This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,” a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.
Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":
You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.
The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.
At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.
Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.
To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education.
The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.
The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.
Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.
Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.
What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!”
At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:
To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!
At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.
Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.
It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.
Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.
That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?
According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand. Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet. Build a personal website.”
None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.
What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.
Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.
We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.
One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.
I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,
The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.
I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.
I recently received the following excerpted from a long comment from Justine Parkin, a reader and a recent college graduate from the University of California, at Berkeley. Justine wrote:
The question posed in the 2012 Hannah Arendt conference “Does the President matter?” remains on my mind. It is, I think, related to another important question, namely “Does voting matter?” I know and have met several people who have decided not to go to the voting booth this election season. This is of course not an entirely unordinary decision, particularly for people who, like me, live in states like California and who because of the electoral system seem to think that their vote matters little and thus can with an undisturbed conscience decide not to vote. Yet it seems that in the case of this election, there are many, who even if the electoral college were to be replaced by a popular vote, would nevertheless remain firm in their decision not to vote. I admit sometimes that I myself have had a similar conclusion after recognizing little difference between the candidates, thinking everything they say is just “rhetoric” with few direct answers and little real substance and feeling that my vote is merely a decision “between the lesser of two evils.” All of these observations have at times led me to conclude that choosing not to vote may in fact be the more truly political act. And yet, I wanted to probe my choice to inaction further. I wanted to think not only “does voting matter?” but “what if voting did really matter?” In other words, if my participation in politics, or lack thereof, is to be one that is not just a confirmation of what politics is, but rather what politics should be, how would I act? I make no claim that one’s participation in the voting booth is the most important or the only form of political action that we must participate in. To think that merely casting one’s ballot is the ultimate and most necessary political act, I think, is a severe relinquishing of political responsibility. The act of voting is highly limited, not just in the sense of the construction of ballots which provide a particular formatted set of options with a certain illusion of choice, but voting is always a highly individual and closed act, not the “public” or “political” sphere of engaging a plurality of individuals which Arendt praises. Thus not only our political participation but our more essential human identity should stretch beyond the confines of the voting booth. Nevertheless, I wonder if this current form of apathy towards politics is itself a dangerous relinquishing of the human responsibility to thought.
These thoughtful reflections from a young voter—and Justine tells me in a future email that she will indeed vote—are apt reminders on election day of the extraordinary place of voting in our lives.
Quite simply, voting is our national civic exercise, as weak an exercise as it may be. It is the act by which we affirm our belonging to the democratically structured constitutional federal republic that is the United States of America. I have to admit that as cynical as I can be about voting—and having voted primarily in New York, Massachusetts, and California where my Presidential votes have never mattered, (I can be pretty cynical)I get goose bumps every time I line up with my fellow citizens and wait to vote. I remember once waiting hours to vote in a polling station in Berkeley, Ca. It was by far the most inconvenient voting experience of my life, and yet also it was the most meaningful. I stood on line, talking with fellow voters, thinking that we lived in a country where people cared enough about their country to stand in line for hours to cast a ballot that, statistically speaking, meant almost nothing. Weirdly enough, that was one of the days in my life I felt most proud of being an American.
There is no doubt that our political muscles are atrophying. With the loss of town councils we have lost the main educational experience of politics that nourished American democracy for nearly a century. We still have such an institution in law where the jury system teaches citizens to engage meaningfully and solemnly with the fundamental issues of right and wrong. But our political system now largely functions without the participation or engagement of citizens. All we have left for most of us is voting.
And the activity of voting is changing. There are early voting drives and get out the vote marathons. The benign goal is to increase the vote. But one side effect of such efforts is the weakening of the public and communal experience of voting together at polling stations on Election day. The risk is that in making voting so bureaucratic and easy and private and unobtrusive we further expel it as a communal experience and a public ritual.
So Justine is right. Voting is an extraordinarily weak expression of political activity. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. In voting, he understood, the "character of the voters is not staked."
Hannah Arendt also saw that voting was a deeply circumscribed approach to politics. She once wrote: “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” But the voting box can be a public place if and when it is a place where people congregate to vote. I admit it is still a weak space of politics, as the majority of the people who stand on line to vote are firm in their convictions. And yet the public act of standing in line, waiting, mingling with one's fellow citizens, and casting a vote, is a deeply symbolic affirmation of at least one important part of one's responsibility as a citizen. It can also be, as it often is for me, deeply moving.
The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.
-Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979
Contemporary observers of secondary education have appropriately decried the startling lack of understanding most students possess of the American presidency. This critique should not be surprising. In textbooks and classrooms across the country, curriculum writers and teachers offer an abundance of disconnected facts about the nation’s distinct presidencies—the personalities, idiosyncrasies, and unique time-bound crises that give character and a simple narrative arc to each individual president. Some of these descriptions contain vital historical knowledge. Students should learn, for example, how a conflicted Lyndon Johnson pushed Congress for sweeping domestic programs against the backdrop of Vietnam or how a charismatic and effective communicator like Ronald Reagan found Cold War collaboration with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.
But what might it mean to ask high school students to look across these and other presidencies to encourage more sophisticated forms of historical thinking? More specifically, what might teachers begin to do to promote thoughtful writing and reflection that goes beyond the respective presidencies and questions the nature of the executive office itself? And how might one teach the presidency, in Arendtian fashion, encouraging open dialogue around common texts, acknowledging the necessary uncertainty in any evolving classroom interpretation of the past, and encouraging flexibility of thought for an unpredictable future? By provocatively asking whether the president “matters,” the 2012 Hannah Arendt Conference provided an ideal setting for New York secondary teachers to explore this central pedagogical challenge in teaching the presidency.
Participants in this special writing workshop, scheduled concurrently with the conference, attended conference panels and also retreated to consider innovative and focused approaches to teaching the presidency.
Conference panels promoted a broader examination of the presidency than typically found in secondary curricula. A diverse and notable group of scholars urged us to consider the events and historical trends, across multiple presidencies, constraining or empowering any particular chief executive. These ideas, explored more thoroughly in the intervening writing workshops, provoked productive argument on what characteristics might define the modern American presidency. In ways both explicit and implicit, sessions pointed participants to numerous and complicated ways Congress, the judiciary, mass media, U.S. citizens, and the president relate to one another.
This sweeping view of the presidency contains pedagogical potency and has a place in secondary classrooms. Thoughtful history educators should ask big questions, encourage open student inquiry, and promote civic discourse around the nature of power and the purposes of human institutions. But as educators, we also know that the aim and value of our discipline resides in place-and time-bound particulars that beg for our interpretation and ultimately build an evolving understanding of the past. Good history teaching combines big ambitious questions with careful attention to events, people, and specific contingencies. Such specifics are the building blocks of storytelling and shape the analogies students need to think through an uncertain future.
Jimmy Carter’s oval office speech on July 15, 1979, describing a national “crisis of confidence” presented a unique case study for thinking about the interaction between American presidents and the populations the office is constitutionally obliged to serve. Workshop participants prepared for the conference by watching the video footage from this address and reading parts of Kevin Mattson’s history of the speech. In what quickly became known as the “Malaise Speech,” Carter attempted a more direct and personal appeal to the American people, calling for personal sacrifice and soul searching, while warning of dire consequences if the nation did not own up to its energy dependencies. After Vietnam and Watergate, Carter believed, America needed a revival that went beyond policy recommendations. His television address, after a mysterious 10-day sequestration at Camp David, took viewers through Carter’s own spiritual journey and promoted the conclusions he drew from it.
Today, the Malaise Speech has come to symbolize a failed Carter presidency. He has been lampooned, for example, on The Simpsons as our most sympathetically honest and humorously ineffectual former president. In one episode, residents of Springfield cheer the unveiling of his presidential statue, emblazoned with “Malaise Forever” on the pedestal. Schools give the historical Carter even less respect. Standardized tests such as the NY Regents exam ask little if anything about his presidency. The Malaise speech is rarely mentioned in classrooms—at either the secondary or post-secondary levels. Similarly, few historians identify Carter as particularly influential, especially when compared to the leaders elected before and after him. Observers who mention his 1979 speeches are most likely footnoting a transitional narrative for an America still recovering from a turbulent Sixties and heading into a decisive conservative reaction.
Indeed, workshop participants used writing to question and debate Carter’s place in history and the limited impact of the speech. But we also identified, through primary sources on the 1976 election and documents around the speech, ways for students to think expansively about the evolving relationship between a president and the people. A quick analysis of the electoral map that brought Carter into office reminded us that Carter was attempting to convince a nation that looks and behaves quite differently than today. The vast swaths of blue throughout the South and red coastal counties in New York and California are striking. Carter’s victory map can resemble an electoral photo negative to what has now become a familiar and predictable image of specific regional alignments in the Bush/Obama era. The president who was elected in 1976, thanks in large part to an electorate still largely undefined by the later rise of the Christian Right, remains an historical enigma. As an Evangelical Democrat from Georgia, with roots in both farming and nuclear physics, comfortable admitting his sins in both Sunday School and Playboy, and neither energized by or defensive about abortion or school prayer, Carter is as difficult to image today as the audience he addressed in 1979.
It is similarly difficult for us to imagine the Malaise Speech ever finding a positive reception. However, this is precisely what Mattson argues. Post-speech weekend polls gave Carter’s modest popularity rating a surprisingly respectable 11-point bump. Similarly, in a year when most of the president’s earlier speeches were ignored, the White House found itself flooded with phone calls and letters, almost universally positive. The national press was mixed and several prominent columnists praised the speech. This reaction to such an unconventional address, Mattson goes on to argue, suggests that the presidency can matter.
