Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
21Jun/150

Amor Mundi 6/21/15

Arendtamormundi

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.

amor_mundi_sign-upThinkable, Speakable Things

charleston shootingCharles P. Pierce suggests that those who are calling the fatal shooting of churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina earlier this week unthinkable or unspeakable are engaging in wishful thinking, assiduously avoiding the fact that fear is a reality of daily life for a certain percentage of Americans: "What happened in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it's not is 'unthinkable.' Somebody thought long and hard about it. Somebody thought to load the weapon. Somebody thought to pick the church. Somebody thought to sit, quietly, through some of Wednesday night bible study. Somebody thought to stand up and open fire, killing nine people, including the pastor. Somebody reportedly thought to leave one woman alive so she could tell his story to the world. Somebody thought enough to flee. What happened in that church was a lot of things, but unthinkable is not one of them. What happened in a Charleston church on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it's not is 'unspeakable.' We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was. We should speak of it as racial violence, which is what it was... There is a timidity that the country can no longer afford. This was not an unthinkable act. A man may have had a rat's nest for a mind, but it was well thought out. It was a cool, considered crime, as well planned as any bank robbery or any computer fraud. If people do not want to speak of it, or think about it, it's because they do not want to follow the story where it inevitably leads. It's because they do not want to follow this crime all the way back to the mother of all American crimes, the one that Denmark Vesey gave his life to avenge. What happened on Wednesday night was a lot of things. A massacre was only one of them."

The Pope's Green Robes

pope francisEmma Green considers Pope Francis's recent exhortation about climate change, noting his particular angle and how it is tied to Catholic morality. "The pope uses different language than a climate activist might. Throughout the encyclical, he refers to the modern world's 'throwaway culture.' This includes literal trash--'hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources,' he writes. But it also encompasses a mentality of excessive consumption and an orientation toward profit maximization, especially in the 'global north.' People in the developed world are morally obligated to those in developing countries, he says, because when they buy things, it's at the direct expense of the labor, health, and, sometimes, lives of the poor. As Benedict wrote in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, 'It is good for people to realize that purchasing is always a moral--and not simply economic--act...' In making this comment, he's taking aim at a whole swath of the development and environmentalist community, including aid organizations and governments. Throughout the encyclical, he slams what could roughly be called 'technological solutionism,' when 'life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence.' It's a somewhat obtuse reminder that the pope is neither a liberal activist nor a technocrat intent on finding simple solutions. His encyclical is a sermon, not a white paper, and he's comfortable criticizing do-gooders and multinational corporations in the same breath."

The Struggle Over Omnisurveillance

facial recognition techThe Financial Times reports that a coalition of privacy advocates in the United States have withdrawn from talks with the government and technology firms designed to develop a "voluntary code of conduct for the use of facial recognition technology." According to the article: "The nine groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union and Consumer Federation of America, said that 16 months of negotiation with tech industry representatives and others had failed to bring agreement on even the most basic privacy issues raised by software that can identify people from images of their face.... In a joint statement, the privacy advocates blamed companies that hope to use the technology for refusing to give ground in the discussions. 'The position that companies never need to ask permission to use biometric identification is at odds with consumer expectations, current industry practices, as well as existing state law,' they said. They added: 'At a base minimum, people should be able to walk down a public street without fear that companies they've never heard of are tracking their every movement--and identifying them by name--using facial recognition technology.'"

Metaphors for Sale

metaphorFor Hannah Arendt, metaphors are the source of all thinking and speaking since thinking is a metaphorical transformation of the visible into the invisible. Arendt argues that metaphor is the lifeblood of poets and thinkers. Now Michael Erard writes about the life of a metaphor designer: "Consider the thing to be communicated--a business strategy, a discovery, a new look at a familiar social problem--and then make a pseudo-mistake. Actually, create a lot of pseudo-mistakes, and test each one. At the end, the floor will be covered with the blood of failed comparisons. One way to create these mistakes is to deliberately miscategorise the thing you are trying to explain. What do paintbrushes have to do with pumps? Ah, they all move liquid. You choose the pump because it's the most prototypical member of the things-that-move-liquid category. Another way to create the mistake is to break the thing you want to explain into its components, then connect them to some other idea or domain of life. Say there's a city department that's in charge of lots of different programmes, all of them related to health. The department plays a centralising function for various programmes funded by multiple sources, operating over several jurisdictions. That diversity confuses audiences. Also, the programmes are often for vulnerable populations--the elderly, immigrants, people with addictions: people for whom the average taxpayer's sympathies are not necessarily assured. So the right metaphor must speak to inclusion and community, and suggest some benefit, such as health or opportunity, that's more widely shared. I tried 'bridge' and 'platform', but ultimately went with 'key ring': the department holds the keys for unlocking health."

