Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
19Sep/140

Video Archives – “Lying in Politics: Alchemies of Deception” (2011)

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Friday, March 5, 2011: “Lying and Politics: Alchemies of Deception”

Participants: Roger Hodge, Editor of Harper’s Magazine from 2006-2010

Roger Hodge gave a talk as a part of the Arendt Center’s March 2011 conference: “Lying and Politics.” Hodge focuses his talk on the matter of deception in politics.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Sep/144

Did Eichmann Think?

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Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer is the new English translation of Bettina Stangneth’s exhaustive history of the life of Adolf Eichmann. Her book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to try to understand Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi lieutenant colonel who was responsible for the logistics of the Holocaust.

Stangneth has pieced together the scattered transcripts of the interviews Eichmann gave with the Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen in multiple archives, she has tracked down full essays and fragments of Eichmann’s own writing in mislabeled files that have never been considered before, and above all she has pieced together the written record of Eichmann’s life with a diligence and obsessiveness that is uncanny and likely never to be repeated. Stangneth knows more about Adolf Eichmann than any other person alive and probably more than any person in history, past or future.

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".
21Oct/130

Of Ceilings and Binders: The Case for Satire

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“Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.  One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase…into the dustbin where it belongs.”

 -George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

I was rereading Orwell’s great 1946 essay this morning, as I prepare to be hurtled back across the continent and into that black miasma engulfing the Atlantic coast from the great belching factories on the Potomac.  There is something in the air: the newspapers smack against doors a little harder, the grumble in the deli line is a little more fractious, and the smaller canines seem still more invested than usual in expansionist aggression against my outer territories.  Perhaps it’s simply the first signs of the descent of winter, but I’m inclined to attribute the collective ill-temper to more political causes, and “Politics and the English Language” seemed as important as my totemic Emergen-C packets to avoid contracting anything unpleasant.  Like much of the late Orwell, I find its linguistic politics slightly repugnant and its language an utter delight, an irony that would, I have no doubt, have the pleased the author.

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I’ve  known a number of professors of history and politics who make this essay mandatory reading before their classes, and despite my better graces I’m leaning towards the practice.  The attraction for me is less the cantankerous attempt to ward off bad essay-writing than the fact that Orwell explains, in his inimitable way, something fundamental about the politics of language and the languages of politics, and that lesson is one that I think is particularly salient for the political moment.  The second to last sentence of the essay (the first that opens the quotation above) is much quoted, and it finds the most powerful expressions of its searing critique of the political manipulation of language in 1984 and Animal Farm.  Maybe the existence of this pathology of political language is the one great lesson we managed to learn from the twin births of totalitarianism Arendt diagnosed (I’m less sanguine about our memory in other arenas), even if treatment for the condition has not gone terribly well: we are all well-aware of, if not always well-attuned to, the nearly infinite capacity of our languages to bear and even beautify raw, enormous dissembly.  And, as in 1984, the most powerful dissemblies of the blustery political day are the pithy little gems – “death tax,” “death panel,” “debt ceiling” (conservative politicians in particular have a perennial fondness for D) – which manage to imagine into being a crisis capable of paralyzing a state.

Nevertheless you almost never read anyone quote what follows after the political respectability of murder for Orwell, the thought that concludes the essay and explains its form.  More’s the pity, because it contains a point that I think just might be more salient for the particular political crisis that gripped Washington and then whimpered off into the sunset (the night that follows is always a bit too brief, and is getting shorter).  The question, for Orwell, is not whether political language lies, but what one does with the species of neologism – the “Achilles’ heel” and the “yellow peril” – which seems to all tempered response almost utterly devoid of meaning, and yet manages nevertheless to grip a (part of a) national imagination and twist it into factual destruction.

It was, to be sure, an imaginary crisis.  But nearly all crises have to be imagined into existence before they can take those first few shaky steps towards disaster without their parents’ support.  Imagining facts into the world, Arendt reminds us in “Lying and Politics,” is the entire point of political language.  It exists to craft the narratives that move nations, and the power to imagine crisis is not one that we necessarily want to do without altogether (perhaps Churchill was an Arendtian before Arendt when he suggested that Chamberlain’s greatest political vice was an extraordinary lack of imagination).  All crises begin with facts – there is after all such a bureaucratic thing as the fiscal limit called the “debt ceiling” – but facts, Arendt reminds us,  can be remarkably impotent in the political world until we have spun them finely and woven them with enough meanings to make them live. The trouble with crises is not that they are imagined, but that after they have been imagined into the world, they are remarkably difficult to unimagine.  If Boehner has learned anything about political language, this month, it is how little control we exercise over the neologisms we release into the world once they are in the mouths of others.

