After months in which university after university signed on to the bandwagon for Massive Open Online Courses called MOOCs, the battle over the future of education has finally begun. This week Duke University pulled out of EdX, the Harvard/MIT led consortium of Massive Open Online Courses called MOOC’s.
The reason: Its faculty rebelled. According to The New York Times,
While [Duke provost Peter] Lange saw the consortium as expanding the courses available to Duke students, some faculty members worried that the long-term effect might be for the university to offer fewer courses — and hire fewer professors. Others said there had been inadequate consultation with the faculty.
The Times also reports that faculty at Amherst College, my alma mater and former employer, voted against joining EdX. Again, the faculty saw danger. My former colleagues worried that the introduction of online courses would detrimentally impact the quality and spirit of education and the small liberal arts college. They also, as our friends over at ViaMeadia report, worried that MOOCs would “take student tuition dollars away from so-called middle-tier and lower-tier” schools, pushing their colleagues at these institutions out of their jobs.
And that brings us to ground zero of the battle between the faculty and the MOOCs: San Jose State University. San Jose State has jumped out as a leader in the use of blended online and offline courses. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the university's president, has defended his embrace of online curricula on both educational and financial grounds. He points to one course, "Circuits & Electronics," offered by EdX. In a pilot program, students in that course did better than students in similar real-world courses taught by San Jose State professors. Where nearly 40% of San Jose students taking their traditional course received a C or lower, only 9% of students taking the EdX course did. For Qayoumi and others, such studies offer compelling grounds for integrating MOOCs into the curriculum. The buzzword is “blended courses,” in which the MOOCs are used in conjunction with faculty tutors. In this “flipped classroom,” the old model in which students listen to lectures in lecture halls and then do assignments at home, is replaced by online lectures supplemented by discussions and exercises done in class with professors. As I have written, such a model can be pedagogically powerful, if done right.
But as attractive as MOOCs may be, they carry with them real dangers. And these dangers emerge front and center in the hard-hitting Open Letter that the philosophy department at San Jose State University has published addressed to Michael Sandel. Sandel is the Harvard Professor famous for his popular and excellent course “Justice,” that has been wowing and provoking Harvard undergraduates for decades. Sandel not only teaches his course, he has branded it. He sells videos of the course; he published a book called Justice based on the course, and, most recently, created an online video version of the course for EdX. San Jose State recently became one of the first public universities in the country to sign a contract paying for the use of EdX courses. This is what led to the letter from the philosophers.
The letter begins by laying out the clear issue. The San Jose Philosophy department has professors who can teach courses in justice and ethics of the kind Sandel teaches. From their point of view, “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course.” In short, while some students may prefer a course with a famous Harvard professor, the faculty at San Jose State believe that they are qualified to teach about Justice.
Given their qualifications, the philosophy professors conclude that the real reason for the contract with EdX is not increased educational value, but simply cost. As they write: "We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours.
In short, the faculty sees the writing on the wall. Whatever boilerplate rhetoric about blended courses and educational benefit may be fashionable and necessary, the real issue is simple. Public universities (and many private ones as well) will not keep paying the salaries of professors when those professors are not needed.
While for now professors are kept on to teach courses in a blended classroom, there will soon be need for many fewer professors. As students take Professor Sandel’s class at universities around the country, they will eventually work with teaching assistants—just as students do at Harvard, where Professor Sandel has pitifully little interaction with his hundreds of students in every class. These teaching assistants make little money, significantly less than a tenured or even a non-tenured professor. It is only a matter of time before many university classes are taught virtually by superstar professors assisted by armies of low-paid onsite assistants. State universities will then be able to educate significantly more students at a fraction of the current cost. For many students this will be a great boon—a certified and possibly quality education at a cheap price. For most California voters, this is a good deal. But it is precisely what the faculty at San Jose State fear. As they write:
We believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy, but by an effort to restructure the U.S. university system in general, and our own California State University system in particular. If the concern were pedagogically motivated, we would expect faculty to be consulted and to monitor quality control. On the other hand, when change is financially driven and involves a compromise of quality it is done quickly, without consulting faculty or curriculum committees, and behind closed doors. This is essentially what happened with SJSU's contract with edX. At a press conference (April 10, 2013 at SJSU) announcing the signing of the contract with edX, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged as much: "The old education financing model, frankly, is no longer sustainable." This is the crux of the problem. It is time to stop masking the real issue of MOOCs and blended courses behind empty rhetoric about a new generation and a new world. The purchasing of MOOCs and blended courses from outside vendors is the first step toward restructuring the CSU.
The San Jose State philosophy professors are undoubtedly correct. We are facing a systematic transformation in higher education in this country and also in secondary education as well. Just as the Internet has revolutionized journalism and just as it is now shaking the foundations of medicine and law, the Internet will not leave education alone. Change seems nigh. Part of this change is being driven by cost. Some of it is also being driven by the failures and perceived failures of our current system. The question for those of us in the world of higher education is whether we can respond intelligently to save the good and change out the bad. It is time that faculties around the country focus on this question and for that we should all be thankful to the philosophy professors at San Jose State.
The Open Letter offers three main points to argue that it is bad pedagogy to replace them with the blended course model of MOOCs and teaching assistants.
First, they argue that good teaching requires professors engaged in research. When professors are engaged in active research programs, they are interested in and motivated by their fields. Students can perceive if a professor is bored with a class and students will always learn more and be driven to study and excel by professors who feel that their work matters. Some may wonder what the use of research is that is read by only a few colleagues around the world, but one answer is that such research is necessary to keep professors fresh and sharp. We all know the sad fate of professors who have disengaged from research.
Second, the philosophy professors accept the argument of many including myself that large lectures are not the best way to teach. They teach by the Socratic method, interacting with students. Such classes, they write, are much better than having students watch Professor Sandel engage Socratically with faculty at Harvard. Of course, the MOOC model would still allow for Socratic and personal engagement, just by much lower paid purveyors of the craft. The unanswered question is whether low-paid assistants can be trained to teach well. The answer may well be yes.
Third, the philosophy faculty worry about the exact same moral justice course being taught across the country. We can already see the disciplinary barricades being drawn. It may be one thing to teach Math to the whole country from one or two MOOCs, but philosophy needs multiple perspectives. But how many? The philosophy professors suggest that their highly diverse and often lower-middle-class students have different experiences and references than do Professor Sandel’s Harvard students. They can, in the classroom, better connect with these students than Professor Sandel via online lectures.
The points the San Jose State philosophy professors raise are important. In many ways, however, their letter misses the point. Our educational system is now structured on a few questionable premises. First, that everyone who attends college wants a liberal arts education. That is simply not true. Many students simply want a credential to get a job. If these students can be taught well and more cheaply, we should help them. There is a question of whether we need to offer everyone the same kind of highly personalized and expensive education. While such arguments will be lambasted as elitist, it is nevertheless true that not everyone wants or needs to read Kant closely. We should seek to protect the ability of those who do—no matter their economic class—and also allow those who don’t a more efficient path through school.
A second questionable premise is that specialization is necessary to be a good teacher. This also is false. Too much specialization removes one from the world of common sense. As I have argued before, we need professors who are educated more generally. It is important to learn about Shakespeare and Aristotle, but you don’t need to be a specialist in Shakespeare or Aristotle to teach them well and thoughtfully to undergraduates. This is not an argument against the Ph.D. It is important to study and learn an intellectual tradition if you are going to teach. But it is an argument against the professionalization of the Ph.D. and of graduate education in general. It is also an argument against the dominance of undergraduate curriculum by professionalized scholars.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the premise that everyone needs to go to college. If we put a fraction of the resources we currently spend on remedial education for college students back into public high schools in this country, we could begin the process of transforming high school into a serious and meaningful activity. For one thing, we could begin employing Ph.D.s as high school teachers as are many of the emerging early colleges opening around the country.
I am sympathetic to the philosophy professors at San Jose State. I too teach a course on Justice called “The Foundation of Law: The Quest for Justice.” It is a course quite similar and yet meaningfully different from Michael Sandel’s course on Justice. I believe it is better, no offense meant. And I would be upset if I were told next year that instead of teaching my course I would be in effect a glorified TA for Professor Sandel. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I know it might.
The only response for those whose jobs are being replaced by computers or the Internet is to go out and figure out how to do it better. That is what happened to journalists who were fired in droves. Many quit voluntarily and began developing new models of journalism, including blogs that have enriched our public discourse and largely rejuvenated public journalism in this country. Blogs, of course, are not perfect, and there is the question of how to make a living writing one. But enterprising bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Walter Russell Mead are figuring that out. So too are professors like Michael Sandel and Andrew Ng.
We need educators to become experimental these days, to create small schools and intensive curricula within larger institutions that make the most of the personal interaction that is the core of true pedagogy. If that happens, and if teachers offer meaningful education for which students or our taxpayers will pay, then our jobs will be safe. And our students will be better for it. For this reason, we should welcome the technology as a push to make ourselves better teachers.
The Open Letter to Michael Sandel deserves a response. I hope Professor Sandel offers one. Until then, I recommend that this beautiful Spring weekend you read the letter from the San Jose State Philosophy Department. It is your weekend read.
