Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
9Apr/141

Democracy and Disagreement

FromtheArendtCenter

In the wake of Mozilla C.E.O. Brendan Eich's resignation over his support for California's 2008 Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage and has since been overturned in court, Andrew Sullivan laments the process by which Eich was compelled to step down.

moz

In his post,  Sullivan, a gay man who has been making the conservative case for gay marriage for nearly two decades, suggests that to simply label Eich a bigot and move forward under that presumption is too easy. Indeed, he says, that "the ability to work alongside or for people with whom we have a deep political disagreement is not a minor issue in a liberal society. It is a core foundation of toleration. We either develop the ability to tolerate those with whom we deeply disagree, or liberal society is basically impossible. Civil conversation becomes culture war; arguments and reason cede to emotion and anger." In this context, what is a crusade for tolerance also becomes a front for intolerance, something about which Sullivan is deeply troubled. The propagation of such a sure belief means the end of civil society and, in its face, he proposes we embrace uncertainty, concluding, finally, that "a moral movement without mercy is not moral; it is, when push comes to shove, cruel."

Sullivan makes a passionate and necessary plea for both moral uncertainty and, equally important, a willingness to live with and amongst those whose opinions we find both wrong and hurtful. What makes American democracy special is not that we have the right answers, but that we are committed to the conversation, not that we employ mandarins blessed with the right answers but that we trust everyday citizens to figure it out as we go along. Sullivan makes his case that Eich was honorable, open, and willing to engage in meaningful dialogue with those he disagreed with. Let's leave aside accusations of political correctness and such. The important point is that we are living in a country increasingly at odds with its democratic tradition of debate and disagreement. We bemoan the fact that Republicans and Democrats can't talk across the aisle; how is that we now won't even work with someone who respectfully disagrees with us politically?

—RB h/t Josh Kopin

7Apr/140

Amor Mundi 4/6/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Oligarchs, Inc.

supremeOver at SCOTUSblog, Burt Neuborne writes that “American democracy is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Oligarchs, Inc.” The good news, Neuborne reminds, is that “this too shall pass.” After a fluid and trenchant review of the case and the recent decision declaring limits on aggregate giving to political campaigns to be unconstitutional, Neuborne writes: “Perhaps most importantly, McCutcheon illustrates two competing visions of the First Amendment in action. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion turning American democracy over to the tender mercies of the very rich insists that whether aggregate contribution limits are good or bad for American democracy is not the Supreme Court’s problem. He tears seven words out of the forty-five words that constitute Madison’s First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law abridging . . . speech”; ignores the crucial limiting phrase “the freedom of,” and reads the artificially isolated text fragment as an iron deregulatory command that disables government from regulating campaign financing, even when deregulation results in an appalling vision of government of the oligarchs, by the oligarchs, and for the oligarchs that would make Madison (and Lincoln) weep. Justice Breyer’s dissent, seeking to retain some limit on the power of the very rich to exercise undue influence over American democracy, views the First Amendment, not as a simplistic deregulatory command, but as an aspirational ideal seeking to advance the Founders’ effort to establish a government of the people, by the people, and for the people for the first time in human history. For Justice Breyer, therefore, the question of what kind of democracy the Supreme Court’s decision will produce is at the center of the First Amendment analysis. For Chief Justice Roberts, it is completely beside the point. I wonder which approach Madison would have chosen. As a nation, we’ve weathered bad constitutional law before. Once upon a time, the Supreme Court protected slavery. Once upon a time the Supreme Court blocked minimum-wage and maximum-hour legislation.  Once upon a time, the Supreme Court endorsed racial segregation, denied equality to women, and jailed people for their thoughts and associations. This, too, shall pass. The real tragedy would be for people to give up on taking our democracy back from the oligarchs. Fixing the loopholes in disclosure laws, and public financing of elections are now more important than ever. Moreover, the legal walls of the airless room are paper-thin. Money isn’t speech at obscenely high levels. Protecting political equality is a compelling interest justifying limits on uncontrolled spending by the very rich. And preventing corruption means far more than stopping quid pro quo bribery. It means the preservation of a democracy where the governed can expect their representatives to decide issues independently, free from economic serfdom to their paymasters. The road to 2016 starts here. The stakes are the preservation of democracy itself.” It is important to remember that the issue is not really partisan, but that both parties are corrupted by the influx of huge amounts of money. Democracy is in danger not because one party will by the election, but because the oligarchs on both sides are crowding out grassroots participation. This is an essay you should read in full. For a plain English review of the decision, read this from SCOTUSblog. And for a Brief History of Campaign Finance, check out this from the Arendt Center Archives.

Saving Democracy

democZephyr Teachout, the most original and important thinker about the constitutional response to political corruption, has an op-ed in the Washington Post: “We should take this McCutcheon moment to build a better democracy. The plans are there. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has proposed something that would do more than fix flaws. H.R. 20, which he introduced in February, is designed around a belief that federal political campaigns should be directly funded by millions of passionate, but not wealthy, supporters. A proposal in New York would do a similar thing at the state level.” Teachout spoke at the Arendt Center two years ago after the Citizens United case. Afterwards, Roger Berkowitz wrote: “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.” Read the entirety of his commentary here. Watch a recording of Teachout’s speech here.

The Forensic Gaze

forA new exhibition opened two weeks ago at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin that examines the changing ways in which states police and govern their subjects through forensics, and how certain aesthetic-political practices have also been used to challenge or expose states. Curated by Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman, Forensis “raises fundamental questions about the conditions under which spatial and material evidence is recorded and presented, and tests the potential of new types of evidence to expand our juridical imagination, open up forums for political dispute and practice, and articulate new claims for justice.” Harry Burke and Lucy Chien review the exhibition on Rhizome: “The exhibition argues that forensics is a political practice primarily at the point of interpretation. Yet if the exhibition is its own kind of forensic practice, then it is the point of the viewer's engagement where the exhibition becomes significant. The underlying argument in Forensis is that the object of forensics should be as much the looker and the act of looking as the looked-upon.” You may want to read more and then we suggest Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics.

Empathy's Mess

empathy

In an interview, Leslie Jamison, author of the very recently published The Empathy Exams, offers up a counterintuitive defense of empathy: “I’m interested in everything that might be flawed or messy about empathy — how imagining other lives can constitute a kind of tyranny, or artificially absolve our sense of guilt or responsibility; how feeling empathy can make us feel we’ve done something good when we actually haven’t. Zizek talks about how 'feeling good' has become a kind of commodity we purchase for ourselves when we buy socially responsible products; there’s some version of this inoculation logic — or danger — that’s possible with empathy as well: we start to like the feeling of feeling bad for others; it can make us feel good about ourselves. So there’s a lot of danger attached to empathy: it might be self-serving or self-absorbed; it might lead our moral reasoning astray, or supplant moral reasoning entirely. But do I want to defend it, despite acknowledging this mess? More like: I want to defend it by acknowledging this mess. Saying: Yes. Of course. But yet. Anyway.”

What the Language Does

barsIn a review of Romanian writer Herta Muller's recently translated collection Christina and Her Double, Costica Bradatan points to what changing language can do, what it can't do, and how those who attempt to manipulate it may also underestimate its power: “Behind all these efforts was the belief that language can change the real world. If religious terms are removed from language, people will stop having religious feelings; if the vocabulary of death is properly engineered, people will stop being afraid of dying. We may smile today, but in the long run such polices did produce a change, if not the intended one. The change was not in people’s attitudes toward death or the afterworld, but in their ability to make sense of what was going on. Since language plays such an important part in the construction of the self, when the state subjects you to constant acts of linguistic aggression, whether you realize it or not, your sense of who you are and of your place in the world are seriously affected. Your language is not just something you use, but an essential part of what you are. For this reason any political disruption of the way language is normally used can in the long run cripple you mentally, socially, and existentially. When you are unable to think clearly you cannot act coherently. Such an outcome is precisely what a totalitarian system wants: a population perpetually caught in a state of civic paralysis.”

Humanities and Human Life

humanCharles Samuleson, author of "The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone," has this paean to the humanities in the Wall Street Journal: “I once had a student, a factory worker, who read all of Schopenhauer just to find a few lines that I quoted in class. An ex-con wrote a searing essay for me about the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing, arguing that it fails miserably to live up to either the retributive or utilitarian standards that he had studied in Introduction to Ethics. I watched a preschool music teacher light up at Plato's "Republic," a recovering alcoholic become obsessed by Stoicism, and a wayward vet fall in love with logic (he's now finishing law school at Berkeley). A Sudanese refugee asked me, trembling, if we could study arguments concerning religious freedom. Never more has John Locke —or, for that matter, the liberal arts—seemed so vital to me.”

Caritas and Felicitas

charityArthur C. Brooks makes the case that charitable giving makes us happier and even more successful: “In 2003, while working on a book about charitable giving, I stumbled across a strange pattern in my data. Paradoxically, I was finding that donors ended up with more income after making their gifts. This was more than correlation; I found solid evidence that giving stimulated prosperity…. Why? Charitable giving improves what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.” Do yourself a favor, then, and become a member of the Arendt Center.

Featured Events

heidThe Black Notebooks (1931-1941):

What Heidegger's Denktagebuch reveals about his thinking during the Nazi regime.

April 8, 2014

Goethe Institut, NYC

Learn more here.

 

"My Name is Ruth."

An Evening with Bard Big Read and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping

Excerpts will be read by Neil Gaiman, Nicole Quinn, & Mary Caponegro

April 23, 2014

Richard B. Fisher Center, Bard College

Learn more here.

