“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”
—Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?
This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter? The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.
This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.
If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.
And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?
On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.
This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.
Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief. In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.
No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.
Every President comes to Washington promising reform! And they all fail. According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:
If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.
On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:
The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.
The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible. All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.
For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.
The question "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:
“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”
So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”
What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.
The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.
When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.
Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence." To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.
Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.
One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.
This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:
Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.
All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.
Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:
"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."
My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.
What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.
But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law. Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.
In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.
In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.
These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.
Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.
Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask: might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.
At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.
Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.
It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.
I don't know if the president matters.
But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.
In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you. If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.
Watch Roger's opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.
Intellectually, though not socially, America and Europe are in the same situation: the thread of tradition is broken, and we must discover the past for ourselves that is, read its authors as though nobody had ever read them before.
-Hannah Arendt, Crisis in Culture
Last spring, I received a call from the director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard asking if I would have lunch with two Swedish artists in town to see the campus and its museum. The artists, part of the YES! Association, a self-declared feminist separatist association for art workers, not only visited the Arendt/Blucher gravesite—a common “attraction” for campus visitors—they sat in on a class at the Hannah Arendt Center, visited Stevenson Library where Arendt’s library and related materials are housed, and began planning ways in which they could interact with the Arendt Center and produce artwork about Hannah Arendt. Åsa Elzén and Malin Arnell, the two representatives from the YES! Association, were not the first visiting artists or curators or other cultural figures who have requested introductions to the Arendt Center and Archives and they certainly won't be the last. Indeed, there will be a dedication ceremony for the new Hannah Arendt Smoking Porch at the Hannah Arendt Center on October 25th, 2012, a porch that is being designed by YES! Association.
The art world interest in Hannah Arendt is growing. There are numerous documentary films made and being made about Hannah Arendt and a new bio-picture by Margarethe von Trotta will premier next month at the Toronto Film Festival. Arendt is regularly quoted and invoked at international biennial exhibitions. Hannah Arendt, it seems, is becoming an important figure in contemporary art.
I say “becoming”, because Arendt is not a name historically associated with the practice or scholarship concerning contemporary or even modern art. Although she does write about art in her essay, “Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance”, from which I excerpted above, and she did consort with figures such as the famous Modernist art critic, Clement Greenberg, it is only recently that artists, curators, and critics have taken an interest in both her and her scholarship.
I am not concerned about why or how this happened (for instance, is it the result of a more general “political turn” in contemporary art, the interest in art’s political dimension over the past decade? Or is it simply the relevance of her scholarship at this particular moment in time?). Rather, I will reflect on how different cultural producers (artists, curators, critics, etc.) are engaging with her work and take my own opportunity to consider the ways in which her scholarship can be useful for understanding contemporary art that does not directly engage with Arendt or her ideas. The question of judgment will also loom over these posts, that is, how do we assess works of art when we have lost our measures, when we are without a banister?
This idea is echoed in the quotation that was at the start of this post, “the thread of tradition is broken.” Arendt insists upon a distinction between “tradition” and the “past.” Tradition, as a thread that runs through the past, connecting specific events in a sequential manner (as Jerome Kohn puts it so eloquently in his introduction to Between Past and Future), is what has been lost or frayed. The past is not lost. It is up to us to look back again, but in a different way. Not coincidentally, the banner on the YES! Association’s website reads, “We are the world's darkest past, we are giving shape to the future. We will open a new front.” And so it is time to read Hannah Arendt through the lens of contemporary art, and to read Hannah Arendt as a lens onto contemporary art.
I will post regularly about art being produced in and around the Hannah Arendt Center, as well as artwork, exhibitions, and publications relevant to Arendt’s ideas, including a more extensive post on work by the YES! Association.
Greece voted on Sunday and the headline account shows that the right of center moderates won. This was presented as good news, for it means a continued embrace of the Euro and years more of austerity. But there are other lessons to glean from the Greek election.
