Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
27Oct/140

Amor Mundi 10/26/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

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The Making of a Hero

Laura PoitrasIn a revelatory and subtle profile of Laura Poitras and her experience making "Citizenfour," her new documentary about Edward Snowden, George Packer raises questions about how close Poitras comes to Snowden's true story, and how uncritically Snowden's own narrative of his actions have become entrenched in the public consciousness: "The heart of the film is the hotel room in Hong Kong, where Poitras finds emotion in the small moments that give 'Citizenfour' the human truth she's always after. Even when the pace slows to the verge of boredom, the footage is mesmerizing, because we are watching a private encounter of great political significance unfold. For Poitras, the film is all about Snowden's decision. But, in this case, ... Snowden had already made his decision to go public, long before he got in touch with Poitras, so by the time we meet him it's a fait accompli. By e-mail and in Hong Kong, he presents his motives as so high-minded and public-spirited that they never become interesting. In Poitras's terms, he has already created a narrative of himself-it's a "locked path." He has stopped being a complicated character, and Poitras doesn't look for ways to complicate him. ... Snowden describes himself as an ordinary government employee who was going about his business until he could no longer ignore the wrongdoing he observed. This self-portrait doesn't completely square with others' accounts or with the historical record. Snowden was not as deeply embedded in the N.S.A.'s institutional culture as were previous agency whistle-blowers, like Binney, who arrived at their breaking points after sustained bureaucratic struggles. Snowden was more alienated and self-isolated, more radical, than that. His biographical trail reveals a young man who becomes most passionate when promoting the importance of maintaining absolute privacy on the Internet-he wore an Electronic Frontier Foundation hoodie to work-and who seems less eager to acknowledge how difficult the trade-off between liberty and security can be in a democratic society. Before the meeting in Hong Kong, he wrote a letter to Poitras and Greenwald that said, in part, "While I pray that public awareness and debate will lead to reform, bear in mind that the policies of men change in time, and even the Constitution is subverted when the appetites of power demand it. In words from history: Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography." Snowden went to great trouble over a long period to amass the astonishing quantity of secrets that he passed on to Poitras and Greenwald-including taking a private-contractor position solely with the aim of downloading N.S.A. files. None of this is revealed under Greenwald's questioning."

The Phantom in the Opera

death of klinghofferAlex Ross on why the response to the Metropolitan Opera's staging of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer has been so vitriolic: "Adams and his librettist...do not advertise their intentions in neon. The story of the Achille Lauro hijacking is told in oblique, circuitous monologues, delivered by a variety of self-involved narrators, with interpolated choruses in rich, dense poetic language. The terrorists are allowed ecstatic flights, private musings, self-justifications. But none of this should surprise a public accustomed to dark, ambiguous TV shows like 'Homeland.' The most specious arguments against 'Klinghoffer' elide the terrorists' bigotry with the attitudes of the creators. By the same logic, one could call Steven Spielberg an anti-Semite because the commandant in 'Schindler's List' compares Jewish women to a virus. In the opera, the opposed groups follow divergent trajectories. The terrorists tend to lapse from poetry into brutality, whereas Leon Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, remain robustly earthbound, caught up in the pleasures and pains of daily life, hopeful even as death hovers. Those trajectories are already implicit in the paired opening numbers, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews. The former splinters into polyrhythmic violence, ending on the words 'break his teeth'; the latter keeps shifting from plaintive minor to sumptuous major, ending on the words 'stories of our love.' The scholar Robert Fink, in a 2005 essay, convincingly argues that the opera 'attempts to counterpoise to terror's deadly glamour the life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.' Moreover, subtle references to the Holocaust suggest that a familiar horror is recurring. 'At least we are not Jews,' an old Swiss woman says. 'I kept my distance,' an Austrian frigidly intones. The mellifluous, ineffectual Captain indulges in fantasies of appeasement, conversing under the stars with a silver-tongued terrorist named Mamoud."

