“It is obvious: if you do not accept something that assumes the form of ‘destiny,’ you not only change its ‘natural laws’ but also the laws of the enemy playing the role of fate.”
--Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings (223)
In 1944, as the Allied armies liberated areas under Nazi control, news about the horrors of the extermination camps inevitably wound its way to the United States. In her interview with Günter Gaus many years later, Hannah Arendt would recount these months as full of devastating shocks that unveiled the fullest extent of what was transpiring in Europe. It was in the midst of the delivery of the news of this carnage, this knowledge of the “fabrication of corpses,” that Arendt continued to perform her role as “something between a historian and political journalist.” This delicate terrain – somewhere “between silence and speechlessness” – is what Arendt had to traverse as she informed and provoked her audience into action.
"Before we knew how to circle the earth, how to circumscribe the sphere of human habitation in days and hours, we had brought the globe into our living rooms to be touched by our hands and swirled before our eyes."
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
In 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus sailed west towards India, the German merchant and mathematician Martin Behaim constructed the first globe of modern times, the Nuremberg Terrestrial Globe, measuring some 21 inches in diameter. The temporal coincidence of Columbus and Behaim’s endeavors speaks to an important phenomenon of the modern age that Hannah Arendt analyzed in the final chapter of her 1958 study The Human Condition. Arendt argues that the unprecedented enlargement of the world through the discoveries of early modern seafarers presupposed a more fundamental shrinkage of the world through the measuring activities of modern science. When Columbus and his fellow travelers embarked on their adventures, man had already elevated himself to a theoretical vista point from which he could look at the world as “a globe to be touched by our hands and swirled before our eyes.”
Man’s success in assuming a perspective beyond his being embedded in the world around him, an unearthly perspective that Arendt calls world alienation, is one of the fundamental preconditions of objectivity in modern science. But world alienation also describes modern man’s estrangement from his immediate earthly surroundings. With the globe in our living rooms, we have the world at our fingertips, but we no longer inhabit a place inside it. The modern age has enlarged the world’s physical territory while shrinking its experiential potentiality into a measurable dataset. Swirling the globe before his eyes, the mathematical theories of Martin Behaim embody both the knowledge and the melancholia of modern man.
One of the principal ways in which western societies have responded to the condition of world alienation over the past 150 years is tourism. Alienated from our immediate surroundings, we imagine immersing ourselves as tourists into foreign lands. While the beginnings of modern mass tourism can be dated back to the second half of the nineteenth century, tourism received important new impulses during the economic growth of the 1950s. In 1957, the year preceding the publication of Arendt’s The Human Condition, Arthur Frommer’s travel guide Europe on 5 Dollars a Day appeared and introduced to the world a new movement of low budget, long distance travel. Although Arendt never mentions tourism explicitly in her book, there are important lessons to be learned from her analysis of world alienation when dealing with Frommer’s promise of cheap travel and authentic experience overseas—a promise of which we have seen countless iterations in the heap of travel literature ever since.
The problem with Frommer’s promise does not lie simply in the fact that the millions of vacationers who are touring with Frommer immediately turn the recommended off-the-beaten-tracks paths into the new highways of travel. Rather, the existence of Frommer’s alternative travel guide presupposes a world that is, in all its common and uncommon aspects, translatable in the form of a guidebook. Before anybody sets out to travel to and discover Europe for him - or herself, Europe—or Thailand or Namibia, for that matter—have already shrunk to the format of a well-indexed pocket book, easy to navigate, but impossible to inhabit.
Arendt makes us sensitive to the necessary frustration of tourism’s promise to be immersed in the world through travel: the very embarking into the world as a tourist presupposes a technological and cultural infrastructure that has already necessarily distanced us from the world. No new journey into the world can escape the shadow of Martin Behaim, as he melancholically touches the globe with his hands, swirls it before his eyes, and reminds us of the fact that the world ceased to be ours at the moment we made it our object.