So what to do about these little political language imps, if they’re to be stopped before they wreck the political machines that spit them out?  This is where I find Orwell brilliant as a political writer, a representative of a literary tradition that stretches from Chaucer through Swift to Burgess and Vonnegut.  Orwell’s answer here, perhaps more recognizable in Burmese Days and Road to Wigan Pier than in their later cousins, is to jeer: in other words, to make language – and language, not speakers – an object of mirth.  This impulse never left Orwell.  For all that 1984 is decisively, almost irresistibly crushing, it is also one of the darkest, bitterest exercises in history of a political tool of the arts of language that has always thrived when the political world is at its worst: irony and mirth in the face of horror.  We forget that about 1984, perhaps because the young are often assigned the book before our little burgeoning faculties of irony are fully sensitive to what Arendt calls a “vulnerability to human unsuccess”…or then again, perhaps the opposite is more true, that we understood it then, and forget as we struggle to shed that vulnerability Arendt describes as the killer of poets.

Some are suspicious of jokesters and satirists in moments of political crisis, on the one hand because they seem to rarely offer any positive way forward, and on the other because they work to make light of things that, in their graveness, ought not be made light of.  Arendt herself emerged from the pale of the events that offer our best examples of horror’s power to make us resist its translation into humor (though it should be remembered that one of her first pieces after the war was the darkly witty “We, The Refugees”).  In that, we risk becoming horror’s willing agents, but perhaps in some cases it has already won its victories and we can only subsequently mourn.  It’s a difficult question, which terrible things can be made funny, and those who would play in the languages of politics should be granted a measure of leniency for those times when they traipse over the line.  In their defense, that line is one that can never be drawn in advance, because it comes bearing ever-shifting whens and whoms that can always be pushed further back by an extraordinary gift that not even the most talented satirists can live up to in every moment.  The line can be pushed back, and should be pushed back, because when undertaken by the most talented, satire and seriousness have never been opposites, but on the contrary are what allow each other to do the utmost that they can do.  This is what made Orwell, for all his limitations, one of the great political writers of and on the English language: in the face first of empire and then of anti-semitic totalitarianism, he staked his artistic life on a faith in the power to express what is most utterly serious better through wit, to join the sustaining narrative power of sad mirth to the deepest and most inexpressible of pains.  The lesson of “Shooting an Elephant” always seemed to me to be something along the lines of an idea that horror must be swallowed just long enough to give us sustenance, if we are to go once more into the breach against it.  It’s a difficult and contentious thought, but worth swallowing.

This, in turn, is why the satire of language, in particular, does offer a way forward.  It’s a case that Orwell makes and has been made brilliantly in a more American vein by Pryor, Carlin, and its modern geniuses Dave Chappell, Jon Stewart, and Tina Fey.  If our morasses are mostly made of imaginings, in fact for better or worse must be, then the talent for jeering precisely those imaginative failings that turn crises into disasters is our best hope for sorting out in time what is more silliness than substance, what we should and what we cannot afford to leave to laughter.  Orwell’s talent is one we should be paying more attention to as things get blacker, not less, because ungentle teasing by that gift’s greatest artists may be our last, best hope of sorting through a world of imagined politics and its deafening neologisms.  The most gifted have unleashed some imps of their own: who will now forget poor Mittens’ binders full of women?

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It is commonplace, on both sides of the political spectrum, to wail and gnash about the sheer irrationality of some ways of understanding America’s problems.  But there are some forms of attachment, especially those that seem to inhere powerfully in these little language-imps, that the aesthetics of detached analysis and even fiery polemic are simply ill-equipped to combat.  When debating has become shouting, neither louder shouting nor studiously detached sermonism are likely to have much effect.  Sometimes, someone needs to kick out the soapbox.

