Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
26Apr/140

Race, Democracy, and the Constitution

ArendtWeekendReading

 

Looking for scandal, the press is focusing on the apparent conflict between Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The controversy began seven years ago before Sotomayor was on the Court, when Roberts wrote, in a decision invalidating a race-based busing program in Seattle, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This week, in a dissent Sotomayor chose to read aloud from the Supreme Court bench, she scolded Roberts:

"In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter."

Sotomayor’s point is that race matters in ways that her colleagues, including Roberts, apparently do not understand. She is right; race does matter, and it matters in ways that are difficult to perceive and comprehend. Among the pages of historical, legal, and everyday examples she offers, there are these reflections on the small but persistent present reality of race in America:

“And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, 'No, where are you really from?', regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'”

Roberts responded in a separate concurring opinion, defending himself against the charge of racial insensitivity. It is not and he is not out of touch with reality, he argues, to disagree about the use of racial preferences in responding to the reality of race in 21st century America. He too is right.

"The dissent states that '[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.' And it urges that '[r]ace matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: "I do not belong here.'" But it is not 'out of touch with reality' to conclude that racial preferences may themselves have the debilitating effect of reinforcing precisely that doubt, and—if so—that the preferences do more harm than good. To disagree with the dissent’s views on the costs and benefits of racial preferences is not to 'wish away, rather than confront' racial inequality. People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate."

The background of these supremely intemperate contretemps is a decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action in which the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Kennedy, upheld a Michigan Constitutional provision (recently amended through a ballot initiative) prohibiting race-based affirmative action in public universities.

As both Justice Kennedy’s controlling opinion and Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion make clear, the decision does not at all address the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action programs themselves. While in recent years the Supreme Court has shown skepticism about race-based affirmative action, it has consistently allowed such programs as long as they are tailored to achieve a legitimate state purpose understood as diversity in educational institutions. Nothing in Schuette changes that.

At the same time, Schuette does give constitutional blessing to states that democratically choose not to use race-based affirmative action. Already a number of states (including Blue states like California and swing states like Florida) have passed voter initiatives banning such race-based preferences. Racial preferences are not popular. In Michigan, a state that has voted democratic in the last five presidential elections, the anti-affirmative action ballot proposal passed by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent. For this reason, Schuette is rightly seen as another nail in the coffin of race-based affirmative action programs.

Support for race-based affirmative action is dwindling, hence the impassioned and at times angry dissent by Justice Sotomayor. Even if the Court does not further limit the ability of states to practice race-based affirmative action, more and more states—which means the people of the United States—are choosing not to.

This, by the way, does not mean a return to segregated education although it will likely mean, at least in the short term, fewer African Americans at public universities in Michigan. To choose not to allow race-based preferences opens the door to other experiments with promoting diversity in education. For example, universities in Michigan and California can seek to give preference to students from poor and socio-economically disadvantaged zip codes. Depending on the connection between race and poverty in a given state, such an approach to diversity may or may not lead to racial diversity on campus, but it will very likely lead to increased and meaningful diversity insofar as students from meaningfully different pasts and with uniquely divergent life experiences would be in school together. It is at least arguable that such an approach would lead to greater diversity than many race-based preference programs that end up recruiting a small group of upper class minorities.

As a legal matter, Schuette concerned two different understandings of freedom. On the one hand, as Justice Kennedy writes, “The freedom secured by the Constitution consists, in one of its essential dimensions, of the right of the individual not to be injured by the unlawful exercise of governmental power.” Understood as individual rights, freedom means the right to attend desegregated schools, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to meaningful dissent.

