countering those weapons requires analyzing and addressing the condition that produces them. Finding the theory and praxis for such a move, without retreating into a technocratic calculus, remains the challenge for contemporary political thought, as much for our time as it was for Arendt’s.
-Sandipto Dasgupta, Lecturer in Social Studies, Harvard University
Federalism should not be a partisan issue. This has been forgotten as the Federalist Society has turned federalism into a rhetorical sledgehammer to bludgeon liberal policies. But rightly understood, federalism is about freedom.
Federalism promotes freedom for at least two reasons. First, because citizens will only act and speak in public when they believe their actions will be seen and heard.
The smaller the stage, the more likely is action to be meaningful. If freedom and action are the same, as Arendt writes, then we should be wary of the erosion of federalism. Only when local political institutions have meaningful power will they attract citizens to become politically involved. The danger in the loss of federalism today is the increasing sense that individual citizens have little if any power, which leads to cynicism and apathy.
We can see this cynicism and apathy, surprisingly, in Occupy Wall Street. The fact that Occupy Wall Street became a protest movement, and not an alternative locus of power, is at least partly the result of the fact that local power structures have been rendered increasingly impotent by the vampire squid of national power. As people rightly feel ever-more alienated from political institutions that can make a difference, they retreat from politics. Why did Occupy eschew local politics? Why did it seek a megaphone on the national stage instead of working in the pits of village, town, and state politics? Because everyone knows that the power of local institutions has been decimated. The result is a feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness; the present response is to embrace an ethic of permanent protest as the only meaningful way to personal empowerment. But the elevation of protest to the apogee of political action in Occupy Wall Street is, unfortunately, just another example of the vanishing of politics in our time.
The second way federalism promotes freedom is through constitutional structure. The best way to prevent government from attaining totalitarian or tyrannical power is, as Arendt argues, to multiply the sources of political power. Arendt credits the United States Constitution because it created not only the division of powers on the federal level, but also the constitutional federalism of the early Republic. By empowering states, counties, towns, and villages, the United States Constitution ensured that nearly every citizen would have both opportunity and reason to act in public and to engage in politics.
Arendt’s thoughts on the freedom found in federalism come to mind as I’ve been reading—at the urging of my colleague David Kettler—the classic Small Town in Mass Society, by Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman. Originally published in 1958, Small Town in Mass Society is still an important and now sadly forgotten book. The argument, in short, is that local towns and villages are losing their distinctiveness. Studying class, religion, power, and politics in small town America, Vidich and Bensman argue that local governments are voluntarily abandoning the political powers they constitutionally possess and thus emptying their lives of meaningful political engagement.
What Vidich and Bensman find is a fundamental contradiction between the way that small town culture sees itself and the way it actually exists in mass society. In their self-image, the residents of “Springdale”—the name for the town they study— think of themselves as a community. They distinguish themselves from “urban dwellers” who are anonymous. They imagine that “Here no man counts more than any other.” “It is unthinkable for anyone to pass a person on the street without exchanging greetings;”
“Almost all of rural life receives its justification on the basis of the direct and personal and human feelings that guide people’s relations with each other.” And, above all, the Springdale residents of rural New York see themselves as independent from urban-mass society:
While he realizes that machinery and factory products are essential to his standard of life and that taxation and agricultural policy are important, he feels that he is independent of other features of industrial and urban life, or, better, that he can choose and select only the best parts. The simple physical separation from the city and the open rural atmosphere make it possible to avoid the problems inherent in city life.
Against this feeling of independence, Vidich and Bensman argue that small towns are actually part of and integrated into mass society to an extent that their self-image cannot and will not admit. Against the view that Springdalers can choose those parts of mass society they want and reject the rest, Vidich and Bensman argue that they are more influenced and subjected to mass society.
In almost all aspects of culture, even to speech forms, and including technology, literature, fashions and fads, as well as patterns of consumption, to mention a few, the small town tends to reflect the contemporary mass society. Basically, a historically indigenous local culture does not seem to exist.
For our purposes, one telling section of Small Town in Mass Society is called “The Political Surrender to Mass Society.” While Springdale has a local government and possesses the power of taxation and governance, the authors argue that the town seeks at nearly every turn to abdicate self-governance. Examples include:
•“Solutions to the problem of fire protection are found in agreements with regionally organized fire districts.”
•The town prefers to have its road signs provided in standard form by state agencies “without cost to the taxpayer[s]” in Springdale.
•Springdale accepts the state’s rules and regulations on roads built and maintained by the state. It works with the foreman of the state highway maintenance crew to have his teams clear village roads, thus saving the expense of organizing and paying for this as a town.
• State construction programs “present local political agencies with the alternative of either accepting or rejecting proposed road plans and programs formulated by the state highway department.”
•The town at every point adjusts its actions to the regulations and laws defined by state and federal agencies; or they accede to the rule of these outside agencies because the agencies have the power to withhold subsidies.