amor_mundi_sign-upOur Puritan Future

puritansAt a moment when so many decry the problems with liberal democracy at home and abroad, Jim Sleeper suggests we can find hope and rejuvenation from an old American source, the Puritans. "The Puritans were America's first Very Serious People.... What were they about? First, in attempting to emulate the earliest Christian communities, they turned their backs on the golden thrones of popes and kings and countenanced neither aristocracy nor destitution--a revolutionary innovation in the early seventeenth century. Although they were often shrewd businessmen, they never argued openly that prosperity brings freedom and dignity, preaching instead that it carried communal obligations. Second, they weren't out to 'make history,' as we try to, through scientific planning or by discerning great movements of Hegelian Reason in our strivings, but by fulfilling the pre-established biblical typology of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt on a sacred mission to a Promised Land. (Hence their naming some New England towns Salem, Goshen, Bethlehem, Sharon, and Lebanon; hence the Hebrew on the seals of Yale and Dartmouth.) What might seem a worldly enterprise financed by English entrepreneurs was, in the Puritan reality, a mission for 'The General Restoration of Mankind from the Curse of the Fall' that would bring a blessing upon all the nations of the Earth. Third, the Puritans' biblically covenanted, congregational communities combined public purpose with personal integrity in ways that survive in our understandings of the interplay between individual conscience and rights on the one hand and civic obligation on the other." To revivify the American moral spirit, Sleeper writes, we cannot rely on a non-judgmental liberal state or on neo-liberal market values. The Puritans, all their limitations notwithstanding, offer insights into a "new cosmology" that we can hope to use to address our spiritual needs "in ways that a liberal capitalist republic no longer can."

Pulling Themselves Up By Their Commencement Robes

college eliteAndrew Delbanco quotes Horace Mann to express the democratic hope that Americans have always placed upon education: "Death may be the great equalizer, but Americans have long believed that during this life 'the spread of education would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.'" Writing in the New York Review of Books, Delbanco shows how the once vibrant connection between higher education and equality has been stalled. "At the top of the prestige pyramid, in highly selective colleges like those of the Ivy League, students from the bottom income quartile in our society make up around 5 percent of the enrollments." There are huge numbers of highly qualified students from poor families that don't attend elite colleges largely because they don't apply, "in part because most such students get little if any counseling in high school about the intricate process of applying to a selective college--so they rarely do." And even when one gets into college, universities seem to be failing the poorest students. "Critics like Bennett are right, however, to decry what's happening--or not happening--to many students who do get to college. Too few are challenged or given guidance and encouragement. Cheating is common, including at elite private colleges and the so-called public flagships. In a widely noted 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa gave a grim account of college as a place where students are held to low standards in an atmosphere of wasteful frivolity. In their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, they stress that the likeliest victims of 'late adolescent meandering' are students from low-income backgrounds who come out of college aimless, demoralized, and with fewer chances than their more affluent peers to recoup lost opportunities. In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton speak of 'an implicit agreement between the university and students to demand little of each other.' And they, too, make the case that students with the fewest family resources have the lowest post-college prospects." Delbanco concludes with a sad but too-often true complaint: "Perhaps concern for the poor has shriveled not only among policymakers but in the broader public. Perhaps in our time of focus on the wealthy elite and the shrinking middle class, there is a diminished general will to regard poor Americans as worthy of what are sometimes called 'the blessings of American life'--among which the right to education has always been high if not paramount."

Illiberalism

OrbánColin Woodard checks in on the situation in Hungary: "Orbán has declared that he is building a new state in Hungary, 'an illiberal state' capable of guiding the Hungarian nation to victory 'in the great global race for decades to come.' Inspired by the alleged successes of illiberal states like Russia, China, Turkey and Singapore, Orbán promises a new order that puts the collective goals of the Hungarian people--including the more than two million of them living in neighboring countries that were once part of the Hungarian Kingdom--ahead of the liberal goal of maximizing individual liberty. Throughout his tenure, Orbán has slapped down EU criticisms of his policies with nationalist rhetoric, saying Hungary 'will not be a colony' and won't 'live according to the commands of foreign powers.' ... Orbán, a youthful anti-communist dissident when Hungarian communism fell in 1989, has spent the past two decades transforming a libertarian-minded youth group into an immensely powerful national conservative political machine. When he swept into power in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 global financial meltdown (during which Hungary accepted a $26 billion rescue package to avoid bankruptcy), Orbán's Alliance of Young Democrats (or Fidesz) and their loyal coalition partners used their two-thirds majority in parliament to rewrite the constitution and pass hundreds of new laws during their first year and a half in power. The combined effect: an erosion of the independence of the judiciary, the packing of courts with political loyalists, a wholesale political purge of the civil service and the chief prosecutor's office, new election rules that advantage the governing coalition and the intimidation of the news organizations (who can be issued crippling fines for content deemed 'not politically balanced' by a government-appointed panel.) When laws criminalizing homelessness, curtailing political advertizing, foreclosing the possibility of gay marriage and restricting judicial review were found unconstitutional, Orbán used his parliamentary supermajority to simply add the measures to the new constitution."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #10

