Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
2Feb/140

Amor Mundi 2/2/14

Arendtamormundi

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.

The Right to Not Care

womanEvincing a particular kind of anti-political judgment, the editors at N+1 are trying to wiggle their way out of the internet's world of opinion: "We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation. We are all cosmopolitans online, attentive to everything; but the internet is not one big General Assembly, and the controversies planted in establishment newspapers aren’t always the sort of problems that require the patient attention of a working group. Some opinions deserve radical stack (like #solidarityisforwhitewomen), but the glorified publicity stunts that dress up in opinion’s clothes to get viral distribution in the form of “debate” (Open Letters to Miley Cyrus) do not. We ought to be selective about who deserves our good faith. Some people duke it out to solve problems. Others pick fights for the spectacle, knowing we’ll stick around to watch. In the meantime they’ll sell us refreshments, as we loiter on the sideline, waiting to see which troll will out-troll his troll." Read Roger Berkowitz’s  response on the Arendt Center blog.

Ignorance Praised in Art and Education

artBarry Schwabsky wonders what the proliferation of MFAs and not Ph.D.’s in art means for artists. Could it be dangerous and lead to intellectually gifted but sterile artists? Don’t worry, Schwabsky writes, since art schools have adopted ignorance as their motto: "Just as no one family of techniques can be prescribed as the right content of art education, neither can any one set of ideas. The instructor’s knowledge and experience are always in principal too limited for the job they’ve taken on. They’re supposed to help usher their students into the not-yet-known, toward what, in Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, the Canadian artist Jon Pylypchuk calls "another place where there was no grade and just a friend telling you that what you did was good."  Sooner or later teaching art, and making art, is about coming to terms with one’s own ignorance.  Maybe that’s why the art world’s favorite philosopher these days is, whose best-known book—published in France in 1987 and translated into English four years later—is called The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Its subject is Joseph Jacotot, a forgotten French educator of the early nineteenth century whose “intellectual adventure” was founded on a paradoxical—one might be tempted to say nonsensical—principle: “He proclaimed that one could teach what one didn’t know.” The educator’s job, since teacher and student are assumed to be equal in intelligence, is nothing more than to “use all possible means of convincing the ignorant one of his power” of understanding. The teacher is there simply to remind the learner to pay attention, to keep working.” It might be helpful to recall Arendt’s argument in “The Crisis in Education,” that teaching must teach something if it is to give students the possibility of rebuilding the world anew.

Not Dead Yet

bookDigital journalism professor Meredith Borussard explains why she's banned e-readers from her classroom, and gives a short history of the book while she's at it: "The user interface for a book has been refined for centuries. What we call a ‘printed book’ today is a codex, a set of uniformly sized pages bound between covers. It was adopted around the 3rd or 4th century. A book’s interface is nearly perfect. It is portable, it never runs out of power, and you can write notes in it if you forget your notebook. The physical book is seamlessly integrated into the educational experience: It fits on any desk, even those cramped little writing surfaces that flip up from the side of a seat. You can sit around a table with 15 other people, each of whom has a book, and you can all see each other to have a conversation about what is on the page."

Hopelessly American

flagCarol Becker confronts “the first time I was aware that the world had changed and that "we" (my age group) were no longer the "younger generation." Another group was ascending, and its members appeared confoundedly different from us.” Becker reflects on what it is that identifies her generation and suggests that their idealism was hopelessly American: “I was asked if I still believed in making a “better world.” I was taken aback. I could not imagine a life where that was not a goal, nor a world incapable of movement forward. Having grown up believing in progress–not the progress of technology or material wealth but that of personal and social transformation—it probably is the concept of “hope” that most separates my generation from those that immediately followed. Perhaps I am delusional and, like all who suffer from delusions, unable to function without them. Or it could be that I am “hopelessly American”, as my students in Greece used to say, because of my conviction that the world can be changed for the better and that I or we, must have a hand in that process.”

The Last of the Unjust

filmClaude Lanzmann, maker of the magisterial Shoah, has been deeply critical of Hannah Arendt’s appraisal of Jewish leaders. Now Lanzmann has a new film out that is proving almost as controversial as Eichmann in Jerusalem. I wrote about it earlier, here. This weekend, Jeremy Gerard has a short profile of the movie in the New York Times.  “Life and death in Theresienstadt were overseen by successive heads of the Judenrat, the Jewish council set up by the Nazis in ghettos and camps to enforce Nazi orders and to oversee labor and the transfer of people to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau and other camps. The first two were executed when their usefulness ended. The final elder, serving from December 1944 to May 1945, was a brilliant Viennese rabbi, Benjamin Murmelstein, who called himself “the last of the unjust,” a phrase that Mr. Lanzmann appropriated for the title of his 3-hour-40-minute look at this divisive figure. In the documentary, opening on Feb. 7, he revisits an intense week he spent filming Rabbi Murmelstein nearly four decades ago. Some critics and Holocaust survivors have found the new documentary overly sympathetic to the rabbi; Mr. Lanzmann himself has therefore become an unlikely player in the continuing debate over how we are to remember Jews who worked in any way with the Nazis.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Ian Storey writes about Arendt, Steve McQueen, and Kanye West. And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz takes on the editors at N+1 who berate the internet for inciting too much free speech.

31Jan/143

Why Must We Care

ArendtWeekendReading

Is there such a thing as too much free speech? The Editors at N+1 think so. They posted an editorial this week lamenting the overabundance of speaking that has swept over our nation like a plague:

A strange mania governs the people of our great nation, a mania that these days results in many individual and collective miseries. This is the love of opinion, of free speech—a furious mania for free, spoken opinion. It exhausts us.

The N+1 Editors feel besieged. And we can all sympathize with their predicament. Too many people are writing blogs; too many voices are tweeting; too many friends are pontificating about something on Facebook. And then there are the trolls. It’s hard not to sympathize with our friends at N+1. Why do we have to listen to all of these folks? Shouldn’t all these folks just stop and read N+1 instead?

n1

Of course it is richly hypocritical for the Editors of an opinion journal to complain of an overabundance of opinions. And N+1 acknowledges and even trumpets its hypocrisy.

We are aware that to say [that others should stop expressing their opinions] (freely! our opinion!) makes us hypocrites. We are also aware that America’s hatred of hypocrisy is one of few passions to rival its love of free speech—as if the ideal citizen must see something, say something, and it must be the same thing, all the time. But we’ll be hypocrites because we’re tired, and we want eventually to stop talking.

Beyond the hypocrisy N +1 has a point: The internet has unleashed packs upon packs of angry often rabid dogs. These haters attack anything and everything, including each other. Hate and rage are everywhere:

The ragers in our feeds, our otherwise reasonable friends and comrades: how do they have this energy, this time, for these unsolicited opinions? They keep finding things to be mad about. Here, they’ve dug up some dickhead writer-­professor in Canada who claims not to teach women writers in his classes. He must be denounced, and many times! OK. Yes. We agree. But then it’s some protest (which we support), and then some pop song (which we like, or is this the one we don’t like?), and then some egregiously false study about austerity in Greece (full of lies!). Before we know it, we’ve found ourselves in a state of rage, a semi-permanent state of rage in fact, of perma-rage, our blood boiled by the things that make us mad and then the unworthy things that make other people mad.

Wouldn’t it be nice of public discourse were civil and loving? I too would prefer a rational discussion about the Boycott, Diversity, and Sanction movement. I would be thrilled if the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could join forces to fight political corruption and the over-bureaucratization of government that disempowers individuals. And of course I would love it if those who religiously attack Hannah Arendt for her opinion that Adolf Eichmann was a superficial and banal man responsible for unspeakable evils could find common cause with those who find her provocative, moving and meaningful.

Of course it is exhausting dealing with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. And there is always the impulse to say simply, “enough! I just don’t want to hear your opinions anymore.” This is precisely what N+1 is saying: “We don’t care!”

We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.

Underlying N+1’s ironic distance from the arena of opinions and discord is a basic anti-political fantasy that opinion is a waste of time, if it is not destructive. Wouldn’t it be better to skip the opinions and the battles and the disagreements and just cut straight to the truth? Just listen to the truth.

Truth is not an imperative, but something that must be discovered. Unlike liquid opinion, truth does not always circulate. It is that which you experience, deeply, and cannot forget. The right to not care is the right to sit still, to not talk, to be subject to unclarity and allow knowledge to come unbidden to you. To be in a constant state of rage, by contrast, is only the other side of piety and pseudoscience, the kind of belief that forms a quick chorus and cannot be disproved. Scroll down your Facebook feed and see if you don’t find one ditto after another. So many people with “good” or “bad politics,” delivered with conviction to rage or applause; so little doubt, error, falsifiability—surely the criteria by which anything true, or democratic, could ever be found.