Workshop participants who attended later sessions heard Walter Russell Mead reference the ways presidents can be seen as either transformative or transactional. In many ways, the “malaise moment” could be viewed as a late term attempt by a transactional president to forge a transformational presidency. In the days leading up to the speech, Carter went into self-imposed exile, summoning spiritual advisors to his side, and encouraging administration-wide soul searching. Such an approach to leadership, admirable to some and an act of desperation to others, defies conventions and presents an odd image of presidential behavior (an idea elaborated on by conference presenter Wyatt Mason). “Malaise” was never mentioned in Carter’s speech. But his transformational aspirations are hard to miss.
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
It is this process—the intellectual act of interpreting Carter and his [in]famous speech as aberrant presidential behavior—that allows teachers and their students to explore together the larger question of defining the modern presidency. And it is precisely this purposeful use of a small number of primary sources that forces students to rethink, through writing and reflection, the parameters that shape how presidents relate to their electorate. In our workshop we saw how case studies, in-depth explorations of the particulars of history, precede productive debate on whether the presidency matters.
The forgotten Carter presidency can play a disproportionately impactful pedagogical role for teachers interested in exploring the modern presidency. As any high school teacher knows, students rarely bring an open interpretive lens to Clinton, Bush, or Obama. Ronald Reagan, as the first political memory for many of their parents, remains a polarizing a figure. However, few students or their parents hold strong politically consequential opinions about Carter. Most Americans, at best, continue to view him as a likable, honest, ethical man who is much more effective as an ex-president than he was as president.
Workshop participants learned that the initial support Carter received after the Malaise Speech faded quickly. Mattson and some members of the administration now argue that the President lacked a plan to follow up on the goodwill he received from a nation desiring leadership. Reading Ezra Klein, we also considered the possibility that, despite all the attention educators give to presidential speeches (as primary sources that quickly encapsulate presidential visions), there is little empirical evidence that any public address really makes much of a difference. In either case, Carter’s loss 16 months later suggests that his failures of leadership both transformational and transactional.
Did Carter’s speech matter? The teachers in the workshop concluded their participation by attempting to answer this question, working collaboratively to draft a brief historical account contextualizing the 1979 malaise moment. In doing so, we engaged in precisely the type of activity missing in too many secondary school classrooms today: interrogating sources, corroborating evidence, debating conflicting interpretations, paying close attention to language, and doing our best to examine our underlying assumptions about the human condition. These efforts produced some clarity, but also added complexity to our understanding of the past and led to many additional questions, both pedagogical and historical. In short, our writing and thinking during the Arendt Conference produced greater uncertainty. And that reality alone suggests that study of the presidency does indeed matter.
Stephen Mucher is assistant professor of history education in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College.
The workshop, Teaching the American Presidency, facilitated by Teresa Vilardi and Stephen Mucher, sponsored by the Institute for Writing and Thinking and Master of Arts in Teaching Program in collaboration with the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College was offered as part of the Center’s 2012 conference, “Does the President Matter? American Politics in an Age of Disrepair.”
The crisis must matter.
The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.
The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.
It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.
We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.
According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:
We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once. Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.
Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.
Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.
Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.
Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age. It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.
There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.
If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".
Books by some of our speakers at last week's "Does the President Matter?" conference.
“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”
—Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?
This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter? The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.
This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.
If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.
And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?
On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.
This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.
Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief. In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.
No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.
Every President comes to Washington promising reform! And they all fail. According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:
If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.
On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:
The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.
The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible. All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.
For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.
The question "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:
“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”
So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”
What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.
The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.
When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.
Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence." To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.
Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.
One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.
This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:
Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.
All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.
Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:
"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."
My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.
What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.
But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law. Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.
In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.
In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.
These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.
Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.
Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask: might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.
At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.
Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.
It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.
I don't know if the president matters.
But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.
In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you. If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.
Watch Roger's opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.
The winners for the Arendt Center's second annual thinking challenge have been chosen. The competition was fierce and we received a large number of high quality entries from multiple countries on multiple continents. But, these entries stood out to our judges:
Mamfatou Baldeh T.
Congratulations to our winners! Click here to read the winning submissions.
Asked in July if Occupy Wall Street has been successful, Todd Gitlin—renowned social historian, former President of Students for a Democratic Society, and author most recently of Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street—responds:
"OWS has been successful because we are talking about it. You now see bumper stickers that say 99%. I was just in upstate NY and I saw a candidate running for office with a sign that says: The candidate of the 99%. It is now legitimate to talk about inequality and the domination of American by a plutocracy, by an oligarchy of the super wealthy. No it is not successful in the sense that it has not delivered concrete results."
As the election has heated up OWS has faded even further from consciousness. At a time when we are about to pick our next leader, the leaderless rhetoric of OWS is out of step.
That said, Gitlin is right that many of the pressing issues underlying the OWS movement have insinuated themselves into public discourse. It is unlikely that without OWS President Obama would be focusing so clearly on raising taxes on those he calls the wealthy (by which he means those who earn over $250,000 per year). Indeed, if there is one core issue that seems to demarcate President Obama and Governor Romney it is the question of their differing attitudes towards wealth and taxes.
Gitlin, who is speaking next week at the Hannah Arendt Center’s conference “Does The President Matter?", is clear-headed about the movement's failures but remains optimistic about its future. Gitlin’s optimism, his hope for a movement that many other see as dead, is heartening. There may also, surprisingly, be a grain of truth in his rosy scenario.
Gitlin understands that the future of OWS is not in what it has been, but in what it has not yet imagined. After a lull in the movement, OWS, he writes, may well birth “individual initiatives combined with community spirit, assisted by technical ingenuity and the ability to learn from experience,” to shift the values that caused the crisis in the first place. If OWS is to bring about change, it will be because against its own anti-leadership rhetoric, it has and continues to produce new leaders.
"Leadership," Gitlin writes in Occupy Nation,
"is not abolished when movements don't designate spokespersons and leaders refuse the label, any more than prisons are abolished when they are designated as correctional facilities. In all social groups, leaders emerge. They emerge in the course of action when acts of leadership take place. Leaders prove themselves. Some are labeled leaders, some are not. Some accept the label, others reject it. Those who get the reputation for leadership get treated as leaders. It is as simple (and as complicated) as this: Leaders are persons whom others follow—admire, heed, recognize."
In imagining the fecundity of Occupy Wall Street's birthing of new leaders, Gitlin focuses on that aspect of OWS that was most surprising, new, and wonderful: Its determination to open up a space for being together, thinking, and talking in public. He quotes one OWS member as saying: "Something has been opened up, a kind of space nobody knew existed." There was, in the encampments, "a public place to go to, where attention could readily be paid, and individuals had faces and stories." Above all, Gitlin writes, the Occupiers were "creating a space where leaders and ideas could emerge."
In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:
"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries."
The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the presence or lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives.
What Gitlin's account of Occupy Nation makes palpable is that amidst all the excesses and competing narratives, there are still some people who aspire to be real revolutionaries. Whether that small group will produce leaders of revolutionary potential is, of course, something we cannot know. But at a time of political paralysis amidst the political, economic, and ecological crises of our time, any movement that might give birth to new leaders is something to be welcomed.
So this weekend as we prepare for next week's conference "Does the President Matter?" pick up Todd Gitlin's Occupy Nation. You can also here him speak at Bard College on Friday, Sept. 21. And you can have him sign your book then.
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)
I spoke with my daughter this morning. She is seven. I asked her what she thought of Mitt Romney's speech. She answered: "Both he and President Obama tell lies simply to get elected." Now I know she is to some extent parroting what she hears around our dinner table and the playground. But there is something deeply disheartening in her seven-year-old cynicism. There is a deep sense not only that our politicians lie, but also that the Presidency is a broken institution. That the President is captive of interests special and not-so-special. That the President is trapped in a bureaucracy impervious to change and that the President, whomever he or she may be, cannot really change the perilous course on which our nation is headed. This indeed is the topic of an upcoming conference, "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
There are myriad sources for this pessimism that one hears from seven-year-olds, college students, and adults. It is markedly different from the idealism that swept the country four years ago personified in Barack Obama. More so than any time I know of, there is a sense of total hopelessness; a feeling that neither party and no potential president can possibly change our course for the better.
To understand this ennui, one must take President Obama's failure seriously. That failure is simple. He became President amidst the perceived failure of the presidency of George W. Bush. The Country desperately wanted a change. At the same time, the financial crisis threatened to overwhelm the nation. The President offered hope. He embodied all of our dreams, offering a way forward, out of the excesses of the Bush era and towards a re-enlivening of basic American values of freedom and fairness. There was, in the President's own words, a demand for a "new era of responsibility."
The force of Mitt Romney's Convention speech on Thursday was his expression of disappointment in the President. This strikes me as a non-partisan statement and that is its strength. It is hard to find even the most stalwart of President Obama's supporters who will disagree with this assessment. Where does it come from? Why has Obama disappointed us?
One answer comes from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the leading thinkers of Presidential rhetoric of our time. Jamieson has given analyses of many of President Obama's speeches, and his found them deeply wanting. In her 2010 address to the American Political Science Association, she says:
In other words, Barack Obama was never as eloquent as we thought he was. A person matched a moment with rhetoric in a context in which the audience created something heard as eloquence. Widely labeled as eloquent, he creates expectations for his presidency that he cannot satisfy in the presidency barring that he is Abraham Lincoln with the Gettysburg Address or a Second Inaugural in his pocket.
So on the one hand, Obama set the expectations for himself too high. That may be, but it is also the case that he became President at a time of great crisis. Maybe it wasn't a Civil War, but the financial crisis does threaten the future of the United States. One fault of the President is that he has continued to describe the financial crisis as a temporary setback, one that will cause some pain but will pass. He has not taken the financial crisis seriously enough, and categorized it for what it is, a crisis. By refusing to do so, he has lost the opportunity to become a crisis President.
