Katie Fitzpatrick, a PhD candidate at Brown University who is working on law, democracy, and civil disobedience in the post-war American novel, recently shared with the Hannah Arendt Center this picture of her personal library of Hannah Arendt's works on Twitter.
Arendt’s work is central to my dissertation on law and democracy in the post-war American novel. My Arendtian “library” is really just a shelf in a tiny graduate student office, but it gives a sense of the scope of the project. I’ve been reading Arendt’s work in the context of democratic philosophy (Rousseau), post-war intellectual history (Trilling), Anglo-American legal theory (Hart, Fuller, Dworkin) and contemporary political critique (Agamben, Honig, Mouffe). This summer, I hope to add work by Ralph Ellison and Danielle Allen, which will help me to think more critically about Arendt's writings on race and civil rights.
In addition to following us on Twitter, Katie is a regular participant in our virtual reading group. To learn more about this membership-only offering, please click here.
Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library?
Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we might feature them on our blog!
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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.
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.
Peter Ludlow in the Stone remarks on the generational divide in attitudes towards whistle blowers, leakers, and hackers. According to Time Magazine, “70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. This fits a general trend, one heralded by Rick Falkvinge—founder of the European Pirate Parties—at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last year, that young people value transparency above institutional democratic procedures. Distrusting government and institutions, there is a decided shift towards a faith in transparency and unfettered disclosure. Those who expose such in information are lauded for their courage in the name of the freedom of information.
Ludlow agrees and cites Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolf Eichmann for support of his contention that leakers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning acted justly and courageously:
“In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called “the banality of evil.” One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolf Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their “proper” roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing — or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.”
Ludlow insists: “For the leaker and whistleblower the answer to [those who argue it is hubris for leakers to make the moral decision to expose wrongdoing], is that there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord. Systems are optimized for their own survival and preventing the system from doing evil may well require breaking with organizational niceties, protocols or laws. It requires stepping outside of one’s assigned organizational role.” In other words, bureaucratic systems have every incentive to protect themselves, thus leading to both dysfunction and injustice. We depend upon the actions of individuals who say simply: “No, I can’t continue to allow such injustice to go on.” Whistle blowers and leakers are essential parts of any just bureaucratic organization.
Ludlow’s insight is an important one: It is that the person who thinks for himself and stands alone from the crowd can—in times of crisis when the mass of people are thoughtlessly carried away by herd instincts and crowd mentality—act morally simply by refusing to go along with the collective performance of injustice. The problem is that if Snowden and Manning had simply resigned, their acts of resistance would have had minimal impact. To make a difference and to act in the name of justice, they had to release classified material. In effect, they had to break the law. Ludlow’s claim is that they did so morally and in the name of justice.
But is Ludlow correct to enlist Arendt in support of leakers such as Snowden and Manning? It is true that Arendt deeply understands the importance of individuals who resist the easy path of conformity in the name of doing right. Perhaps nowhere is the importance of such action made more markedly manifest than in her telling of the mention of Anton Schmidt when his name appeared in the testimony of the Eichmann trial:
At this slightly tense moment, the witness happened to mention the name of Anton Schmidt, a Feldwebel, or sergeant, in the German Army - a name that was not entirely unknown to this audience, for Yad Vashem had published Schmidt's story some years before in its Hebrew Bulletin, and a number of Yiddish papers in America had picked it up. Anton Schmidt was in, charge of a patrol in Poland that collected stray German soldiers who were cut off from their units. In the course of doing this, he had run into members of the Jewish underground, including Mr. Kovner, a prominent member, and he had helped the Jewish partisans by supplying them with forged papers and military trucks. Most important of all: "He did not do it for money." This had gone on for five months, from October, 1941, to March, 1942, when Anton Schmidt was arrested and executed. (The prosecution had elicited the story because Kovner declared that he had first heard the name of Eichmann from Schmidt, who had told him about rumors in the Army that it was Eichmann who "arranges everything.") ….
During the few minutes it took Kovner to tell of the help that had come from a German sergeant, a hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence in honor of the man named Anton Schmidt. And in those two minutes, which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question - how utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told.
