Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 11/22/15


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.

amor_mundi_sign-upHome Away From Home

yale protestsJeannie Suk notices that the student protests that erupted last week at Yale, Mizzou, and elsewhere mobilize the rhetoric of home and the family: "Particularly in the way things have unfolded at Yale, students' social-justice activism has been expressed, in part, as the need for care from authority figures. When they experience the hurt that motivates them to political action, they're deeply disappointed with parental surrogates for not responding adequately or quickly enough to support and nurture them. The world in which it's not bizarre for a young person to rebuke someone for failing to 'create a place of comfort and home,' or to yell, 'Be quiet ... You're disgusting!,' and storm away, is the world of family, where a child in pain desperately desires empathy and understanding from a parent. The online scorn heaped on the student who was filmed behaving this way represents an unproductive refusal to compassionately translate her behavior across the generational divide. In a piece called 'Hurt at Home,' another Yale student wrote, 'I feel my home is being threatened,' and contrasted her comforting relationship with her father to the care she felt students emphatically did not receive from the master of Silliman College. Yale tells its students that the residential college is their 'home away from home,' but this generation might be the first to insist so literally on that idea.... The president of Claremont McKenna College--which has recently seen racial-bias protests, hunger strikes, and a high administrator's resignation--wrote in an e-mail to the community that one role of higher education is to 'provide a very special home for our students as a bridge from their families to the truly adult and independent world.' This formulation is particularly poignant at a time when material independence will be elusive for many college students, who are coming of age during a recession, with onerous debt, and may actually go home to their parents for much of their twenties in order to make ends meet. In the midst of the developing story on campus activism, the horror of mass violence in Paris wrought by ISIS brought us back to our experience of the September 11th attacks, an event seared into the child psyches of current college students, and sufficient to have robbed them of the basic sense of safety that my generation enjoyed. The students' preoccupation with safe spaces and the comfort of home seems a plausible manifestation of the profound lack of security--from violence to financial insolvency--that their generation faces. No wonder that their calls for social justice return to the talisman of safety and care of parental figures." 

This isn't the first time that metaphors of home have been marshaled as pleas for safety in a suddenly dangerous world. They appeared during the Cold War, when the suburbs turned into a refuge for white families attempting to protect themselves in a homogenized home from the dual threats of Communism and the atomic bomb. The family and social formations encouraged by those metaphors led to an infamously flat and seemingly conformist culture, which led to the countercultural spasms of the 1960s and in turn to the conservative revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, which also mobilized home and family as symbols of a time when the world seemed a little safer, that is, somewhat ironically, than the 1950s. In both cases, the symbolism of the home was used to protect the private lives of white people. 

In her essay "What Is Freedom," Arendt writes that "the public realm stands in the starkest possible contrast to our private domain, where, in the protection of family and home, everything serves or must serve the security of the life process." Similarly, Richard Rodriguez in his book Hunger of Memory distinguishes the intimacy and safety of the home life of a young Latino immigrant from the publicity and challenges of life at school. As Rodriguez argued at his talk during the 2013 Arendt Center conference "Failing Fast," becoming a citizen means learning to switch between the two worlds of home and public life; it means acquiring a public self. One important role of higher education is to give students the experience of living away from home, in public, where they can experiment with and learn to assume their public personas. That college, which constitutes a time for taking chances, also means that it is a moment of failure and danger. This has always been the case, but it is also true that students today negotiate a more complicated world of class, race, religion, and gender than students of any prior generation. So many college students now find themselves without safe homes and private places to which they can retreat at moments of crisis. More students at colleges and universities are from diverse and insular communities than ever before. Thrust from their often-sheltered lives, students now must negotiate public interactions with people whose opinions they have never before encountered and that they frequently find threatening. And in college dorms teeming with sometimes obnoxious students eager to try out new ideas, tensions can rise. 

No one can live in public all the time, and all of us need moments alone where we can, in private, collect ourselves and steel ourselves for the courage public life demands. At a time when the security of a private space is fleeting for so many young people, colleges and universities have added layers of student deans and counselors to help students through emotional, racial, and sexual crises. Students now call upon and depend on the very administrators for help whom they criticize and protest against. In such a situation, the danger lies less with students and more with administrators who, in the name of consumerism and motivated by an aversion to risk, are creating policies and procedures that shut down the vibrancy of the student experience. Some students may demand trigger warnings, disciplinary procedures, and censorship. That is part of the experience of being young and experimenting with new and powerful if also dangerous ideas. We shouldn't blame students for speaking and trying out new ideas. The fault, if there is one, is with administrators who accede to these demands. --RB (with assistance from JK)

Save the date for the Hannah Arendt Center's 2016 conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus." October 20-21, 2016.