 

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, our Quote of the Week comes from Martin Wager, who views Arendt's idea of world alienation through the lens of modern day travel. Josh Kopin looks at Stanford Literary Lab's idea of using computers and data as a tool for literary criticism. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz ponders the slippery slope of using the First Amendment as the basis for campaign finance reform. 

4Apr/140

The First Amendment and Campaign Finance

ArendtWeekendReading

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, David E. Bernstein argues that Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent in the Campaign Finance Case (McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission) is dangerous. He writes, rightly, that progressives have historically been uneasy with the First Amendment since strong rights are anti-democratic and exert a conservative and limiting impulse on democratic self-government and progressive programs. Thus free speech interferes with hate crimes legislation and stands in the way of attempts to limit offensive speech. And, most recently, free speech has proven the main impediment to regulate the insane amounts of money that are corrupting the political system.

why

Bernstein asks: “But how can liberals, who so expansively interpret other constitutional provisions, narrow the First Amendment so that campaign finance no longer gets protection?” His rhetorical answer is that the liberal willingness to limit free speech evident in Justice Breyer’s dissent is dangerous:

The danger of this argument is that analogous reasoning could be used to censor major media corporations such as the New York Times, Hollywood, and so on, to wit: ”When Hollywood spends billions of dollars each year advancing a liberal agenda, the general public will not be heard.  Instead of a free marketplace of ideas, we get a marketplace in which major Hollywood moguls have hundreds of thousands of times the ‘speech power’ of the average American.” And given that almost everyone deems it appropriate to regulate the economic marketplace to counter inefficiencies and unfairness, why should the much-less-efficient (because it’s much more costly for an individual to make an error in his economic life than to have a mistaken ideology) marketplace of ideas be exempt from harsh regulation?  In short, once one adopts the Progressive view of freedom of speech as only going so far as to protect the public interest in a well-functioning marketplace of ideas, there is no obvious reason to limit reduced scrutiny of government “public interest” regulation of speech to campaign finance regulations.  Nor is it obvious why the Court should give strict scrutiny to speech restrictions that don’t directly affect the marketplace of ideas, instead of just using a malleable test balancing “speech interests” versus other interests.

It is of course right to worry about placing limits on speech, especially speech that is so clearly political. That is why Justice Robert’s plurality opinion has such straightforward appeal:

There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders. Citizens can exercise that right in a variety of ways: They can run for office themselves, vote, urge others to vote for a particular candidate, volunteer to work on a campaign, and contribute to a candidate’s campaign. This case is about the last of those options. The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Our cases have held that Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. … If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.

What this means is that as long as campaign finance reform is viewed according to the lens of free speech, those who labor to protect our political system from the corrupting influence of excessive amounts of money will tread a treacherous path. They must, as Justice Breyer does at times in his dissent, argue for a version of free speech that is instrumental, one that is limited by its assumed purpose. Here is Breyer:

Consider at least one reason why the First Amendment protects political speech. Speech does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, political communication seeks to secure government action. A politically oriented “marketplace of ideas” seeks to form a public opinion that can and will influence elected representatives.

Breyer, like too many of those who would support campaign finance reform, insists on fighting the battle over the meaning of free speech. The problem is that such arguments must speak about limiting speech on rational grounds or suggest that speech is designed to make government better. This raises the specter of the government deciding when speech does and when it does not improve democracy. Some may welcome judges making such difficult judgments—it may be what wise judges actually should do. But having judges decide when speech favors democracy would subject all sorts of offensive or radical speech to the test of whether it was directed to secure government action and whether it invigorated the marketplace of ideas.

supreme

The problems with the free speech approach to campaign finance reform have led Lawrence Lessig and Zephyr Teachout to seek a different path. Thus it is worth looking at the responses both of them penned to the McCutcheon decision.

Lessig, writing in the Daily Beast, argues that advocates of reform need to stop talking about free speech and instead focus on corruption:

The only way for the government to win, in other words, was to convince the Court that while corruption certainly includes quid pro quos, it need not be limited to quid pro quos. The roots of that argument were handed to the government from an unlikely source: the Framers of our Constitution. Building upon the work of Zephyr Teachout, two researchers and I scoured every document that we could from the framing of our constitution  to try to map how the Framers used the word “corruption.” What was absolutely clear from that research was that by “corruption,” the Framers certainly did not mean quid pro quo corruption alone. That exclusive usage is completely modern. And while there were cases where by “corruption” the Framers plainly meant quid pro quo corruption, these cases were the exception. The much more common usage was “corruption” as in improper dependence. Parliament, for example, was “corrupt,” according to the Framers, because it had developed an improper dependence on the King. That impropriety had nothing to do with any quid pro quo. It had everything to do with the wrong incentives being allowed into the system because of that improper dependence.

Teachout, writing in the Washington Post, argues that we need to stop trying to ban money in our current system of campaign laws and, instead, create a new system, one modeled on examples in Maine, Connecticut, Arizona, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Mexico, New Jersey, Hawaii and West Virginia, which have all experimented with publicly funded elections:

But the legislative branch has to take some responsibility. Relying on bans is akin to continually passing seat-belt laws that keep getting struck down while never building safe cars. We should take this McCutcheon moment to build a better democracy. The plans are there. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has proposed something that would do more than fix flaws. H.R. 20, which he introduced in February, is designed around a belief that federal political campaigns should be directly funded by millions of passionate, but not wealthy, supporters. A proposal in New York would do a similar thing at the state level…. They have learned that they are most effective when every office’s election is publicly funded, so that candidates learn how to raise money by going to the people, and that it is better to give a public match only to in-state individuals and not to PACs or out-of-state donors. Big lobbyists don’t like this because they are used to getting meetings with candidates to whom their clients give money. We’ve also learned that more women and minorities run for office with a public-funding system.

The campaign finance decisions are a disaster for our democracy and are preventing attempts to limit the truly corrosive impact of money throughout our political system. But it is also the case that the decisions are principled when viewed within the rubric of our free speech jurisprudence. Instead of limiting the amount of money in an inevitably corrupt system, it is time to change the system itself. Lessig and Teachout are leading the charge. Their op-eds are your weekend reads. In addition, you can revisit my comments on Teachout’s talk at the Hannah Arendt Center last year, here. And you can watch a recording of Teachout’s speech here.

-RB

12Mar/142

The Preferential President

FromtheArendtCenter

There is a fascinating essay over on the Guernica blog, where David Bromwich examines “how Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president).” In his first term Obama delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks and granted 591 interviews. These exceptional numbers, explains Bromwich, were the result of  “magical thinking” on the part of the Obama White House: if the American public heard the president often enough, they would see how sincere and bipartisan he was and accept his policies. An endless string of speeches, road trips, and town hall meetings thus came to serve as a stand-in for the decision-making and confrontation that true leadership requires, and genuine conviction demands. Argues Bromwich: “…The truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.

Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions—and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.”

ob

Bromwich’s reflections call to mind two classic statements of what might be called the nihilism of the modern age—the psychological state in which all values are relative and none may rise from preference to conviction. The first is a fragment from Friedrich Nietzsche’s notebooks composed in 1881-1882. It reads:

…we call good someone who does his heart’s bidding, but also the one who only tends to his duty;
we call good the meek and the reconciled, but also the courageous, unbending, severe;
we call good someone who employs no force against himself, but also the heroes of self-overcoming;
we call good the utterly loyal friend of the true, but also the man of piety, one who transfigures things;
we call good those who are obedient to themselves, but also the pious;
we call good those who are noble and exalted, but also those who do not despise and condescend;
we call good those of joyful spirit, the peaceable, but also those desirous of battle and victory;
we call good those who always want to be first, but also those who do not want to take precedence over anyone in any respect.

As Nietzsche writes elsewhere, “The most extreme form of nihilism would be: that every belief, every holding-as-true, is necessarily false: because there is no true world at all.” To call the President a nihilist is nothing extreme; it is simply to say that he well represents the age in which he lives, an age that is extraordinarily uncomfortable with convictions of any kind. Some believe in God, but too strong a belief in God is unseemly, even fanatic. It is good to believe in democracy, but we recognize the need for stable tyrannies as well. The free market is the best system of economics, but only if it is not too free. We live in a pragmatic age and Obama is our pragmatic President. That is precisely what many like in him. And yet we also want him to lead. In other words, we want strong leadership of a convinced leader and at the same time we want the pragmatic and technocratic malleability of someone with preferences absent convictions.

There is no better expression of this fear basic psychological state of modernity than William Butler Yeats poem, “THE SECOND COMING”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The problem with President Obama is not that he lacks convictions. It is that he doesn’t know that he lacks convictions. And despite what Bromwich writes, the President hasn’t learned this. He still believes that he has strong convictions that Syria cannot use chemical weapons in a civil war against its own people. He still believes that it is intolerable to allow Russia to annex part of a sovereign country. He stands up and makes his strong convictions clear. But then he sits down and refuses to fight for those convictions, proving them beliefs. The point is not that he should fight in Syria or in Ukraine. The point is that he should not be speaking loudly and issuing ultimatums when he lacks the conviction to back them up.

-RB (hat tip Anna Hadfield)

27Feb/140

Promise and Peril

FromtheArendtCenter

There is promise and peril in Ukraine. Ukrainians have evicted a corrupt President and embraced democracy. Just today, the Parliament worked towards a new government while citizens listened in on the debates from outside:

At the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev Thursday morning, as legislators debated the confirmation of a new temporary government, hundreds of people gathered outside to listen to the debate on loudspeakers, press for change and enjoy the argumentative fruits of democracy.

via Flickr by Mark Estabrook

via Flickr by Mark Estabrook

There is the natural temptation to celebrate democratic success. But we must also note that in Kiev, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue and the Rabbi of Kiev warned Jews to leave Ukraine:

Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, called on Kiev's Jews to leave the city and even the country if possible, fearing that the city's Jews will be victimized in the chaos, Israeli daily Maariv reported Friday. “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too," Rabbi Azman told Maariv. "I don't want to tempt fate," he added, "but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”

It is hard to know if such warnings are premature and there have been no laws depriving of Jews of either political or civil rights. Nevertheless, there is always danger in populist revolutions, as Hannah Arendt knew. Indeed, the tension between calling for grassroots populist engagement and the worry about the often ugly and racist tenor of such movements was at the center of much of Arendt’s work. It also may have impacted one instance where she withdrew something she wrote.