-Martin Wagner, Ph.D. candidate at Yale University
In 1956, as Russian tanks bore down upon Hungary and the short-lived freedoms of the Hungarian revolution, the director of the Hungarian News Agency sent a telex to the world. As Milan Kundera reports in a 1984 essay in the New York Review of Books, this Hungarian newspaperman, facing imminent death, ended his dispatch “with these words: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.”” The lesson Kundera draws is that the question of Europe—what Europe is and what it means for Europeans—had shifted from Western Europe to Central Europe. No one in London, he writes, would say “I am prepared to die for England and for Europe.” And while Russian dissidents like Solzhenitsyn were prepared to die for their country, it was not Europe that inspired them. Rather, it is in the countries of Central Europe where the idea of Europe came to express a value and an ideal for which lovers of freedom would make the ultimate sacrifice. As Kundera writes, ““To die for one's country and for Europe”—that is a phrase that could not be thought in Moscow or Leningrad; it is precisely the phrase that could be thought in Budapest or Warsaw.” The center of Europe has moved, it seems, to central Europe—a fact that helps put the current Ukrainian controversy in context.
The story of the Hungarian News Director was told by Rob Riemen yesterday at “What Europe: Ideals to Fight For Today,” a conference in Berlin asking the question: What values or ideals today might Europe fight for? Riemen quipped that the Hungarian news director may have been the last man willing to die for Europe. But as Europe confronts not only a financial crisis but also the political crisis in Ukraine and the prospect of a rising Russian enemy in the east, there is the question: Will Europe come together and stand up for something like European values in the face of Russian forces intent on holding onto a Central European state? Are there any values today that Europe is willing to fight for?
That question was put directly by the American scholar and advocate for Ukrainian democracy Timothy Snyder in his keynote address at the conference. Snyder, who has been writing widely about the Ukraine crisis in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, claimed squarely that the question of Europe is going to be answered in the Ukraine. The Ukraine, he argued, is a test case for whether Europe is just a dream or whether it will finally become a reality. Snyder downplays the extremist elements of the Ukrainian protests, arguing that extremists in Ukraine represent only 3-5% of the population, far less than in Hungary or even in France. Rather, the Ukrainian revolutionaries on the Maidan are European idealists who are risking their lives for the idea of Europe. Like the Hungarian news director 60 years ago and unlike Western Europeans in London, Paris, and Berlin, Ukrainians are the ones putting their lives on the line for the chance to become part of Europe.
Snyder spent much of his speech and the bulk of the question and answer session arguing the Ukrainian revolution is mild, democratic, and non-fascist. As Snyder was speaking, a small group in the Ukraine calling themselves the Right Sector surrounded the Ukrainian Parliament demanding the resignation of a government minister. Here is how the New York Times reports the standoff:
“The presence of masked, armed demonstrators threatening to storm the Parliament building offered the Russian government an opportunity to bolster its contention that the ouster of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, a Moscow ally, after pro-European street protests last month was an illegal coup carried out by right-wing extremists with Western encouragement. In fact, the nationalist groups, largely based in western Ukraine, had formed just one segment of a broad coalition of demonstrators who occupied the streets of Kiev for months demanding Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster.”
Even if Snyder is right and the Ukrainian revolutionaries are more like European democrats than the extremists imagined by Russian propaganda, it remains to be seen whether the corrupt oligarchs of Ukraine will permit the formation of a meaningfully democratic and liberal government oriented towards Europe. For Snyder, this is an existential question not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe. He believes that Ukraine will orient towards Europe and then argues that the future of Europe will flourish or wither depending on whether Europe welcomes its Ukrainian brothers and sisters into the European Union and protects them against the anti-European Eurasian axis centered in Russia. Europe, he insists, rise or fall on the question of how it handles Ukraine.
