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.
Christopher Jencks explores the common-sense conviction that poverty rates are not declining. The poverty rate has stayed largely static since 1969, but Jencks shows how that statistic is unreliable. Today, there are many more cohabiting couples who both work and can each be counted as poor. There are also many more "non-cash" benefits like food stamps, which do not count towards income measured by the poverty line. Larger tax credits for the working poor also are invisible in poverty statistics because poverty is measured on a pre-tax basis. The result, Jencks writes, is that poverty has actually fallen much more precipitously than is usually thought. "Both liberals and conservatives tend to resist the idea that poverty has fallen dramatically since 1964, although for different reasons. Conservatives' resistance is easy to understand. They have argued since the 1960s that the federal government's antipoverty programs were ineffective, counterproductive, or both. Since the 1970s they have cited the stability of the post-1969 poverty rate to support those judgments. To them, the suggestion that poverty has fallen sounds like a suggestion that the War on Poverty succeeded. Liberals hear the claim that poverty has fallen quite differently, although they do not like it any better than conservatives do. Anyone, liberal or conservative, who wants the government to solve a problem soon discovers that it is easier to rally support for such an agenda by saying that the problem in question is getting worse than by saying that although the problem is diminishing, more still needs to be done. The equation of 'bad' with 'worse' is so tight in American political discourse that when I tell my friends or my students that 'there is still a lot of poverty, but less than there used to be,' they have trouble remembering both halves of the sentence. Some remember that there is still a lot of poverty. Others remember that there is less than there used to be. Few remember both."
Randall Kennedy in The Boston Review writes about the contested history of protest politics in the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on the ambiguous legacies of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. "In assessing Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton it is important to keep in mind that they tried to act against the racial injustice that has befouled America. That alone entitles them to some respect. It is important to acknowledge, too, the profound obstacles they encountered within and outside black communities. At this moment when civil liberties are threatened by new, disturbingly powerful surveillance technologies, we must remember that the self-destructive paranoia and divisiveness that menaced black power leaders stemmed in large part from the devious and illicit machinations of Hoover and other enforcers of law and order. It is also important to acknowledge that Carmichael was only twenty-five when he shouted 'black power!' and that Newton was only twenty-four when, with Seale, he founded the Panthers. It should come as no surprise that young people sometimes display bad judgment in confronting daunting conditions. Without a sympathetic appreciation of peoples' problems, internal and external, there is no realistic way to take stock of their accomplishments and defeats. But this does not lessen the responsibility of scholars to be exacting, especially when they self-consciously pursue their studies in order to advance social change, as the progressive revisionists of black power do. The art of social transformation is demanding. Those who portray the past for instruction and inspiration must not shrink before its imperatives, lest today's activists learn the wrong lessons."
Carmen Maria Machado wonders what college students would do if they knew how many of their professors were adjuncts and just what that means: "We like to rhapsodize about the influential teacher who changes lives and hearts, and makes students stand on their desks in academic ecstasy. But this doesn't translate in the contemporary world of higher education. There is a complicated culture of silence that surrounds adjuncting. Schools have no incentive to draw attention to how many adjuncts most institutions now rely on, and as for the adjuncts themselves, addressing the subject raises awkward questions, and might even put their jobs at risk: in her essay 'The Teaching Class,' Rachel Riederer recounts how merely explaining how adjuncting worked to a group of students outside of class threw one adjunct's job into jeopardy. There also can be an element of shame, or reservations about discussing financial matters, or a reluctance to complain. Harvey tells me he didn't think of it as a secret; it just never occurred to him to bring it up. 'I would've told anyone who'd asked' he said. But then the students often don't know to ask. If more of them learned how many of their classes are taught by poorly paid, unsupported teachers, even as their tuition rises, how would they react? Would they question the value of their education? Call for reform? Or would they do what I suspect I would have done if I'd known Harvey, the most valuable teacher in my undergraduate career, was an adjunct: burned with embarrassment, and never reached out to him after the semester closed, because I'd already received too much?"
Jon Nixon considers Hannah Arendt's thinking and how it connects to the political role of education. "It is the task of education--and therefore of the university--to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible. But the university can fulfil [sic] that task only if the space it provides remains uncluttered by what Arendt saw as barriers to thought. There were--and are--two such barriers. The first is the assumption that the outcomes of thinking can be pre-specified--that we can think things through to a predetermined end or goal. Against this assumption, Arendt insisted--in her 1967 essay on 'Truth and Politics'--that 'our thinking is truly discursive, running, as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views'. Thinking is heuristic and explorative, unpredictable in its outcomes, uncertain and indeterminate. It falls outside the frame of any pedagogical approach or assessment regime premised on the notion of pre-specifiable goals, targets and outcomes. The second barrier relates to notions of academic categorisation. Arendt understood the importance of disciplinary and methodological boundaries, but was aware that these could all too easily become barriers. In her own life and work she insisted on the need to think outside--and between--the traditional academic categories: 'thinking without bannisters', as she called it. During an interview televised in 1964, she rounded on her interviewer who referred to her as a philosopher: 'I have said goodbye to philosophy once and for all. As you know, I studied philosophy, but that does not mean that I stayed with it.' Having distanced herself from that subject, she never settled into an established discipline but constantly crossed and re-crossed the boundaries between historical analysis, philosophical reflection and political theory. As she put it in her lectures on Kant's political philosophy, what matters is '[t]o think with the enlarged mentality--that means you train your mind to go visiting'. The public sphere was, for Arendt, the outward expression of that 'enlarged mentality'--so, to 'go visiting' was to journey out into that sphere. She saw education as providing a necessary transitional zone between the private and the public: a semi-public space within which we can test our opinions, interpretations and judgments and be held to provisional account for them. As Jerome Kohn--a distinguished scholar and editor of Arendt's work and one of her former students--recalls: 'In her seminar, every participant was a "citizen" called upon to give his or her opinion, to insert him or herself into that miniature polis in order to make it, as she said, "a little better."' This 'insertion' of the self into the polis constitutes a radically new beginning--a 'natality' in Arendt's terms--by which we realise our potential as persons and as citizens."
Alexander Clapp sketches how Syriza, the leftist party recently elected to power in Greece, has reached into the academy for its ministers and its guiding principles and how it's attempting to put theory into practice, if a little haphazardly: "Syriza hasn't tried to hide its academic inclinations. Down the street from the party's crumbling headquarters in Psiri, a leftist redoubt in Athens, is the Nicos Poulantzas Institute. This is Syriza's think tank, where about two hundred party intellectuals, mostly economists, have been polishing their theories since 1997. Leftists from more than twenty similar organisations throughout Europe--the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany, Espaces Marx in France--show up every week to give talks. An office press, Nissos, publishes several volumes of party scholarship every year. Analyses produced by the institute's members--'The Political Economy of Public Debt' by Nikos Theocharakis; 'Development, Productive Reconstruction, Memoranda and Debt in Greece, a Country of 1.5 Million Unemployed People' by Nadia Valavani, the current alternative finance minister--appear in Avgi, on Kokkino, the party radio station, and Left.gr, its blog. 'Syriza politicians let us operate the institute autonomously,' Georgios Daremas, one of its trustees, told me. 'We push out ideas; they grab onto things here and there.'" The list includes friends of the Hannah Arendt Center, including Rania Antonopoulos, Associate Professor of Economics at Bard and Senior Scholar at the Levy Economics Institute, who was elected to the Greek Parliament as a Syriza Party member in January.
Dane Erickson compares the recent street movements in Sub-Saharan Africa to the Arab Spring but notes that its the maintenance of democracy, rather than the end of an unpopular autocratic regime, that's at stake: "Looking over the horizon, attempts by African leaders to stay beyond constitutionally mandated limits may serve as flashpoints for increasingly disillusioned young and middle-class people. Many African nations created two-term limits in the early 1990s, but Angola, Chad, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Togo, and Zimbabwe have since done away with those limits. Some observers believe that Burundi, Rwanda, Benin, and the Republic of Congo may also attempt to amend their constitutions during the next two years. Almost 30 years ago, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said 'the problem of Africa...is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.' Many have encouraged the practice of peaceful succession of power, most notably Mo Ibrahim. In the next couple years, a number of African leaders will have important decisions to make along these lines. In some cases, the African Street may help make those decisions for them."
Jim Sleeper in the Washington Monthly waxes pessimistic and tragic about the recent re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In doing so, he refers to Arendt Center Director Roger Berkowitz's account of Hannah Arendt's thinking on the decreasing potency of war in modern politics. "Berkowitz's must-read essay argues that the nature of war itself has changed enough that massive militaries are useless and that war itself is unwinnable by any 'side.' His essay opens with Hannah Arendt's prescient observation that since sovereign states have no 'last resort' except war, then 'if war no longer serves that purpose, that fact alone proves that we must have a new concept of the state.' What Netanyahu's victory probably does prove is that many Israelis, for compelling, understandable, but tragic reasons--and their American cheerleaders, for reasons that are far less compelling or excusable--aren't ready to internalize this new truth about war and make new history by supporting a viable federation with Palestinians along the lines Nusseibeh sketches. Paroxysms can't be reasoned with. And Berkowitz explains why, when they're militarized, paroxysms can't win. We have to hope that they'll burn themselves out before they draw everything else down with them and that some new combination of circumstance and persuasion will deter them."
Jessica Benko takes a peek inside Norway's maximum security Halden Prison: "To anyone familiar with the American correctional system, Halden seems alien. Its modern, cheerful and well-appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere--these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all. It is, of course, but it is also something more: the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness."
The website Muckrock has posted an FBI memorandum obtained through Freedom of Information Request on Hannah Arendt. In it, Arendt is described as "a small, rotund, stoop shouldered woman with a crew-like haircut, masculine voice and a marvelous mind." And she is considered dangerous. "Mr. [redacted] advised he felt HANNAH ARENDT was very dangerous to the best interests of this country in view of the fact she is a professor who travels around the United States instructing at numerous colleges as a visiting professor. He stated his daughter changed her thinking completely after taking courses from HANNAH ARENDT at the University of California at Berkeley, California, in 1955, and feels that it was her influence which had influenced his daughter to go to Europe to study under Professor PAUL RICOERUR. Mr. [redacted] advised that from the information he had been able to gather, he could not say that HANNAH ARENDT was a Communist, but stated she was advocating a totalitarian philosophy in her political courses."
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
Property and Freedom: Is Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty and Promoting Freedom in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and Rift Valley Institute.
Free and open to the public!
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch discusses how the Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero uses Arendt to argue for a narratable self in defense of individual uniqueness in the Quote of the Week. American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Shmuel Lederman, a visiting scholar with the Hannah Arendt Center, discusses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's victory in the recent Israeli elections. HAC student fellow Marisol Dothard recounts Eyal Press's keynote speech, which was the first installment in our "Courage to Be" dinner/lecture series. And we appreciate Arendt's collection of Adolf von Harnack's multi-volume work, "History of Dogma," in our Library feature.