But freedom, Kennedy continues, “does not stop with individual rights.” There is another understanding of freedom, which may be called the freedom to participate in self-government:

"Our constitutional system embraces, too, the right of citizens to debate so they can learn and decide and then, through the political process, act in concert to try to shape the course of their own times and the course of a nation that must strive always to make freedom ever greater and more secure. Here Michigan voters acted in concert and statewide to seek consensus and adopt a policy on a difficult subject against a historical background of race in America that has been a source of tragedy and persisting injustice. That history demands that we continue to learn, to listen, and to remain open to new approaches if we are to aspire always to a constitutional order in which all persons are treated with fairness and equal dignity. Were the Court to rule that the question addressed by Michigan voters is too sensitive or complex to be within the grasp of the electorate; or that the policies at issue remain too delicate to be resolved save by university officials or faculties, acting at some remove from immediate public scrutiny and control; or that these matters are so arcane that the electorate’s power must be limited because the people cannot prudently exercise that power even after a full debate, that holding would be an unprecedented restriction on the exercise of a fundamental right held not just by one person but by all in common. It is the right to speak and debate and learn and then, as a matter of political will, to act through a lawful electoral process."

Both individual freedom and political freedom are important. Both are at the core of American understandings of free, democratic, constitutional government. The point is that these freedoms must be balanced. In this case, the balance swung in favor of political freedom. Here is Justice Breyer’s argument from his concurring opinion:

“The Constitution allows local, state, and national communities to adopt narrowly tailored race-conscious programs designed to bring about greater inclusion and diversity. But the Constitution foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving differences and debates about the merits of these programs. In short, the 'Constitution creates a democratic political system through which the people themselves must together find answers' to disagreements of this kind.”

For Sotomayor and those who agree with her, the claim is that the reality of racism historically and presently threatens the integrity of the political process. The problem with Sotomayor’s argument is that it is not at all clear that racial inequality today is the primary factor threatening the integrity of our political system. On the contrary, while it is incontrovertible that race matters, other facts, like class or income, may matter more.

To think seriously about race in American is hard. Very hard. As Walter Russell Mead writes, in discussing these questions,

“There’s a basic point that should not be forgotten in dealing with anything touching on race: The place of African Americans in the United States is a uniquely difficult and charged question. The history of slavery, segregation and entrenched racism in the United States cannot be denied and should not be minimized. The effects of this history are still very much with us today, and while the overwhelming majority of Americans repudiate racist ideologies and beliefs, the continuing presence of racist ideas, prejudices and emotions in this country is a reality that policy makers and people of good will cannot and should not ignore. It is naive to think otherwise, and any look at how our system works and any thoughts about whether it works fairly have to include a serious and honest reflection on the fading but real potency of race.”

Mead raises a difficult question, which is whether race is really the best way to think about inequality in 21st century America. He argues for status based public policy programs to replace race-based programs:

“Ultimately, this is why status-based forms of affirmative action seem better than race based ones. President Obama’s kids don’t need any special help in getting into college, but there are many kids of all races and ethnic groups who have demonstrated unusual talent and grit by achieving in difficult circumstances. Kids who go to terrible schools, who overcome economic disadvantages, who are the first in their family to complete high school, or who grow up in neighborhoods that are socially distressed can and should be treated with the respect their achievements warrant.”

Should President Obama’s children benefit from race-based preference programs? Clearly the answer is no. But note, this does not mean that his children will not suffer from racism. Mead knows this and says so. Indeed, it is likely they will, over the course of their lives, find themselves in situations where they are looked at askance, avoided, singled out, discriminated against, and also privileged on account of their races. Race matters, undoubtedly, in complicated but overwhelmingly in damaging and at times degrading ways. Responding to the reality of race in our society is absolutely necessary.

It is not at all clear that race-based preferences in college admission are the best way to respond to the reality of race in the 21st century. Some states believe such race-based preferences are necessary. Other states, including Michigan, California, and Florida, have concluded they are not. Deciding that preferential admissions to universities on the basis of race is impermissible is not unconstitutional. That is the correct decision the Court made this week.