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 dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

 

 


why privacy mattersSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Anabella Di Pego discusses Hannah Arendt's call to a mode of thinking that leaves behind the notion of the ivory tower at the end of "The Human Condition" in the Quote of the Week. Famed American inventor Thomas Edison reflects on the quality of thinking done in solitude as compared to that which is done turmoil in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, one of our followers on Twitter reveals how it is possible to expand one's mind by reading Arendt in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
16Jun/140

Arendt and Intergenerational Justice

1

“If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men…. There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity.”

--Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Intergenerational justice is a central idea in contemporary political thought about the environment, sustainability and global climate change. That we must live today in a manner that does not degrade the life chances of future generations is an intellectual response to the depletion of natural resources, particularly fossil fuels, and the global warming fostered by the use of these sources of energy. As one political response to climate change caused by fossil fuel use, intergenerational justice may be described in terms of a revivifying of public life and a corresponding cultivation of trust in politics. That is to say, intergenerational justice is conceived best not in abstract terms, but as a matter of directing concrete political action, which Arendt argues has a transformative nature, against the anti-political and anti-ecological encroachments of “the social realm” that prioritizes economic thinking, growth and bureaucratic efficiency over concerns for the future. In this sense, we appeal to Arendt, who shows us in On Revolution that the founding of new public space and the revitalization of citizenship are always possible.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
25Feb/130

Learning From Crisis

"[T]here is another even more cogent reason for [the layman] concerning himself with a critical situation in which he is not immediately involved. And that is the opportunity, provided by the very fact of crisis—which tears away facades and obliterates prejudices—to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter…"

-Hannah Arendt, "The Crisis in Education"

I

It is often said that the Chinese word for “crisis,” or weiji, means a combination of “danger” and “opportunity,” and every so often the trope appears in the highest echelons of American politics. Linguist Benjamin Zimmer cites its frequent use by John F. Kennedy in speeches leading into the 1960 presidential election; and more recently, Al Gore in 2006-7 used weiji to anchor both his Congressional testimony on the problem of climate change, and his Vanity Fair article (“The Moment of Truth”) concerning the same. During her January 2007 trip to the Middle East, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters of conditions in the region, "I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity…And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity."

This use of weiji has irked some linguists. Zimmer calls Gore’s Chinese riff a “linguistic canard” and writes that in all these cases, “[T]he trope was deployed for similar effect: as a framing technique for describing current perils posed by a particular world crisis and future possibilities for resolving that crisis. Thus it allows the speaker to shift rhetorical footing from pessimism to optimism, ending with an upbeat tone and a call to action.” Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at UPenn, identifies a “fatal” error of interpretation that centers on the second character, ji, which rather than “opportunity,” here means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, “A weiji indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits.”

To those still seeking New Age wisdom in the danger/opportunity coupling, Mair points to the old Greek usage. Modern “crisis” stems from the Greek krinein, meaning to separate, decide, or judge. The word reached Middle English in the 15th century via Latin, and the Oxford English Dictionary says that by mid-16th century it meant judgment related specifically to sickness and the sudden change of disease (The Online Etymology Dictionary cites Hippocrates using krinein in the same way.). Soon thereafter it referred more generally to “A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point,” as well as judgment or decision simply, and “A point by which to judge; a criterion; token; sign.”

In moments of crisis the important connection between “danger” and “opportunity” centers on their common source in a disruption of normal order, a disruption that entails instability and volatility, but also openings to previously precluded or unimagined possibilities for action. The moment of crisis is transient, and in political matters the statesman’s virtue is two-fold—not only to manage (or “seize”) a crisis situation, but also to recognize the situation when it arises (See Lenin, “The Crisis Has Matured,” September 29, 1917) or foresee its coming. By recognizing a crisis for what it is—a moment of decision—we can wrest the decision to ourselves.