You know elite universities are in trouble when their professors say things like Edward Rock. Rock, Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and coordinator of Penn’s online education program, has this to say about the impending revolution in online education:
We’re in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge. And in 2012, the internet is an incredibly important place to be present if you’re in the knowledge dissemination business.
If elite colleges are in the knowledge dissemination business, then they will overtime be increasingly devalued and made less relevant. What colleges and universities need to offer is not simply knowledge, but education.
In 1947, at the age of 18, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a short essay in the The Maroon Tiger, the Morehouse College campus newspaper. The article was titled, “The Purpose of Education.” In short, it argued that we must not confuse education with knowledge.
King began with the personal. Too often, he wrote, “most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the "brethren" think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.” In other words, too many think that college is designed to teach either means or ends, offering the secrets that unlock the mysteries of our futures.
King takes aim at both these purposes. Beyond the need for education to make us more efficient, education also has a cultural function. In this sense, King writes, Education must inculcate the habit of thinking for oneself, what Hannah Arendt called Selbstdenken, or self-thinking.
“Education,” King writes, “must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” Quick and resolute thinking requires that one “think incisively” and “think for one's self.” This “is very difficult.” The difficulty comes from the seduction of conformity and the power of prejudice. “We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” We are all educated into prejudgments. They are human and it is inhuman to live free from prejudicial opinions and thoughts. On the one hand, education is the way we are led into and brought into a world as it exists, with its prejudices and values. And yet, education must also produce self-thinking persons, people who, once they are educated and enter the world as adults, are capable of judging the world into which they been born.
For King, one of the “chief aims of education” is to “save man from the morass of of propaganda.” “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”
To think for oneself is not the same as critical thinking. Against the common assumption that college should teach “critical reasoning,” King argues that critical thinking alone is insufficient and even dangerous: “Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” The example King offers is that of Eugene Talmadge, who had been governor of Georgia. Talmadge “possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America.” He was Phi Beta Kappa. He excelled at critical thinking. And yet, Talmadge believed that King and all black people were inferior beings. For King, we cannot call such men well educated.
The lesson the young Martin Luther King Jr. draws is that intelligence and critical reasoning are not enough to make us educated. What is needed, also, is an educational development of character:
We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.
Present debates about higher education focus on two concerns. The first is cost. The second is assessment. While the cost is high for many people, it is also the case the most students and their families understand that what colleges offer is priceless. But that is only true insofar as colleges understand their purpose, which is not simply to disseminate knowledge or teach critical thinking, but is, rather, to nurture character. How are we to assess such education? The demand for assessment, as well meaning as it is, drives education to focus on measurable skills and thus moves us away from the purposes of education as King rightly understands them.
The emerging debate about civic education is many things. Too often it is a tired argument over the “core” or the “canon.” And increasingly it is derailed by arguments about service learning or internships. What really is at issue, however, is a long-overdue response to the misguided dominance of the research-university model of education.
Colleges in the United States were, up through the middle of the 20th century, not research-driven institutions. They were above all religiously affiliated institutions and they offered general education in the classics and the liberal arts. Professors taught the classics outside of their specific disciplines. And students wrestled with timeless questions. This has largely changed today where professors are taught to specialize and think within their disciplinary prejudices. Even distribution requirements fail to make a difference insofar as students forced to take a course outside their discipline learn simply another disciplinary approach. They learn useful knowledge and critical thinking. But what is missing is the kind of general education in the “accumulated experience of social living” that King championed.
I am not suggesting that all specialization is bad or that we should return to religious-affiliated schools. Not in the least. But many of us know that we are failing in our responsibilities to think about what is important and to teach students a curriculum designed to nurture self-thinking and citizenship. We avoid this conversation because it is hard, because people disagree today on whether we should read Plato or Confucius or study Einstein or immunology. Everyone has their discipline to defend and few faculty are willing or able to think about an education that is designed for students and citizens.
Let’s stop bad mouthing all colleges. Much good happens there. Yet let’s also recall King’s parting words in his essay:
If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, "brethren!" Be careful, teachers!
King’s The Purpose of Education is your weekend read.
Law school applications have gone off a cliff. Just look at this statistic from today’s NY Times.
As of this month, there were 30,000 applicants to law schools for the fall, a 20 percent decrease from the same time last year and a 38 percent decline from 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. Of some 200 law schools nationwide, only 4 have seen increases in applications this year. In 2004 there were 100,000 applicants to law schools; this year there are likely to be 54,000.
This radical drop in law school applications is not because people are suddenly reading Shakespeare. The reason is clear. Lawyers aren’t getting jobs. For law school grads in 2011, only 55% got full-time jobs working as lawyers. That means 45% did not get jobs they were trained to do. No wonder students and their parents aren’t lining up to take out debt to get a legal education.
Just as journalism has been upended by the Internet revolution, so too law is changing. The changes are different. Lawyers are still needed and law firms will exist. But more of the work can be done more cheaply, off-location, and by fewer people. Quite simply, we need fewer lawyers. And those we do need, don’t command the salaries they once did.
Finally, law school was for years the refuge of the uncommitted. For liberal arts grad unsure of what to do next, the answer was law school. But now with tuitions skyrocketing, debt ballooning, and job prospects dimming, law schools are out of favor.
What is more, these changes coming to law schools will be coming to other professional and graduate schools as well. All those Ph.D.s in hyper-specialized disciplines ranging from Italian studies to Political Theory are in for a really tragically rude awakening? There are no jobs. And those jobs are not coming back. For academics to keep bringing young scholars into Ph.D. programs now is really deeply wrong.
This retreat from law school is a good thing. My J.D. was hardly an educational experience worth three years of my time. Law schools are caught between being professional schools training practicing lawyers and the desire to be also to be something more. The result, they largely do neither well. They don’t produce lawyers ready to practice. Nor do they produce deep legal minds. Little would be lost if law school were reduced to 2 years (or even less), which is why legal academics are pushing an experiment to offer two-year J.D.s.
Education does matter and will continue to distinguish people who pursue it and excel at it. Liberal arts majors who combine a love for the renaissance with an interest in dance will succeed, whether they create new works of art or found a business curating Italian wines, these students learn to pursue their dreams. Education will survive because it raises people from their daily lives to the life of the mind. Education, as opposed to factory schools and large lectures, fosters creativity and daring, leading people to invent lives for themselves in pursuit of their passions.
While education will survive, schools and universities that have become credentialing factories will be increasingly challenged. When what matters is measureable performance, credentials will become ever less important. Law schools—at least many of them that do not offer an elite status—are credentialing institutions. So too are many of the colleges and universities around the country, where students sit in large lectures for four years so that they can get a degree that stamps them employable. Such credentials are ever less valuable in an age of cheap Internet driven education. That is why these institutions are under pressure.
San Jose State University is experimenting with a program where students pay a reduced fee for online courses run by the private firm Udacity. Teachers and their unions are in retreat across the nation. And groups like Uncollege insist that schools and universities are unnecessary. At a time when teachers are everywhere on the defensive, it is great to read this opening salvo from Leon Wieseltier:
When I look back at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant.
I share Wieseltier’s reverence for educators. Eric Rothschild and Werner Feig lit fires in my brain while I was in high school. Austin Sarat taught me to teach myself in college. Laurent Mayali introduced me to the wonders of history. Marianne Constable pushed me to be a rigorous reader. Drucilla Cornell fired my idealism for justice. And Philippe Nonet showed me how much I still had to know and inspired me to read and think ruthlessly in graduate school. Like Wieseltier, I can trace my life’s path through the lens of my teachers.
The occasion for such a welcome love letter to teachers is Wieseltier’s rapacious rejection of homeschooling and unschooling, two movements that he argues denigrate teachers. As sympathetic as I am to his paean to pedagogues, Wieseltier’s rejection of all alternatives to conventional education today is overly defensive.
For all their many ills, homeschooling and unschooling are two movements that seek to personalize and intensify the often conventional and factory-like educational experience of our nation’s high schools and colleges. According to Wieseltier, these alternatives are possessed of the “demented idea that children can be competently taught by people whose only qualifications for teaching them are love and a desire to keep them from the world.” These movements believe that young people can “reject college and become “self-directed learners.”” For Wieseltier, the claim that people can teach themselves is both an “insult to the great profession of pedagogy” and a romantic over-estimation of “untutored ‘self’.”
The romance of the untutored self is strong, but hardly dangerous. While today educators like Will Richardson and entrepreneurs like Dale Stephens celebrate the abundance of the internet and argue that anyone can teach themselves with simply an internet connection, that dream has a history. Consider this endorsement of autodidactic learning from Ray Bradbury from long before the internet:
Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?
In this interview in the Paris Review, Bradbury not only celebrates the freedom of the untutored self, but also dismisses college along much the same lines as Dale Stephens of Uncollege does. Here is Bradbury again:
You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.
What the library and the internet offer is unfiltered information. For the autodidact, that is all that is needed. Education is a self-driven exploration of the database of the world.