Moral Equivalence

death of klinghoffer(2)Alan Dershowitz argues that The Death of Klinghoffer is an affront, first because it establishes a false moral equivalence between Jewish Zionism and Palestinian terrorism and second between the Holocaust and the Occupation. He also faults the music: "By any standard, The Death of Klinghoffer is anything but the 'masterpiece' its proponents are claiming it is. The music is uneven, with some lovely choruses-more on that coming-one decent aria, and lots of turgid recitatives. The libretto is awful. The drama is confused and rigid, especially the weak device of the captain looking back at the events several years later with the help of several silent passengers. There are silly and distracting arias from a British show girl who seems to have had a crush on one of the terrorists, as well as from a woman who hid in her cabin eating grapes and chocolate. They added neither to the drama nor the music of the opera. Then there were the choruses. The two that open the opera are supposed to demonstrate the comparative suffering of the displaced Palestinians and the displaced Jews. The Palestinian chorus is beautifully composed musically, with some compelling words, sung rhythmically and sympathetically. The Jewish chorus is a mishmash of whining about money, sex, betrayal and assorted 'Hasidism' protesting in front of movie theaters. It never mentions the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, though the chorus is supposed to be sung by its survivors. The goal of that narrative chorus is to compare the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians-some of which was caused by Arab leaders urging them to leave and return victoriously after the Arabs murdered the Jews of Israel-with the systematic genocide of six million Jews. It was a moral abomination.... At bottom The Death of Klinghoffer-a title deliberately selected to sanitize his brutal murder-is more propaganda than art. It has some artistic moments, but the dominant theme is to create a false moral equivalence between terrorism and its victims, between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups, and between the Holocaust and the self-inflicted Nakba."

Don't Give Up the Fight

Hong Kong protestsKeane Shum on why he won't give up on change in Hong Kong: "So many voices-our own government, the central government, foreign governments, much of the international media, and even some of the protesters themselves-say there is no chance of any concession by the authorities, that this is a futile battle against an intransigent force and can yield only moral victories. It is all just the dreams of naive students, they say, a fantasy. But so is Hong Kong. On that recent Sunday morning in Victoria Harbour, when I had swum to roughly the midpoint between Hong Kong Island and the mainland, I took a moment to drift on my back and let the city wash over me. The harbor and the skyline, the hills and the bays, the food, the movies, the money, and, of course, these protests-politically engaged teenagers doing homework on the streets, collecting garbage, singing songs-all these are unreal. Our city is a dream, a place where umbrellas float through tear gas, schoolchildren lead civic debates instead of virtual lives, and 999 of every 1,000 trains run on time. On that ship in Nanjing 172 years ago where China signed us away, after the British surrendered us on Christmas Day, 1941, when the tanks plowed into Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989, we were never supposed to exist, not like this."

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Now and Then

Daniel MendelsohnDaniel Mendelsohn, suggests that books, even ones we love, should change as we do: " I teach Sophocles' 'Antigone.' My students, who are in their late teens and early 20s, tend to identify with the fiercely idealistic young heroine, who stands up for family and religion - for freedom of conscience, as we often see it today - against the decrees of her uncle, the autocratic new ruler of the state. But over the past quarter-century I have increasingly appreciated the validity of the uncle's claims: the necessity for order, the incoherence of a state that consists of individuals who cannot recognize the views of others. However much Holden Caulfield's helplessness and sensitivity may move us, it's important to remember that what is problematic in 'The Catcher in the Rye' is its hero's aversion to negotiation and compromise - not the negotiations and compromises themselves, which are simply part of adult life. Whatever else it may mean, the Museum of Natural History scene in Salinger's beloved classic can be read as a powerful allegory of how not to read beloved classics. Like Holden, we can and do keep revisiting them; but when we do, we should always be seeing something new, because the eyes with which we read should have changed."

To Grieve or Not to Grieve?

