Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
12Aug/130

Can We Survive Entertainment?

Arendtquote

"The state of affairs, which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say. "

-Hannah Arendt, "Mass Culture and Mass Media"

I recently completed work on a book entitled Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited, to be published by Peter Lang. And as the title implies, the book takes up the arguments made by Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published nearly three decades ago, and considers them in light of the contemporary media environment, and the kind of culture that it has given rise to.  I bring this up because the passage from Hannah Arendt's essay, "Mass Culture and Mass Media," is a quote that I first read in Amusing Ourselves to Death.  Interestingly, Postman used it not in his chapter on education, but in one focusing on religion, one that placed particular emphasis on the phenomenon of televangelism that exploded into prominence back in the eighties.  To put the quote into the context that Postman had earlier placed it in, he prefaced the passage with the following:

There is a final argument that whatever criticisms may be made of televised religion, there remains the inescapable fact that it attracts viewers by the millions. This would appear to be the meaning of the statements, quoted earlier by Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, that there is a need for it among the multitude. To which the best reply I know was made by Hannah Arendt, who, in reflecting on the products of mass culture, wrote:

And this is where Arendt's quote appears, after which Postman provides the following commentary:

If we substitute the word "religion" for Hamlet, and the phrase "great religious traditions" for "great authors of the past," this question may stand as the decisive critique of televised religion. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, by doing so, do we destroy it as an "authentic object of culture"? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?

In returning to Postman's critique of the age of television, I decided to use this same quote in my own book, noting how Postman had used it earlier, but this time placing it in a chapter on education.  In particular, I brought it up following a brief discussion of the latest fad in higher education, massive open online courses, abbreviated as MOOCs.

moocs

A MOOC can contain as many as 100,000 students, which raises the question of, in what sense is a MOOC a course, and in what sense is the instructor actually teaching?  It is perhaps revealing that the acronym MOOC is a new variation on other terms associated with new media, such as MMO, which stands for massive multiplayer online (used to describe certain types of games), and the more specific MMORPG, which stands for massive multiplayer online role-playing game.  These terms are in turn derived from older ones such as MUD, multi-user dungeon, and MUSH, multi-user shared hallucination, and also MOO, multi-user dungeon, object oriented.  In other words, the primary connotation is with gaming, not education.  Holding this genealogy aside, it is clear that offering MOOCs is presently seen as a means to lend prestige to universities, and they may well be a means to bring education to masses of people who could not otherwise afford a college course, and also to individuals who are not interested in pursuing traditional forms of education, but then again, there is nothing new about the phenomenon of the autodidact, which was made possible by the spread of literacy and easy availability of books. There is no question that much can be learned from reading books, or listening to lectures via iTunes, or watching presentations on YouTube, but is that what we mean by education? By teaching?

Regarding Arendt's comments on the dangers of mass education, we might look to the preferences of the most affluent members of our society? What do people with the means to afford any type of education available tend to choose for their children, and for themselves? The answer, of course, is traditional classrooms with very favorable teacher-student ratios, if not private, one-on-one tutoring (the same is true for children with special needs, such as autism).  There should be no question as to what constitutes the best form of education, and it may be that we do not have the resources to provide it, but still we can ask whether money should be spent on equipping classrooms with the latest in educational technology, when the same limited resources could be used to hire more teachers?  It is a question of judgment, of the ability to decide on priorities based on objective assessment, rather than automatically jumping on the new technology bandwagon time and time again.

The broader question that concerns both Arendt and Postman is whether serious discourse, be it educational, religious, or political, can survive the imperative to make everything as entertaining as possible.  For Arendt, this was a feature of mass media and their content, mass culture. Postman argues that of the mass media, print media retains a measure of seriousness, insofar as the written word is a relatively abstract form of communication, one that provides some degree of objective distance from its subject matter, and that requires relatively coherent forms of organization. Television, on the other hand, is an image-centered medium that places a premium on attracting and keeping audiences, not to mention the fact that of all the mass media, it is the most massive.  The bias of the television medium is towards showing, rather than telling, towards displaying exciting visuals, and therefore towards entertaining content.  Of course, it's possible to run counter to the medium's bias, in which case you get something like C-SPAN, whose audience is miniscule.