The Challenge of Unmediated Media

jonathan hollowayIn the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb interviews Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway. Cobb: "There have been people who look at this situation and say, 'These students, who are at one of the most élite institutions in the United States and are reacting in this way, they are coddled and thin-skinned and they should just maybe toughen up. That's the biggest thing they need to do." Holloway: "I understand that. This is not just a black problem or a brown problem or a women's problem or whatever. We are seeing a generation of students, and I don't know why, who do seem less resilient than in the past. I think part of it is that things aren't mediated like they have been in the past. You don't have the luxury of sitting down and pondering what somebody just said, because you're too busy putting it into a Tweet and saying, 'This is an outrage.' There's no mediation of ideas. It's all off the top of my head and it's pain, in this case. I think that, because people are not getting enough sleep, and these things just keep on, Tweets keep coming in, that they are not equipped properly to process it all. I think that's a major part of it. The other part is that students have been struggling at Yale for a long time, and at similar institutions. The administrations were not set up even to care about them. It's not just that maybe students are less resilient, it's that the administrations actually are doing more work to identify people who are struggling. In a different era, if you had a drinking problem, there's a nod and a wink, and that's just the way Buster behaved. Now we understand women's side, that this thing is a real problem, and, hey, wait a second, this guy drinks and he sexually assaults somebody. We've got to deal with that. You build up an apparatus to deal with people in crisis, and it actually helps us understand that--you know what?--more people are in crisis than we actually thought. I think these things go hand in hand, and I don't think anybody's really figured it out. We can claim we figured it out, but I think no one's got the patent on that one yet. I think I've said it, but I've actually been buoyed in the last couple days, because I've seen the Yale that I believe is normal--a really smart school confronting a problem and trying in a creative way to solve it together. That sounds like an advertisement but I actually believe that it operates that way. People are being increasingly willing to presume good faith on someone else's behalf instead of just being negative. It's as simple as that. Time will tell where this all shakes out, but I am cautiously optimistic that we are moving to a different place here. Hell, I've been wrong three or four times already this week, so who knows?"

Snowden Against Sousveillance

snowden sousveillanceAmong the many accounts of Edward Snowden's recent talk at the Hannah Arendt Center's conference "Why Privacy Matters," Ruth Starkman's essay in the LA Review of Books stands out for raising the wide range of issues discussed, including some of the more controversial. For example, Starkman focuses on Snowden's somewhat unpopular (at least at Bard) rejection of sousveillance as a response to surveillance. Sousveillance means to observe from below as opposed to the observation from above, that is, surveillance. "Indeed, Snowden flung the doors wide open on public discussions of privacy and the internet. His legacy was clear at the Bard College 'Why Privacy Matters' conference, which featured prominent speakers whose careers have one way or another been shaped by Snowden, including Ben Wizner. Senior editor from The Intercept Peter Maass interviewed Snowden. Fritz Schwarz of the historic Church Commission took student questions about information before and after 9/11. Kate Crawford asked questions about the sort of ethical education computer science students should receive. Jeremy Waldron argued for 'an accountable, open' surveillance, which allows people to talk back to and cooperate with government agencies. Astrophysicist and sci-fi author David Brin took the radical position that students and the general public at large should fight surveillance with their own cameras, as people have in the Black Lives Matter movement. Brin describes this kind of grassroots, defensive surveillance as 'sousveillance.' Sousveillance appeals to students of all stripes. In fact, when the Bard College Debate Union invited the West Point Debate Society to debate the question of surveillance, both sides argued that surveillance could become an instrument of the public as well as the government, and could protect 'black and brown bodies, the LBGTQ community and other vulnerable populations.' West Point debaters on both sides of the debate reminded the audience that this debate was purely educational and did not reflect the opinions of the United States or its military. Snowden disagrees with sousveillance: 'We don't need a surveillance arms race; we need to protect individual privacy.' Bard students defended grassroots public surveillance as a tactic against the elite (an elite to which institutions like Bard, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton also belong). Snowden didn't budge much here."