Of course such arguments are elitist. Not everyone is a Ray Bradbury or a Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, who taught himself Latin in a few days. Hannah Arendt refused to go to her high school Greek class because it was offered at 8 am—too early an hour for her mind to wake up, she claimed. She learned Greek on her own. For such people self-learning is an option. But even Arendt needed teachers, which is why she went to Freiburg to study with Martin Heidegger. She had heard, she later wrote, that thinking was happening there. And she wanted to learn to think.
What is it that teachers teach when they are teaching? To answer “thinking” or “critical reasoning” or “self-reflection” is simply to open more questions. And yet these are the crucial questions we need to ask. At a period in time when education is increasingly confused with information delivery, we need to articulate and promote the dignity of teaching.
What is most provocative in Wieseltier’s essay is his civic argument for a liberal arts education. Education, he writes, is the salvation of both the person and the citizen. Indeed it is the bulwark of a democratic politics:
Surely the primary objectives of education are the formation of the self and the formation of the citizen. A political order based on the expression of opinion imposes an intellectual obligation upon the individual, who cannot acquit himself of his democratic duty without an ability to reason, a familiarity with argument, a historical memory. An ignorant citizen is a traitor to an open society. The demagoguery of the media, which is covertly structural when it is not overtly ideological, demands a countervailing force of knowledgeable reflection.
That education is the answer to our political ills is an argument heard widely. During the recent presidential election, the candidates frequently appealed to education as the panacea for everything from our flagging economy to our sclerotic political system. Wieseltier trades in a similar argument: A good liberal arts education will yield critical thinkers who will thus be able to parse the obfuscation inherent in the media and vote for responsible and excellent candidates.
I am skeptical of arguments that imagine education as a panacea for politics. Behind such arguments is usually the unspoken assumption: “If X were educated and knew what they were talking about, they would see the truth and agree with me.” There is a confidence here in a kind of rational speech situation (of the kind imagined by Jürgen Habermas) that holds that when the conditions are propitious, everyone will come to agree on a rational solution. But that is not the way human nature or politics works. Politics involves plurality and the amazing thing about human beings is that educated or not, we embrace an extraordinary variety of strongly held, intelligent, and conscientious opinions. I am a firm believer in education. But I hold out little hope that education will make people see eye to eye, end our political paralysis, or usher in a more rational polity.
What then is the value of education? And why is that we so deeply need great teachers? Hannah Arendt saw education as “the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." The educator must love the world and believe in it if he or she is to introduce young people to that world as something noble and worthy of respect. In this sense education is conservative, insofar as it conserves the world as it has been given. But education is also revolutionary, insofar as the teacher must realize that it is part of that world as it is that young people will change the world. Teachers simply teach what is, Arendt argued; they leave to the students the chance to transform it.
To teach the world as it is, one must love the world—what Arendt comes to call amor mundi. A teacher must not despise the world or see it as oppressive, evil, and deceitful. Yes, the teacher can recognize the limitations of the world and see its faults. But he or she must nevertheless love the world with its faults and thus lead the student into the world as something inspired and beautiful. To teach Plato, you must love Plato. To teach geology, you must love rocks. While critical thinking is an important skill, what teachers teach is rather enthusiasm and love of learning. The great teachers are the lovers of learning. What they teach, above all, is the experience of discovery. And they do so by learning themselves.
Education is to be distinguished from knowledge transmission. It must also be distinguished from credentialing. And finally, education is not the same as indoctrinating students with values or beliefs. Education is about opening students to the fact of what is. Teaching them about the world as it is. It is then up to the student, the young, to judge whether the world that they have inherited is loveable and worthy of retention, or whether it must be changed. The teacher is not responsible for changing the world; rather the teacher nurtures new citizens who are capable of judging the world on their own.
Arendt thus affirms Ralph Waldo Emerson's view that “He only who is able to stand alone is qualified for society.” Emerson’s imperative, to take up the divine idea allotted to each one of us, resonates with Arendt’s Socratic imperative, to be true to oneself. Education, Arendt insists, must risk allowing people their unique and personal viewpoints, eschewing political education and seeking, simply, to nurture independent minds. Education prepares the youth for politics by bringing them into a common world as independent and unique individuals. From this perspective, the progeny of teachers is the educated citizen, someone one who is both self-reliant in an Emersonian sense and also part of a common world.
Decompression: Before my hands heal I should sit down and find a way to wrap this up. I have been out of the desert (Black Rock City) for over a week now. I am back in the state of ‘normalcy,’ and yet I cannot help to feel that this ‘normal’ world is the exception. Have I been bedazzled, indoctrinated by some paganistic ritual? Did the “party” get me?
“Playa hands,” or feet, is the term used to describe what happens to ones hands, and feet, when they are overexposed to the conditions of the desert. They begin cracking -- “playafied” -- like the desert floor itself. Moisturizer helps, but the secret is to spray them down with vinegar every morning -- something about alkaline, acidity, etc...
I was out there for almost three weeks. Blood had begun to escape through some of the cracks. Yet, amid the sensory overload that is Burning Man -- coupled with the knowledge that whatever happens in the desert is hyper-transient -- your bodily concerns become secondary to the need to engage the world created for you. You celebrate despite the discomfort, or maybe even in part driven on by it. You don’t want to miss anything.
My hands have almost healed, new skin appearing underneath. I miss the damage. I miss what Burning Man proved.
I was moved towards Burning Man by the stories of others. What most attracted me to these stories were the themes of ritual, ceremony, and story telling. What I experienced, as a byproduct of being there, is the stuff I do not want to leave behind -- the concepts of ‘intent of environment’ (architecture and guiding principles), and ‘currency of gratitude.’ To feel complete, my new skin must now make space for these.
For this past week I have been needling my brain to pin down the difference between ritual and ceremony. I find it easy to mix them up. Why is there such confusion? Ultimately, I have come to see ritual as a loosely prescribed set of practices, or intentions, while ceremony is the celebration, or interpretation, of the prescribed by the practitioner. Certainly some anthropologists and theologists will find fault with my definitions. Well, I challenge you to bring me another set and if it reveals itself to be an exercise beyond semantics, I will be happy to sacrifice my hard won approximations. But that’s the catch, isn’t it? Definitions are the products of their society. They move, evolve... disappear. They are ‘approximate,’ in accordance to the pressure exercised upon them by what I call The Social Body -- our communal practices, beliefs and values, toys (inventions), cultural narratives, and the principles we deduce from the tangible matter of our environment.
Maybe what’s most worth exploring in the road towards a definition of ritual and ceremony is the location of the struggle itself: Why do we so struggle in defining them? What does this say about our society, and its practices? In the simplistic thinking somewhat necessary to engage such questions I had hoped to use my time at Burning Man as an aperture into the society at large. I brought my child brain, the one asks to see before judgement -- the one open to signs of proof.
What burning Man provides is a scaffolding of a society, a set of pillars (in its principles and architecture) to be built upon, and filled in by the participants. It is in this movement, from the scaffolding -- from the available structures -- towards the experience, that ‘ritual’ is made into ‘ceremony.’ It is where meaning is formed, and body is found. The concept of the ‘social body’ implies more then mere existence, or survival, more than just the fractals of society; it is a narrative, it is consciousness (a self-aware organism, capable of self correction), it is the accumulation of meaning.
The set of principles for this experimental society (Burning Man) are “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” To survive, and thrive in the desert, and to feel a part of the experience, one must find their own relationship to these principles, otherwise the experience will be tedious and lonely.
The other part of the scaffolding is the architectural intent. There is the city (its streets), its coordinates measured in the units of time, and thus when you arrive at a place you arrive to a time -- time is appropriated into a location (brings us closer to the definition of ‘being here’ doesn’t it?); there is the Playa floor, a space for various art installations; the camp space, the themes to be supplied by each individual camp, each camp identifying its own purpose; the Man, to be empowered with whatever meaning one finds necessary to bring to it; and the Temple, a spiritual space to be used for remembering loved ones, the execution of weddings, and a creative space for communion. There is also Center Camp, where you will find lectures, performances, coffee (it is in fact the only place where you can “buy” something). A friend of mine described Center Camp as “the heart of Burning Man.” Maybe because this is where the exchange of stories, connectivity, takes place.
The scaffolding of ritual is provided (a labor intensive process on the levels of planning, recruiting, development, and construction). In my conversation with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, he summed up the intention behind this social scaffolding like this, “I am, we are, it is.” He was not pointing to himself, or to the structure of the Man, rather, the gesture was towards the “participant.” No further elaboration is given. Meaning is not handed out here, nor is it imposed. What is implied by this is that the highest level of “participation,” is to give meaning. This is “radical inclusivity.” No ones experience is void. You can come here for a great party, or to say goodbye to a passed parent. You can have your own vision quest after sunrise, way out in deep playa, or you can don the outfit of a renegade and strap yourself up in the Thunder-Dome, just to see how you feel in the costume of primal power. All experiences are affirmed, accepted. The forms are created for you, and you fill in the space. Two experiences may further elaborate on this.