II

Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Crisis in Education” seems to offer a different understanding of social and political crisis—one less concerned with critical moments and more concerned with the “elemental structures” of modernity that “crystallize” over time and manifest today in a variety of ways. The essay starts by observing that “The general crisis that has overtaken the modern world everywhere and in almost every sphere of life manifests itself differently in each country, involving different areas and taking on different forms.” In America the general crisis has assumed the form of “the recurring crisis in education that, during the last decade at least, has become a political problem of the first magnitude[.]” This introduces a recurring theme in the essay, that while examining a particular political crisis in America, the essay is also—and perhaps more fundamentally—about “a more general crisis and instability in modern society.”

This more general crisis is the modern crisis of authority that is “closely connected with the crisis of tradition…the crisis in our attitude towards the realm of the past.” Seeing how this bears on the crisis of education requires examining “whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter, and the essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world.” At the same time, Arendt writes, “Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint,” a world that, because it is made by mortals, “runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they.” And thus—because the essence of education is natality, and the “newcomers” need a world in which to live and act, but the world in which we live and act constantly “is or is becoming out of joint”—the problem of education concerns how to stabilize this world for the “newcomers” without also stifling their capacity to renew or even drastically alter it: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child,” Arendt writes, “education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world[.]”

Here the crisis of modernity and education converge—for the process of giving students a world has historically relied on the authority of tradition and the past. But if these authorities can no longer be relied upon, then what remains? Stunningly, Arendt locates a new authority for modern conditions in the teacher’s “assumption of responsibility for that world.”

III

Arendt’s account of the American crisis of education illustrates the connection between local political crises around the world and a larger civilizational crisis. Indeed, a central goal of “The Crisis in Education” is to highlight the blind spots in understanding that result when one regards “a local phenomenon” like the crisis of education as “unconnected with the larger issues of the century, to be blamed on certain peculiarities of life in the United States” (as for example its history of “continuous immigration”). To localize such problems is tempting because “However clearly a general problem may present itself in a crisis, it is nevertheless impossible ever to isolate completely the universal element from the concrete and specific circumstances in which it makes its appearance.” But while “There is always a temptation to believe that we are dealing with specific problems confined within historical and national boundaries and of importance only to those immediately affected”— “It is precisely this belief that in our time has consistently proved false” (emphasis added).

This false belief prevents us from, among other things, ascertaining “which aspects of the modern world and its crisis have actually revealed themselves” (in a local crisis)—that is, “the true reasons that for decades things could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense.” And events continue in this manner due in part to the illusion that situation-specific and/or scientific solutions, which may (or may not) satisfactorily solve local problems in the short term, actually touch upon the heart of the matter. The illusion manifests in “repeat performance” of the crisis, “though perhaps different in form, since there are no limits to the possibilities of nonsense and capricious notions that can be decked out as the last word in science.”  Arendt’s criticism of the futility of pragmatist pedagogy in addressing the crisis of authority in the classroom represents a case in point.

IV

In recent months and years, few words have achieved more prominence in Washington politics than crisis. As recently as February 3, President Obama said in a CBS interview that “Washington cannot continually operate under a cloud of crisis.” And following the latest inconclusive negotiations over the country’s fiscal situation and looming (depending on who you ask) “debt crisis,” a recent article in the Huffington Post bemoans the “pattern of a Congress that governs from crisis to crisis” that has become “all too familiar—and predictable. The trend goes something like this: As a deadline approaches, Republicans repeat their calls for spending cuts. Democrats accuse Republicans of hostage-taking. A short-term agreement is then reached that averts economic calamity, but ultimately kicks the can down the road for yet another fight.”

What does it mean for a Congress to routinely “govern from crisis to crisis”? Does “governing by crisis” constitute functioning politics, or a political crisis of the first order? In The Crisis in Education Arendt writes that “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” and allows one “to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter.” But to state the obvious, if “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” then such tearing and obliteration requires that “the very fact of crisis” be recognized and acknowledged. In the current governing crisis in Washington, what fundamentally new, to say nothing of unprejudiced, questions—other than how Washington’s two parties will “compromise” and avoid self-destruction—have been asked? Who has spoken seriously, truthfully, and critically, in an effort to lay bare the essence of the matter?

At a time when happenings in Washington “could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense” (How else are we to understand “governing by crisis”?), Hannah Arendt reminds us to seek out and overcome those “prejudices” and “preformed judgments”—including the obligatory moves to technocratic and ideological narratives—that preclude the introduction of new questions and corresponding answers that require direct and original judgments and, perhaps most importantly, thinking and responsibility. Counterintuitively, in such situations Arendt highlights the importance of questions rather than solutions in confronting political crisis—that the proper response to crisis requires thinking rather than knowledge. To narrowly search for efficient policy “solutions” or ideological “compromises” based on prior prejudices simply misses the point.