1. Extremism is rising quickly in Greece. As the Financial Times reports,
The parliament, for the first time in Greek history, will be full of extremists. Besides the neo-nazis and a Stalinist communist party there is Syriza, whose leader is a fan of Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. How did Greece, the birthplace of democracy, come to have a parliament full of hammers, sickles and swastikas?
2. The Greeks are being asked to suffer for years more, but with little or no hope in sight. Here is what the NY Times reports today, an opinion from one of the most knowledgeable commentators on the Greek crisis:
“Greece will be forced to return to the drachma and devalue, and the default will cause bank runs and money flowing into Germany and the United States as the only viable safe haven bets,” he declared the day before Sunday’s Greek elections, irrespective of which party would win. “Greece will default because there is no other choice regardless of anyone’s politics.”
Almost all of the loans that Greece receives from Europe go directly to pay off the interest on loans to banks in Germany and elsewhere. Greece is neither paying down its debt nor investing in its future. The result is that the Greeks will suffer through years more of austerity and will likely be in no better position in a few years than they are now.
3. The combination of 1 and 2 above do not bode well for European politics in the coming years.
When Hannah Arendt looked to the Origins of Totalitarianism in the 20th century, she began her analysis with the financial speculation and subsequent crash of 1870. The ensuing crisis led to a weakening of nation-states and the rise of imperialism, all of which dissolved the traditional political and moral limits that had for centuries formed the structural foundation of European civilization.
As Europe struggles now to overcome national political limits as a response to the financial and banking crisis, it faces once again a political crisis mixed with an economic crisis. Europe is in trouble and they are not alone. But in Europe, unlike in the U.S. or in Japan, the financial crisis is inextricable from a crisis of nationalism and sovereignty. The potential for nationalist extremism on the one hand is real. On the other hand, there is also the potential for a weakening of national political traditions and the rise of technocratic and bureaucratic rule that, for all its rationalism, weakens moral and ethical restraints.
From Athens to Madrid, the European crisis has entered yet another of its "decisive" phases —how many decisive phases can one crisis have? Reflecting on Europe has brought to mind Seyla Benhabib's 2004 Tanner Lectures on cosmopolitan universalism, which itself was inspired by Hannah Arendt's comments on international law in the epilogue and postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe might seem to have little to do with Benhabib's discourse ethics or Arendt's affirmation of the limits of international law, but it does. Let me explain.
The debt crisis in Europe is not an economic crisis. It is a political crisis. The Euro-zone created a common currency without a common political system. This worked great for a while as countries benefitted from integration and stability of the Euro. But now that debt and recession plague Europe, indebted countries like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are losing control of their politics.
The typical response to over-indebtedness in democratic countries is to devalue one's currency. This causes massive inflation, allowing the debts to be paid. It is painful in the short term and everyone's buying power decreases and the standard of living suffers. But devaluation resets the economy and allows for growth free from the straight-jacket of debt.
It is of course possible to achieve the same effect of devaluation within the Euro zone. The Euro zone could issue Euro bonds, which would be inflationary and allow the indebted countries to pay off their Euro-debts with plentiful and cheap Euros. This is the solution that French President Francois Hollande and others are pushing.
The problem in the Euro-zone is that countries without debt problems don't want to devalue the Euro and thus lower their purchasing power. Without the political sense of a common fate, Germans do not want to suffer for the sake of the Greeks. What is more, the Germans have no faith that if they bail the Greeks out now, the Greeks will reform their profligate ways and not come back for another bailout in a few years. The result is the current crisis of austerity. Or so it seems.
Behind the scenes there is another debate that few are paying attention to. Amidst the repeated rejection of Euro bonds by Germany's leaders is the insertion of a caveat. Euro bonds would be possible if they came with treaty reform, say Germans like Joshcka Fisher and economic leaders like European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. In essence, Germany is willing to bail out Europe, but only if the countries in the Euro zone agree to give up a substantial amount of their sovereignty over economic policy. What Germany wants is for decisions about budgets and deficits and tax policy to be set by European bureaucrats not by democratically elected leaders. If the struggling Euro zone countries agree to those conditions, there is a good chance Germany will agree to bail them out with Euro bonds. And Europe will move closer to a United States of Europe, but one dominated by economic bureaucrats rather than a democratic legislature.