One night I was warned to wear white. “The white procession,” is what I was told. After being out all night, meeting people, seeing art pieces on the playa and dancing, we made our way to the temple for sunrise. After a night of being engulfed in noise and neon lights, we arrived at the wooden, ornate temple. The quiet, a gesture of respect to the space, was hyper-pronounced all around us. People praying, crying, meditating, talking in the open space. There were pictures and poems and notes stapled to every reachable surface of the structure. As the sun began to rise a small ensemble of musicians began to play soft wooden instruments. More and more people showed up, wearing white. Some in intricate feather outfits, some on stilts, some in a simple white shirt and seersucker pants (well, me!) -- the playa was flooded in white. I have been to spiritual spaces from Eastern Europe, to Europe, to the U.S., but the power of that space, its sincerity, was unlike anything I have ever experienced (I have no elegant words for this -- it was really something “I have never experienced”).
I can tell you more of that morning, the conversations, the white anonymous mask I had carried with me, the umbrella we found, the way this umbrella became empowered through a dance, through the power of movement and intention, when an art-car showed up with a music group called the Human Experience, how that empowerment became an opportunity for someone to say goodbye to her mother who had passed two years ago. How the anonymous mask, as more people in white arrived, as people celebrated the space and the new day, was endowed with personality of the dancers behind it. But I will simply say that ‘we filled the space,’ and allow you to unpack this meaning. Did my scientifically educated mind attempt to balk at this scene? I am trained to bring skepticism, but skepticism is only useful in service to a greater goal -- to seek out what is true in the arena of living. Otherwise it becomes a defense against its initial intention. To be disarmed, to be taken-in by a communal experience, to sense the meaning of the practice, is to be a living part of the ‘social body.’
Another morning we had wondered out to deep playa, where the installations are few and far in between. There we stumbled upon a smaller temple (about 20 feet high) made of diamond shaped wooden pods -- a hive. Inside sat a man with a hot stove and four people joining him in a circle. On a low table before him were five glass ramekins filled with tea. As we approached he took two more out of his bag and added them to the already existing ones, making the pattern of a diamond on the table, now reflecting the shape of the pods. We accepted the invitation. On a cold desert morning a hot cup of tea is the power of the sunrise. Soon my partner took out a ceremonial orchid fragrance and offered it up to the others. We sat there in the quiet, warmed up and without hurry, without any knowledge of the time. Tea, orchid fragrances, tarot cards, all become an invitation to converse -- to join, to exchange, to fill-in the space. We sat for two hours and the tea master told us of his camp and how it was their mission to keep tea in this space, and his fiance and work with a non-profit music space on the West coast. There were individual pods about forty yards off to one side of the structure, the side that faced the central playa and the camp spaces. Later I found similar pods scattered throughout the playa, including inside the base of The Man. Call it metaphysics, call it the construction of myth, but after the tea experience, every time I saw one of the pods, I could not help but to feel the transmission of that experience. The space of ritual became empowered through the formation of our ceremony, and the experience felt transmitted through association from portal to portal. Is that not the fabric of culture and meaning? Is that not how we once created a society worth participating in? Practices, intention, invitation, and room for interpretation, is that not the scaffolding of purpose and faith?
If I had to mold that space into a single definition I would call it an ‘intentional space holder.’ The camp, committed to keep a tea going in that structure, held space for participants -- for the arrival of stories (the people that bring them, and the articles that facilitate them). And this is another crucial memento that I carry from Burning Man. How often do we sit down and create a story between us? How versed are we today in exchanging myth? We exchange information at a rapid pace, having now been conditioned to advertise ourselves at every opportunity. We lobby the enterprise of self, and self today is an entity that is simply trying to survive -- survive in a plethora of other voices. We seek “hits,” and, “tweets,” attention to a carefully crafted mask. With painful detail we foster an identify that can “sell” and we update its status in a witty, seemingly effortless, “I have nothing to hide” fashion, so that we become “liked,” so that our circle of “network connections” can explode. We, each, becoming conditioned to present a face on a book, but without dimensions to it. How are we known? Do we now even know what to be known is? How many, or how few, of our actions are intentioned with the creation of meaning? How much in our repertoire of communication comes from a departure from the the practice of being seen, a false conditioning to define ourselves through the limiting shapes of business, career, education, ‘appropriate‘ culture defined beliefs -- assimilation? Assimilation, but to what? Have we each become a corporation of isolated creatures -- human inc.? And have we fallen into the practice of survival (holding ground) rather then the practice of exploration (creating space)? These are lofty questions, I know. And yet, is not our struggle in defining “story telling” and “connectivity” similar to the struggle in defining “ritual” and “community?” Could this struggle of definitions point towards us having taken for granted the initial pillars of community forming? Having moved away from something essential, could we have paralyzed the ‘social body?’
I have no clear answers to these questions. Only the sense that some of what I experienced at Burning Man helps to redirect my personal exploration of these subjects back to an older mode, to a practice that I had already sensed absent, yet one which when I am faced with, I recognize as essential. In part, this rerouting is somehow centered in the principles behind the event.
For those looking for more tangible examples to the power of “participant,” consider this: Burning Man, for a week the third largest city in Nevada, has almost no crime rate. It is a city that literally leaves nothing behind in trash, or MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) as it is called here. Everyone brings their own trash bags and collects MOOP while on the playa. In fact, when a group of Nevada policy makers came to examine Burning Man their collective surprise was centered on the absence of both public trash receptacles, and trash. Participants take pride in their society -- there is ownership of the ‘social body.’
Finally, I move to “intent of environment” and “currency of gratitude.” Once I left Black Rock CIty, and drove back into “our” society, I experienced a sense of vertigo. At each new scene I encountered my mind worked to solve the riddle of intention. At a starbucks, I wanted to ask the barista, what is the theme of your camp? What experience are you charged to awake in me? When I order one of your “luxurious hot chocolate beverages for the sophisticated palate” what am I inviting? What are the articles of facilitation within this camp? At a strip-mall outside of Reno I asked, what is the purpose of this installation? What does this space inspire? What psychic and creative pressure does it exercise on me? I had become sensitive to these questions.
We float from one “must do” to another, from one operational space to the next. Our practice has become ‘to-accomplish,’ ‘to-get-done,’ a checklist of survival before we come back to the safety of homes and return to sleep. We know a thing by what it does, by what it does for us, but not what it does to us or what it ‘impresses’ upon us. We have become too busy in the ritual of ‘getting-by’ to examine this question. No wonder the irony of Frank Gehry having been tapped to design the new Facebook campus speaks so loudly to us (even if we’re not sure of the words): An abstractionist tapped to give tangible form to the institution that most clearly provides us with the venue through which we can best abstract the condition of being. The questions our our being are finally visible in the structures which surround us -- that’s the irony we now interact with. Arthur Koestler, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and others, had predicted and observed this movement -- the emergence of space that comments on the loss of self. And now we live within this triangle -- self, our physical structures, our virtual structures -- uncertain which is the commentary, which is the creator, and which is in service of which.
Lastly I want to comment on the major form of currency at Burning Man. As mentioned earlier the exchange of money is extremely rare. Yet, there is exchange. Millions of dollars are spent yearly by individuals and groups, just to create an experience. I talked to a computer engineer who had been coming to Burning Man for five years. “It changed my life,” he said. “How?” “It made me want to give more, without asking for anything in return.” Such a cliche, right? You give without asking for anything in return, and you receive the gift of gratitude. Such a cliche, right..? And yet, this is the most obvious currency at Black Rock City. Each person is provided with an opportunity to form an experience for another. From the grand structures that hold space for everyone, to the theme camps that invite you to join them and pour gifts upon you -- from drinks to ice cream, to food, to conversation, to workshops, to tarot readings, to music, to showers and espresso, costumes, to confessionals, to the Thunder-Dome, to tea ceremonies, to trinkets and bracelets and other handcrafted articles of remembrance, to the extent of the human imagination. Such a cliche? Right? No competition, no “one-upmanship.” ‘You are invited,’ they say. You, are enough.
It is in the examination of such cliches that maybe we can begin a return to that place where we lost meaning. When did we decide that we are too busy, too smart, to be truly humanist? What made us this? The humanist tradition asks us to examine our being on every level -- the concentric circles of community (world, culture, self -- it, we, I). To use the full spectrum of our gifts in examining the state of being. To not hold “contempt prior to investigation” because such a state can lead one to loose the trail, and a skill once in service (skepticism) becomes a master -- a true state of purposelessness. Maybe it’s time to stop and reexamine our society, to allow for our deepest and most personal, and maybe most essential questions and concerns on the state of being, to catch up to the gifts of our inventions.
The creating of space: I cannot get away from this idea. This is what Burning Man does. It creates a space (a space for meeting, for discovery, serendipity, a space for creating) and I, pressurized (or inspired) by this space -- its subtle intentions, architecture and principles -- am left to empower this space with meaning, to fill in the forms. I am endowed with the magic of meaning making. From ritual to ceremony I make matter -- I make this time (this space) matter.
Left to my own devices I perform the rituals of living, but without the movements of meaning. I struggle to empower the mask.