That does not mean, of course, that we shouldn’t try to address both racial and class discrimination in higher education. There are many ways to address the damaging impact of racial as well as economic inequality in our society—some maybe better than race-based preferences. For one, schools could institute truly need-blind admissions and decide to give preference to applicants who come from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. While many of the poorest and most disadvantaged children in our society are white and from rural backgrounds, many others are racial minorities. Both would benefit from such an approach, which would be infinitely more just than a simple preference based on skin color.

Even better would be a serious commitment to affirmatively act to improve our shamefully underfunded and under-achieving high schools. Especially in poorer areas where rural and urban poverty crush the hopes and dreams of young people, our public schools are too-often disastrous. These schools, however, are free and the four years students spend in them are frequently wasted. If we could somehow figure out how to make high school a meaningful experience for millions of low-income children, that would be the single best way to help disadvantaged children around the country, both minority and white. That would be a truly meaningful form of affirmative action.

Over the last 50 years race has replaced class as the primary way that people on the left have perceived the injustices of the world. During that time poverty did not disappear as a problem, but it was hidden behind concerns of race and at times of gender. A whole generation of activists and politicians have grown up and worked in an era in which the problems of the nation were seen through a racial lens. There were good reasons for this shift and the results have been important and phenomenal. Yes, race still matters today, but nowhere to the extent it did 50 years ago.

Poverty, on the other end, matters ever more. With rising inequality and with the welldocumented problems of the middle classes (let alone the overlooked lower classes), we are slowly seeing a shift away from race and towards class as the dominant lens for thinking about equality and inequality in the country. This is as it should be. It is time to begin thinking more about advocating for real class diversity in colleges and public institutions; that doesn’t mean race as a problem has gone away, but it does mean that in the early 21st century, poverty trumps race as the true scourge of our public life.

The opinions in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action are well worth reading in full, especially those by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. They are your weekend read. You can download a PDF of the opinion here.

-RB

22Feb/131

Federalism and the Crisis of Politics

Federalism should not be a partisan issue. This has been forgotten as the Federalist Society has turned federalism into a rhetorical sledgehammer to bludgeon liberal policies. But rightly understood, federalism is about freedom. 

Federalism promotes freedom for at least two reasons. First, because citizens will only act and speak in public when they believe their actions will be seen and heard.

The smaller the stage, the more likely is action to be meaningful. If freedom and action are the same, as Arendt writes, then we should be wary of the erosion of federalism. Only when local political institutions have meaningful power will they attract citizens to become politically involved. The danger in the loss of federalism today is the increasing sense that individual citizens have little if any power, which leads to cynicism and apathy.

We can see this cynicism and apathy, surprisingly, in Occupy Wall Street. The fact that Occupy Wall Street became a protest movement, and not an alternative locus of power, is at least partly the result of the fact that local power structures have been rendered increasingly impotent by the vampire squid of national power. As people rightly feel ever-more alienated from political institutions that can make a difference, they retreat from politics. Why did Occupy eschew local politics? Why did it seek a megaphone on the national stage instead of working in the pits of village, town, and state politics? Because everyone knows that the power of local institutions has been decimated. The result is a feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness; the present response is to embrace an ethic of permanent protest as the only meaningful way to personal empowerment. But the elevation of protest to the apogee of political action in Occupy Wall Street is, unfortunately, just another example of the vanishing of politics in our time.

The second way federalism promotes freedom is through constitutional structure. The best way to prevent government from attaining totalitarian or tyrannical power is, as Arendt argues, to multiply the sources of political power. Arendt credits the United States Constitution because it created not only the division of powers on the federal level, but also the constitutional federalism of the early Republic. By empowering states, counties, towns, and villages, the United States Constitution ensured that nearly every citizen would have both opportunity and reason to act in public and to engage in politics.