In a recent post, I discussed Roberto Magabeira Unger's insistence that we need a wartime President now without a war, one who rallies the nation to change and sacrifice towards a future goal. What Obama has refused to do is present his vision of where we should go. He speaks about change, but doesn't offer a sense of what that change might be. In Jamieson's analysis, he has failed to provide a rhetorical speech that offers us "a digestive sense of what this presidency is going to do."
A digestive statement for Jamieson is something like John F. Kennedy's question: "Ask not what your country can do for you..." As Jameison writes, such statements "sound as if they're sound bites until you realize that there's a definition underlying a presidency in those kinds of statements." Kennedy meant something with his question, something he backed up with the idea of the Peace Corps and public service.
The problem with President Obama's rhetoric, and thus his presidency, is that he has yet to find such a digestive statement that defines what he cares about and what he believes this country is about. As Jamieson writes, there is nothing like Kennedy's invocation of the Peace Corps or communal sacrifice that defines or articulates Obama's vision for America. There is no theme of "transformation of generational identity." She writes: "Indeed, I would challenge you to give me a phrase that is memorable at all, that defines who we are and where we're going under this presidency."
Jamieson's critique of the President is harsh. But I think it is accurate. That is the reason why Romney's claim of disappointment strikes me as powerful. Whether Romney offers an alternative is hard to know, since he himself seems to change his opinions and views weekly. That said, President Obama has his work cut out for him. He must show us that he can articulate a response to the disappointment people feel and provide the hope that he can still get the country back on track, even after three years of failing to do so.
The crises the President inherited are not his fault. It is disgusting to hear Paul Ryan and others blame the President for every problem in the United States. And despite Mitt Romney's impressive past history, his willingness to change his positions regularly and disavow past achievements raises serious questions about his own ability to lead. And yet, it is undeniable that after three years, the financial crisis is still with us and the political crisis is worse than ever. At some point, the President must take responsibility for his failure to address these crises and offer hope that he has a plan to address them in the future. That is the President's challenge during his convention speech next week. To somehow try to answer the criticism that after three years, we still don't know what it is that President Obama believes in and how he wants to respond to the financial and political crisis that he inherited.
In thinking about what the President will say on Thursday, I encourage everyone to read Jamieson's analysis of the past failure of Obama's rhetoric. It is your weekend read. And if you want to think further about the challenge of the president to lead in times of crisis, think about attending the Hannah Arendt Center's upcoming conference, "Does the President Matter?"
Beyond all the silliness attached to the Todd Akin case this week, the only meaningful comment came from Rachel Riederer. In an essay in Guernica, Riederer writes:
The content of [Akin's] statements was, of course, ridiculous and offensive. But the comments struck me most as a rhetorical move, one that’s in wide usage but rarely gets this kind of attention. When asked to defend a difficult and extreme position—his opposition to abortion in all cases, even rape—Akin chose not to explain the values and thoughts behind his position, but to push aside the question with a bogus fact.
The Hannah Arendt Center has been highlighting the ever-increasing tendency of politicians—not to mention academics and others—to replace argument with an attack on the facts. At last Fall's Conference on "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts," we began with the premise that:
We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.
In essays like "Truth and Politics" and "Lying and Politics," as well as in many of her books, Arendt argued that the modern era is particularly vulnerable to attacks on the facts. This is because we live at a time when people have lost the traditions and customs that are the pillars and foundations of their lives. Adrift, people seek certainties that give sense to their world. In such a situation of spiritual homelessness and rootlessness, it is easy to latch onto an ideology that gives clear and simple expressions of a communal truth. And when facts counteract that truth, it is easier to simply deny the fact than to rethink one's intellectual identity.
It is hard not to think about Arendt's analysis of the desire for ideological coherence at the expense of facts as we suffer through the 2012 presidential campaign. The patent lies on both sides feed ideologically driven "bases" that watch the same TV, listen to the same radio, read the same blogs, and live in the same fantasy worlds. Akin's remarks speak to the power of those worlds, but also to their vulnerability. There are limits to fiction in the real world, and that is important to remember as well.
One week ago this was the most important and yet the most boring election in history. No longer. Ryan's selection adds a jolt of seriousness and consequentialness to the next 90 days of electioneering. Or at least so we are told. Why?
Because Ryan has been, over the last year, one of the very few politicians in the United States who seems to really understand the magnitude of the crisis we are facing and who is willing to propose and support radical steps to address it. His proposed budget is draconian. It has some great ideas, including simplifying the tax code and getting rid of tax breaks like the Carried Interest provision. And yet, it is one-sided and highly partisan. Ryan calls for enormous cuts to the entitlements that will cause incredible suffering to the poor and middle classes, while providing large tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. If we are to suffer to repay our debts, as I think we must, we must all suffer together.
It is hard to imagine that Ryan's budget is what most Americans want or should want. And yet, Ryan's willingness to propose a deeply unpopular budget and argue eloquently and strongly for it is praiseworthy. At times, it seems as if Ryan is the only grown up in the room, the only politician who is willing to deal honestly with our predicaments.
The opinion that the election is now more meaningful and more serious is one that many share—on both the left and the right. On the right, Ryan's selection means that the election is a referendum on the crisis of big government. Glenn Reynolds writes in USA Today :
Romney's selection of Ryan shows that he understands the dire nature of the problem, and that he's serious about addressing it.
Paul Rahe argues that Romney's choice amounts to a clarion call for radical change:
In choosing Paul Ryan as his Vice-Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has opted to go for broke, and he has indicated that he is a serious man — less concerned with becoming President of the United States than with saving the country from the disaster in store for it if we not radically reverse course, willing to risk a loss for the sake of being able to win a mandate for reform.
And in the Wall St. Journal (which ran an Op-Ed calling upon Romney to select Ryan) Gerald Seib could hardly contain his excitement:
The Ryan pick wasn’t the safest one Mr. Romney could have made—not by a long shot. But as the author of the budget plan that most clearly delineates the view of limited government that most Republicans hold, and with more specificity and crystalline explanation than most can muster, Mr. Ryan best guarantees the country will get the kind of philosophical debate worthy of a presidential campaign.
On the left as well, there is a gleeful sense that Ryan's presence on the ticket will prove President Obama's claim that this is the most important election in ages. For Democrats, Ryan's extremism is a blessing, allowing them to paint Romney-Ryan as out-of-touch radicals who will undo a century of gains in middle class benefits while giving tax breaks to the very wealthiest Americans.
John Cassidy, at The New Yorker, writes that Ryan is a dream pick for Obama-Biden because it makes the election what Obama has said it is all along—a choice between Obama's moderation versus Romney and Ryan's radicalism:
In placing a lightning rod like Ryan on the ticket, Romney appears to have decided that the best form of defense is attack. For months, he and his campaign have been trying to turn the election exclusively into a referendum on Obama’s record. That strategy has now been abandoned. Ryan’s mere presence ensures that the election will be framed in the way that Team Obama has wanted all along: as a choice between the President’s moderate progressivism and the anti-government radicalism of today’s G.O.P.
John Nichols at The Nation agrees and argues that Ryan solidifies Romney's choice to run far to the right—so far as to be out of touch with the moderate electorate. This means, he writes, that team Obama can win big.
On every issue that you can imagine, from reproductive rights to environmental protection to labor rights, Ryan stands to the right. Way to the right. The Ryan selection moves the Grand Old Party harder to the right than at any time since 1964, when the true believers got a nominee, a platform and 39 percent of the vote. America’s more divided now. The Romney-Ryan ticket will run better than Goldwater and Bill Miller did forty-eight years ago, But by bending so far toward the base, Romney has given the Democrats an opportunity to dream not just of winning but of winning bigger than anyone dared imagine forty-eight weeks or even forty-eight days ago.
The new Ryan budget is a remarkable document — one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature. In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids. It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history). ... Even as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget would impose trillions of dollars in spending cuts, at least 62 percent of which would come from low-income programs, it would enact new tax cuts that would provide huge windfalls to households at the top of the income scale. New analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center finds that people earning more than $1 million a year would receive $265,000 apiece in new tax cuts, on average, on top of the $129,000 they would receive from the Ryan budget’s extension of President Bush’s tax cuts. The new tax cuts at the top would dwarf those for middle-income families. After-tax incomes would rise by 12.5 percent among millionaires, but just 1.8 percent for middle-income households. Low-income working families would actually be hit with tax increases.
For the left, Ryan moves Romney outside of the political mainstream and thus offers a stark contrast with the middle-of-the-road President. They agree with the right on the basic contrast. And yet each side believes the contrast works in their favor. This is because, of course, each side increasingly speaks only to itself and has so convinced itself that it is absolutely right that it cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with it.
A new received wisdom is emerging and the pundits on the left and right agree: Ryan's place in the election makes this a watershed election that will be a referendum on the future of the country. And even from a position outside partisan pugilism, Walter Russell Mead makes the point that the selection of Paul Ryan guarantees that this is an important election. In perhaps the most clear-headed and provocative essays on the Ryan selection I've read, Mead writes:
2012 looks like an election between two united parties who will both be enthusiastic and both be convinced that the fate of the nation hangs on the November result. That’s a good thing, on the whole, for the country. Whatever else can be said about our electoral politics, nobody can argue that they are inconsequential or that real issues have disappeared. This is a serious election about important affairs and the two sides will both be offering a coherent vision of American values that allows voters to make a clear choice.
There is something hopeful and true in this consensus that Ryan will up the seriousness of this race. I remain skeptical. Here is why.
We have to question the basic assumption that sharpening the question in the election will lead to a greater likelihood that the winning side will successfully carry out its agenda. This seems unlikely for the simple reason that the stark question being posed is furthering the partisan split in the country rather than seeking a middle ground. Rather than a sustained debate, we are just as likely to watch both sides dig themselves into ever-more-fortified trenches on opposing sides of the partisan front. What this means is the Ryan's selection is just as likely to increase the partisanship and vitriol in American politics as it is to elevate the tone of the election to being one about ideas and the future of the country. As the two sides become more polarized, the chances are diminished that either party will be able to actually make the kinds of radical changes that both think are necessary.
