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?”
“Politics arises between men, and so quite outside of man. There is therefore no real political substance. Politics arises in what lies between men and is established as relationships.”
-- The Promise of Politics 95, emphasis in original
What is politics? Ask around, and you may get answers such as government, the state, political parties, corruption, “something I don’t care about” and “something that is a threat to my privacy and my freedom.” Hannah Arendt probably wouldn’t be surprised. Arendt notes: “Both the mistrust of politics and the question as to the meaning of politics are very old, as old as the tradition of political philosophy.” Moreover, she continues,
Underlying our prejudices against politics today are hope and fear: the fear that humanity could destroy itself through politics and through the means of force now at its disposal, and, linked with this fear, the hope that humanity will come to its senses and rid the world, not of humankind, but of politics.
In The Promise of Politics, we see Arendt wrestling with questions on the meaning of politics, particularly as it has been inherited in our modern world.
It is hard to disagree with the claim that government is too big and too bureaucratic. Citizenship is in decline. The legitimacy of representative democratic government is experiencing a crisis around the world. These are common refrains, heard often on the left and the right. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are evidence of the general dissatisfaction with big, unresponsive, administrative government. California is thinking of splitting itself into six states. Even the New York Times Magazine, in its cover story today, suggests that the time for the Libertarian movement may have finally arrived.
In the wake of Mozilla C.E.O. Brendan Eich's resignation over his support for California's 2008 Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage and has since been overturned in court, Andrew Sullivan laments the process by which Eich was compelled to step down.
In his post, Sullivan, a gay man who has been making the conservative case for gay marriage for nearly two decades, suggests that to simply label Eich a bigot and move forward under that presumption is too easy. Indeed, he says, that "the ability to work alongside or for people with whom we have a deep political disagreement is not a minor issue in a liberal society. It is a core foundation of toleration. We either develop the ability to tolerate those with whom we deeply disagree, or liberal society is basically impossible. Civil conversation becomes culture war; arguments and reason cede to emotion and anger." In this context, what is a crusade for tolerance also becomes a front for intolerance, something about which Sullivan is deeply troubled. The propagation of such a sure belief means the end of civil society and, in its face, he proposes we embrace uncertainty, concluding, finally, that "a moral movement without mercy is not moral; it is, when push comes to shove, cruel."
Sullivan makes a passionate and necessary plea for both moral uncertainty and, equally important, a willingness to live with and amongst those whose opinions we find both wrong and hurtful. What makes American democracy special is not that we have the right answers, but that we are committed to the conversation, not that we employ mandarins blessed with the right answers but that we trust everyday citizens to figure it out as we go along. Sullivan makes his case that Eich was honorable, open, and willing to engage in meaningful dialogue with those he disagreed with. Let's leave aside accusations of political correctness and such. The important point is that we are living in a country increasingly at odds with its democratic tradition of debate and disagreement. We bemoan the fact that Republicans and Democrats can't talk across the aisle; how is that we now won't even work with someone who respectfully disagrees with us politically?
—RB h/t Josh Kopin
Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, David E. Bernstein argues that Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent in the Campaign Finance Case (McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission) is dangerous. He writes, rightly, that progressives have historically been uneasy with the First Amendment since strong rights are anti-democratic and exert a conservative and limiting impulse on democratic self-government and progressive programs. Thus free speech interferes with hate crimes legislation and stands in the way of attempts to limit offensive speech. And, most recently, free speech has proven the main impediment to regulate the insane amounts of money that are corrupting the political system.
Bernstein asks: “But how can liberals, who so expansively interpret other constitutional provisions, narrow the First Amendment so that campaign finance no longer gets protection?” His rhetorical answer is that the liberal willingness to limit free speech evident in Justice Breyer’s dissent is dangerous:
The danger of this argument is that analogous reasoning could be used to censor major media corporations such as the New York Times, Hollywood, and so on, to wit: ”When Hollywood spends billions of dollars each year advancing a liberal agenda, the general public will not be heard. Instead of a free marketplace of ideas, we get a marketplace in which major Hollywood moguls have hundreds of thousands of times the ‘speech power’ of the average American.” And given that almost everyone deems it appropriate to regulate the economic marketplace to counter inefficiencies and unfairness, why should the much-less-efficient (because it’s much more costly for an individual to make an error in his economic life than to have a mistaken ideology) marketplace of ideas be exempt from harsh regulation? In short, once one adopts the Progressive view of freedom of speech as only going so far as to protect the public interest in a well-functioning marketplace of ideas, there is no obvious reason to limit reduced scrutiny of government “public interest” regulation of speech to campaign finance regulations. Nor is it obvious why the Court should give strict scrutiny to speech restrictions that don’t directly affect the marketplace of ideas, instead of just using a malleable test balancing “speech interests” versus other interests.