If Ukraine is the test case for the future of Europe, the European future looks bleak. The European Union was born from a deep wish for security and prosperity. Governed by consensus and centered around a monetary union, the European Union seems incapable of acting boldly to protect anything but its most basic financial interests. Faced with threats to Ukrainians claiming the mantle of Europe, European leaders are paralyzed. Germany receives the bulk of its oil from Russia and is unwilling to risk economic pain that would come with sanctions. The United Kingdom relies on the billions invested by Russian Oligarchs in British tax havens and London real estate and is unwilling to accept asset friezes that would threaten the inflow of dirty Russian money. And France has opposed an arms embargo on Russia because it has a contract to supply Russia with two warships worth $1 billion. Amidst austerity and with little sense of common purpose outside of peace and prosperity, the European Union has almost no ability to think the Ukrainian conflict through the political lens of a clash of ideas or a clash of civilizations.
Snyder called upon Europe to do just that. He argues that Europe must recognized that in Russia and the growing Eurasian Alliance Europe finally has an enemy, one that sees Europe as a threat. The question, he insisted, is whether Europe will grow up and finally act collectively to oppose a growing existential threat. The Ukraine crisis, he argued, is the test case that will decide the future of Europe.
The problem is that Europe is nearly existentially unable to articulate common ideals for which they will fight. Europe shies from articulating a vision of itself as exceptional or distinct in ways that are worth defending. Not only does Europe lack a common language or a heartfelt national anthem, but also it lacks a sense of what Europe means. Numerous speakers including Walter Russell Mead sought to defend an idea of European integratin and solidarity, but none offered an answer to the oft-repeated question, “What are European ideas to fight for today?”
The contrast between Europe and the United States was frequently cited at the conference, and it is helpful to compare the two. In the United States there is a clear national sense of what it is we stand for and those ideals for which we will fight. These are perhaps best expressed by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…. [We] here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
As Seymour Lipset writes in 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.” There is, Lipset writes, an “American Creed” that includes five fundamental (if contradictory) values: 1) liberty; 2) egalitarianism; 3) individualism; 4) populism; and 5) laissez faire.
Whether one agrees with Lipset’s articulation of the American Creed, the claim of American exceptionalism has been central to the American self-understanding as well as the American willingness to imagine itself the guardian of a particular idea of justice throughout the world. Here is one articulation of the exceptionalist idea from John F. Kennedy, from a speech he gave to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1961.
“I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider”, he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”
President Barack Obama recently articulated a similar view in a speech at the United Nations:
“Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness to the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up, not only for own interests, but for the interests of all.”
For all the controversy around American exceptionalism and the disdain for it on behalf of many intellectuals, the American belief in its destined role as the guardian of constitutional democracy and self-government has indeed led America to put aside self-interest in the pursuit of idealistic aims.
The point of departure for these reflections as well as for the “What Europe?” conference (sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and Bard College Berlin) was a sentence by Hannah Arendt from her essay “Tradition and the Modern Age.” In that essay, Arendt writes:
“The rebels of the 19th and 20th centuries fought against tradition. They were occupied with critique and destruction of past and authoritative structures. Today, in the wake of the fact of the break of tradition and the loss of authority, we face the ominous silence that answers us whenever we ask: “What are we fighting for?”
Amidst the loss of assured and common values in the wake of the loss of tradition, one great challenge today is the articulation of those common values and shared ideals that can still bind and inspire us and compel us to fight and suffer something beyond our narrow self-interest. The problem of Europe today is that the European Union is still ideologically barren, or if it has an ideology, it is a patently pedestrian ideology of economic security. As Ulrike Winkelmann of taz Berlin said at the conference, the Financial Times is the de facto newspaper read by European Union officials in Brussels. There is neither a European newspaper nor a European vision except for the maintenance of peace and economic growth. The problem for Europe as it faces the emergence of a real enemy on its Eastern front is that it means little to say “Give me peace or give me death.” At some point Europeans will either forge a common ideal for which they will collectively struggle, sacrifice, and even fight, or the European project will prove itself to be the mirage that Timothy Snyder hopes it is not and President Putin is seeking to prove it to be.
The video of Timothy Snyder’s speech will be available soon on the Hannah Arendt website. Until then, you can read his latest essay in the New York Review of Books.
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.
Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews? “[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.” The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.” Read more on the Arendt Center blog.
News that the SAT is about to undergo a makeover leaves Bard College President Leon Botstein unimpressed: “The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents. The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician— and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.”
Foreign policy types are up in arms—not over Russia’s pending annexation of Crimea, but over the response in the West. By yelling loudly but doing nothing in Syria and now in the Ukraine, America and Europe are losing all credibility. The insinuation is clear. If we don’t draw the line at Crimea, we will embolden Putin in Poland. Much as in the 1930s, the current NATO alliance seems unwilling to stand up for anything on principle if the costs are more than a few photo opportunities and some angry tweets. According to The American Interest, “Putin believes the West is decadent, weak, and divided. The West needs to prove him wrong.” And in Politico, Ben Judah writes: “Russia’s rulers have been buying up Europe for years. They have mansions and luxury flats from London’s West End to France’s Cote d’Azure. Their children are safe at British boarding and Swiss finishing schools. And their money is squirrelled away in Austrian banks and British tax havens.Putin’s inner circle no longer fear the European establishment. They once imagined them all in MI6. Now they know better. They have seen firsthand how obsequious Western aristocrats and corporate tycoons suddenly turn when their billions come into play. They now view them as hypocrites—the same European elites who help them hide their fortunes.”
In The New York Times Magazine, Siddhartha Deb profiles Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer best known in the West for her 1997 novel The God of Small Things. Though the book made Roy into a national icon, her political essays – in which she has addressed, among other issues, India’s occupation of Kashmir, the “lunacy” of India’s nuclear programme, and the paramilitary operations in central India against the ultraleft guerillas and indigenous populations – have angered many nationalist and upper-class Indians for their fierce critiques. Roy’s most recent work, The Doctor and the Saint, is an introduction to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s famous 1936 essay “The Annihilation of Caste” that is likely to spark controversy over her rebuke of Ghandi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not caste. How does Roy see her fiction in relation to her politics? “I’m not a person who likes to use fiction as a means,” she says. “I think it’s an irreducible thing, fiction. It’s itself. It’s not a movie, it’s not a political tract, it’s not a slogan. The ways in which I have thought politically, the proteins of that have to be broken down and forgotten about, until it comes out as the sweat on your skin.” You can read Deb’s profile of Roy here, and an excerpt from The Doctor and the Saint here.
Comparing the MOOC and the GED, Michael Guerreiro wonders whether participants approach both programs with the same sense of purpose. The answer, he suspects, is no: "The data tells us that very few of the students who enroll in a MOOC will ever reach its end. In the ivy, brick, and mortar world from which MOOCs were spun, that would be damning enough. Sticking around is important there; credentials and connections reign, starting with the high-school transcript and continuing through graduate degrees. But students may go into an online course knowing that a completion certificate, even offered under the imprimatur of Harvard or UPenn, doesn’t have the same worth. A recent study by a team of researchers from Coursera found that, for many MOOC students, the credential isn’t the goal at all. Students may treat the MOOC as a resource or a text rather than as a course, jumping in to learn new code or view an enticing lecture and back out whenever they want, just as they would while skimming the wider Web. For many, MOOCs may be just one more Internet tool or diversion; in the Coursera study, the retention rate among committed students for a typical class was shown to be roughly on par with that of a mobile app. And the London Times reported last week that, when given the option to get course credit for their MOOC (for a fee), none of the thousand, or so students who enrolled in a British online class did.” A potent reminder that while MOOCs may indeed succeed and may even replace university education for many people, they are not so much about education as a combination of entertainment, credential, and manual. These are important activities each, but they are not what liberal arts colleges should be about. The hope in the rise of MOOCs, as we’ve written before, is that they help return college to its mission: to teach critical thinking and expose students to the life of the mind.
Noam Chomsky, speaking to the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers, takes issue with the idea that the American university was once living and is now undead, and seeks a way forward: "First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory. These are not radical ideas."