We have passed to the end of the existential age. Someone declared God to be dead. Science, with all its promise and discovery, has too failed in filling in the shapes of existence. Consumerism, the god of the 20th century, has also, ultimately, failed to provide us with the kind of purpose that leads to a greater belonging, or safety. The internet age, having initially promised to connect us, is now making us even more isolated. The onus is placed on us. On the individual. In this age of the spectator (internet, TV, emotional removal from the immediacy of our world) we are left to create a ceremony of our existence, to question our rituals, to define the space of our community, and our coordinates within it -- to become participants. To bring the social body back to a state of being.
“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.
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.
Watch Roger's opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.
The Convention season has unleashed an avalanche of half-truths and untruths. Some see this as politics as usual. Others claim we are living in a post-truth world. Stephen Colbert has long understood that our present condition has transformed truth into truthiness.
One response to our new practice of political lying is the rise of the fact finder. In general, I am all in favor of fact finders. When they labor in obscurity at, say, The New Yorker—or as I once did long ago at the Washingtonian Magazine—fact finders are supposed to check the facts referenced in an article and make sure that those factual nuggets are accurate: Does Mr. Green really live on 22 Wiley Street? Did he purchase a yellow car last year for $37,000? Is his house really worth $21 million? When I did this at the age of, I think, 18 before the Internet became what it is today, I spent my summer running over to the public records office and looking through the real-estate transactions of the rich and famous. We would not want to insult someone by saying he had paid less for his house than he really did.
Today, there is another kind of fact finding of increasing prominence: political fact checking. It is a different beast entirely. The most well-established of these is Politifact, which has the “Truth-o-Meter” that rates the truth or falsity of public claims on a spectrum that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Other sites deliver similarly clever reports on the statements uttered by politicians during the course of the campaign. Part marketing and part well-intentioned policing of a discourse divorced from reality, these fact checkers are trying to bring sense and seriousness to political debate. What they are actually doing is making the problem worse.
The reason for this is that what is being checked today are less facts and more opinions. Take for example the recent anger over Mitt Romney’s advertisement and the continuing Republican claims that the Obama administration is trying to gut the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. Politifact and CNN and many other fact-check organizations labeled the ad a lie. Here is what Politifact said about it:
Romney’s ad says, "Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
That's a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs -- HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.
The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: "They just send you your welfare check." The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is "designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!
On the other hand, here’s what The Daily Caller’s Mickey Kraus had to say after he fact checked a CNN fact check that had come to the same conclusion about Romney’s welfare ad as Politifact had:
The oft-cited CNN-”fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:
The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare roles as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.” Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.
I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.
But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all. Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive. But the point of welfare reform isn’t to get more people onto welfare .
How is it that Kraus and Politifact could have fact checked the same statement (with Kraus even claiming that he was fact checking the fact check) and yet have come to different conclusions? Why is that all the fact checking that is going on today is not leading to a more truthful debate? Why is it that Republican campaign operatives say they will not be governed by fact checkers? Shouldn't fact checkers be helping to keep political discourse grounded in truth? Actually, not.
The basic confusion here is that between a fact and an opinion. As Hannah Arendt argues in her prescient essay “Truth and Politics,” facts and opinions play very different and equally important roles in politics. Facts are essential insofar as they provide the ground and the sky on which and under which we live. It is crucial to have and accept common facts, for without agreed upon facts we cannot share a world with others. If I know that the President was born in Hawaii and you know he was born in Kenya (or doubt at least he was born in Hawaii) then we simply don't trust each other. We can't talk to one another. We don't share the same world. And we cannot politically live together in good faith as we try to actualize the common good.
Because facts of these kinds are so important, the rise to mainstream prominence of conspiracy theories that question the President's citizenship or insist that President Bush and his administration faked 9/11 are deeply destructive of our political world. Such destructive facts are always present in politics, and yet it is also the case that at certain periods they gain more credence and credibility than at other times. Now is clearly one of those times.
There are many reasons for the splitting of the common-sense world, but one at least is the speed and ruthlessness of change in our modern world. As people are dislocated, uprooted, and unsettled, they naturally seek certainty in what is increasingly an uncertain world. Arendt labeled this phenomenon homelessness and rootlessness.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explores how the spiritual and material rootlessness of the 20th century have made people today uniquely susceptible to grand narratives provide clear and simple explanations for complicated and often upsetting events. That Jews were the root of Germany's problems or that collective ownership in the Soviet Union could usher in a utopia were stories contradicted by myriad facts. One core element of totalitarian times is that people prefer the security of a coherent narrative to the uncertainty of reality. People latch on to ideologies because they provide meaning and security. What Arendt saw is that the uncertainties of the modern era have made people so needy for such ideologies that they will sacrifice truth to fiction.
There is no doubt that the Internet eases the dissemination and also the force of conspiracies, as people can click through hundreds of links and never leave what is in essence an echo chamber of ideological purity. When people fall into such rabbit holes, they are enveloped by a world that seems real and is difficult to penetrate from the outside.
For that reason it is important to starkly and loudly confront ideological fictions. President Obama was right to launch his "Fight the Smears" website in 2008 to contest and disprove the smears about his religion and citizenship. Many of the fact-checking sites that now exist emerged out of a similar initiative, and in this sense they are deeply important.
But these sites today have gone beyond their original mission of checking facts. It is a fact that welfare reform was passed. It is a fact that the President's administration offered waivers to states to change how the reforms are implemented. As far as I know it is a fact that Republican governors requested those waivers. Whether these waivers go against the spirit of the reforms and whether they are wise, however, those are matters of opinion. No amount of fact-checking can tell you whether what the President did “guts” welfare reform or strengthens it. These are opinions about which reasonable people can and do differ.
While facts are essential to provide us with a common world that we share and in which we can advocate for our particular opinions, opinions are the life-blood of politics. Politics is the activity of people who, while sharing a factual world, come together to talk and act in public. Since people are different, their opinions will differ and they will seek to persuade each other that one way of handling welfare is better than another. That is the beauty of politics, the incessant talking and debating and compromising and leading through which common decisions are made.
That we today seek to transform opinions into facts is, at least in part, a result of our desire for clear answers. We live in a time when we have little patience for meaningful public engagement. We want government to work, which means we want it to keep the roads safe and the borders sound. We want our water to be clean and our food to be safe. And we want children to be fed and the sick to be healed. We don't much care how this is done so long as we can live comfortably and securely and go on with what is really important, namely our private lives. In essence, what we dream of today is a technocratic government that gives us much and demands from us very little.
If government is to work like a well-oiled machine, we need to input the correct facts. This leads us to insist that there are indeed such correct facts, even when we are confronted over and over again with evidence to the contrary. If there is a totalitarian element of modern politics, it is the technocratic insistence that if we simply all agreed on the facts and analyzed them correctly, our problems would be solved. It is no accident that both Mitt Romney and President Obama are technocratic pragmatists. Romney may have more interest in the power of data, but the President has an equally profound faith in the power of experts. Both appeal to the technocratic demand of an electorate desperate for clarity, certainty, and coherence in at a moment of profound upheaval.
As important as facts are, it is just as important to remain clear about the border between fact and opinion. Instead of gimmicky truth-o-meters, which give the illusion that political questions have easy answers, we need to encourage people with different opinions to discuss them in good faith. But the plague of fact checking what are in fact opinions has the opposite effect, since it proceeds on the assumption that opinions are true or false and that one who differs from you is a liar. The effect of fact checking in 2012 is to further polarize discourse and make political discussion almost impossible.
Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.
The problem today is that when confronted with opinions we don't like, we demand not arguments and other opinions but facts and objectivity. Ironically, it is the very demand for facts and objectivity in politics that leads to ideological organs like Fox News and CNBC. Because people insist on technocratic clarity in the mess that is politics, they now gravitate towards those news organization, blogs, websites, and communities that deliver them coherent narratives.
—RB (with assistance from Josh Kopin)
In this post, academics and university faculty will be criticized. Railing against college professors has become a common pastime, one practiced almost exclusively by those who have been taught and mentored by those whom are now being criticized. It is thus only fair to say upfront that the college education in the United States is, in spite of its myriad flaws, still of incredible value and meaning to tens if not hundreds of thousands of students every year.
That said, too much of what our faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students.
This is a point that Jacques Berlinerblau makes in a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Observers of gentrification like to draw a distinction between needs and wants. Residents in an emerging neighborhood need dry cleaners, but it's wine bars they really want. The application of that insight to the humanities leads me to an unhappy conclusion: Our students, and the educated public at large, neither want us nor need us.
What is amazing is that not only do our students not want what we offer, but neither do our colleagues. It is an amazing and staggering truth that much of what academics write and publish is rarely, if ever, read. And if you want to really experience the problem, attend an academic conference some day, where you will see panels of scholars presenting their work, sometimes to 1 or 2 audience members. According to Berlinerblau, the average audience at academic conference panels is fourteen persons.
The standard response to such realizations is that scholarship is timeless. Its value may not be discovered for decades or even centuries until someone, somewhere, pulls down a dusty volume and reads something that changes the world. There is truth in such claims. When one goes digging in archives, there are pearls of wisdom to be found. What is more, the scholarly process consists of the accumulation of information and insight over generations. In other words, academic research is like basic scientific research, useless but useful in itself.