For Arendt, great civil disobedients from Socrates to Thoreau play important and essential roles in the political realm. What is more, Arendt fully defends Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers. It seems, therefore, that it is appropriate to enlist her in support of the modern day whistleblowers.
There is, however, a problem with this reading. Socrates, Thoreau, and Ellsberg all gave themselves up to the law and allowed themselves to be judged by and within the legal system. In this regard, they differ markedly from Snowden, Manning and others who have sought to remain anonymous or to flee legal judgment. For Arendt, this difference is meaningful.
Consider the case of Shalom Schwartzbard, which Arendt addresses in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Schwartzbard was a Jew who assassinated the leader of Ukranian pogroms in the streets of Paris. Schwartzbard stood where he took his revenge, waited for the police, admitted his act of revenge, and put himself on trial. He claimed to have acted justly at a time when the legal system was refusing to do justice. And a French jury acquitted him.
For Arendt, the Schwartzbard case stands for an essential principle of justice: that to break the law and act justly, one must then bring oneself back into the law. She writes:
He who takes the law into his own hands will render a service to justice only if he is willing to transform the situation in such a way that the law can again operate and his act can, at least posthumously, be validated.
What allows Schwartzbard to serve the end of justice is that he took the risk of putting himself on trial and asked a court of law and a jury to determine whether what he did was just, even it were also illegal. By doing so, Schwartzbard not only claimed that his act was a matter of personal conscience; he insisted as well that it was legal if one understood the laws rightly. He asked the representatives of the law—the French jury—to publicly agree with his claim and to vindicate him. He had no guarantee they would do so. When they did, their judgment brought the justice of Schwartzbard’s act to the bright light of the public and also cast the legal system’s inaction—its refusal to arrest war criminals living openly in Paris—in the shadow of darkness.
When I have suggested to colleagues and friends that Snowden’s flight to Moscow and his refusal to stand trial makes it impossible to see his release of the NSA documents as an act of justice, their response mirrors the argument made by Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg—who turned himself over to the police after releasing the Pentagon Papers—has defended Snowden’s decision to flee. The United States of 2013, he argues, is simply no longer the United States of the 1960s. When Ellsberg turned himself in, he was released on bail and given legal protections. He has no faith that the legal system today would treat Snowden with such respect. More likely Snowden would be imprisoned, possibly in solitary confinement. Potentially he would be tortured. There is every reason to believe, Ellsberg and others argue, that Snowden would not receive a fair trial. Under such circumstances, Snowden’s flight is, these supporters argue, justifiable.
I fully admit that it is likely that Snowden would have been treated much less generously than was Ellsberg. But aside from the fact that Snowden never gave the courts the chance to treat him justly, his refusal to submit to the law makes it impossible for his act of disobedience to shine forth as a claim of doing justice. He may claim that he acted in the public interest. He may argue that he acted out of conscience. And he may say he wants a public debate about the rightness of U.S. policy. He may be earnest in all these claims. But the fact that he fled and did not “transform the situation in such a way that the law can again operate and his act can be validated,” means that he does not, in the end, “render a service to justice.” On the contrary, by fleeing, Snowden gives solace to those who portray him as a criminal and make it easier for those who would to discredit him.
All of this is not to say that Snowden was wrong to release the NSA documents. It is clearly the case that the security state has gone off the rails and become encased in a bubble of fearful conformity that justifies nearly any act in the name of security. We do need such a public conversation about these policies and to the extent that Snowden and Manning have helped to encourage one, I am thankful to them. That said, Manning’s anonymity and Snowden’s flight have actually distracted attention from the question of the justice of their acts and focused attention instead on their motives and personal characters. They have, by resisting the return to law, diluted their claims to act justly.
It is a lot to ask that someone risk their life to act justly. But the fact that justice asks much of us is fundamental to the nature of justice itself: That justice, as opposed to legality, is always extreme, exceptional, and dangerous. Arendt knew well that those who act justly may lose their life, as did Socrates and Anton Schmidt. She knew well that those who act justly may lose their freedom, like Nelson Mandela. But she also knew that even those who die or are isolated will, by their courage in the service of justice, shine light into a world of shadows.