The connection between European politics and Hannah Arendt is important. What Germany is demanding is that Europe abandon its decentralized political control over economic matters and cede decision-making to an apolitical centralized European bureaucracy. Behind such a desire is the subordination of politics to economics that Hannah Arendt saw as one of the defining features of the modern age.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argued that the transfer of the economic principle of unlimited growth to politics underlies imperialism. Imperialism has its economic roots in the “realm of business speculation”-specifically the bursting of an investment bubble in the 1870s. As national entrepreneurs sought new markets, they enlisted state support for economic expansion. “Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central idea of imperialism.” The rise of imperialism and the spread of economic thinking in the political sphere means, Arendt argues, that politics becomes subservient to economics.
Arendt fears the confusion of economics and politics and especially the elevation of economics over politics. Since politics demands the imposition of limits and “stabilizing forces that stand in the way of constant transformation and expansion,” she argues that imperialist expansion brought with it a grave and destabilizing threat to the political order. When politics under the sway of economic imperatives is forced to expand on the world stage, political leaders must offer ideologies that give meaning to an ever-larger, undefined, disconnected, and homeless mass, a population that replaces a citizenry. Under the economic imperatives of growth, politics becomes world politics.
It is an open question today whether politics can return to a political activity that sets moral, ethical, and economic limits on human action. The reason is that we are increasingly suspicious of action, which is, by its nature, free, spontaneous, surprising and unpredictable. Whether we are Germans seeking economic stability, Americans demanding that the Federal government limit the states in their right to deliver (or not deliver) education or healthcare, or human rights activists insisting that individual states conform to international cosmopolitan norms of behavior, the liberal and centralizing demand that people behave well according to cosmopolitan standards rubs against Arendt's democratic insistence that politics must leave space for local, bounded, and undisciplined action.
And here we can return to Seyla Benhabib's call in her Tanner lectures for a new cosmopolitan universalism. Benhabib has initiated an important engagement with Arendt and human rights, one that embraces Arendt's formulation of a "right to have rights" but also resists Arendt's efforts to limit the scope of that universal right. We should all be grateful for the clear-sighted way Benhabib raises this crucial question.
Arendt seeks her bearings in reformulating human rights from her experiences of the Jews and other minority peoples during and preceding the holocaust. The true “calamity of the rightless” in the middle of the 20th century, Arendt writes, is “not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion... but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever.” Human rights reflect the legalized exclusion of human beings from civilized communities and these human rights are “much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are the rights of citizens.” The rights of man, in other words, are not revealed by the deprivation of specific rights, but by the plight of those who are expelled from all rights; the truly rightless are those who are so oppressed that they are deprived of legal status so that no one will even oppress them. It is this total deprivation of rights that makes manifest the one truly human right, what Arendt calls the “right to have rights.”
In thinking about Arendt's enigmatic formula, Benhabib has worried that Arendt simply does not offer a full and philosophical elucidation of the right to have rights. The "right to have rights" partakes of a "philosophical perplexity"; to invoke the "right to have rights" is to give certain rights "a binding power over and beyond the moral obligation that they impose on moral agents." The rights in the "right to have rights" are not mere "oughts," but are universal, cosmopolitan norms. Or at least that is what Benhabib wants to argue, with and against Arendt.
If Arendt remained suspicious of international norms that would be applied in international courts, Benhabib argues that the last 50 years have witnessed an "evolution of global civil society that is characterized by a transition from international to cosmopolitan norms of justice." She embraces the term "cosmopolitanism," which she argues has rightly become one of the key words of our time. What cosmopolitanism means, for Benhabib, is the "carrying of universalistic norms" of a common truth that is inter-subjective rather than metaphysical. In short, Benhabib argues that cosmopolitan norms are emerging in our times that give basic human rights to individuals and can even bind state actors.