The reason for this is the basic institutional limitations that our constitutional system places on the power of the President. For all the talk in recent years about an "Imperial Presidency," the facts are largely otherwise. Outside of foreign policy, the president is largely constrained to make far-reaching policy changes. Large bureaucracies, a resilient and skeptical media, and now the fractured political world of competing ideological realities—each with their own newspapers, news shows, and blogs—means that it is increasingly difficult to imagine a President with the power to drive through a meaningful agenda.
Just consider, if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, they will be able to negotiate major concessions in or even block entirely any Republican efforts to roll back entitlements. And even if the Democrats lose the Senate, the power of the filibuster means that they will be able to block many of the more extreme Republican initiatives. The same dynamic goes the other way as we have seen. Republicans have been able to frustrate much of President Obama's domestic agenda, even when the President had large majorities in both houses of Congress. The demands for ideological purity on both sides rewards conviction politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, but it does not necessarily bode well for a serious and deliberative approach to our real political problems.
At the root of this difficulty is the fallacy of The Rhetorical Presidency. As Jeffrey Tulis argues, the most fundamental shift in American politics since the Founding has been the rise of a rhetorical presidency: The idea that the President should lead as a popular leader.
Tulis writes that from the Founders until the early 20th century, U.S. Presidents assiduously avoided trying to become popular leaders. As an institution, the Presidency was designed to resist the power of demagoguery and yet also to stand as a check on the power of Congress. The president himself engaged with Congress, but did not mobilize the people as a popular leader.
The role of the President changed with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson insisted that only a president could like a lightning rod call forth the will of the people "unconscious of its unity and purpose" and "call it into full consciousness." For Wilson, the President leads with simplicity. Wilson writes:
Mark the simplicity and directness of the arguments and ideas of [true leaders.] The motives which they urge are elemental; the morality which they seek to enforce is large and obvious; the policy they emphasize, purged of all subtlety.
If early American Presidents were forbidden to use direct appeals to the people, Wilson insists that modern 20th century presidents must do so. And as Tulis shows, Wilson's ideas underlie our modern idea of the president as a popular leader.
Tulis is not interested in defending or condemning the rhetorical presidency, but in exploring its possibilities and limitations. He makes an exceptional point that while 20th century presidents like Wilson and Lyndon Johnson regularly appeal to the people, "the same popular rhetoric that provided the clout for victory [e.g. in in Johnson's War on Poverty] substituted passionate appeal and argument by metaphor for deliberation." The rise of rhetorical presidency and the tools for popular leadership may at times be politically effective, but they clash with the institutional role of the President who must still work with Congress. The President's popular leadership translates poorly into legislative deliberation and thus often yields less of a change or less good change than was sought. One can see this exemplified in President Obama's attempt to mobilize his enormous popular mandate to reform healthcare.
While the modern rhetorical President can enlist the people to pressure the legislature, there are limits and consequences to these pressures. Congress can resist the power of the presidency, as the recent abuse of the filibuster shows. What is more, the increase in speeches and popular appeals constitutes, in Tulis' prophetic words,
a decay of political discourse. It replaces discussion structured by contestability of opinion inherent to issues with a competition to please or manipulate the public. ... The rhetorical presidency enhances the tendency to define issues in terms of the needs of persuasion rather than to develop a discourse suitable for the illumination and exploration of real issues—that is, problems that do not depend upon the certification of a public opinion poll to be recognized as needful of examination. It is increasingly the case that presidential speeches themselves have become the issues and events of modern politics rather than the medium through which issues and events are discussed and assessed. Subsequent speeches by presidents and other politicians often continue to elaborate the fictive world created in the initial address, making that world, unfortunately, a constitutive feature of "real" national politics.
What Tulis forces us to confront is the possibility that the very kind of rhetorical leadership that makes Barack Obama and Paul Ryan such compelling politicians leads to a transformation of politics in which passions and fictive worlds replace the sober discussion of policy. As appealing and promising as such rhetorical leadership appears, it too frequently spends its power on populist slogans that translate poorly into real legislative transformation.
There is a strange disconnect between the rise of a rhetorical presidency and the common sense of an increasingly cynical public that thinks the choice of president seems to move the needle very little. While the papers and blogs are filled with assurances that now the election is serious (a necessary belief to sell papers and drive traffic), the people don't always agree.
At a time of mediated and fragmented politics, the promise of bold political leadership is ever less likely. Given the apparent abdication of leadership throughout our politics, we must ask: Does the President Matter? This seems an absurd question as we confront what is imagined to be such a consequential election. And yet, as the country is about to elect a President, it is a pressing question.
Precisely because it is an open question whether the President can translate his popular appeal into political leadership, the Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is sponsoring its Fifth Annual Conference and asking: Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair. The conference features Jeffrey Tulis and Walter Russell Mead amongst other speakers, including Rick Falkvinge (founder of the Swedish Pirate Party), Ralph Nader and Bernard Kouchner (Founder of Doctors without Borders and Foreign Minister of France under Nicolas Sarkozy). Paul Ryan is undeniably serious and he is raising important questions about the future of the country. But there is a question of whether our political system in the 21st century is still capable of presidential leadership.
Registration for the fifth annual Hannah Arendt Center fall conference is now open.
The conference, "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair" will be taking place at Bard College on September 21-22, 2012. While it is free to attend the conference, registration is required. Click here to register.
Click here to learn more about the Conference.
Does the President Matter? Consider this quotation from Jurek Martin in today's Financial times:
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may speak, sometimes even to real audiences but more often to fat cat fundraisers, but their words fall on deaf ears if not empty wallets. Lots of people speak for them, in the strange languages known to advertising and political consultants, but what they say is ephemeral and leaves, beyond the daily news fix, “not a wrack behind”, as Shakespeare put it. Yet they are fueled by piles of money, which means they speak more and more – to lesser and lesser effect.
Lawrence Lessig is of course right to worry about the corrupting influence of money on our elections. But the greatest effect of all this money is the drowning out of meaningful speech in a throbbing sea of money-driven sound bites, consultant-approved platitudes, and poll-tested attacks. Everyone must stay on message, which means that no one says or does anything. In such a system, how can the President matter or make a difference in the world?
If you have an answer, enter our 2012 Thinking Challenge by answering the question: "How might the President Matter in the 21st Century?"
Learn more here.
Is the economy like a garden that must be well tended by human hands? Or is it machine that, once turned on, runs mercilessly by itself? This is a question Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer ask in their NY Times Op-Ed piece, " The Machine and the Garden."
Liu will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center Fall Conference "Does the President Matter?" on September 21-22. He is the founder and CEO of Guiding Lights, a network of citizens working to create new ways to restore community, compassion, and active citizenship in our world. He is also a former speech writer and domestic policy analyst for President Bill Clinton. Along with Hannauer, Liu recently published The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy and the Role of Government.
In the NY Times today, Liu and Hannauer write:
In this new framework, which we call Gardenbrain, markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off. Where Machinebrain treats radical inequality as purely the predictable result of unequally distributed talent and work ethic, Gardenbrain reveals it as equally the self-reinforcing and compounding result of unequally distributed opportunity.
The Hannah Arendt Center's Fifth Annual Fall Conference will take place on September 21-22, 2012 at Olin Hall at Bard College. A mere five weeks before the upcoming presidential election, the topic could not be any more timely:
DOES THE PRESIDENT MATTER?
A CONFERENCE ON THE AMERICAN AGE OF POLITICAL DISREPAIR
Click here to learn about the keynote speakers and attendees.
The atmosphere around the Hannah Arendt Center this week has been jovial yet intense. Ten Arendt scholars have gathered to read closely Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, loosely translated as her "Book of Thoughts." We meet every day for two sessions, each 150 minutes, with no breaks.
One participant leads a discussion about a selection of the book. The sessions have been riveting. The plan is to bring out a book that collects essays based on these presentations. It will be called Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch. We hope it will appear around the time that the English translation of Arendt's Denktagebuch is published.
The Denktagebuch is a "unique artifact," as one participant put it during our opening dinner. It is comprised of two, thick, beautifully rendered, hardcover volumes that together contain over 1,200 pages. It is not really a book, but is comprised of individual entries that Arendt wrote down in 28 notebooks over 23 years from 1950-1973. The entries are chronologically arranged (except for a thematically organized final book containing Arendt's notes on Immanuel Kant's thinking about judgment). The whole, masterfully edited by Ursula Ludz and Ingeborg Nordmann, contains extensive scholarly apparatus at the back.
One question we have asked is how to read the Denktagebuch. Some participants have chosen a particular chronological period and sought relationships and associations amongst Arendt's entries. Others identified recurring themes that Arendt returns to over the years, such as the relation between truth and metaphor, Kant's theory of judgment, and the connection between action and thinking. A few of our sessions have used the Denktagebuch to elucidate passages from Arendt's published work—this is especially fruitful since a full 500 pages of the Denktagebuch reflect entries from 1950-1954, the time when Arendt was at work on The Human Condition. Some excavated ideas are largely absent from the published work but vividly present in the Denktagebuch—for example love, reconciliation, and grammar. Finally, we have tried reading the Denktagebuch as a proper book, namely as a book of short aphorisms or poems, each standing on its own and yet fitting into the totality that is Arendt's thinking.
The origin of the Denktagebuch is interesting in itself. Arendt traveled to Germany in the winter of 1949-50 as the director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her mission was to search for Jewish ceremonial objects and, mainly, for Jewish books. The Commission recovered 1.5 million Jewish books under Arendt's leadership, part of what Leon Wieseltier calls "a campaign for the re-capture of a people’s dignity." During her visit, Arendt wrote "The Aftermath of Nazi-Rule. Report from Germany,“ which was published in Commentary. Also while in Germany, Arendt visited her old teacher, mentor, and lover, Martin Heidegger.
