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?”
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.
“‘[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.
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