Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
7Apr/140

Amor Mundi 4/6/14

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.

Oligarchs, Inc.

supremeOver at SCOTUSblog, Burt Neuborne writes that “American democracy is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Oligarchs, Inc.” The good news, Neuborne reminds, is that “this too shall pass.” After a fluid and trenchant review of the case and the recent decision declaring limits on aggregate giving to political campaigns to be unconstitutional, Neuborne writes: “Perhaps most importantly, McCutcheon illustrates two competing visions of the First Amendment in action. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion turning American democracy over to the tender mercies of the very rich insists that whether aggregate contribution limits are good or bad for American democracy is not the Supreme Court’s problem. He tears seven words out of the forty-five words that constitute Madison’s First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law abridging . . . speech”; ignores the crucial limiting phrase “the freedom of,” and reads the artificially isolated text fragment as an iron deregulatory command that disables government from regulating campaign financing, even when deregulation results in an appalling vision of government of the oligarchs, by the oligarchs, and for the oligarchs that would make Madison (and Lincoln) weep. Justice Breyer’s dissent, seeking to retain some limit on the power of the very rich to exercise undue influence over American democracy, views the First Amendment, not as a simplistic deregulatory command, but as an aspirational ideal seeking to advance the Founders’ effort to establish a government of the people, by the people, and for the people for the first time in human history. For Justice Breyer, therefore, the question of what kind of democracy the Supreme Court’s decision will produce is at the center of the First Amendment analysis. For Chief Justice Roberts, it is completely beside the point. I wonder which approach Madison would have chosen. As a nation, we’ve weathered bad constitutional law before. Once upon a time, the Supreme Court protected slavery. Once upon a time the Supreme Court blocked minimum-wage and maximum-hour legislation.  Once upon a time, the Supreme Court endorsed racial segregation, denied equality to women, and jailed people for their thoughts and associations. This, too, shall pass. The real tragedy would be for people to give up on taking our democracy back from the oligarchs. Fixing the loopholes in disclosure laws, and public financing of elections are now more important than ever. Moreover, the legal walls of the airless room are paper-thin. Money isn’t speech at obscenely high levels. Protecting political equality is a compelling interest justifying limits on uncontrolled spending by the very rich. And preventing corruption means far more than stopping quid pro quo bribery. It means the preservation of a democracy where the governed can expect their representatives to decide issues independently, free from economic serfdom to their paymasters. The road to 2016 starts here. The stakes are the preservation of democracy itself.” It is important to remember that the issue is not really partisan, but that both parties are corrupted by the influx of huge amounts of money. Democracy is in danger not because one party will by the election, but because the oligarchs on both sides are crowding out grassroots participation. This is an essay you should read in full. For a plain English review of the decision, read this from SCOTUSblog. And for a Brief History of Campaign Finance, check out this from the Arendt Center Archives.

Saving Democracy

democZephyr Teachout, the most original and important thinker about the constitutional response to political corruption, has an op-ed in the Washington Post: “We should take this McCutcheon moment to build a better democracy. The plans are there. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has proposed something that would do more than fix flaws. H.R. 20, which he introduced in February, is designed around a belief that federal political campaigns should be directly funded by millions of passionate, but not wealthy, supporters. A proposal in New York would do a similar thing at the state level.” Teachout spoke at the Arendt Center two years ago after the Citizens United case. Afterwards, Roger Berkowitz wrote: “It is important to see that Teachout is really pointing out a shift between two alternate political theories. First, she argues that for the founders and for the United States up until the mid-20th century, the foundational value that legitimates our democracy is the confidence that our political system is free from corruption. Laws that restrict lobbying or penalize bribery are uncontroversial and constitutional, because they recognize core—if not the core—constitutional values. Second, Teachout sees that increasingly free speech has replaced anti-corruption as the foundational constitutional value in the United States. Beginning in the 20th century and culminating in the Court's decision in Citizens United, the Court gradually accepted the argument that the only way to guarantee a legitimate democracy is to give unlimited protection to the marketplace of idea. Put simply, truth is nothing else but the product of free debate and any limits on debate, especially political debate, will delegitimize our politics.” Read the entirety of his commentary here. Watch a recording of Teachout’s speech here.