What N+1 embraces is truth over opinion and escapism against engagement with others. What they forget, however, is that there are two fundamentally opposed routes to truth.

In one, the truthseeker turns away from the world of opinion. The world in which we live is a world of shadows and deceptions. Truth won’t be found in the marketplace of ideas, but on the mountaintop in the blinding light of the sun. Like Plato’s philosopher king, we must climb out of the cave and ascend to the heights. Alone, turned toward the heavens and the eternal truths that surf upon the sunrays, we open ourselves to the experience of truth.

A second view of truth is more mundane. The truthseeker stays firmly planted in the world of opinion and deception. Truth is a battle and it is fought with the weapons of words. Persuasion and rhetoric replace the light of the sun. The winner gains not insight but power. Truth doesn’t emerge from an experience; truth is the settled sentiment of the most persuasive opinion.

Both the mountain path and the road through the marketplace are paths to truth, but of different kinds. Philosophers and theologians may very well need to separate themselves from the world of opinion if they are to free themselves to experience truth. Philosophical truths, as Hannah Arendt argues, address “man in his singularity” and are thus “unpolitical by nature.” For her, philosophy and also philosophical truths are anti-political.

Politicians cannot concern themselves with absolute truths; they must embrace the life of the citizen and the currency of opinion rather than the truths of the philosopher. In politics, “no opinion is self-evident,” as Arendt understood. “In matters of opinion, but not in matters of [philosophical] truth, our thinking is discursive, running as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality.” In politics, truth may emerge, but it must go through the shadows that darken the marketplace.

What Arendt understands about political truths is that truths do indeed “circulate” in messy and often uncomfortable ways that the n+1 editorial board wishes to avoid. Political thought, Arendt argues, “is representative.” By that she means that it must sample as many different viewpoints and opinions as is possible. “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” It is in hearing, imagining, and representing opposing and discordant views that one comes to test out his or her own views. It is not a matter of empathy, of feeling like someone else. It is rather an imaginative experiment in which I test my views against all comers. In this way, the enlarged mentality of imaginative thinking is the prerequisite for judgment.

When Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann that he was possessed of the “fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” because he did not think, what she meant was that he was simply incapable or unwilling to think from the perspective of others. His use of clichés was not thoughtlessness itself, but was evidence that he had barricaded himself inside an ideological cage. Above all, his desire to make others including Jews understand his point of view—his hope that they could see that he was a basically good man caught up on the wrong side of history—was for Arendt evidence of his superficiality and his lack of imagination. He simply could not and did not ever allow himself to challenge his own rationalizations and justifications by thinking from the perspective of Jews and his other victims. What allowed Eichmann to so efficiently dispatch millions to their deaths was his inability to think and encounter opinions that were different from his own.

In the internet age we are bombarded with such a diversity of angry and insulting and stupid and offensive viewpoints that it is only naturally to alternate between the urge to respond violently and the urge to withdraw.

opinion

It is easy to deride political opinion and idolize truth. But that is to forget that “seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.”

Political thinking requires that we resist both the desire to fight opinions with violence and the desire to flee from opinions altogether. Instead, we need to learn to think in and with others whose opinions we often hate. We must find in the melee of divergent and offending opinions the joy that exists in the experience of human plurality. We don’t need to love or agree with those we find offensive; but so long as they are talking instead of fighting, we should respect them and listen to them. Indeed, we should care about them and their beliefs. That is why the N+1 manifesto for not caring is your weekend read.

-RB

6Nov/130

Grigore on Gypsies

FromtheArendtCenter

Hannah Arendt Center Visiting Scholar Cristiana Grigore recently appeared on Al Jazeera America to discuss the recent uproar in Greece and France about the treatment of Gypsies. Grigore is at the Arendt Center studying Arendt's writing on Jewish assimilation and Jewish diaspora culture in connection with her own research on the Roma.

christiana

You can watch her interview here.

30Sep/130

Amor Mundi 9/29/13

Arendtamormundi

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.

Empathy for Machines

machineMegan Garber points to research that suggests that soldiers who use battlefield robots as part of their missions often become quite fond of, maybe even empathetic towards, their helpers. "It makes sense that the tools that do so much work in the high-stakes environment of the battlefield would engender devotion from the people they benefit. According to... research, the soldiers assigned their robotic companions 'human or animal-like attributes, including gender.' Furthermore, they 'displayed a kind of empathy toward the machines.' And ‘they felt a range of emotions such as frustration, anger, and even sadness when their field robot was destroyed.'" Machines are increasingly able to act “as if they are human,” even when they are simply following complex algorithms. Shirley Turkle has shown how even people who understand the robotics involved develop deep human emotions for their robots. And David Levy has proposed legalizing marriage with robots. The question is: As we learn to love and relate to robots that are tireless, devoted, and obedient, how will that impact our relationships with humans who are often tired, cranky, and stubborn?

By the way, Megan Garber will be speaking in NYC on Oct. 27th along with Jay Rosen, Walter Russell Mead and Roger Berkowitz at the Bard Graduate Center as part of the Hannah Arendt Center’s panel on Blogging and the New Public Intellectual. Information here. RSVP at arendt@bard.edu.

Seeing America

ladiesIn a consideration of MoMA's recently erected gallery of Walker Evans photographs, James Polchin emphasizes just how shocking Evans' photographs were when he took them more than three quarters of a century ago, suggesting that he did little other than represent what was: "Evans’ images exude a longing and melancholy for something lost. They are relics of a past, as much today as they were 75 years ago. They are decrepit sharecropper porches, ornate Victorian architecture, and decaying southern verandas. They are hauntingly empty small-town street corners and portraits of people who seem to have no place to go. There is in American Photographs no modernist romance of a dynamic future, no awe of machines or the possibilities of the future that were so often modernism’s compelling allure. Instead we are left with a certain absence that is both material and psychological. American Photographs remind us that modernism was also heaped in a kind of creative longing for all that was disappearing."

At What Cost Nature

jbIn an interview, J.B. Mackinnon, author of the recent book The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be talks about what it would mean to "rewild" the planet: “I now find myself comparing co-existence with other species to life in a multicultural city: it’s complicated and demands innovation and often education, but when it works it creates the most exciting societies the world has ever known. Few people who live in multicultural cities would say it’s easy, but even fewer, I think, would say they would prefer homogeneity. The shared culture of difference becomes a part of our individual identities, and at that point, a harm to diversity really does become a harm to us all. Now consider a similar relationship, this time not to cultural but to ecological complexity, and we have what I would consider the rewilding of the human being. Ecology as a part of identity." An interesting thought experiment, but who does MacKinnon have to displace to make it work? Perhaps more importantly, is such an environmental modification really returning to nature in some way, or is it instead more proof of man's supposed mastery over his environment? Indeed, isn’t so much of the talk about sustainability and the preservation of nature rather a furthering of the human desire to master, control, and make of nature what man wants—except that we now want nature to be natural. Marianne Constable makes this argument beautifully in her essay “The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Human, All Too Human,” available in HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center.

What is the Debt Crisis?

greekIn order to better understand the situation in Greece, Arnon Grunberg went to Thessaloniki, the country's second largest city. There, he met with the mayor and some of the city's citizens; one of them, Debbie, echoes Arendt when she talks about what Greeks might glean from their current situation: “Efficiency is a capitalist term that assumes one has the goal of achieving a certain level of productivity. That’s not the way we think. Capitalism, of course, is what sired this crisis. But the crisis is also an opportunity to ask the right questions. We want to teach people that they have the power to fight back. No one can take away your dignity, that’s what I tell them. No one has to be embarrassed by the fact that the system can’t guarantee that everyone has health insurance. The power of capitalism lies in how it presents itself as the sole alternative. I don’t have any illusions about ever seeing it disappear, but we can create little fissures in it.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jennifer Hudson writes about the “False Culture of Utility” in an excellent Quote of the Week coming from a reading of Arendt’s essay “The Crisis of Culture.” In advance of our sixth annual conference next week, "Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis," your weekend read is on the topic of education.

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Educated Citizen in Crisis"

Olin Hall, Bard College

Learn more here.

 

 

 

 

 

22Jul/130

Amor Mundi Newsletter 7/21/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

An Unwillingness to Produce the Body

lawIn the lead up to the scheduled execution-postponed yet again on Thursday-of Warren Lee Hill, Lincoln Caplan writes a short history of the role of habeas corpus in death penalty cases. Starting with Justice William Brennan Jr.'s 1963 affirmation of the importance of habeas corpus and walking through the history of the limitation and near evisceration of habeas as a super writ for the prevention of injustice, Caplan writes that "the habeas story is about capital punishment. More to the point, it is about the radical cutback in habeas law as a reliable means of challenging unconstitutional death sentences," and ties its decline to resurgent questions about American federalism. The Great Writ of justice, as habeas is known, has indeed been radically curtailed. But the real reasons go beyond its connection to the death penalty. The problem is that habeas corpus long represented a claim of justice beyond the letter of the law, an idea of justice at odds with the Court's recent focus on legalism and bright lines. For a full history of the straight-jacketing of the great writ of habeas corpus, take a look at "Error-centricy: Habeas Corpus and the Rule of Law as the Law of Rulings."