This week on the blog Anna Metcalfe examines the multi-dimensional idea of action which Arendt discusses in The Human Condition. And in the Weekend Read, entitled 'Why the Jews?', Roger Berkowitz delves into anti-Judaism and its deeply seated roots in Western civilization.
Featuring Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
Bard College partners with five local libraries for six weeks of activities, performances, and discussions scheduled throughout the Hudson Valley.
Learn more here.
'What Europe? Ideals to Fight for Today'
The HAC co-sponsors the second annual conference with Bard College in Berlin
March 27-28, 2014
Learn more here.
“It may well be the region of the spirit or, rather, the path paved by thinking, this small track of non-time which the activity of thought beats within the time-space of mortal men and into which the trains of thought, of remembrance and anticipation, save whatever they touch from the ruin of historical and biographical time. This small non-time-space in the very heart of time, unlike the world and the culture into which we are born, can only be indicated, but cannot be inherited and handed down from the past; each new generation, indeed every new human being as he inserts himself between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it anew.”
—Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future
In the preface to Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt foregrounds the Nazi/German occupation of France. She does so in order to emphasize how intellectuals who had previously pursued only their own, private careers suddenly became involved in the greater cause of the Resistance. This period, she suggests, was one of an abrupt convergence between “deed and word.” Confronted with the horror of Hitler’s state of emergency, the usual careerist “masks” of “insincerity” were cast off. Then, the introduction of a real state of emergency—that of the Resistance —produced a “public space [within which] freedom could appear.”
After the Liberation and the return to “normal” life, deed and word bifurcated again. As quickly as the new public intellectuals had turned away from academic detachment during the occupation, most returned to it after the war. The overall lack of a common enemy, or at least one as unifying as Nazism had been, meant the dissolution of the new public culture. The end of the war heralded the return of “innumerable cliques” and “paper wars” and the loss of the public culture that that tragedy had inspired.
Arendt articulates a temporal dimension of this shift from private to public and back to private life. There is a time, Arendt writes, that is between past and future. I call this non-time. Here is how Arendt describes this non-time: It is
an in-between period which sometimes inserts itself into historical time, when not only the later historians but the actors and witnesses...become aware of an interval in time which is altogether determined by things that are no longer and by things which are not yet.
The ascendant public awareness of the gap between the “no longer” and the “not yet” is important since it enhances the collective capacity for remembrance and anticipation. Rather than freezing “the” present in a temporal vice-grip between “the” past and “the” future, non-time plasticizes past and future, loosening its hold. Existing in such a non-time enlivens public freedom, enabling the collective ability to resist transcendentally imposed temporal imperatives. In her time, of course, this meant above all else, resisting the trans-European spread of Nazism.
For a brief period during the war and the resistance, she writes, thought had fused with action and historical and biographical time gave way to the free, indeterminate time that Arendt inflects politically as “public freedom.” Her assertion is that non-time, unlike the historical time of past, present and future, is a more radically open yet situated temporality “at the very heart of time”—and at the core of public freedom as well.
Arendt, however, did not limit her analysis to the early-20th century politics of Europe. Indeed, she selected numerous instances of the transformative, freedom-enhancing capacities of non-time, including the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, as well as, in the aesthetic domain, the modernist literature of Franz Kafka. In doing so, Arendt suggested the dynamism and applicability of her concept to a wide variety of situations - including, potentially, our own.
In this way, the act of thinking slips humanity out of historical and biographical time and into a non-time that reconstitutes the world. In the midst of resisting harkenings back to “the” past or any harkenings forward to “the” future, non-time, for Arendt, emerges as a plasticity subject to intervention.
The point, for Arendt, was to bring forth “the treasure” of non-time, within new temporal conditions that situate subjects anew, such that these new subjects might in turn, resituate the new temporal conditions. As she writes: “each new generation, indeed every new human being as he inserts himself between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it [the ‘treasure’] anew”.
How might today’s public, some fifty years after Between Past and Future, begin the fight for the public freedom Arendt sought? How might non-time assist in such a task?