It is of course right to worry about placing limits on speech, especially speech that is so clearly political. That is why Justice Robert’s plurality opinion has such straightforward appeal:
There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders. Citizens can exercise that right in a variety of ways: They can run for office themselves, vote, urge others to vote for a particular candidate, volunteer to work on a campaign, and contribute to a candidate’s campaign. This case is about the last of those options. The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Our cases have held that Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. … If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.
What this means is that as long as campaign finance reform is viewed according to the lens of free speech, those who labor to protect our political system from the corrupting influence of excessive amounts of money will tread a treacherous path. They must, as Justice Breyer does at times in his dissent, argue for a version of free speech that is instrumental, one that is limited by its assumed purpose. Here is Breyer:
Consider at least one reason why the First Amendment protects political speech. Speech does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, political communication seeks to secure government action. A politically oriented “marketplace of ideas” seeks to form a public opinion that can and will influence elected representatives.
Breyer, like too many of those who would support campaign finance reform, insists on fighting the battle over the meaning of free speech. The problem is that such arguments must speak about limiting speech on rational grounds or suggest that speech is designed to make government better. This raises the specter of the government deciding when speech does and when it does not improve democracy. Some may welcome judges making such difficult judgments—it may be what wise judges actually should do. But having judges decide when speech favors democracy would subject all sorts of offensive or radical speech to the test of whether it was directed to secure government action and whether it invigorated the marketplace of ideas.
The problems with the free speech approach to campaign finance reform have led Lawrence Lessig and Zephyr Teachout to seek a different path. Thus it is worth looking at the responses both of them penned to the McCutcheon decision.
Lessig, writing in the Daily Beast, argues that advocates of reform need to stop talking about free speech and instead focus on corruption:
The only way for the government to win, in other words, was to convince the Court that while corruption certainly includes quid pro quos, it need not be limited to quid pro quos. The roots of that argument were handed to the government from an unlikely source: the Framers of our Constitution. Building upon the work of Zephyr Teachout, two researchers and I scoured every document that we could from the framing of our constitution to try to map how the Framers used the word “corruption.” What was absolutely clear from that research was that by “corruption,” the Framers certainly did not mean quid pro quo corruption alone. That exclusive usage is completely modern. And while there were cases where by “corruption” the Framers plainly meant quid pro quo corruption, these cases were the exception. The much more common usage was “corruption” as in improper dependence. Parliament, for example, was “corrupt,” according to the Framers, because it had developed an improper dependence on the King. That impropriety had nothing to do with any quid pro quo. It had everything to do with the wrong incentives being allowed into the system because of that improper dependence.
Teachout, writing in the Washington Post, argues that we need to stop trying to ban money in our current system of campaign laws and, instead, create a new system, one modeled on examples in Maine, Connecticut, Arizona, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Mexico, New Jersey, Hawaii and West Virginia, which have all experimented with publicly funded elections:
But the legislative branch has to take some responsibility. Relying on bans is akin to continually passing seat-belt laws that keep getting struck down while never building safe cars. We should take this McCutcheon moment to build a better democracy. The plans are there. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has proposed something that would do more than fix flaws. H.R. 20, which he introduced in February, is designed around a belief that federal political campaigns should be directly funded by millions of passionate, but not wealthy, supporters. A proposal in New York would do a similar thing at the state level…. They have learned that they are most effective when every office’s election is publicly funded, so that candidates learn how to raise money by going to the people, and that it is better to give a public match only to in-state individuals and not to PACs or out-of-state donors. Big lobbyists don’t like this because they are used to getting meetings with candidates to whom their clients give money. We’ve also learned that more women and minorities run for office with a public-funding system.
The campaign finance decisions are a disaster for our democracy and are preventing attempts to limit the truly corrosive impact of money throughout our political system. But it is also the case that the decisions are principled when viewed within the rubric of our free speech jurisprudence. Instead of limiting the amount of money in an inevitably corrupt system, it is time to change the system itself. Lessig and Teachout are leading the charge. Their op-eds are your weekend reads. In addition, you can revisit my comments on Teachout’s talk at the Hannah Arendt Center last year, here. And you can watch a recording of Teachout’s speech here.
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.
On the Guernica blog, David Bromwich examines “how Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president).” In his first term Obama delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks and granted 591 interviews. These exceptional numbers, Bromwich writes, were the result of “magical thinking” on the part of the Obama White House: if the American public heard the president often enough, they would see how sincere and bipartisan he was and accept his policies. An endless string of speeches, road trips, and town hall meetings thus came to serve as a stand-in for the decision-making and confrontation that true leadership requires, and genuine conviction demands. Argues Bromwich: “…The truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president. Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions—and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.” For more see a commentary on the Arendt Center blog.