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The expansion of television via cable and satellite has given us better quality entertainment, via the original series appearing on HBO, Showtime, Starz, and AMC, but the same is not true about the quality of journalism.  Cable news on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX does not provide much in the way of in-depth reporting or thoughtful analysis. Rather, what we get is confrontation and conflict, which of course is dramatic, and above all entertaining, but contributes little to the democratic political process.  Consider that at the time of the founding of the American republic, the freedom to express opinions via speech and press was associated with the free marketplace of ideas, that is, with the understanding that different views can be subject to relatively objective evaluation, different descriptions can be examined in order to determine which one best matches with reality, different proposals can be analyzed in order to determine which one might be the best course of action.  The exchange of opinions was intended to open up discussion, and eventually lead to some form of resolution. Today, as can be seen best on cable news networks, when pundits express opinions, it's to close down dialogue, the priority being to score points, to have the last word if possible, and at minimum to get across a carefully prepared message, rather than to listen to what the other person has to say, and find common ground.  And this is reflected in Congress, as our elected representatives are unwilling to talk to each other, work with each other, negotiate settlements, and actually be productive as legislators.

Once upon a time, the CBS network news anchor Walter Cronkite was dubbed "the most trusted man in American." And while his version of the news conformed to the biases of the television medium, still he tried to engage in serious journalism as much as he was able to within those constraints. Today, we would be hard put to identify anyone as our most trusted source of information, certainly none of the network news anchors would qualify, but if anyone deserves the title, at least for a large segment of American society, it would be Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.  And while there is something to be said for the kind of critique that he and his compatriot Stephen Colbert provide, what they provide us with, after all, are comedy programs, and at best we can say that they do not pretend to be providing anything other than entertainment.  But we are left with the question, when so many Americans get their news from late night comedians, does that mean that journalism has become a joke?

Cable television has also given us specialized educational programming via the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel, and while this has provided an avenue for the dissemination of documentaries, audiences are especially drawn to programs such as Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, Moonshiners, Ancient Aliens, UFO Files, and The Nostradamus Effect.  On the Animal Planet channel, two specials entitled Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence, broadcast in 2012 and 2013 respectively, gave the cable outlet its highest ratings in its seventeen-year history. These fake documentaries were assumed to be real by many viewers, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue a statement stating that mermaids do not actually exist.  And it is almost to easy to mention that The Learning Channel, aka TLC, has achieved its highest ratings by turning to reality programs, such as Toddlers & Tiaras, and its notorious spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

honey

Many more examples come to mind, but it is also worth asking whether Facebook status updates and tweets on Twitter provide any kind of alternative to serious, reasoned discourse?  In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote, "As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'"  Does the constant barrage of stimuli that we receive today via new media, and the electronic media in general, make it easier or harder for us to think, and to think about thinking, as Arendt would have us do? Huxley's final words in Brave New World Revisited are worth recalling:

Meanwhile, there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom.  But some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them. (1958, pp. 122-123)

It's not that distractions and entertainment are inherently evil, or enslaving, but what Huxley, Postman, and Arendt all argue for is the need for placing limits on our amusements, maintaining a separation between contexts, based on what content is most appropriate. Or as was so famously expressed in Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." The problem is that now the time is always 24/7/365, and the boundaries between contexts dissolve within the electronic media environment.  Without a context, there is no balance, the key ecological value that relates to the survival, and sustainability of any given culture.  For Postman, whose emphasis was on the prospects for democratic culture, we have become a culture dangerously out of balance.  For Arendt, in "Mass Culture and Mass Media," the emphasis was somewhat different, but the conclusion quite similar, as can be seen in her final comments:

An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; this durability is the very opposite of its functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The "thingness" of an object appears in its shape and appearance, the proper criterion of which is beauty. If we wanted to judge an object by its use value alone, and not also by its appearance… we would first have to pluck out our eyes. Thus, the functionalization of the world which occurs in both society and mass society deprives the world of culture as well as beauty.  Culture can be safe only with those who love the world for its own sake, who know that without the beauty of man-made, worldly things which we call works of art, without the radiant glory in which potential imperishability is made manifest to the world and in the world, all human life would be futile and no greatness could endure.

Our constant stream of technological innovation continues to contribute to the functionalization of the world, and the dominance of what Jacques Ellul called "la technique," the drive toward efficiency as the only value that can be effectively invoked in the kind of society that Postman termed a technopoly, a society in which culture is completed dominated by this technological imperative.  The futility of human life that Arendt warns us about is masked by our never-ending parade of distractions and amusements; the substitution of the trivial for greatness is disguised by the quality and quantity of our entertainment.  We experience the extremes of the hyperrational and the hyperreal, both of which focus our attention on the ephemeral, rather than the eternal that Arendt upholds.  She argues for the importance of loving the world for its own sake, which requires us to be truly ecological in our orientation, balanced in our approach, clear and true in our minds and our hearts.  Is there any question that this is what is desperately needed today? Is there any question that this is what seems to elude us time and time again, as all of our innovations carry us further and further away from the human lifeworld?