The problem with this argument is that such really original scholarship is rare and getting ever more rare. While there are exceptions, little original research is left to do in most fields of the humanities. Few important books are published each year. The vast majority are as derivative as they are unnecessary. We would all do well to read and think about the few important books (obviously there will be some disagreement and divergent schools) than to spend our time trying to establish our expertise by commenting on some small part of those books.
The result of the academic imperative of publish or perish is the increasing specialization that leads to the knowing more and more about less and less. This is the source of the irrelevance of much of humanities scholarship today.
As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant.
As a result—and it is hard to hear for many in the scholarly community—we simply don't need 200 medieval scholars in the United States or 300 Rawlsians or 400 Biblical scholars. It is important that Chaucer and Nietzsche are taught to university students; but the idea that every college and university needs a Chaucer and a Nietzsche scholar to teach Chaucer and Nietzsche is simply wrong. We should, of course, continue to support scholars, those whose work is to some extent scholarly innovative. But more needed are well-read and thoughtful teachers who can teach widely and write for a general audience.
To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
Hannah Arendt argues precisely for this connection between the humanities and politics in her essay The Crisis in Culture. Part Two of the essay addresses the political significance of culture, which she relates to humanism—both of which are said to be of Roman origin. The Romans, she writes, knew how to care for and cultivate the grandiose political and artistic creations of the Greeks. And it is a line from Pericles that forms the center of Arendt's reflections.
The Periclean citation is translated (in part) by Arendt to say: "We love beauty within the limits of political judgment." The judgment of beauty, of culture, and of art is, Pericles says, limited by the political judgment of the people. There is, in other words, an intimate connection between culture and politics. In culture, we make judgments of taste and thus learn the faculty of judgment so necessary for politics. And political judgment, in turn, limits and guides our cultural judgments.
What unites culture and politics is that they are "both phenomena of the public world." Judgment, the primary faculty of politics, is discovered, nurtured, and practiced in the world of culture and the judgment of taste. What the study of culture through the humanities offers, therefore, is an orientation towards a common world that is known and understood through a common sense. The humanities, Arendt argues, are crucial for the development and preservation of common sense—something that is unfortunately all-too-lacking in much humanities scholarship today.
What this means is that teaching the humanities is absolutely essential for politics—and as long as that is the case, there will be a rationale for residential colleges and universities. The mania for distance learning today is understandable. Education is, in many cases, too expensive. Much could be done more cheaply and efficiently at colleges. And this will happen. Colleges will, increasingly, bring computers and the Internet into their curricula. But as powerful as the Internet is, and as useful as it is as a replacement for passive learning in large lectures, it is not yet a substitute for face-to-face learning that takes place at a college or university. The learning that takes place in the hallways, offices, and dining halls when students live, eat, and breathe their coursework over four years is simply fundamentally different from taking a course online in one's free time. As exciting as technology is, it is important to remember that education is, at its best, not about transmitting information but about inspiring thinking.
Berlinerblau thinks that what will save the humanities is better training in pedagogy. He writes:
As for the tools, let's look at it this way. Much as we try to foist "critical thinking skills" on undergraduates, I suggest we impart critical communication skills to our master's and doctoral students. That means teaching them how to teach, how to write, how to speak in public. It also means equipping them with an understanding that scholarly knowledge is no longer locked up in journals and class lectures. Spry and free, it now travels digitally, where it may intersect with an infinitely larger and more diverse audience. The communicative competences I extoll are only infrequently part of our genetic endowment. They don't come naturally to many people—which is precisely what sets the true humanist apart from the many. She or he is someone you always want to speak with, listen to, and read, someone who always teaches you something, blows your mind, singes your feathers. To render complexity with clarity and style—that is our heroism.
The focus on pedagogy is a mistake and comes from the basic flawed assumption that the problem with the humanities is that the professors aren't good communicators. It may be true that professors communicate poorly, but the real problem is deeper. If generations of secondary school teachers trained in pedagogy have taught us anything it is that pedagogical teaching is not useful. Authority in the classroom comes from knowledge and insight, not from pedagogical techniques or theories.
The pressing issue is less pedagogy than the fact that what most professors know is so specialized as to be irrelevant. What is needed is not better pedagogical training, but a more broad and erudite training, one that focuses less on original research and academic publishing and instead demands reading widely and writing aimed at an educated yet popular audience. What we need, in other words, are academics who read widely with excitement and inspiration and speak to the interested public.
More professors should be blogging and writing in public-interest journals. They should be reviewing literature rather than each other's books and, shockingly, they should be writing fewer academic monographs.
To say that the humanities should engage the world does not mean that the humanities should be politicized. The politicization of the humanities has shorn them of their authority and their claim to being true or beautiful. Humanities scholarship can only serve as an incubator for judgment when it is independent from social and political interests. But political independence is not the same as political sterility. Humanities scholarship can, and must, teach us to see and know our world as it is.
There are few essays that better express the worldly importance of the humanities than Hannah Arendt's The Crisis of Culture. It is worth reading and re-reading it. On this hot summer weekend, do yourself that favor.
Earlier this month I attended a lecture by Matthias Lilienthal, the former artistic director of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU). HAU as it is affectionately known in Berlin is an organization with three performance spaces in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and is one of the largest, best funded, and risk-taking performance theatre complexes in the world. As one of the most important and innovative avant garde theatre directors, Lilienthal has "created, instigated and nourished many of the most important developments in theatre in recent decades," according to Tom Sellar of Yale who introduced him.
Lilienthal was interviewed after his talk by Gideon Lester, my exciting new colleague who now is director of the theatre program at Bard.
While Lilienthal is an artistic director and has a background in the theatre, he calls himself a "booker" of talent more than an artist or a curator. He is committed to theatre that has social and political impact. His mission is to constantly create friction. Friction means in his telling, "to be polemic against society and be an urban laboratory for the future." That said, Lilienthal insists that he remains an artist, someone who in his words cares most about the aesthetic experience his works bring about.
Lilienthal discussed a number of his past projects to explain what he means by a theatre of friction. One of the most famous and interesting is FOREIGNERS OUT! SCHLINGENSIEF'S CONTAINER, a performance, installation, and movie that he produced in collaboration with the filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief.
FOREIGNERS OUT! premiered in Vienna in the summer of 2000, at a time of great anti-immigrant sentiment in Austria—it was shortly after the xenophobic politician Jörg Haider came to power in Austria. Schlingensief and Lilienthal put two large containers in the public square in front of the Viennese Opera house and filled them with 15 asylum seekers. Above the asylum seekers, the artists hung a sign that read: "Foreigners Out." They then gave the Austrian population the opportunity to vote which foreigner to expel from the country. Over 10,000 Austrians voted every day and the first person sent home was a Nigerian woman.
Lilienthal speaks of a "hysterical longing for reality in today's theatre." Much of his work and the work he "books" mixes reality with theatre. His most famous performance piece, performed all over the world, is "X Wohnungen" or "X Apartments." Artists are asked to create artistic experiences that last up to ten minutes and take place in private apartments or houses. In one example that Lilienthal showed a clip from during his talk, audience members in groups of two are led into apartments of immigrants in Cologne where they are told to kneel in front of doors with keyholes. Through the keyholes they watch a Muslim woman in a burka and hijab strip naked and recline on a couch. They are then interrupted, given tea and told to go out.
Lilienthal explains that "we are playing a private reality, with voyeurism and with exhibitionism." His participatory performance art is "a kind of playful treatment of reality. You are playing with prejudgments against migrants. You are playing with your own voyeurism." The effort is partly to create discussions about Islam, religion, and sexuality. But it above all, in his words, to "to bring together experiences of reality."
Lilienthal was quite critical of the New York art scene, arguing that NYC artists are too commercial and that there is no meaningful artistic forum in the U.S. as there is in Germany. His point is that his HAU stages have, in his telling, become the center of German and European art worlds, presenting all the most interesting and most important artists from around the world under a single umbrella. He lamented the fact that there was no similarly dominant and unifying artistic space in NY or in the U.S. New York, he said provocatively, in the East Village, is a provincial state.
Lester asked Lilienthal what would he have done in NYC had he accepted a job here? He answered, (I am paraphrasing here),"I would have presented art that offers a polemic against society. I would like everyone to know me and then I would have been... perhaps they would kill me after a year."
There is something both noble and anachronistic in Lilienthal's Socratic dream to create art so full of friction and power that he would be killed for it. It is a noble dream because it imagines that art, like philosophy, might still have the power and importance to be seen as a threat to the state or the society. It is anachronistic because art and philosophy have long since lost such centrality.
When I asked Lilienthal about this, his answer was that it was different in Berlin, where the arts are more central and given more public financing and public attention. But I don't accept the argument that the arts are so much more important in Berlin than in NYC. In Berlin, as everywhere today, the intellectual world is just no longer governed by a unified aesthetic or a single dominant medium. There is a mass culture, but the premise of the mass culture is consumerism. Everybody buys what they want and art connoisseurs consume what they like. Most intellectuals and educated people now consume art and news that is hardly distinguishable from middle or low-brow tastes; indeed, the distinction between high and low is now illegitimate. But more important even than that, is the fact that those who do like the best art or best philosophy or best theatre or the best philosophy do not agree on what the "best" is.