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.
Justin P. McBrayer has an insightful column about the confounding and dangerous way schools are required by the common core to teach in ways that undermine moral facts. "When I went to visit my son's second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read: Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven. Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes." McBrayer rips these clichés to shreds, showing how the definition of fact encompasses both accepted truths and proofs, which are hardly the same thing. What is more, in opposing facts and opinions, the common core curriculum forgets that some facts are also opinions and vice versa, thus undermining any possibility of moral facts. "How does the dichotomy between fact and opinion relate to morality? I learned the answer to this question only after I investigated my son's homework (and other examples of assignments online). Kids are asked to sort facts from opinions and, without fail, every value claim is labeled as an opinion. Here's a little test devised from questions available on fact vs. opinion worksheets online: are the following facts or opinions?
- Copying homework assignments is wrong.
- Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.
- All men are created equal.
- It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.
- It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.
- Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.
- Drug dealers belong in prison.
The answer? In each case, the worksheets categorize these claims as opinions. The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact. In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths." Moral facts and moral truths are those that are at once subjective and also universal, truths that are neither subject to proof nor questionable by thinking persons. Moral truths are shown, not proven, which is why both Kant and Arendt insist that examples are the core of moral education. We all know that copying homework and dealing drugs are wrong, just as we know that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. acted courageously and ethically in breaking laws; we don't need logical proofs or empirical studies to make moral judgments with conviction. And yet, increasingly our scientific age insists that truths are only those statements subject to logical or empirical proof, thus denying the very existence of moral facts and undermining the ethical foundation of the common world in which we live. The attack on ethical reality goes beyond our schools. It is not only the common core that denies the existence of moral truths; it is a Schande when the Federal Government imposes a curriculum that teaches our children that all opinion is false and only what is provable is true.
Peter Maass has two related essays in The Intercept about the two-tiered system of justice for leakers. In a long and revealing essay about Stephen Kim--a mid-level government analyst who leaked classified information to the journalist James Rosen--Maass focuses on the selective nature of the prosecution: "Kim had the particular misfortune of being a mid-level official. Senior officials tend to have powerful allies who can push back against the Department of Justice. This doesn't always protect them--Scooter Libby, who was Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, was convicted in 2007 of obstructing an investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's name (though his sentence was later commuted by President Bush). But usually it helps. Top officials who have not been prosecuted for leaking include Leon Panetta, the former CIA director who, according to a report by the Defense Department's inspector general, leaked the name of the SEAL commando who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Another example is Gen. James Cartwright, who reportedly has been investigated as the source for a Times story on Stuxnet, but has not been charged. And of course there is David Petraeus, the former CIA director and four-star general who is being investigated for leaking classified information to Paula Broadwell, his former lover and authorized biographer. According to recent press reports, lawyers in the Department of Justice have recommended that Petraeus be indicted, but there's significant resistance because he is a popular figure with influential friends who have taken his side, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and John McCain. While Kim sits in prison for talking to a reporter about a single classified document, Petraeus has not been charged for allegedly handing over multiple classified documents." In a second article written after David Petraeus was granted a plea that not only allowed him to avoid jail but permitted him to keep his lucrative job on Wall Street, Maass highlights the difference in the way Petraeus and Kim were treated: "Petraeus pleaded guilty to just one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information, a misdemeanor that can be punishable by a year in jail, though the deal calls only for probation and a $40,000 fine. As The New York Times noted today, the deal 'allows Mr. Petraeus to focus on his lucrative post-government career as a partner in a private equity firm and a worldwide speaker on national security issues.'" The point is not that Petraeus should be fully prosecuted but that Kim's prosecution is strikingly a case of overkill, all of which calls to mind Arendt's somewhat mangled line about the public perceptions of the 1963 Frankfurter tribunals of mid-level Nazi bureaucrats: "The small fish are caught, while the big fish continue their careers."
Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a succinct and powerful summary of the U.S. Justice Department's investigation into Darren Wilson's shooting of Michael Brown. "Yesterday the Justice Department released the results of a long and thorough investigation into the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. The investigation concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove a violation of federal law by Officer Wilson. The investigation concluded much more. The investigation concluded that physical evidence and witness statements corroborated Wilson's claim that Michael Brown reached into the car and struck the officer. It concluded that claims that Wilson reached out and grabbed Brown first 'were inconsistent with physical and forensic evidence.' The investigation concluded that there was no evidence to contradict Wilson's claim that Brown reached for his gun. The investigation concluded that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back. That he did not shoot Brown as he was running away. That Brown did stop and turn toward Wilson. That in those next moments 'several witnesses stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson.' That claims that Brown had his hands up 'in an unambiguous sign of surrender' are not supported by the 'physical and forensic evidence,' and are sometimes, 'materially inconsistent with that witness's own prior statements with no explanation, credible for otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time.' Unlike the local investigators, the Justice Department did not merely toss all evidence before a grand jury and say, 'you figure it out.' The federal investigators did the work themselves and came to the conclusion that Officer Wilson had not committed 'prosecutable violations under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute, 18 U.S.C. § 242.' Our system, ideally, neither catches every single offender, nor lightly imposes the prosecution, jailing, and fining of its citizens. A high burden of proof should attend any attempt to strip away one's liberties. The Justice Department investigation reflects a department attempting to live up to those ideals and giving Officer Wilson the due process that he, and anyone else falling under our legal system, deserves." We should all take a deep breath and respect Coates' clarity. As for whether the local prosecutor did the necessary work or not, I don't know. But clearly the prosecutor came to the same conclusion to which the Justice Department and Coates now come, and they took action to encourage the grand jury to do the same.
In the same essay as he accepts the innocence of Darren Wilson, Ta-Nehisi Coates digs into the Justice Department's second report, the one that found systematic violations of civil rights throughout not only the Ferguson police department but also the entire legal system. Above all, the City of Ferguson saw its citizens, and predominantly its black citizens, as sources of revenue to be fined and cited rather than as citizens to be respected or even to be punished: "' Ferguson's law enforcement practices are shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson's police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson's police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson's own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities...' Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson's predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue... The 'focus on revenue' was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue. Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband. Black people were more likely to see a single incident turn into multiple citations. The disparity in outcomes remained 'even after regression analysis is used to control for non-race-based variables.' One should understand that the Justice Department did not simply find indirect evidence of unintentionally racist practices which harm black people, but 'discriminatory intent'--that is to say willful racism aimed to generate cash. Justice in Ferguson is not a matter of 'racism without racists,' but racism with racists so secure, so proud, so brazen that they used their government emails to flaunt it."
In an interview, Zephyr Teachout outlines what she thinks is the problem with American political culture: "There's a big dream out there about wind and solar power. I think a lot of the reason people are attracted to the Keystone pipeline is because at least we're doing something. There's a fear that society will collapse if it's not acting. To contrast those actions with other actions is important in making it feel plausible. Maybe we must have the size of the dream meet the size of the threat. This is what's so hard about our current politics: things poll well, but people don't believe that politicians are telling the truth. Politicians might mention renewable energy, and the public will think, 'That sounds good, but I don't believe they're going to do everything they can to build those towers.' Or with campaign finance reform--they don't think that we actually intend to change the way money works in politics. Then citizens don't get very engaged. They think, 'Maybe that politician is just naïve.' Or, more often, people think that the politician is just part of a system, and whether they're lying or not doesn't matter. One of the most dangerous things about Fox News isn't that it's right wing but that it's nihilistic. It takes away the capacity to believe in politics. What were they thinking in 1900? Were they thinking the American system's broken and we should just give up? Why do we feel powerless but Pussy Riot doesn't? Why do we feel powerless but the protesters in Hong Kong don't? Why do we feel powerless? There is a strange feeling of powerlessness among us, even though we do have power."
Timothy Kudo, a Marine Captain, reflects on how killing for him has become banal. He tells of a time when he was asked to give an order to kill suspected insurgents: "The voice on the other end of the radio said: 'There are two people digging by the side of the road. Can we shoot them?'" Kudo responds according to both cliché and his training: "'Take the shot,' I responded. It was dialogue from the movies that I'd grown up with, but I spoke the words without irony. I summarily ordered the killing of two men. I wanted the Marine on the other end to give me a reason to change my decision, but the only sound I heard was the radio affirmative for an understood order: 'Roger, out.' Shots rang out across the narrow river. A part of me wanted the rounds to miss their target, but they struck flesh and the men fell dead." Kudo trained to kill and trained to learn how to justify killing, how to kill in ways that made the killing morally and physically acceptable. "For a while after I ordered the Marine to take that first shot, everything we did seemed acceptable. It revealed that killing could be banal. Each day would bring a new threat that needed to be eliminated. Bombs would drop, Marines would fire and artillery would blanket hills with explosions. I had a rough estimate of how many people we killed, but I stopped counting after a while." Kudo recognizes a problem here and writes: "If this era of war ever ends, and we emerge from the slumber of automated killing to the daylight of moral questioning, we will face a reckoning. If we are honest with ourselves, the answers won't be simple." But then he ends his essay with this: "I don't blame Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama for these wars. Our elected leaders, after all, are just following orders, no different from the Marine who asks if he can kill a man digging by the side of the road." The retreat to the "just following orders" justification is clearly here out of place. The point about Kudo and his marines is not that they were following orders but that they came to see the orders as right, even if the rightness of orders is complicated. This is clearly also the case for the two presidents. We see how precarious and difficult it is to make moral judgments when someone like Kudo instinctively flees the groundlessness of judgment for the safety of bureaucratic irresponsibility. What he forgets, however, is that in politics obedience and support are the same. The fact is, as Arendt writes, that those who kill are not simply obeying orders; they are supporting the political legitimacy of those orders, which is why we can never escape our personal responsibility to judge.
Parent and public school teacher Michael Godsey praises the private school because it requires students and parents to "buy in" to their education. Students that have a stake in their education, he thinks, are better students: "If the parents are paying tuition at an independent school--one that advertises an alternative approach to education and promotes a 'love of learning' as its cornerstone--they are publicly claiming a stake in a specific curriculum and pedagogy. They're not simply accepting the title of 'stakeholder' at the school that's chosen for their kids because of, say, geography.... I noticed the same effect of 'buying in' when I used to teach Advanced Placement English at another public school. By law, anyone was allowed to take the class, but the school encouraged every interested student to get a signature from a former teacher to vouch for his or her qualifications. The simple act of taking the initiative to procure a signature was enough to show 'buy-in': On the first day of school, every student had made a tiny but significant act that showed that they had chosen to be in this class. This served as implicit evidence that they cared about their education, at least a little bit." One of the most passionate and insightful defenses of private over public education comes from James Tooley, author of The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. Tooley spoke at the Arendt Center's Conference Failing Fast in 2013. You can watch a video of his talk here. (Click on Failing Fast and then scroll down.)