Benhabib’s interpretation of the "right to have rights" is appealing, especially in the face of, for example, the ongoing inhumane treatment of Shiites in Syria. Yet, as Benhabib herself recognizes, her reading complicates Arendt’s hard-minded characterization of the right to have rights as “a right to belong to some kind of community.” Arendt means the right “to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions.” In doing so, Arendt excludes the traditional civil rights of life and liberty that Benhabib wants to read into Arendt’s formula. Arendt is careful to distinguish human rights to the rights to be treated humanely that Benhabib seeks to encode in a newly emerging cosmopolitan institutionalization of human rights. For reasons at the core of Arendt’s thinking, Arendt clearly limits the right to have rights and thus human rights to only two rights, the right to act and the right to speak.
The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.” Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act—to be effectual and meaningful in a public world—that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.
Benhabib has good reasons to want to expand the cosmopolitan basis of Arendt's "right to have rights." It is important to see, however, that the desire to strengthen a cosmopolitan foundation for human rights places stability and security above action in much the same as the present German desire to subordinate Greeks and Spaniards to a pan-European regime of responsible citizenship. Both are motivated by a desire for security, stability, and standards. And both elevate the institutional application of cosmopolitan universal norms (economic norms in Europe, human rights norms internationally) over the messiness of local political action.
At a time of economic crisis and humanitarian crises, the great uncertainty of our world will militate toward ever more centralization and thus ever less space for action. Benhabib is certainly alive to these tensions and has answers to many of them. You can read her account here. It is your weekend read.
Whatever the source of moral knowledge might be—divine commandments or moral reason—every sane man, it was assumed, carried within himself a voice that tells him what is right and what is wrong, and this regardless of the law of the land and regardless of the voices of his fellowmen.
-Hannah Arendt, Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, in Responsibility and Judgment, p. 61.
In a series of lectures she wrote for two courses she taught, one in 1965 at the New School and the second in 1966 at the University of Chicago, Arendt mapped out some of her complicated thinking about moral philosophy and the “perplexities inherent in the human faculty of willing.” In these lectures, she drew heavily on Kant and Nietzsche, but began her reflections by calling attention to the historical motivation for her concerns: “We—at least the older ones among us—have witnessed the total collapse of all established moral standards in public and private life during the nineteen-thirties and –forties, not only...in Hitler’s Germany but also in Stalin’s Russia.” (54). The distinction between right and wrong that it was assumed “every sane man” heard like a voice within him had not stood the test of time.
How easily, Arendt observed, ordinary people had changed their habits of mind, exchanging one set of values for another “with hardly more trouble than it [took] to change the table manners of an individual or a people.” (50). How had this happened? If acting morally, and not just legally, depended on the “thinking” conversation one had with oneself about what one should or shouldn’t do, then it was as if large sections of the population in every strata had simply stopped thinking, did what they were told to do, and then proceeded to forget.
Two weeks ago today, Anders Behring Breivik, the 33-year-old Norwegian man who admitted to killing 77 people last July in two separate attacks, entered a specially outfitted courtroom in Oslo to stand trial for criminal acts of terrorism and mass murder. After the charges against him were read, Mr. Breivik pleaded not guilty. "I acknowledge the acts, but not criminal guilt - I claim I was doing it in self-defense." He would have preferred, he added, to appear before a military tribunal; he was, he contended, a political activist involved in a war in Europe.
Since he admitted his acts, the trial now turns on the question of Breivik’s sanity. Two psychiatric reports have produced contradictory conclusions; the first found him insane at the time of the killings, suffering from paranoid schizophrenic delusions, while the second declared him sane. “[E]very sane man, it was assumed, carried within himself a voice that tells him what is right and what is wrong.” In his own words, Breivik was no exception. Before he started shooting, Breivik explained at his trial last week, he heard “ ‘100 voices’ in his head telling him not to do it.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17789206) But that moment of hesitation passed; he had prepared himself for years through a process he described as a deliberate program of dehumanization. Steeling himself against the comprehension of what he had done was important, he added, because “he would break down mentally” if he allowed himself to empathize with his victims.