Into the Wine Dark

wineCaroline Alexander investigates what Homer might have meant when he called the sea "wine dark," stumbling across questions of translation and the sea's importance to Greece along the way: "It is alluring, stirring, and indistinctly evocative. It is also, strictly speaking, incomprehensible, and for all the time the phrase has been relished, readers and scholars have debated what the term actually means. In what way did the sea remind Homer of dark wine? And of the myriad ways to evoke the sea, why compare it to wine at all? A translator's task is to render into English both the plain meaning and the sensibility-the felt meaning-of a Homeric phrase or word, and so it is a duty, albeit a perilous one, to plunge deeper into this celebrated sea phrase, and grope for clarity. Impertinent questions must be floated: what does it mean-and is there possibly a better rendering?"

The Good Books

bookIranian scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo recently finished a memoir of his time spent in Teheran's Evin Prison. In Time Will Say Nothing he writes of the power of the written word for the incarcerated: "Books became my only companions. In the many desolate hours that I spent in my cell, most of my time was filled with reading Gandhi, Nehru, and Hegel; for long periods they all helped me to forget the grim present. Since childhood, I had always had an obsession and a fascination with books. For me, they had been more than an escape, as they are for many people. Jorge Luis Borges considered them an absolute necessity; they afforded him the highest pleasure. As he famously put it, he always imagined Paradise in the form of a library. This is because for good readers, under normal circumstances, books enrich life, injecting passion and enchantment into the mundane and the quotidian. Moreover, in a solitary jail cell, books simply help one to survive; one can never underestimate their power and importance in such a place."

The MOOC, Circa 1885

moocScott Newstock defends in-person learning against the rise of the MOOC. "To state the obvious: there's a living, human element to education...." Close learning, he rightly sees, "exposes the stark deficiencies of mass distance learning such as MOOCs." What is new in Newstock's argument is his backwards glance. To burst the MOOC bubble, he quotes one prominent expert who argues that the average distance learner "knows more of the subject, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom." Indeed, "the day is coming when the work done [via distance learning] will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our colleges." What you might not expect is that this prediction was made in 1885. "The commentator quoted above was Yale classicist (and future University of Chicago President) William Rainey Harper, evaluating correspondence courses." Thus Newstock offers a fair warning to those who prophecy that MOOCs will empty the schools.

Tintyping Afghanistan

tintypeWhen soldier and photographer Ed Drew was deployed in Afghanistan earlier this year, he began taking tintype photographers of his colleagues and surroundings. The tintype process, last used in a theatre of battle during the Civil War, is archaic and difficult to do exactly right, and the resulting photographs speak of the end of a modern era in the language of the distant past.

Featured Upcoming Events

challJuly 22-July 31, 2013

The Hannah Arendt Center 10 Day/100 Member Campaign

October 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast" The Educated Citizen in Crisis"

Olin Hall, Bard College

Learn more here.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jeffrey Champlin looks to Arendt's reading of Kant to mark Arendt's thinking as a kind of middle path between the objective and the subjective. You can also find recent coverage of the movie Hannah Arendt here. And check out our Fall Conference, "Failing Fast: The Crisis of the Educated Citizen." Finally, Roger Berkowitz delves into the controversy over the decision by Rolling Stone to put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of the magazine.

29Mar/133

Are We One of Them?

ArendtWeekendReading

In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal—C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University—offers a fascinating review of recent scientific studies that upend long-held expectations about the intelligence of animals. De Waal rehearses a catalogue of fantastic studies in which animals do things that scientists have long thought they could not do. Here are a few examples:

Ayumu, a male chimpanzee, excels at memory; just as the IBM computer Watson can beat human champions at Jeopardy, Ayumu can easily best the human memory champion in games of memory.

Similarly, Kandula, a young elephant bull, was able to reach some fragrant fruit hung out of reach by moving a stool over to the tree, standing on it, and reaching for the fruit with his trunk. I’ll admit this doesn’t seem like much of a feat to me, but for the researchers de Waal talks with, it is surprising proof that elephants can use tools.

elephant

Scientists may be surprised that animals can remember things or use tools to accomplish tasks, but any one raised on children’s tales of Lassie or Black Beauty knows this well, as does anyone whose pet dog opened a door knob, brought them a newspaper, or barked at intruders. The problem these studies address is less our societal view of animals than the overly reductive view of animals that de Waal attributes to his fellow scientists. It’s hard to take these studies seriously as evidence that animals think in the way that humans do.

Seemingly more interesting are experiments with self-recognition and also facial recognition. De Waal describes one Asian Elephant who stood in front of a mirror and “repeatedly rubbed a white cross on her forehead.” Apparently the elephant recognized the image in the mirror as herself. In another experiment, chimpanzees were able to recognize which pictures of chimpanzees were from their own species. Like my childhood Labrador who used to stare knowingly into the mirror, these studies confirm that animals are able to recognize themselves. This means that animals do, likely, understand that they are selves.

For de Waal, these studies have started to upend a view of humankind's unique place in the universe that dates back at least to ancient Greece. “Science,” he writes, “keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.”

The flattening of the distinction between animals and humans is to be celebrated, De Waal argues, and not feared. He writes:

Aristotle's ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.

DeWaal has long championed the intelligence of animals, and now his vision is gaining momentum. This week, in a long essay called “One of Us” in the new Lapham’s Quarterly on animals, the glorious essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan begins with this description of similar studies to the ones DeWaal writes about:

These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of activity that led the distinguished zoologist Donald R. Griffin to found the field of cognitive ethology (animal thinking) in 1978: octopuses piling stones in front of their hideyholes, to name one recent example; or dolphins fitting marine sponges to their beaks in order to dig for food on the seabed; or wasps using small stones to smooth the sand around their egg chambers, concealing them from predators. At the same time neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed. Indeed they are common. All of this work and discovery appeared to reach a kind of crescendo last summer, when an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” a document stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” It goes further to conclude that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”

With nuance and subtlety, Sullivan understands that our tradition has not drawn the boundary between human and animal nearly as securely as de Waal portrays it. Throughout human existence, humans and animals have been conjoined in the human imagination. Sullivan writes that the most consistent “motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago,” is the focus on “animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else—lion or bird or bear.” In these paintings and sculptures, our ancestors gave form to a basic intuition: “Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom.”

pot

Religious history too is replete with evidence of the human recognition of the dignity of animals. God says in Isaiah that the beasts will honor him and St. Francis, the namesake of the new Pope, is famous for preaching to birds. What is more, we are told that God cares about the deaths of animals.

“In the Gospel According to Matthew we’re told, “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Think about that. If the bird dies on the branch, and the bird has no immortal soul, and is from that moment only inanimate matter, already basically dust, how can it be “with” God as it’s falling? And not in some abstract all-of-creation sense but in the very way that we are with Him, the explicit point of the verse: the line right before it is “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” If sparrows lack souls, if the logos liveth not in them, Jesus isn’t making any sense in Matthew 10:28-29.

What changed and interrupted the ancient and deeply human appreciation of our kinship with besouled animals? Sullivan’s answer is René Descartes. The modern depreciation of animals, Sullivan writes,

proceeds, with the rest of the Enlightenment, from the mind of René Descartes, whose take on animals was vividly (and approvingly) paraphrased by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche: they “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Descartes’ term for them was automata—windup toys, like the Renaissance protorobots he’d seen as a boy in the gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, “hydraulic statues” that moved and made music and even appeared to speak as they sprinkled the plants.

Too easy, however, is the move to say that the modern comprehension of the difference between animal and human proceeds from a mechanistic view of animals. We live at a time of the animal rights movement. Around the world, societies exist and thrive whose mission is to prevent cruelty toward and to protect animals. Yes, factory farms treat chickens and pigs as organic mechanisms for the production of meat, but these farms co-exist with active and quite successful movements calling for humane standards in food production. Whatever the power of Cartesian mechanics, its success is at odds with the persistence of the religious, ancient solidarity, and also deeply modern sympathy between human and animal.