Jessica Gregg, on the other hand, has elected to take her kids out of private school in order to save money but also because she believes that public school students, who are handed much, much less, learn how to make more for themselves: "It turns out that our children didn't need to be one of a handful of precious kids in a classroom. They can handle the bigger classes, the dozens of children from different backgrounds. They can be OK and even, sometimes, great. We've learned that our kids aren't so extraordinarily fragile that they need to be bubble wrapped by us before they venture into the world. We've also learned that they aren't necessarily extraordinary at all. Or, to be more precise, that if they want to be perceived as extraordinary in the public school system, they had better be extraordinary. The school will not create extraordinary for them. We are lucky: The kids will receive a solid educational foundation in our local schools. And they can remain at that foundational level, or they can improve upon it. But it is up to them to take advantage of extra resources or to create those resources themselves. They have to be part of their own educational equation. Seth will be entering a public high school with an international baccalaureate program, classes in Chinese, and the option to take courses at the local university if he is not sufficiently challenged. But he has to seek these experiences and he has to be qualified. His ability to take advantage of these opportunities is contingent on him, not on our ability to pay for a school that will automatically provide them. Of course, down the road, we may regret this decision. We have to contend with the possibility that without the extra advantage that private school gives them, our children may no longer be considered super-special, super-educated, super-kids, zooming toward our version of their success. ('Yes, she'll be at Yale next year. It just seemed a better fit than Harvard.')"
Eli Saslow profiles Daniel Norris, also known as "Van Man," a top baseball prospect who lives off the grid. "HE HAS ALWAYS lived by his own code, no matter what anyone thinks: a three-sport star athlete in high school who spent weekends camping alone; a hippie who has never tried drugs; a major league pitcher whose first corporate relationship was with an environmental organization called 1% for the Planet. He is 21 and says he has never tasted alcohol. He has had one serious relationship, with his high school girlfriend, and it ended in part because he wanted more time to travel by himself. He was baptized in his baseball uniform. His newest surfboard is made from recycled foam. His van is equipped with a solar panel. He reads hardcover books and never a Kindle. He avoids TV and studies photography journals instead.... For almost 80 years, his father and grandfather owned and operated a small bicycle shop in car-dependent Johnson City, and their store was not only a place to sell bikes but a way to spread their family values and popularize a belief system. Play outdoors. Love the earth. Live simply. Use only what you need. Norris spent his childhood outside with his parents and his two older sisters, going for weekend bike rides and hiking trips, playing football, basketball and baseball. In school, he was a varsity star in all three, but it was baseball--and particularly pitching--that most aligned with his personality. Being alone on the mound reminded him of being out in the wild, where he was forced to solve his own problems and wrestle with self-doubt. 'I was a good pitcher because I was already good at taking care of myself,' he says. 'I love having teammates behind me, but I'm not going to rely on them. It can get quiet and lonely out there when you're pitching, which drives some people crazy. But that's my favorite part.'"
"Figuring Rights: Wollstonecraft and the Right to Political Community
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 pm
Synopsis: A diverse group of South African actors tours the war-torn regions of Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia to share their country's experiment with reconciliation. As they ignite a dialogue among people with raw memories of atrocity, the actors find they must once again confront their homeland's violent past, and question their own capacity for healing and forgiveness.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Weis Cinema, Campus Center, 6:30 pm
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Free and open to the public!
Monday, April 6, 2015Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Thomas Wild discusses how the transformation of thinking and acting into works of art permeates Arendt's understanding of the world conceived by humankind in the Quote of the Week. American author and social activist Howard Zinn provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. And we appreciate Hannah Arendt's collection of the works of German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling in our Library feature.
Roger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting For?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For the Weekend Read this week, we provide an edited transcript of Professor Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?”
**This post was originally published March 9, 2012**
Politics today is democratic politics. While history has not ended and democracy is not universal, there is no doubt that the spirit of our age is democratic. From France and the United States in the 18th century; to the European revolutions of 1848; to decolonialization in the 20th century, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011 one cannot mistake the fact that politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.
Back in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin called out President Barack Obama for carrying out a foreign policy based in American exceptionalism. Around the same time conservatives in the GOP argued that President Obama was abandoning American exceptionalism, pushing a secular and even socialist agenda that leads him to apologize for American greatness. According to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon.
Now comes Peter Beinart who writes in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself.
The core of the first part of Beinart’s argument concerns a generational shift regarding the place of religion in American society. That younger Americans are fundamentally changing their attitudes toward religious life is a theme Beinart has written about often. In short, one pillar of American exceptionalism has been its religiosity. America has long been the most religious of the western democracies. But the current younger generation is an exception.
For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.” But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age. In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.
Beinart’s point is that the younger generation is less religious and thus less tied to one of the core components of American exceptionalism than previous generations of Americans. That he is right is apparently beyond dispute. And it is not unimportant.
The deflation of religion removes one of the pillars that has long-distinguished American life. For Tocqueville, religiosity was necessary in a democratic country, as it gave the people a moral language to restrict the unimpeded longings of individualism. Religion also feeds the confidence and sense of purpose lends to the American project its jeremiad-like quality. And this is nowhere better illustrated than in Philip Freneau’s 1795 poem “On Mr. Paine’s Rights of Man:”
So shall our nation, formed on Virtue’s plan,
Remain the guardian of the Rights of Man,
A vast republic, famed through every clime,
Without a kind, to see the end of time.
The religious roots of American exceptionalism are well established and form the central argument of Deborah Madsen’s book American Exceptionalism. Madsen traces the doctrine to 17th century Puritan sermons and poetry, including Peter Buckley’s famous “Gospel-Covenant sermon” that proclaims,
We are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth; the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore not only the Lord our God, with whom we have made covenant, but heaven and earth, angels and men, that are witnesses of our profession, will cry shame upon us, if we walk contrary to the covenant which we have professed and promised to walk in.
According to Madsen, this religious sense of distinction and purpose translated easily to a rationalist project as well. Benjamin Franklin embraced the exceptionalist rhetoric but covered it in a rationalist patina, arguing the “providence” is a “rational principle that controls the operation of the world.” For Franklin, American newness meant that it was “unhampered by the complexities of European history and unburdened by a sophisticated class system and structure of inheritance.” Thus, Madsen writes, America “offered an unrivalled opportunity for the establishment of a democratic society based on rational principles…. Franklin represents the American errand as the creation of a secular state that is purified of the corruption of European politics and a social structure based on inherited title.”
By the time Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the vision of the United States as a unique and exemplary democracy marked by a distinct approach to freedom and equality had established itself in the nation’s psyche.
The United States of America was understood not simply to be one country amongst many, but it was “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The survival and success of the United States was hardly a local matter, but was a grand experiment testing whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Americans understood that America mattered as an example for the world.
Seymour Lipset summed up the idea of American exceptionalism in his 1996 book American Excptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.
The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being “the first new nation,” the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d’être ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln’s emphases on the country’s “political religion.”
For Lipset, the “American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” Exceptionalism, he argues, doesn’t mean American is better than other countries. It means that America “is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier. Exceptionalism is a double-edged concept.”
There have always been opponents of what Godfrey Hodgson calls The Myth of American Exceptionalism. And there is the question of how fully different races and classes have embraced the idea of American exceptionalism. But overall, the myth has had some basis in sociological reality. Americans were more religious than other democratic and liberal states. Americans believed they had more economic mobility, and saw their country as the first truly multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy; one that developed in fits and starts towards an ideal of equality over 200 years.
So what does it mean when this idea of American exceptionalism is in retreat? Beinart traces the increasingly suspicious attitudes of the young to traditional tenets of American exceptionalism in foreign affairs and also in economics.
When conservatives worry that America is not as economically exceptional anymore, they're right. A raft of studies suggests that upward mobility is now rarer in the United States than in much of Europe. But if America's exceptional economic mobility is largely a myth, it's a myth in which many older Americans still believe. Among the young, by contrast, attitudes are catching up to reality. According to a 2011 Pew poll, young Americans were 14 points more likely than older Americans to say that the wealthy in America got there mainly because "they know the right people or were born into wealthy families" rather than because of their "hard work, ambition, and education." And as young Americans internalize America's lack of economic mobility, they are developing the very class consciousness the United States is supposed to lack. In 2011, when Pew asked Americans to define themselves as either a "have" or a "have-not," older Americans chose "have" by 27 points. In contrast, young Americans, by a 4-point margin, chose "have-not." According to the exceptionalist story line, Americans are all supposed to consider themselves "middle class," regardless of their actual economic fortunes. For seniors, that's largely true. According to a 2012 Pew study, they were 43 points more likely to call themselves "middle" than "lower" class. Among young Americans, by contrast, the percentage calling themselves "middle" and "lower" class was virtually the same.
Perhaps the most interesting generational change Beinart identifies is what he calls the loss of American civilizational self-confidence, which he ties to our loss of religious feeling.
[A]s conservatives suspect, Americans' declining belief in our special virtue as a world power really is connected to our declining belief in our special virtue as a people. And the young are leading the way. A 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while almost two in three Americans over 65 call themselves "extremely proud to be American," among Americans under 30 it is fewer than two in five. According to a Pew study in 2011, millennials were a whopping 40 points less likely than people 75 and older to call America "the greatest country in the world."
Young Americans, in fact, are no more "civilizationally self-confident" than their European counterparts. When Pew asked respondents in 2011 whether "our culture is superior" to others, it found that Americans over the age of 50 were, on average, 15 points more likely to answer yes than their counterparts in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. Americans under 30, by contrast, were actually less likely to agree than their peers in Britain, Germany, and Spain.
It is easy to worry about the effects of the loss of exceptionalism in America, but hard to deny the truth that America is, today, increasingly less exceptional than in the past. Beinart is worried and rightly so. For what would a country be that had no common ideals? It would be a geographic entity held together by fear and bureaucratic inertia.
So Beinart holds out the hope that, in the end, Americans will reinvigorate their mythic exceptionalism. His prescription is a war on inequality that will return our faith to America as the land of economic mobility. If we can break down the Republican coalition with the plutocratic one percent and between Republicans and religionists, we could re-inspire both religious and economic exceptionalism that have undergirded so much of the progress toward social and racial justice in American history.