Colm ToibinIn a comprehensive essay on grief in literature, Colm Toibin points to Hamlet as a model: "I remember in school sitting at the back of the class soon after my father had died and listening to a discussion about Hamlet's madness and Hamlet's character and everyone wondering why Hamlet could in one second be in love, and the next out of love, and then angry and ready for revenge and then ready to procrastinate, the next minute melancholy and the next putting an antic disposition on, and why his tone could be so wise and then also so bitter and sharply sarcastic and rude. How could he be so many things, and how could we define his character? I wish I had put up my hand to say that I thought I understood what was at the root of all his antics. His father had died not long before. That was all. He had been unmoored. While those around him were trying to explain that what had happened was normal, a part of nature, and were trying to get on with things, Hamlet had become wayward and, luckily, Shakespeare had seen the dramatic possibilities of this."

A Lost Generation

South Boston busMichael Patrick MacDonald has a vivid essay-part investigative journalism, part personal recollection of his time growing up in South Boston-about the forced busing that integrated South Boston High School in 1974: "Among the rarely discussed facts about my neighborhood was that white South Boston High School had the highest number of students on welfare in any school, citywide. The school mostly served the population of Southie's three large housing projects and the 'Lower End,' three contiguous census tracts that collectively held the highest concentration of white poverty in the United States, with 73 percent single-parent female-headed households and upwards of 40 percent unemployment rate among adult men. In the years before busing, only 16 percent of students at white South Boston High school went on to college, and when they did, they were usually the first in their families to do so. Former Boston NAACP President Ken Guskett has recently said that, during the battle for desegregation, while white students citywide received more funding per student ($450) than black students ($250 at the black schools in Roxbury)-'the South Boston kids got less than Roxbury.' This is the problem with looking at statistics only by race, rather than also looking at economics." MacDonald brings a panoramic lens to the busing history, exploring how it happened that black children were integrated into the only Boston schools worse than their own, how South Boston united against that integration and lost its soul, and how the Boston elite stood apart from the fray. Above all it is a riveting tale of the personal toll of a well-meaning but poorly instituted government policy. 

How to Read a "Politically Charged Sentence"

heideggerJulia Ireland has published a long essay that centers upon one of those rare genuine scholarly discoveries. Reviewing original manuscripts of Martin Heidegger's lecture courses, she discovered that the published versions of the texts mistakenly read Heidegger's notation for "National Socialism" as "The Natural Sciences." Ireland argues that restoring Heidegger's original words actually helps make sense of his controversial claims in another essay written in the same year in which he speaks of the "inner truth of National Socialism." In doing so, Ireland offers an extraordinary example of how to treat controversial philosophical texts. As she explains in a footnote that should be read more widely: "I am deeply opposed to that style of scholarship whose tendentious use of quotations preempts genuine philosophical analysis in a manner I understand to actively mislead. It remains true that substandard scholarship continues to determine the wider debate surrounding Heidegger's politics and that in the United States such scholarship has received the imprimatur of a university press. (Emmanuel Faye's division of his 'Bibliography' into categories such as 'Works by Other National Socialist and Völkisch Authors,' 'Apologetic and Revisionist Studies,' and 'Works Critical of Heidegger,' in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-35, is blatantly ideological; and his representation of student Protokolle as Heidegger's own words is specious; both should have been challenged by reviewers as violating the most basic principles of scholarship.) By contrast, I intend my analysis here as an alternative for what it means to read a single, politically charged sentence when interpretation has been constrained by the necessity of a philological reconstruction and the willingness to affirm the often surprising layers of complication that have accompanied it."

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From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Andrew T. Dilts reflects on forgiveness, punishment, and vengeance with respect to George Zimmerman's slaying of Trayvon Martin in the Quote of the Week. C. G. Jung provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back at a talk Bard College President Leon Botstein gave on the state of American education at the Hannah Arendt Center's seventh annual fall conference. And we appreciate a small yet powerful personal library of Arendt's works in our Library feature.

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The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
18Oct/145

American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?

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Roger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting For?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For the Weekend Read this week, we provide an edited transcript of Professor Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?”

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
10May/140

Equality and Singularity

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Thomas Piketty is not the only Frenchman making waves with a new book about inequality. The Society of Equals by Pierre Rosanvallon was just published in a translation by Arthur Goldhammer with Harvard University Press (the same press that published Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century). As does Piketty, Rosanvallon employs philosophy and history to characterize the return of inequality in the late 20th and now 21st centuries. But Rosanvallon, unlike Piketty, argues that we need to understand how inequality and equality now are different than they used to be. As a result, Rosanvallon is much more sanguine about economic inequality and optimistic about the possibilities for meaningful equality in the future.