If one takes the trouble to find her missing epilogue, one finds it’s full of surprisingly naive optimism—and surprisingly naive optimism is not a quality most saliently associated with the name of Hannah Arendt. I say it was naive because it stressed the spontaneous democracy of the worker’s councils that were set up in Budapest. I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.

Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.

The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Present. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.” Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.

But is the fantastical element of the lost treasure the reason why she so sternly decided to remove that epilogue? I think I know why she did it. Further research and disclosure of what happened that time in Budapest had brought it to her attention that those events in 1956 hadn’t been as beautifully spontaneous as she had supposed. Mixed into the grandeur of the Hungarian rebellion was quite a heavy element of ultra-Magyar, ultra-Hungarian nationalism. The revolution also included quite a lot of antisemitism, directed at the strongly Jewish membership and character of Hungary’s Communist elite. Many of the Jewish communist leaders had been denationalized from Hungary, having spent the war in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, some of them becoming Russian citizens. They came back to take over Hungary, which was still largely a Catholic, rural, and conservative country, and they did so only with the support of Red Army bayonets. The resentment aroused by the returning Jewish Communist leaders was considerable. The revolution did not lead to pogroms in the true, ghastly, meaning of the word, but there were some ugly lynchings of Jewish communists and some nasty rhetoric. And I think this must have weighed very much with her.

You can read the whole talk here.

-RB

24Feb/140

Amor Mundi 2/23/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Public Voice of Women

greekheadIn the London Review of Books’ winter lecture, classicist Mary Beard discusses how the silencing of women was a common dramatic trope throughout Greek and Roman antiquity. From Telemachus’ admonition to Penelope in the Odyssey (“take up your own work, the loom and the distaff…speech will be the business of men”) to the silencing of the princess Philomela by cutting out her tongue in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, female oratory was treated as inappropriate or even dangerous in the public sphere. In the classical tradition, “public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender. As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of male-ness.” The derision of female speech, argues Beard, was not only embedded in our modern traditions of speechmaking but remains an alarmingly widespread issue today, as women speaking in public face a far greater quantity of death threats, Internet trolling, and verbal abuse than men. “The more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns I’ve been talking about,” writes Beard. “For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it.”

The Irony of the Elite

houseofcardsPeggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture in response to a 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. 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. “”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…. 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.” Read more about the decadence and irony of elites on the blog in Roger Berkowitz’s Weekend Read.

On the Glory of Being Wrong

equationIn a review of Mario Livio's new book Brilliant Blunders, Freeman Dyson praises the theory, particularly the incorrect theory, as the engine of science: "They are free creations of the human mind, intended to describe our understanding of nature. Since our understanding is incomplete, theories are provisional. Theories are tools of understanding, and a tool does not need to be precisely true in order to be useful. Theories are supposed to be more-or-less true, with plenty of room for disagreement. A scientist who invents a theory that turns out to be wrong is judged leniently. Mistakes are tolerated, so long as the culprit is willing to correct them when nature proves them wrong."

The Singularity is Near Enough to Date

herRay Kurzweil reviews Spike Jonze's Her, which features a romance between a man and his computer's sentient operating system, and takes issue with the ending: “In my view, biological humans will not be outpaced by the AIs because they (we) will enhance themselves (ourselves) with AI. It will not be us versus the machines (whether the machines are enemies or lovers), but rather, we will enhance our own capacity by merging with our intelligent creations. We are doing this already. Even though most of our computers — although not all — are not yet physically inside us, I consider that to be an arbitrary distinction.”

To Hear the Truth, to Hear a True Fiction

thelastIn a review of Claude Lannzman's long percolating The Last of the Unjust, about Benjamin Murmelstein, the last surviving Jewish elder of the Nazi's show ghetto at Theresienstadt, Leah Falk wonders whether reportage or art will ultimately prove more effective at preserving the terror of the Holocaust: "Is there a kind of truth that can’t be adequately served by even the toughest oral testimony, but only by art? The film’s investigation is not: Was Murmelstein a collaborator? But rather, did Lanzmann’s interview with Murmelstein tell his story? Or were we too late? Has everyone, with regard to the Holocaust, always been too late? About Shoah, Lanzmann admitted that he had made a film about the kinds of stories the human brain was not made to handle. Our handling of them as they grow more distant, as the emotional current underneath the facts becomes even less immediately accessible, is something fragile, a skill that must be not only taught, but also constantly reinvented."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jennifer Hudson considers Arendt's understanding of knowledge as tyrannical, and Roger Berkowitz asks two journalists what they understand as their role. And Berkowitz also turns to Nietzsche and Arendt in the Weekend Read to make sense of our elite culture of decadence and irony.

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21Feb/146

The Irony of the Elite

ArendtWeekendReading

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.”

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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.

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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.

-RB

17Feb/140

The Dystopia of Knowledge

Arendtquote

“This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The future man of whom Arendt writes is one who has been released from earthly ties, from nature.  He has been released from earth as a physical space but also as “the quintessence of the human condition.”  He will have been able to “create life in a test tube” and “extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.”  The idea that this man would wish to exchange his given existence for something artificial is part of a rather intricate intellectual historical argument about the development of modern science.

The more man has sought after perfect knowledge of nature, the more he has found himself in nature’s stead, and the more uncertain he has felt, and the more he has continued to seek, with dire consequences.  This is the essential idea.  The negative consequences are bundled together within Arendt’s term, “world alienation,” and signify, ultimately, the endangerment of possibilities for human freedom.  Evocative of dystopian fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, this theme has enjoyed renewed popularity in our current world of never-ending war and ubiquitous surveillance facilitated by technical innovation.

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Arendt’s narration gravitates around Galileo’s consummation of the Copernican revolution, which marks the birth of “the modern astrophysical world view.”  The significance of Galileo, Arendt writes, is that with him we managed to find “the Archimedean point” or the universal point of view.  This is an imagined point outside the earth from which it should be possible to make objective observations and formulate universal natural laws.  Our reaching of the Archimedean point, without leaving the earth, was responsible for natural science’s greatest triumphs and the extreme pace of discovery and technical innovation.

This was also a profoundly destabilizing achievement, and Arendt’s chronicle of its cultural effects takes on an almost psychological resonance.  While we had known since Plato that the senses were unreliable for the discovery of truth, she says, Galileo’s telescope told us that we could not trust our capacity for reason, either.  Instead, a manmade instrument had shown us the truth, undermining both reason and faith in reason.

In grappling with the resulting radical uncertainty, we arrived at Descartes’ solution of universal doubt.  Arendt describes this as a turn towards introspection, which provides a solution insofar as it takes place within the confines of one’s mind.  External forces cannot intrude here, at least upon the certainty that mental processes are true in the sense that they are real.  Man’s turn within himself afforded him some control.  This is because it corresponded with “the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the new physical science: though one cannot know truth as something given and disclosed, man can at least know what he makes himself.” According to Arendt, this is the fundamental reasoning that has driven science and discovery at an ever-quickening pace.  It is at the source of man’s desire to exchange his given existence “for something he has made himself.”

The discovery of the Archimedean point with Galileo led us to confront our basic condition of uncertainty, and the Cartesian solution was to move the Archimedean point inside man.  The human mind became the ultimate point of reference, supported by a mathematical framework that it produces itself.  Mathematics, as a formal structure produced by the mind, became the highest expression of knowledge.  As a consequence, “common sense” was internalized and lost its worldly, relational aspect.  If common sense only means that all of us will arrive at the same answer to a mathematical question, then it refers to a faculty that is internally held by individuals rather than one that fits us each into the common world of all, with each other, which is Arendt’s ideal.  She points to the loss of common sense as a crucial aspect of “world alienation.”

This loss is closely related to Arendt’s concerns about threats to human political communication. She worries that we have reached the point at which the discoveries of science are no longer comprehensible.  They cannot be translated from the language of mathematics into speech, which is at the core of Arendt’s notion of political action and freedom.

The threat to freedom is compounded when we apply our vision from the Archimedean point to ourselves.  Arendt cautions, “If we look down from this point upon what is going on on earth and upon the various activities of men, … then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats.” (“The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future)

She argues against the behaviorist perspective on human affairs as a false one, but more frightening for her is the fact it could become reality.  We may be seeking this transformation through our desire to control and know and thus live in a world that we have ourselves created.  When we look at human affairs from the Archimedean, objective scientific point of view, our behavior appears to be analyzable, predictable, and uniform like the activity of subatomic particles or the movement of celestial bodies.  We are choosing to look at things with such far remove that, like these other activities and movements, they are beyond the grasp of experience.  “World alienation” refers to this taking of distance, which collapses human action into behavior.  The purpose would be to remedy the unbearable condition of contingency, but in erasing contingency, by definition, we erase the unexpected events that are the worldly manifestations of human freedom.

