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.
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. Stangneth writes that her book has two aims. The first is "to present all the available material, as well as the challenges that come with it." The second is to engage in a "dialogue with Hannah Arendt, and not simply because I first came to this topic many years ago through Eichmann in Jerusalem." Stangneth traces her interest in Eichmann to Arendt's book, a book that in Stangneth's words "had the courage to form a clear judgment, even at the risk of knowing too little." Her plunge into the depths of Eichmann's soul is an effort to reckon with power and provocation of Arendt's judgment. Stangneth goes to great lengths to praise Arendt in interviews and in her writing, citing Arendt as an inspiration and model for fearless and critical thinking about difficult and horrible events. In the end, however, Stangneth concludes that as brilliant as Arendt's book on the Eichmann trial is, Arendt herself was mistaken in her characterization of Eichmann as banal: "one of the most significant insights to be gained from studying Adolf Eichmann is reflected in Arendt: even someone of average intelligence can induce a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled." In other words, Arendt expected Eichmann to be thoughtless; in concluding that he was banal, she was fooled by him. Stangneth's book is the best account of Eichmann the man to appear since Arendt's trial report in 1963. You can read an excerpt here. You can read my account on the Arendt Center blog.
Ta-Nehisi Coates spent the summer in a French immersion program at Middlebury College. In an essay about the experience, he talks about how communicating and reading almost exclusively in French alienated him from the world outside of campus (except, perhaps, the world according to the French), how educational opportunities in America have been traditionally afforded to some and not others, and how the importance of the experience is, in part, discovering something counterintuitive: "One afternoon, I was walking from lunch feeling battered by the language. I started talking with a young master in training. I told her I was having a tough time. She gave me some encouraging words in French from a famous author. I told her I didn't understand. She repeated them. I still didn't understand. She repeated them again. I shook my head, smiled, and walked away mildly frustrated because I understood every word she was saying but could not understand how it fit. It was as though someone had said, 'He her walks swim plus that yesterday the fight.' (This is how French often sounds to me.) The next day, I sat at lunch with her and another young woman. I asked her to spell the quote out for me. I wrote the phrase down. I did not understand. The other young lady explained the function of the pronouns in the sentence. Suddenly I understood-and not just the meaning of the phrase. I understood something about the function of language, why being able to diagram sentences was important, why understanding partitives and collective nouns was important. In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn't know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea."
We are sick of politics, and who can blame us when the only rational conclusion is that getting involved doesn't make a difference? And yet every once in a while someone comes along who is convinced that they can make a difference, that politics can matter again. David Cole writes about Zephyr Teachout and her new book Corruption in America. "Indeed, according to Teachout, corruption is not just Cuomo's-or New York's-problem. It is the most pressing threat that our democracy faces. And the problem, as Teachout sees it, is that those in power refuse to admit it. Just as Cuomo shut down the Moreland Commission's inquiry into corruption, so the Supreme Court, by adopting an ahistorical and improperly narrow view of corruption, has shut down an exploration of the very real threat that unrestricted campaign spending actually poses to our democracy. In Corruption in America, an eloquent, revealing, and sometimes surprising historical inquiry, Teachout convincingly argues that corruption, broadly understood as placing private interests over the public good in public office, is at the root of what ails American democracy. Regulating corruption has been a persistent theme through American history and has bedeviled lawyers, politicians, and political philosophers alike. Everyone agrees that it is a problem, but few can agree on how to define it, much less fight it effectively." Teachout spoke at Bard last week as she prepares for the NY Democratic primary this Tuesday, in which she is challenging Andrew Cuomo. And she will be speaking as well with Lawrence Lessig at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference The Unmaking of Americans in October.