Unintended Consequences

borderAlfredo Corchado in The New Yorker cites Hannah Arendt Center Fellow Natalia Mendoza as a means to explore the unexpected consequences of beefed up security at the U.S.-Mexican border. "Like many other policies from Washington, this one had unintended consequences. The anthropologist Natalia Mendoza, a fellow at Bard College, observes that, because of greater border securitization, 'the cost of smuggling has increased to a point that smugglers can no longer be independent.' That is, as small, autonomous, local 'mom and pop' smuggling became more expensive and difficult, bigger, more structured, and violent organizations took over. Common-use crossing points, for instance, were now 'privatized' by criminal networks able to keep their operations going, absorb the rising costs, and still make a profit. Hence, groups of smugglers who used to work on their own or as subcontractors for different bosses were either pushed out of business or forced to join a larger cartel. Even if unanticipated, this process of criminal professionalization was a perfectly rational result of border security acquiring 'industrial' proportions: with the post-9/11 clampdown, the business of drug smuggling consolidated. The old and close-knit communities along the border never prevented drug trafficking or illegal crossing. Yet they used to function as a sort of social-control mechanism that kept drug-related violence relatively under check. People knew one another; they kept an eye on things. Suddenly, though, fear and hardened policies broke those bonds. Border communities started resembling ghost towns. The result was a surge of violence in Mexico, as cartels fought to establish dominance over important drug-shipping routes. According to estimates, the drug trade makes up between half a per cent and four per cent of Mexico's $1.2 trillion annual G.D.P.--totaling between about six billion dollars and forty billion dollars--and employs at least half a million people. Contraband U.S. guns that are trafficked into Mexico facilitate the drug traffickers' work. Around two hundred and fifty thousand firearms are purchased each year to be trafficked, and U.S. and Mexican authorities are seizing only about fifteen per cent of them, according to a study by the University of San Diego and Igarapé Institute."


japanese internmentSeeking a way through the questions, the grandstanding about whether or not the United States should accept Syrian refugees following last week's attack in Paris, Matt Ford suggests that we look back to the internment of Japanese residents and citizens during WWII, as well as the Supreme Court case, Korematsu v. United States, that upheld that policy: "The Supreme Court has never overturned Korematsu, largely because federal and state governments have not attempted the mass internment of an entire ethnic group since then. But the decision belongs to what legal scholars describe as the anti-canon of American constitutional law--a small group of Supreme Court rulings universally assailed as wrong, immoral, and unconstitutional. Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Buck v. Bell, and Korematsu form the anti-canon's core; legal scholars sometimes include other decisions as well. Korematsu's place in that grim pantheon is well-earned. Courts apply strict scrutiny, the highest level of review, when weighing laws or policies that discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, or alienage. Korematsu was the standard's first application; it was also the last time it failed to protect the group in question. 'There is only one situation in which the Court expressly upheld racial classifications burdening minorities: the rulings affirming the constitutionality of the evacuations of Japanese-Americans during World War II,' wrote Erwin Chemerinsky, a UC Irvine law professor and prominent scholar of constitutional law. 'No evidence of a specific threat was required to evacuate and intern a person. Race alone was used to determine who would be uprooted and incarcerated and who would remain free.'... Expelling all Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast would have seemed unthinkable in 1940. Then came the fear and paranoia that pervaded cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco after Pearl Harbor. Frenzied reports of Japanese submarines off Oregon and saboteurs in California fueled a climate in which extreme constitutional violations towards an unpopular few seemed reasonable to a fearful many. Korematsu is a reminder that, in times of crisis, there will always be an unpopular minority to fear and opportunistic demagogues to demonize them. But central to the Bill of Rights' purpose is the protection of the few from the cruelty of the many, no matter who that few or many may be."

A Lesson in Courage

syrian refugeesPhil Klay, a decorated Marine and winner of the National Book Award, engaged the debate over refugees in a series of twelve tweets. Here are a few: "3. The Marine hymn claims that Marines are the 'first to fight for right and freedom and to keep our honor clean.'--Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015. 4. You're not supposed to risk your life just for the physical safety of American citizens--Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015. 5. You're supposed to risk your life for American ideals as well.... 11. Millions of pilgrims are hurtling through the darkness, but it's Germany that has recently been the beacon standing strong and true. Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015."