What Beinart’s hoped for return of American exceptionalism forgets is that historically what most distinguished America from other nation-states in Europe and elsewhere was its uniquely federalist and decentralized and constitutional structure—something that has long been abandoned and is a distant memory in today’s national security state. Not only Tocqueville in the 19th century but also Hannah Arendt in the 20th century saw in the United States a unique and exceptional country, one that for Arendt was fundamentally different from all European countries. The difference, for Tocqueville, was in America’s incredible multiplication of distinct power centers at all levels of government and society. Arendt agrees, arguing,
The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny and the same.
Arendt understood that what truly made America exceptional was its decentralized system of power, that the states did not surrender their powers to the Federal government, but that that Federal government should check the powers of the states and the considerable powers that still remained with them. By multiplying power sources, the American constitutional republic created a system that both prevented one sovereign power from acquiring tyrannical power and, equally importantly, insured that local power structures would persist that would give individual citizens reason and incentive to engage in the American practice of democratic self-government.
Arendt’s love for America, as she expressed it in her last interview, was for a country that refused to be a nation-state. “America is not a nation-state and Europeans have a hell of a time understanding this simple fact.” As a country and not a nation, America was comprised of a plurality of persons and groups that each could found and support their own institutional bases of power. Politics in America had no center, but proceeded according to the contest of local and dispersed groups. And what unites all Americans is one thing: “citizens are united only by one thing, and that’s a lot: that is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.” The Constitution in the United States is not just a scrap of paper. I it “a sacred document, it is the constant remembrance of one sacred act, and that is the act of foundation. And the foundation is to make a union out of wholly disparate ethnic minorities and regions, and still (a) have a union and (b) not assimilate or level down these differences.” It was this view of the United States as a country that did not require the assimilation or leveling down of meaningful differences that so impressed Arendt. It was American pluralism free from a nation-state that Arendt found so exceptional.
In the same interview, however, Arendt expressed her fear that the exceptional American pluralism that she found in the country was coming to an end. And the culprit, she identified, was the rise of the national security state.
National security is a new word in the American vocabulary, and this, I think, you should know. National security is really, if I may already interpret a bit, a translation of “raison d’etat.” And “raison d’etat,” this whole notion of reason of state, never played a role in this country. This is a new import. National security now covers everything, and it covers, as you may know form the interrogation of Mr. Ehrlichman, all kinds of crimes. For instance, the president has a perfect right… the king can do no wrong; that is, he is like a monarch in a republic. He’s above the law, and his justification is always that whatever he does, he does for the sake of national security.
Arendt expressed a similar worry about the rise of a national security state in American in 1967, when she wrote:
There is no reason to doubt Mr. Allan W. Dulles’ statement that Intelligence in this country has enjoyed since 1947 “a more influential position in our government than Intelligence enjoys in any other government of the world,’ nor is there any reason to believe that this influence has decreased since he made this statement in 1958. The deadly danger of “invisible government” to the institutions of “visible government” has often been pointed out; what is perhaps less well known is the intimate traditional connection between imperialist policies and rule by “invisible government” and secret agents.
If American exceptionalism is about religious freedom and religious passion, if it is about equal rights to participate in government, if it is about populism, and if it is about a moral vision of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” then American exceptionalism is incompatible with the increasingly large, centralized, and bureaucratic security state that has emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Whether the security sought is national or economic security, the demand that a central government secure our freedoms lives in tension with the basic desire for freedom understood as self-government. It is the loss of that American tradition more than any other that underlies the waning belief of Americans in their exceptionalism. And for that loss, both parties are at fault.
While Beinart misses the connection between national security and the decline of American exceptionalism, his presentation of that decline is convincing, important, and troubling. His essay is well worth your time.
“Even if all criticism of Plato is right, Plato may still be better company than his critics. At any rate, we may remember what the Romans…thought a cultivated person ought to be: one who knows how to choose his company among men, among things, among thoughts, in the present as well as in the past.”
Hannah Arendt-Between Past and Future
Cycles of falling stars are simultaneously bewildering unpredictable in the particular for modern astronomy, yet sufficiently regular and constant in general to form calendars and seasons of activity. This is equally, or perhaps more true of the psychic life of the American public space, and after a troubled political year, that season of falling stars that you always know will come seems to be upon us. Like Gloucesterians, we seem fond of winter in the United States: all three branches of the federal government, both major political parties, and the president have disapproval ratings that range from personal lows to ranking among the worst in the nation’s history. But this time has been no less filled with high profile cases in Western and Eastern Europe, South America, Central and North Africa, China, South Asia…the list could continue at will. I’m choosing not to dwell on the stories of particular politicians precisely because it is the trough of an ugly time, and it has been an ugly season for long enough that it’s worth thinking about not just where this particular cycle came from, but why we have them the way we do, and what it means to get out.
The newest issue of Interview Magazine is carrying a pretty extraordinary dialogue. That Steve McQueen – whose brilliant shorts established him as one of the brightest young directing talents of a generation well before the current run that culminated in last year’s shattering 12 Years a Slave – takes the role of interviewer rather than interviewee is enough to justify expecting something special. His subject (and that is the right term, in several senses) is Kanye West, perhaps the artist who most exemplifies in a single, still brief career the dizzying cycle of fall from grace and resurrection that defines the dramatic life of the modern public. Admittedly, the dialogue leans heavily toward a monologue, as you might expect given both the form and the figures. But it is also one of the most fascinating co-meditations I have ever read on what it means to strive and fail and thrive under the gaze of others, to actively confront the reality that the narrative of your life is only ever partially written by you. That neither artist would feign for a moment to be Everyman is paradoxically what gives the exchange such an incredible vibrancy, a resonance held open for any one precisely by refusing universality. Their crafting of West’s story comes out as two voices speaking through a bewildering tapestry of fragmented influences, pressures, and above all images of West both painted and defied. To a degree that only maybe his “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” also allows, there is just something in the collision between West’s intensely solipsistic artistic brilliance and his equally intense and utterly open social vulnerability that can’t help but grab and shake raw your sense of what it means to live and die – and fail – in public. Wrapped in the presence and influence of McQueen, it also manages to viscerally bring home one of Arendt’s most important thoughts: that those questions are, and must be, personal to each one of us, too.
I can’t speak well to the public humours outside of this country, but I know that the particular dynamics that McQueen draws West to describe reflect a pattern of the rise and fall of public lives in this country. The only way I can reach to describe that pattern is by grafting metaphors of love onto Arendt’s language for describing how we tell stories about a “who”, that precarious hybrid of a person and a narrative that none of us can escape being. In these scenes of disgrace, as we remold dramas in a matter of moments from adoration to utter disillusionment, we are depressingly adroit at ignoring a gap in our own passions between our reasons for falling so quickly in love, and our reasons for so quickly embracing its opposite. When a public embraces someone – politicians no less than cultural superstars – with that special fervor that marks our peculiar brand of messianism, it is never purely for the sake of what she has done. We admire the what, we respect the what, but when we love, publicly, we love the who in a way that no measure of what they’ve done could possibly justify. Maybe that is simply the nature of love, of a public or a person, because that is the nature of a who. Though we’re fond of decrying it when retrospect turns bitter, would we really want it to be otherwise? Wouldn’t there always have been a certain miserliness in trying to practice our story-building and our allegiances with dry lists of accomplishments, a certain desiccated frugality to our attachment to the public? I know of no one in my life who could say with real honesty that their public loves of choice – whether those were Barack Obama or Lance Armstrong, Chris Christie or Kanye West – ever resembled anything of the sort.
Yet when we cast these down, in that moment, that who we had been narrating with such care to ourselves and each other becomes utterly overtaken by a what, and not that figure’s whats taken together, but a what which simply becomes their disgraced who to us. Often, it becomes a pattern of whats. Often, it was always a pattern of whats that simply hadn’t made it into the story, either through deceptions by others or our own to ourselves. But it is always a what – a sin, a crime, an act, a betrayal – that turns the page.
There are times when that switch is justified. There are moments of whats so grave that they ought to come to dominate our vision of a who…that is what it means to reserve to ourselves the right not only to tell histories, but to judge them. There are times when this must be done. But in a season like this, we must judge, but we must also be honest with ourselves about what we are doing, to recognize…and taking care because of it…that we are exercising one of our most precious capacities, one that Arendt called in the quoted essay by a name now itself disgraced in some eyes: our humanism.
In her very Augustinian rendition, Arendt describes forgiveness as “an eminently personal…affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it”. Many have criticized the thought, but it seems worth returning to at least in the context of these so very public scenes. Forgiveness of this form is never a duty. Indeed, it may be a grace we want to use sparingly. It means even less the suspension of punishment. But it is first and foremost an exercise in that faculty Arendt described, in a way few had admitted since Cicero, as choosing with whom we will share our world. There will always be those who we decide we want to share our public world with because they retain some reason that drives us to. Though never, I think, so very terrible, West has done and said some things that others have found unforgivable; but I, for one, want the who in that interview to remain in my world, and in some part create that world.
There will also always be those who we decide, with justice, that we will not share our world with them. Some of those will be for trespasses no greater than West’s, and where that hazy line lies might be the consistent thread in McQueen’s storytelling. Others will not be for trespasses, but for enormities that defy even the possibility of forgiveness for us. Arendt closed her report on the Eichmann trial with the judgment that she, and we, could not share a world with Eichmann. In the wake of those writings, there were many who decided that they could not share a world with her. It is not a process we can do with out, least of all in that most public of spheres, politics. But I also suspect that if we did it with a clearer eye on we were doing with our whos and our whats, and a less clouded memory, the discontent would not run so deep in our winters. At least, it could never be said that we know not what we do.
“When the Revolution [sic] devoured its own children like Saturn and was like a gigantic Lava [sic] stream on whose surface the actors were born [sic] along for a while, only to be sucked away by the undertow of an undercurrent mightier than they themselves.”
-Hannah Arendt, "Revolutions - Spurious and Genuine" (unpublished)
This quote, whose telling typos will be addressed below, is from an unpublished typescript by Hannah Arendt, written for a lecture in Chicago in May 1964, titled “Revolutions – Spurious and Genuine”. The first lines read: “Not my title. I would hesitate to distinguish.” While Arendt rejects the suggested binary definition, her talk offers different sets of distinctions:
First, modern revolutions like the French or the American Revolution imply a change that is radical enough to be experienced as an entirely new beginning. A new beginning that no one can escape, because it affects “the whole fabric of government and/or society.” This call for radical change doesn’t just protest bad government. Citizens who are in the streets for a revolution don’t limit themselves to complaining, “We are badly ruled,” but they claim, “We wish to rule ourselves.” The revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990, and most recently the revolutionary events in Egypt and other countries of the Middle East are probably the most prominent events of this kind in contemporary history. At the time of Arendt’s talk, the Cuban Revolution was the most recent example: she thought it was primarily a coup d’état, yet “most certainly” a revolution.