-Lance Strate

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.
19Jul/130

I Feel Like a Bullet Went Through My Heart

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The response has been swift and negative to the Rolling Stone Magazine cover—a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who with his now dead brother planted deadly homemade bombs near the finish-line of the Boston Marathon. The cover features a picture Tsarnaev himself posted on his Facebook page before the bombing. It shows him as he wanted himself to be seen—that itself has offended many, who ask why he is not pictured as a suspect or convict. In the photo he is young, hip, handsome, and cool. He could be a rock star, and given the context of the Rolling Stone cover, that is how he appears.

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The cover is jarring, and that is intended. It is controversial, and that was probably also intended. Hundreds of thousands of comments on Facebook and around the web are critical and angry, asking how Rolling Stone could portray the bomber as a rock-star. They overlook or ignore the text accompanying the photo on the cover, which reads: “The Bomber. How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster.” CVS and other retailers have announced they will not sell the magazine in their stores.

That is unfortunate, for the story written by Janet Reitman is exceptionally good and deserves to be read.

Controversies like this have a perverse effect. Just as the furor over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem resulted in the viral dissemination of her claims about the Jewish leaders, so too will this Rolling Stone cover be seen by millions of people who otherwise would never have heard of Rolling Stone. What is more, such publicity makes it ever less likely that the story itself will be read seriously, just as Arendt’s book was criticized by everyone, but read by few.

Reitman’s narrative itself is unexceptional. It is a common story line: young, normal kid becomes radicalized and does something none of his old friends can believe he could do. This is a now familiar narrative that we hear in the wake of the tragedies in Newtown (Adam Lanza was described as a nice quiet kid) and Columbine (Time’s cover announced “The Monsters Next Door.”)

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This is also the narrative that Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana embraced to defend the Cover on NPR arguing it was an "apt image because part of what the story is about is what an incredibly normal kid [Tsarnaev] seemed like to those who knew him best back in Cambridge.” It was echoed too by Erin Burnett, on CNN, who recently invoked Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil.”  In the easy frame the story offers, Tsarnaev was a good kid, part of a striving immigrant family, someone who loved multi-racial America. And then something went wrong. He found Islam; his family fell apart; and he became a monster.

This story is too simple. And yet within the Rolling Stone story, there is a wealth of information and reporting that does give a nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of Tsarnaev’s journey into the heart of evil.

One fact that is important to note is that Tsarnaev is not Eichmann. Eichmann was a member of the SS, a nationalist security service engaged in world war and dedicated to wiping certain races of peoples off the face of the earth. He committed genocide as part of a system of extermination, something both worse than and yet less messy than murder itself.  It is Tsarnaev, who had no state apparatus behind him, who become a cold-blooded murderer. The problems that Hannah Arendt thought that the court in Jerusalem faced with Eichmann—that he was a new type of criminal—do not apply in Tsarnaev’s case. He is a murderer. To understand him is not to understand a new type of criminal. And yet it is a worthy endeavor to try to understand why more and more young men like Tsarnaev are so easily radicalized and drawn to murdering innocent people in the name of a cause.

Both Eichmann and Tsarnaev were from upwardly striving bourgeois families that struggled with economic setbacks. Eichmann was white and Austrian, Tsarnaev an immigrant in Cambridge, but both were economically disaffected. Tsarnaev wanted to make money and, like his parents, dreamed of a better life.

Tsarnaev’s family had difficulty fitting in with U.S. culture. His father was ill and could not work. His mother sought to earn money. And his older brother, whom he idolized, saw his dreams of Olympic boxing dashed partly because he was not a citizen. He increasingly turned to a radical version of Islam. When Tsarnaev’s parents both returned to Dagestan, he fell increasingly under the influence of his older brother.

Like Eichmann, Tsarnaev appears to have adopted an ideology that provided a coherent and meaningful narrative that gave his life significance. One can see this in a number of tweets and statements that are quoted in the article. For example, just before the bombing, he tweeted:

"Evil triumphs when good men do nothing."

"If you have the knowledge and the inspiration all that's left is to take action."

"Most of you are conditioned by the media."

Like Eichmann, Tsarnaev came to see himself as a hero, someone willing to suffer and even die for a noble cause. His cause was different—anti-American jihad instead of anti-Semitic Nazism—but he was an ideological idealist, a joiner, someone who found meaning and importance in belonging to a movement. A smart and talented and by most accounts good young man, he was lost and adrift, searching for someone and something to give his life purpose. He found that someone in his brother and that something in jihad against America, the land that previously he had so embraced. And he became someone who believed that what he was doing was right and necessary, even if he understood also that it was wrong.