Daniel Bergner describes Eva Moskowitz as a one-woman tsunami bringing about the drive for educational excellence in New York. "'I thought that as chairwoman of the Education Committee, I could make a difference,' [Moskowitz] said. But labor was too intransigent, the government bureaucracy too cumbersome and entrenched. 'I kept getting more and more narrow: Well, if you can't bring better science or better arts - I held a hearing on toilet paper. I thought, That's going to be a winner, everyone's for toilet paper, surely we can come together. But you couldn't, because the administration denied' that there was a problem. 'I had to go around photographing bathrooms where there wasn't toilet paper. . . . I thought, This is not a system that delivers for children. Kids can't wait till all the policies change. That's going to be another two centuries.'" Moskowitz has created a series of schools in which mostly poor and disadvantaged students test better than students at the best public and private schools. Her technique might surprise: "Above all, there are her exacting standards for the network's adults - the teachers she hires straight from certification programs or after stints with public schools or Teach for America and the administrators who have been promoted from her faculty. It's their intellectual capacity that is her main concern; the training sessions I sat in on this summer were less about teaching teachers to teach than about teaching them to think. I watched Jessica Sie, the associate director of literacy, lead an auditorium full of elementary- and middle-school faculty members in a discussion of the nuances in a short essay from The New Yorker. They wouldn't be using the essay with their students. But Moskowitz wants her faculty to know how to read in the deepest way, so they can model this for their pupils right from the youngest grades, when everyone is discussing 'The Tortoise and the Hare.'"
While pursuing her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, Tish Harrison Warren led the Graduate Christian Fellowship-a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship-until a new policy led her group to be put on probation. Their fault was to require leaders of the group to affirm certain Christian beliefs. She hoped it was all a misunderstanding. "But as I met with other administrators, the tone began to change. The word discrimination began to be used-a lot-specifically in regard to creedal requirements. It was lobbed like a grenade to end all argument. Administrators compared Christian students to 1960s segregationists. I once mustered courage to ask them if they truly thought it was fair to equate racial prejudice with asking Bible study leaders to affirm the Resurrection. The vice chancellor replied, 'Creedal discrimination is still discrimination.' .... The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad-not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus. It didn't matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn't matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it." All of which leads Warren to ask, with justification, if there is still space for religious organizations in America's universities.
James Ward, who puts on something called the Boring Conference, talks to conference goers, including a woman who takes photographs of IBM cash registers, another who makes sound recordings of vending machines, and a man who keeps track of his sneezes. Why pay some attention to something so, well, boring? Ward explains: "'How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day?' asks the French writer Georges Perec in his 1973 essay on the 'infra-ordinary' (his word for everything that's the opposite of 'extraordinary'). Perec challenges us to question the habitual. 'But that's just it, we're habituated to it. We don't question it, it doesn't question us, it doesn't seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither question nor answers, as if it weren't the bearer of any information. Perec's point is that everything contains information. It's just that, sometimes, it takes a bit of work to notice it. These days, an audience and a platform can be found for even the most niche interests, as people demonstrate that nothing is truly boring - not if you look at it closely enough.'"
Details soon to follow.
Wednesday, September 17h, 2014
The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm
Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."
Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!
Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!
Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!
Learn more about the conference here.
This week on the Blog, Richard Barrett discusses scientific and philosophic truth in the Quote of the Week. French philosopher Henri Bergson provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a Lunchtime Talk with Ory Amitay on the nature and history of monotheism in our Video Archives. We celebrate the return of our Library feature with a visit to the Hannah Arendt Library at Bard College. Roger Berkowitz addresses some of the common critiques leveled against Eichmann in Jerusalem in the Weekend Read. And as a special treat, Roger Berkowitz discusses Bettina Stangneth's Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer.
This post was originally published on December 2, 2011.
Eight years ago this week, Michael Ignatieff accepted the Hannah Arendt Prize in Bremen. Ignatieff's acceptance speech spoke of Hannah Arendt as an example, as an intellectual whose work and persona had inspired and guided him on his own course. As is appropriate, he praises Arendt and also challenges her, finding in his disagreements an intense respect for the provocation and courage of her thinking. Arendt inspires, Ignatieff concludes, because she is skeptical, dispassionate, and free. His speech is one of the best accounts of what makes Arendt so compelling as a thinker. I recommend it to you as this week’s Weekend read.