Arendt’s thoughts on the freedom found in federalism come to mind as I’ve been reading—at the urging of my colleague David Kettler—the classic Small Town in Mass Society, by Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman. Originally published in 1958, Small Town in Mass Society is still an important and now sadly forgotten book. The argument, in short, is that local towns and villages are losing their distinctiveness. Studying class, religion, power, and politics in small town America, Vidich and Bensman argue that local governments are voluntarily abandoning the political powers they constitutionally possess and thus emptying their lives of meaningful political engagement.

What Vidich and Bensman find is a fundamental contradiction between the way that small town culture sees itself and the way it actually exists in mass society. In their self-image, the residents of “Springdale”—the name for the town they study— think of themselves as a community. They distinguish themselves from “urban dwellers” who are anonymous. They imagine that “Here no man counts more than any other.” “It is unthinkable for anyone to pass a person on the street without exchanging greetings;”

 “Almost all of rural life receives its justification on the basis of the direct and personal and human feelings that guide people’s relations with each other.” And, above all, the Springdale residents of rural New York see themselves as independent from urban-mass society:

While he realizes that machinery and factory products are essential to his standard of life and that taxation and agricultural policy are important, he feels that he is independent of other features of industrial and urban life, or, better, that he can choose and select only the best parts. The simple physical separation from the city and the open rural atmosphere make it possible to avoid the problems inherent in city life.

Against this feeling of independence, Vidich and Bensman argue that small towns are actually part of and integrated into mass society to an extent that their self-image cannot and will not admit. Against the view that Springdalers can choose those parts of mass society they want and reject the rest, Vidich and Bensman argue that they are more influenced and subjected to mass society.

In almost all aspects of culture, even to speech forms, and including technology, literature, fashions and fads, as well as patterns of consumption, to mention a few, the small town tends to reflect the contemporary mass society.  Basically, a historically indigenous local culture does not seem to exist.

For our purposes, one telling section of Small Town in Mass Society is called “The Political Surrender to Mass Society.” While Springdale has a local government and possesses the power of taxation and governance, the authors argue that the town seeks at nearly every turn to abdicate self-governance. Examples include:

 •“Solutions to the problem of fire protection are found in agreements with regionally organized fire districts.”
•The town prefers to have its road signs provided in standard form by state agencies “without cost to the taxpayer[s]” in Springdale.
•Springdale accepts the state’s rules and regulations on roads built and maintained by the state. It works with the foreman of the state highway maintenance crew to have his teams clear village roads, thus saving the expense of organizing and paying for this as a town.
• State construction programs “present local political agencies with the alternative of either accepting or rejecting proposed road plans and programs formulated by the state highway department.”
•The town at every point adjusts its actions to the regulations and laws defined by state and federal agencies; or they accede to the rule of these outside agencies because the agencies have the power to withhold subsidies.

What Springdale actually does in its own politics is forego self-governance and submit itself to outside control. It repeatedly accepts grants of aid offered by the state and subsidies by the state, even when such aid comes with strings and demands for control. The result is that the “village board in Springdale accepts few of the powers given to it. Instead, it orients its action to the facilities and subsidies controlled and dispensed by other agencies and, by virtue of this, forfeits its own political power.”  What is more, this economic and political dependence leads to a “habituation to outside control to the point where the town and village governments find it hard to act even where they have the power.”

For Vidich and Bensman, the loss of local power leads to a psychologically damaging sense of dependence on outside agencies, bureaucracies, and governments.

“State police, regionally organized fire districts, state welfare agencies, the state highway department, the state youth commission, the state conservation department—these agencies and others are central to the daily functioning of the village.” There is a “pattern of dependence,” according to which the “important decisions are made for Springdale by outside agencies.” On the one hand, Springdalers resent these services provided by outsiders because they negate the local villagers’ self image as independent. But the villagers accept these services “because they are free or because acceptance of them carries with it monetary grants-in-aid for the local community.”

