Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
22Jan/130

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.

-RB

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.
2Mar/121

Nothing is Really Free

The copyright conflict between the internet community and the entertainment industry escalated recently when some of the most visited sites on the web flexed their muscle by spearheading a campaign to kill the two bills which started the trouble. The bills have been shelved, thanks to the participation of most of the major social media websites and search engines in a twenty-four-hour blackout (including Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, Tumblr, Mozilla, among many others) – but what does such a “victory” mean?

Just days after most support had been pulled from the bills in both houses, the founder of file-sharing site Megaupload, Kim Dotcom (born Kim Schmitz, but had his name legally changed around 2005), was arrested in New Zealand and is facing extradition to the US due to alleged piracy charges, along with at least three of his closest associates. This may come as a surprise to those who argued that these bills were necessary to stop intellectual property theft. As Bill Keller explains in a recent Op-Ed piece in the Times, “The central purpose of the legislation — rather lost in the rhetorical cross fire and press coverage — was to extend the copyright laws that already protect content creators in the U.S. to offshore havens where the most egregious pirates have set up shop.” And yet, even without the new laws, Dotcom and his cohorts were arrested on US government orders.

It is helpful to go back to basics and try to understand the thinking behind the protection of intellectual property. Why, in other words, is it necessary to arrest someone like Dotcom, who merely makes content available to a wide and interested audience?

One attempt to answer that question is Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism, an impassioned, literary, and philosophical defense of copyright on the internet. Known best for his novels, most memorably Winter's Tale, Helprin puts forth a philosophical and humanist argument in favor of copyright. At root, copyright is necessary as the “guarantor” or “coefficient” of liberty itself.

That property is at the essence of liberty is an idea that has its roots deep in liberal thinking. Property, from the root proper or propriety, is what is right and most my own. Who I am includes the character I possess, what defines me. This includes as well the way I live and the things I choose to own. Ownership, in other words, concerns what is my own, and who I am.

Our love for and defense for our property is not simply economic. It is a matter of identity and existence. Pace Helprin:

Property is to be defended proudly rather than disavowed with shame. Even if for some it is only a matter of luck or birth, for the vast majority it is the store of sacrifice, time, effort, and even, sometimes, love. It is, despite the privileged inexperience of some who do not understand, an all-too-accurate index of liberty and life. To trifle with it is to trifle with someone's existence, and as anyone who tries will find out, this is not so easy. Nor has it ever been. Nor should it ever be.

The copyright battle is less about economics, in Helprin's telling, than about freedom.  Unlike some proponents of free market ideology, he does not advocate the absence of limits on freedom. In his words (which remind us of Helprin's artistry):

Nothing is entirely free, not even an electron (hardly an electron) or an atom floating in the inaccurately named vacuum of space. Everything that exists is subject to the pull or constraint of something else.

The point is not to reject all limits on property, but to insist upon a balance—one that Helprin thinks today is too far weighted toward disrespect for property.

He makes his argument in the context of taxation. Opposing both extreme positions of liberals (who find it cruel and inexplicable that someone would want to set limits before every mouth is fed and every cry comforted") and conservatives (who "find it deeply alarming that anyone can fail to recognize the danger of pressing ahead in the absence of limits"), Helprin insists that we at least honestly recognize that taxation has a non-material cost: taxation, to some extent, "extinguishes liberty."

In other words, taking someone's property is, in itself, wrong. There may be reason's do to so, and there is no absolute right to one's property. Society demands limits and some takings. But such decisions should be made with an appreciation that these takings are meaningful intrusions on individual liberty. This is Helprin's core point and it is one that I believe is rarely made and even more rarely considered.

To illustrate his claim about the imposition involved in all takings, Helprin calls on the common (and these days volatile) theme of income tax. Taxes, while necessary, are infringements on freedom (not simply on income). If the state compels Cyril “to surrender half his income” in an effort to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves, then Cyril is “laboring for the state during half his working life,” and not for himself. Helprin likens such disenfranchisement to slavery. This seems excessive. As far as I can tell, Helprin employs the analogy because he wants to shock us into seeing just how we have come to naturally accept the fact that it is normal for the majority to take property from the minority. In his account, just as the slave owner “presumes that the labor of his slaves belongs to him…that whatever they make is rightfully his,” so does the state, when it requires its citizens to pay a tax on the income generated by their own labor, operate under the assumption that it is entitled to decide the ultimate use of such labor.