Peter Ludlow’s essay on the Banality of Systematic Evil is well worth reading. He is right that it is important for individuals to think for themselves and be willing to risk civil disobedience when they are convinced that bureaucracies have lost their moral bearings. It is your weekend read. And if you want to read more about Arendt and the demands of justice, take a look at this essay on Arendt’s discussion of the Shalom Schwartzbard case.
Hannah Arendt’s life and work defy easy categorization, so I tend to be skeptical when a writer tries to encapsulate her oeuvre in a few catchwords. After all, previous efforts at concise assessment have typically led to reductive if not tendentious misreadings. So I was both pleased and surprised by sociologist Natan Sznaider’s book Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order (2011), which sharpens our understanding of Arendt’s thought by locating her within a specific historical milieu and intellectual genealogy. Briefly put, Sznaider portrays Arendt as both a Jewish and a cosmopolitan thinker, one whose arguments strike a fine balance between the particular and the universal.
This formulation obviously raises questions about Sznaider’s conception of key terms, including “Jewish” and “cosmopolitan.” With regard to the former, he contends that Arendt should be grasped as a Jewish thinker because she was intimately involved in the political debate and activity that defined Jewish life in the years before and after the Holocaust. As Sznaider notes, Arendt defined her Jewishness first and foremost as “a political stance”. She participated in Zionist mobilization when she still lived in Germany and in the founding of the World Jewish Congress during her time in Paris. She retrieved Jewish books, manuscripts, and other artifacts from Europe in her work for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She spoke and wrote as a Jew when she discussed the nature of guilt, responsibility, and memory after the destruction of European Jewry. And, of course, she stirred controversy in American, German, and Israeli circles for her portrayal of Eichmann and her sharp criticisms of Europe’s Jewish leadership. Sznaider convincingly argues that Arendt’s politics, molded in the heat of twentieth-century Jewish activism, left a deep imprint on her political theory. Without grasping her specific engagements as a Jew, he insists, we cannot comprehend her more general pronouncements on rights, totalitarianism, and a host of other topics.
This point has important implications for Sznaider’s conception of cosmopolitanism. In his view, cosmopolitanism
combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state…. It neither orders differences hierarchically nor dissolves them, but accepts them as such—indeed, invests them with positive value. It is sensitive to historic cultural particularities, respecting the specific dignity and burden of a group, a people, a culture, a religion. Cosmopolitanism affirms what is excluded both by hierarchical difference and by universal equality—namely, perceiving others as different and at the same time equal.
Sznaider’s rendering fits comfortably within recent discussions of “rooted” and “vernacular” cosmopolitanism. He insists that people only create and live forms of worldliness on the basis of their particular experiences, histories, and identities. He thereby distinguishes cosmopolitanism from “universalist” modes of thought, which in his understanding treat people as abstract individuals and do not recognize their specific attachments. Sznaider identifies universalist impulses in a number of intellectual and ideological movements, but he draws particular attention to the Enlightenment and the nationalist ideologies that emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. Both offer Jews inclusion and equality—but only, it seems, if they stop being Jewish.
In Sznaider’s reading, Arendt’s thought is cosmopolitan in precisely this “rooted” sense. Like a number of other twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals, she relied on Jewish particularity to advance broader, even “universal” claims about the nature of modern life and politics. (I use Sznaider’s language here, although I believe he could have more carefully distinguished the “universal” dimensions of Arendt’s thought from the “universalist” projects that he decries.) European Jewish experiences of persecution, for example, offered Arendt a crucial lens through which to analyze the potentials and paradoxes of minority and human rights. She also relied on the destruction of European Jewry to reflect on the emerging concept of “crimes against humanity”—without, at the same time, losing sight of the Holocaust’s irreducible specificity. Arendt’s attentiveness to both the particular and the universal is evident in her description of Nazi mass murder as “a crime against humanity committed on the bodies of the Jewish people.”
Sznaider provides a particularly good account of the ways that Arendt resisted early attempts to “generalize” the Holocaust. In her exchanges with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for instance, she resisted the suggestion that the mass killing of Jews was but one “holocaust” among others. She also challenged the notion that the destruction of European Jewry was a paradigmatic modern event that all human beings, in one way or another, shared in common. For Arendt, such claims not only neglected the history of a specifically Jewish catastrophe, but also absolved its German perpetrators of their particular responsibility.