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Paul Star of Princeton and The American Prospect reviews The Society of Equals in the New York Review of Books. Rosanvallon begins, Star writes, by noting that the return of massive inequality in European and American societies has not been met with real anger or revolutionary unrest. There is, instead, “passive consent to inequality,” and, as Rosanvallon writes, “‘a generalized sense that inequalities have grown ‘too large’ or even become ‘scandalous.’” And yet, that sense “‘coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.’” Economic inequality for Rosanvallon is rampant and important, but the widening income gap in and of itself is no longer seen as unjust. As Star writes:

The crisis of equality therefore involves more than widening economic disparities: “It reflects the collapse of a whole set of old ideas of justice and injustice” and “must be grasped as a total social fact.”

In other words, Rosanvallon wants to enlarge and transform what we mean when we speak about inequality. He seeks to “provide a comprehensive understanding that would help overcome the general sense of resignation and revive equality as a moral ideal and political project.”

Specifically, Rosanvallon wants to move the discussion of inequality away from an exclusive focus on income and towards an equality of individual self-flourishing, what he will call an “equality for a new ‘age of singularity’ when ‘everyone wants to ‘be someone.’” Here is how Star summarizes Rosanvallon’s approach to equality:

The story that Rosanvallon tells here is that as new forms of knowledge and economic relations have emerged, people have come to think of their situation in less collective ways. Since the 1980s, he writes, capitalism has put “a new emphasis on the creative abilities of individuals,” and jobs increasingly demand that workers invest their personalities in their work. No longer assured of being able to stay at one company, employees have to develop their distinctive qualities—their “brand”—so as to be able to move nimbly from one position to another.

As a result of both cognitive and social change, “everyone implicitly claims the right to be considered a star, an expert, or an artist, that is, to see his or her ideas and judgments taken into account and recognized as valuable.” The demand to be treated as singular does not come just from celebrities. On Facebook and many other online sites millions are saying: here are my opinions, my music, my photos. The yearning for distinction has become democratized. Yet amid this explosion of individuality, equality loses none of its importance: “The most intolerable form of inequality,” Rosanvallon writes, “is still not to be treated as a human being, to be rejected as worthless.”

The kind of inequality that Rosanvallon is concerned with—the kind that makes one feel rejected and worthless—is neither economic nor political, but a matter of social status.

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There is good reason for such a focus, but one that has little to do with the purported Marxist revival that Piketty’s book is supposed to herald. The strange thing about the incessant talk about inequality today is that rarely does one encounter genuine concern regarding the plight of the poor. The inequality debate has little to do with poverty or the impoverished and everything to do with the increasing gap separating the super-rich from the merely rich and the middle class. For Rosanvallon, we need to simply accept that economic inequality is part of our reality; what is more, he suggests that most of us have accepted that reality. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the ideal of equality. Instead, we must re-imagine equality for the modern age.

Rosanvallon wants to renew the egalitarian tradition in line with the changed circumstances of our time. “We live today in an individualist age and must reformulate things accordingly,” he writes in his new book. Does he solve the contemporary puzzles about inequality? I don’t think so. But he analyzes them in so illuminating a way that anyone interested in understanding and reversing the surge in inequality should read his work.

Reading Star’s account of Rosanvallon recalls John Adams’ claim that the true evils of poverty are less economic than invisibility:

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed…. He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market… he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen… To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. If Crusoe on his island had the library of Alexandria, and a certainty that he should never again see the face of man, would he ever open a volume?

For Hannah Arendt, from whom I take this quotation of Adams, these words express “the feeling of injustice” and “the conviction that darkness rather than want is the curse of poverty.” For Arendt, as for Adams, the “political predicament of the poor” could only be seen because of the relative “absence of misery” prevailing in revolutionary America.