Second, Arendt distinguishes between social and political upheavals – a distinction we know from her book “On Revolution,” published one year before the lecture in Chicago. Revolutions like those in France in 1789, or Russia in 1905, came to be primarily about the abolition of social misery and inequality, while the American Revolution, for instance, was about building political liberty, according to Arendt. This section of the paper is one of the rare occasions in Arendt’s work where she also addresses America’s “hidden social question,” i.e. the “institution of slavery” and its aftermath. Arendt is puzzled that America’s extremely mobile society and economy resisted change, keeping African-Americans stuck at the bottom of society while many – often poor – immigrants were easily absorbed. Does the civil rights movement call for a revolution in response to this turmoil? No, Arendt says, for it doesn’t claim to change the whole fabric of the society; rather, it is fighting for access to this society. There is a revolutionary aspect to the movement’s political fight “against those laws and ordinances of states which are openly discriminatory,” Arendt remarks, but changing the “whole fabric” isn’t on this agenda either, for the civil rights movement had the Federal government on its side.
In the final section of her talk, Arendt returns to the initially rejected distinction between spurious and genuine – because she does think it is productive when we ask, “Who are the revolutionists?”
On the one hand, there is the concept of a founder, originating in the American Revolution: “a kind of architect” who builds a house that provides stability because those who inhabit it are fleeting, they come and go. “Freedom needs a space to be manifest,” Arendt notes, continuing: the “more stable a body politic is, the more freedom will be possible within it.” Whether the process of life housed by this founder is ruled by the law of progress or not, is secondary.
Yet the concept of progress is still central to how we usually conceive of politics. The conservatives tend to be against it, the liberals tend to be for it up to a certain degree. The revolutionists, however, believe in it, and they believe that true progress requires violence. They’ve been holding this belief with and since Marx, Arendt recalls, with whom she competes for the metaphor of “birth.” Whereas for Marx the pangs of birth must accompany every meaningful political development, for Arendt birth manifests the human capacity for a totally new beginning.
The metaphors of infinite progress as an infinite process “were all born … during the French Revolution,” Arendt notes. They were born, when not only the Jacobins around Robespierre, who represents the cruelties of the rule of “terreur,” but also the slightly more moderate Girondists around Danton had lost control:
“When the Revolution [sic] devoured its own children like Saturn and was like a gigantic Lava [sic] stream on whose surface the actors were born[e] [sic] along for a while, only to be sucked away by the undertow of an undercurrent mightier than they themselves.”
The typos in this passage are maybe the most telling signs of Arendt’s deep struggle with this concept of progress. By having the actors being “born” instead of “borne” on the stream of revolution, she not only conflates the two Marxian ideas of unstoppable progress that necessarily comes with the pangs of birth, but also inscribes her critique into Marx’s concept by allowing the possible reading of actors being born – in Arendt’s sense of an individual new beginning within plurality – upon this process. Marx’s idea of the swimmer “controlling” the stream of history in Arendt’s eyes is an illusion, as she noted in her Thinking Diary. In the face of the atrocities of the 20th century the question would rather be “how to avoid swimming in the stream at all.”
The undercurrents of Arendt’s typos reveal that her debate with Marx, despite the fact that the lecture is written in English, is simultaneously pursued in German – their shared native language. Arendt capitalizes “Revolution” like a German noun; she did the same earlier in the paragraph with “Progress,” and she does it again with the gigantic stream of “Lava.” (I’ve outlined the significance of the “plurality of languages” in Arendt’s political writing and thinking in a different “Quote of the Week” you can read here.)
Here, I’d like to show in conclusion how Arendt through the German resonances in her talk subtly invites a poet into her conversation on revolution. “The revolution devours its own children” has become a common expression, but the way in which Arendt quotes it “like Saturn” translates exactly the wording from Georg Büchner’s pivotal play Danton’s Death. Arendt’s private German copy of the play is marked up in interesting ways. Among the sentences she underlined is for example Danton’s “We didn’t make the revolution, the revolution made us,” which reflects upon the intricacies of agency and intellectual leadership in political turmoil. A sentence many intellectuals — even some of Arendt’s friends — were painfully oblivious to during the “National Revolution” of 1933, which troubled her for decades.
We revolutionaries are “no more cruel than nature, or the age we live in,” says St. Just, Robespierre’s hitman, whose name literally means Saint Justice, in a passage from Danton’s Death that Arendt also marked: “Nature follows her own laws, calmly, irresistibly; man is destroyed wherever he comes into conflict with them.”
Büchner’s dialogs are largely based on historical sources from the French Revolution. They flesh out Arendt’s fine allusions e.g. to the fatal might of tropes like “the stream.” “Is it so surprising,” St. Just asks in the same passage Arendt marked, “that at each new turn the raging torrent of the revolution disgorges its quantum of corpses?” Echoing Marx’ metaphor of the irresistible stream of history and progress, Arendt is mindful of the date where these thoughts found their form.
Speaking of being mindful of dates – only a few days ago, on October 18th, Georg Büchner’s 200th anniversary was celebrated.
(The full document of Arendt’s lecture in Chicago will soon be published on www.hannaharendt.net)
Does a cross in a courtroom infringe on the religious freedom of non-Christians involved in legal proceedings? Does it violate the principles of a secular state? These questions have recently arisen in Germany thanks to the trial of Beate Zschäpe. Zschäpe is the one surviving member of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a band of neo-Nazis that allegedly murdered eight people of Turkish descent, one person of Greek descent, and one non-immigrant German police officer in a string of premeditated attacks from 2000 to 2007.
Zschäpe is currently standing trial at the upper court of appeals in Munich, and like other legal chambers in the state of Bavaria, its décor includes a modest wooden cross.
This cross did not evoke comment from the judge and lawyers in the run-up to the trial, and it was not an initial source of concern for the victims’ immediate relatives, who are acting as joint plaintiffs in the case. But it did draw the ire of Mahmut Tanal, a member of the Turkish parliament who attended the first day of the proceedings. Tanal, who is affiliated with the secularist Republican People’s Party, argued that a religious symbol like a cross has no place in the courtroom and should be removed immediately. In his estimation, the cross not only violated the principle of state neutrality in religious affairs, but also constituted a “threat” for the Muslim relatives of the Turkish victims.
Several conservative politicians in Germany responded to his complaints with sharply worded defenses of the cross. Norbert Geis, a parliamentarian for Germany’s Christian Social Union (CSU), announced that “the cross belongs to our culture” and urged Tanal to display more respect for the Christian influence on German life. Günter Krings, a member of parliament for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), contended that the cross “symbolizes brotherly love and tolerance and is an expression of our Christian-Western roots.” And Günther Beckstein (CSU), Bavaria’s former Minister President, insisted that it was important to make clear, even in a courtroom, that “God stands above the person.”
The matter might have ended there if one of the joint plaintiffs, Talar T., had not agreed with Mahmut Tanal and filed a motion for the cross to be removed. Talar T. insisted that he had a pressing claim “not to be exposed to the influence of a religion—even in the form of a symbol—by the German state.”
Significantly, there is no established legal precedent on this and related matters. The State Court in Saarbrücken ruled in 2001 that a cross must be removed from a courtroom when a concerned party believes that its presence injures her or his right to religious freedom. But it is not clear whether this judgment would apply to courts in Bavaria, especially when Germany’s federalist system grants individual states considerable legal and policymaking autonomy. Indeed, it is precisely this system that has allowed Bavaria to hang crosses in its courtrooms when most other German states avoid and even disavow the practice.
We should not place undue emphasis on this aspect of the trial, which is highly charged for reasons that have nothing to do with the presence or absence of a cross. After all, German prosecutors accuse Zschäpe and her NSU compatriots of a string of xenophobic if not racist murders, and they charge that incompetence at the highest levels of German law enforcement allowed many if not all of these murders to occur. Nevertheless, I would argue that the contention and uncertainty surrounding the cross remain significant in their own right, for they speak to important arguments about the nature of secularism as a modern historical phenomenon.
In a series of recent articles and a concluding book, the University of Chicago anthropologist Hussein Agrama has proposed that secularism, contrary to the normative claims advanced in its favor, is not an institutional framework in which religion and politics are clearly separated. Instead, secularism consistently fashions religion as an object of governmental management and intervention, and it therefore expresses the state’s sovereign power to decide “what count should count as essentially religious and what scope it can have in social life.” Yet in the act of exercising this power, the secular state repeatedly blurs the very line between religion and politics that it aims to draw. For example: if a state insists that religiosity may only be expressed in the private sphere, what is the nature and extent of that sphere? Does it only include the home? Or does it also encompass communal places of worship, or believers’ choice of clothing and other forms of adornment? Is not the demarcation of a private realm of legitimate religious expression itself a political act?
In the end, Agrama argues that secularism is not a solution that neatly defines religion’s place in contemporary life. Instead, it constitutes a problem-space “wherein the question of where to draw a line between religion and politics continually arises.” Moreover, this question cannot be easily ignored, for it is inextricably bound up with the distribution of liberal rights and freedoms.
In Germany’s case, the state and federal governments, including the one in Bavaria, have adopted the principle that the state is independent of religious institutions and should not invoke or favor one religious tradition over another. The state and federal governments have also affirmed the right of all citizens to express their religious beliefs without undue interference from the state. These commitments are basic elements of German liberal governance, and the presence of the cross in Bavarian courtrooms would appear to complicate if not directly contradict them. To use Agrama’s language, the cross blurs the line between religion and politics, and it raises questions about the substance of the religious freedom that citizens may claim.
As my preceding discussion indicates, proponents of the status quo in Bavaria have tended to finesse these difficulties by insisting that the cross is merely a “symbol.” The cross, they imply, evokes a tradition that has exerted a formative influence on culture and politics in Germany and humanist thinking more broadly, but its presence is ultimately incidental to the legal proceedings and judgments that the state initiates. Moreover, the cross does not “threaten” non-Christians because it does not enshrine Christianity as the state’s religion, and it does not infringe on citizens’ freedom of religious belief or their equality before the law. To an important extent, this logic would seem to deny that the cross, at least in this context, is a “religious” artifact at all.
Of course, we might well wonder whether a symbol that is incidental to legal proceedings really needs to be present in a courtroom in the first place. More importantly, though, we might wish to question the innocence of the cross given the larger context of the case against Beate Zschäpe.
The NSU murders have led many migrants and post-migrants, including those from Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, to doubt their full inclusion in the German nation and polity. Moreover, the climate of lingering distrust surrounding Islam has only sharpened many Muslims’ perception that their faith is not a welcome and integral aspect of German life. Thus, even if the inclusion of a cross is not meant to be a “threatening” gesture, it is hardly a neutral, merely “symbolic” one either.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, many Euro-American commentators have wondered whether the new governments in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries will be “secular” or “religious.” At least some of them have also maintained that “secular” governments will further the region’s democratization and long-term stability. To my mind, this line of thinking presumes that states in Europe and North America are exemplary polities which have more or less resolved the perplexities of secularism. But if the recent debates over the cross in Germany are any indication, such a judgment is premature if not complacent and self-serving. Even in those polities where secularism seems firmly established, uncertainty and dissension over religion persist. Indeed, such a condition may be the norm that defines secularist structures of power, not their fleeting and aberrant exception.