To restate the argument in rather familiar terms: Our quest for control, to put an end to the unbearable human condition of uncertainty and contingency, leads to a loss of both control and freedom.  This sentiment should be recognizable as a hallmark of the immediate post-war period, represented in works of fiction like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Beckett’s Endgame, and Orwell’s 1984.  We can also find it even earlier in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Huxley’s Brave New World.  There has been a recent recovery and reemergence of the dystopian genre, at least in one notable case, and with it renewed interest in Arendt’s themes as they are explored here.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle, released in 2013, revolves around an imagined Bay Area cultish tech company that is a combination of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and PayPal.  In its apparent quest for progress, convenience, and utility, it creates an all-encompassing universe in which all of existence is interpreted in terms of data points and everything is recorded. The protagonist, an employee of the Circle, is eventually convinced to “go transparent,” meaning that her every moment is live streamed and recorded, with very few exceptions.   Reviews of the book have emphasized our culture of over-sharing and the risks to privacy that this entails.  They have also drawn parallels between this allegorical warning and the Snowden revelations.  Few, though, if any, have discussed the book in terms of the human quest for absolute knowledge in order to eliminate uncertainty and contingency, with privacy as collateral damage.

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In The Circle, the firm promotes transparency and surveillance as solutions to crime and corruption.  Executives claim that through acquired knowledge and technology, anything is possible, including social harmony and world peace.  The goal is to organize human affairs in a harmonious way using technical innovation and objective knowledge.  This new world is to be man made so that it can be manipulated for progressive ends.  In one key conversation, Mae, the main character, confronts one of the three firm leaders, saying, “… you can’t be saying that everyone should know everything,” to which he replies, “… I’m saying that everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know anything.  There’s not enough time to know everything, though I certainly wish there was.”

In this world, there are several senses in which man has chosen to replace existence as given with something he has made himself.  First and most obviously, new gadgets dazzle him at every turn, and he is dependent on them.  Second, he reduces all information “to the measure of the human mind.”  The technical innovations and continuing scientific discoveries are made with the help of manmade instruments, such that:  “Instead of objective qualities … we find instruments, and instead of nature or the universe—in the words of Heisenberg—man encounters only himself.” (The Human Condition, p. 261) Everything is reduced to a mathematical calculation.  An employee’s (somewhat forced) contributions to the social network are tabulated and converted into “retail raw,” the dollar measure of consumption they have inspired (through product placement, etc.).  All circlers are ranked, in a competitive manner, according to their presence on social media.  The effects in terms of Arendt’s notion of common sense are obvious.  Communication takes place in flat, dead prose.  Some reviewers have criticized Eggers for the writing style, but what appears to be bad writing actually matches the form to the content in this case.

Finally, it is not enough to experience reality here; all experience must be recorded, stored, and made searchable by the Circle.  Experience is thus replaced with a man made replica.  Again, the logic is that we can only know what we produce ourselves.  As all knowledge is organized according to human artifice, the human mind, observing from a sufficient distance, can find the patterns within it.  These forms, pleasing to the mind, are justifiable because they work.

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They produce practical successes.  Here, harmony is discovered because it is created.  Arendt writes:

“If it should be true that a whole universe, or rather any number of utterly different universes will spring into existence and ‘prove’ whatever over-all pattern the human mind has constructed, then man may indeed, for a moment, rejoice in a reassertion of the ‘pre-established harmony between pure mathematics and physics,’ between mind and matter, between man and the universe.  But it will be difficult to ward off the suspicion that this mathematically preconceived world may be a dream world where every dreamed vision man himself produces has the character of reality only as long as the dream lasts.”

If harmony is artificially created, then it can only last so long as it is enforced.  Indeed, in the end of the novel, when the “dream” is revealed as nightmare, Mae is faced with the choice of prolonging it.  We can find a similar final moment of hope in The Human Condition.  As she often does, Arendt has set up a crushing course of events, a seeming onslaught of catastrophe, but she leaves us with at least one ambiguous ray of light: “The idea that only what I am going to make will be real—perfectly true and legitimate in the realm of fabrication—is forever defeated by the actual course of events, where nothing happens more frequently than the totally unexpected.”

-Jennifer M. Hudson

14Feb/141

National Security and the End of American Exceptionalism

ArendtWeekendReading

Back in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin called out President Barack Obama for carrying out a foreign policy based in American exceptionalism. Around the same time conservatives in the GOP argued that President Obama was abandoning American exceptionalism, pushing a secular and even socialist agenda that leads him to apologize for American greatness. According to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon.

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Now comes Peter Beinart who writes in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself.

The core of the first part of Beinart’s argument concerns a generational shift regarding the place of religion in American society. That younger Americans are fundamentally changing their attitudes toward religious life is a theme Beinart has written about often. In short, one pillar of American exceptionalism has been its religiosity. America has long been the most religious of the western democracies. But the current younger generation is an exception.

For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.”  But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age.  In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.

Beinart’s point is that the younger generation is less religious and thus less tied to one of the core components of American exceptionalism than previous generations of Americans. That he is right is apparently beyond dispute. And it is not unimportant.

The deflation of religion removes one of the pillars that has long-distinguished American life. For Tocqueville, religiosity was necessary in a democratic country, as it gave the people a moral language to restrict the unimpeded longings of individualism. Religion also feeds the confidence and sense of purpose lends to the American project its jeremiad-like quality. And this is nowhere better illustrated than in Philip Freneau’s 1795 poem “On Mr. Paine’s Rights of Man:”

So shall our nation, formed on Virtue’s plan,
Remain the guardian of the Rights of Man,
A vast republic, famed through every clime,
Without a kind, to see the end of time.

The religious roots of American exceptionalism are well established and form the central argument of Deborah Madsen’s book American Exceptionalism. Madsen traces the doctrine to 17th century Puritan sermons and poetry, including Peter Buckley’s famous “Gospel-Covenant sermon” that proclaims,

We are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth; the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore not only the Lord our God, with whom we have made covenant, but heaven and earth, angels and men, that are witnesses of our profession, will cry shame upon us, if we walk contrary to the covenant which we have professed and promised to walk in.

According to Madsen, this religious sense of distinction and purpose translated easily to a rationalist project as well. Benjamin Franklin embraced the exceptionalist rhetoric but covered it in a rationalist patina, arguing the “providence” is a “rational principle that controls the operation of the world.” For Franklin, American newness meant that it was “unhampered by the complexities of European history and unburdened by a sophisticated class system and structure of inheritance.” Thus, Madsen writes, America “offered an unrivalled opportunity for the establishment of a democratic society based on rational principles…. Franklin represents the American errand as the creation of a secular state that is purified of the corruption of European politics and a social structure based on inherited title.”

By the time Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the vision of the United States as a unique and exemplary democracy marked by a distinct approach to freedom and equality had established itself in the nation’s psyche.

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The United States of America was understood not simply to be one country amongst many, but it was “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The survival and success of the United States was hardly a local matter, but was a grand experiment testing whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Americans understood that America mattered as an example for the world.

Seymour Lipset summed up the idea of American exceptionalism in his 1996 book American Excptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.

The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being “the first new nation,” the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d’être ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln’s emphases on the country’s “political religion.”

For Lipset, the “American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” Exceptionalism, he argues, doesn’t mean American is better than other countries. It means that America “is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier.  Exceptionalism is a double-edged concept.”

There have always been opponents of what Godfrey Hodgson calls The Myth of American Exceptionalism. And there is the question of how fully different races and classes have embraced the idea of American exceptionalism. But overall, the myth has had some basis in sociological reality. Americans were more religious than other democratic and liberal states. Americans believed they had more economic mobility, and saw their country as the first truly multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy; one that developed in fits and starts towards an ideal of equality over 200 years.

So what does it mean when this idea of American exceptionalism is in retreat? Beinart traces the increasingly suspicious attitudes of the young to traditional tenets of American exceptionalism in foreign affairs and also in economics.

When conservatives worry that America is not as economically exceptional anymore, they're right. A raft of studies suggests that upward mobility is now rarer in the United States than in much of Europe. But if America's exceptional economic mobility is largely a myth, it's a myth in which many older Americans still believe. Among the young, by contrast, attitudes are catching up to reality. According to a 2011 Pew poll, young Americans were 14 points more likely than older Americans to say that the wealthy in America got there mainly because "they know the right people or were born into wealthy families" rather than because of their "hard work, ambition, and education." And as young Americans internalize America's lack of economic mobility, they are developing the very class consciousness the United States is supposed to lack. In 2011, when Pew asked Americans to define themselves as either a "have" or a "have-not," older Americans chose "have" by 27 points. In contrast, young Americans, by a 4-point margin, chose "have-not." According to the exceptionalist story line, Americans are all supposed to consider themselves "middle class," regardless of their actual economic fortunes. For seniors, that's largely true. According to a 2012 Pew study, they were 43 points more likely to call themselves "middle" than "lower" class. Among young Americans, by contrast, the percentage calling themselves "middle" and "lower" class was virtually the same.

Perhaps the most interesting generational change Beinart identifies is what he calls the loss of American civilizational self-confidence, which he ties to our loss of religious feeling.

[A]s conservatives suspect, Americans' declining belief in our special virtue as a world power really is connected to our declining belief in our special virtue as a people. And the young are leading the way. A 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while almost two in three Americans over 65 call themselves "extremely proud to be American," among Americans under 30 it is fewer than two in five. According to a Pew study in 2011, millennials were a whopping 40 points less likely than people 75 and older to call America "the greatest country in the world."

Young Americans, in fact, are no more "civilizationally self-confident" than their European counterparts. When Pew asked respondents in 2011 whether "our culture is superior" to others, it found that Americans over the age of 50 were, on average, 15 points more likely to answer yes than their counterparts in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. Americans under 30, by contrast, were actually less likely to agree than their peers in Britain, Germany, and Spain.