The Risk It May Be Boring

homerIn the NY Times Magazine, Arendt Center Senior Fellow Wyatt Mason recommends Christopher Logue's half-completed and finally posthumously published translations of Homer's Iliad. "'I find it boring,' Logue said to a friend, Doris Lessing, about Homer's epic, echoing a feeling that I--and perhaps you, too--have had upon trying to read any of the translations we've endured in school: I'm looking at you, Richmond Lattimore! 'Professor Lattimore adheres to the literal at times as stubbornly as a mule eating briars,' wrote the Thoreauvianly literate American critic Guy Davenport in his great 'The Geography of the Imagination.' Lattimore's literality--English words arranged in Greek syntax--produces a language that is barely English, let alone representative of Homer's poetry. 'One can say in this language,' Davenport explains, quoting Lattimore, 'such things as "slept in that place in an exhaustion of sleep" (for Homer's "aching with fatigue and weary for lack of sleep") and "the shining clothes are lying away uncared for" (for "your laundry is tossed in a heap waiting to be washed").' Carne-Ross, who was commissioning his new 'Iliad' to evade translatorese, wouldn't accept Logue's demurral. He, too, found many translations of Homer--Lattimore's especially--boring and had the Greek to back it up. He also had a plan for how Logue could manage the impossible task of translating a language he did not know. 'I will make you a crib,' Carne-Ross told Logue. A crib: a word-for-word translation of the Greek for Logue to work from. Carne-Ross also read the Greek aloud to Logue, to give him a sense of how it felt. Logue quickly discovered that there was nothing boring about Homer, only the risk of translating Homer into something boring."


dying comicJared Gardner suggests that comics may be a form particularly suited for describing illness: "As the authors behind the Graphic Medicine Manifesto argue, the comics form that emerged simultaneously with the new imaging technologies at the end of the 19th century was in the 20th the constant subject of experiments in the relationship between two semantic systems--word and image--as they collaborated and competed to convey meaning. The highly charged relationship wherein neither text nor image conveys the truth but together succeed in saying something more true than either could individually has been termed 'the vital blend' by Robert C. Harvey. This blend extends further to the relationship between creator and reader, who must, as Scott McCloud and others have argued, collaborate at every turn to make meaning by filling in the gaps of what this highly elliptical and fragmentary form necessarily leaves unwritten and undrawn. Arguably more than any other narrative form, comics have always wrestled with the challenges of making meaning out of competing systems and storytellers, yielding something different--and, when it is done right, better--than either could tell alone. And here is where comics can come to the rescue of medicine, as they did for this patient and for so many others over the last generation, modeling generative collaborations between image and text, data and narrative, creator and reader, and doctor and patient in the face of experiences seemingly impossible to relate. Graphic autobiography was born with an illness narrative--Justin Green's Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972), about debilitating OCD--but it was not until the 1990s that illness memoirs began truly to proliferate in comics, with such seminal texts as Al Davison's The Spiral Cage (spina bifida) and Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's Our Cancer Year (testicular cancer and chemotherapy). In the 21st century, narratives about mental and physical illness have emerged as the dominant form of nonfiction comics."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #15

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm



images of surveillanceImages of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies

Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, will be a participant at the interdisciplinary symposium: Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies. The symposium is presented by the Goethe-Institut in New York, NY December 4-6, 2015.

The symposium will combine lectures, panel discussion, artist talks, and presentations to explore the topic in its various political, economic, and aethetic dimensions and open new ways to think about surveillance in the 21st century. At the heart of Images of Surveillance is the recognition that surveillance as object of study is far too complex to be grasped from any single point of view and thus requires us to combine multiple perspectives into a fuller picture of what surveillance might be. Such an approach rejects both disciplinary boundaries and post-modern indeterminacy in favor of a concerted effort to create overlaps and conceptual chains across a wide variety of practices and discourses.

To learn more about the symposium, schedule, and participants visit goethe.de/ny/sensitivedata.

Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 6, 2015

Goethe Institut, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Stefanie Rosenmüller discusses how Arendt scarcely addressed distributive justice but how her reasoning could nonetheless augment that of Martha Nussbaum, who criticized the liberal model of John Rawls, in the Quote of the Week. Albert Camus discusses the responsibility of thinking people in a world of victims and executioners in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to E. P. Thompson's "The Making of the English Working Class" in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Reflections on an Inaugural Address


I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.

The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.

In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:

 Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.  We affirm the promise of our democracy.  We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.  What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.

Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.

When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal.  This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?

And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements.  Well here is what he said:

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time.  So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.  But while the means will change, our purpose endures:  a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.  That is what this moment requires.  That is what will give real meaning to our creed.   We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.)  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”  Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?

More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.

Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.

That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.

The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.

The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.