NOTE: as I was finishing this post, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will rule on the constitutional status of prayer in town board meetings, based on a case from Greece, New York. Many of my remarks on the Zschäpe trial are pertinent in this instance as well.
Stephanie A. Miner, the Mayor of Syracuse NY, has an important op-ed essay in The NY Times Thursday. Syracuse is one of hundreds of cities around the state and tens of thousands around the country that are struggling with the potentially disastrous effects of out-of-control pension costs. Where this crisis is heading can be seen in California, where San Bernadino has become the third California city to declare bankruptcy. These cities are dying. They are caught in a bind. Either they decide not to pay their promised debts to pensioners; or, in honoring those debts, they so fully raise taxes and cut services as to ruin the lives of their citizens.
In Syracuse, Mayor Miner understands well the depth of the problem. First, public employee labor costs are too high not because salaries are high, but because pension costs and medical benefits are rising without limit. Second, revenues are being slashed, both from the recession and from cutbacks from the state and federal governments. Finally, the middle and upper class flight from cities to suburbs have left the tax base in cities low at the moment when poorer city dwellers are disproportionately in need of public services.
The result is that cities are faced with a stark choice: Do they pay older citizens what has been promised to them? Or do they cut those promised pensions in order to provide services for the young? This is a generational conflict that is playing out across the country.
Miner is worried that the response by NY State is making the problem worse. In short, Governor Cuomo and the legislature have decided to let cities that cannot afford to fund their burgeoning pension obligations borrow money to pay those pensions. The kicker is, that the cities are being told to borrow money from the very same pension plan to which they owe money.
If this sounds suspicious, it is. As Danny Hakim—one of the best financial reporters around—wrote almost exactly one year ago in the NY Times, this is a desperate and dangerous move:
When New York State officials agreed to allow local governments to use an unusual borrowing plan to put off a portion of their pension obligations, fiscal watchdogs scoffed at the arrangement, calling it irresponsible and unwise.
And now, their fears are being realized: cities throughout the state, wealthy towns such as Southampton and East Hampton, counties like Nassau and Suffolk, and other public employers like the Westchester Medical Center and the New York Public Library are all managing their rising pension bills by borrowing from the very same $140 billion pension fund to which they owe money.
The state’s borrowing plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments over the long term. Public pension funds around the country assume a certain rate of return every year and, despite the market gains over the last few years, are still straining to make up for steep investment losses incurred in the 2008 financial crisis, requiring governments to contribute more to keep pension systems afloat.
Supporters argue that the borrowing plan makes it possible for governments in New York to “smooth” their annual pension contributions to get through this prolonged period of market volatility.
Critics say it is a budgetary sleight-of-hand that simply kicks pension costs down the road.
Borrowing from the state pension plan to pay municipal pension costs is simply failing to pay the pensions this year and thus having to pay more next year.
Hakim, as good as he is, allows Thomas P. DiNapoli—the state’s comptroller—to get away with calling the scheme “amortization.”
The state’s comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said in a statement, “While the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest performers in the country, costs have increased due to the Wall Street meltdown.” He added that “amortizing pension costs is an option for some local governments to manage cash flow and to budget for long-term pension costs in good and bad times.”
But how is this amortization? The assumption or hope is that the market will rise, the pension fund will go up, and then the municipalities will owe less. That is hardly amortization. No, it is desperate speculation with public monies.
The crisis in our cities afflicts the whole country, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.
Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.
The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).
Mayor Miner, a Democrat, takes a huge risk in standing up to the Governor and the legislature. She is rightly insisting that they stop hiding from our national addiction to the crack-cocaine of unaffordable guaranteed lifetime pensions. Piling unpayable debts upon our cities will, in the end, bankrupt these cities. And it will continue the flight to the suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core of America. Above all, it will sacrifice our future in order to allow the baby boomers to retire in luxury. Let’s hope Miner’s call doesn’t go unheeded.
When people talk about the cost of entitlements or pensions, there is often a whiff of condescension, as if government employees don’t deserve their benefits. Often forgotten is the fact that private pensions are underfunded as well, and they are insured by the federal government. And now we are told that the military may have the biggest pension problem of all. Here is what the Financial Times reports:
Of all the politically difficult budget issues that Mr Hagel will face, few are more charged than the question of military entitlements which have risen sharply over the past decade. A report last year by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments concluded that at current rates, “military personnel costs will consume the entire defence budget by 2039”. Robert Gates, Mr Obama’s first defence secretary, once warned that these expenses were “eating us alive”.
Just as pensions and entitlements will soon crowd out all other government spending, so too will military pensions crowd out all military spending.
No one today can responsibly argue against pensions and health care. And no one can call the soldiers lazy burdens on the public weal. But neither can we fail to recognize that our addiction to entitlements is destroying our politics and our public spirit. We are sacrificing public action—be it the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the erecting of monuments, the education of our young, the building of infrastructure, and even a well-outfitted military—for the private comfort of individuals. It is no wonder that our political system is broken at a time when all incentives in the country lead interest groups to focus on parochial interests above the common good. It is inconceivable that this situation is not in some way related to the emergence of entitlements as the central function of government.
The question is one of principle. We have gone from a common sense that people are responsible for themselves and the government provides a safety net to a common sense that everyone should receive an education, everyone should receive healthcare, and everyone should receive pension benefits for as long as they live. It is possible to embrace the latter common sense, but with it comes a significantly higher tax burden and a much more communal ethic than has typically reigned in America. This is not a problem that hits only public employees. It is endemic throughout society. And our military.
John Duncan has in interesting response to Bill Dixon’s Quote of the Week this week. Dixon wrote about the importance of power (as opposed to violence or domination) in political life. And he worried that power was being lost and, what is more, becoming impossible to hold on to or acquire in the modern world. He writes:
The dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world. Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.
Duncan wonders how power can be created and made in our world. He answers:
Express, discuss, decide, persuade, negotiate, compromise: these are the skilled activities that bring power into existence. These are the skills that direct the course of an organization and allow it to change without losing support of its individual members. The skills are used with other people (which is why they’re political). The skills require a space where their use can take place; imply a basic equality of participation; a reason or purpose to be together; and a love and respect for language and the power of well chosen words.
I am particularly taken by Duncan’s discussion of persuasion as a source of power.
Persuading is the art of convincing and winning-over others in a non-manipulative way. It presupposes strong convictions in one’s view of reality — particularly opportunities, threats, organizational strengths and weaknesses. It requires a well articulated vision of what the enterprise might become that is inspiring while solidly grounded. It requires a belief that the right words will bring others around to see things your way. It also implies a willingness to be persuaded oneself, to recognize and accept superior insights and understandings of others.
These thoughts on the possible manufacture of power in modern politics raise important points about modern social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and also the horizontalidad movement in Chile. One question we should ask is why the Chilean movement has proven so powerful whereas OWS (and now it seems also the Tea Party) has fizzled and died.
Exploring the lessons of the Chilean movement is indeed the theme of an interview Zoltan Gluck conducted with Camila Vallejo and Noam Titleman, leaders of the social justice movement in Chile (Zoltan is a former student of mine, just a shout out of congratulations!)
In response to a question about the connection between leaderless and consensus based ideology of OWS and how it relates to the Chilean movement, Noam Titleman answers:
Let me say that I think the Chilean movement does place a special emphasis on its decision-making processes and does truly want to involve everyone in these processes. But one of the reasons that the movement has been able to build such strength has been its ability to concentrate its collective force in an organized fashion. That is, not just leaving decisions to the sort of ritualistic or experiential feeling of being in one place with a lot of people and discussing things, but actually putting them into action. And this obviously requires a high degree of organization. I think there is a danger that by criticizing institutions, we end up criticizing organization and that’s really a big mistake. I think that horizontalidad allows us to make sure that the decisions are made by everyone, but in the execution of those decisions we need to have some sort of organization, otherwise we are doomed to be in a beautiful, noble, and naïve movement but not a not very efficient one.
Organization is, of course, another way power can be created in modern politics. That is, unless protest leaders are so caught up in theories of oppression, domination, and hierarchy that they are unwilling or unable to organize or lead.
Thomas Frank makes this point vividly in a recent essay in The Baffler. Frank is reviewing a series of recent books about Occupy Wall Street. Frank is clear-sighted in detailing not simply the limits of OWS, but of the books that are now pouring forth about the movement. The books are all, he writes, “deeply, hopelessly in love with this protest. Each one takes for granted that the Occupy campaign was world-shaking and awe-inspiring.” Not only is this wrong, it prevents these authors and I would add most liberal supporters of Occupy Wall Street from confronting the stunning failure of Occupy Wall Street. Here is Frank:
The question that the books under consideration here seek to answer is: What is the magic formula that made OWS so successful? But it’s exactly the wrong question. What we need to be asking about Occupy Wall Street is: Why did this effort fail? How did OWS blow all the promise of its early days? Why do even the most popular efforts of the Left come to be mired in a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing.
What Frank points to is the dominance of academic talk and theorizing. Surprisingly he makes the case that this is true of both OWS and the Tea Party. The books about OWS and the protesters, Frank writes, cared more about the “mechanics” of the protest—the fact that it was non-hierarchal, open, inclusive, and consensual—than any ends, goals, or accomplishments. Whereas the Chilean movement embraced getting things done and working to build institutions, the anti-institutional bias of the theorists within Occupy Wall Street militated against building an organization. Talk was allowed, but no persuasion.
As John Duncan writes in his comments, persuasion cannot be empty or purely mechanical. It requires a “well articulated vision of what the enterprise might become that is inspiring while solidly grounded. It requires a belief that the right words will bring others around to see things your way.” This is deeply true and it requires the openness to leadership and inspiration that the forces guiding Occupy Wall Street would not allow.
What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. What has happened in Egypt is so far only a rebellion. It has liberated Egypt from the yoke of tyranny. Time will tell whether Egypt will experience a revolution that builds institutions of freedom. At the core of Arendt's political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that power, freedom, and collective action belong together.
What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Since written laws cannot control power, but "only power arrests power," freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the "consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same."
