Video Archives – “Blogging and the New Public Intellectual – A Conversation with Jay Rosen and Megan Garber” (2013)
October 27, 2013: “Blogging and the New Public Intellectual – A Conversation with Jay Rosen and Megan Garber”
-- Roger Berkowitz, Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College.
-- Walter Russell Mead, James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities, Bard College.
-- Jay Rosen, Professor of Journalism, NYU.
-- Megan Garber, media critic and staff writer, The Atlantic.
Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead of Bard College have a discussion with Jay Rosen and Megan Garber about the state of journalism today.
Zephyr Teachout is a constitutional scholar and Professor of Law at Fordham University; she will be speaking at this year’s Arendt Center annual fall conference, “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?” The conference will be held on October 9-10 at Bard College. (You can learn more about the event here.) In this week’s Video Archive post, we feature a lecture Teachout delivered at Bard in 2012.
Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.
The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.
Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?
“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”
Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?
““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”
Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:
“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”
It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:
“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.
Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.
There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:
“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”
As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.
The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.
Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Jay Rosen at Press Think has coined the term "The Snowden Effect" to signify "direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden's leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the U.S." Rosen provides a helpful list of precisely what we have learned about our government's spying activities since Snowden began releasing the secret documents he stole. For example, "Did you know that the United States Postal Service "computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States - about 160 billion pieces last year?"" I did not. The Snowden effect works like that. It widens the circle of people who know, even if the knowledge had been available before.Whatever may be the fate of Snowden, and whether or not you think he was right or wrong to release the documents, the Snowden Effect has initiated a much-needed conversation.
As part of its 50th Anniversary celebration, the New York Review of Books has made available Hannah Arendt's "On Violence," one of her greatest essays that was first published in the NYRB in 1969. The essay begins: "These reflections were provoked by the events and debates of the last few years, as seen against the background of the twentieth century. Indeed this century has become, as Lenin predicted, a century of wars and revolutions, hence a century of that violence which is currently believed to be their common denominator. There is, however, another factor in the present situation which, though predicted by nobody, is of at least equal importance. The technical development of implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict. Hence, warfare-since times immemorial the final merciless arbiter in international disputes-has lost much of its effectiveness and nearly all of its glamor."
On the occasion of sending his son to a French language immersion program in France, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is himself currently in Paris, reflects on what it means to grow up and become a parent, inadvertently touching on the challenge of entering into the wide world: "First you leave your block. Then you leave your neighborhood. Then you leave your high school. Then your city, your college and, finally, your country. At every step you are leaving another world, and at every step you feel a warm gravity, a large love, pulling you back home. And you feel crazy for leaving. And you feel that it is preposterous to do this to yourself."
Mapmaker Dennis Wood, who believes that maps are arguments about the way the world looks, discusses the ethics of cartography in that context: "I've been suggesting to the hardest-edged people of all that they could put their epistemological and ontological arguments on a really firm foundation by simply acknowledging the fact that they are making the world. And they recoil from that, viscerally and instinctively, as they continue to make the software that enables them to make the world...When someone drops a bomb on something and kills a bunch of kids, and they do that using a map that you made, you either accept the responsibility for it-a kind of well, you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs responsibility-or you say, 'Damn it, I can't do this anymore.'" All of which reminds us of Hannah Arendt's essay, "Eggs Speak Up," where she writes, "Democratic society as a living reality is threatened at the very moment that democracy becomes a 'cause,' because then actions are likely to be judged and opinions evaluated in terms of ultimate ends and not on their inherent merits."
On the hundredth birthday of Catalan language writer Salvador Espriu, poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips considers what it meant for Espriu to write in his native language, banned for most of his lifetime by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco: "His was stubborn adherence to a language and to a culture that no matter how minimalized and denied by edict were still very obviously a reality. What gets lost at times in estimations of Espriu outside of his own language is that he was entirely a writer of his own language. His Catalan is hyper-expressive and inclusive of so many registers, idioms, and argots that it shakes free of a standardized expressive center. He is a writer of oi moiand not alas. It's almost as if the point was that the oppression of language is best met by the overflow of that language against its oppression. That all of it must rise at once and live: it is a palimpsest with sharp edges."
John Horgan, pivoting off the recent release of a report to Congress on the state of the humanities, shares the pitch he gives to the future engineers he teaches at Stevens Institute of Technology on the first day of his great books course: "The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we're learning more every day. But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves."
Following the 7:40 pm showing of "Hannah Arendt" at the Quad Cinema on 13th St. in N.Y.C., there will be a Q&A with Roger Berkowitz about the film.