One sees this fracturing of culture everywhere. The New York Times was, for a period of time, the arbiter of what mattered in the United States. That is no longer the case and has not been so for decades. It is not the Internet that brought about the factionalization of cultural and political opinion, but, on the contrary, the loss of any single or dominant opinion made the cacophony of voices and platforms on the Internet appealing and powerful.
Similarly, philosophy is broken into analytic and continental schools, and within each there are esoteric sub-schools so specialized that advanced papers and thinking can be read and understood by only dozens of people around the world. The same fission occurs in literature and art as well. Who now feels the need to read all the books profiled in the NY Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books? The selection criteria are ever more arbitrary and there are no longer any acknowledged gateways to culture.
There are, of course, still important artists and writers, but they appeal to ever-more specialized and localized crowds of followers. Lilienthal's dream of a unified artistic world with a single influential cultural world is long gone. And this is true in Berlin as well as in NYC. We will never again have a situation where the chattering classes are all reading the same books and seeing the same shows. The culture is simply too diffuse and differentiated and democratized. There are no measures of quality that are widely accepted. So what we have are simply sub-groups and sub-genres and sub-cultures.
A version of this argument is made by Peter Sloterdijk in his essay Themes from the Human Zoo. Sloterdijk writes:
Because of the formation of mass culture through the media—radio in the First World War and television after 1945, and even more through the contemporary web revolution—the coexistence of people in the present societies has been established on new foundations. These are, as it can uncontrovertibly be shown, clearly post-literary, post-epistolary, and thus post-humanistic. Anyone who thinks the prefix `post' in this formulation is too dramatic can replace it with the adverb `marginal'. Thus our thesis: modern societies can produce their political and cultural synthesis only marginally through literary, letter-writing, humanistic media. Of course, that does not mean that literature has come to an end, but it has split itself off and become a sui generis subculture, and the days of its value as bearer of the national spirit have passed. The social synthesis is no longer—and is no longer seen to be—primarily a matter of books and letters. New means of political-cultural telecommunication have come into prominence, which have restricted the pattern of script-born friendship to a limited number of people. The period when modern humanism was the model for schooling and education has passed, because it is no longer possible to retain the illusion that political and economic structures could be organized on the amiable model of literary societies.
What Sloterdijk rightly sees is that literate means of cultural analysis have lost their once-dominant place in the social and political formation of society. Books and theatre and artworks have been replaced by mass entertainments and diversions, so that literate works are relegated to sub-genres of importance only to their particular fans and followers. Art and philosophy, therefore, become socially and politically marginal.
Instead of seeking to bring back a unified culture of art in which artists matter to the social and political worlds, as Lilienthal dreams, it would be more radical and more honest to admit that we live today in a world in which those who make art, write literature, and think philosophy matter ever less. To think the challenges of doing art and thinking in a world immune to the charms of art and thought is the challenge we are faced with today.
Matthias Lilienthal's talk is fascinating and, as you can see, provocative, which is justification enough to spend one hour this weekend watching him. Thanks to Theatre Magazine for posting the video of the talk. Here is your weekend read.
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.
Occupy Wall Street is, on one important level, a movement of signs. I mean this quite literally. Handmade signs with witty epigrams, pithy epithets, and heartfelt emotions took root in Zuccotti Park and blossomed on the web. The signs are not simply the old-fashioned placards of protests past. Rather, the signs proliferated in large measure specifically so they could be photographed, uploaded, and disseminated on the World Wide Web. In many ways, Occupy Wall Street communicated its message through photographs of signs.
Pictures of signs, like the one below, tell human stories of average, hard-working Americans who have been upended by the Great Recession.
In the war of signs, pictures of military veterans occupy a privileged role. The military protester shows, in an image, that the anger, despair, and hope that the Occupy Movement represents is not limited to entitled young hipsters. The signs were, quite often, expressions of the average American, the soldier and the homeowner, who had been devastated by economic hardship. The implication is that these individuals lived honorably, played by the rules, and are suddenly in dire straits as a result of a financial crisis.
I first encountered one such iconic picture on Facebook. It shows an older man telling a sad story. This cheerful, gray-haired, bespectacled Navy Veteran and schoolteacher clad in his oxford shirt neatly pressed under a burgundy sweater is undoubtedly one of the poster-children of Occupy Wall Street. His story is common and sad. He has served his country and taught our children. And now his pension doesn't allow him the means to live with dignity.
Older individuals, like soldiers and children, hold a special place in the iconography of the Occupy Movement. They bespeak a kind of innocence and vulnerability. They are hard working and have paid their dues. All they want is what is fair and right. As a Navy veteran and a teacher, this man's simple sign expresses American ideals, and their betrayal. He did the right thing and hoped for a comfortable retirement in his own home, with annual vacations and visits to the grandchildren. Is this too much to hope for? The claim here is, he followed the rules and he got steamrolled.
Not long after this sign and thousands of others like it zipped around the web on Tumblr and Facebook, another sign appeared, as if to answer this veteran's lament and other sad stories of foreclosed homeowners and indebted students. This sign claims to be from a student (not pictured and thus questionable), but one who played by the rules in another sense.
I wrote more about these signs here and here. Both signs appeal to a basic ideal of fairness. But fairness means different things to each. The first sign sees fairness as a kind of social contract. If I work hard and play by the rules, I should be guaranteed a certain standard of living and insured against catastrophe. Especially when the well off in society, those whose freedoms I fought for and whose children I taught, were bailed out by my tax dollars.
The second announces a different view of fairness as individual responsibility. Life is not fair and no one should expect a handout. Playing by the rules means living within your means, not taking out mortgages you can't afford or student loans that will saddle you with debt. Working hard is not enough, but you must also be thrifty and responsible. If you do decide to take risks or live beyond your means, that is your choice, but don't expect me to feel sorry for you if you fail.
The argument between two notions of responsibility that these competing signs take up is an important one. It goes to the heart of our ideas of personal responsibility, individualism, community, entitlement, and empathy. I have written at length about Occupy Wall Street here and here. But what does it mean that this conversation about who we are and what our country should be is happening through pictures of signs on the Internet?
Occupy Wall Street began with an image, created and disseminated by Adbusters, a Canadian media and anti-advertising group. A charging bull, iconic to the world of finance, gracefully ridden by a female dancer, in front of a surging crowd wearing gas masks and brandishing batons. Smoke fills the air. It is an image of revolution; but what does the revolution call for? Dance? The power of grace and beauty over brawn? Escape from unrestrained capitalism and a return to more spiritual values?
Undoubtedly the victory of the gracefulness of spirit over the aggression of calculation is one metaphorical text of the image. So too is the power of the people; the mob, which rages behind both the ballerina and the bull. Unresolved is whether the mob stands with the ballerina or the bull, or whether its fury threatens both.
The image of the ballerina and the bull is a political call, but one issued through images and metaphors. Our economy and our politics are like the bull—uncontrolled, wild, and in need of a spiritual master. Such metaphorical thinking is at the very root of both political and metaphysical thinking for it carries over the thinking of everyday reality into a higher and more truthful state. A metaphor—literally a carrying over as its Greek etymology suggests—elevates thinking from the mundane to the speculative, and thus energizes everyday thinking through the power of ideas.
Immanuel Kant once described a despotic state as a "mere machine"—a hand grinder—because both are governed by an absolute individual will that can make mince meat of the individuals under their grip. Kant offered the hand grinder as an example of a successful metaphor—an image that shows a "perfect resemblance of two relations between two totally dissimilar things."
Hannah Arendt discusses Kant's use of the metaphor in her book The Life of the Mind. She quotes there as well from Ernest Fenollosa, in an essay originally published by Ezra Pound:
Metaphor is ... the very substance of poetry"; without it, "there would have been no bridge whereby to cross from the minor truth of the seen to the major truth of the unseen."
For Arendt thought images are unavoidable in thinking and speaking, for we cannot approach any concept or idea without in some way employing an analogy or metaphor from our lived and daily experience. We have no entry into the temple of truth except through the passageways of metaphor and symbolic thought. We cannot even recognize a dog as a dog or God as God without an idea or concept of "dog" or of "God" that themselves are metaphorical or analogical ideas taken from our experience of the world. Friendship, too, Arendt writes, must originally be thought in images and metaphors, as the Chinese do for whom the character for friendship shows an image of two united hands.
As Arendt writes:
[The Chinese] think in images and not in words. And this thinking in images always remains "concrete" and cannot be discursive, traveling through an ordered train of thought, nor can it give account of itself (logon didonai); the answer to the typically Socratic question ‘What is friendship?’ is visibly present and evident in the emblem of two united hands, and "the emblem liberates a whole stream of pictorial representations" through plausible associations by which images are joined together.
Arendt's point is that Chinese and other pictorial languages offer direct version of the kinds of metaphorical thinking that must attend to all languages, even purely alphabetical languages like those in the West. Even our language depends upon the images and analogies of metaphors to carry our thought beyond the everyday to the deeper level of significance and meaning, on which both philosophy and politics might build a publicly accessible and shared common world.