What most strikes Ignatieff about Arendt is her intellectual authority. He writes:
She was an example, first, because she created her own authority. She arrived in New York as a penniless refugee and by her death was widely respected as a public intellectual. She achieved authority by the power of thought. By authority, I mean that she was listened to, respected and widely regarded as a wise woman. I also mean that her influence has survived her and that the argument about her work continues a generation after her death.
Arendt's authority flows from commitment to ideas, to, in Ignatieff's words, an "intellectual life, that was free of any alliance with power, ideology, religion or coercive force." Neither a liberal nor a conservative, Arendt sought simply to think, and rethink, what we are doing. Again, Ignatieff characterizes her beautifully:
She defended a life of the mind connected to the idea of persuasion: the free changing of a mind in interaction with a logical argument or a claim about the world grounded in evident or falsifiable facts. She was attentive to facts, understood the discipline they impose on thought, appreciated the moral code of empirical scholarship, the proposition that if the theory does not fit the facts, the theory must be changed. This is a moral idea simply because it requires people to admit that they are wrong, and since nobody likes to, everyone can find a morally dubious way to avoid doing so. Facts are stubborn things, and intellectual life has no essential morality unless it submits arguments to the discipline of such facts as we can discover about ourselves and the world we live in.
Arendt's insistence on facts beyond ideology and politics made her old-fashioned to some. While everyone has a right to their opinion, she insisted that facts are sacrosanct, and no one has a right to change facts. Fidelity to facts meant for her a fidelity to living in a world with others, a shared world, one in which our disagreements cannot include disagreements over the unquestionable factual truths that make up our common world.
It is on the question of one such fact, however, that Ignatieff disagrees with Arendt. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt brought attention to the complicity of Jewish leaders who, during WWII, supplied Nazi leaders with lists of Jews and organized their fellow Jews for transport to concentration and death camps. A few resigned. Fewer committed suicide or resisted. But the majority collaborated.
These Jewish leaders often defended their actions as a lesser evil, keeping order where otherwise disorder might have reigned. But Arendt noted that they also kept themselves and their families off the transport lists. These were facts. While many Jews thought these facts should be hidden, Arendt insisted on telling the whole truth. Arendt argued that it is always right to tell the truth, no matter the consequences.
What is more, Arendt had the temerity to judge the Jewish leaders for their complicity. The Jewish leaders, she wrote, had defended their actions by the argument of the "lesser evil"— that their cooperation allowed them to save some Jews (themselves included) and was therefore a lesser evil; if they had simply handed the responsibility for selecting and organizing the Jews to the Nazis, that would have been worse.
For Arendt, this argument of the lesser evil was in form, although not in significance or import, the very same argument Eichmann employed. It was even closer to the actions of normal, average, everyday Germans who chose to work within the Nazi bureaucracy and legal system, justifying their actions by saying that if they resigned, others, even more heartless, would take their places. What unites the German civil servants and the Jewish leaders in Arendt’s telling is their willingness to justify morally suspect actions in the name of doing an unethical job as ethically as possible.
It is important to recall that Arendt did not advocate punishing the Jewish leaders. Hers was not a legal judgment. But she did insist that they should bear moral responsibility for their actions. In short, they had put their own safety and the safety of their friends and families above their obligations to those other Jews who were under their care. In short, they had valued the lives of some over others and cooperated in the selection of some for extermination.
Arendt's argument of the formal similarity between the complicity of the Jewish leader and German bureaucrats was, Ignatieff argues, a mistake. It is worth hearing his argument at length. He writes:
Arendt had assumed that the choices that Jewish leaders made under Nazi occupation ought to be judged by the same standards of accountability to be applied to the perpetrators. She quoted her friend Mary McCarthy as saying, “If somebody points a gun at you and says, “Kill your friend or I will kill you”, he is tempting you, that is all.”
Arendt maintained that while it might not be possible to resist direct coercion, it was possible to resist temptation. This standard applied equally to perpetrators and accomplices. Without holding on to such a distinction, Arendt claimed, personal responsibility would be lost altogether.