It is easy to worry about the effects of the loss of exceptionalism in America, but hard to deny the truth that America is, today, increasingly less exceptional than in the past. Beinart is worried and rightly so. For what would a country be that had no common ideals? It would be a geographic entity held together by fear and bureaucratic inertia.

So Beinart holds out the hope that, in the end, Americans will reinvigorate their mythic exceptionalism. His prescription is a war on inequality that will return our faith to America as the land of economic mobility. If we can break down the Republican coalition with the plutocratic one percent and between Republicans and religionists, we could re-inspire both religious and economic exceptionalism that have undergirded so much of the progress toward social and racial justice in American history.

What Beinart’s hoped for return of American exceptionalism forgets is that historically what most distinguished America from other nation-states in Europe and elsewhere was its uniquely federalist and decentralized and constitutional structure—something that has long been abandoned and is a distant memory in today’s national security state. Not only Tocqueville in the 19th century but also Hannah Arendt in the 20th century saw in the United States a unique and exceptional country, one that for Arendt was fundamentally different from all European countries. The difference, for Tocqueville, was in America’s incredible multiplication of distinct power centers at all levels of government and society. Arendt agrees, arguing,

The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny and the same.

Arendt understood that what truly made America exceptional was its decentralized system of power, that the states did not surrender their powers to the Federal government, but that that Federal government should check the powers of the states and the considerable powers that still remained with them. By multiplying power sources, the American constitutional republic created a system that both prevented one sovereign power from acquiring tyrannical power and, equally importantly, insured that local power structures would persist that would give individual citizens reason and incentive to engage in the American practice of democratic self-government.

Arendt’s love for America, as she expressed it in her last interview, was for a country that refused to be a nation-state. “America is not a nation-state and Europeans have a hell of a time understanding this simple fact.” As a country and not a nation, America was comprised of a plurality of persons and groups that each could found and support their own institutional bases of power. Politics in America had no center, but proceeded according to the contest of local and dispersed groups. And what unites all Americans is one thing: “citizens are united only by one thing, and that’s a lot: that is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.” The Constitution in the United States is not just a scrap of paper. I it “a sacred document, it is the constant remembrance of one sacred act, and that is the act of foundation. And the foundation is to make a union out of wholly disparate ethnic minorities and regions, and still (a) have a union and (b) not assimilate or level down these differences.”  It was this view of the United States as a country that did not require the assimilation or leveling down of meaningful differences that so impressed Arendt. It was American pluralism free from a nation-state that Arendt found so exceptional.

In the same interview, however, Arendt expressed her fear that the exceptional American pluralism that she found in the country was coming to an end. And the culprit, she identified, was the rise of the national security state.

National security is a new word in the American vocabulary, and this, I think, you should know. National security is really, if I may already interpret a bit, a translation of “raison d’etat.” And “raison d’etat,” this whole notion of reason of state, never played a role in this country. This is a new import. National security now covers everything, and it covers, as you may know form the interrogation of Mr. Ehrlichman, all kinds of crimes. For instance, the president has a perfect right… the king can do no wrong; that is, he is like a monarch in a republic. He’s above the law, and his justification is always that whatever he does, he does for the sake of national security.

Arendt expressed a similar worry about the rise of a national security state in American in 1967, when she wrote:

There is no reason to doubt Mr. Allan W. Dulles’ statement that Intelligence in this country has enjoyed since 1947 “a more influential position in our government than Intelligence enjoys in any other government of the world,’ nor is there any reason to believe that this influence has decreased since he made this statement in 1958. The deadly danger of “invisible government” to the institutions of “visible government” has often been pointed out; what is perhaps less well known is the intimate traditional connection between imperialist policies and rule by “invisible government” and secret agents.

If American exceptionalism is about religious freedom and religious passion, if it is about equal rights to participate in government, if it is about populism, and if it is about a moral vision of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” then American exceptionalism is incompatible with the increasingly large, centralized, and bureaucratic security state that has emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

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Whether the security sought is national or economic security, the demand that a central government secure our freedoms lives in tension with the basic desire for freedom understood as self-government. It is the loss of that American tradition more than any other that underlies the waning belief of Americans in their exceptionalism. And for that loss, both parties are at fault.

While Beinart misses the connection between national security and the decline of American exceptionalism, his presentation of that decline is convincing, important, and troubling. His essay is well worth your time.

-RB

6Jan/140

Amor Mundi 1/5/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

The Missing NSA Debate About Capitalism

nsaHero or traitor? That is the debate The New York Times wants about Edward Snowden. But the deeper question is what, if anything, will change? Evgeny Morozov has a strong essay in The Financial Times: "Mr. Snowden created an opening for a much-needed global debate that could have highlighted many of these issues. Alas, it has never arrived. The revelations of the US's surveillance addiction were met with a rather lacklustre, one-dimensional response. Much of this overheated rhetoric - tinged with anti-Americanism and channelled into unproductive forms of reform - has been useless." The basic truth is that "No laws and tools will protect citizens who, inspired by the empowerment fairy tales of Silicon Valley, are rushing to become data entrepreneurs, always on the lookout for new, quicker, more profitable ways to monetise their own data - be it information about their shopping or copies of their genome. These citizens want tools for disclosing their data, not guarding it.... What eludes Mr. Snowden - along with most of his detractors and supporters - is that we might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities - with democracy the main victim. This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession. So to remain relevant and have some political teeth, the surveillance debate must be linked to debates about capitalism - or risk obscurity in the highly legalistic ghetto of the privacy debate."

The Non-Private World Today

worldConsidering the Fourth Amendment implications of the recent Federal injunction on the NSA's domestic spying program, David Cole notes something important about the world we're living in: "The reality of life in the digital age is that virtually everything you do leaves a trace that is shared with a third party-your Internet service provider, phone company, credit card company, or bank. Short of living off the grid, you don't have a choice in the matter. If you use a smartphone, you are signaling your whereabouts at all times, and sharing with your phone provider a track record of your thoughts, interests, and desires. Technological innovations have made it possible for all of this information to be collected, stored, and analyzed by computers in ways that were impossible even a decade ago. Should the mere existence of this information make it freely searchable by the NSA, without any basis for suspicion?"

The End of the Blog

blogJason Kottke thinks that the blog is no longer the most important new media form: "The primary mode for the distribution of links has moved from the loosely connected network of blogs to tightly integrated services like Facebook and Twitter. If you look at the incoming referers to a site like BuzzFeed, you'll see tons of traffic from Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Stumbleupon, and Pinterest but not a whole lot from blogs, even in the aggregate. For the past month at kottke.org, 14 percent of the traffic came from referrals compared to 30 percent from social, and I don't even work that hard on optimizing for social media. Sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy aren't seeking traffic from blogs anymore. Even the publicists clogging my inbox with promotional material urge me to 'share this on my social media channels' rather than post it to my blog." Of course, it may be the case that the blog form remains deeply important, but only for those blogs that people visit regularly and then distribute through social media. The major blogs are more powerful and popular than ever. What we are learning is that not everyone is a blogger.

Against Daddy Days

daddyTa-Nehisi Coates explains why he's frustrated about the way we're having the conversation about paternity leave: "So rather than hear about the stigma men feel in terms of taking care of kids, I'd like for men to think more about the stigma that women feel when they're trying to build a career and a family. And then measure whatever angst they're feeling against the real systemic forces that devalue the labor of women. I think that's what's at the root of much of this: When some people do certain work we cheer. When others do it we yawn. I appreciated the hosannas when I was strolling down Flatbush, but I doubt the female electrician walking down the same street got the same treatment."

The Professional Palate Unmasked

nyBreaking a tradition of his profession, New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt has decided to reveal his face. During his explanation, he stakes a claim for the continued importance of the critic in the digital age: "So is there still room for the steady (and, yes, sometimes weary) voice of the professional in a world where everyone's a critic? Of course there is. This is especially true in the theatrical realm of restaurants, where the quality and enjoyment of your dinner can vary dramatically depending on where you sit, what time of day you eat, how long the restaurant has been open, and what you happened to order. Anonymity would be nice, but it's always been less important than a sturdy gut and a settled palate. Most important of all, however, is a healthy expense account, because if a critic's employer allows for enough paid visits to a particular restaurant, even the most elaborately simpering treatment won't change his or her point of view."

 

13Dec/131

Trusting in Power, Not Concentrated Power

ArendtWeekendReading

Francis Fukuyama has a new essay up on “The Decay of American Political Institutions.” Fukuyama begins with a basic point that is undeniable, and is artfully made manifest in George Packer’s National Book Award Winning The Unwinding: “Many political institutions in the United States are decaying.” There are many reasons for that failure. But in Fukuyama’s analysis, two reasons stands out: First, the American penchant for addressing political problems through law, and second, the legalized corruption of interest groups. What unites these two culprits in Fukuyama’s grand synthesis is that both are born out of what he sees as a fundamentally American distrust of government.

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Distrust of government means, Fukuyama writes, that American politics has elevated the judiciary to a position of power unlike other democracies. And this has led our political institutions to decay.

The decay in the quality of American government has to do directly with the American penchant for a state of “courts and parties”, which has returned to center stage in the past fifty years. The courts and legislature have increasingly usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient. The steadily increasing judicialization of functions that in other developed democracies are handled by administrative bureaucracies has led to an explosion of costly litigation, slow decision-making and highly inconsistent enforcement of laws. The courts, instead of being constraints on government, have become alternative instruments for the expansion of government. Ironically, out of a fear of empowering “big government”, the United States has ended up with a government that is very large, but that is actually less accountable because it is largely in the hands of unelected courts.

Fukuyama knows bureaucracy can be problematic—the rule of nobody, in Arendt’s formulation—but at least bureaucrat rule is rule. In his telling, the problem is that U.S. has developed a huge bureaucracy that we don’t trust and thus limit through lawsuits, injunctions, and constitutional challenges. So we have the worst of both worlds, a large unelected and anonymous bureaucracy that is itself disempowered and neutered by an even more powerful unelected and anonymous judiciary.