The Forensic Gaze

forA new exhibition opened two weeks ago at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin that examines the changing ways in which states police and govern their subjects through forensics, and how certain aesthetic-political practices have also been used to challenge or expose states. Curated by Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman, Forensis “raises fundamental questions about the conditions under which spatial and material evidence is recorded and presented, and tests the potential of new types of evidence to expand our juridical imagination, open up forums for political dispute and practice, and articulate new claims for justice.” Harry Burke and Lucy Chien review the exhibition on Rhizome: “The exhibition argues that forensics is a political practice primarily at the point of interpretation. Yet if the exhibition is its own kind of forensic practice, then it is the point of the viewer's engagement where the exhibition becomes significant. The underlying argument in Forensis is that the object of forensics should be as much the looker and the act of looking as the looked-upon.” You may want to read more and then we suggest Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics.

Empathy's Mess

empathy

In an interview, Leslie Jamison, author of the very recently published The Empathy Exams, offers up a counterintuitive defense of empathy: “I’m interested in everything that might be flawed or messy about empathy — how imagining other lives can constitute a kind of tyranny, or artificially absolve our sense of guilt or responsibility; how feeling empathy can make us feel we’ve done something good when we actually haven’t. Zizek talks about how 'feeling good' has become a kind of commodity we purchase for ourselves when we buy socially responsible products; there’s some version of this inoculation logic — or danger — that’s possible with empathy as well: we start to like the feeling of feeling bad for others; it can make us feel good about ourselves. So there’s a lot of danger attached to empathy: it might be self-serving or self-absorbed; it might lead our moral reasoning astray, or supplant moral reasoning entirely. But do I want to defend it, despite acknowledging this mess? More like: I want to defend it by acknowledging this mess. Saying: Yes. Of course. But yet. Anyway.”

What the Language Does

barsIn a review of Romanian writer Herta Muller's recently translated collection Christina and Her Double, Costica Bradatan points to what changing language can do, what it can't do, and how those who attempt to manipulate it may also underestimate its power: “Behind all these efforts was the belief that language can change the real world. If religious terms are removed from language, people will stop having religious feelings; if the vocabulary of death is properly engineered, people will stop being afraid of dying. We may smile today, but in the long run such polices did produce a change, if not the intended one. The change was not in people’s attitudes toward death or the afterworld, but in their ability to make sense of what was going on. Since language plays such an important part in the construction of the self, when the state subjects you to constant acts of linguistic aggression, whether you realize it or not, your sense of who you are and of your place in the world are seriously affected. Your language is not just something you use, but an essential part of what you are. For this reason any political disruption of the way language is normally used can in the long run cripple you mentally, socially, and existentially. When you are unable to think clearly you cannot act coherently. Such an outcome is precisely what a totalitarian system wants: a population perpetually caught in a state of civic paralysis.”

Humanities and Human Life

humanCharles Samuleson, author of "The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone," has this paean to the humanities in the Wall Street Journal: “I once had a student, a factory worker, who read all of Schopenhauer just to find a few lines that I quoted in class. An ex-con wrote a searing essay for me about the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing, arguing that it fails miserably to live up to either the retributive or utilitarian standards that he had studied in Introduction to Ethics. I watched a preschool music teacher light up at Plato's "Republic," a recovering alcoholic become obsessed by Stoicism, and a wayward vet fall in love with logic (he's now finishing law school at Berkeley). A Sudanese refugee asked me, trembling, if we could study arguments concerning religious freedom. Never more has John Locke —or, for that matter, the liberal arts—seemed so vital to me.”

Caritas and Felicitas

charityArthur C. Brooks makes the case that charitable giving makes us happier and even more successful: “In 2003, while working on a book about charitable giving, I stumbled across a strange pattern in my data. Paradoxically, I was finding that donors ended up with more income after making their gifts. This was more than correlation; I found solid evidence that giving stimulated prosperity…. Why? Charitable giving improves what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.” Do yourself a favor, then, and become a member of the Arendt Center.

Featured Events

heidThe Black Notebooks (1931-1941):

What Heidegger's Denktagebuch reveals about his thinking during the Nazi regime.

April 8, 2014

Goethe Institut, NYC

Learn more here.

 

"My Name is Ruth."

An Evening with Bard Big Read and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping

Excerpts will be read by Neil Gaiman, Nicole Quinn, & Mary Caponegro

April 23, 2014

Richard B. Fisher Center, Bard College

Learn more here.

 

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, our Quote of the Week comes from Martin Wager, who views Arendt's idea of world alienation through the lens of modern day travel. Josh Kopin looks at Stanford Literary Lab's idea of using computers and data as a tool for literary criticism. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz ponders the slippery slope of using the First Amendment as the basis for campaign finance reform. 