July 17, 2013
Following the 6:00 PM showing of "Hannah Arendt" at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, NY, there will be a Q&A with Roger Berkowitz about the film.
July 21, 2013
Following the 6:00 pm showing of "Hannah Arendt" at Symphony Space on Broadway and 95th St. in N.Y.C., there will be a Q&A with Roger Berkowitz about the film.
October 3-4, 2013
The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast" The Educated Citizen in Crisis"
Olin Hall, Bard College
Learn more here.
This week on the blog, Roger Berkowitz points to "The Wire" creator David Simon's recent blog post on ideology and Hannah Arendt. Jeff Jurgens examines the MOOC phenomenon through the lens of Muslim Sufi traditions. Kathleen B. Jones thinks through recent developments in Egypt in the context of On Revolution. The weekend read offers a chilling glimpse into the mind of Eichmann through excerpts of the Sassen papers.
The Arendt Center recently hosted Professor Zephyr Teachout to speak about Citizens United v. FEC and campaign finance reform. The talk was in honor of Constitution Day, which Professor Teachout joyfully informed us may very well be unconstitutional. We carried on.
Teachout began her talk by announcing that the "First Amendment is a terrible thing." Less provocatively, she argues that the First Amendment plays a "dangerous role" in our constitutional culture. Above all, she presented her argument that the Supreme Court's increasing reliance on the First Amendment to invalidate campaign finance laws is, ironically, used to shut down meaningful public debate around the proper role of lobbying in our politics.
She began by telling a story of the Supreme Court case Trist v. Child from 1874. The case involves Mr. Trist who had a claim against the U.S. Government for about $15,000 (about $100,000 in current dollars). Trist hired Child, a lawyer, to represent him and convince Congress to honor its debt. Among other things, Child encouraged Trist to have his friends write to Congressman threatening not to vote for them if they didn't honor this debt to Trist. Child also personally lobbied Congressman. He eventually succeeded in getting Congress to appropriate Trist's money.
Trist, however, refused to pay Child the fee agreed to in their contract. Child sued Trist to get his agreed upon money.
In the Supreme Court decision refusing to enforce the contract, the Court holds that Trist need not pay Child; a number of reasons are given, a few very technical. But the majority of the opinion by Justice Swayne rejects the legality of lobbying with a broad brush. Trist need not honor his contract with Child, Swayne writes, because there was no valid contract. In short, the original contract hiring Child as a lobbyist was immoral and illegal, and thus unenforceable. Justice Swayne argues that the very immorality of the practice of lobbying nullifies the contract between Trist and Child.
Teachout helpfully describes the issue this way. Child says something like: Our contract was just like a contract for me to sell you a car and now you don't want to pay me for the car now that you have it. Trist responds that, in Teachout's colorful analogy,
No, this is like we made a contract for prostitution, and you can't go to the cops after we made a contract for prostitution and get them to enforce that contract. Because lobbying is like prostitution. It is so corrupt that there is no way courts are going to enforce it.
Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Swayne puts it this way:
The agreement in the present case was for the sale of the influence and exertions of the lobby agent to bring about the passage of a law for the payment of a private claim, without reference to its merits, by means which, if not corrupt, were illegitimate, and considered in connection with the pecuniary interest of the agent at stake, contrary to the plainest principles of public policy. No one has a right in such circumstances to put himself in a position of temptation to do what is regarded as so pernicious in its character. The law forbids the inchoate step, and puts the seal of its reprobation upon the undertaking.
If any of the great corporations of the country were to hire adventurers who make market of themselves in this way, to procure the passage of a general law with a view to the promotion of their private interests, the moral sense of every right-minded man would instinctively denounce the employer and employed as steeped in corruption and the employment as infamous.
There are two remarkable things about Justice Swayne's argument. First, as Teachout notes in her talk, there was nothing remarkable about it in 1874. Many states and governments throughout the U.S. made lobbying illegal. It was seen as an act of corruption. And few if any courts in the U.S. would find this unusual, at least before the turn of the 20th century.
The second remarkable thing to note is how utterly remarkable Justice Swayne's argument is today. To speak of the millions of lobbyists in the US as "adventurers who make market of themselves" as offending the "moral sense of every right-minded man" is a painful reminder of how far our political system has fallen. Not only is the moral prohibition against lobbying something of the past, but also the idea that the Supreme Court would invalidate contracts based on lobbying is nearly unimaginable.