Because there is “too much law,” the bureaucracy doesn’t work. What is more, the combined power of an anonymous bureaucracy and an anonymous judiciary has led to our present crisis of representative democracy, one in which Americans of all political persuasions feel that government is a foreign occupying power that is unanswerable to them. This leads in turn to a distrust of all government, a cynicism that “further reduces the quality and effectiveness of government by reducing bureaucratic autonomy.”

The fact that Americans distrust government means that they place increasing judicial and legislative roadblocks in front of governmental decisions. There is the famous multiplication of agencies and competing authorities, which offers multiple points for influence by lobbyists. As long as so many different agencies have the power to veto or slow down governmental action, government is stymied. “The longstanding distrust of the state that has always characterized American politics had led to an unbalanced form of government that undermines the prospects of necessary collective action. It has led to vetocracy.” Lobbyists thus have an outsized power to capture authorities and disproportionately impact legislation, which furthers cynicism about government. These problems are deeply ingrained in American values and in our Constitution, which makes them unsolvable. Which is the depressing note upon which Fukuyama ends his essay:

Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document. Persuading them to rethink its most basic tenets short of an outright system collapse is highly unlikely. So we have a problem.

What is striking is how Fukuyama is unable to find resources in the American Constitutional system that might reinvigorate our political institutions. It is as if the American distrust of government means that American democracy is unsalvageable. At times of partisanship, it will lead to Civil War or sclerosis. There is no alternative.

It is a mistake—although one commonly made—to understand the U.S. Constitution as one dominated by a mistrust of governmental power and thus marked by institutions designed to limit governmental power. The genius of the American Constitution, as Hannah Arendt argues, is not the limitation of power, but the multiplication of powers. More important than the three branches of the Federal government in Arendt’s account is the preservation of multiple levels of federal, state, county, city, and village power. The Congress’ power was limited not simply by the President and the Judiciary, but by the states and local authorities. The grant of powers to Congress was limited and expansion of national power was to be constrained by the power of local institutions.

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What Arendt saw in a way Fukuyama ignores is that Americans don’t distrust power so much as they distrust the concentration and centralization of power. It his been quintessentially American for citizens to engage in government, especially local government, and to take active part in public debates about political questions. From their arrival in the New World, Americans formed councils, engaged in public affairs, and empowered democratic institutions. The federalist elements of the Constitution provide ample support for vibrant democratic and local institutions.

Beyond the judicializaiton of politics and the rise of a corruption by lobbyists, another cause of the present decay of American politics is the increasingly national approach to government and the hollowing out of local institutions. There are many other causes for the increasing concentration of power and the loss of local institutional power, but there are plenty of resources for reinvigorating local self-governmental institutions in the American political tradition and in the Constitution itself. Yes, “we have a problem.” But there are always ways forward.

Francis Fukuyama’s analysis of our current political decay is powerful and important. It is your weekend read.

-RB

 

18Nov/130

Amor Mundi 11/17/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Hannah Arendt Amongst the Girls

divingIn an excerpt in the LA Review of Books adapted from her new book Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt; Kathleen Jones explores the depth and meaning of Hannah Arendt’s friendships, and especially her intimate bonds with women. “In the landscape of friendship, Hannah Arendt’s capacity stands luminous and large. From the time she was a young woman, she surrounded herself with a circle of friends with whom she exchanged gossip, ideas about politics and philosophy, opinions on culture and the state of the world, and, occasionally, romantic partners.” Jones cites Alfred Kazin who said that Arendt “confronted you with the truth; she confronted you with her friendship.” But above all, Jones explores Arendt’s friendships with women, Mary McCarthy, Lotte Kohler, Hilda Fränkel, Ann Weil (Annchen to Arendt), and Rosalie Colie (or Posie as Arendt called her). “Stories of Arendt’s female friendships such as these reveal a side of her not usually captured in more traditional portraits. Yes, her intelligence was intimidating; yes, she was judgmental, arrogant, and not easily moved from an opinion once formed — whether on ideas or people. But she was also a person of deep feeling, with an appreciation for the vagaries of the human heart. Those she allowed to come closest saw and came to depend upon that.”

Outrage

outrageCole Carter has an excellent exploration of the limits of liberal outrage in the latest issue of The Point. “Outrage can also cause us to misrepresent or mythologize the past. Morton, for instance, claims that before 9/11, our alleged toleration of torture would have been unthinkable. “We were a people who didn’t torture — whether or not this has ever been completely true, it was a bedrock element of our idea of ourselves.” As Samuel Moyn pointed out in a magnificent essay on the politics of torture in The Nation, this story of regression doesn’t match the historical record. Moyn tells us that torture’s current status as an unspeakable taboo is actually quite recent, tracing its origins to the international human rights movement, which gained steam following the end of decolonization in the early 1970s. Throughout the early twentieth century, and for centuries before, colonial Western powers (the French in Algeria, the British in Malaya, and yes, the United States in the Philippines) were torturing their subjects with hardly a twinge of guilt…. The left’s taste for outrage encourages a minimalist politics which, as a result of a triage of an almost unlimited supply of atrocities, seeks to curb only the most willful and obvious abuses of power. As the possibility of transforming society has receded, the left has contented itself with condemning the worst aspects of the present system.”

When the Ape Inside Us Speaks

apeIn an interview about his new novel A Beautiful Truth, told partially from the perspective of chimpanzees, Colin McAdam thinks through whether or not language is simply a means to an end: "It seems to contradict all the poetry in me, but I feel passionate about us as a species trying to understand what unites us with other apes rather than what distinguishes us. When I was reading various ape language studies — especially those involving sign language, where the relationship between the movement of hands and the movement of the tongue is seated in the same neurological space — I came to understand the physicality of words, that they come from the same place as tool use. For me, understanding words as tools is a way of not distancing ourselves from other apes, of finding that kinship more deeply. My talking to you right now is me trying to convince you of my worldview, trying to show you how I perceive things. You can look at that as being kind of Machiavellian and cynical — repulsive and reductive — but that’s what it is. When anyone is talking to anyone else, we’re trying to make them see what we’re seeing." One wonders if manual dexterity and persuasive force have much to do with the spiritual reveries unleashed by Robert Frost’s “Good fences make good neighbors”?

Losing One's Way in Dante's City

duomoIn an essay about her father and her love of public gardens, Zadie Smith describes getting lost in Florence: "Many people set out from a Florence hotel with the hope of getting to a particular place—few ever get there. You step into a narrow alleyway, carta di città in hand, walk confidently past the gelato place, struggle through the crowd at the mouth of the Ponte Vecchio, take a left, and find yourself in some godforsaken shady vicolo near a children’s hospital, where the temperature is in the 100s and someone keeps trying to sell you a rip-off Prada handbag. You look up pleadingly at the little putty babies. You take a right, a left, another right—here is the Duomo again. But you have already seen the Duomo. In Florence, wherever you try to get to, you end up at the Duomo, which seems to be constantly changing its location. The heat builds and the walls of the alleys feel very high; the thought of a green oasis is tantalizing but last time you remember seeing grass was that little strip in front of the train station. Will you ever see it again?"

Didn't See it Coming

confDiscussing his new book The Confidence Trap, David Runciman suggests that there's a reason democracies can't see, and therefore stop, crises before they happen: Tocqueville saw a link between the tendency of democracies to overreact and their propensity to drift. Because democracies are full of people running around saying the sky is falling in – panic sells far more newspapers than calm reflection does – they also have an inbuilt tendency to discount warnings of disaster. Since the sky rarely falls in, why listen to the people warning of disaster. So mistaking minor dislocations for real crises goes along with mistaking real crises for minor dislocations. That’s why so few people saw the crisis of 2008 coming before it arrived and why the ones who did were routinely ignored."

Featured Events

November 20, 2013

The Letters Between Hannah Arendt and Alfred Kazin

A Lunchtime Talk with Thomas Wild and Matthius Bormuth

The Hannah Arendt Center

Learn more here.

November 26, 2013

Spaces of "Politics" - Aspects of Transnationality in Arendt's Thinking

A Lunchtime Talk with Stefania Maffeis

The Hannah Arendt Center

Learn more here.

 

This week on the Blog

This week on the blog, Roger Berkowitz responds to Mark Lilla’s criticisms of Hannah Arendt in the New York Review of Books; Na’ama Rokem considers the final scenes of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity and Margharethe Von Trotta's Hannah Arendt; the former is certainly an action scene, but what if the latter is too?

1Nov/130

Canard of Decline

ArendtWeekendReading

The secret of American exceptionalism may very well be the uniquely American susceptibility to narratives of decline. From the American defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet launch of Sputnik to the quagmire in Afghanistan and the current financial crisis, naysayers proclaim the end of the American century. And yet the prophecies of decline are nearly always, in a uniquely American spirit, followed by calls for rejuvenation. Americans are neither pessimists nor optimists. Instead, they are darkened by despair and fired by hope.

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Decline, writes Josef Joffe in a recent essay in The American Interest, “is as American as apple pie. “ The tales of decline that populate American cultural myths have many morals, but one common shared theme: Renewal.

“Decline Time in America” is never just a disinterested tally of trends and numbers. It is not about truth, but about consequences—as in any morality tale. Declinism tells a story to shape belief and change behavior; it is a narrative that is impervious to empirical validation, whose purpose is to bring comforting coherence to the flow of events. The universal technique of mythic morality tales is dramatization and hyperbole. Since good news is no news, bad news is best in the marketplace of ideas. The winning vendor is not Pollyanna but Henny Penny, also known as Chicken Little, who always sees the sky falling. But why does alarmism work so well, be it on the pulpit or on the hustings—whatever the inconvenient facts?