That thinking happens in images is, Arendt writes, "fascinating and disquieting." It is disquieting because it puts into question the priority of language and reason that so defines the tradition of Western thought—the demand for rational justification in philosophy and politics that is so central to the rationalist foundations of modern society in a scientific age. For rational justification can happen only in words whereas higher truths are accessible only through metaphors and images.
The priority of images over words is the reason that Arendt remains one of the most poetic thinkers in the modern canon. She is uniquely aware throughout all her writing that
"poetry," when read aloud, "will affect the hearer optically; he will not stick to the word he hears but to the sign he remembers and with it to the sights to which the sign clearly points."
I spoke about this coincidence of thinking, seeing, and acting with the great dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones in 2010. For Bill T., the effort in his dance "Floating the Tongue" is to enact the process of taking something invisible and internal and bringing it to appear on the stage and in the world. In Arendt's words, the effort of poetic language must be to bridge "the gulf between the realm of the invisible and the world of appearances."
Political thinking, too, has much to learn from poetry and metaphor. "Politics," writes Hannah Arendt, "deals with the coexistence and association of different men." As we live with others, we human beings aim at freedom—the freedom to be an individual and also the freedom to build a common world together. For Arendt, politics is the activity through which a plurality of human beings constitute themselves as a people, a unity of differences. The political actor is he or she who acts and speaks in such a way as to show the different people around him the common truths that bind them together as a people. It is because politics must employ metaphors and images that build a foundation for a new and public space for freedom to flourish that politics also demands a public space where citizens can meet, speak, and act in public.
A great virtue of the Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party movements have been the return of signs, images, and symbols to political discourse. Even the written text on the signs that now carom around the web can only be read within the images that provide their poetry; images of the rich and poor, elderly and young, military and civilian. Politics, it seems, is leaving behind the rationalist fantasy that if we just all talk about the issues, we will come to some kind of sensible agreement.
For this reason, the Hannah Arendt Center has partnered with Visualize Conversation in an experiment; to ask how and in what ways political images can spur a public discussion. We have created a new kind of website, Visualize Conversation , dedicated to the visual images that are defining the political world. The site is being launched around the images that have come to characterize the Occupy Movement. Soon, we will begin to focus on imagery that relates to the 2012 Presidential election as well as other national issues.
On this website you are invited to respond to these images with both words and other images, to share the images, and to debate about them with others. It may be fun, but it is also, in part, an opportunity to think about and create the images and metaphors that very well might engage and re-enliven our politics.
Dan Gettinger is a student at Bard College.
Lately I've been reflecting on my activity surrounding Occupy Wall St. Remembering the minutes before I was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, I wonder what I was thinking in those moments. The truth is that I was there largely by accident. I read about the Occupy movement and a friend of mine who had gone down encouraged me to go that weekend. One thing led to another and I was spending eight hours at One Police Plaza, NYC. What led me there? Why did the NYPD decide to arrest 749 people? Why are people pitted against each other in anger?
These questions flew through my mind in a nervous rush in those interminable minutes. As my friend in front of me got hauled away he told me to call his Mom. A girl next to me scribbled a phone number on my arm but, sadly, it was that of the National Lawyers Guild and not hers. I looked up to another Bard student who was safe on the pedestrian walkway and smiled. Chaos and distress and sadness were etched across the faces of those around me. As I came to the realization that I would be arrested I felt more at ease and relaxed. And alone.
All my life I've been for or against something. Growing up overseas I was for America; representing a homeland that I barely knew but swelled with pride over. In the past decade it has become starker. I despised Bush and loved Obama, protesting one and campaigning for the other. My generation is one of extremes and totalities. We grew up defined by the trespasses of the last President, and now we watch as our confidence in this one seeps away. With a crushingly uncertain future we grasp at hope, looking to fill this void with promises.
Why is this? How is that we are so empty that we must be filled with language that is distilled into slogans and ideologically transparent? Why do we allow ourselves to be categorized and set into camps against each other? I think it is because we are lonely. A generation of drifters set loose by the misdeeds of those who came before. Around us we see everything being commodified and isolated. We value the world in terms of totalities, the cold language of polls. Discussion becomes debate. Politics becomes personal. Language gives leeway to the violence of our time. Philip Cushman writes, “We are told by self psychology and object relations theory that the empty self is the natural configuration of human being... that the essence of psychological growth is consumption”. Ideas become values, a list of priorities rather than inquisitions. Instead of questioning the origin of a problem, we invest in the answer. The world becomes a sheet of cookie-cutter shapes and we, the unseeing eyes of selfish sentimentality.
Occupy Wall St. has exposed us as a generation of reactionaries. This era is one of immediate responses instigated by the ceaseless swirl of the cyber world. The Internet, modern telecommunications and globalization outline our existence. The information age confines our imagination, creating shapes in which we can mindlessly ease into. It conditions our thoughts. “The greatest poverty is not to live/ In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire/ Is too difficult to tell from despair,” says the poet Wallace Stevens. The compression of information and language forces immediate reactions, instinctual expressions of sentiment. Instead of taking the time to think, our feelings gush into the abyss that is the Internet. And lost. ‘Once more into the breach!’ shouts the exhausted soldier and student alike.
The power of online reaction in the cyber world has prompted the opposite in the physical. I see it in the ease in which students are called ‘apathetic’. Apathy is the absence of pathos, the detriment of passion. Students, the supposed vanguard for intellectual pursuit, are considered to be endowed with such an extreme indifference that we are devoid of concern, excitement or motivation. This word shows the extent to which isolation has infested our campuses and social activity. It reveals how difficult it has become to really engage with politics and to create community. When the ancient Greeks entered into the public realm of life they expected to enter into discussion with each other. We’ve seen the opposite occur. As a result of the outpouring of ourselves in the cyber world we withdraw from the physical, preferring to slide into a virtual abstraction of reality and of ourselves. Our passion is put towards filling that inner void and in doing so we exhaust ourselves in chasing our own superficial creations. We live in a TV democracy, secure in our insecurity.
Hannah Arendt writes that loneliness leads to complacency, an unwillingness to judge truthfully and think. We fill ourselves with the tenets of ideology and in doing so we build walls around each other. This isolation prevents communication. It destroys dialogue and leaves us more susceptible to the shallow language of ideologues.
I'm far from regretting my experience on the bridge. It brought so much that I was feeling to the fore and was an illustration of the frustrations of a generation. But I do not revel in that act nor do I celebrate the movement as the answer anymore. The minute that we begin to consider Occupy Wall St the answer to our problems is the time to stop and think. Here is the time to re-evaluate the reasons why it's happening and why we should support it. It's when we've commodified Occupy, making the movement more about ourselves than the problems it confronts. That's when our loneliness is exposed.
The greatness of Occupy Wall St is that it gives people the opportunity to think. The absence of demands or a structured hierarchy allows the true problems that plague this nation to come first. It begins to cleanse the mind of all these barricades we've erected around ourselves by providing a space to talk about issues like class and privilege that we haven't confronted in decades. We've come to the threshold where unless we get a hard punch to the gut we'll continue to resort to phrases and slogans, packaging up our thoughts into sound bites and deluding ourselves with the belief that this is thinking.
David Graeber writes that the word revolution does not, and cannot, mean “a single, cataclysmic break with past structures of oppression,” a storming of the Winter Palace or Bastille. It is rather exposing and de-legitimizing the origins of an oppressive system, striking down the pillar of injustice that fuels our plight. Some of those in Occupy Wall St may say that pillar is the bankers that control our democracy. I say the roots of these dark times are within us. They’re the fictitious frames, the keyholes and the kissing booths that we use to define our world. A society predicated on constant caffeinated consumption, seeking desperate deliverance in passing fashions, is a violent one. One that seduces our imagination, leaving it languishing in infomercials and Italian leather. We may not be the cause of this crisis, but our complacency leaves us complicit.
Do not expect the revolution to be televised nor even talked about immediately. Hannah Arendt says that true thought occurs in solitude, in those quiet moments of intense reflection. This follows from the Socratic notion that thinking in solitude is the “conversation one has with oneself,” a particularly active questioning and critical self-examination.
I would add that the validation of these thoughts occurs in dialogue with others, in the inter-personal connections that we form through experience. Thinking is the relentless investigation of an idea, it’s an exploration, but it’s also engaging with others in this way on a non-emotional level, allowing for a substantive discourse. To separate one self from an idea and be open to the thoughts of others is an extremely difficult process that requires patience and critical listening. But it’s here where we must begin. The lack of curiosity is the greatest symptom of being lonely and the surest way to complacency. Questioning and imagining are activities essential to our freedom.
The raids with batons and bulldozers continue to intrude on unstructured spaces across the nation. The future of Occupy Wall St is impossible to predict and the consequences even more difficult to anticipate. However, we may be certain that Liberty Square has reminded us of a far darker occupation that exists within each of us. An oppressive installment in our hearts that leaves us yearning and fighting for the illusive insoluble ‘I’. But, “sudden as a shaft of sunlight,” we are experiencing ways of thinking and acting that free us from the past and future, placing this movement in our moment.