Consider the mass media ascription of a non-transformative teleology to the Occupy movement. One refrain of critics of the Occupy movement was that it was not “really” seeking revolution at all. In its most common form, the critique asserted that occupiers were nothing more than recent college graduates confronted with mounting student loan debt and murky career horizons. What they really sought, therefore, was careers. But from the perspective of non-time, was this judgment necessarily “correct”, or was it instead a bit of both?
The frequency with which the same mass media outlets publish pieces concerned with economic justice today is far less today than at the height of the movement’s influence. In late 2011 and early 2012 however, journalists wrote and editors published as though they too had abruptly become aware of the gap “determined by things that are no longer and by things which are not yet.” From the perspective of non-time, the plasticity of public freedom gave way to the historical and biographical time that renders it inert. It was this that allowed the ascription of a non-transformative teleology to hold sway after the decline of the new public culture.
Of course, overstating the revolutionary nature of the occupy movement would also be foolish. Zeitgeists such as those that brought forth the French Resistance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (not to mention, of course, literary modernism), are destined to decline by definition. The occupy movement proved no exception. That said, Arendt did provide some hints regarding how the treasure of non-time might be indicated amidst new, post-zeitgeist conditions, such as our own.
In her view, if humans are to move beyond the predetermined presentism of conditions set by the past, as well as the ascribed teleologism of past conditions in the future, the task is that of producing a critical, engaged public culture not as a periodic impulse, but as a permanent habit.
Doing so requires more than just heeding the often mis-read call to change the world “rather than” interpret it (as an excuse for acting without thinking). Instead, Arendt asserted, we must change the world, and at the same time, change the manner in which we interpret it. In other words, the transcendental hallucinations of time must be transformed by the immanent materiality of non-time. Why? Because, in contrast with those who speak, predictably, of “the” past or “the” future, for Arendt, the present is always an unknown moment of struggle between the past and the future.
- Jason Adams
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.
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.
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.
"Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence...for as long as we use the word 'politics.'"
-Hannah Arendt, "Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940"
Some years ago a mentor told me a story from his days as a graduate student at a prestigious political science department. There was a professor there specializing in Russian politics and Sovietology, an older professor who loved teaching and taught well past the standard age of retirement. His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was well-liked by his students. His most popular course was on Russian politics, and towards the end of one semester, a precocious undergraduate visited during office hours: “How hard is it to learn Russian,” the student asked, “because I’d really like to start.” “Pretty hard,” he said, “but that’s great to hear. What has you so excited about it?” “Well,” said the student, “after taking your course, I’m very inspired to read Marx in the original.” At the next class the professor told this story to all of his students, and none of them laughed. He paused for a moment, then somewhat despondently said: “It has only now become clear to me….that none of you know the first thing about Karl Marx.”
The story has several morals. As a professor, it reminds me to be careful about assuming what students know. As a student, it reminds me of an undergraduate paper I wrote which spelled Marx’s first name with a “C.” My professor kindly marked the mistake, but today I can better imagine her frustration. And if the story works as a joke, it is because we accept its basic premise, that knowledge of foreign languages is important, not only for our engagement with texts but with the world at large. After all, the course in question was not about Marx.
The fast approach of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2013 Conference on “The Educated Citizen in Crisis” offers a fitting backdrop to consider the place of language education in the education of the citizen. The problem has long been salient in America, a land of immigrants and a country of rich cultural diversity; and debates about the relation between the embrace of English and American assimilation continue to draw attention. Samuel Huntington, for example, recently interpreted challenges to English preeminence as a threat to American political culture: “There is no Americano dream,” he writes in “The Hispanic Challenge,” “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” For Huntington English is an element of national citizenship, not only as a language learned, but as an essential component of American identity.