We know from Arendt's correspondence with Heidegger that they spoke at length about language, revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Heidegger had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and served for about one year as Rector of Freiburg University. He abandoned many of his Jewish friends and colleagues and promoted a philosophical version of Nazism before he resigned in 1934. The Heidegger case is complicated and controversial. Heidegger was a Nazi, but what kind of Nazi he was is not a simple question; there is no better account of the complexity of Heidegger's Nazism than Tracy Strong's powerful and nuanced retelling of the affair in his recent book Politics Without Vision.
In the 1940's Arendt was deeply critical of Heidegger. Her visit in 1950 provided an opportunity to think through her proper response to his activities. Shortly after her return to New York City in March1950, Arendt received a letter from Heidegger (along with some love poems) that read, in part:
I am happy for you that you are surrounded by your books again. The line with “the burden of the logs” is in “Ripe and dipped in Fire”—around the same time you probably wrote it [presumably a lost letter—RB], I had been thinking about the burden of logs.
The reference is to a poem “Reif Sind” by Friedrich Hölderlin. The poem is about memory, the past, and the question of whether to recall the past or to live in the present. One of the poem's central images is of the burden of logs that one carries on one's shoulders.
Shortly after Arendt receives Heidegger's letter, she begins her Denktagebuch, with the opening line:
The wrong that one has done is the burden on one’s shoulders, something that one bears because he has laden it upon himself.
That Arendt would initiate her book of thoughts with a meditation on the burden of past wrongs is not surprising. After all, she had recently finished the manuscript for The Origins of Totalitarianism—originally entitled The Burden of Our Times—which explored not simply the elements of totalitarianism, but more importantly the burden that such a past, a recent past, places on people in the present day: to comprehend and come to terms with what men had done as well as to acknowledge what any of us is capable of doing again. And, of course, she had just returned from a reunion with her past in Germany and Heidegger. The past is this burden that we bear on our shoulders, and Arendt begins her Denktagebuch with a reflection that is at once personal and yet also deeply abstract and universal.
The question of how to respond to the burden of wrongful deeds is woven through Arendt's writing. What is fascinating is that in the first pages of the Denktagebuch and then throughout the 1,200 pages, Arendt continues to think about the response to wrongs as a kind of reconciliation. This is surprising because reconciliation is not an idea prevalent in much of Arendt's published work.
In an article published last year, I explore the meaning and sense of reconciliation in Arendt's thinking. In it, I argue,
By focusing on Arendt's discussion of acts of reconciliation and also of non-reconciliation—her response to her reunion with Martin Heidegger in 1950, her judgment of the impossibility of reconciling oneself to Adolf Eichmann, her account of Jesus' forgiving and not-forgiving of petty and colossal crimes in the Gospel of Luke, and her reconciliation to life after the death of her husband, Heinrich Blücher—I show how Arendt places the judgment for or against reconciliation at the center of political action. Above all, I argue that the question—"Ought I to reconcile myself to the world?"—is, for Arendt, the pressing political question in our age.
There are not many articles published on the Denktagebuch in English. My article, focusing on the first seven pages of Arendt's notebooks, offers a glimpse into one way the Denktagebuch can help expand and enrich our reading of Arendt. You'll have to wait a bit for the book Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch, but for now you can read "Bearing Logs on Our Shoulders: Reconciliation, Non-Reconciliation, and the Building of a Common World."
You can also read this account of the Denktagebuch by Sigrid Weigel, at Telos (payment required).
You can also watch a video of Ursula Ludz discussing editing Arendt's work here, from a talk she gave in 2010 at the Hannah Arendt Center.
This is an exciting week at the Hannah Arendt Center. We are in the middle of the first annual Arendt Center Working Group Conference. The gathering was conceived to bring together humanities scholars from around the world to read, discuss, and think about one particular book in detail. This year's volume is the recently published Denktagebuch (or "book of thoughts") by Hannah Arendt.
Our illustrious participants for this conference are:
Ursula Ludz - Ludz is one of the editors of Denktagebuch as well as the sole editor of Letters: 1925-1975 by Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. She also compiled the penetrating paperback Ich Will Verstehen (I will Understand), which contains a collection of autobiographical statements by Hannah Arendt and a complete bibliography of her works. Additionally, she is a member of the editorial staff of the internet journal Hannaharendt.net.
Roger Berkowitz - Berkowitz is the Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center and an Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College. He is the author of The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, and the editor and a contributor of Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics.
Jeffrey Champlin - Champlin was a 2011-2012 fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center with a Ph.D. in German from NYU. He taught at Bard this past year and will be teaching in Palestine in the fall as part of the Bard/ Al Quds Partnership.
Thomas Wild - Wild, a pre-eminant Hannah Arendt scholar from Germany will be joining the Bard faculty teaching German this fall. He will also be a Research Associate at the Hannah Arendt Center. He has published several books on Arendt including an "intellectual biography" of Hannah Arendt, and a monograph on Hannah Arendt's relationships with key postwar German writers.
Tracy Strong - Strong is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UC San Diego with a Ph.D from Harvard University.He is the author of numerous books including Politics Without Vision: thinking without a Banister in the Twentieth Century, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Politics of the Ordinary.
Anne O'Byrne - O'Byrne is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Stony Brook University. Her field of research is 20th century and contemporary European philosophy. In her articles she investigates the political and ontological questions that arise around embodiment, labor, gender, and pedagogy using the work of authors such as Heidegger, Arendt, Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean Baudrillard and Julia Kristeva.
Wout Cornelissen - Cornelissen is an Assistant Professor of Political Philosophy at VU University Amsterdam. His Dissertation project is ‘Conceptions of the Political in the Work of Karl Popper, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt.’
Patchen Markell - Markell is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and writes and teaches about Hannah Arendt as well as on figures such as Hegel, Marx, and Aristotle. His first book, Bound by Recognition was published in 2003. He is currently at work on a book-length study of Arendt's The Human Condition.
Christina Tarnopolsky - Tarnopolsky is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at McGill University in Quebec. Her research interests include Classical Political Philosophy; Contemporary Social Theory; Emotions and Politics; Aesthetics and Politics. Her book, Prudes, Perverts and Tyrants: Plato’s Gorgias and the Politics of Shame was published in 2010.
Ian Storey - Storey will be a Junior Teaching Fellow at the Arendt Center for 2012-2013. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago where he has been teaching since 2009. His article, "Kant’s Dilemma and the Double Life of Citizenship” will be published shortly.
We held a welcome dinner in the attendees honor at an Suminski Innski on the Hudson River in Tivoli.
The Hannah Arendt Center is co-sponsoring a day long conference on Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Entitled "Cuba: Today and Tomorrow", the conference will explore the state of the individual in the landscape of Cuba and its diaspora. From music to film to dance to panels, the conference promises to be illuminating and interesting with something to appeal to everyone.
View details and the day's schedule here.
This week, Greg Smith announced his resignation as an executive from Goldman Sachs in a highly publicized Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, aptly titled “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs.” The letter describes a transformation in the “culture” of the giant investment firm that has gone from a business with integrity to one which is now “as toxic and destructive” as Smith has ever seen it during his twelve year tenure. “To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money.”
Such behavior being tied to a Wall Street firm is not exactly surprising. And in Goldman's case, one wonders where Mr. Smith has been. In the last few years, a number of Goldman's clients have sued the bank, including ACA Financial Guaranty, Basis Capital, an Australian hedge fund, and ABP, a Dutch pension fund. Each argues that Goldman materially harmed them by selling them bad products. And Goldman already paid out $500 Million dollars to settle the Abacus case, in which Goldman was accused of illegally profiting by deceptively selling worthless paper to its customers.
There is a sense in which one looks at Mr. Smith's holier than thou revelation that Goldman was not the noble corporation he once thought it was and asks: really? Haven't you read anything Michael Lewis has written over the last 10 years? Not to mention Matt Taibi—the author of a take down of the mythic Goldman Sachs culture that was published two years ago.
Smith derides his former employer for focusing on profit above the well-being of the client. He puts this is stark business terms. He writes:
It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.
What Smith takes as a simple truth, is anything but. Trust is in short supply, and yet people work with Goldman and others because they believe that Goldman will make them money. As long as they think that Goldman will make them money, they don't really care that Goldman will make more money or that Goldman is looking out for itself. Clients continue to flock to Goldman because making money is what everyone cares about, not trust. One client of Goldman Sachs was even quoted as calling Smith “naïve” for believing that the business he is in was ever about anything but profit.
Frank Portnoy, writing in the Financial Times, argues that what is really at stake here is the definition of a client. Goldman is now a huge public firm with a few big clients it serves as advisors, and then thousands if not millions of smaller clients who simply buy its products. Goldman needs to have the trust of its major clients, but not is smaller ones. Just as Coca-Cola has an obligation to make sure that what it is selling is actually Coca-Cola, Goldman has a responsibility to sell you what it tells you it is selling you. But neither Coca-Cola nor Goldman are obligated to tell you that their products aren't healthy for your body or your wallet.
The Goldman myth is just that, at least today. After Goldman went public it transformed from a small investment bank with $1.4 billion in investments in 1998 to a huge corporation with investments of $13.96 billion in 2008, using a leverage ration of 26 percent. Does anyone really think that such a company is not driven by the bottom line?
Reconciling ourselves to reality—telling ourselves the truth—is one of the first demands of ethical life.
One such truth is that business today is very different than it used to be. One needs to confront and comprehend such a truth, especially if you want to resist it. And that is the problem with too many of the responses to Greg Smith's letter.