Phillip Durkin, author of the forthcoming book Borrowed Words, uses an interactive tool to show how English has changed over the last thousand years. Although still mostly dominated by Latin and French, English has also begun to borrow from languages with more distant origins, like Japanese, Russian, and Greek. Durkin's tool, and presumably his book, is a reminder of the fact that both words and their speakers exist in history, something all too easily lost in the hegemony of any present context.
Leonard Pierce takes aim at the aspirationism of the creative class, who, he says, are selling us their luck as our own failure. He concludes from the long view, “It is hard enough just being alive, just living and trying to be a decent person without being overwhelmed by shame and guilt and the demands of the world; the last thing we need is someone who got a few extra pulls of the handle at the cosmic slot machine telling us we’re doing it all wrong. If there is something we should aspire to, it certainly cannot be a position from which we look upon ordinary people, people no less miraculous but perhaps just a little less lucky than ourselves, as a lesser form of life."
In a speech to German Parliament, Angela Merkel, that country's chancellor, explains her position on privacy and surveillance. The question is about more than what happens in what country's borders, she says, and "millions of people who live in undemocratic states are watching very closely how the world’s democracies react to threats to their security: whether they act circumspectly, in sovereign self-assurance, or undermine precisely what in the eyes of these millions of people makes them so attractive—freedom and the dignity of the individual."
Considering the Philippine writer and hero Jose Mizal in the wake of reading Benedict Anderson's short book Why Counting Counts, Gina Apostol notes his two legacies: “For a Filipino novelist like myself, Rizal is a troubling emblem. Many writers like to dwell on the burden of his monumental legacy. But my problem is that Rizal is forgotten as an artist. Remembered (or dismembered) as a patriot, a martyr, a nationalist, a savior, a saint, Rizal is not discussed much as a writer — he is not read as an artist. Our national hero now shares the fate of all of us who attempt to write about our country in fiction. No one really reads his novels."
Audra Wolfe, taking note of Neil Degrasse Tyson's resurrection of Carl Sagan's TV science epic Cosmos, suggests that any hope that the series may bring increased attention, and therefore increased funding, to scientific pursuits may be misguided: "As is so often the case with science communication, the assumption seems to be that public understanding of science—sprinkled with a hearty dose of wonder and awe—will produce respect for scientific authority, support for science funding, and a new generation of would-be scientists. If only Americans loved science a little more, the thinking goes, we could end our squabbling about climate change, clean energy, evolution, and funding NASA and the National Science Foundation. These are high hopes to pin on a television show, even one as glorious as Cosmos." Although Wolfe makes a good argument about how Sagan's world is different from the world we now inhabit with Tyson, there's something more basic at work, here: the pernicious notion that, if we educate people who don't agree with us just a little bit more, they'll come around to our way of thinking. This, obviously, is a deeply dismissive point of view, one that suggests that everyone should think as we do, and that they don't is a question of status rather than viewpoint. If Cosmos gets people interested in science, it will be the possibility, the things that we are yet to understand, that get them excited, rather than what has already been settled. Speak to that sense of wonder and people very well may listen; speak to what you think people don't know and should, and they'll tune you out.
This week on the blog, read a recap and watch the video of Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead speaking with SCOTUSblog founder, Tom Goldstein, as part of our “Blogging and the New Public Intellectual series. Jason Adams relates Arendt’s belief that the act of thinking slips humanity out of historical and biographical time and into a non-time that reconstitutes the world.Roger Berkowitz ponders whether President Obama lacks conviction, and in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz examines the current antisemitic controversies surrounding both Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man.
There is a fascinating essay over on the Guernica blog, where David Bromwich examines “how Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president).” In his first term Obama delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks and granted 591 interviews. These exceptional numbers, explains Bromwich, were the result of “magical thinking” on the part of the Obama White House: if the American public heard the president often enough, they would see how sincere and bipartisan he was and accept his policies. An endless string of speeches, road trips, and town hall meetings thus came to serve as a stand-in for the decision-making and confrontation that true leadership requires, and genuine conviction demands. Argues Bromwich: “…The truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.
Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions—and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.”