This might be juxtaposed with Tracy Strong’s support of learning (at least a) second language, including Latin, as an element of democratic citizenship. A second language, writes Strong (see his “Language Learning and the Social Sciences”) helps one acquire “what I might call an anthropological perspective on one’s own society,” for “An important achievement of learning a foreign language is learning a perspective on one’s world that is not one’s own. In turn, the acquisition of another perspective or even the recognition of the legitimacy of another perspective is, to my understanding, a very important component of a democratic political understanding.” Strong illustrates his point with a passage from Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: “I form an opinion,” says Arendt, “by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent: that is, I represent them.”
Hannah Arendt’s deep respect for the American Constitution and American political culture, manifest no less (perhaps even more!) in her criticism than her praise, is well known. After fleeing Nazi Germany and German-occupied France, Arendt moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen in 1951. And her views on the relation between the English language and American citizenship are rich and complex.
In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt highlights how education plays a unique political role in America, where “it is obvious that the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups…can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children.” Education prepares citizens to enter a common world, of which English in America is a key component: “Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.”
At the same time, Arendt’s own embrace of English is hardly straightforward. In a famous 1964 interview with she says: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains. […] I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today […] I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language…The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.”
Here Arendt seems both with and against Huntington. On one hand, learning and embracing English—the public language of the country—is what enables diverse Americans to share a common political world. And in this respect, her decision to write and publish in English represents one of her most important acts of American democratic citizenship. By writing in English, Arendt “assumes responsibility for the world,” the same responsibility that education requires from its educators if they are to give the younger generation a common world, but which she finds sorely lacking in “The Crisis of Education.”
At the same time, though, Arendt rejects the idea that American citizenship requires treating English as if it were a mother tongue. Arendt consciously preserves her German mother tongue as both an element of her identity and a grounding of her understanding of the world, and in 1967 she even accepted the Sigmund Freud Award of the German Academy of Language and Poetry that “lauded her efforts to keep the German language alive although she had been living and writing in the United States for more than three decades” (I quote from Frank Mehring’s 2011 article “‘All for the Sake of Freedom’: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship”). For Arendt, it seems, it is precisely this potentiality in America—for citizens to share and assume responsibility for a common world approached in its own terms, while also bringing to bear a separate understanding grounded by very different terms—that offers America’s greatest democratic possibilities. One might suggest that Arendt’s engagement with language, in her combination of English responsibility and German self-understanding, offers a powerful and thought-provoking model of American democratic citizenship.
What about the teaching of language? In the “The Crisis in Education” Arendt is critical of the way language, especially foreign language, is taught in American schools. In a passage worth quoting at length she says:
“The close connection between these two things—the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working—is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages; the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not…it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level.”
Arendt writes that such “pragmatist” methods intend “not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill.” Pragmatic instruction helps one to get by in the real world; but it does not allow one to love or understand the world. It renders language useful, but reduces language to an instrument, something easily discarded when no longer needed. It precludes philosophical engagement and representative thinking. The latest smartphone translation apps render it superfluous.
But how would one approach language differently? And what does this have to do with grammar and syntax? Perhaps there are clues in the passage selected as our quote of the week, culled from Arendt’s 1968 biographical essay about her friend Walter Benjamin. There, Arendt appreciates that Benjamin's study of language abandons any “utilitarian” or “communicative” goals, but approaches language as a “poetic phenomenon.” The focused study of grammar develops different habits than pragmatist pedagogy. In the process of translation, for example, it facilitates an engagement with language that is divorced from practical use and focused squarely on meaning. To wrestle with grammar means to wrestle with language in the pursuit of truth, in a manner that inspires love for language—that it exists—and cross-cultural understanding. Arendt was famous for flexing her Greek and Latin muscles—in part, I think, as a reflection of her love for the world. The study of Greek and Latin is especially amenable to a relationship of love, because these languages are hardly “practical.” One studies them principally to understand, to shed light on the obscure; and through their investigation one discovers the sunken meanings that remain hidden and embedded in our modern languages, in words we speak regularly without realizing all that is contained within them. By engaging these “dead” languages, we more richly and seriously understand ourselves. And these same disinterested habits, when applied to the study of modern foreign languages, can enrich not only our understanding of different worldviews, but our participation in the world as democratic citizens.