Of course there was misery and poverty in revolutionary America, some amongst whites but clearly amongst black slaves. But as Arendt writes, even as the founding fathers “were aware of the primordial crime upon which the fabric of American society rested, if they ‘trembled when [they] thought that God is just’ (Jefferson), they did so because they were convinced of the incompatibility of the institution of slavery with the foundation of freedom, not because they were moved by pity or by a feeling of solidarity with their fellow men.” She concludes from this that “the institution of slavery carries an obscurity even blacker than the obscurity of poverty; the slave, not the poor man, was ‘wholly overlooked.’” It was this blindness to misery that allowed the founders of America to imagine the true evils of inequality to rest not in deprivation but in invisibility. And it was upon this blindness that the American Revolution imagined a kind of political equality in which the freedom to appear in public could flourish.

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What Rosanvallon sees is that the fact of extreme inequality today carries the threat not of misery but of irrelevancy. But such an analysis of inequality has very nearly obscured the question of poverty; it focuses, instead, on the feelings of disempowerment and resentment of the upper and lower middle classes. It is for these classes that Rosenvallon’s new ideal of equality will appeal—the right to equally appear as a singular individual. Here is how Star understands the new ideal of equality as singularity:

The idea of framing equality around the principle of singularity is provocative and appealing. Of course, even in the age of YouTube and Twitter, no society could possibly satisfy the desire of everyone to be a star, but in Rosanvallon’s conception singularity is a basis of human connection: “The difference that defines singularity binds a person to others; it does not set him apart. It arouses in others curiosity, interest, and a desire to understand.” Singularity demands recognition and acceptance:

‘Each individual seeks to stand out by virtue of the unique qualities that he or she alone possesses. The existence of diversity then becomes the standard of equality.’

Star raises serious questions about the way Rosanvallon depoliticizes economic inequality as he refocuses the idea of equality around the equal right to stand out and exist in public. But Star also recognizes that there is something true in Rosanvallon’s account, something that all the attention given to his countryman Piketty continues to overlook: That inequality absent misery may not be the real problem of political justice. The reason so much inequality is greeted with resentment but acceptance, is that our current imagination of justice concerns visibility and singularity more than it does equality of income. Of course, both these points depend upon our leaving the truly miserable and poor outside of the debate on inequality. So far, that has proven a fairly reliable assumption.

Star’s review is well worth being your weekend read.

--RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
1Feb/131

John Adams on Education

One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.

In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.

Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”

For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?

Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?

The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”

Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.

The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.

To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.

John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.

-RB

The HAC blog covers the humanities, politics, and education extensively. For more, click here to read "The Humanities and Common Sense,"  and click here to read "The Progeny of Teachers."

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
9Jul/120

To Deliberate Upon the Public Affairs

“‘[T]he revolution was effected before the war commenced,’ not because of any specifically revolutionary or rebellious spirit but because the inhabitants of the colonies were ‘formed by law into corporations, or bodies politic,’ and possessed ‘the right to assemble … in their town halls, there to deliberate upon the public affairs."

—Hannah Arendt, quoting John Adams, in On Revolution

These remarks represent casual, back-of-the-envelope thoughts. The question they pose is: what would the Occupy movement, or something like it, have to look like in order to succeed in altering the structure of American governance? This assumes that the goal of Occupy is, or should be, to change the structure of American governance, and it assumes an idea of what “the structure of American governance” means, which I will try to explain. My answer to that question—what would Occupy have to look like—can be summed up in a few words: it would have to stop being a movement of the left. As a thought experiment, I propose to imagine an Occupy movement without leftism, and with the goal of changing the structure of governance.

The first thing to work out is wherein the leftism of Occupy actually consists. It does not consist in espousing the interests of the poor—or attacking the interests of the rich. Wealth is neither liberal nor conservative by nature, and wealth in today’s America flows alternately to Republicans and Democrats. Right-wing movements can be populist as well, and garner the support of the economically marginal. Wealth looks after its own interests and treats politics as secondary—which is why the catchphrase of the Occupy movement, “the 99 percent,” theoretically constitutes an appeal to both left and right. It is supposed to be a call to unite along economic rather than political lines. This—“Forget politics and unite for your common economic interest!”—is what I take to be the intended message of Occupy. Those who primarily hear this intended message thus think that Occupy is a new kind of populist movement, having left behind the identity politics of liberalism for a unifying, class-based cause.