We do need communities of analysis, communities of clear-eyed engagement in a political world so thoroughly fogged over with huff-puffery, and that will always give those like the author not blessed with the flair for jest something to do with ourselves (my closest friends assure me that I’m terrifyingly unfunny, and it’s true, but I’d like to still have something to do, even if it’s to be a lighthouse without a beacon or a coast).  Fate save us, though, from ever being delivered wholly over to the hands of the terminally serious, because it might just be that the emotional sacrifices of our jesters that are our best offerings to appease the gods of democracy.  As a public feeling powerless and deeply estranged from its state looks for ways “one can at least change one’s own habits”, a daily dose of satire with strong coffee may be better for political revival than what punditry and prognosis have on offer.

-Ian Storey

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
5Aug/130

Amor Mundi – 8/4/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

What They Know

NSAJames Bamford has an excellent survey of the continuing revelations about the NSA's surveillance activities, bringing us up to date on what the government does and does not know about us. He steers clear of exaggerated accusations, writing: "Of course the US is not a totalitarian society, and no equivalent of Big Brother runs it, as the widespread reporting of Snowden's information shows." But Bamford also details the direction of the current policies, finding their danger in the rise of a security state mentality: "Still, the US intelligence agencies also seem to have adopted Orwell's idea of doublethink-"to be conscious of complete truthfulness," he wrote, "while telling carefully constructed lies." For example, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was asked at a Senate hearing in March whether "the NSA collect[s] any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." Clapper's answer: "No, sir.... Not wittingly.""

XKeyscore: NSA Tool Collects 'Nearly Everything'

keyscoreSpeaking of what the government knows, Glenn Greenwald, writing again in the Guardian, has unveiled the most important part of the NSA surveillance state since his original article over one month ago. XKeyscore is "A top secret National Security Agency program that allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden."

Trayvon Martin: What the Law Can't Do

trayvonIn the New York Review of Books, Steven H. Wright explains the George Zimmerman acquittal to his mother, who, "like many mothers of black sons, couldn't understand how state prosecutors had failed to secure a conviction for the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin." In doing so, Wright offers one of the most thoughtful accounts of the legal process against Zimmerman - and potential further federal cases. He also explains why it is so difficult to prove at law that a crime was committed because of race: "In either case, the government would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that race played a role in the death of Martin. In response, Zimmerman has at least two practical defenses. In the first defense, Zimmerman's legal team might strive to introduce evidence demonstrating that he is not prejudiced against African-Americans. As is now well known, some African-Americans have already come to Zimmerman's defense. A black neighbor has said that Zimmerman was the first and only person to welcome her to the neighborhood. Black children have also claimed Zimmerman mentored them. And according to his family Zimmerman has many black friends. The defense undoubtedly would try to ensure that the jurors learned these stories. Imagine if these black friends showed their support by sitting behind Zimmerman at trial. This image alone might persuade some jurors that race was not a motivating factor in Martin's death."

Private Universities and Public Developments

detroitJustin Pope wonders if a large private research institution might have helped Detroit to avoid its recent bankruptcy: "Where is Detroit's Johns Hopkins? Or, to limit the comparison to neighboring Rust Belt states, where is its Carnegie-Mellon, or Case Western Reserve? Why is there no, say, Henry Ford University in Detroit? And if there had been one, would it have made a difference?"

On the Power of Cinema

scorcese"First of all," Martin Scorcese says, discussing and defending the power of the cinema, "there's light. Light is at the beginning of cinema, of course. It's fundamental - because cinema is created with light, and it's still best seen projected in dark rooms, where it's the only source of light. But light is also at the beginning of everything. Most creation myths start with darkness, and then the real beginning comes with light - which means the creation of forms. Which leads to distinguishing one thing from another, and ourselves from the rest of the world. Recognizing patterns, similarities, differences, naming things - interpreting the world. Metaphors - seeing one thing "in light of" something else. Becoming "enlightened." Light is at the core of who we are and how we understand ourselves."