Yes, Smith seems naive and snarky. And why did he give us his resume at the end of his letter? He clearly has some issues. But the basic point he raises—that business should be conducted with some basic ethical standards beyond that of minimally following the letter of the law—is one worth discussing. There are some clients who want to work with bankers that treat them both kindly and respectfully, and they should know to avoid swimming with the sharks. And there is a real question whether pension funds and other institutions are sophisticated enough to swim in the waters with the likes of Goldman. And finally there is the worry that so many of our brightest young people want to work for firms at which the unmitigated search for profit—restrained only by the letter of the law—is the cultural demand. We need more discussions of such questions. So, as distasteful as I found Smith's letter, I must admit I am happy he published it.
A better airing of many of these same issues happened at the Hannah Arendt Center's 2009 Conference, The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis. A number of our panelists touched precisely on this question of the cultural change in business and Wall Street in particular. The book of essays based on that conference will be published this year.
In the book is included an interview with Vincent Mai, at the time the Chairman and Partner of AEA Investors. In this interview, Mai offers an insiders' perspective on the cultural changes that the financial world has undergone. With more eloquence and also more awareness than Greg Smith, Mai offers an account of an inverted world, one in which trust, reputation, and respect have been replaced by a whole new set of values.
I don’t mean that everybody was a saint and today they’re all sinners. Far from it. But there was a set of ground rules that governed the way you did business which imposed a discipline which was central to the way Wall Street worked. It was the same in all the firms. And I’ve watched with a combination of fascination and horror at the way the world has changed, turned upside down.
Mai's story of the way the world of Wall St. has been turned upside down is fascinating reading, and worth more of your time than another 10 commentaries on Greg Smith. The book with Mai's interview won't be out for a few months still, but for now you can read it here. I recommend you do so for your weekend read.
It is with heavy hearts that we learned of the passing of Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens, 62, had been battling esophageal cancer for the past year and a half.
The opinionated, iconoclastic, masterful writer continued working until the end, penning
poignant and candid essays chronicling his illness.
We raise our glass to you, Christopher. You will be missed.
Click here to read a touching tribute to Christopher, written by his brother, Peter Hitchens.
Click here to visit Vanity Fair's Memorial page erected in Hitchens' honor.
We are thrilled to announce that the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College has been awarded a prestigious NEH Challenge grant of $425,000. The grant, which requires recipients to match funds on a three-to-one basis, will help raise a $1.7 million endowment for the Center over the next four years. This grant, in conjunction with a Bard College matching grant, will ensure that the Hannah Arendt Center will receive $2.50 for each dollar that we raise.
NEH, the National Endowment for the Humanities, supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. The Hannah Arendt Center received the highest grant amount given and was competing with institutions of the highest caliber across the United States.
The grant and its matching funds will help to support the Hannah Arendt Center Fellows Program, help establish an annual First-Year Seminar Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Lectureship in the Humanities, support annual Arendt Center Working Groups in the Humanities, and initiate the NEH-Arendt Center Speaker Series at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.
Additionally, the funding will help the Center to continue sponsoring its annual conference, numerous lectures and lunchtime talks. The Center will continue to expand the understanding and appreciation of Hannah Arendt's humanistic approach to thinking through content created by scholars and individuals around the world that are shared through published volumes, a media archive, a robust blog and website.
Click here for more information.
Click here to help us meet our goal by becoming a member of the Hannah Arendt Center.
Victor Granado is an Arendt Center Fellow, visiting from Spain.
In his introductory lecture at this year’s Arendt Center conference, “Democracy: Truthtelling in An Age Without Facts,” Roger Berkowitz reminded us that in present day, facts have been relegated to mere opinion. There has been a dissolution of the facts, in other words, a transformation of the factual truth into mere doxa; judgment versus opinion. This change illustrates the confrontation between judgments based on facts, which offer us definitive knowledge, versus unfounded opinion, which undermines the basis of this knowledge and prevents the possibility of a rational debate.
“The loss of the truth amounts to the loss of the world,” Berkowitz stated, reminding us of one of Arendt’s most crucial notions. “Truth” in this case refers to the world of events shared with other people, about which it is possible to speak, and in which it is possible to act. Thus when there is nothing to share, that commonality disappears. This seems to be our situation today, which Berkowitz summarized by noting, “dissensus is the norm and the consensus is the exception.” Perhaps most worrisome is that without the shared understanding of facts, there is no possibility of real political discourse.
Today, nobody can say or show the truth, because the truth can only be told. After the period of positivism, in which the facts were considered definite, it is no longer possible to believe that they are objective, independent and real. Facts have a social and historical context, and while many may argue that they come to be socially and historically constructed, it doesn’t mean that they in turn, do not reflect the reality of the given world.
Facts and pictures about reality may have more than one single meaning. It is possible to approach them and try to understand them from various and different perspectives. They are no longer one-dimensional but a discourse, a tale about reality. This does not eliminate the truth of facts, but it is important to bear in mind that the fictional dimension of facts is not a rejection of the truth, but rather can provide another foundation for the rational truth. What does it mean that something is true? Today, truth—the historical, political or scientific truth—means the majority of people hold it as common. Consensus plays a capital role in the actual meaning of truth.
We need to tell the truth because in this capacity, truth is narrative—truthtelling means storytelling. We can understand this process with the help of Max Weber. As we have learned, when there is no explanation of reality, the need arises for some kind of sense to be made of events. In that case we can say that the truth is a method of explanation: of accurately describing and illuminating the story that we tell of reality. The question of how to narrate the truth is the question of how to find a way to make sense of the facts. As Hannah Arendt said:
“Who says what is…always tells a story, and in this story the particular facts lose their contingency and acquire some humanly comprehensible meaning.”
At a time in which ‘being true’ means that the majority believe that such a thing occurred, it is more important to tell the truth than to say something ‘right.’
It is only then that thinking about the truth leaves the area of theories of knowledge and instead leans toward ethics. Rather than concentrating on science and correct judgments, the most important thing is to be honest and to say what you hold as true. Therefore, telling a story about reality requires one to be sincere and brave. Or as Wolfgang Heuer said in his speech:
“Truth-telling can be unpleasant when it contradicts the opinion of the majority. Telling the truth can easily lead to a minority position and expose the truth-teller to the pressure of the majority. It takes courage to resist the strain.”
Today telling the truth means telling a story. Offering a story that accurately reflects reality requires both honesty and courage.
Today marks the four month anniversary of the terrorist attack on Norway by one of its own, Anders Behring Breivik. Solveig Botnen Eide, an Arendt Center Fellow visiting from Norway reflects on the uncomfortable reality of truthtelling when terror strikes too close to home.
As a native of Norway, my attention was piqued when I heard Jonathan Kay’s talk at the recent Hannah Arendt Center Conference:, “Truthtelling in An Age Without Facts”. Kay began by referencing this summer’s terror attack in my home country to illustrate how conspiracy theories can evolve from unfathomable events. While I want to weigh in on Kay’s thoughts, my interest is not in the conspiracy theories themselves. I would rather reflect, on the confused sense of reality surrounding the event, the opinions that encouraged the wrongdoing, and the challenge Norway faces in acknowledging the roots of these opinions.
In brief the Norwegian terrorist has, through his 1500 page self-published manifesto, given us an insight into the conspiracies and thoughts that led him to carry out the attack. The terrorist’s worst fear is Europe being taken over by Muslims – a threat he feels that is all too real and must be battled, whatever the cost. Subsequently, he also feels the need to protect Europe as a Christian continent. Those to blame for this present threat, in his estimation, are the government and youth, whose continued indifference would lead to an almost ensured de-evolution of Norwegian purity and thus a Muslim takeover This is how he justified and explained bombing a government building and shooting 68 young people at the Labour Party summer camp on July 22nd, 2011.
The acts and mindset of the terrorist were driven by opinions with no basis in fact. However, these opinions still had the power to create a perceived, though illusionary reality. Words and meanings become dangerous when they serve to invent one’s universe and become ‘truths’ that must be substantiated whatever the price. Even though these opinions do not reflect the world as it is, websites, blogs and at times public debate, show that the roots of these opinions go deeper than the manifesto of the terrorist. Messages of hatred towards Muslims, politicians who are accused of naivety towards the “threat of Muslims”, and the fear of the de-christening of Europe are not products of just one man’s mind. The terrorist was a lone wolf in allowing his thoughts to flourish into violent action, but he is not alone in his mindset.
He and those who share his beliefs are essentially basing truth on opinions and not facts. According to Hannah Arendt, it is risky when facts become opinions and opinions become facts. The risks have many dimensions, as the case in Norway demonstrates. The image of reality is twisted and facts are left unchallenged without being subject to critical thought and debate. Yet the twisted image of reality has roots in Norwegian popular belief as it draws arguments and attitudes from the extreme right of both politics and religion. This is itself a fact that is hard to acknowledge. It would no doubt be easier if the terrorist had been a stranger and not one of Norway’s own. Yet we can only escape this fact by excluding him from the community of humanity, and declaring him a monster. That he represents opinions with roots in our community seems harder to accept.
How could this terrible event happen? In her essay “Home to Roost” (1975), Arendt considers such questions when they are raised after shocking and unbelievable events. The challenge is not to let it become an obscuring exercise that causes us to hide and allows us to forget the stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are. Arendt finishes her essay with a challenge –a demanding one in light of the 22nd of July: “When the facts come home to roost, let us try at least to make them welcome.”
Arendt Center Associate Fellow, Jennie Han, gives us an interesting look at the talk by Idith Zertal at the recent Arendt Center Conference. She examines how one's personal identity can sometimes interfere with our search for the truth.