Sznaider’s favorable assessment of Arendt in this case represents an interesting development in his own thought: in a 2005 book that he wrote with Daniel Levy, Sznaider had been a good deal more sympathetic to the formation of a globalized Holocaust memory. At that time, he and his co-author regarded worldwide remembrance of the Nazi genocide as an important means to transcend national frames of reference and promote a cosmopolitan human rights regime. Little of that position remains in Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. Instead, Sznaider takes critical aim at one fashionable contemporary thinker, Giorgio Agamben, for lifting the Nazi concentration camps out of their historical context and recasting them as the epitome of modern sovereign power.
I sympathize with this reading of Agamben, whose provocative claims tend to outstrip the empirical cases on which they are based. Yet in one respect Sznaider could also be more careful about the generalization if not “universalization” of Jewish experience. He is too quick at a few points to position Jews as the embodiments and carriers of modernity’s virtues, too hasty in his portrayal of the Diaspora as the paradigm for de-territorialization and cosmopolitanism as such. In a 1993 article, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin—the one a Talmudic studies scholar, the other an anthropologist—cautioned us against “allegorizing” Jews as the exemplary Other, and we would do well to take their warning to heart. Other groups, identities, and histories inhabit the world in which we all live, and we should take seriously the insights that their own particularity might offer to our understanding of cosmopolitanism.
This last criticism notwithstanding, Sznaider’s book provides an incisive re-appraisal of Arendt’s thought. Although its central argument can be stated briefly, it does not narrow our appreciation of her work as much as enliven and expand it.
One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.
In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.
Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”
For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?
Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?
The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”
Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.
The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.
To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.
John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.
The Convention season has unleashed an avalanche of half-truths and untruths. Some see this as politics as usual. Others claim we are living in a post-truth world. Stephen Colbert has long understood that our present condition has transformed truth into truthiness.
One response to our new practice of political lying is the rise of the fact finder. In general, I am all in favor of fact finders. When they labor in obscurity at, say, The New Yorker—or as I once did long ago at the Washingtonian Magazine—fact finders are supposed to check the facts referenced in an article and make sure that those factual nuggets are accurate: Does Mr. Green really live on 22 Wiley Street? Did he purchase a yellow car last year for $37,000? Is his house really worth $21 million? When I did this at the age of, I think, 18 before the Internet became what it is today, I spent my summer running over to the public records office and looking through the real-estate transactions of the rich and famous. We would not want to insult someone by saying he had paid less for his house than he really did.
Today, there is another kind of fact finding of increasing prominence: political fact checking. It is a different beast entirely. The most well-established of these is Politifact, which has the “Truth-o-Meter” that rates the truth or falsity of public claims on a spectrum that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Other sites deliver similarly clever reports on the statements uttered by politicians during the course of the campaign. Part marketing and part well-intentioned policing of a discourse divorced from reality, these fact checkers are trying to bring sense and seriousness to political debate. What they are actually doing is making the problem worse.
The reason for this is that what is being checked today are less facts and more opinions. Take for example the recent anger over Mitt Romney’s advertisement and the continuing Republican claims that the Obama administration is trying to gut the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. Politifact and CNN and many other fact-check organizations labeled the ad a lie. Here is what Politifact said about it:
Romney’s ad says, "Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
That's a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs -- HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.
The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: "They just send you your welfare check." The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is "designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!
On the other hand, here’s what The Daily Caller’s Mickey Kraus had to say after he fact checked a CNN fact check that had come to the same conclusion about Romney’s welfare ad as Politifact had:
The oft-cited CNN-”fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:
The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare roles as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.” Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.
I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.
But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all. Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive. But the point of welfare reform isn’t to get more people onto welfare .
How is it that Kraus and Politifact could have fact checked the same statement (with Kraus even claiming that he was fact checking the fact check) and yet have come to different conclusions? Why is that all the fact checking that is going on today is not leading to a more truthful debate? Why is it that Republican campaign operatives say they will not be governed by fact checkers? Shouldn't fact checkers be helping to keep political discourse grounded in truth? Actually, not.