What Springdale actually does in its own politics is forego self-governance and submit itself to outside control. It repeatedly accepts grants of aid offered by the state and subsidies by the state, even when such aid comes with strings and demands for control. The result is that the “village board in Springdale accepts few of the powers given to it. Instead, it orients its action to the facilities and subsidies controlled and dispensed by other agencies and, by virtue of this, forfeits its own political power.” What is more, this economic and political dependence leads to a “habituation to outside control to the point where the town and village governments find it hard to act even where they have the power.”
For Vidich and Bensman, the loss of local power leads to a psychologically damaging sense of dependence on outside agencies, bureaucracies, and governments.
“State police, regionally organized fire districts, state welfare agencies, the state highway department, the state youth commission, the state conservation department—these agencies and others are central to the daily functioning of the village.” There is a “pattern of dependence,” according to which the “important decisions are made for Springdale by outside agencies.” On the one hand, Springdalers resent these services provided by outsiders because they negate the local villagers’ self image as independent. But the villagers accept these services “because they are free or because acceptance of them carries with it monetary grants-in-aid for the local community.”
The conclusion Vidich and Bensman reach is that the Springdale town government does increasingly little. It seeks whenever possible to avoid providing services itself—e.g. snow or garbage removal. Instead, it seeks to have these services provided by the state in order to avoid having to raise taxes. The ultimate result is the “avoidance of innovation and the minimization of decision.” The village “tends to limit its function to the conduct of routine “housekeeping” business.” “It is a common complaint among all groups in the community that the village board does nothing.”
This political irrelevance at the local level is radical change from the American tradition of citizen democracy. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 19th century, he was impressed by the active participation of citizens in local government. 100 years later, when Hannah Arendt arrived in the United States, she too was amazed by the sense of common citizens that their voice mattered in politics.
Shortly after Arendt’s arrival, she traveled to a provincial town in Massachusetts to live with a family as a way of learning everyday English and experiencing something of American mores. While she had little in common with this family whose puritanical ways clashed with her own, she was captivated by them and by what Antonia Grunenberg has called their republican self-consciousness.
Arendt described her host family to Karl Jaspers as "thoroughly average people—what would have been called 'petty bourgeoisie' in Germany." And yet, these average Americans embodied the American love of freedom that so impressed Arendt. As she wrote to Jaspers shortly after they resumed contact in 1946:
There is much I could say about America. There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom. The republic is not a vapid illusion, and the fact that there is no national state and no truly national tradition creates an atmosphere of freedom or at least one not pervaded by fanaticism. (Because of the strong need the various immigrant groups feel to maintain their identity, the melting pot is in large part not even an ideal, much less a reality.) Then, too, people here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent I have never seen in any European country. For example, when all Americans of Japanese descent were locked up willy-nilly in concentration camps at the beginning of the war, a genuine storm of protest that can still be felt today went through the country. I was visiting with an American family in New England at the time. They were thoroughly average people--what would have been called 'petty bourgeoisie' in Germany—and they had, I'm' sure, never laid eyes on a Japanese in their lives. As I later learned, they and many of their friends wrote immediately and spontaneously to their congressmen, insisted on the constitutional rights of all Americans regardless of national background, and declared that if something like that could happen, they no longer felt safe themselves (these people were of Anglo-Saxon background, and their families had been in this country for generations), etc.
The extraordinary embrace of political freedom in America had a flip side, namely social oppression: To allow people local rule and governance means that parochial and racist communities can oppress minorities and impose socially conservative mores. There is a fundamental tradeoff between political freedom and social oppression. But Arendt thought the choice was easy: social oppression is simply a cost of what she came to see as the miracle of America.
For Arendt, America embodied, in Leon Botstein’s words, "a federal system of government not based on race or designed to rectify social inequalities, but established to ensure political equality among all citizens, to maintain the freedom of the public realm, social differences notwithstanding."
America, in Arendt's writing and especially in her book On Revolution, is an enduring image of public freedom that so animates her life-long thinking.
Occupy Wall Street failed for many reasons. Above all, however, it failed because even at a time when our democratic and representative institutions are seen as corrupt and broken, OWS offered no meaningful alternative. It failed, therefore, in the basic requirement of any truly revolutionary political movement: to pick up power when it is lying the streets, as Arendt writes in On Violence. And one reason it did so is that we have all lost the basic experience of citizenship and freedom that Arendt so valued when she arrived in America. If we are to resurrect such a practice and habit of citizen-politics, we need to reinvigorate local politics. But we can only do that if we reclaim federalism as a matter of freedom outside of partisan debates.
One first step is to confront honestly and clearly the depth of the loss of political power in America. This has become difficult because federalism and local power have been politicized and polarized. We need to move beyond that. To do so, there are few better books that Small Town in Mass Society. It is your weekend read. And if you cannot get the book, take a look at their article The New Middle Classes: Their Cultures and Life Styles.
In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard D. Kahlenberg lifts (or rips) the band-aid off a wound that has been festering for decades. For much of the 20th century, class animated campus Marxists. Since the 1970s, race and gender have largely supplanted class as the source of youthful protest. But the pendulum is swinging back. Studies find that "being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever." Will racial and gender politics give way to a renewed interest in class? Will there be a divide on the left between class and identity politics? In either case, the debate is beginning.
