“…the enormous pathos which we find in both the American and French Revolutions, this ever-repeated insistence that nothing comparable in grandeur and significance had every happened in the whole recorded history of mankind…”
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
Although my political memory is admittedly brief, I cannot remember an American presidential election day that was anticipated with less enthusiasm than the one that looms this week, particularly among the generation who are now my students. It is an unfortunate sign when you overhear conversations in the lounge expressing a wistfulness for the halcyon days of Clinton v. Dole. This is not to say that there are no strong emotions about the election – lots of umbrage weekly-renewed, considerable dread and anxiety, even a dash of hope and an occasional twist of satisfaction – but enthusiasm does not seem to be among them. Though this blog tends to dwell more on the political world with a touch of remove from its everyday hurly-burly, as Arendt did, given the proximity of the election it seems worth it to linger for a moment on the particular phenomenon those in this country face tomorrow: a moment of decision that no one seems particularly eager to reach.
Plenty has already been said about why this might be, and there is much more to be said than can be said in this space. I want to dwell on one particularly Arendtian concern that I have heard expressed and worried over more and more during the last few months, the simple question that a student last week pithily expressed as “what’s freedom got to do with it?” Asking the question in that way may nudge us in advance into hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. But I want to argue something that may seem counter-intuitive, at least to the sensibilities that I hear advanced daily: that in fact the certain grimness or reticence with which many face the impending election is not a sign of the decay of the fabric of American polity, or the slow collapse of the meaningfulness of citizenship, but a sign that the events of the opening years of this millennium have brought us into a new kind of health. That health is precisely in the realm of freedom, a health increasingly robust even as we face terrible sickness and disrepair in other aspects of our political, economic, and cultural systems.
The great diagnostic temptation at this political moment, which one hears espoused often enough, is to say that Americans have forgotten how to experience freedom in our political process at all (if indeed it was ever there), and so we trudge towards Nov. 6 having thoroughly accepted that, whatever particular material interests we might have at stake, “freedom is not even the nonpolitical aim of politics, but a marginal phenomenon." And there is, of course, something to this worry, as there was when Arendt wrote it; a potent part of the dissatisfaction that so many feel and express is the sense that whoever is elected, it will make little difference in the end. There are lots of extremely portentous “minutae” of politics to counterpose to this sense – the composition of the courts, the reversal of pre-existing condition restrictions, reproductive and marriage rights, the bearing of the federal tax structure on nation’s titanic income inequality – but if these kinds of issues could disrupt the sense that they’re taken to address, the national media would have dispelled any concern of the sort long ago. What is at stake cannot be the literal question of whether or not there is anything at stake – otherwise the answer would be trivially obvious, that there is – but that there is a rich sense that, as Arendt puts it repeatedly, the experience of an inexorability to our political economy (to call a spade a spade) has thoroughly overwhelmed our hope for novelty, our belief in the possibility of new beginnings, of revolutionary change.
But there is something to this peculiar kind of despair, itself so different from the form of despair that dominated the part of our society in which I grew up – the sense of not only a crushing personal irrelevance but the fundamental impossibility of escaping a desperate struggle for livelihood – that actually bespeaks something promising for our political culture. The despair of change, which in fact now unites the two ideological poles of American politics, bespeaks a renewed sensitivity to freedom, freedom in the specifically Arendtian sense that space remains in which what is might be radically replaced with what might begin tomorrow. It is a sensitivity to freedom that can only exist in a polity that remembers what it is to feel and desire it.
On the contrary, anyone who doubts that Americans yet feel a sense of Arendtian freedom need only take a glance at the documentary currently making the rounds, 'PressPausePlay', to see that we have in fact again become so suffused with what Arendt called “the specific revolutionary pathos of the absolutely new, of a beginning which would justify starting to count time in the year of the revolutionary event,” that it has leapt out of the political realm and now structures our relationship to technology, to culture, and to education as well. Where once we had to worry that the political had become inextricably reduced to the social, now it seems that we may rather be faced with the universalization of the specifically political, with the preeminence of action and spectatorship in every sphere of the human condition. It’s not at all clear to me that that would be a terrible thing, but the point remains.