I suspect that for those of us who made it to the end of the Arendt Center’s conference this past weekend, the final panel with Idith Zertal and her discussant, Norman Manea, stands out more as a heated debated about the character of Israel’s occupation and the Palestinian threat than an engagement with the theme of truthtelling. I want to put this discussion aside, however, and talk about what I took to be Professor Zertal’s main point about the nature of truthtelling. Underlying the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestine question was, I think, a strong statement about what is required of us if we are to engage with one another as seekers of truth.
One might see Professors Zertal and Manea as speakers of two different “truths,” one of which is the Palestinian experience under Israeli occupation and the other, the Israeli experience of living with a terrorist threat.
As rational and fair as this opposition might seem, it does a grave injustice to the idea of truth and what it is to express a truth. Professor Zertal’s critique of the Israeli government’s use of the Holocaust as a symbol made powerfully clear that regardless of whatever a truth might be, it cannot be a personal identity. To justify, as the Israeli government does, the military occupation of the West Bank by an appeal to Israel’s identity as a nation born out of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, or to assert the authority of one’s opinion, as Norman Manea did, by invoking one’s identity as a survivor of the genocide does not tell any particular truth. Instead, it silences the truth and precludes the kind of thinking about one’s own position and ideas alongside those of others that is necessary for sound judgment and productive discussion.
Arendt locates judgment in the capacity of individuals to “think with an enlarged mentality,” which requires that one “trains one’s imagination to go visiting” (Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, edited by Ronald Beiner, p. 43). Interpreters of Arendt usually emphasize the intersubjectivity of Arendt’s understanding of judgment, which defines the faculty by its capacity to transcend the individual thinker’s own specialized knowledge or ability to think. This aspect of judgment is undoubtedly crucial, and it allows Arendt to locate in the individual and his capacity for thought a faculty for public mindedness and worldly concern. In other words, in judgment, the world becomes a part of our individual selves and we, as distinct, thinking individuals, become a part of the world.
But what is taken for granted in this focus on the intersubjectivity of judgment is that individuals possess a mentality that is open to others’ visits in the first place. To experience the enlarged mentality that judgment demands, there must be minds out there that one can actually visit. Professor Zertal’s talk was not as an exhortation to the audience to feel the depth of the suffering of the Palestinian people or to confront the absurdity of the Israeli government’s perpetuation of a people’s suffering in the name of the past sufferings of its own people. It was, at the most basic level, a warning of the dangers, political and personal, that arise when we become so colonized by a particular identity that we are no longer able to imagine ourselves as having any feelings, interests, or desires beyond those dictated by this identity. An identity that is defined by a historical event necessarily excludes the particular: under the vastness and unspeakable catastrophe of the Holocaust, the individuals who died and suffered are transformed into mere instances of a grand event. And when one occupies an identity, one is not open to the visits of others, for one is little more than a representative of an external event that is, at this point, defined as much by those who would manipulate its meaning for political gain as it is by the historical fact of the event itself.
The political dangers of seeing a past catastrophe as an incontrovertible source of authority and accepting appeals to this past as tantamount to a divine authorization to act are tragically evident in the continued expansion of Jewish settlements and the continued occupation of the West Bank. The personal dangers were evident in phenomenon much closer to home: the absence of any real engagement and debate between Professor Zertal and her discussant and her audience, despite her best efforts to have such a debate. Neither the audience nor Professor Manea could step outside of his identity as a supporter of the Israeli military or as a supporter of the Israeli state’s stance on the Holocaust to see Zertal’s critique of the Israeli state as just that—a critique of the Israeli state and not a personal attack on Norman Manea or any audience member. When one understands oneself as an identity, one reduces oneself to a collection of ideas and concepts that have been created outside oneself, and there would be as much reason to visit this mind as there would be to travel abroad if every country in the world were identical in every way.
I think that the point of Professor Zertal’s talk was that in occupying the identity of the particular sort of Israeli Jew that the government wants one to be—one who accepts the unconditional authority of any and all appeals to the Holocaust—one loses oneself as a particular source of ideas and thoughts and effaces oneself as a particular place that others might visit, get to know, and debate and disagree with. Honoring the Holocaust does not mean that one must accept as legitimate whatever action is taken in its name. This is, Zertal points out, to dishonor the individuals in whose lost lives the Holocaust is much more than an abstract event or symbol.
Unfortunately, the wisdom of Idith Zertal’s message that we must imagine ourselves and others as more than mere instances of symbols or historical facts if we are to have any real political, philosophical, or personal discussion was made most clear by way of a negative example of a persistent refusal to see her as embodying anything more than an opposing side. It is possible that Professor Zertal herself helped to create the problem by focusing so much of her talk on a critique not of Israel’s appropriation of the Holocaust as a political symbol, but of Israel’s policies in the West Bank. While her main point was that Israel undertakes these policies in the name of the past, it was at times difficult to see past her particular political position and the strong emotions and political commitments it predictably incites. To the extent that Professor Zertal wants her audience to recognize the problems that arise from the politicization of particular experiences, lives, and positions, and views, even the appearance of aligning herself with a partisan position in this debate could undermine her project. And the audience and Professor Manea’s singular focus on her political views to the exclusion of any discussion of her fundamental critique might in fact be evidence of how Zertal might have undermined herself .
But if we are to take her principal message to heart and acknowledge Professor Zertal as presenting herself as one place that we might productively go visiting, we might come to a better understanding of how at least to think about and engage with others with respect to the question of Palestine and Israel. At her best moments, Professor Zertal embodied what it could mean to tell the truth in an age without any particular truths or facts to tell: she made herself and her thoughts and opinions available to others to visit. She did not hide behind the truth of statistics or figures, relying on their coercive power to do the talking for her. Such facts are undoubtedly important, but because of their supreme importance, I am not sure how significant the bearer of these facts is in relation to them. When we cannot rely on such facts, when there is little more than our own opinions, principles, interpretations, and judgment, we can only invite others to come visit and visit others’ opinions and principles in turn. What we take from the trip and what judgment we ultimately make of another’s mental home need not be one of agreement or approval. But without making the trip, each of us would remain each his own world and identity, unable to speak to or hear anyone else.
A week after the Arendt Center's fourth annual conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts", Arendt Center Visiting Fellow, Kieran Bonner, reflects on the lecture given by Professor Peg Birmingham.
Professor Peg Birmingham says that to fully understand Arendt’s relation to facts we must remember her distinction between moral action and political action. For Arendt, moral action is concerned with the dialogue between me and myself, and sets as its criteria for action, whether actors can live with themselves. Political action, on the other hand, is concerned with actors’ relation to the world. Political action happens between humans while moral action is a concern primarily within the human, though, as she described it in “Truth and Politics”, sometimes moral action becomes political action.
Her case for this is Socrates refusal to escape from prison and therefore to die for the truth of his position. In the Human Condition, Arendt talks about the relation between the public realm and action. “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.” Political action is fundamentally about public admiration, immortality and glory and the loss of these as authentic concerns points to the loss of the public realm. This loss of the public realm is interrelated with a decline in common sense and, in turn, the sense of worldly reality. “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.” It is precisely this loss that is a consequence of world alienation, an alienation that the rise of the natural and social sciences have contributed to significantly.
As Peg noted, this means that while Arendt was very much concerned with facts, and the need for action to have a public realm bounded by law and history, her notion of fact was ‘neither forensic nor positivistic.’ Two questions emerge for me: What was the status of many of the presentations on the first day of the conference where factual truth was presented as a result of a forensic exercise. I am thinking in particular of Oreskes and Kay’s presentations, in particular. Second, what is ‘factual truth’ for Arendt, if it is neither forensic nor positivistic? Perhaps it is better to explore the second issue first.
Arendt’s concern with truth telling and facts, while implicit in much of her early work, became an explicit concern after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Sam Tanenhaus disputed her claim of doing ‘reportage’ in the ordinary way that is understood by journalists. She does not, as he claims, give us a living sense of what the atmosphere of the court was like. As well, few if any would claim that her presentation was neutral and detached in the way many reports are presented. Does this modify her insistence that it is a ‘report’?
As Jerome Kohn remarked in his presentation, the term banality of evil is only mentioned once at the end of the book. Despite all the historical and statistical facts that she presents in this book, might the phenomenon of Eichmann’s actions and defense point to what she means by ‘factual truth’? The reality of the fact of Eichmann’s actions is both the monstrous deeds he accomplished and the banality of the account he gave. What kind of factual truth is that? As Birmingham said also echoing Roger Berkowitz's opening remarks, this kind of report strives, following Herodotus, ‘to say what is’.
What kind of truth did presenters like Oreskes and Kay present? Both undertook and successfully accomplished a forensic investigation into their separate subjects, on the one hand the ‘merchants of doubt’ who politically undermined the scientific consensus on global warming, and on the other, an investigation of conspiracy theorists and the patterns they follow. Both supplied much documentary evidence for their claims. In Oreskes case, ‘a small handful of men’ who were otherwise respected scientists in their fields, for purely ideological reasons, sought to sow doubt in the public mind about the ‘facts’ of everything from the dangers of tobacco and second hand smoke to global warming. These ‘cold war warriors,’ for ideological reasons, deliberately misrepresented the consensus in science. What kind of fact are we dealing with here? There is first the forensic investigation by Oreskes and there is secondly the ‘fact’ of global warming. One comes about as a result of sound historical research and on the basis of how scientific facts emerge. The other is the report on the consensus of scientists on the basis of the way science works as an institution.
Are either of these ‘factual truths’ in Arendt’s sense? The fact that Germany invaded Belgium and the fact that Trotsky was a member of the Communist Party—these are historical truths that help give us bearing in the world. While these were worldly facts in Arendt’s time, in that they were witnessed and acknowledged by many people (Stalin notwithstanding), to us they are historical facts. (This is an issue worth pursuing in another context.) The facts of the merchants of doubt and the pattern behind conspiracy theories are facts that need to be taken into account if we are to be able to find our comportment. But these are not facts in the sense that they call on us to think about what our world means. They are not stories that help us bear the sorrows of the world. Rather, as forensic and scientific truths, and while extremely important, they do not, by themselves, reconcile us with ‘worldly reality’.