A more meaningful account of the modern attitude towards animals might be found in Spinoza. Spinoza, as Sullivan quotes him, recognizes that animals feel in ways that Descartes did not. As do animal rights activists, Spinoza admits what is obvious: that animals feel pain, show emotion, and have desires. And yet, Spinoza maintains a distinction between human and animal—one grounded not in emotion or feeling, but in human nature. In his Ethics, he writes:

Hence it follows that the emotions of the animals which are called irrational…only differ from man’s emotions to the extent that brute nature differs from human nature. Horse and man are alike carried away by the desire of procreation, but the desire of the former is equine, the desire of the latter is human…Thus, although each individual lives content and rejoices in that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being, yet the life, wherein each is content and rejoices, is nothing else but the idea, or soul, of the said individual…It follows from the foregoing proposition that there is no small difference between the joy which actuates, say, a drunkard, and the joy possessed by a philosopher.

Spinoza argues against the law prohibiting slaughter of animals—it is “founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason”—because humans are more powerful than animals.  Here is how he defends the slaughter of animals:

The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow men, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own; we have the same rights in respect to them as they have in respect to us. Nay, as everyone’s right is defined by his virtue, or power, men have far greater rights over beasts than beasts have over men. Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours.

Spinoza’s point is quite simple: Of course animals feel and of course they are intelligent. Who could doubt such a thing? But they are not human. That is clear too. While we humans may care for and even love our pets, we recognize the difference between a dog and a human. And we will, in the end, associate more with our fellow humans than with dogs and porpoises. Finally, we humans will use animals when they serve our purposes. And this is ok, because have the power to do so.

Is Spinoza arguing that might makes right? Surely not in the realm of law amongst fellow humans. But he is insisting that we recognize that for us humans, there is something about being human that is different and, even, higher and more important. Spinoza couches his argument in the language of natural right, but what he is saying is that we must recognize that there are important differences between animals and humans.

At a time that values equality over what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “pathos of difference,” the valuation of human beings over animals is ever more in doubt. This comes home clearly in a story told recently by General Stanley McChrystal, about a soldier who expressed sympathy for some dogs killed in a raid in Iraq.  McChrystal responded, severely: “"Seven enemy were killed on that target last night.  Seven humans.  Are you telling me you're more concerned about the dog than the people that died?  The car fell silent again. "Hey listen," I said. "Don't lose your humanity in this thing."” Many, no doubt, are more concerned, or at least are equally concerned, about the deaths of animals as they are about the deaths of humans. There is ever-increasing discomfort about McChrystal’s common sense affirmation of Spinoza’s claim that human beings simply are of more worth than animals.

eye

The distinctions upon which the moral sense of human distinction is based are foundering. For DeWaal and Sullivan, the danger today is that we continue to insist on differences between animals and humans—differences that we don’t fully understand. The consequences of their openness to the humanization of animals, however, is undoubtedly the animalization of humans. The danger that we humans lose sight of what distinguishes us from animals is much more significant than the possibility that we underestimate animal intelligence.

I fully agree with DeWaal and Sullivan that there is a symphony of intelligence in the world, much of it not human. And yes, we should have proper respect for our ignorance. But all the experiments in the world do little to alter the basic facts, that no matter how intelligent and feeling and even conscious animals may be, humans and animals are different.

What is the quality of that difference? It is difficult to say and may never be fully articulated in propositional form. On one level it is this: Simply to live, as do plants or animals, does not constitute a human life. In other words, human life is not simply about living. Nor is it about doing tasks or even being conscious of ourselves as humans. It is about living meaningfully. There may, of course, be some animals that can create worlds of meaning—worlds that we have not yet discovered. But their worlds are not the worlds to which we humans aspire.

Over two millennia ago, Sophocles, in his “Ode to Man,” named man Deinon, a Greek word that connotes both greatness and horror, that which is so extraordinary as to be at once terrifying and beautiful. Man, Sophocles tells us, can travel over water and tame animals, using them to plough fields. He can invent speech, and institute governments that bring humans together to form lasting institutions. As an inventor and maker of his world, this wonder that is man terrifyingly carries the seeds of his destruction. As he invents and comes to control his world, he threatens to extinguish the mystery of his existence, that part of man that man himself does not control. As the chorus sings: “Always overcoming all ways, man loses his way and comes to nothing.” If man so tames the earth as to free himself from uncertainty, what then is left of human being?

Sophocles knew that man could be a terror; but he also glorified the wonder that man is. He knew that what separates us humans from animals is our capacity to alter the earth and our natural environment. “The human artifice of the world,” Arendt writes, “separates human existence from all mere animal environment…” Not only by building houses and erecting dams—animals can do those things and more—but also by telling stories and building political communities that give to man a humanly created world in which he lives. If all we did as humans was live or build things on earth, we would not be human.

To be human means that we can destroy all living matter on the Earth. We can even today destroy the earth itself. Whether we do so or not, it now means that to live on Earth today is a “Choice” that we make, not a matter of fate or chance. Our Earth, although we did not create it, is now something we humans can decide to sustain or destroy. In this sense, it is a human creation. No other animal has such a potential or such a responsibility.

There is a deep desire today to flee from that awesome and increasingly unbearable human responsibility. We flee, therefore, our humanity and take solace in the view that we are just one amongst the many animals in the world. We see this reductionism above all in human rights discourse. One core demand of human rights—that men and women have a right to live and not be killed—brought about a shift in the idea of humanity from logos to life. The rise of a politics of life—the political demand that governments limit freedoms and regulate populations in order to protect and facilitate their citizens’ ability to live in comfort—has pushed the animality, the “life,” of human beings to the center of political and ethical activity. In embracing a politics of life over a politics of the meaningful life, human rights rejects the distinctive dignity of human rationality and works to reduce humanity to its animality.

Hannah Arendt saw human rights as dangerous precisely because they risked confusing the meaning of human worldliness with the existence of mere animal life. For Arendt, human beings are the beings who build and live in a political world, by which she means the stories, institutions, and achievements that mark the glory and agony of humanity. To be human, she insists, is more than simply living, laboring, working, acting, and thinking. It is to do all of these activities in such a way as to create, together, a common life amongst a plurality of persons.

I fear that the interest in animal consciousness today is less a result of scientific proof that animals are human than it is an increasing discomfort with the world we humans have built. A first step in responding to such discomfort, however, is a reaffirmation of our humanity and our human responsibility. There is no better way to begin that process than in engaging with a very human response to the question of our animality. Towards that end, I commend to you “One of Us,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

-RB

17Dec/120

Remembrance and Gratitude

“We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands...Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship...But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse...The converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.”

-Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 24

As the year comes to an end, in many English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Arendt’s adopted country, friends and neighbors may gather to sing Auld Lang Syne, the song adapted from the verse of Scottish poet, Robert Burns and traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight, as one year fades into the next. An evocation of memory, and times long ago, it resonates also with an image of a long-lasting friendship. So, in tune with the season, I chose for commentary an image of friendship Arendt crafted in her essay on Lessing, the opening piece in Men in Dark Times. “The essence of friendship consisted in discourse…concerned with the common world.”

Both memory and friendship are important themes in Arendt’s writing. “We can no more master the past than we can undo it. But we can reconcile ourselves to it. The form for this is the lament, which arises out of all recollection.” (Men in Dark Times, p. 21) Recollection, or remembrance, becomes, in Arendt’s view, a pathway to reconcile ourselves to what has happened. Bearing the burden of the past and the responsibility past events places on us meant, for Arendt, facing up to reality, no matter what it might have been.

When Arendt wrote about bearing the burden of the past she had in mind the terrible weight that the most momentous events of the twentieth century—the emergence of totalitarianism and the catastrophe of the Holocaust—had put upon the shoulders of modern humanity. In the aftermath of these events, we face new difficulties: “the bitter realization that nothing has been promised to us, no Messianic Age, no classless society, no paradise after death.” (Origins of Totalitarianism) Referring to this as humanity’s “coming of age,” she recognized that its first “disastrous result...is that modern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence—to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world.”

But remembrance does not so much dwell in the past as allow the possibility of action in the future through the cultivation of gratitude. The opposite of passivity, which is the unconscious reception of everything that happens, has happened or might happen, gratitude might be said to be the  active acceptance of the chance I have been given to make some mark in the world within the endowment of time, however brief or long, I have to live in it. As Arendt wrote in Origins, “[S]uch gratitude expects nothing except, in the worlds of Faulkner--‘one’s own one anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle...in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.’ ” And, in many ways, these words echo sentiments Arendt expressed in her doctoral dissertation: “[G]ratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery: ‘Now you are miserable and still you do not want to die for no other reason but that you want to be.’ What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude.” The kind of friendship Arendt calls “political” (because of its concern with the common world) is the model for those relationships that facilitate remembrance and cultivate gratitude.

There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life--those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Lessing in Men in Dark Times (quoted above), which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those she called “intimate.” Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend. Besides her relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher, Arendt’s friendship with Mary McCarthy provides another glimpse into the practice of these two types of friendship with the same person.