Whither the Jury?

juryAlbert Dzur makes his case, not to the jury, but rather in favor of it: "Lay participation in criminal justice is needed because it brings otherwise attenuated people into contact with human suffering, draws attention to the ways laws and policies and institutional structures prolong that suffering, and makes possible - though does not guarantee - greater awareness among participants of their own responsibility for laws and policies and structures that treat people humanely. Participatory institutions are our best chance at breaking through what philosopher Margaret Urban Walker aptly calls 'morally significant nonperception.' Evasion of concern for others, the dismissal of some as less than fully human, is the first barrier to be surmounted on the way to justice." For more on the importance of the jury to the American tradition of doing justice, see Roger Berkowitz's essay Why We Must Judge.

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast" The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"

Olin Hall, Bard College

Learn more here.

 

 

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jeffrey Champlin digs into Arendt's Denktagebuch. For the weekend read, Roger Berkowitz looks at the decline in jury trials and the potential impact that might have. "What acts of judgment exemplified by juries offer are an ideal of justice beyond the law." Lastly, Wednesday brought to a close our 10 day/100 member campaign. We are thrilled to report that we exceeded our goal, and we thank you for all of your support and generosity.

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
6Dec/123

Holes of Oblivion Open Up in China

One central feature of totalitarianism is the desire of those at the top of the movement to retain full—that is, total—control of their people. Total control requires, at times, the ability to lie, especially when facts on the ground fail to conform with past and present pronouncements. The strength of any totalitarian system can, in part, be measured by how successfully lies can be maintained and how effectively the movement can lie in spite of the facts.

A story out of China this week offers great insight into the totalitarian ambitions of some in China’s government, but also the fissures in that façade. As is now well known, Chinese President Hu Jintao is resigning, leaving office voluntarily when he had been expected to seek another term in power. Moreover, Hu is not maintaining any significant position of power in the new Chinese leadership, something quite unusual. And now the reasons have surfaced.

It seems that Hu was brought down by the emergence of a cover-up orchestrated by his most trusted deputy, Ling Jihua. The facts are such:

Mr. Ling’s son crashed his black Ferrari, killing himself and injuring two young women he was driving with. One of the women later died. Even though the crash and the son’s death were reported in the press, Mr. Ling set about erasing that news and denying it. He admitted the crash, but insisted his son was still alive, even creating false social media posts from his son to “prove” that he had survived. In addition, a major Chinese bank with connections to President Hu paid hush money to the families of the two women.

What is surprising is not so much the cover-up, but that it failed. As the New York Times reports,

Under normal circumstances, party insiders said, suppressing such news to protect the image of the party would be a routine matter. But Ling Jihua went further, they said, maneuvering to hide his son’s death even from the leadership.

Against Ling’s heavy-handed efforts, Chinese bureaucrats fought back. Intentionally or not, the police recorded the name of Ling’s son as Jia, a word that sounds like the word in Chinese for fake, and also a word similar to a retired party leader. That leader was furious about reports of his ignoble death. This and other accidents led to increasing pressure on Ling, and eventually the cover-up unraveled, leaving Hu embarrassed and eventually allowing him to be pushed out of power.

The fascinating story is yet another reminder of one of the most optimistic of Hannah Arendt’s repeated claims, that “The holes of oblivion do not exist.”  In other words, no totalitarian system is perfect and no matter how sophisticated the lie, if the lie is big and important enough, the truth will eventually come out. As Arendt writes:

Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.

It is always good to be reminded of this basic fact of the human world, that as artful as humans may be at lying, truth is stronger than the lie.

-RB

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
11Sep/121

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

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)

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
31Aug/123

The President’s Failure and His Challenge.

I spoke with my daughter this morning. She is seven. I asked her what she thought of Mitt Romney's speech. She answered: "Both he and President Obama tell lies simply to get elected." Now I know she is to some extent parroting what she hears around our dinner table and the playground. But there is something deeply disheartening in her seven-year-old cynicism. There is a deep sense not only that our politicians lie, but also that the Presidency is a broken institution. That the President is captive of interests special and not-so-special. That the President is trapped in a bureaucracy impervious to change and that the President, whomever he or she may be, cannot really change the perilous course on which our nation is headed. This indeed is the topic of an upcoming conference, "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."

There are myriad sources for this pessimism that one hears from seven-year-olds, college students, and adults. It is markedly different from the idealism that swept the country four years ago personified in Barack Obama. More so than any time I know of, there is a sense of total hopelessness; a feeling that neither party and no potential president can possibly change our course for the better.