One might be inclined to blame the candidates themselves for the lack of enthusiasm, and again it would be hard to deny that there’s something to that. But what is it, exactly, that we find worth blaming? Certainly, those who supported him might have a number of particular political gripes with the way that President Obama executed his term in office, but I also think that most in practice most understand that Obama could never in the American political system have lived up to the messianic fervor surrounding him, and that this is not the true source of disconsolation. I will confess to a certain lack of sympathy for feeling betrayed by Obama’s positions. Likewise, it is hard to fault those who oppose President Obama for being unenthusiastic, to put it mildly, with having Mitt Romney as their only meaningfully available avatar, given that that concept itself entails the expectation that something is being represented. But here, too, I think there is a perfectly resilient awareness among those who will vote for Romney that the man is in fact quite good for the role for which he has been groomed and in which he has placed himself: the consummate manager, the guarantor of the kind of freedom-as-security Arendt worried might wholly replace our sense of freedom-as-possibility, “not the security against ‘violent death,’ as in Hobbes…but a security which should permit an undisturbed development of the life process of the society as a whole.”
No, the difficulty that Americans face is neither that we have lost our “revolutionary pathos” that makes us believe in the promise of something truly new, nor that we have candidates who cannot fulfill our rather extraordinary expectations, but that we have once again come into our desire for both the senses of freedom that Arendt diagnoses, and they are senses of freedom that do not sit easily together. The ambivalence and strain that comes with holding desires for competing freedoms is not something to be bemoaned, but celebrated, and converted into cause for engaging the immense barriers the current configuration of our political system has thrown up against those desires. We desire both the promise of change that holds fast our belief, and the promise of a managerial excellence in navigating the quotidian ho-hummery of administration. And this is simply the reality of, not the American political system, but political system as such: these two forms of promise are inextricably bound to each other, and though it is a tense and at time openly antagonistic partnership, it is nevertheless one that polity, at least in its Modern sense, can’t do without. Political ambivalence, and even pessimism, is not a sign of the decay of our political capacities, but of their renewal by a decade of protest and struggle and failure on both sides of the political spectrum. Our senses of freedom are in rude health…whether our politics can bear it is another question.
"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists."
Hannah Arendt, "Origins of Totalitarianism"
What is truth? Is there such a thing as a universal truth or is truth something that is based on one’s belief? I was confronted with this question recently, in my Theory of Knowledge class, and my first reaction was: yes, there is such a thing as a universal truth! But as I got to think about it more and more, I came to realize that actually truth is what one makes it to be. For an example, it was a universal truth for many societies, including the Ancient Greeks, that the Earth was the center of our solar system. It was the logical thing to assume, since everyone could see that the Sun and the Moon circled our planet. But did that make the theory true? In the early 1500s, Nicholas Copernicus realized that, while the Sun might seem to circulate the Earth, it is, in fact, the Earth was circulating the Sun and the only reason it seemed to be the other way was because Earth was making circles around itself. Today, through modern technology we have concrete proof that the Earth truly circulates the Sun - and nobody would believe if they were told the geocentric theory.
The purpose of that analogy is to show that society can quickly be convinced based on what they see on the surface. For the early people, it was very clear that the Sun moved on the sky and that the Moon did so, as well, thus the Earth had to be the center of the universe. Similarly, in history and politics, sometimes people tend to be led by their beliefs rather than what is beneath the surface. Many politicians have for years believed that lies are not harmful when trying to achieve a great cause. Yet, that is not so. Perhaps, for those leaders who chose to lie, it is indeed not harmful, for they do tend to achieve their goals. All they need is the perfect circumstances, a few wielded facts and the right words. For the society which follows them blindly, the consequences are often much greater.