We see clearly this ambivalent understanding of right and wrong in the note Tsarnaev apparently scrawled while he was hiding in a boat before he was captured. Here is how Reitman’s article describes what he wrote:

When investigators finally gained access to the boat, they discovered a jihadist screed scrawled on its walls. In it, according­ to a 30-count indictment handed down in late June, Jihad [Tsarnaev's nickname] appeared to take responsibility for the bombing, though he admitted he did not like killing innocent people. But "the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians," he wrote, presumably referring to Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished. . . . We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all," he continued, echoing a sentiment that is cited so frequently by Islamic militants that it has become almost cliché. Then he veered slightly from the standard script, writing a statement that left no doubt as to his loyalties: "Fuck America."

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Eichmann too spoke of his shock and disapproval of killing innocent Jews, but he justified doing so for the higher Nazi cause. He also said that when he found out about the sufferings of Germans at the hands of the allies, it made it easier for him to justify what he had done, because he saw it as equivalent. The fact that the Germans were aggressors, that they had started the war, and that they were killing and torturing innocent people simply did not register for Eichmann, just as it did not register for Tsarnaev that the people in the Boston marathon were innocent. There are, of course, innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan who have died at the hands of U.S. bombs. Even for those of us who were against the wars and question their sense and justification, however, there is a difference between death in a war zone and terrorism.

The Rolling Stone article does a good job of chronicling Tsarnaev's slide into a radical jihadist ideology, one mixed with conspiracy theories.

The Prophet Muhammad, he noted on Twitter, was now his role model. "For me to know that I am FREE from HYPOCRISY is more dear to me than the weight of the ENTIRE world in GOLD," he posted, quoting an early Islamic scholar. He began following Islamic Twitter accounts. "Never underestimate the rebel with a cause," he declared.

His rebellious cause was to awaken Americans to their complicity both in the bombing of innocent Muslims and also to his belief in the common conspiracy theory that America was behind the 9/11 attacks. In one Tweet he wrote: "Idk [I don’t know] why it's hard for many of you to accept that 9/11 was an inside job, I mean I guess fuck the facts y'all are some real #patriots #gethip."

Besides these tweets that offer a provocative insight into Tsarnaev's emergent ideological convictions, the real virtue of the article is its focus on Tsarnaev's friends, his school, and his place in American youth culture. While his friends certainly do not support or condone what Tsarnaev did, many share some of his conspiratorial and anti-American beliefs. Here are two descriptions of the mainstream nature of many of his beliefs:

To be fair, Will and others note, Jahar's perspective on U.S. foreign policy wasn't all that dissimilar from a lot of other people they knew. "In terms of politics, I'd say he's just as anti-American as the next guy in Cambridge," says Theo.

This is not an uncommon belief. Payack, who [was Tsarnaev's wrestling coach and mentor and] also teaches­ writing at the Berklee College of Music, says that a fair amount of his students, notably those born in other countries, believe 9/11 was an "inside job." Aaronson tells me he's shocked by the number of kids he knows who believe the Jews were behind 9/11. "The problem with this demographic is that they do not know the basic narratives of their histories – or really any narratives," he says. "They're blazed on pot and searching the Internet for any 'factoids' that they believe fit their highly de-historicized and decontextualized ideologies. And the adult world totally misunderstands them and dismisses them – and does so at our collective peril," he adds.

The article presents a sad portrait of youth culture, and not just because all these “normal” kids are smoking “a copious amount of weed.” The jarring realization is that these talented and intelligent young people at a good school in a storied neighborhood come off so disaffected. What is more, their beliefs in conspiracies are accepted by the adults in their lives as commonplaces; their anti-Americanism is simply a noted fact; and their idolization of slacking (Tsarnaev's favorite word, his friends say, “was "sherm," Cambridge slang for ‘slacker’”) is seen as cute. There is painfully little concern by adults to insist that the young people face facts and confront unserious opinions.

In short, the young people in Tsarnaev's story appear to be abandoned by adults to their own youthful and quite fanciful views of reality. Youth culture dominates, and adult supervision seems absent. There is seemingly no one who, in Arendt’s language from “The Crisis in Education”, takes responsibility for teaching them to love the world as it is.

The Rolling Stone article and cover do not glorify a monster; but they do play on two dangerous trends in modern culture that Hannah Arendt worried about in her writing: First, the rise of youth culture and the abandonment of adult authority in education; and second, the fascination bourgeois culture has for vice and the short distance that separates an acceptance of vice from an acceptance of monstrosity. If only all the people who are so concerned about a magazine cover today were more concerned about the delusions and fantasies of Tsarnaev, his friends, and others like them.