To understand this ennui, one must take President Obama's failure seriously. That failure is simple. He became President amidst the perceived failure of the presidency of George W. Bush. The Country desperately wanted a change.  At the same time, the financial crisis threatened to overwhelm the nation. The President offered hope. He embodied all of our dreams, offering a way forward, out of the excesses of the Bush era and towards a re-enlivening of basic American values of freedom and fairness. There was, in the President's own words, a demand for a "new era of responsibility."

The force of Mitt Romney's Convention speech on Thursday was his expression of disappointment in the President. This strikes me as a non-partisan statement and that is its strength. It is hard to find even the most stalwart of President Obama's supporters who will disagree with this assessment. Where does it come from? Why has Obama disappointed us?

One answer comes from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the leading thinkers of Presidential rhetoric of our time. Jamieson has given analyses of many of President Obama's speeches, and his found them deeply wanting. In her 2010 address to the American Political Science Association, she says:

In other words, Barack Obama was never as eloquent as we thought he was. A person matched a moment with rhetoric in a context in which the audience created something heard as eloquence. Widely labeled as eloquent, he creates expectations for his presidency that he cannot satisfy in the presidency barring that he is Abraham Lincoln with the Gettysburg Address or a Second Inaugural in his pocket.

So on the one hand, Obama set the expectations for himself too high. That may be, but it is also the case that he became President at a time of great crisis. Maybe it wasn't a Civil War, but the financial crisis does threaten the future of the United States. One fault of the President is that he has continued to describe the financial crisis as a temporary setback, one that will cause some pain but will pass. He has not taken the financial crisis seriously enough, and categorized it for what it is, a crisis. By refusing to do so, he has lost the opportunity  to become a crisis President.

In a recent post, I discussed Roberto Magabeira Unger's insistence that we need a wartime President now without a war, one who rallies the nation to change and sacrifice towards a future goal. What Obama has refused to do is present his vision of where we should go. He speaks about change, but doesn't offer a sense of what that change might be. In Jamieson's analysis, he has failed to provide a rhetorical speech that offers us "a digestive sense of what this presidency is going to do."

A digestive statement for Jamieson is something like John F. Kennedy's question: "Ask not what your country can do for you..." As Jameison writes, such statements "sound as if they're sound bites until you realize that there's a definition underlying a presidency in those kinds of statements." Kennedy meant something with his question, something he backed up with the idea of the Peace Corps and public service.

The problem with President Obama's rhetoric, and thus his presidency, is that he has yet to find such a digestive statement that defines what he cares about and what he believes this country is about. As Jamieson writes, there is nothing like Kennedy's invocation of the Peace Corps or communal sacrifice that defines or articulates Obama's vision for America. There is no theme of "transformation of generational identity." She writes: "Indeed, I would challenge you to give me a phrase that is memorable at all, that defines who we are and where we're going under this presidency."

Jamieson's critique of the President is harsh. But I think it is accurate. That is the reason why Romney's claim of disappointment strikes me as powerful. Whether Romney offers an alternative is hard to know, since he himself seems to change his opinions and views weekly. That said, President Obama has his work cut out for him. He must show us that he can articulate a response to the disappointment people feel and provide the hope that he can still get the country back on track, even after three years of failing to do so.

The crises the President inherited are not his fault. It is disgusting to hear Paul Ryan and others blame the President for every problem in the United States. And despite Mitt Romney's impressive past history, his willingness to change his positions regularly and disavow past achievements raises serious questions about his own ability to lead. And yet, it is undeniable that after three years, the financial crisis is still with us and the political crisis is worse than ever. At some point, the President must take responsibility for his failure to address these crises and offer hope that he has a plan to address them in the future. That is the President's challenge during his convention speech next week. To somehow try to answer the criticism that after three years, we still don't know what it is that President Obama believes in and how he wants to respond to the financial and political crisis that he inherited.

In thinking about what the President will say on Thursday, I encourage everyone to read Jamieson's analysis of the past failure of Obama's rhetoric. It is your weekend read. And if you want to think further about the challenge of the president to lead in times of crisis, think about attending the Hannah Arendt Center's upcoming conference, "Does the President Matter?"

-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".