If crisis does not seem especially urgent to Arendt in “The Crisis on Education,” she does warn that, in the end, “unreflective perseverance…can only…lead to ruin.” Ironically, one of the prejudiced assumptions that seems most prevalent in Congress today—that abandoning one’s prejudices and preformed judgments spells political death—may be most indicative of our current political crisis.–—And yet if, as Arendt suggests on more than one occasion, one answer to the modern crisis of authority lies in the “assumption of responsibility”—be it responsibility for the world in the classroom, responsibility for extraordinary action in politics (Arendt once attributed Lenin’s revolutionary authority to his singular willingness to “assume responsibility for the revolution after it happened.”), or even responsibility for truthful speech (as opposed to “mere talk”) and action in normal, everyday politics—then notwithstanding whatever the American crisis is, whoever has the courage to speak truthfully and accept political responsibility may wake up to find real power and opportunity suddenly within his grasp.

-John LeJeune

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Jan/130

Reflections on an Inaugural Address

I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.

The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.

In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:

 Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.  We affirm the promise of our democracy.  We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.  What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.

Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.

When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal.  This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?

And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements.  Well here is what he said:

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time.  So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.  But while the means will change, our purpose endures:  a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.  That is what this moment requires.  That is what will give real meaning to our creed.   We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.)  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”  Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?

More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.

Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.

That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.

The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.

The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
16May/120

Political Scientists Bemoan Funding Cuts

Political scientists around the country are in a huff here, and here, and here. The reason has little to do with the upcoming election, the vacuum in political leadership, or the state of the world. No, they are upset because Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake has proposed cutting the National Science Foundation's Political Science Program that awards about $11 Million a year to support political science research.

The anger and posturing are extraordinary. And political scientists are rushing to defend the relevance and necessity of their research. Special anger is directed at Congressman Flake's blindness to the import of a $700,000 NSF proposed study to develop "A multi-level, agent-based model for identifying the factors that enable or constrain international climate change negotiations." I have no doubt such a study has uses. But I do wonder if those writing the study could make those uses more accessible. They write:

The goal of our research is to develop a new tool for international climate policy analysis based on the concept of agent-based modeling (ABM).  ABM facilitates a more realistic and simultaneous treatment of the diverse forces which influence multi-party decisions.  Our model will represent both the international climate negotiation process, as well as the key dynamics of domestic economies relevant to energy and climate change.  Some key questions to be explored with our model include: Are there patterns of innovation, adaptation, or climate damages that emerge from an ABM representation of an economy that are obscured by conventional assessments? ...

The authors then provide this graphic to illustrate what they mean:

I don't want to disparage the research, which I am sure will be of interest to a subset of academic political scientists. This research may even, over years, produce insights that gradually merge with the fruits of other research to change and even improve our understanding of how multiparty negotiations impact complicated international topics.  And, yes, $700,000 is less than a drop in the bucket in the federal budget. But when looking at the Federal Budget, at a time when students are being forced into bankruptcy because they can't repay student debt, is this where the government should be spending its money?

Congressman Flake, who I never have heard of before happens to have a Masters degree in Political Science; he understands that these grants have multiple uses. First, they advance the general knowledge of the social sciences. They also advance the careers of the political scientists who win them.  What is more, the vast majority of the funds dispersed go to subsidize the administrative costs at our nation's colleges and universities. And here is where the proposed funding looks mighty suspect.

The researchers proposing this study are from Dartmouth. Dartmouth is a fine school, also a small school that happens to have an endowment of over $3 Billion dollars. As Congressman Flake notes,

According to the NSF Web site, to date, more than $80 million has been awarded to the program’s nearly 200 active projects. Three-quarters of these awards, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion.

The outrage of the political science community at these cuts is more than misplaced.

We may wonder why political science and not anthropology. I guess the first answer is that Congressman Flake is a political scientist and thus is beginning to cut in the areas he knows best. But the bigger issue is that these cuts are just the beginning of a desperately needed rethinking of what the federal government should be spending money on at a time of coming austerity.

The beauty of the American system is the dispersion of power. The federal government does not control all the levers of power or all the money in the USA. If the NSF cannot or does not fund a study, those who feel the need for that study have plenty of other pots to dip their hands into. There are a myriad of foundations and universities that support an enormous amount of social science research. The issue is not that necessary research may not get done, but that there will now be one fewer pot. That is sad for political scientists, but not a tragedy. Indeed, political scientists might ask: How has bureaucratic federal grant-making changed and influenced the nature of political science research?

-RB

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