Taking responsibility for teaching young people to love the world is the very essence of what Arendt understands education to be. It will be the topic of the Hannah Arendt Center upcoming conference “Failing Fast: The Crisis of the Educated Citizen.” Registration for the conference opened this week. For now, ignore the controversy and read Reitman’s article “Jahar’s World.” It is your weekend read. It is as good an argument for thinking seriously about the failure of our approach to education as one can find.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
26Apr/138

Imagine You Are a Nazi

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Werner Feig was a gifted teacher at my high school from whom I learned European History and Constitutional Law. Along with his colleague—the astounding and inspirational Eric Rothschild—Mr. Feig made sure that me and my fellow students loved history, not simply that we knew it. He also made us uncomfortable.

Feig lived history—fleeing Germany as a boy and growing up in the Hongkew Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, China. He later made his way to the U.S. where he earned Masters degrees in both education and political science, before settling down to teach high school social studies. He was a passionate teacher, and is rightly memorialized by his former student Aaron Sorkin, who has one "West Wing" character cite Feig as his inspiration for going into public service.

But Feig had an unusual way about teaching us to think and question authority. In my Constitutional Law class, he used to call me “Little Hitler.” Sometimes, along with other Jewish students, I was called versions of Berko-kyke. A Chinese colleague of mine was referred to as "no tick-ee no washee.” When another Asian student went to the chalkboard, we could hear our esteemed teacher mutter: "I need some Coolie labor now." A Jewish friend was “Shlomo.” And my sister, two years behind me, was “Little Hitler’s sister.” There were worse names as well.

Hearing these epithets at the time was bracing. But it was also provocative—in the best sense. Mr. Feig got us thinking. He was teaching us Constitutional Law and Free Speech, and forcing us above all to think about the power of words as well as the right, his right, to use them. It was a powerful lesson, one that has never left me. I can safely say that Mr. Feig’s classroom was one of the most intellectually infectious I have ever experienced. He is, for me, one of that select group of teachers on whom I model my own teaching. Teaching, he showed me, should be free to provoke in the name of thinking. Indeed, it must.

thinki desk

I’ve been thinking about Werner Feig a lot this past week, ever since I came across a NY Times article about a high school teacher in Albany who has been suspended for asking his students to write an essay arguing that Jews are evil. The assignment was thought to be so awful a breach of teaching judgment that the school district refuses to release the name of the teacher. Here is the Times' account:

The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.

“Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

The reaction to the assignment has been—with very few exceptions—highly negative. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the superintendent of schools in Albany, fully repudiated the teacher: “Obviously, we have a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity. That’s not the assignment that any school district, and certainly not mine, is going to tolerate.” Jewish organizations swung into action, joining the superintendent at a press conference. The Anti-Defamation League will run sensitivity training workshops.

New York City Councilman David Greenfield went further and insisted the teacher be fired. In a statement, Greenfield writes: "The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs. Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom."

The press too has jumped on this story, making it a national news item, covered on all the networks and in papers around the country. Writing on Jezebel, David Barry made a feint in the direction of understanding the value of such an assignment, but then about-faced and concluded:

However, nothing ever good comes from pretending that you’re a Nazi, and there is literally an infinite number of FAR BETTER persuasive writing prompts, such as, “Convince me that you, a human high school student, are actually a glass of apple cider,” or “Convince me that you’re an acorn that is running for the mayor of Oakton on an anti-squirrel platform. Make me believe that you despise squirrels.” The Nazi prompt isn’t just bigoted writing assignment — it’s also a cheap trick, a way to stir up the volatile psyches of high school students in an effort to engage them in a task that they hate, namely, writing essays.

Reading about this assignment and the heated reaction it elicited, my first reaction was to think back to Mr. Feig. Would his style of teaching simply be impossible today? Do we really live in a world in which a teacher is unable to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of evil people? Are we so far down the road of thou-shalt-not-offend that we simply cannot tolerate the exercise and effort to think from the perspective of those with whom we disagree or even those whose opinions we view as intolerable?

The outrage in Albany also brought to my mind the recent debate over gun control. For many on the left, the Newtown tragedy was an unanswerable wakeup call for gun control. I get that. As I wrote shortly after Newtown, the fact that one person without any assistance could do so much damage with automatic weapons is good reason to regulate automatic weapons. We will never stop killing. And we will never stop killing with guns. But when one crazy person can kill dozens or potentially hundreds with high-powered guns, we should work to keep such guns out of the hands of unstable people.

gun

At the same time, I understand and respect the strong attachment that many people have to guns. Some love to hunt. Others see guns as a symbol of their freedom. In a world where people feel powerless and vulnerable, owning a weapon offers a feeling of power (real or fictional). I respect that need. It is part of the beauty of America that we imbue in people the desire to feel powerful. That is the genius of democracy: that every individual matters. At a time when most people feel alienated from our broken democracy, guns can become a crutch. I may wish people found other symbols of their power, but I do get why owning a gun is meaningful. There are times when I want one myself.