Joffe, the editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, writes from the lofty perch of an all-knowing cultural critic. Declinism is, when looked at from above, little more than a marketing pitch:

Since biblical times, prophets have never gone to town on rosy oratory, and politicos only rarely. Fire and brimstone are usually the best USP, “unique selling proposition” in marketing-speak.

The origins of modern declinism, pace Joffe, are found in “the serial massacre that was World War I,” the rapacious carnage that revealed “the evil face of technology triumphant.” WWI deflated the enlightenment optimism in reason and science, showing instead the destructive impact of those very same progressive ideals.

The knowledge that raised the Eiffel Tower also birthed the machine gun, allowing one man to mow down a hundred without having to slow down for reloading. Nineteenth-century chemistry revolutionized industry, churning out those blessings from petroleum to plastics and pharmacology that made the modern world. But the same labs also invented poison gas. The hand that delivered good also enabled evil. Worse, freedom’s march was not only stopped but reversed. Democracy was flattened by the utopia-seeking totalitarians of the 20th century. Their utopia was the universe of the gulag and the death camp. Their road to salvation led to a war that claimed 55 million lives and then to a Cold War that imperiled hundreds of millions more.

America, the land of progress in Joffe’s telling, now exists in a productive tension with the anti-scientific tale of the “death of progress.”

“Technology and plenty, the critics of the Enlightenment argued, would not liberate the common man, but enslave him in the prison of “false consciousness” built by the ruling elites. The new despair of the former torchbearers of progress may well be the reason that declinism flourishes on both Left and Right. This new ideological kinship alone does not by itself explain any of the five waves of American declinism, but it has certainly broadened its appeal over time.

Joffe stands above both extremes of the declinism pendulum. Instead of embracing or rejecting the tale of decline, he names decline and its redemptive flipside the driving force of American exceptionalism. Myths of decline are necessary in order to fuel the exceptional calls for sacrifice, work, and innovation that have for centuries turned the tide of American elections and American culture.

[D]awn always follows doom—as when Kennedy called out in his Inaugural Address: “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear who had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted: “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back”, and again on top. Collapse was yesterday; today is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration—and wilts quickly after the next victory.

Over and over the handwriting that showed that decline was on the wall was, in truth, “a call to arms that galvanized the nation.”

Behind this long history of nightmares of degeneration and dreams of rebirth is Joffe’s ultimate question: Are the current worries about the death of the American century simply the latest in the American cycle of gloom and glee? Or is it possible that the American dream is, finally, used up? In other words, is it true that, since “at “some point, everything comes to an end,” this may be the end for America? Might it be that, as many in Europe now argue, “The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010.” Is it true that the US is a “hate-filled country” in unavoidable decline?

Joffe is skeptical. Here is his one part of his answer:

Will they be proven right in the case of America? Not likely. For heuristic purposes, look at some numbers. At the pinnacle of British power (1870), the country’s GDP was separated from that of its rivals by mere percentages. The United States dwarfs the Rest, even China, by multiples—be it in terms of GDP, nuclear weapons, defense spending, projection forces, R&D outlays or patent applications. Seventeen of the world’s top universities are American; this is where tomorrow’s intellectual capital is being produced. America’s share of global GDP has held steady for forty years, while Europe’s, Japan’s and Russia’s have shrunk. And China’s miraculous growth is slipping, echoing the fates of the earlier Asian dragons (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) that provided the economic model: high savings, low consumption, “exports first.” China is facing a disastrous demography; the United States, rejuvenated by steady immigration, will be the youngest country of the industrial world (after India).

In short, if America is to decline it will be because America refuses to stay true to its tradition of innovation and reinvention.

As convincing as Joffe is, the present danger that America’s current malaise will persist comes less from economics or from politics than from the extinguishing of the nation’s moral fire. And in this regard, essays such as Joffe’s are symptoms of the problem America faces. Joffe writes from above and specifically from the position of the social scientist. He looks down on America and American history and identifies trends. He cites figures. And he argues that in spite of the worry, all is generally ok. Inequality? Not to worry, it has been worse. Democratic sclerosis? Fret not; think back to the 1880s. Soul-destroying partisanship? Have you read the newspapers of the late 18th century? In short, our problems are nothing new under the sun. Keep it in perspective. There is painfully little urgency in such essays. Indeed, they trade above all in a defense of the status quo.

There is reason to worry though, and much to worry about. Joffe may himself have seen one such worry if he had lingered longer on an essay he cites briefly, but does not discuss. In 1954, Hannah Arendt published “Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” in Commentary Magazine. In that essay—originally given as part of a series of talks at Princeton University on the relationship between Europe and America—she asked: “WHAT IMAGE DOES Europe have of America?”

Her answer is that Europe has never seen America as an exotic land like the South Sea Islands. Instead, there are two conflicting images of America that matter for Europeans. Politically, America names the very European dream of political liberty. In this sense, America is less the new world than the embodiment of the old world, the land in which European dreams of equality and liberty are made manifest. The political nearness of Europe and America explains their kinship.

European anti-Americanism, however, is lodged in a second myth about American, the economic image of America as the land of plenty. This European image of America’s stupendous wealth may or may not be borne out in reality, but it is a fantasy that drives European opinion:

America, it is true, has been the “land of plenty” almost since the beginning of its history, and the relative well-being of all her inhabitants deeply impressed even early travelers. … It is also true that the feeling was always present that the difference between the two continents was greater than national differences in Europe itself even if the actual figures did not bear this out. Still, at some moment—presumably after America emerged from her long isolation and became once more a central preoccupation of Europe after the First World War—this difference between Europe and America changed its meaning and became qualitative instead of quantitative. It was no longer a question of better, but of altogether different conditions, of a nature which makes understanding well nigh impossible. Like an invisible but very real Chinese wall, the wealth of the United States separates it from all other countries of the globe, just as it separates the individual American tourist from the inhabitants of the countries he visits.

Arendt’s interest in this “Chinese wall” that separates Europe from America is that it lies behind the anti-Americanism of European liberals, even as it inspires the poor. “As a result,” of this myth, Arendt writes, “sympathy for America today can be found, generally speaking, among those people whom Europeans call “reactionary,” whereas an anti-American posture is one of the best ways to prove oneself a liberal.” The same can largely be said today.

The danger in such European anti-Americanism is not only that it will fire a European nationalism, but also that it will  cast European nationalism as an ideological opposition to American wealth. “Anti-Americanism, its negative emptiness notwithstanding, threatens to become the content of a European movement.” In other words, European nationalism threatens to assume on a negative ideological tone.

That Europe will understand itself primarily in opposition to America as a land of wealth impacts America too, insofar as European opposition hardens Americans in their own mythic sense of themselves as a land of unfettered economic freedom and unlimited wealth. European anti-Americanism thus fosters the kind of free market ideology so rampant in America today.

What is more, when Europe and America emphasize their ideological opposition on an economic level, they deemphasize their political kinship as lands of freedom.

Myths of American decline serve a purpose on both sides of the Atlantic.

doom

In Europe, they help justify Europe’s social democratic welfare states, as well as their highly bureaucratized regulatory state. In America, they underlie attacks on regulation and calls to limit and shrink government. These are all important issues that should be thought and debated with an eye to reality. The danger is that the European emancipation and American exceptionalism threatens to elevate ideology over reality, hardening positions that need rather to be open for innovation.

Joffe’s essay on the Canard of Decline is a welcome spur to rethinking the gloom and the glee of our present moment. It is your weekend read.

-RB

22Oct/131

“The Lost Treasure of Arendt’s Council System”

ArendtBookreview1

"The Lost Treasure of Arendt's Council System"

James Muldoon, Critical Horizons 12.3 (2011)

Muldoon sees Arendt's advocacy of the council system at the end of On Revolution as a challenge to the excessive individualism enshrined in current structures of liberal representative government. He positions his argument between critics such as Margaret Canovan, who see Arendt's proposal as an impractical and nostalgic "embarrassment" and Jeffrey Issac's proposal that Arendt's ideas can be simply grafted on to current democratic structures to improve civic participation. Instead, Muldoon sees Arendt proposing a "blending together of constituent power and constitutional form" (398). Here something of the initiatory spring of action (the "lost treasure" of the title) that founds government would be maintained in their later operation.

The standard view of On Revolution among political theorists in the United States is that, against the Marxist revolutionary tradition, it praises the American Revolution for the stability of institutional freedom that it institutes while criticizing the French Revolution for opening the way to impossible political demands for the social needs of the body such as food and shelter. Less often do critics acknowledge that Arendt's reevaluation of the American Revolution concludes with the criticism that it failed to preserve a space for direct citizen participation. In framing his argument in terms of the "post-Cold War return to Arendt," Muldoon offers a productive way to address a range of second-wave interest in her thought.

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Against charges of the danger of elitism that could arise through direct democracy which have their source in passages from Arendt that harshly critical of the current representative system, Muldoon refers to other passages that testify to her support of the Constitution and thus its defense of fundamental rights. With a council system, those who are interested in politics would have more power than those who refuse to participate, but Muldoon does not see this as a major drawback. After all, most people do not vote in the current U.S. system so there is little to lose in this regard. This move exemplifies Muldoon's general approach of offering resolutions to apparently contradictory passages in Arendt by limiting their scope and then proposing ways they might instead complement each other.