What Dixon, Duncan, Titleman, and Frank help us see in an Arendtian vein is that power today will only reappear if we work to build and found new organizations and new institutions. Such a building requires vision as well as tactics. Arendt offers us one vision: it is the ideal of federalism, the radical diffusion of multiple sources of power throughout society. That vision is in danger of disappearing today under the fiscal and political forces of centralization. If it is to be resisted, those who would resist it will have to be willing to articulate a vision of a different way. In Frank’s words, it will require a movement.
whose core values arise not from an abstract hostility to the state or from the need for protesters to find their voice but rather from the everyday lives of working people. It would help if the movement wasn’t centered in New York City. And it is utterly essential that it not be called into existence out of a desire to reenact an activist’s fantasy about Paris ’68.
Frank’s essay is bracing reading and should keep you warm with thoughts over this cold weekend. Enjoy. It is your weekend read.
The after effects of Super-storm Sandy are felt from the beaches to the statehouses. First of all, let’s realize it was not a hurricane, but a freakish combination of storm systems. Super-storm is more truthful than hurricane. Whatever it was, it has upended lives, and politics.
The Financial Times reports today that Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has now joined NY Governor Andrew Cuomo in requesting not only emergency aid to repair the damage caused by the storm, but also preventative money to build dunes, use eminent domain to purchase property, and generally re-engineer the New Jersey coastline.
The political transformation here is lost on few. As the FT writes:
Mr. Christie, a Republican, has previously sounded more skeptical than Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, about using state powers to dictate how the state was rebuilt. But he said on Wednesday he might take away local towns’ power to grant “easements” to homeowners objecting to new dunes blocking their sea views and would not rule out using government powers to purchase properties it believed were in the wrong place.
“I have to protect the Jersey shore, both as an economic engine and as a cultural engine,” Mr. Christie said.
The desire to take away local powers and give them to states and to take away state powers and give them to the federal government is neither a democratic nor a republican idea anymore. While the party of the elephant may give lip service to local governance, it has rarely, if ever, backed that up with action. As is now well known, the federal government has grown as fast if not faster under Republican Presidents than it has under democratic.
Hannah Arendt argued that the greatest danger to freedom in the United States was the rise of a large and bureaucratic government. She worried, as she once wrote, that the true threat to freedom was the sheer size of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The sheer size of the country combined with the rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for freedom she saw as the potent core of American civic life.
Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo may well be their respective parties’ nominees for President in 2016. They are both deeply popular and have taken a pragmatic and largely centrist approach to governing at a time of financial crisis and natural disaster. And yet, from an Arendtian angle, it is striking that both governors have so internalized the view that problems are to be solved by bureaucrats and technocrats rather than on a local level.
That the bureaucratic approach is so entrenched should not be a surprise. It is both a consequence of a further spur to the retreat from politics that Hannah Arendt describes. Even Christie’s insistence that he must save the Jersey shore as an economic engine shows the near complete victory of economic thinking over politics.
Political scientists around the country are in a huff here, and here, and here. The reason has little to do with the upcoming election, the vacuum in political leadership, or the state of the world. No, they are upset because Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake has proposed cutting the National Science Foundation's Political Science Program that awards about $11 Million a year to support political science research.
The anger and posturing are extraordinary. And political scientists are rushing to defend the relevance and necessity of their research. Special anger is directed at Congressman Flake's blindness to the import of a $700,000 NSF proposed study to develop "A multi-level, agent-based model for identifying the factors that enable or constrain international climate change negotiations." I have no doubt such a study has uses. But I do wonder if those writing the study could make those uses more accessible. They write:
The goal of our research is to develop a new tool for international climate policy analysis based on the concept of agent-based modeling (ABM). ABM facilitates a more realistic and simultaneous treatment of the diverse forces which influence multi-party decisions. Our model will represent both the international climate negotiation process, as well as the key dynamics of domestic economies relevant to energy and climate change. Some key questions to be explored with our model include: Are there patterns of innovation, adaptation, or climate damages that emerge from an ABM representation of an economy that are obscured by conventional assessments? ...
The authors then provide this graphic to illustrate what they mean:
I don't want to disparage the research, which I am sure will be of interest to a subset of academic political scientists. This research may even, over years, produce insights that gradually merge with the fruits of other research to change and even improve our understanding of how multiparty negotiations impact complicated international topics. And, yes, $700,000 is less than a drop in the bucket in the federal budget. But when looking at the Federal Budget, at a time when students are being forced into bankruptcy because they can't repay student debt, is this where the government should be spending its money?
Congressman Flake, who I never have heard of before happens to have a Masters degree in Political Science; he understands that these grants have multiple uses. First, they advance the general knowledge of the social sciences. They also advance the careers of the political scientists who win them. What is more, the vast majority of the funds dispersed go to subsidize the administrative costs at our nation's colleges and universities. And here is where the proposed funding looks mighty suspect.
The researchers proposing this study are from Dartmouth. Dartmouth is a fine school, also a small school that happens to have an endowment of over $3 Billion dollars. As Congressman Flake notes,
According to the NSF Web site, to date, more than $80 million has been awarded to the program’s nearly 200 active projects. Three-quarters of these awards, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion.
The outrage of the political science community at these cuts is more than misplaced.
We may wonder why political science and not anthropology. I guess the first answer is that Congressman Flake is a political scientist and thus is beginning to cut in the areas he knows best. But the bigger issue is that these cuts are just the beginning of a desperately needed rethinking of what the federal government should be spending money on at a time of coming austerity.
The beauty of the American system is the dispersion of power. The federal government does not control all the levers of power or all the money in the USA. If the NSF cannot or does not fund a study, those who feel the need for that study have plenty of other pots to dip their hands into. There are a myriad of foundations and universities that support an enormous amount of social science research. The issue is not that necessary research may not get done, but that there will now be one fewer pot. That is sad for political scientists, but not a tragedy. Indeed, political scientists might ask: How has bureaucratic federal grant-making changed and influenced the nature of political science research?
“And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?”
—Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock”
Within the last two years, nine teenage students in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin public school district have committed suicide (and many more have attempted to). The driving force behind this “epidemic” is the persecution, by other children at the district’s middle and high schools, of students perceived to be gay.
The persecution is encouraged by prominent local individuals and organizations, and until recently was allowed to continue by virtue of a school district policy of nonintervention.
That much was reported, in much greater and highly affecting detail, in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s February 2 article in Rolling Stone, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens.” The most recent developments were taken up by The New York Times: the federal government has finally intervened in the name of civil rights, forcing the Anoka-Hennepin district to adopt new anti-harassment policies and to agree to five years of monitoring by the departments of Justice and Education.
Setting aside the particular minority group concerned, the immediate question in Anoka in 2012 is the same as in Little Rock in 1957: can a socially unwanted minority be excluded, by a combination of official policy and casual intimidation, from public education? Hannah Arendt’s difficult answer to the Little Rock question (difficult because prejudice had nothing to do with it, and she thus had no common cause with those who answered in the same way) was: yes, because the school is a social space subject to the laws of free association, not a political space subject to the laws of equality. What Arendt insists on is that the government must not “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults … have confessed being unable to solve themselves.” Hence her outrage that the push for desegregation had begun in the schools, rather than where she urgently wanted to see racial equality realized, namely in marriage law. (Would her insistence on the fundamental political right “to marry whom I please” extend to gay marriage? An interesting but tangential question.)
I do not think Arendt would be similarly able to dismiss the situation in Anoka as not politically relevant, because the social conflict playing itself out there is inseparable from a set of political conditions to which Arendt’s own thoughts on government call our urgent attention. In scenes reminiscent of her Origins of Totalitarianism, the public sphere has been so utterly vacated of authority that the social has become the political to dizzying effect, and even the official agents of the government appear as just another social interest group struggling to exercise power on the ground. Local officials act in accordance with whatever group happens to have the upper hand at the moment; the prevailing law is not written down; and in the midst of this, a new tactic of political violence emerges with startling effectiveness.
Children make the ideal agents of this violence, not because they do not realize the violence they are doing—on the contrary—but because, being children, they instinctively know how to carry out this violence against other children, which adults never could, and because they lack the moral impulse to stop it, in other words, the ability to think for themselves. In harrying those of their peers who have been designated as “gay,” they are precisely not thinking for themselves.
They are being cruel, as children will be, but in order for their cruelty to take on the degree of directedness and organization that it has—for it to become conscious of “gays” as a group to be eliminated—adults logically have to be thinking for them. Indeed, the decision to remove homosexuality from the schools came from parents and from the prominent local antigay movement. At first it was merely a decision to remove any talk of homosexuality, to silence anyone who might defend homosexuals. There was no need for the adults in question to envision the violent path things would take from there. There was no conspiracy to speak of. Once the objective of removing “gay influence” was in place, the children themselves knew how best to achieve it; among them, as Erdely documents, there was never any doubt that the object of the game was to force “gay” kids to kill themselves.
Thus a peculiar combination of town hall strategy and schoolyard tactics spontaneously generated a form of organized, fatal violence for which, amazingly, nobody is directly responsible. Besides the parents and the children, the third set of (non)agents in this scenario is of course the school employees. I’d like to focus in on the particular reasons for their inaction, because they reveal the heart of this problem, the baffling failure of authority and of political structure.
The district policy that specifically prevented school staff and teachers from intervening to stop the antigay harassment in school was referred to as a “neutrality policy.” In official language, “neutrality” consisted in the stipulation that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.” The vagueness of this language notwithstanding, the real effect of the “neutrality” policy consisted in its becoming an unwritten law. The official language was never published in any official district policy handbook, never conveyed to employees in writing at all; after its adoption, the policy was promulgated purely by word of mouth. This already incredible circumstance allowed the interpretation of the policy to expand even further, to the point where it was understood that adults in the schools were not to mention homosexuality in any context whatsoever, under the threat of losing their jobs. This meant that when confronted with instances of anti-gay harassment, they would reliably err on the side of inaction, out of concern that any action they might take could be held against them.
What governed the teachers’ conduct was thus more rumor than policy, but the enormous influence that the antigay movement wields over the Anoka-Hennepin school board, not to mention the broader local community, meant that the threats were real. The “neutrality” policy was drafted by the antigay movement, submitted to the school board, and adopted with no changes. At no point, then, did elected officials engage in legislating this policy. There are, to be sure, strong ties between the local antigay movement and the region’s congressional representative, Michelle Bachmann, but these ties do not lead through the political structure; they stem from Bachmann’s involvement in private organizations.
This means that a public official had both the motive (sympathy with the antigay movement) and the means (though, I must note, there is no extant allegation that she exercised them in this case; probably, she did not have to) to act upon local school policy as a private, interested party. All the while, the proper local authority over this type of policy—the elected district school board—functioned at every turn not as an independent deliberating and decision-making body but as a symbolic functionary. That they voted, five to one, to accept the recent agreement with the Department of Justice only underscores the total helplessness of their proceedings, since they had also voted to institute the “neutrality” policy in the first place. They merely perceived that for a moment, the Justice Department had the upper hand, and aligned themselves with the temporarily prevailing authority.