What the gun control fiasco in Congress illustrates is how neither side made any effort to really understand the other. Actually, it is worse than that. Partisans of gun control are vitriolic in their baiting of those who will argue against gun control. Gun advocates are at times even worse, as the crosshairs scandal around the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made clear. The ill will and disgust that proponents of both positions have for the other was palpable in every editorial and every argument. In short, for advocates and opponents of gun control, the other side was so stupid and wrong and evil as to be simply incomprehensible.

Which brings me back to the unnamed teacher in Albany who has been disciplined and shamed and abandoned for asking high school students to put themselves in the place of an official during the Nazi government. Such an official might well be asked to write such a memo. The students in the school had been studying Nazi propaganda in school. They were about to read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. Doesn’t it make sense in this context to push students to understand how it might be that Nazi’s did what they did?

For Hannah Arendt, political thinking demands the practice of enlarged thinking, of thinking from the position of those who are absent. She writes: “Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” She does not mean that in political thinking we think what others think, but that the first requirement of political life—a life alongside others with whom one often disagrees—is to seek to think from their point of view. To have a chance of convincing someone they are wrong, you must first understand that person’s argument in its strongest and most compelling sense. Only then, also, can you respond to those with whom you disagree as human beings.

When I teach The Origins of Totalitarianism, I emphasize Arendt’s insistence that we must not simply condemn antisemitism (we must do that too) but ask as well what are the logical and rational reasons why modern antisemitism could lead to the holocaust? It is not an accident, nor is it irrational, she argues, but has something to do with the way that Jewish separateness and distinction exists in a problematic way in the modern world that demands equal treatment.  Such questions are uncomfortable and she does not ask them to excuse antisemitism, but to understand its modern power.  Students regularly come to see the benefit of such queries, made even more difficult when I extend the discussion to ask after the rationales for the continued relevance of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Luckily for me, my students understand the value of this exercise and don’t condemn me as a racist or antisemite.

It is easy to say that Nazis are not human beings and that the effort to understand them is, itself, immoral. That is the argument the Albany superintendent made. It is the same argument that leads many to say that racists are inhuman and that all bigots are sub-human. But to comprehend is not the same as to agree. Rather, as Arendt writes in the preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, comprehension is the prerequisite for resistance.

origins

Of the many responses I found to the suspension of the Albany school teacher, only one defended him. Writing on the CNN Belief Blog, Stephen Prothero of Boston University told of his experience teaching Nazi theology who taught that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Christ, amongst other antisemitic slanders. He writes:

First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust. Second, I wanted them to grapple with the implications of this fact on their own religious commitments. Do Christians today have any responsibility to know this history and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? If so, how can they exercise that responsibility without coming to understand the contours of Nazi thought?

Prothero reminds me of the importance of teachers like Werner Feig. He offers a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we need to challenge our young people with precisely the kinds of assignments that have been rejected in Albany. The scandal in Albany may prove that such teaching is simply no longer be possible today. If that is true, it is for the worse. To help see why, I commend to you Stephen Prothero’s defense of teaching Nazi theology. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
11Sep/121

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

The Convention season has unleashed an avalanche of half-truths and untruths. Some see this as politics as usual. Others claim we are living in a post-truth world. Stephen Colbert has long understood that our present condition has transformed truth into truthiness.

One response to our new practice of political lying is the rise of the fact finder. In general, I am all in favor of fact finders. When they labor in obscurity at, say, The New Yorker—or as I once did long ago at the Washingtonian Magazine—fact finders are supposed to check the facts referenced in an article and make sure that those factual nuggets are accurate: Does Mr. Green really live on 22 Wiley Street? Did he purchase a yellow car last year for $37,000? Is his house really worth $21 million? When I did this at the age of, I think, 18 before the Internet became what it is today, I spent my summer running over to the public records office and looking through the real-estate transactions of the rich and famous. We would not want to insult someone by saying he had paid less for his house than he really did.

Today, there is another kind of fact finding of increasing prominence: political fact checking. It is a different beast entirely. The most well-established of these is Politifact, which has the “Truth-o-Meter” that rates the truth or falsity of public claims on a spectrum that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Other sites deliver similarly clever reports on the statements uttered by politicians during the course of the campaign. Part marketing and part well-intentioned policing of a discourse divorced from reality, these fact checkers are trying to bring sense and seriousness to political debate. What they are actually doing is making the problem worse.