11Feb/130

Secondhand Gun Smoke

"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."

Hannah Arendt, On Violence

The instruments that Hannah Arendt refers to in this quote are instruments of violence, that is to say, weapons.  Weapons, which in the main, translates to firearms, make it possible for One to commit acts of violence against All. And this fact has been brought into sharp focus in light of the devastating tragedy of this past December 14th, 2012:  the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a 20-year-old man using a semi-automatic assault rifle that belonged to his mother, the first victim of a killing spree that ended when he turned his weapon on himself and took his own life. The extreme depravity of this incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation, and reports of subsequent shootings of a more commonplace variety have been picked up by the news media, whereas previously they have more often than not been ignored. Fulfilling their function as agenda-setters, journalists have placed gun violence high on the list of national debates, reflecting the outrage of many citizens, as well as the genuine concern of a significant number of leaders and officials in government and organized religion.

Despite the fact that many citizens find the status quo intolerable, and favor legislation that would increase the limitations on the types of weaponry citizens can legally purchase and own, and on the requirements for sale and ownership of firearms, there has been considerable opposition to any form of what is commonly referred to as gun control. That pushback had come from what is sometimes referred to as the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association being the primary organization representing the firearms industry, and citizens who insist that our constitution's second amendment guarantees them the freedom to arm themselves as they see fit. And whereas one side mostly speaks in the language of moderation, arguing for reasonable restrictions on firearms sales, the other tends to speak in an extremist language of absolutes, arguing against any abridgement of rights and freedom, maintaining that gun control legislation is completely ineffective, and that, in the words of NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Fighting fire with fire is not a method favored by firefighters, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and likewise fighting firearms with firearms is a tactic of last resort for putting an end to gun violence. Firefighters stress the importance of prevention, and we certainly are entitled to ask, how can we prevent a bad guy from getting hold of a gun in the first place? When prevention is ineffective, and violence ensues, it may be necessary to engage in further violence as a countermeasure. But even if the result is cessation rather than escalation, the situation already represents a failure and breakdown of the community. As Arendt explains,

the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.

LaPierre's insistence that the only way to stop violence is with violence is not only simplistic in his childish morality of good guys vs. bad guys, but in his view of the situation as being One against One. Again, it would certainly be reasonable to concede the point that violent action on the part of one individual is sometimes required to put an end to violent action on the part of another individual, and such action is authorized on the part of duly appointed representatives of the law, e.g., police. But in acting in the role of police, such individuals are acting as representatives of the All, so that what appears to be One against One is in fact a case of All against One.  But LaPierre's notion of a good guy with a gun is not a police officer—indeed police departments typically favor stricter gun control—but an armed private citizen. In other words, his One against One would exist in a larger context of All against All, everyone armed in defense against everyone else, everyone prepared to engage in violence against everyone else.

That guns are instruments of violence ought to be clear. You cannot cut a steak with a gun. You cannot chop wood with a gun. You cannot excavate a mine with a gun. Unlike knives, axes, and even explosives, firearms have no practical use other than to harm and kill living things. There are recreational applications, granted, but there is nothing new about violence in recreational activities, boxing, wrestling, and fencing all have their origins in antiquity, while eastern martial arts disciplines have grown quite popular in the United States over the past half century, and football has become our most popular sport. It follows that hunting is simply another violent recreational activity, as we are now 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and few if any of us live in the wilderness as nomadic hunter-gatherers.  And target ranges, skeet shooting, and the like, all of which use obvious surrogates for human and animal bodies, are essentially recreational activities, apart from their function in training individuals  how to use firearms.

Instruments of violence, like all tools, are made to be used, and their violence cannot be confined to prescribed targets and situations. So with All against All, everyone lives under the shadow of violence, the possibility of being fired upon serving as a guarantee against bad behavior. From the individual's point of view, everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential menace that must be guarded against. And of course the danger they pose is greatly amplified if they are bearing arms. So peace is achieved through mutual intimidation, and at best a respect based on threat and fear. Under these circumstances, there is no solid foundation for political action based on consensus and cooperation, let alone social cohesion. With All against All, the potential for action taken by All against One is minimized.