In this light, statements such as that of the district superintendent that “[w]e have people on the left and the right, and we’re trying to find common ground on these issues” can be rephrased as: we have no way of deciding between our public duties and the demands placed upon us by private interest groups. In fact, the federal government is perceived in Anoka-Hennepin as just another private interest group, included among the “people on the left.” The reaction to the recent Justice Department settlement was to immediately frame it in terms of the local power struggle: an effort to “abolish conservative moral beliefs,” as a local activist told the Times. This points to another weakness of the government’s intervention: what is the likelihood that a future Department of Justice (perhaps under the administration of a conservative Republican president, say) will decline either to follow up on this agreement or to take similar action should the situation in Minnesota replicate itself elsewhere?
To reiterate: what ultimately allowed political violence to enter the schools was the fact that the teachers declined to intervene, and the teachers did so because if they acted in accordance with their public duty (which would obviously be to protect their students’ physical safety), they risked real retribution at the hands of private groups wielding effective power over them. Faced with a choice between their own financial security and the physical security of their students, teachers tended to prioritize their own interests. This is a perfect concrete instance of the phenomenon of “polycracy” that Greg Moynahan discussed in a recent essay on this site. Polycracy, which Arendt described in The Origins of Totalitarianism, arises when multiple instances of authority place demands on a person to act in multiple different ways, and the person in question is unable to discern which authority has the higher claim on her obedience. In general, when one’s public office calls on one to act in a way that might be damaging to one’s social position, one ought to be able to declare without much hesitation that the public good has the higher claim on one’s obedience. But under conditions of polycracy, such criteria for deciding vanish, replaced in every particular instance by an unspoken calculation of which authority wields de facto power over the others. In Anoka-Hennepin, the power was with the antigay movement. The fact that it has just now shifted to the federal government—where it seems unlikely to remain for long—does not address the underlying vacuum of authority, especially of local authority.
One final remark. The persecution of “gay” students in Minnesota, as elsewhere, was never really about their sexuality as such. Not all of the targeted students were “really” homosexual—as if teenagers’ sexual orientations were that stable to begin with. As Arendt emphasizes in “Little Rock,” a minority group must appear as such within a larger body politic; it is quite literally their perceptible appearance (voice, skin color, etc.) that determines their separate status. What marks so-called “gay” kids as different is obviously not their sexual activity. It is other kinds of behavior: the way they dress, talk, and otherwise express their individuality. The victims of antigay harassment are almost always described in terms that have nothing to do with sexuality as such: they are “sensitive,” “offbeat,” “stylish,” “bookish,” “musical,” etc. These are the attributes that other children use to identify them as targets. I wonder if what antigay movements really want to eliminate from the public sphere is not precisely these qualities, which can be found in individuals of all sexual preferences, and which together point to the more fundamental qualities that Arendt most prized in human beings: individuality and thinking.
Thinking is connected to fundamental human difference and individuality, both in that people differ from each other fundamentally with respect to their way of thinking and in that it is by thinking that we puzzle over and come to grips with everything that distinguishes us from one another. “Gay” behavior was, in this case, a visible expression of original thinking. Truly original thought is always found in a minority of people, and the attempt to make minorities disappear is secretly the attempt to make original thinking disappear.
-Stephen Haswell Todd
Politics today is democratic politics. While history has not ended and democracy is not universal, there is no doubt that the spirit of our age is democratic. From France and the United States in the 18th century, to the European revolutions of 1848, to decolonialization in the 20th century, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011, one cannot mistake the fact: politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.
But what is democracy? In his essay, "Does Democracy Mean Something?", Jacques Rancière offers one particularly compelling answer, one that is illustrative of the fate of global politics. Democracy, Rancière writes, is most fundamentally a paradoxical politics. On the one hand, democracy names democratic government. It is good government, or a legitimate order, a form of governmental order that is legitimate and just because it is founded upon democratic principles of equality and self-government. On the other hand, democracy means freedom, the rejection of rule by others, and the demand for the rule of the people by the people.
The democratic paradox is that democracy understood as freedom and the rule by people always threatens to destabilize and revolutionize democratic government that offers itself as a legitimate order. And democratic government—if it is to remain a government—requires the reduction of the revolutionary democratic excess of democratic individualism and the demand for popular rule.
We can of course see this paradoxical essence of democracy in the Occupy Wall Street movement. As Mayor Mike Bloomberg repeatedly emphasized, our democratic government allows protest and individual expression and we must permit the voices of those with whom we disagree. At the same time, Bloomberg argued that democratic government sets limits on those dissenting voices, authorizes regulations upon them, and, eventually, requires that they respect the authority and order of the existing democratic establishment. From this governmental perspective, the messy aspects of personal democracy and democratic individualism—the call to mobilize the people to pursue their plural and discordant interests—is a threat to good democratic government.
Democracy, in Rancière's words, is a power that at once legitimates and de-legitimates. Democracy promises the transparency and self-government that is necessary to legitimate government today. And yet it also insists upon unruly individualism and dissent that must be limited and contained in order to ensure a democratic state.
Beyond the democratic paradox, Rancière argues that true democratic politics is on the side of the messy, individualist, and disruptive aspect of democracy. His word for this is "dissensus," and Rancière insists that "democracy implies a practice of dissensus, one that it keeps re-opening and that the practice of ruling relentlessly plugs." Democracy, in other words, is the practice of disrupting all statist orders, even democratic state orders. It is an "anarchic principle" and "insofar as it is anarchic it precludes the self-grounding of politics." Politics, democratic politics, modern politics, is unavoidably open and anarchic.
In his analysis of the paradoxical nature of democracy and the priority of dissensus, Rancière reflects much that is in the work of Hannah Arendt. Both Rancière and Arendt oppose politics to philosophy, since philosophy trades in truths that shut down politics, which is about opinions. Rancière, as does Arendt, defines politics as a form of action—politics is an activity of people, in the plural, and not simply of states. And if Rancière sees political action as manifesting "dissensus," Arendt insists that political action be spontaneous and capable of beginning something new into the world. Which is why Arendt argues that "the modern concept of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known before, is about to unfold" is at the very center of modern democratic politics.
The centrality of revolution to Arendt's thought means that "the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide." Because politics is by its nature revolutionary action, Arendt refuses to call it democracy, because democracy is—like all "cracy's"—derived from the Greek kratein, expressing rule and order. Democracy, as majority rule, opposes revolutionary action, and is, therefore, "simply another form of rulership." As does Rancière, Arendt insists that freedom demands that we move beyond democracy as simply a form of government.
Similarities aside, Rancière builds his theory of dissensus in opposition to Hannah Arendt's work. In both "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and "Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?" Rancière explicates his idea of politics as dissensus against Arendt's revolutionary politics.
In "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?", Rancière locates his split with Arendt around her division of the political from the social. In line with many who read Arendt as erecting rigid boundaries between the social, the political and the private, Rancière worries that "Arendt's rigid opposition between the realm of the political and the realm of private life" sets up an exclusive realm from which the people must be kept out. By excluding the world of private and economic and social concerns from the lofty realm of politics, Arendt, pace Rancière, depoliticizes politics by cleansing it of the people and their voices.
Such readings of Arendt make rigid her rich descriptions of the political, social, and private realms; they offer a pale representation of the fire that burns brightly in Arendt's writing. It is common today to imagine that Arendt makes strict distinctions between political and non-political activities, just as it widespread to think that the divisions between labor, work, and action in The Human Condition are impenetrable. Yes Arendt distinguishes the political from the social. But that does not at all mean that economic and social interests are never political. Of course, as Arendt concedes often, some level of social security is part of the political realm. Her point is simply that such social concerns are at odds with freedom, which is the true aim of political action.
In "Does Democracy Mean Something?", Rancière offers a better and more meaningful distinction between himself and Arendt. Here, he makes clear his view that "democracy cannot consist in a set of institutions." Institutions, he argues, mean nothing in themselves. "The reason for this is that one and the same constitution and set of laws can be implemented in opposite ways depending on the sense of the 'common' in which they are framed." Rancière's point is, on one level, obvious. At times, the constitution and the laws are invoked to stifle debate and dissent. At other times they are called upon to enable and further the call for new political institutions. In themselves, the constitution and the laws are not decisive.
But Rancière goes further. Not only are political institutions not decisive in politics, they occupy the field of politics with a claim to legitimacy and thus delimit and shrink "the political stage." By establishing what is constitutional and legal protest and who can protest and who is even a citizen, the institutions of politics limit politics in "a biased way." They police the boundaries and access to politics "in the name of the purity of the political, the universality of the law or the distinction between political universality and social particularity."
In his suspicion of institutions, Rancière does indeed depart from Arendt in a meaningful way. For Arendt, modern politics, as revolutionary politics, means a free and new founding of freedom. What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. At the core of Arendt's political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that "power and freedom belong together."
The genius of the American Revolution in Arendt's telling is that it found what she calls a new experience of power. This American experience of power "was embodied in all institutions of self-government throughout the country." It goes back to the Mayflower Compact drawn up on the ship and signed by the first settlers upon landing, an act that displays their
obvious confidence that they had in their own power, granted and confirmed by no one and as yet unsupported by any means of violence, to combine themselves together into a 'civil Body Politik' which, held together solely by the strength of mutual promise 'in the Presence of God and one another', supposedly was powerful enough to 'enact, constitute, and frame' all necessary laws and instruments of government.
From out of the basic experience of power through mutual action with others, the American colonists developed their institutions of town halls, constitutional conventions, and local government in townships, counties, and states. Since written laws cannot control power, but "only power arrests power," freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the "consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same."
Unlike Rancière for whom institutions are biased watchmen patrolling the entry into politics, Arendt sees the institutions of self-government as the common world within which plural citizens congregate, talk, and act. Without such institutions, there would be no public space, no commons, in which politics happens. Politics needs not only revolution and dissensus, but also some prior consensus—an acknowledgement of the facts of the political world we are born into. From there one can, and sometimes must, resist and revolt.
Rancière sees all consensus, all that is common, as exclusionary, violent, and apolitical. But the common world itself is not oppressive and anti-political. It is, what it is, and the first requirement of politics is that one reconciles oneself to the world we share with others. That is not giving in to the system, but is, rather, the very possibility of political and revolutionary action.
Rancière's engagement with Arendt is one of the most important in modern political theory. You can read Jacques Rancière's "Does Democracy Mean Something?" here.
I also encourage you to buy the Dissensus, Rancière's book that includes "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and also "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?". Buy it here.
And as a bonus, if you want a different take on the relationship between Arendt and Rancière, you can read Adam Schapp's essay on the topic here.