The reason for this is that what is being checked today are less facts and more opinions. Take for example the recent anger over Mitt Romney’s advertisement and the continuing Republican claims that the Obama administration is trying to gut the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. Politifact and CNN and many other fact-check organizations labeled the ad a lie. Here is what Politifact said about it:

Romney’s ad says, "Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."

That's a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs -- HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.

The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: "They just send you your welfare check." The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is "designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."

The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!

On the other hand, here’s what The Daily Caller’s Mickey Kraus had to say after he fact checked a CNN fact check that had come to the same conclusion about Romney’s welfare ad as Politifact had:

The oft-cited CNN-”fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:

The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare roles as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.” Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.

I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.

But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all.  Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive. But the point of welfare reform isn’t to get more people onto welfare .

How is it that Kraus and Politifact could have fact checked the same statement (with Kraus even claiming that he was fact checking the fact check) and yet have come to different conclusions? Why is that all the fact checking that is going on today is not leading to a more truthful debate? Why is it that Republican campaign operatives say they will not be governed by fact checkers? Shouldn't fact checkers be helping to keep political discourse grounded in truth? Actually, not.

The basic confusion here is that between a fact and an opinion. As Hannah Arendt argues in her prescient essay “Truth and Politics,” facts and opinions play very different and equally important roles in politics. Facts are essential insofar as they provide the ground and the sky on which and under which we live. It is crucial to have and accept common facts, for without agreed upon facts we cannot share a world with others. If I know that the President was born in Hawaii and you know he was born in Kenya (or doubt at least he was born in Hawaii) then we simply don't trust each other. We can't talk to one another. We don't share the same world. And we cannot politically live together in good faith as we try to actualize the common good.

Because facts of these kinds are so important, the rise to mainstream prominence of conspiracy theories that question the President's citizenship or insist that President Bush and his administration faked 9/11 are deeply destructive of our political world. Such destructive facts are always present in politics, and yet it is also the case that at certain periods they gain more credence and credibility than at other times. Now is clearly one of those times.

There are many reasons for the splitting of the common-sense world, but one at least is the speed and ruthlessness of change in our modern world. As people are dislocated, uprooted, and unsettled, they naturally seek certainty in what is increasingly an uncertain world. Arendt labeled this phenomenon homelessness and rootlessness.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explores how the spiritual and material rootlessness of the 20th century have made people today uniquely susceptible to grand narratives provide clear and simple explanations for complicated and often upsetting events. That Jews were the root of Germany's problems or that collective ownership in the Soviet Union could usher in a utopia were stories contradicted by myriad facts. One core element of totalitarian times is that people prefer the security of a coherent narrative to the uncertainty of reality. People latch on to ideologies because they provide meaning and security. What Arendt saw is that the uncertainties of the modern era have made people so needy for such ideologies that they will sacrifice truth to fiction.

There is no doubt that the Internet eases the dissemination and also the force of conspiracies, as people can click through hundreds of links and never leave what is in essence an echo chamber of ideological purity. When people fall into such rabbit holes, they are enveloped by a world that seems real and is difficult to penetrate from the outside.

For that reason it is important to starkly and loudly confront ideological fictions. President Obama was right to launch his "Fight the Smears" website in 2008 to contest and disprove the smears about his religion and citizenship. Many of the fact-checking sites that now exist emerged out of a similar initiative, and in this sense they are deeply important.

But these sites today have gone beyond their original mission of checking facts.  It is a fact that welfare reform was passed. It is a fact that the President's administration offered waivers to states to change how the reforms are implemented. As far as I know it is a fact that Republican governors requested those waivers. Whether these waivers go against the spirit of the reforms and whether they are wise, however, those are matters of opinion. No amount of fact-checking can tell you whether what the President did “guts” welfare reform or strengthens it. These are opinions about which reasonable people can and do differ.

While facts are essential to provide us with a common world that we share and in which we can advocate for our particular opinions, opinions are the life-blood of politics. Politics is the activity of people who, while sharing a factual world, come together to talk and act in public. Since people are different, their opinions will differ and they will seek to persuade each other that one way of handling welfare is better than another. That is the beauty of politics, the incessant talking and debating and compromising and leading through which common decisions are made.

That we today seek to transform opinions into facts is, at least in part, a result of our desire for clear answers. We live in a time when we have little patience for meaningful public engagement. We want government to work, which means we want it to keep the roads safe and the borders sound. We want our water to be clean and our food to be safe. And we want children to be fed and the sick to be healed. We don't much care how this is done so long as we can live comfortably and securely and go on with what is really important, namely our private lives. In essence, what we dream of today is a technocratic government that gives us much and demands from us very little.