Though an unlikely partnership, and one that got off to a rocky start, the improbable friendship between Hannah and Mary McCarthy found a way to begin and lasted nearly three decades, nourished by several streams of intellectual and emotional sustenance each offered the other. Littered throughout the McCarthy/Arendt correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. But the undertone of dialogue between them is one of growing intimacy and fervor, whether engaging topics worldly or personal.

When McCarthy read Men in Dark Times she thought the centrality of friendship as a theme in Men in Dark Times came through so strongly she told Arendt she thought the book to be “very maternal...mutterlich, if that is a word. You’ve made me think a lot about the Germans and how you/they are different from us. It’s the only work of yours I would call ‘German,’ and this may have something to do with the role friendship plays in it, workmanly friendship, of apprentices starting out with their bundle on a pole and doing a piece of the road together.” Hannah replied that she was not sure why McCarthy thought the book was ‘German.’ But she heartily embraced the idea of friendship that McCarthy had characterized: “And of course friendship in the sense of ‘doing a piece of the road together’--as distinguished from intimacy. Thanks!”

Hannah Arendt & Mary McCarthy

A year after Heinrich Blücher’s death, Arendt traveled with McCarthy and her husband, Jim West, to Greece, visiting many places Hannah had been with her Blücher, on an earlier trip. “I know it was painful for you to revisit so many of the places you had been with Heinrich,” McCarthy wrote to Hannah after she’d returned to New York. “That has never happened to me, to repeat an experience, with different people, that I’d shared with someone now lost...I can only hope the good outweighed the disagreeable or discordant.” Arendt replied indirectly to McCarthy’s worries. “During the last months I have often thought of myself--free like a leaf in the wind...And all the time I also thought: Don’t do anything against this, that is the way it is, let no ‘autocratic will’ interfere...Let me come back once more to the ‘leaf in the wind.’ It is of course only half true. For there is, on the other hand, the whole weight of the past (gravitas). And what Hölderlin once said in a beautiful line: ‘Und vieles/Wie auf den Schultern eine/Last von Scheitern ist/Zu behalten--And much/ as on your shoulders/ a burden of logs/ is to bear and keep.’--In short: remembrance. Much, much love. Yours, Hannah.”

“What ultimately stills the fear of death….is remembrance and gratitude.”

-Kathleen B. Jones

 

13Dec/120

Tuning Out, Heroism, and the Power of Example

I received an email from an old friend this weekend. She has been deeply affected by the death of Ki Suck Han, the New York man who was pushed off a subway platform near Times Square—and abandoned by all his fellow passengers, before being run over by an oncoming train. She wrote:

The subway death was on my mind all day long yesterday, I was devastated about it. I once worked for the MTA Arts for Transit, maybe that's why. Nobody stepped forth (the platform wasn't empty before the guy fell on the tracks), at least moved forward, rather than back. In that photo the man is all alone facing that train, everyone has moved back and away to make space for the accident to unfold unhindered, out of the zone of implication. We're all so afraid of danger, and even afraid of the fear itself.

Forty Seven people were killed after being hit by trains in 2011—I know this from the helpful signs in the subways that remind us to be careful.

We all know about Ki Suck Han because in the 22 seconds between when he was pushed on the tracks and when a train pinned him against the platform, a New York Post photographer snapped dozens of pictures of him. One of those pictures was then published on the front page of the NYC tabloid.

There has been near universal condemnation of the Post, with a few exceptions. The photographer too has been harangued, accused of taking pictures rather than running to save the man. But the platform had not been empty and another waiting rider actually filmed the argument Ki Suck Han had been having with the man who later pushed him to the tracks. All these passengers fled the scene, moved to the other end of the platform. No one went to help Ki Suck Han. In 22 seconds, no one acted the hero.

“What,” my friend asked, “might Hannah Arendt say about the fact that no one helped a person in need?”

I hazard to say or think I know what Hannah Arendt would have thought or said. I respond to all such queries simply: Hannah Arendt was nothing if not surprising and provocative and more brilliant than I am. I have no special insight into what she would have thought.

What I can do is try to think about how her thinking, her provocative and insistent determination to think what we are doing, helps us today to make sense of ethical and political events like this tragic death. Along those lines, here are a few thoughts.

First, we should not draw too many conclusions from one event. While no heroes showed themselves in this circumstance, there are unsung heroes every year who risk their lives to save people around the world, and even in New York Subways. In fact, just last weekend Doreen Winkler saved two people from an oncoming train in New York City. You can read about Winkler’s heroic acts here and here. And if you want to be inspired by truly heroic acts of daring subway rescues, watch this video from Korea.

Second, the unwillingness to play the hero in this situation reminds me of what Arendt names the loss of our sense of a common world. It is the common world—a world that used to be imagined and held together by tradition and authority—that provides a public space in which actions are remembered. Pericles could say with confidence that the Athenian polis would remember the deeds of its heroes, just as the American revolutionaries could hope that their heroic deeds would live on in monuments, song, and poetry.

Monuments in Washington and around the nation testify to the common world that shares in the memory of great acts—acts that strike people as both surprising and worthy of glory and support. It is the power and promise of memory in the common world that both holds out examples of the glory of heroism and also promises to bring the hero immortality, something more lasting than life and security. There is little faith today that someone who is a hero will be remembered longer than someone who cuts people to bits or dances naked on TV. Heroism is one of many avenues to 15 minutes of fame. So there is no strong sense of acting courageously getting you anything.

Third, the loss of the common world is part and parcel of the retreat into loneliness. I was having dinner with another friend recently who told me of his new resolution, to listen to more music on his Iphone on the way to and from work. I recall once reading Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s letters and being in awe of his reports to friends of the books he was reading, his continuing education as he put it. My friend saw his headphone-wearing study of music in the same vein. And yet, there is a difference. Walking with headphones, even more than reading in the subway or playing books on tape in the car, is a way of tuning out of the world around you. People get lost in their own world, ignoring the sights, sounds, and faces that pass them by.

My conversation with my music-studying friend also called to mind a recent email sent by the Bard College Rabbi. Rabbi David Nelson worried that more and more our young people, in the spirit of urban dwellers, “walk around campus much of the time avoiding eye contact, which is another way of saying that they avoid looking one another directly in the face.” For the rabbi, the loss of eye contact and real face-time is dangerous and corrupting. He writes:

Those who have spent time living in densely populated urban areas are accustomed to the polite avoidance of eye contact, in crowded elevators, crowded rush-hour subway trains, and similar crowded venues. This is a way to maintain separateness and privacy in an environment where the density of the population threatens our ability ever to feel alone and unobserved. This is exactly the behavior that we see on campus. But we are not an anonymous, densely populated urban tangle. We are--or we ought to be--an intentional, involved, caring community. And our students' assiduous avoidance of one another's faces is at least a sign of, and perhaps a cause of, the widespread sense that this is a place where it's hard to really connect with others.

The proliferation of headphones began decades ago with the Sony Walkman craze and continues unabated with the Ipod and Iphone. People walk around listening to music or books or podcasts. And many are proud of this development, rationalizing their anti-social behavior by arguing to themselves that they are bettering themselves, learning, or expanding their minds. This may be true. But the retreat from personal contact and the eye contact with our fellow travelers must also weaken our connection to others. It is a cold and distant world, one in which we are less and less entangled with and personally related to those around us.

Our actions are ever more calculating and less instinctive. In such instances, calculation will stop you from acting. You need to feel it. It is no accident that nearly every subway hero who jumps on the tracts to rescue someone says that they didn’t think about it but simply acted.

Above all, the un-heroic action in the subway last week reminds us of the increasing rarity of action. Heroism is never normal. It is, by definition, extra-ordinary and surprising, which is why it is glorified and remembered. It thus thrives on a world that rewards and celebrates heroic acts. Hannah Arendt saw, however, that rare deeds would be ever rarer in the modern age. The primary reason for this is that in large societies, rare deeds lose their rarity and distinction. There are at least two reasons for this decline in great deeds.

First, the law of large numbers means that all action is predictable. We know that most people will not act spontaneously to save a passenger in need; but we also know that a certain percentage of people will. Actions of heroism are not mundane, but they are expected. That is why it was so shocking and surprising that no one acted. When someone does act heroically, like Doreen Winkler, few newspapers reported it. Heroism in the subway promises very little acclaim.

Second, heroism requires a common world in which one’s great deed will be remembered. Without the promise or the expectation that heroic acts will be immortalized, the risk of action is rarely balanced by the reward. In a calculating society, heroism rarely seems to justify the risk.