The basic confusion here is that between a fact and an opinion. As Hannah Arendt argues in her prescient essay “Truth and Politics,” facts and opinions play very different and equally important roles in politics. Facts are essential insofar as they provide the ground and the sky on which and under which we live. It is crucial to have and accept common facts, for without agreed upon facts we cannot share a world with others. If I know that the President was born in Hawaii and you know he was born in Kenya (or doubt at least he was born in Hawaii) then we simply don't trust each other. We can't talk to one another. We don't share the same world. And we cannot politically live together in good faith as we try to actualize the common good.
Because facts of these kinds are so important, the rise to mainstream prominence of conspiracy theories that question the President's citizenship or insist that President Bush and his administration faked 9/11 are deeply destructive of our political world. Such destructive facts are always present in politics, and yet it is also the case that at certain periods they gain more credence and credibility than at other times. Now is clearly one of those times.
There are many reasons for the splitting of the common-sense world, but one at least is the speed and ruthlessness of change in our modern world. As people are dislocated, uprooted, and unsettled, they naturally seek certainty in what is increasingly an uncertain world. Arendt labeled this phenomenon homelessness and rootlessness.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explores how the spiritual and material rootlessness of the 20th century have made people today uniquely susceptible to grand narratives provide clear and simple explanations for complicated and often upsetting events. That Jews were the root of Germany's problems or that collective ownership in the Soviet Union could usher in a utopia were stories contradicted by myriad facts. One core element of totalitarian times is that people prefer the security of a coherent narrative to the uncertainty of reality. People latch on to ideologies because they provide meaning and security. What Arendt saw is that the uncertainties of the modern era have made people so needy for such ideologies that they will sacrifice truth to fiction.
There is no doubt that the Internet eases the dissemination and also the force of conspiracies, as people can click through hundreds of links and never leave what is in essence an echo chamber of ideological purity. When people fall into such rabbit holes, they are enveloped by a world that seems real and is difficult to penetrate from the outside.
For that reason it is important to starkly and loudly confront ideological fictions. President Obama was right to launch his "Fight the Smears" website in 2008 to contest and disprove the smears about his religion and citizenship. Many of the fact-checking sites that now exist emerged out of a similar initiative, and in this sense they are deeply important.
But these sites today have gone beyond their original mission of checking facts. It is a fact that welfare reform was passed. It is a fact that the President's administration offered waivers to states to change how the reforms are implemented. As far as I know it is a fact that Republican governors requested those waivers. Whether these waivers go against the spirit of the reforms and whether they are wise, however, those are matters of opinion. No amount of fact-checking can tell you whether what the President did “guts” welfare reform or strengthens it. These are opinions about which reasonable people can and do differ.
While facts are essential to provide us with a common world that we share and in which we can advocate for our particular opinions, opinions are the life-blood of politics. Politics is the activity of people who, while sharing a factual world, come together to talk and act in public. Since people are different, their opinions will differ and they will seek to persuade each other that one way of handling welfare is better than another. That is the beauty of politics, the incessant talking and debating and compromising and leading through which common decisions are made.
That we today seek to transform opinions into facts is, at least in part, a result of our desire for clear answers. We live in a time when we have little patience for meaningful public engagement. We want government to work, which means we want it to keep the roads safe and the borders sound. We want our water to be clean and our food to be safe. And we want children to be fed and the sick to be healed. We don't much care how this is done so long as we can live comfortably and securely and go on with what is really important, namely our private lives. In essence, what we dream of today is a technocratic government that gives us much and demands from us very little.
If government is to work like a well-oiled machine, we need to input the correct facts. This leads us to insist that there are indeed such correct facts, even when we are confronted over and over again with evidence to the contrary. If there is a totalitarian element of modern politics, it is the technocratic insistence that if we simply all agreed on the facts and analyzed them correctly, our problems would be solved. It is no accident that both Mitt Romney and President Obama are technocratic pragmatists. Romney may have more interest in the power of data, but the President has an equally profound faith in the power of experts. Both appeal to the technocratic demand of an electorate desperate for clarity, certainty, and coherence in at a moment of profound upheaval.