“At any event, while world alienation determined the course and the development of modern society, earth alienation became and has remained the hallmark of modern science.”
The knowledge gained through modern science, while it certainly adds to our knowledge of the universe, and through its alliance with technology has enabled humans to ‘act into nature’ (with dangerous irreversible and unpredictable consequences ensuing), is not a story in Arendt’s sense. It does not reconcile us to ‘what is.’ Rather, “whatever we do today in physics … we always handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth.” If so, then neither the facts of the sciences nor of the social sciences nor of the forensic investigators, are examples of factual truths in Arendt’s sense. The latter is concerned with meaning while the former are concerned with an accurate representation of empirical reality. Worldly reality and empirical reality are very different phenomenon.
I would argue that neither Oreskes’s nor Kay’s presentations are about meaning. They are concerned with empirical reality. The natural response they generate is whether they are accurate portrayers of empirical reality (yes). If so, Oreskes teaches us about dangers to our earth bound existence and the need to take corrective action on global warming. In Kay’s case, he points to importance of pattern recognition with regard to conspiracy theorists claims to truth telling, an important but technical skill. But what’s the story? What sorrows do we humans need to bear? What human condition meaning do we have to confront? The answers to these questions remain to emerge and this was the hunger I personally felt after many of the first day’s presentations. This longing or Eros, I should add, was engaged with many of the presentations on the second day.
Let me dramatize the difference between Arendt’s understanding of a factual truth and the positivistic understanding of factual truth. I will summarize her views on authority, as I see it. For Arendt, the factual truth about authority in the modern world is that it has disappeared. She acknowledges that conservative and liberal political scientists and functionalist social scientists not only deny this worldly fact; they have much data and research to support their conclusions. For the functional social scientist, authority has merely taken another form and for the liberal political scientists authority is inimical to the progress of freedom in modern society. Factual truth for Arendt is a phenomenon, in the phenomenological sense of that term. The reality of the disappearance of authority from the modern world is a phenomenon that we moderns have to bear. This does not mean that authority has disappeared, phenomenologically speaking. That she speaks about it, that she articulates what it is in ways that are intelligible and meaningful, speaks to its phenomenological presence, in spite of its worldly disappearance. To understand what Arendt means about factual truth, we have to understand phenomenological hermeneutics.
**Click here to watch Peg Birmingham, Naomi Oreskes, Jonathan Kay, Sam Tanenhaus, and Jerome Kohn speaking at the conference.
The introductory lecture at the Arendt Center 2011 Fall Conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts" from Arendt Center director, Roger Berkowitz.
Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts
It is well known that Iraqi's participated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States; that global warming is a myth; that childhood vaccines cause Autism; that President Obama is not an American; that a cabal of American Jews collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the attacks on 9/11; and that the United States does not torture. These are acknowledged facts for millions of educated, indeed often highly educated, people.
Of course, I hope you will agree, these acknowledged facts are open to debate.
We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.
Even before technologists have made good on their promises to provide virtual realities, we have created multiple realities using nothing more than the internet, cable news, and human nature.
So what? Does all this lying, this blurring of fact and opinion, this creating of and defending of alternative and opposing realities --does it really matter? Isn't that what politics has always been about?
The answer, as Hannah Arendt argues, is that the loss of factual truth in the political realm is an existential threat to politics and also to human life in general. Arendt rejects the classical maxim fiat justitia, et pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish); instead she endorses the reformulation: Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus. Let Truth be done, though the world may perish.
Her point is simple: We cannot give up on truth—even if it means the end of the world! This is because the loss of truth leads to the loss of the world. Without truth, without the ability to say what is, there is no permanence, no common world. The danger is that when truth disappears, the world wobbles. We lose our bearings. We lose what holds us together—the common sense and common assumptions—that are the furniture and stability of our human world.
Arendt's worry is that when truth is impossible, when truth disappears, when the world wobbles, the result is cynicism. As she writes:
It has frequently been noticed that the surest long-term result of brainwashing is a peculiar kind of cynicism—an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established.
In other words, the danger from a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will win out—that is highly unlikely. Rather, the danger posed by the demise of factual truth is the victory of cynicism, the belief that it is simply not possible to "say what is." What cynicism means is that the sense of factual truth from which we take our bearings in the real world is wasting away.
2. Isn't this an old problem? Hasn't it always been the case that people disagree about facts and that facts are turned into opinions?
If one looks back in history, it is quickly apparent that dissensus is the norm, and consensus the exception. Many who bemoan the rise of Fox News and CNBC along with the decline of the New York Times and the Network News as arbiters of a common sense forget that for most of American history workers and elites, blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, read different newspapers and inhabited very different worlds and held often contradictory ideas of what America was. It is actually the consensual politics of Post-World War II America that is the exception, not its gradual breakdown in recent decades.
So what is different in recent times?
Arendt's answer is that only beginning in the 2nd half of the 20th century do we now routinely encounter the mass manipulation of fact. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Soviet/Stalinist effort to deny that Leon Trotsky ever played a role in the Russian Revolution, to airbrush his images out of old pictures, and to re-write communist party history books. The lie that Trotsky was never a part of the communist party was what Arendt calls a "totalitarian lie," a lie that seeks to re-create an entire reality. Already in 1950, she understood that such lies were now possible. This is only more true today, as technology affords liars extraordinary means to alter the documentary past.
The mass manipulation of fact does not always aim at such totalizing lies. For example, there has been a concerted effort by some to refute the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the earth. Others seek to disseminate an image of America as a nation that doesn't torture. To be effective, such claims do not actually need to prevail. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to overcome the brute fact that we did, in fact, employ torture as a governmentally sanctioned policy. Rather, the purpose of the mass manipulation of fact that characterizes the modern lie is to sow doubt. Based in cynicism and yielding apathy, doubt immobilizes; thus does doubt neutralize the oppositional power of truth and doubt frees those who pursue naked power stripped from limits imposed by truth.
We must recognize is how profound and prevalent the confusion of fact and opinion is today. The truth is that the utter refusal to believe established facts is not out of the ordinary today. Indeed, it is the new normal.
We need to now confront and accept the new normal: that our democracy must operate now without even the basic expectation of factual agreement. We must confront this fact that facts, today, are politicized and thus reduced to opinions. That is Arendt's point. She writes not simply to decry the decadence of politics, but to call us to face the facts about the loss of facts.
Click here to read the full essay by Roger Berkowitz.
The Hannah Arendt Center's fourth annual conference,
"Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts"
October 28-29, 2011 10:30AM-7:00PM
Olin Hall, Bard College
On-site registration begins at 9:30 AM each morning.
Click here to watch a live simulcast of the conference.
Click here to view the conference program.
Tweet about the conference to @arendt_center.
Post a comment about the conference on Facebook here.
Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, and author of The Death of Conservatism will be giving the keynote address this Saturday at the Hannah Arendt Center conference, Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. Click here to read an insightful conversation with Tanenhaus in which he discusses five books that shaped conservative culture, including the novels of Bellow and Updike.
Andrew Sullivan has an excellent essay in The Daily Beast about the undeniable allure of the Occupy Wall Street protests, in spite of what he calls "the hippie problem." As much as there are elements of the protests and the protesters that sound naïve and even coarse, as much as they at times seem out of touch, there is a core truth to the Occupy Wall Street movements that is so profound that it cannot be denied. In short, we must agree with the basic idea: that our democracy and our political system are broken. Here is Sullivan:
The theme that connects them all is disenfranchisement, the sense that the world is shifting deeply and inexorably beyond our ability to control it through our democratic institutions. You can call this many things, but a “democratic deficit” gets to the nub of it. Democracy means rule by the people—however rough-edged, however blunted by representative government, however imperfect. But everywhere, the people feel as if someone else is now ruling them—and see no way to regain control.
If you have any doubt that we have lost all trust in our democratic government (and who has such doubts), read this front-page article in today's NY Times.
A healthy democracy needs at least two things.
First, a strong middle class. As thinkers from Aristotle to Arendt have emphasized, political life requires that the people share a common world. Those who are too rich or too poor are excluded from what the people share; they exist often on the fringes of that consensus of common sense. It is the middle classes that determine a strong and meaningful sense of what the people are and give depth and sense to the public world. The best Constitution, Aristotle writes in his Politics, is one that encourages the largest middle class. The loss of our middle class has weakened that common sense and threatens our political system.
Second, a healthy democracy needs a shared factual world. As Hannah Arendt has argued, without a shared factual world, we cannot talk, argue, or disagree with others; we are left with nothing to do but talk to those with whom we already agree. In a world without facts, we risk undermining the venture of politics as Arendt understood it: to create together a common world, one as unruly, disorderly, and argumentative as such togetherness demands.
The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College convenes a conference exploring the loss of fact and the attack on common sense that have corroded our political world and fed our unprecedented distrust of politics. The conference—Truthtellng: Democracy in an Age Without Facts—is this weekend, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 28-29. You can watch the conference via live web simulcast by going to the Arendt Center website on Friday, beginning at 10:30 am.
To read more of Andrew Sullivan's article, click here.
Novelist and critic Zadie Smith will be speaking Friday at the Hannah Arendt Center conference “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts.” In her Rules for Writers published last year in The Guardian, Smith declares, “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”
We are excitedly preparing for the start of the Arendt Center's conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts" which begins on Friday. In the spirit of Hannah Arendt and the truth, we thought we would revisit Arendt's "Truth and Politics", which appeared in The New Yorker in 1967. We'll be providing you with an installment a day for the next four days. Enjoy!
Click here to read pages 49-50.
The piece can be read in its entirety at The New Yorker online.