“The criterion of right and wrong, the answer to the question, what ought I to do? depends in the last analysis neither on habits and customs, which I share with those around me, nor on a command of either divine or human origin, but what I decide with regard to myself,” Arendt observed in the same essay on moral philosophy. (97) What keeps a person from committing atrocities, or “evil” acts, is, for Arendt, the capacity to be a “thinking being, rooted in his thoughts and remembrances, and hence knowing that he has to live with himself.” This same capacity produce “limits to what he can permit himself to do, and these limits will not be imposed on him from the outside, but will be self-set.” These same limits, she continued, “are absent when men skid only over the surface of events, where they permit themselves to be carried away without ever penetrating into whatever depth they may be capable of.”
Breivik’s description of his yearlong “sabbatical” playing a video game, World of Warcraft, for up to 16 hours per day serves as an indication of the program of dehumanization to which he subjected himself. And his years’ long immersion in the ideology and methods of radical terrorism, with, ironically, his endorsement of Al Qaeda as “the most successful revolutionary movement in the world” serves as an example of the kinds of “thoughtlessness” that can become a willed experience, in individuals and in groups, and is a necessary prelude to despicable acts. But then, Breivik never imagined he would survive July 22; he envisioned his action as a suicide mission, perhaps the ultimate act of forgetfulness, the annihilation of the possibility of thought and judgment themselves.
-Kathleen B. Jones
The Human Rights Project at Bard College
Presents Joanne Mariner
"Counterterrorism and Armed Conflict: A Legal Typology"
She will speak tonight, March 19, 2012 at 5PM, in RKC 103 at Bard College.
Joanne Mariner is the Rita Hauser Director of Hunter College's Human Rights Program. Before joining Hunter in January 2011, she spent 15 years at Human Rights Watch, most recently as the director of the organization’s Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program. An expert on counterterrorism laws and policies, Mariner has researched and written about indefinite detention, administrative measures such as “control orders,” criminal prosecutions of suspected terrorists, and government efforts to stem the flow of funds to militant groups. In 2006, she testified before the European Parliament about CIA activities in Europe. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and on the board of advisors of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague and the International Justice Resource Center.
During her tenure at Human Rights Watch, she covered a wide variety of other issues, documenting war crimes in Colombia, Kosovo and Darfur, political violence in Haiti, and prison conditions in Hong Kong, among others. She has published widely on human rights issues, conducted advocacy before the U.N. and regional human rights bodies, and appeared on national media such as ABC News, NPR, BBC World, and C-SPAN. She drafted Human Rights Watch's 1999 submission to the House of Lords in the Pinochet case, and is the author of a ground-breaking 2001 report on prison rape that helped lead to the passage of national legislation to address the problem. In 2005, she received the American Society of International Law's Distinguished Women in International Law award.
Before joining Human Rights Watch, Mariner served as a law clerk to Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She graduated from Barnard College and received a JD from Yale Law School.
Undoubtedly it will be a year of surprises and challenges. The world faces a series of unresolved crises; from the financial turmoil that still threatens to lower European and American standards of living, to military crises in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. The environmental crisis has seemingly fallen off the radar and the crisis in education has left young people in the United States profoundly unprepared for the future. Our political crisis proceeds from an unresponsive and ineffective government, paralyzed by a corrupt campaign finance system, which has led to unprecedented levels of distrust and dismay at government.
Above all, we confront a crisis of values, in which people from all walks of life imagine themselves as entitled to benefits and ways of life that are simply unsustainable. On Wall Street, bankers continue to think themselves entitled to bonuses that are a product of dangerous and unsustainable leverage and largesse. Public employees continue to insist on pensions and benefits that cannot be borne by taxpayers, and students continue to take out debts to finance pricey educations that will not land them jobs that enable them to pay back those debts. And politicians refuse to make the hard decisions about how we are going to move forward and lead amongst these many crises.
