I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.
The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.
In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.
Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.
When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal. This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?
And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements. Well here is what he said:
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed. We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. (Applause.) For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.
If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?
More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.
Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:
We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.
That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.
The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.
The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.
Louis Pasteur once wrote:
I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.
To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.
It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.
All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.
The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.
David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.
What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.
Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do? Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.
The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.”” And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.
Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.
Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.
I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.
As Birkirts writes:
For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.
Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.
Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.
Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.
And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.
Public pensions are a mess. Ok, where is the hope? Yesterday Gillian Tett offered a rare glimmer of good news in a story about Rhode Island treasurer Gina Raimondo. But the good news comes with a bitter aftertaste.
Rhode Island is a small state, but it had one of the worst public pension deficits in the country. Forced to act, it has cut pensions for its workers, raised the retirement age from 62 to 67, and replaced the defined benefits pension (which guarantees a certain amount every year) with a partial defined contribution scheme (which pays out a pension based on how much the retiree has saved). These actions have angered many workers and unions, who are suing the state, but they have also saved the state pension system; one result is that the workers will be receiving some pension, even if it is less than they were promised.
The solution, as Raimondo articulates it, is above all to focus ruthlessly “on the math and facts, to come up with a solution.” Technocrats, not grandstanding idealists, are required.
The preference for technocrats over idealists illustrates a common approach to our extraordinary economic problems around the country: to hand over difficult political judgments to technicians. The same approach is leading the people to hand over the levels of government to technocrats in Greece, Italy, Suffolk County, and now Detroit. Dissatisfied with democratically elected leaders, the people are increasingly craving a government run by businessmen and accountants. It seems that the ruthless calculation of profit and loss is the last refuge of truth in our age.