Photo by Giles Clarke

But whatever you make of this intended message, there is also an effective message of Occupy, somewhat different from its intended one. The effective message of Occupy proceeds, inevitably, from the demographic composition of the movement. Is it plain for anyone beholding an Occupy rally to see that its membership is drawn from the educated, bourgeois, liberal left; that other contingents (sympathetic Ron Paulites, unionists, etc.) are essentially tokens; and that the members of the real economic underclass are present only on the other side of the fast food counter, selling burritos to hungry protestors. At a march I attended in Chicago, I could stand in one spot and see signs proclaiming dozens of demands: that we go green, withdraw from foreign wars, respect women and minorities, legalize gay marriage, realize that “we are one with the cosmos”—and, oh yes, punish the banks while we’re at it. I happen to agree, at least in some sense, with most of these demands (oneness with the cosmos being one that I would have to find out more about before deciding on), but I was puzzled by their presence. I asked myself: are these particular demands separable from the core economic message? It seems they ought to be, and in theory they are, but here the concrete trumps the theoretical. Get rid of all the people holding those “Regulate x and “Legalize y” signs at the Occupy rally, and you will have gotten rid of most of the movement. Occupy pursues its universalism as a process of expansion from a preexisting social base. It is like a Facebook group that keeps adding members (in fact, it is that, literally). But this process has natural limits, which Occupy has probably already reached.

So Occupy has its economic message (“the 99 percent”), and it has its social message. The social message is: “Join the left! We liberals have everybody’s best interests at heart, and our concern is with economic justice for the 99 percent.

All you have to do to be part of our movement is to drop your uneducated prejudices—your racism, xenophobia, homophobia, chauvinism, et cetera. Then, once you have become educated liberals, we can move beyond liberalism and fight together for our economic interests!” In the very act of asserting its universalist economic agenda, Occupy reinscribes the particularist demands of the liberal left as prerequisites for participation.

Better than trying to cleanse the economic message of those distracting particularist agendas would be instead to think beyond the economic message itself. What would it mean for Occupy to think at the level of the political? The question of defining the political as such is a point that risks involving Arendt scholars, somewhat uncharacteristically, in long, subtle, almost scholastic discussions; but for our purposes, the answer is easy enough. It would mean to think about constitutions.

A constitution can be a written document embodying the “higher law of the land”—but it need not be. A constitution can just as well consist in an unwritten tradition (as in Great Britain), or, as Arendt reminds us, in an institution such as the Roman senate (or perhaps, in our day, the loya jirga)—a political body that lasts just as long as it is cared for and maintained. (Similarly, a written constitution lasts only as long as people choose to obey it.) A successful revolution—this is the thrust of Arendt’s On Revolution—is one which does not stop at the point of liberating people from oppression, which might be of an economic or a political kind. Occupy aims at economic liberation. A successful revolution, on the other hand, puts its main energy into constitution-making, and results in the creation of lasting institutions, bodies politic that function and endure.

Founding, constituting, instituting: this would be the business of a truly political and, I think, a truly successful Occupy movement. These activities are by nature genuinely public and open to all comers without prerequisite. They might take various concrete forms. Lawrence Lessig advocates holding mock constitutional conventions across the country, with the eventual aim of demonstrating the effectiveness of the process as carried out by ordinary citizens and encouraging state legislatures to invoke Article V of the U.S. constitution and call a new federal convention. Another model would be to simply begin holding unconditional open meetings, publicized and accessible to all, neighborhood by neighborhood, “to deliberate upon the public affairs” until some structure of governance begins to emerge, good leaders come forward, actions are taken. While both these models have their idealistic aspects, both have some realistic aspects as well. We have barely begun to think through the possibilities, but we will eventually need to do the patient work of reconstituting the republic.

-Stephen Haswell Todd

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
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