One great example in history would be that of the French Revolution. The time preceding the Revolution was that of a financial crisis. More and more people struggled to survive, having lost their jobs, living under miserable conditions and often unable to buy even a loaf of bread. As in many occasions in history, one man succeeded to make the best of the situation. Maximilien Robespierre was one of the many revolutionary leaders. He used the people’s desperation, and, using a language of hatred, inspired the people to rise against the government and overthrow the monarchy. In much what he said, Robespierre was right - indeed, the royal family lived an expensive life off of the money of the people. What he did not tell, however, was that, the royal family in France had always lived in the same way Marie Antoinette and her husband did - the difference was that the previous generations did not have to face the financial crisis the last French royal family did. Thus, by twisting what is now known as a historical fact and using the desperation of the French people, Robespierre created a truth of his own, which the people accepted and turned into a universal truth. That lead to Robespierre achieving his goal - he got power and became a leader. But those who had supported him, such as his fellow revolutionaries, suffered, for almost all of them followed the royal family on the guillotine. Robespierre’s reign of terror lead France into a different kind of crisis, and it was a consequence of the people’s folly. It took generations to achieve the ultimate goal of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood”.
Of course, not all political figures twist the truth to achieve a greater good for themselves - in some cases; they do it believing that they would achieve a greater good for their country or even the world. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is, to this day, known as one of the greatest presidents of the United States. And, in many ways, he saved this country. But in order to do so, he had to make sacrifices. Sacrifices that cost others great pain. At the end of WWII, at the Conference at Yalta, a document known as the Declaration of Liberated Europe was signed by FDR, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. In that document, it was declared that after the end of the war, with the liberation of the countries influenced or occupied by Germany, free elections would be held, in order to establish new order. These words sounded very promising, yet there was a problem - they were very vague. At the time, almost nobody was able to see that. The war
had caused too much damage. All people wanted was a peaceful resolution. The prospect of free elections seemed wonderful, and everyone was too eager to believe there would be such a thing. I can testify for that, using the example of the country of my birth - Bulgaria. When the Declaration of Liberated Europe became a public fact, preparations for elections began in Bulgaria. Candidates were picked out, campaigns were started. Great was the shock of the people, when the government, which had been a communist-oriented one, with a prime minister close to Stalin, arrested everyone who had been pro-democracy and executed the leaders of the opposition. Not too surprisingly, the leaderships of almost the entire Eastern Europe, with the exclusion of Greece, turned red, or pro-Soviet. There was a purpose behind the vagueness of the Declaration of Liberated Europe - free elections, as far as Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill were concerned, meant elections in which Stalin’s post-war vision of spheres of influence in Eastern Europe would become a fact. In other words, the
Big Three knew that at the Eastern European elections, there would be no governments that would turn out as pro-democratic. FDR also succeeded to achieve his goals - there was peace, but he had to lie and sacrifice Eastern Europe for it. Citizens did not know that - they believed in what they saw on the surface, in what they heard from their leader and created a universal truth, which ended up hurting the Eastern European peoples.
History often tends to repeat itself, although in different forms. Today, I can clearly see a radical new movement in the United States - a country that has always symbolized freedom, democracy, and rational thinking. I angered to hear a statement that the newly popular Tea Party had made - they accused President Obama of being a socialist. I cannot be sure if it is the atrocity of this statement, or the amount of people supporting it that bothered me more. Ever since the Cold War, in the United States the term “socialist” had ben related to the Soviet Union and its dictators. I find it funny, knowing the true meaning of the term, how correct the Tea Party leaders are. For, the initial ideal of socialism is that all people would be equal. If one sees the term in this fashion, then yes, Obama is a socialist, for he wants all Americans to have equal opportunity, and he has been fighting for that with the Universal Health Reform and the plans for job opportunities. But I know that the Tea Party does not use it in this way, nor do their supporters see it as such. No, they use the term in a Soviet-related fashion, thus offending people like my mother, who lived in a communist state, experienced the transition, and came here from a post-communist society and knows what the true meaning of a communist dictatorship is. But the Tea Party leaders have found the perfect circumstances, hitting on a nerve in a time of deep economic and financial crisis and have used a hateful language to achieve their own purpose - to have power. Perhaps it is too early for many of their followers to see, but as I personally believe, American society is dividing and the people are suffering. The problem is, they believe they suffer because of the wrong person. They have created their own truth, a truth which for them is universal, like the truth of the geocentric theory or the free-elections of post WWII Europe.
No, there is no universal truth, there is truth based on the interpretation of facts. And it is the responsibility of society, the citizens and their leaders to overcome their bias and look beneath the surface, seeing the facts as they are.