The reason for this change in the legal and even moral status of lobbying is, Teachout argues, the rise of free-speech jurisprudence in the 20th century. Specifically, the Court's acceptance of the basic claim freedom of speech is the fundamental foundation of our democratic system has made lobbying not only legal, but morally defensible. If democracy depends on a marketplace of ideas, then having corporations and individuals hire lawyers and public relations firms to buy and sell influence in politics is at the very foundation of democratic governance. What Teachout forces us to consider is that our elevation of the First Amendment to foundational status in our constitutional firmament is predicated on a political theory that founds democracy on the unfettered marketplace of ideas. If we are to take back our government from corporate adventurers and their lobbyists, we will need to rethink our commitment to free speech, at least as the Court currently understands it.
Teachout's provocative talk attacks less freedom of speech itself than the Court's elevation of free speech to the first amongst all constitutional provisions—the foundational right in our constitutional and democratic system. She traces the rise of free speech jurisprudence to the point where, today, free speech is the paradigmatic right in our democracy. Free speech has become equated with democracy, so that "free speech is democracy."
It is important to see that Teachout is really pointing out a shift between two alternate political theories. First, she argues that for the founders and for the United States up until the mid-20th century, the foundational value that legitimates our democracy is the confidence that our political system is free from corruption. Laws that restrict lobbying or penalize bribery are uncontroversial and constitutional, because they recognize core—if not the core—constitutional values.
Second, Teachout sees that increasingly free speech has replaced anti-corruption as the foundational constitutional value in the United States. Beginning in the 20th century and culminating in the Court's decision in Citizens United, the Court gradually accepted the argument that the only way to guarantee a legitimate democracy is to give unlimited protection to the marketplace of idea. Put simply, truth is nothing else but the product of free debate and any limits on debate, especially political debate, will delegitimize our politics.
This view that free speech is the fundamental bastion of democracy is the basis of Justice Kennedy's decision in Citizens United. In Kennedy's opinion, laws regulating campaign finance regulate speech, and not just force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech." If we believe that fair elections require a free airing of all opinions, than restrictions on campaign finance are the most dangerous forms of censorship. Which is why Kennedy can worry that "The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach."
What he means is that all those corporations regulated by the campaign finance reform law invalidated by Citizens United—including large multinationals and also small mom and pop stores and even unions and non-profit corporations—are prohibited from expressing their views about political candidates during an election. In Kennedy's telling, corporations are part of the country and, what is more, an important part of the country. The Government has “muffle[d] the voices that best represent the most significant segments of the economy."
It is helpful to recall Justice Felix Frankfurter's concurring opinion in U.S. v. Congress of Industrial Organizations. The Smith Act had forbidden unions to use funds to pay for politicking, very much like the limitations on corporate funding in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. In U.S. v. CIO, the Court refused to rule on the Constitutional question of whether the Congress can forbid unions from political speech. Frankfurter, however, does consider it. He argues that we must take seriously the evil of corporate and union speech in politics. The corruption of elections and federal officials by the expenditure of large masses of aggregated wealth But that evil, he counters, "is not one unmixed with good." For Frankfurter,
To say that labor unions as such have nothing of value to contribute to that process and no vital or legitimate interest in it is to ignore the obvious facts of political and economic life and of their increasing interrelationship in modern society.
Replace "Labor unions" with "corporations." That is what Justice Kennedy did in Citizens United. What he said is that corporations have a voice in our political landscape, just as do unions and non-profits. When such corporate entities engage in speech, there is a danger of corruption. But we cannot deny their speech is politically important. Instead of then balancing those interests in a practical way, Justice Kennedy simply said that the First Amendment insists that political speech never be abridged. Our Constitutional system, he argued, demands that the marketplace of ideas be allowed to work unimpeded.
The overriding desire to protect political speech proceeds under the assumption, with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” What Zephyr Teachout helps to make clear is that this elevation of free-speech to the first amongst constitutional provisions is fundamentally at odds with the desire to regulate political speech to keep politics free from corruption. If we want to get serious about fighting corruption in politics, we need to take seriously the need to question the now unquestionable faith that democracy is founded upon freedom of speech.
To fight against Citizens United and uphold the legal rejection of campaign finance limitations requires that we break the bi-partisan stranglehold that an extreme view of the First Amendment currently has on our constitutional jurisprudence. Only once we do so can we return to a meaningful public debate about when lobbying is and when it is not corrupting. And only once we free campaign finance laws from the First Amendment can we, as we must, have a serious discussion about how much money distorts and corrupts our political process.
These are difficult issues, and weakening the scope and impact of the First Amendment is risky. As Teachout argues, it is a risk we must take to save our democratic system.
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.”