The conclusion Vidich and Bensman reach is that the Springdale town government does increasingly little. It seeks whenever possible to avoid providing services itself—e.g. snow or garbage removal. Instead, it seeks to have these services provided by the state in order to avoid having to raise taxes. The ultimate result is the “avoidance of innovation and the minimization of decision.” The village “tends to limit its function to the conduct of routine “housekeeping” business.” “It is a common complaint among all groups in the community that the village board does nothing.”

This political irrelevance at the local level is radical change from the American tradition of citizen democracy. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 19th century, he was impressed by the active participation of citizens in local government. 100 years later, when Hannah Arendt arrived in the United States, she too was amazed by the sense of common citizens that their voice mattered in politics.

Shortly after Arendt’s arrival, she traveled to a provincial town in Massachusetts to live with a family as a way of learning everyday English and experiencing something of American mores. While she had little in common with this family whose puritanical ways clashed with her own, she was captivated by them and by what Antonia Grunenberg has called their republican self-consciousness.

Arendt described her host family to Karl Jaspers as "thoroughly average people—what would have been called 'petty bourgeoisie' in Germany." And yet, these average Americans embodied the American love of freedom that so impressed Arendt. As she wrote to Jaspers shortly after they resumed contact in 1946:

There is much I could say about America. There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom. The republic is not a vapid illusion, and the fact that there is no national state and no truly national tradition creates an atmosphere of freedom or at least one not pervaded by fanaticism. (Because of the strong need the various immigrant groups feel to maintain their identity, the melting pot is in large part not even an ideal, much less a reality.) Then, too, people here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent I have never seen in any European country. For example, when all Americans of Japanese descent were locked up willy-nilly in concentration camps at the beginning of the war, a genuine storm of protest that can still be felt today went through the country. I was visiting with an American family in New England at the time. They were thoroughly average people--what would have been called 'petty bourgeoisie' in Germany—and they had, I'm' sure, never laid eyes on a Japanese in their lives. As I later learned, they and many of their friends wrote immediately and spontaneously to their congressmen, insisted on the constitutional rights of all Americans regardless of national background, and declared that if something like that could happen, they no longer felt safe themselves (these people were of Anglo-Saxon background, and their families had been in this country for generations), etc.

The extraordinary embrace of political freedom in America had a flip side, namely social oppression: To allow people local rule and governance means that parochial and racist communities can oppress minorities and impose socially conservative mores. There is a fundamental tradeoff between political freedom and social oppression. But Arendt thought the choice was easy: social oppression is simply a cost of what she came to see as the miracle of America.

For Arendt, America embodied, in Leon Botstein’s words, "a federal system of government not based on race or designed to rectify social inequalities, but established to ensure political equality among all citizens, to maintain the freedom of the public realm, social differences notwithstanding."

America, in Arendt's writing and especially in her book On Revolution, is an enduring image of public freedom that so animates her life-long thinking.

Occupy Wall Street failed for many reasons. Above all, however, it failed because even at a time when our democratic and representative institutions are seen as corrupt and broken, OWS offered no meaningful alternative. It failed, therefore, in the basic requirement of any truly revolutionary political movement: to pick up power when it is lying the streets, as Arendt writes in On Violence. And one reason it did so is that we have all lost the basic experience of citizenship and freedom that Arendt so valued when she arrived in America. If we are to resurrect such a practice and habit of citizen-politics, we need to reinvigorate local politics. But we can only do that if we reclaim federalism as a matter of freedom outside of partisan debates.

One first step is to confront honestly and clearly the depth of the loss of political power in America. This has become difficult because federalism and local power have been politicized and polarized. We need to move beyond that. To do so, there are few better books that Small Town in Mass Society. It is your weekend read. And if you cannot get the book, take a look at their article The New Middle Classes: Their Cultures and Life Styles.

For other posts on the connection between Federalism, Power, and Freedom, see “Power, Persuasion, and Organization” and “The Supreme Court as Truthteller.”

 -RB

5Feb/130

Geography is not Destiny

How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.

As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).

Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.

Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.

Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.

There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.

He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.

Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.

Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.

-Jeffrey Jurgens