Bromwich’s reflections call to mind two classic statements of what might be called the nihilism of the modern age—the psychological state in which all values are relative and none may rise from preference to conviction. The first is a fragment from Friedrich Nietzsche’s notebooks composed in 1881-1882. It reads:
…we call good someone who does his heart’s bidding, but also the one who only tends to his duty;
we call good the meek and the reconciled, but also the courageous, unbending, severe;
we call good someone who employs no force against himself, but also the heroes of self-overcoming;
we call good the utterly loyal friend of the true, but also the man of piety, one who transfigures things;
we call good those who are obedient to themselves, but also the pious;
we call good those who are noble and exalted, but also those who do not despise and condescend;
we call good those of joyful spirit, the peaceable, but also those desirous of battle and victory;
we call good those who always want to be first, but also those who do not want to take precedence over anyone in any respect.
As Nietzsche writes elsewhere, “The most extreme form of nihilism would be: that every belief, every holding-as-true, is necessarily false: because there is no true world at all.” To call the President a nihilist is nothing extreme; it is simply to say that he well represents the age in which he lives, an age that is extraordinarily uncomfortable with convictions of any kind. Some believe in God, but too strong a belief in God is unseemly, even fanatic. It is good to believe in democracy, but we recognize the need for stable tyrannies as well. The free market is the best system of economics, but only if it is not too free. We live in a pragmatic age and Obama is our pragmatic President. That is precisely what many like in him. And yet we also want him to lead. In other words, we want strong leadership of a convinced leader and at the same time we want the pragmatic and technocratic malleability of someone with preferences absent convictions.
There is no better expression of this fear basic psychological state of modernity than William Butler Yeats poem, “THE SECOND COMING”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The problem with President Obama is not that he lacks convictions. It is that he doesn’t know that he lacks convictions. And despite what Bromwich writes, the President hasn’t learned this. He still believes that he has strong convictions that Syria cannot use chemical weapons in a civil war against its own people. He still believes that it is intolerable to allow Russia to annex part of a sovereign country. He stands up and makes his strong convictions clear. But then he sits down and refuses to fight for those convictions, proving them beliefs. The point is not that he should fight in Syria or in Ukraine. The point is that he should not be speaking loudly and issuing ultimatums when he lacks the conviction to back them up.
-RB (hat tip Anna Hadfield)
There is promise and peril in Ukraine. Ukrainians have evicted a corrupt President and embraced democracy. Just today, the Parliament worked towards a new government while citizens listened in on the debates from outside:
At the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev Thursday morning, as legislators debated the confirmation of a new temporary government, hundreds of people gathered outside to listen to the debate on loudspeakers, press for change and enjoy the argumentative fruits of democracy.
There is the natural temptation to celebrate democratic success. But we must also note that in Kiev, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue and the Rabbi of Kiev warned Jews to leave Ukraine:
Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, called on Kiev's Jews to leave the city and even the country if possible, fearing that the city's Jews will be victimized in the chaos, Israeli daily Maariv reported Friday. “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too," Rabbi Azman told Maariv. "I don't want to tempt fate," he added, "but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”
It is hard to know if such warnings are premature and there have been no laws depriving of Jews of either political or civil rights. Nevertheless, there is always danger in populist revolutions, as Hannah Arendt knew. Indeed, the tension between calling for grassroots populist engagement and the worry about the often ugly and racist tenor of such movements was at the center of much of Arendt’s work. It also may have impacted one instance where she withdrew something she wrote.
If one takes the trouble to find her missing epilogue, one finds it’s full of surprisingly naive optimism—and surprisingly naive optimism is not a quality most saliently associated with the name of Hannah Arendt. I say it was naive because it stressed the spontaneous democracy of the worker’s councils that were set up in Budapest. I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.
Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.
The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Present. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.” Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.
But is the fantastical element of the lost treasure the reason why she so sternly decided to remove that epilogue? I think I know why she did it. Further research and disclosure of what happened that time in Budapest had brought it to her attention that those events in 1956 hadn’t been as beautifully spontaneous as she had supposed. Mixed into the grandeur of the Hungarian rebellion was quite a heavy element of ultra-Magyar, ultra-Hungarian nationalism. The revolution also included quite a lot of antisemitism, directed at the strongly Jewish membership and character of Hungary’s Communist elite. Many of the Jewish communist leaders had been denationalized from Hungary, having spent the war in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, some of them becoming Russian citizens. They came back to take over Hungary, which was still largely a Catholic, rural, and conservative country, and they did so only with the support of Red Army bayonets. The resentment aroused by the returning Jewish Communist leaders was considerable. The revolution did not lead to pogroms in the true, ghastly, meaning of the word, but there were some ugly lynchings of Jewish communists and some nasty rhetoric. And I think this must have weighed very much with her.
You can read the whole talk here.
Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.
The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.
Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?
“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”
Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?
““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”
Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:
“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”
It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:
“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.
Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.
There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:
“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”
As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.
The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.
Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.