Here is Kahlenberg:
Long hidden from view, economic status is emerging from the shadows, as once-taboo discussions are taking shape. The growing economic divide in America, and on American campuses, has given rise to new student organizations, and new dialogues, focused on raising awareness of class issues—and proposing solutions. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to curtail the consideration of race in college admissions this year, the role of economic disadvantage as a basis for preferences could further raise the salience of class.
This interest represents a return to an earlier era. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, class concerns animated Marxists on campus and New Deal politicians in the public sphere. Both groups papered over important dimensions of race and gender to focus on the nation's economic divide. Programs like Federal Housing Administration-guaranteed loans and the GI Bill provided crucial opportunities for upward mobility to some working-class families and students.
Colleges, meanwhile, began using the SAT to identify talented working-class candidates for admission. But FHA loans, the GI Bill, and the SAT still left many African-Americans, Latinos, and women out in the cold.
In the 1960s and 70s, that narrow class focus was rightly challenged by civil-rights activists, feminists, and advocates of gay rights, who shined new light on racism, sexism and homophobia. Black studies, women's studies, and later gay studies took root on college campuses, along with affirmative-action programs in student admissions and faculty employment to correct for the lack of attention paid to marginalized groups by politicians and academics alike.
Somewhere along the way, however, the pendulum swung to the point that issues of class were submerged. Admissions officers, for example, paid close attention to racial and ethnic diversity, but little to economic diversity. William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, and his colleagues reported in 2005 that being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever. Campuses became more racially and ethnically diverse—and all-male colleges began admitting women—but students from the most advantaged socioeconomic quartile of the population came to outnumber students from the least advantaged quartile at selective colleges by 25 to 1, according to a 2004 study by the Century Foundation.
Read the whole article here.
Kahlenberg’s inquiry into the return of class to debates on campus cannot be seen outside the context of rising inequality in the U.S. Just this week Anne Lowrey reports in the New York Times that incomes are rising briskly for the top 1% but are actually stagnant or falling for everyone else:
Incomes rose more than 11 percent for the top 1 percent of earners during the economic recovery, but not at all for everybody else, according to new data.
It may be true that prices are declining and the middle class, despite its wage stagnation, is still living well. But we cannot ignore the increasing divide between the rich and the middle class. Not to mention the poor.
This was the topic of an op-ed essay in Monday’s New York Times by Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, who writes, “The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider.” Stiglitz, like Kahlenberg, sets the question of class inequality against increasing racial equality:
While racial segregation decreased, economic segregation increased. After 1980, the poor grew poorer, the middle stagnated, and the top did better and better. Disparities widened between those living in poor localities and those living in rich suburbs — or rich enough to send their kids to private schools. A result was a widening gap in educational performance — the achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40 percent larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier, the Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon found.
Many on the left will respond that race and class are linked: minorities, who are poor, they say, suffer worst of all. That may be true. But race, gender, and identity have dominated the conversation about equality and oppression in this country for 50 years. That is changing. This will be hard for some to accept, and yet it makes sense. Poverty, more than race or gender, is increasingly the true mark of disadvantage in 21st century America.
You know that the problem of inequality has gone mainstream when even Charles Murray has written a book about it. Not only the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, but also Murray—the conservative force between The Bell Curve and other controversial contributions to the culture wars—is now loudly screaming about the dangers of inequality in America. But with Murray, there is a difference.
If the Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on the vast income inequality that divides the country into haves, have nots, and have-it-alls, and if the Tea Party divides the country into the self-sufficient and the governmental dependents, Murray points to yet another divide: the Cultural Divide.
Murray begins with a point that I take to be essential:
Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting.
Americans (Murray means by this term always white Americans) are living increasingly amongst those like themselves. Murray means by this that American elites (both Republican and Democrat) have separated themselves from the rest of the country. Specifically, he is worried that wealthy white Americans live apart from and are ignorant of poor white Americans. And vice versa.
In his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, Murray argues that an enormous cultural divide has separated white Americans into classes that don't mix. While many liberals might welcome Murray's voice pointing to the rise of inequality in America, his analysis and prescriptions are radically different from those usually suggested by the left. For one thing, Murray focuses on white Americans between 30-49. Part of this focus is to support his argument that "Cultural inequality is not grounded in race or ethnicity." This itself will strike many on the left as an evasion, which it is. And yet, Murray's focus on the increasingly vast class divisions amongst white Americans points to the profound depths of the rising class and income inequality that pervades and divides American society.
Murray does not only point out the vast class divide in the United States. He points to solutions as well. His book is a call to action, but one that has little if nothing to say about the need for government to help the poor. No, for Murray, what both the lower and upper classes need are better values. The lower classes must learn from the upper classes the values of hard work, marriage, and family. The upper classes must learn from the lower classes the value of community, patriotism, and religion.
Whatever one thinks of Murray's analysis, he is right that we all need to do more to read and think and interact with others with whom we don't always agree. Those interested in and concerned by inequality in American can learn from Murray's book, and they should, even as they should wonder at his single-minded concern with white people. Problematic books can teach us much. Thus, for this week's weekend read, I suggest you take a look at Murray's latest essay on "The New American Divide."