If government is to work like a well-oiled machine, we need to input the correct facts. This leads us to insist that there are indeed such correct facts, even when we are confronted over and over again with evidence to the contrary. If there is a totalitarian element of modern politics, it is the technocratic insistence that if we simply all agreed on the facts and analyzed them correctly, our problems would be solved. It is no accident that both Mitt Romney and President Obama are technocratic pragmatists. Romney may have more interest in the power of data, but the President has an equally profound faith in the power of experts. Both appeal to the technocratic demand of an electorate desperate for clarity, certainty, and coherence in at a moment of profound upheaval.

As important as facts are, it is just as important to remain clear about the border between fact and opinion. Instead of gimmicky truth-o-meters, which give the illusion that political questions have easy answers, we need to encourage people with different opinions to discuss them in good faith. But the plague of fact checking what are in fact opinions has the opposite effect, since it proceeds on the assumption that opinions are true or false and that one who differs from you is a liar. The effect of fact checking in 2012 is to further polarize discourse and make political discussion almost impossible.

Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.

The problem today is that when confronted with opinions we don't like, we demand not arguments and other opinions but facts and objectivity.  Ironically, it is the very demand for facts and objectivity in politics that leads to ideological organs like Fox News and CNBC. Because people insist on technocratic clarity in the mess that is politics, they now gravitate towards those news organization, blogs, websites, and communities that deliver them coherent narratives.

—RB (with assistance from Josh Kopin)

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.
20Jan/120

Leadership or Arrogance?

Have you not watched Newt Gingrich's take down of CNN's John King at the opening of the Republican debate last night? You should.

 

Gingrich's supremely confident critique of the media's obsession with personal issues certainly put the Republican contest back in play and may have set him on the road to the nomination. It is also fascinating in the widely divergent reactions it has spawned.

The Republicans attending the debate gave Gingrich two standing ovations within three minutes. Most commentators have concluded that Gingrich won the debate in the first five minutes. But reaction on the left has been contemptuous.

Andrew Sullivan has great coverage and collects the responses.

John Marshall marvels at his hubris: "Shameless, hubris, chutzpah, whatever. It was pitch perfect for his intended audience. He took control of the debate and drew down all the tension about when the debate would turn to the open marriage stuff."

Andrew Sprung writes of an "astounding display of the Audacity of Hubris."

PM Carpenter shouts that it  was "the most despicable display of grotesque demagoguery I have ever witnessed."

Tim Stanley (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan) has the best characterization of the rhetorical power of Gingrich's answer.

To understand the full power of Gingrich’s answer, you really have to watch him give it. The former Speaker has three standard expressions: charmed bemusement (“Why are you asking me that, you fool?”), indignant (“Why are you asking me that, you swine?”) and supreme confidence (“That’s not the question I would have asked, you moron”). Each comes with its own number of chins. For his stunning “No, but I will”, Newt employed the full dozen. He looked straight down them, with half moon goblin eyes. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” By the time his chins unfolded, Gingrich was in total command of the debate.

The interesting question is: was Gingrich wrong to react the way he did? Did his angry and forceful response show hubris and contempt? Or is it the confident and powerful response of a true leader?

For years, liberals and conservatives alike have kvetched unceasingly about how the media cares more about scandal than substance.

What was John King thinking starting off the last Republican debate before a crucial primary with a question about marital infidelity from decades ago? One can of course argue that infidelity goes to character, and maybe it could have been asked about in some way. But is it really the most important issue of the debate? There are plenty of questions about Gingrich's character that are more pertinent to his ability to be President. Whether he once asked his wife to allow him to keep a mistress is not what disqualifies him to be President.

The reason Gingrich is still in this contest is because he has a supreme confidence in himself. He believes that he is the only candidate with big ideas, the only one willing to really buck the status quo. He styles himself a leader, and the strengths and weaknesses of his idea of leadership were on display in his answer to John King.

The strengths are clear. He elevated himself far above his questioner. He assumed a leadership position and pushed through without any self-doubt or self-criticism. Imagine someone like President Obama acting with such assurance? It is almost inconceivable. I can't imagine watching Gingrich and not feeling something like: Finally! someone has the courage to say what they believe and tell the media to get over their titillations and focus on the fact that this is the most important Presidential election in a generation.

Gingrich's weaknesses are clear as well. The man is imperious. He lives at times in a fantasy world of his own, one in which he is the philosopher king straining to keep calm and save the rest of us before he explodes at our idiocy. Nothing is more indicative of his hubris is his contempt for the Congressional Budget Office, the non-partisan body that Gingrich regularly assails and wants to abolish. Why that has never been asked about in the debates is a travesty, and in many ways supports Gingrich's tirade. In any case, it speaks much more to the question of character and leadership than his marital problems.

-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.