Reducing if not eliminating the potential for All against One is central to the ideology of the NRA, for whom the All is not so much everyone else as it is our representatives in positions of authority. Armed private citizens are the good guys with guns, and it is not only the "criminals and crazies" who are bad guys, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the government. Ignoring the fact that historically, the second amendment was understood as granting individual states in the union the right to create militias in the absence of a standing federal army, gun advocates invoke "the right to bear arms" as a check against government tyranny, insisting that they are entitled to the same right to revolution that was claimed by the founders of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. That the Confederate states invoked the same right in seceding from the Union, igniting a debate settled by the most violent of means, is of little import it seems. The Civil War apparently did not end with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but merely underwent a transformation into a subtle insurgency movement that continues to this day. This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast majority of American citizens, including the multitudes that flocked to movie theaters in recent months to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

Arendt drives home the point that violence exists in inverse relationship to power.  Power is derived from the All, from the consent and agreement of the governed, the source of political legitimacy. Power is the ability to achieve goals without the use of violence. When governments are forced to resort to violence, it reflects a loss of power, one that is difficult to reclaim, and may ultimately result in that governments demise. Violence can destroy power, that is the lesson of revolution, but it cannot create power, only political action can. It follows that gun advocates see the second amendment as curbing the power of government, thereby empowering the individual. That sense of power is something of a chimera, however, for as soon as firearms are used, their power dissipates. If they are used against another private citizen, even a so-called bad guy, the user will have to answer to the legal system, and may be found guilty of unlawful action, or subject to civil liability. If they are used against a government official, the user will sooner or later discover that he (or she, but almost always it is a he) is outgunned, that One against All may only succeed in the short-term but will eventually fall to the vastly superior firepower of organized authorities.

American society, like all societies, looks to a set of values that, upon close inspection, holds logical contradictions, values that, from a distance, appear to be psychologically consistent with each other. We value the individual, and adhere to the most extreme form of individualism of any western society, but we also value the community. We seek a balance between the two, but ultimately they come in conflict with one another, the One vs. the All.  And we value freedom, but we also value equality. Both seem fundamental, but freedom includes the freedom to excel, to dominate, to gain an advantage, enforce and reinforce inequity, while any effort to be truly egalitarian requires restrictions on those freedoms. Moreover, we believe in capitalism, free enterprise as it were, but also in democracy, the American way, politically-speaking, and we assume the two can co-exist without discord. But capitalism is inherently undemocratic, favoring oligarchies and the absence of government regulation and oversight, whereas the exercise of democracy extends to policies that affect and constrain economic and financial activities, and the organization and conduct of business.

In the past, Americans have slightly favored the individual, freedom, and capitalism, all of which are aligned with one another, over the community, equality, and democracy, although the emphasis has shifted somewhat depending on circumstances (for example, during wartime, we become increasingly more likely to rally around the values of community and equality, and belief in democracy). To put it into Arendt's more succinct terms, we try to find a balance between the One and the All, but to the extent that the two are in conflict, we lean a bit towards the One.

In favoring the One, we tolerate the One against All, the result being that we are scarred by gun violence to a degree vastly out of proportion with other western societies. For gun advocates, gun ownership is an individual right and an essential freedom that must not be abridged. Never mind the fact that "the right to bear arms" is rarely found on any listing of basic human rights, as opposed to the right to live in safety and security, free from fear and threat, a right that gun ownership jeopardizes at least as much as it protects. And never mind the fact that our first amendment freedoms are subject to significant limitations and governed by legislation, and those freedoms are listed in a clear and unequivocal manner, in contrast to the second amendment's convoluted and confused diction ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"). It is also interesting to note that gun advocates like LaPierre do not hesitate to try to shift the focus onto the first amendment, blaming violence in film, television programming, and videogames for incidents like the Newtown shooting. And what is often downplayed is that the gun lobby, in resisting all attempts at gun control, are defending the interests of the gun industry, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms. Of course, it is hard to play up the importance of free enterprise in the wake of the murder of elementary school children.

In their radical views on the second amendment, and their absolute embrace of individual freedom and capitalism against the interests of community, equality, and democracy, gun ideologues like LaPierre insist on the supremacy of One against All, and it is not surprising that the result is an extreme form of violence.  And, as I noted earlier, leaders representing the interests of the All against the One tend to speak, naturally enough, in the language of practical politics operating within a democratic form of government, the language of negotiation and compromise, but find themselves confronted on the other side with the abstract absolutes characteristic of the language of ideology. You might say, what we got here is a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, although the two sides probably understand each other better than they let on.