Thankfully, however, there are exceptions to these dispiriting trends. There are moments of unexpected heroism that do break through the standardization of our social expectations and become examples of heroic action. One recent example of this is Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s racing into a burning house to save his neighbor. At a time when we expect so little from our public figures who refuse to risk even bucking opinion polls, Booker’s public heroism was shocking. The power of his example, and of those who act as he does, keeps the ideal of heroism alive at a time when it is ever more rare and unexpected. Because action interrupts the everyday and the normal, it is, Arendt writes, the “one miracle-working faculty of man.” Action introduces greatness and glory into the world, makes us take notice, and calls us then to gather around the beauty of the glorious act; action, heroic action, is what constantly refreshes and re-orients us toward the common world that we share together.

-RB

 

5Nov/120

A Sorry Bunch of Dwarfs

Freeman Dyson, the eclectic physicist, took good aim at philosophy last week in a review of the silly book by Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?" An Existential Detective Story. Holt went around to "a portrait gallery of leading modern philosophers," and asked them the Leibnizian question: Why is there something rather than nothing?" The book offers their answers, along with biographical descriptions.

For Dyson, Holt's book "compels us to ask" these "ugly questions." First, "When and why did philosophy lose its bite?" Philosophers were, once important. In China, Confucius and his followers made a civilization. So too in Greece did Socrates and then the schools of Plato and Aristotle give birth to the western world. In the Christian era Jesus and Paul, then Aquinas and Augustine granted depth to dominant worldviews. Philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, and Leibniz were central figures in the scientific revolution, and philosophical minds like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Arendt (even if one was a philologist and the other two refused the name philosopher) have become central figures in the experience of nihilism. Against these towering figures, the "leading philosophers" in Holt's book cut a paltry figure. Here is Dyson:

Holt's philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant. At some time toward the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers faded from public life. Like the snark in Lewis Carroll's poem, they suddenly and silently vanished. So far as the general public was concerned, philosophers became invisible.

There are many reasons for the death of philosophy, some of which were behind Hannah Arendt's refusal to call herself a philosopher. Philosophy was born, at least in its Platonic variety, from out of the thinker's reaction to the death of Socrates. Confronted with the polis that put the thinker to death, Plato and Aristotle responded by retreating from the world into the world of ideas. Philosophical truth separated itself from worldly truths, and idealism was born. Realism was less a return to the world than a reactive fantasy to idealism. In both, the truths that were sought were otherworldly truths, disconnected to the world.

Christianity furthered the divorce of philosophy from the world by imagining two distinct realms, the higher realm existing beyond the world. Science, too, taught that truth could only be found in a world of abstract reason, divorced from real things. Christianity and science together gave substance to the philosophical rebellion against the world. The result, as Dyson rightly notes, is that philosophy today is as abstract, worldly, and relevant as it is profound.

What Dyson doesn't explore is why philosophers of the past had such importance, even as they also thought about worlds of ideas. The answer cannot be that ideas had more import in the past than now. On the contrary, we live in an age more saturated in ideas than any other. More people today are college educated, literate, and knowledgeable of philosophy than at any period in the history of the world. Books like Holt's are proof positive of the profitable industry of philosophical trinkets. That is the paradox—at a time when philosophy is read by more people than ever, it is less impactful than it ever was.

One explanation for this paradox is nihilism—The devaluing or re-valuing of the highest values. The truth about truth turned out to be neither so simple nor singular as the philosophers had hoped. An attentive inquiry into the true and the good led not to certainty, but to ideology critique. For Nietzsche, truth, like the Christian God, was a human creation, and the first truth of our age is that we recognized it as such. That is the precondition for the death of God and the death of truth. Nihilism has not expunged ideas from our world, but multiplied them. When speaking about the "true" or the "good" or the "just," Christians, Platonists, and moralists no longer have the stage to themselves. They must now shout to be heard amongst the public relations managers, advertisers, immoralists, epicureans, anarchists, and born again Christians.

Dyson ignores this strain of philosophy. He does point out that Nietzsche was the last great philosopher, but then dismisses Heidegger who "lost his credibility in 1933" and even Wittgentstein who would remain silent if a woman attended his lectures until she would leave. And yet it is Heidegger who has given us the great literary masterpieces of the 20th century philosophy.

His work on technology (The Question Concerning Technik) and art (The Origins of the Work of Art) has been widely read in artistic, literary, and lay circles. It is hard to imagine a philosopher more engaged with the science and literature than Heidegger was. He read physics widely and co-taught courses at the house of the Swiss psychiatrist Medard Boss and also taught seminars with the German novelist Ernst Jünger.

It seems worthwhile to end with a poem of Heidegger's from his little book, Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens/From Out of the Experience of Thinking:

Drei Gefahren drohen dem Denken
Die gute und darum heilsame Gefahr ist die Nachbarschaft des singenden Dichters.
Die böse und darum schärfste Gefahr ist das Denken selber. Es muß gegen sich selbst denken, was es nur selten vermag.
Die schlechte und darum wirre Gefahr ist das Philosophieren.

Three dangers threaten thinking.
The good and thus healthy danger is the nearness of singing poetry.
The evil and thus sharpest danger is thinking itself. It must think against itself, something it can do only rarely.
The bad and thus confusing danger is philosophizing.

-RB

22Oct/120

The Rise of the Golden Dawn

Golden Dawn, the far-Right fascist party in Greece continues to grow in popularity and violence, according to the Wall Street Journal. Last week the Journal reports:

In a rundown, immigrant-filled neighborhood here, Ilias Panagiotaros, a member of Parliament from Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party, used a megaphone Friday night to exhort an angry crowd to "fight against foreign invaders."

A family watching from a second-floor balcony scrambled for cover as demonstrators hurled bottles and stones at them. "We're going to spill your blood, you Albanian pigs," a man in the flag-waving throng screamed.

Hundreds of protesters marched through the narrow streets—some spraying nationalist graffiti on building facades, others shouting obscene taunts at immigrants. Mr. Panagiotaros, a heavyset man with a shaved head, led them in a resounding chant: "Foreigners out. Greece for the Greeks."

Now this weekend the Washington Post has a follow up (as Walter Russell Mead writes). The Post describes a Greek army surplus store that proudly displays a sticker that carries a favorite party slogan: “Get the Stench out of Greece.” The Post continues:

By “stench,” the Golden Dawn — which won its first-ever seats in the Greek Parliament this spring and whose popularity has soared ever since — means immigrants, broadly defined as anyone not of Greek ancestry. In the country at the epicenter of Europe’s debt crisis, and where poverty and unemployment are spiking, the surplus shop doubles as one of the party’s dozens of new “help bureaus.” Hundreds of calls a day come in from desperate families seeking food, clothing and jobs, all of which the Golden Dawn is endeavoring to provide, with one major caveat: for Greeks only.

Attacks have not stopped at foreigners. One Golden Dawn legislator slapped a left-wing female politician on national television. Party supporters have attempted to shut down performances of progressive theater. Activists see the party’s hand behind three recent beatings of gay men. The Golden Dawn has also begun engaging left-wing anarchy groups in street battles — more evidence, observers say, of a societal breakdown that some here fear could slide into a civil war if Greece is forced out of the euro and into an even deeper crisis.

But perhaps more worrisome, critics say, are signs that the Golden Dawn is establishing itself as an alternative authority in a country crippled by the harsh austerity imposed by its international lenders. It has set up its own “pure” blood bank, providing and accepting donations to and from Greeks only, in a nation of 11 million that is also home to roughly 1.5 million refugees and migrants, many of them from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. As the party attempts to place a swelling number of unemployed in jobs, its officials say they have persuaded a major restaurant chain to begin replacing immigrants with Greek workers.

The Arendt Center is keeping a close eye on Golden Dawn. The increasing popularity of the party in Greece, which currently polls at over 20% of the Greek population, is a reminder that real economic crises rarely limit themselves to economic upheaval. Many names and words will be bandied about in and with regard to Greece. People will talk about fascism, racism, and totalitarianism. The point is to keep our eyes open to what is happening, which at this point is ugly political nativism along with racialized violence that is gaining enough popular appeal so that it is not being confronted and stopped by legal authorities. It is partly a result of racism, but also a consequence of the utter loss of power and legitimacy on behalf of the Greek elite and the Greek government that has abandoned Greek self-rule to a technocratic European elite. When people feel totally helpless and out of control, as Greeks do today, they will unfortunately seek out scapegoats and victims. The last thing they want to admit is that it is the Greek people themselves and their leaders who are to blame for their predicament.

Golden Dawn members giving a raised-fist salute as they are being sworn into Parliament 6/12

One key step in any move towards totalitarianism is the erasure of legal citizenship or legal protections for a defined minority. Legal and illegal immigrants are already vulnerable groups even in good times. The danger is that immigrants lose even the basic legal protections and rights that they currently have and, once they do, become superfluous people, the kind of people who simply can be rounded up, imprisoned, expelled, or killed without any legal notice or response—or even according to the law. That of course is not happening in Greece. Let's hope it does not.