As important as facts are, it is just as important to remain clear about the border between fact and opinion. Instead of gimmicky truth-o-meters, which give the illusion that political questions have easy answers, we need to encourage people with different opinions to discuss them in good faith. But the plague of fact checking what are in fact opinions has the opposite effect, since it proceeds on the assumption that opinions are true or false and that one who differs from you is a liar. The effect of fact checking in 2012 is to further polarize discourse and make political discussion almost impossible.
Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.
The problem today is that when confronted with opinions we don't like, we demand not arguments and other opinions but facts and objectivity. Ironically, it is the very demand for facts and objectivity in politics that leads to ideological organs like Fox News and CNBC. Because people insist on technocratic clarity in the mess that is politics, they now gravitate towards those news organization, blogs, websites, and communities that deliver them coherent narratives.
—RB (with assistance from Josh Kopin)
The governors of two of our largest states gave "State of the State" messages this week. Both were controversial. Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York took on the teacher's union and demanded that teachers be subjected to measures of accountability. Governor Jerry Brown in California dared California to dream big and challenged the state to move forward with the high-speed train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Arendt Center is focusing its attention on the desperate need to rethink leadership in our time and wondering how we might encourage bold and courageous leadership. Cuomo's speech does just that. Brown's falls short.
Both Brown and Cuomo embraced the mantle of bold leadership. Brown styled himself the daring doer with his call to build a much-debated high-speed train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco:
Critics of the high-speed rail project abound, as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed. The Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical, and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal, ‘Totally impossible to be carried out.’ The critics were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.
Cuomo, for his part, imagined himself the rampaging reformer taking on the entrenched interests of the unions. He challenged the teacher's union to accept teacher evaluation that would carry meaningful consequences for ineffective teachers. And promised to withhold funding to districts that do not. “No evaluation, no money. Period,” the Governor said.
I learned my most important lesson in my first year as Governor in the area of public education. I learned that everyone in public education has his or her own lobbyist. Superintendents have lobbyists. Principals have lobbyists. Teachers have lobbyists. School boards have lobbyists. Maintenance personnel have lobbyists. Bus drivers have lobbyists. The only group without a lobbyist? The students.
Well, I learned my lesson. This year, I will take a second job — consider me the lobbyist for the students. I will wage a campaign to put students first, and to remind us that the purpose of public education is to help children grow, not to grow the public education bureaucracy.
I am no fan of union bashing. As an educator myself, I have enormous respect for those who teach. Teachers should be paid more, not less, and good teachers should receive performance bonuses, as is currently happening in Washington, DC. Study after study shows that the biggest factor in whether a child learns is the teacher, not how much money is spent. I think anyone who teaches knows this is true.
Cuomo's decision to take on the education establishment on teacher evaluation is a small step. But it does show a Democratic Governor exerting leadership by opposing a union that is part of his traditional constituency.
He is insisting that the services government provide be better. And he reminds us that government is first and foremost about providing services for citizens, not about providing jobs. If we are going to preserve faith in government, we need to make government work. Cuomo seems intent on doing just that.
Brown, on the other hand, seems entrenched in the failed policies of government. I love fast trains (so does my 2 year old son). I suffer every week on the slow train between New York City and the Hudson Valley where I teach. As someone who has lived in Europe and marveled at the Chinese, I desperately wish that the United States could build a transportation infrastructure that would work.
Thus I am open to Brown's risk-taking insistence we build fast trains. That said, he is committing to a project for which most of the funds are not yet raised and that won't be completed until 2033—under optimistic forecasts.
Who knows if a fast train designed in 2010 will even be useful in 2033? The Erie Canal took 8 years to build. The U.S. built the Panama Canal in less than 10 years. It is one thing for medieval towns to dream big and build a gothic cathedral over decades and centuries, for one has faith that God will still have need of a place of worship. But with technology changing so fast, the $100 billion train could be obsolete before it is completed.
Real leadership requires not simply dreaming big, but acting big. Leadership entails cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that makes it so expensive and time-consuming to take on major public-works projects in this country. Courage would be for a democratic governor to pursue his dream for major infrastructure while at the same time insisting on regulatory and labor reform that would allow the train to be completed in less time than the Erie Canal.