The ideologues know that if they refuse to blink first, the compromisers will most likely give up and move on to more pressing matters. And the compromisers know that the ideologues refusal to negotiate gives them an excuse to turn away from a divisive issue that may cost them a measure of support in the next election, and deal with more pressing matters with a greater probability of reaching a successful conclusion. Only now, after Newtown, is there talk of having reached a tipping point in public opinion, one that may pressure the compromisers to insist upon a settlement, and may force the ideologues to accept the pragmatic need for negotiation. The likely outcome is that the ideologues will make some minor concessions, allowing for some small progress on gun control, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a far cry from the measures needed to curb the high incidence of gun violence in the United States.

Change will come, because the alternative is intolerable. To the extent that we live in increasingly denser populated areas, in urban sprawl rather than rural isolation, so that the consequences of violent action become increasingly more catastrophic, we require more civilized, more civil living conditions, the insurance against violence that can only come from the power of organized authority subject to political oversight, not private citizens responsible only to themselves. To live in a society of All against All is ultimately regressive, and can only make sense if the social system disintegrates, a remote possibility that cannot be balanced against the actuality of incident after incident of gun violence.

Change will come, but it may only come gradually, given our cultural bias towards the One against All, and it may only come generationally.  Over the past half century, Americans have become increasingly more risk aversive, as more information about potential risks to health and safety have been made available through the electronic media. However, as Henry Perkinson argues in No Safety in Numbers, it is the risks that we have no control over that we are particularly averse to. When the risk is perceived as a matter of individual choice, an expression of personal freedom, we are less averse to it than when it is understood to fall outside of our locus of control. Prohibition is often invoked as the archetype of failed measures to eliminate harmful behavior, and the word prohibition is often thrown into discussions on gun control and similar measures in order to summon up those negative connotations. Despite the potential risks to health and safety from alcoholic inebriation, over-consumption, and addiction, drinking was seen as an exercise of free will, and therefore acceptable. It was only with the campaign against drinking and driving that the locus of risk was shifted from the individual consuming intoxicating beverages to the innocent victims of drunk driving, accident victims who had no choice in the matter, whose freedom was in fact curtailed by the drinker. The same is true of tobacco.

Once medical research established that smoking causes emphysema, heart disease, and cancer, modest change in American smoking habits ensued. It was not until the findings about secondhand smoke were established that real cultural change took place, a truly extraordinary shift in attitudes and behavior about smoking. The key was that secondhand smoke exposed individuals to risks that they had no control over, risks that they were subjected to against their own volition.

While this form of risk-aversion is relatively recent, a more basic understanding that permeates American society is that individuals can exercise their freedoms as long as those freedoms do not jeopardize others. The early assertion of a right to own slaves could only persist insofar as individuals were willing to view the enslaved as somehow less than fully human; otherwise the freedom to enslave clearly cannot justify the denial of another individual's freedom. Similarly, free enterprise and free markets, the freedom of individuals to engage in any kind of business and labor practices they might chose to, eventually was understood to conflict with the rights of labor, of workers and employees, as well as the rights of consumers, so that the freedom of capitalism is subject to constraints imposed in the interests of the community and democracy.

In the face of the violence of One against All, what is needed is the power, in the positive sense of democratic political action, of All against One. The power of public opinion and a growing consensus will serve as a bulletproof vest to protect the body politic from assault by the weapons industry and gun ideologues. And the best place to begin is by talking about the dangers that uncontrolled access to firearms pose to citizens who do not choose to live with these instruments of violence, citizens whose freedoms and rights and very lives are put at risk without their consent, citizens who all are victims of secondhand gun smoke.

-Lance Strate

 

25Sep/121

Does the President Matter?

“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”

                        —Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?

This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter?  The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.

This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.

If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.

And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?

­On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.

This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.

Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief.  In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.

No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.

Every President comes to Washington promising reform!  And they all fail.  According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.

On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."

A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:

The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.

The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible.  All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.

For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.

The question  "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:

“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”

So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.

The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.

When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.

Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence."  To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.

Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.

One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.

This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:

Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.

All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.

Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:

"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."

My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.

What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.

But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law.  Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator.  Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.

In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.

In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.

These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.

Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President,  the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.

Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask:  might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.

At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.

Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.

She continued:

It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.

I don't know if the president matters.

But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.

In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you.  If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.

-RB

Watch Roger's  opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.