-RB

1Oct/121

The Dark Days of the Golden Dawn

Fascism is making a mainstream comeback. That is fascism in the sense of a nationalist and nativist movement, to be distinguished from totalitarianism, which is an internationalist and imperialist movement. The scene for the return of fascism is Greece. In the birthplace of democracy, the failure of the European Union has combined with the utter impotency of mainstream Greek politicians to  offer an opening for Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi and anti-immigrant party that is openly and violently taking the law into its own hands. The New York Times writes:

The video, which went viral in Greece last month, shows about 40 burly men, led by Giorgos Germenis, a lawmaker with the right-wing Golden Dawn party, marching through a night market in the town of Rafina demanding that dark-skinned merchants show permits.

The video is harrowing. It is racist and rightly condemned by legitimate parties. But no one, it seems, is willing to do more than to condemn Golden Dawn. Article after article speaks of the close relationship between Golden Dawn and the Greek police. They appear to act with impunity.

The real danger is only in part the destruction of shops and stands owned by brown people who don't have documentation; it is the shock, passivity, and even the support of the people and the police. Greek society is, as The Guardian reports, making media darlings of Golden Dawn. Multiple reports suggest that Golden Dawn has support of more than 20% of the Greek people.

The problems Greece faces are extreme. Overly indebted, the Greeks have not been able to choose a coherent response. They have refused to leave the Euro or nationalize their banks and their debt. But nor have they willingly embraced the kind of severe austerity that would allow them to return to good economic standing. The sad result is enforced and partial austerity at the barrel of an economic pistol. It is a painful and humiliating submission to international bureaucrats.

At the same time, the broken immigration politics of the European Union puts an impossible burden on Greece to police its huge and porous borders. Since illegal immigrants can travel freely in the EU once inside Greece, it has become an easy port of entry to the whole of the EU. There are now, according to the NY Times, more than 1.5 Million immigrants in a country of 11 million people. Other sources put the number lower at 850,000. Whichever is correct, the politics of immigration are underwriting Golden Dawn's popular vigilantism.

The combination of a broken political system, economic austerity, and growing illegal immigration is, as the video and the increasingly mainstream popularity of Golden Dawn show, a dangerous mix. This is a mass movement that is filling a vacuum of legitimate leadership. It is a sign of what happens when the political system refuses to honestly address the reality of the problems a nation faces; the complete breakdown in legitimacy and the turn to extremism.

Read more about Golden Dawn in the Times article.

-RB

25Sep/120

Does the President Matter?

“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”

                        —Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?

This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter?  The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.

This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.

If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.

And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?

­On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.

This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.

Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief.  In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.

No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.

Every President comes to Washington promising reform!  And they all fail.  According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.

On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."

A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:

The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.

The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible.  All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.

For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.

The question  "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:

“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”

So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.

The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.

When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.

Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence."  To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.

Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.

One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.

This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:

Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.

All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.

Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:

"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."

My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.

What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.

But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law.  Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator.  Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.

In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.

In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.

These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.

Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President,  the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.

Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask:  might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.

At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.

Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.

She continued:

It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.

I don't know if the president matters.

But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.

In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you.  If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.

-RB

Watch Roger's  opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.

25Jun/120

The Courage to Lead

Since our recent weekend read from Roberto Unger regarding the upcoming presidential election is generating so much discussion, we thought we would re-run this "Quote" of the week from Roger Berkowitz that was originally posted in February.  "The Courage to Lead" seemed an apt follow up .

"Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life, and too great a love for life obstructed freedom, was a sure sign of slavishness. Courage therefore became the political virtue par excellence."

-Hannah Arendt

Courage is the first virtue of politics; and cowardice is one reason politics is so lame today. Politicians hem and haw, searching for an answer that won't offend. They serve up focus-group tested sound bites,  making them seem less like people then robots. It is as if leaders have gone on strike; unwilling—or unable—to make decisions anymore, except when forced to.

  • The President's healthcare plan might have been courageous, if it had actually dealt with the rising cost of healthcare and the unchallenged assumption that everyone has a right to all the healthcare they want at all times.
  • Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden's joint plan for entitlement reform might actually have been courageous, if it had called for shared sacrifice of the wealthy as well as the poor and shrinking middle classes.
  • President Obama's current budget plan, calling for a 1% decrease in discretionary spending over 10 years, would be courageous, if it didn't leave mandatory entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to grow by 96% over the same 10 years. By 2022, under the President's budget, 77% of the Federal Government's budget will be non-discretionary spending—an abdication of democracy and leadership that is increasingly taking the vast majority of political decisions out of the hands of those elected to govern the nation.
  • And in Europe, Angela Merkel and the German political elite have simply waited while first Greece and then Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain have flirted with disasters. Greece and Italy are now governed by technocratic governments specifically empowered to override democratic decisions. As chilling as that sounds, it is in many ways simply a foretaste of what is coming to the rest of us, as we hand increasing power over our fates to technocratic decision makers. Driven by an overriding concern for efficiency and growth, our politics is increasingly governed by economic decision-making.

To re-imagine leadership for today, we might begin with thinking about what Arendt meant by courage as the chief virtue of politics.

First, courage is the virtue of the person who leaves the security of private life and risks death and ridicule for an idea. Who needs the headache of running for politics or sleeping out in the cold in Zuccotti Park? It is risky and time-consuming, when one could be making money, dining out, or playing with the kids. To throw oneself into the political fray takes chutzpah—and not a little courage.

But simply entering politics does not make one courageous, especially when we are speaking about those who make their living by politics. Professional politicians, lobbyists, and aides don't risk their lives and livelihood; on the contrary, politics is the means with which they secure their fortunes.

Beyond the business of politics, the courageous politician must exercise freedom—something more difficult and rare than usually imagined. Freedom, which Arendt calls the "raison d’etre of politics,” names the ability to "call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination and which, therefore, could not, strictly speaking, be known."  Freedom thus demands the courage to act without a script in ways that make others pay attention. The free act surprises; it is noticed.

What elevates such a free act to political relevance is that it not only surprises, but it also inspires. The free act (freedom and acting are synonyms for Arendt) leads others to act as well. By way of responses, the free act is talked about and turned into stories. In this way the free act re-narrates and thus re-makes our common world. That is why the free act is political and how it can change the world.

In 1946, shortly after arriving in the U.S. as a Jewish refugee from Germany, Arendt wrote, "There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom." Arendt loved America, and became a citizen eagerly. Still, she worried that the greatest threat to American freedom was the sheer size of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The scope of this country combined with the rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for freedom she saw as the potent core of American civic life. How could free acts be meaningful, and not be swallowed up by the nation's voracious appetite for the new.

Arendt's answer is that political action must be measured in terms of greatness. Not only must political action be courageous action, action in the public sphere that can either succeed or fail.  Political action must also aim at immortality. It must seek not merely to shock, but to build new stories, new institutions, and, thus, new worlds. Political leaders, Arendt argued, are those who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire the citizens to re-imagine their sense of belonging to a common people with a common purpose.

As politics becomes increasingly driven by the democratic and technocratic need to appeal to the wishes of the people, Arendt asks, how can we maintain the ideal of freedom and the possibility of leadership?  This is an especially timely question. Amidst the leaderless paralysis of our current politics, one wonders where real, unifying leaders might come from — leaders, in the words of David Foster Wallace, who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Such leaders seem unlikely to develop under the current system.

If we are to foster the kinds of leaders who might call us to our better selves, we will need to welcome those who show courage. It is too easy to tear down and criticize those who enter politics. New ideas are immediately suspect, and just as quickly shown to be self-interested and partisan. All of this is true. But we need to make room for failure in politics if we are going to find the risk-taking leaders we need.

-RB

 

19Jun/121

The Crisis of European Politics

Greece voted on Sunday and the headline account shows that the right of center moderates won. This was presented as good news, for it means a continued embrace of the Euro and years more of austerity. But there are other lessons to glean from the Greek election.

1.  Extremism is rising quickly in Greece. As the Financial Times reports,

The parliament, for the first time in Greek history, will be full of extremists. Besides the neo-nazis and a Stalinist communist party there is Syriza, whose leader is a fan of Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. How did Greece, the birthplace of democracy, come to have a parliament full of hammers, sickles and swastikas?

2. The Greeks are being asked to suffer for years more, but with little or no hope in sight. Here is what the NY Times reports today, an opinion from one of the most knowledgeable commentators on the Greek crisis:

“Greece will be forced to return to the drachma and devalue, and the default will cause bank runs and money flowing into Germany and the United States as the only viable safe haven bets,” he declared the day before Sunday’s Greek elections, irrespective of which party would win. “Greece will default because there is no other choice regardless of anyone’s politics.”