Muldoon also addresses another important objection of many readers of On Revolution: the council system would merely step away from the larger state to smaller sites of representation. Instead, he rephrases the question of lower / higher steps of governance in terms of a spatial model. For Arendt "[p]olitics is not concerned with 'ruling,' but rather the creation of a public space between plural human beings where they can act in concert" (403). While acknowledging that the specifics of Arendt's plan are sparse, Muldoon sees the proposal of spontaneous local councils as a way of creating new public space in which people then agree through discussion on one member to send to the next level of councils. Here we can recall that for all its radical affirmation of councils in Jefferson and the Paris Commune, strong explicit statements in On Revolution admit that in a large country the council can only work at the local level. This does not mean that we just fall back to standard political representation at the national level though, and Arendt's at time vague suggestions call for closer examination and reflective investigation.

In another striking aspect of this article, Muldoon moves on to consider a group of writers who critique liberal democracy. Importantly, he offers the thesis that authors including Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and Antonio Negri, owe a debt to Arendt in their broader approach to sovereignty that has so far been obscured by their criticism of specific aspect of her thought. More work needs to be done to back up this claim. Of the three, Muldoon only details Negri's priority of constituent power over constitutional form and suggests that Arendt's term "council-state" (412) could keep some of the energy of the origins of political action while not giving way fully to revolutionary impulses that threaten all order.

Muldoon has a clear sense of the most pressing question in On Revolution in a time of  intense debate in the U.S. regarding the influence of lobbying and the related issue of gerrymandering in politics (to say nothing of the electoral college that at the start of the 21st century decisively affected the presidential election). For Arendt: "the question which has plagued all modern revolutions is this: how does one found a free state and commence a cycle of ordinary/instituted politics without the extraordinary moment of political freedom inherent in the founding at disappearing in the process?" (p.411). In other words, how can citizens continue to see themselves not only as defenders of the Constitution, but as actively authorized to address pressing economic, social, and ecological problems that Congress refuses to confront?

-Jeffrey Champlin

21Oct/130

Of Ceilings and Binders: The Case for Satire

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“Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.  One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase…into the dustbin where it belongs.”

 -George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

I was rereading Orwell’s great 1946 essay this morning, as I prepare to be hurtled back across the continent and into that black miasma engulfing the Atlantic coast from the great belching factories on the Potomac.  There is something in the air: the newspapers smack against doors a little harder, the grumble in the deli line is a little more fractious, and the smaller canines seem still more invested than usual in expansionist aggression against my outer territories.  Perhaps it’s simply the first signs of the descent of winter, but I’m inclined to attribute the collective ill-temper to more political causes, and “Politics and the English Language” seemed as important as my totemic Emergen-C packets to avoid contracting anything unpleasant.  Like much of the late Orwell, I find its linguistic politics slightly repugnant and its language an utter delight, an irony that would, I have no doubt, have the pleased the author.

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I’ve  known a number of professors of history and politics who make this essay mandatory reading before their classes, and despite my better graces I’m leaning towards the practice.  The attraction for me is less the cantankerous attempt to ward off bad essay-writing than the fact that Orwell explains, in his inimitable way, something fundamental about the politics of language and the languages of politics, and that lesson is one that I think is particularly salient for the political moment.  The second to last sentence of the essay (the first that opens the quotation above) is much quoted, and it finds the most powerful expressions of its searing critique of the political manipulation of language in 1984 and Animal Farm.  Maybe the existence of this pathology of political language is the one great lesson we managed to learn from the twin births of totalitarianism Arendt diagnosed (I’m less sanguine about our memory in other arenas), even if treatment for the condition has not gone terribly well: we are all well-aware of, if not always well-attuned to, the nearly infinite capacity of our languages to bear and even beautify raw, enormous dissembly.  And, as in 1984, the most powerful dissemblies of the blustery political day are the pithy little gems – “death tax,” “death panel,” “debt ceiling” (conservative politicians in particular have a perennial fondness for D) – which manage to imagine into being a crisis capable of paralyzing a state.

Nevertheless you almost never read anyone quote what follows after the political respectability of murder for Orwell, the thought that concludes the essay and explains its form.  More’s the pity, because it contains a point that I think just might be more salient for the particular political crisis that gripped Washington and then whimpered off into the sunset (the night that follows is always a bit too brief, and is getting shorter).  The question, for Orwell, is not whether political language lies, but what one does with the species of neologism – the “Achilles’ heel” and the “yellow peril” – which seems to all tempered response almost utterly devoid of meaning, and yet manages nevertheless to grip a (part of a) national imagination and twist it into factual destruction.

It was, to be sure, an imaginary crisis.  But nearly all crises have to be imagined into existence before they can take those first few shaky steps towards disaster without their parents’ support.  Imagining facts into the world, Arendt reminds us in “Lying and Politics,” is the entire point of political language.  It exists to craft the narratives that move nations, and the power to imagine crisis is not one that we necessarily want to do without altogether (perhaps Churchill was an Arendtian before Arendt when he suggested that Chamberlain’s greatest political vice was an extraordinary lack of imagination).  All crises begin with facts – there is after all such a bureaucratic thing as the fiscal limit called the “debt ceiling” – but facts, Arendt reminds us,  can be remarkably impotent in the political world until we have spun them finely and woven them with enough meanings to make them live. The trouble with crises is not that they are imagined, but that after they have been imagined into the world, they are remarkably difficult to unimagine.  If Boehner has learned anything about political language, this month, it is how little control we exercise over the neologisms we release into the world once they are in the mouths of others.

So what to do about these little political language imps, if they’re to be stopped before they wreck the political machines that spit them out?  This is where I find Orwell brilliant as a political writer, a representative of a literary tradition that stretches from Chaucer through Swift to Burgess and Vonnegut.  Orwell’s answer here, perhaps more recognizable in Burmese Days and Road to Wigan Pier than in their later cousins, is to jeer: in other words, to make language – and language, not speakers – an object of mirth.  This impulse never left Orwell.  For all that 1984 is decisively, almost irresistibly crushing, it is also one of the darkest, bitterest exercises in history of a political tool of the arts of language that has always thrived when the political world is at its worst: irony and mirth in the face of horror.  We forget that about 1984, perhaps because the young are often assigned the book before our little burgeoning faculties of irony are fully sensitive to what Arendt calls a “vulnerability to human unsuccess”…or then again, perhaps the opposite is more true, that we understood it then, and forget as we struggle to shed that vulnerability Arendt describes as the killer of poets.

Some are suspicious of jokesters and satirists in moments of political crisis, on the one hand because they seem to rarely offer any positive way forward, and on the other because they work to make light of things that, in their graveness, ought not be made light of.  Arendt herself emerged from the pale of the events that offer our best examples of horror’s power to make us resist its translation into humor (though it should be remembered that one of her first pieces after the war was the darkly witty “We, The Refugees”).  In that, we risk becoming horror’s willing agents, but perhaps in some cases it has already won its victories and we can only subsequently mourn.  It’s a difficult question, which terrible things can be made funny, and those who would play in the languages of politics should be granted a measure of leniency for those times when they traipse over the line.  In their defense, that line is one that can never be drawn in advance, because it comes bearing ever-shifting whens and whoms that can always be pushed further back by an extraordinary gift that not even the most talented satirists can live up to in every moment.  The line can be pushed back, and should be pushed back, because when undertaken by the most talented, satire and seriousness have never been opposites, but on the contrary are what allow each other to do the utmost that they can do.  This is what made Orwell, for all his limitations, one of the great political writers of and on the English language: in the face first of empire and then of anti-semitic totalitarianism, he staked his artistic life on a faith in the power to express what is most utterly serious better through wit, to join the sustaining narrative power of sad mirth to the deepest and most inexpressible of pains.  The lesson of “Shooting an Elephant” always seemed to me to be something along the lines of an idea that horror must be swallowed just long enough to give us sustenance, if we are to go once more into the breach against it.  It’s a difficult and contentious thought, but worth swallowing.

This, in turn, is why the satire of language, in particular, does offer a way forward.  It’s a case that Orwell makes and has been made brilliantly in a more American vein by Pryor, Carlin, and its modern geniuses Dave Chappell, Jon Stewart, and Tina Fey.  If our morasses are mostly made of imaginings, in fact for better or worse must be, then the talent for jeering precisely those imaginative failings that turn crises into disasters is our best hope for sorting out in time what is more silliness than substance, what we should and what we cannot afford to leave to laughter.  Orwell’s talent is one we should be paying more attention to as things get blacker, not less, because ungentle teasing by that gift’s greatest artists may be our last, best hope of sorting through a world of imagined politics and its deafening neologisms.  The most gifted have unleashed some imps of their own: who will now forget poor Mittens’ binders full of women?

binders

It is commonplace, on both sides of the political spectrum, to wail and gnash about the sheer irrationality of some ways of understanding America’s problems.  But there are some forms of attachment, especially those that seem to inhere powerfully in these little language-imps, that the aesthetics of detached analysis and even fiery polemic are simply ill-equipped to combat.  When debating has become shouting, neither louder shouting nor studiously detached sermonism are likely to have much effect.  Sometimes, someone needs to kick out the soapbox.

We do need communities of analysis, communities of clear-eyed engagement in a political world so thoroughly fogged over with huff-puffery, and that will always give those like the author not blessed with the flair for jest something to do with ourselves (my closest friends assure me that I’m terrifyingly unfunny, and it’s true, but I’d like to still have something to do, even if it’s to be a lighthouse without a beacon or a coast).  Fate save us, though, from ever being delivered wholly over to the hands of the terminally serious, because it might just be that the emotional sacrifices of our jesters that are our best offerings to appease the gods of democracy.  As a public feeling powerless and deeply estranged from its state looks for ways “one can at least change one’s own habits”, a daily dose of satire with strong coffee may be better for political revival than what punditry and prognosis have on offer.

-Ian Storey