We are suffering a crisis of leadership of international proportions. From Europe to Japan, from Russia to Egypt, and from China to the United States, political leaders are proving singularly inept at addressing the turmoil that is now more common and certainly more dangerous than the common cold. Across the board, this lack of political leadership is rooted in a crisis of values in which everyone believes they are somehow entitled to have it all without paying for it. Or, as Thomas Friedman has written, "No leaders want to take hard decisions anymore, except when forced to. Everyone — even China’s leaders — seems more afraid of their own people than ever." There is a real question whether the transformative power of the internet and has made participatory democracy so participatory and so democratic that the checks and balances of our constitutional system are no longer up to the task of developing a political system capable of leading and making difficult decisions.
Amidst this worldwide need for and lack of leadership, the United States is about to elect a President. Over the next 11 months, we will spend close to three billion dollars on the presidential contest. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will donate time and money, and about one hundred million will vote. And what will be the effect? If we limit ourselves to the expected choice of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we may well be choosing between two pragmatic technocrats, both intelligent, well-meaning, and competent, but neither having demonstrated strong faiths or convictions about where a country in crisis needs to go. Rather than convictions, our politicians promise technocratic solutions designed to give no offense.
We suffer today from a failure of elite and technocratic rationality. As Ross Douthat writes today in the New York Times,
The United States is living through an era of unprecedented elite failure, in which America's public institutions are understandably distrusted and our leadership class is justifiably despised.
Amidst this crisis of elites, there is desperation for leadership that will be bold, and yet our politicians produce the pallid pablum of party politics.
One wonders where leaders will come from and how we might elect a President who can lead and unite the country. Real leaders, wrote the novelist David Foster Wallace, are people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Such leaders seem unlikely in a political system in which politicians must tell the people what they want to hear.
In 1946, shortly after arriving in the United States as a Jewish refugee from Germany, Hannah Arendt wrote, "There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom." Arendt fell in love with America, and eagerly became a citizen. At the same time, she worried that the greatest threat to a uniquely American freedom was the sheer bigness of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The size of the country in concert with a rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for individual freedoms and personal initiative that she saw as the potent core of American civic life.
Arendt understood that political action must be measured in terms of greatness if it is to preserve political freedom from the sway of technocratic rationalism. Political action is necessarily courageous action, action in the public sphere with the potential to either succeed or fail. Political leaders are those who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire the citizens to re-imagine and re-vitalize their sense of belonging to a common people with a common purpose. Especially in times of crisis, we need politicians who can inspire and lead. At a time when politics is ever more driven by the democratic and technocratic need to appeal to the wishes of the people, Arendt prods us to ask how we can maintain the ideal of freedom and the possibility of leadership.
To desire political leadership is not to ask for a Führer or a demagogue. It is to see, with Max Weber, that charismatic leaders are necessary bulwarks against a leaderless Democracy, which Weber describes as, “the rule of professional politicians without a calling, without the inner charismatic qualities that make a leader.” The challenge, as Weber defines it in his classic essay Politics as a Vocation, is: How to allow for a “safety-valve of the demand for leadership” to counteract the dutiful but overly obedient officialdom of a leaderless democracy without running to the opposed danger of a partisan democracy with soulless followers seeking nothing but victory.
Weber's answer is simple: The politician must serve a cause. The cause itself doesn’t necessarily always matter. “The politician may serve national, humanitarian, social, ethical, cultural, worldly, or religious ends. … However some kind of faith must always exist." In today's language, we need a politician with vision and with the charisma and thoughtfulness to unify a fragmented and fearful country around that vision of a common future. That indeed is the classical ideal of a politician, one who stands in the center of a polis and speaks and acts to articulate the common truths that hold the polity together.
Crises can breed opportunity. A crisis, as Arendt writes, "tears away facades and obliterates prejudices," and thus allows us "to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter." The task today is to respond with new and thoughtful action, which requires that we abandon our preformed judgments and attachments that have brought us to this space. Giving up our prejudices is difficult, as is accepting the challenge of the new. And yet the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have shown that there is a hunger for a new politics that breaks the bounds of traditional political discourse. Our New Year's wish to all of you is that 2012 might bring a bold politics that can bring forth a new politics from out of the cauldron of crisis.