Almost all of the loans that Greece receives from Europe go directly to pay off the interest on loans to banks in Germany and elsewhere. Greece is neither paying down its debt nor investing in its future. The result is that the Greeks will suffer through years more of austerity and will likely be in no better position in a few years than they are now.

3. The combination of 1 and 2 above do not bode well for European politics in the coming years.

When Hannah Arendt looked to the Origins of Totalitarianism in the 20th century, she began her analysis with the financial speculation and subsequent crash of 1870. The ensuing crisis led to a weakening of nation-states and the rise of imperialism, all of which dissolved the traditional political and moral limits that had for centuries formed the structural foundation of European civilization.

As Europe struggles now to overcome national political limits as a response to the financial and banking crisis, it faces once again a political crisis mixed with an economic crisis. Europe is in trouble and they are not alone. But in Europe, unlike in the U.S. or in Japan, the financial crisis is inextricable from a crisis of nationalism and sovereignty. The potential for nationalist extremism on the one hand is real. On the other hand, there is also the potential for a weakening of national political traditions and the rise of technocratic and bureaucratic rule that, for all its rationalism, weakens moral and ethical restraints.

-RB

1Jun/121

The Euro-Crisis, Seyla Benhabib’s Cosmopolitanism, and Arendt’s Defense of Politics

From Athens to Madrid, the European crisis has entered yet another of its "decisive" phases —how many decisive phases can one crisis have?  Reflecting on Europe has brought to mind Seyla Benhabib's 2004 Tanner Lectures on cosmopolitan universalism, which itself was inspired by Hannah Arendt's comments on international law in the epilogue and postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe might seem to have little to do with Benhabib's discourse ethics or Arendt's affirmation of the limits of international law, but it does. Let me explain.

The debt crisis in Europe is not an economic crisis. It is a political crisis. The Euro-zone created a common currency without a common political system. This worked great for a while as countries benefitted from integration and stability of the Euro. But now that debt and recession plague Europe, indebted countries like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are losing control of their politics.

The typical response to over-indebtedness in democratic countries is to devalue one's currency. This causes massive inflation, allowing the debts to be paid. It is painful in the short term and everyone's buying power decreases and the standard of living suffers. But devaluation resets the economy and allows for growth free from the straight-jacket of debt.

It is of course possible to achieve the same effect of devaluation within the Euro zone. The Euro zone could issue Euro bonds, which would be inflationary and allow the indebted countries to pay off their Euro-debts with plentiful and cheap Euros. This is the solution that French President Francois Hollande and others are pushing.

The problem in the Euro-zone is that countries without debt problems don't want to devalue the Euro and thus lower their purchasing power. Without the political sense of a common fate, Germans do not want to suffer for the sake of the Greeks. What is more, the Germans have no faith that if they bail the Greeks out now, the Greeks will reform their profligate ways and not come back for another bailout in a few years. The result is the current crisis of austerity. Or so it seems.

Behind the scenes there is another debate that few are paying attention to. Amidst the repeated rejection of Euro bonds by Germany's leaders is the insertion of a caveat. Euro bonds would be possible if they came with treaty reform, say Germans like Joshcka Fisher and economic leaders like European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. In essence, Germany is willing to bail out Europe, but only if the countries in the Euro zone agree to give up a substantial amount of their sovereignty over economic policy. What Germany wants is for decisions about budgets and deficits and tax policy to be set by European bureaucrats not by democratically elected leaders. If the struggling Euro zone countries agree to those conditions, there is a good chance Germany will agree to bail them out with Euro bonds. And Europe will move closer to a United States of Europe, but one dominated by economic bureaucrats rather than a democratic legislature.

The connection between European politics and Hannah Arendt is important. What Germany is demanding is that Europe abandon its decentralized political control over economic matters and cede decision-making to an apolitical centralized European bureaucracy.  Behind such a desire is the subordination of politics to economics that Hannah Arendt saw as one of the defining features of the modern age.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argued that the transfer of the economic principle of unlimited growth to politics underlies imperialism. Imperialism has its economic roots in the “realm of business speculation”-specifically the bursting of an investment bubble in the 1870s. As national entrepreneurs sought new markets, they enlisted state support for economic expansion. “Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central idea of imperialism.” The rise of imperialism and the spread of economic thinking in the political sphere means, Arendt argues, that politics becomes subservient to economics.

Arendt fears the confusion of economics and politics and especially the elevation of economics over politics. Since politics demands the imposition of limits and “stabilizing forces that stand in the way of constant transformation and expansion,” she argues that imperialist expansion brought with it a grave and destabilizing threat to the political order. When politics under the sway of economic imperatives is forced to expand on the world stage, political leaders must offer ideologies that give meaning to an ever-larger, undefined, disconnected, and homeless mass, a population that replaces a citizenry. Under the economic imperatives of growth, politics becomes world politics. 

It is an open question today whether politics can return to a political activity that sets moral, ethical, and economic limits on human action. The reason is that we are increasingly suspicious of action, which is, by its nature, free, spontaneous, surprising and unpredictable. Whether we are Germans seeking economic stability, Americans demanding that the Federal government limit the states in their right to deliver (or not deliver) education or healthcare, or human rights activists insisting that individual states conform to international cosmopolitan norms of behavior, the liberal and centralizing demand that people behave well according to cosmopolitan standards rubs against Arendt's democratic insistence that politics must leave space for local, bounded, and undisciplined action.

And here we can return to Seyla Benhabib's call in her Tanner lectures for a new cosmopolitan universalism. Benhabib has initiated an important engagement with Arendt and human rights, one that embraces Arendt's formulation of a "right to have rights" but also resists Arendt's efforts to limit the scope of that universal right. We should all be grateful for the clear-sighted way Benhabib raises this crucial question.

Arendt seeks her bearings in reformulating human rights from her experiences of the Jews and other minority peoples during and preceding the holocaust. The true “calamity of the rightless” in the middle of the 20th century, Arendt writes, is “not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion... but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever.”  Human rights reflect the legalized exclusion of human beings from civilized communities and these human rights are “much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are the rights of citizens.” The rights of man, in other words, are not revealed by the deprivation of specific rights, but by the plight of those who are expelled from all rights; the truly rightless are those who are so oppressed that they are deprived of legal status so that no one will even oppress them. It is this total deprivation of rights that makes manifest the one truly human right, what Arendt calls the “right to have rights.”

In thinking about Arendt's enigmatic formula, Benhabib has worried that Arendt simply does not offer a full and philosophical elucidation of the right to have rights. The "right to have rights" partakes of a "philosophical perplexity"; to invoke the "right to have rights" is to give certain rights "a binding power over and beyond the moral obligation that they impose on moral agents." The rights in the "right to have rights" are not mere "oughts," but are universal, cosmopolitan norms. Or at least that is what Benhabib wants to argue, with and against Arendt.

If Arendt remained suspicious of international norms that would be applied in international courts, Benhabib argues that the last 50 years have witnessed an "evolution of global civil society that is characterized by a transition from international to cosmopolitan norms of justice." She embraces the term "cosmopolitanism," which she argues has rightly become one of the key words of our time. What cosmopolitanism means, for Benhabib, is the "carrying of universalistic norms" of a common truth that is inter-subjective rather than metaphysical. In short, Benhabib argues that cosmopolitan norms are emerging in our times that give basic human rights to individuals and can even bind state actors.

Benhabib’s interpretation of the "right to have rights" is appealing, especially in the face of, for example, the ongoing inhumane treatment of Shiites in Syria. Yet, as Benhabib herself recognizes, her reading complicates Arendt’s hard-minded characterization of the right to have rights as “a right to belong to some kind of community.” Arendt means the right “to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions.” In doing so, Arendt excludes the traditional civil rights of life and liberty that Benhabib wants to read into Arendt’s formula. Arendt is careful to distinguish human rights to the rights to be treated humanely that Benhabib seeks to encode in a newly emerging cosmopolitan institutionalization of human rights.  For reasons at the core of Arendt’s thinking, Arendt clearly limits the right to have rights and thus human rights to only two rights, the right to act and the right to speak.

The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.”  Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act—to be effectual and meaningful in a public world—that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.

Benhabib has good reasons to want to expand the cosmopolitan basis of Arendt's "right to have rights." It is important to see, however, that the desire to strengthen a cosmopolitan foundation for human rights places stability and security above action in much the same as the present German desire to subordinate Greeks and Spaniards to a pan-European regime of responsible citizenship. Both are motivated by a desire for security, stability, and standards. And both elevate the institutional application of cosmopolitan universal norms (economic norms in Europe, human rights norms internationally) over the messiness of local political action.

At a time of economic crisis and humanitarian crises, the great uncertainty of our world will militate toward ever more centralization and thus ever less space for action. Benhabib is certainly alive to these tensions and has answers to many of them. You can read her account here. It is your weekend read.