The comparison of taxation to slavery is over the top, sure. But there is a point Helprin makes that is important:

Anyone who blithely recommends expropriation as a means of "economic justice" should first divest himself of most of what he has and give it to those who have less — and there are certain to be those who have less and are greatly afflicted for it. We tend to look up rather than at ourselves when surrendering to such passions of righteousness. The assault on copyright is a species of this, based on the infantile presumption that a feeling of justice and indignation gives one a right to the work, property, and time (those are very often significantly equivalent) of others, and that this, whether harbored at the ready or expressed in action, is noble and fair.

Which is why the question of Kim Dotcom’s arrest is central. According to Helprin’s explanation, Dotcom's websites and others like them blithely engage not just in economic exploitation of writers and artists, but do so without seriously considering the injustice involved in their depriving others of their sense of ownership in what they create. One can disagree. To do so, you must think that our societal right to read your essay or hear your song trumps your right to sell that song (or not) to whomever you wish.

For your weekend read, buy a copy of Helprin's Digital Barbarism, and give it a read. Or, read a chapter that Helprin has, freely, made available on the web.

-RB

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.
18Feb/120

The Commonality of Occupy Wall Street & the Tea Party

Are the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street part of the same phenomenon? Both are populist responses to increasingly out of touch political, business, and intellectual elites. Many on the left point out that the Tea Party is predominantly white and older. That is true. And yet these privileged, older, white people feel they are losing control of their country. They are resentful. Many on the right point out that the Occupy Wall Street movement is largely made up of privileged liberal arts graduates. They are right. But these graduates have been sold a false bill of goods, told that their gold-plated educations would guarantee them the ability to live well while doing what they want. They see their colleagues working on Wall Street making millions in questionable ways. They are also resentful.

Beyond resentment, both sides also can articulate claims of justice. For Tea Partiers, the coddling of illegal immigrants has become a defining issue of the unwillingness of the elite to enforce the law. For Occupiers, the extraordinary wealth of the upper 1% (actually, the top .5%) is a rallying cry that something truly is wrong with our political system.

This week in the New York Review of Books, Sam Tanenhaus takes a closer look at the Tea Party phenomenon and its influence on Republican politics. One surprising conclusion is that the Tea Party is not the force that is driving Republicans to their most conservative and right wing positions.  On the contrary, Tanenhaus portrays the Tea Partiers as more moderate than extremist:

In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, Harvard scholars who have interviewed adherents of the new insurgency in different regions of the country, report that

fully 83% of South Dakota Tea Party supporters said they would prefer to “leave alone” or “increase” Social Security benefits, while 78% opposed cuts to Medicare prescription drug coverage, and 79% opposed cuts in Medicare payments to physicians and hospitals…. 56% of the Tea Party supporters surveyed did express support for “raising income taxes by 5% for everyone whose income is over a million dollars a year.”

These views, which are aligned with those of moderate Republicans and Democrats, corroborate the findings in a 2010 New York Times poll of Tea Partiers, which concluded: “Despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers.”

The Tea Party that Tanenhaus describes is one that overwhelmingly wants to preserve social security and Medicare, two programs that are often targeted angrily by Republican politicians. While the Tea Party activists are eager to shrink government, they do not seem to welcome an decimation of the welfare state. 

What unites the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movement is a conviction that America is abandoning its exceptional history as a land of freedom, law, and equality. For the Tea Party, we are experiencing a cultural decline, one epitomized by illegal immigration and welfare—two issues that have been wrongly painted in overly racial hues. For Occupy Wall Street, the decline is imagined as a takeover by the rich of an American meritocracy and also of our democratic politics—although often forgotten is the fact that the wealthy are neither homogeneous nor exclusively conservative.

What the Tea Party represents is the latest version of a long-standing conservative insurgency in the United States, a movement that has wielded influence but never had the votes or power to dominate the Republican party or the country. Occupy Wall Street offers a new force in recent American Politics, a left-wing insurgency. As such, it has much to learn from and even work with in the Tea Party. One might begin by thinking more deeply about the place of the Tea Party in American politics, and for that there are few better places to begin that Tanenhaus' essay.  Enjoy it for this weekend's Weekend Read.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".