Yet while it is a temptation for the perpetrator to say: “Kill your friend or I will kill you”, the victim so compelled is under a very direct form of coercion. Arendt has elided two very different experiences: the German perpetrator who could disobey orders that entailed telling others to kill and a Jewish collaborator who knew that the choices were between everyone dying and some dying, between dying then or dying later.
“I was told, “Arendt later said angrily, “that judging itself was wrong: no one can judge who had not been there.” But it was one thing to insist on the right to judge Eichmann and his kind, another thing to claim the equivalent right to judge—and condemn—the conduct of Jewish collaborators. The second case required a different kind of judgment, one that does not confuse understanding and forgiveness, but which does insist on empathy as a prelude to judgment. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Empathy here means the capacity to enter into the moral world of those faced with intolerable choices and understand how these choices could be made. Empathy implies a capacity to discriminate between the condemnation appropriate to a perpetrator and that of his Jewish accomplice. The accusation here is fundamental: that in making ethical judgment the central function of intellectual life, and its chief claim of authority, Arendt had lacked the one essential feature of judgment: compassion.
There are a few things to say about Ignatieff's critique. First, he assumes that for the Jewish collaborators the choice was between "everyone dying and some dying, between dying then or dying later." Arendt disputes that fact. She denies that Jewish collaboration saved more lives than non-collaboration would have. Indeed, she argues that if the Jews had refused to collaborate, many fewer Jews would have been killed. The ensuing chaos would have afforded many Jews the chance to escape and would have inspired others to resist. Further, the complicity of Jewish leaders eased the Nazi's job and provided labor and legitimacy that expedited the efficiency of the final solution. It is simply wrong, Arendt insists, to see the choice as one of dying now or dying later. One cannot know the results of action, which always begins anew and is unpredictable in its consequences. Jewish resistance in place of collaboration, she argues, might have saved lives. It would have required courage, however, that the leaders risk their own lives.
Second, Ignatieff argues that Arendt was wrong to judge the collaborators and that in doing so she denied them the empathy and compassion that are essential features of judgment. Here Ignatieff and Arendt have a real difference of opinion, and it is one worth thinking about.
Ignatieff insists that judgment requires compassion. We should get to know the person being judged, empathize with his plight, and make allowance for his wrongs based on the circumstances. Against this view, Arendt insists that compassion—which is an essential and praiseworthy trait in the personal realm—must be kept out of the political realm and divorced from questions of judgment.
Compassion with another requires an engagement with another in their singularity. Indeed, it is just such a lack of compassion with those Jews under their care that was absent on the part of the Jewish leaders and that allowed them to act such as they did. Instead of compassion, the Jewish leaders treated their fellow Jews with pity. The leaders eased the plight of their subjects by treating them pitifully and softly as they sent them off to die, but they were able to do so only by avoiding the true empathy of compassion that would have made such action impossible. If the Jewish leaders really had compassion, they could never have handed them over to the Nazis to be killed. In fact, it is this willingness to subordinate their compassion and singular relation to those they were responsible for, to the political logic of means-ends rationality that bothered Arendt.
What most bothered Arendt, however, was that the Jewish leaders judged it better to do wrong by sending others off to die than to suffer wrong themselves. This putting of their own self-interest above the moral requirement not to do wrong was, she argued, a violation of the fundamental moral law first announced by Socrates; that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. It is for their poor moral judgment that Arendt judges them.
While the leaders should have showed compassion for those in their care, Arendt insists that a judge should not. Judgment requires distance. It is from her distant perch as a conscious pariah—an outsider who refuses to let compassion enter her judgments—that Arendt found the moral authority with which to judge the Jewish leaders. On the need for such judgment, she and Ignatieff simply disagree.
Enjoy Ignatieff's speech. It is a shining example of how to accept an award with gratitude—appropriate for a post-Thanksgiving read. And let us know what you think.
Library of the University Club, New York
The American writer and founder of Dissent magazine Irving Howe wrote many of the best accounts of the controversy over Arendt’s publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. As the controversy swells yet again in the wake of the new movie “Hannah Arendt,” Dissent thankfully republishes an excerpt of Howe’s testamentary writing about Arendt.
My first encounter with Hannah had come in 1947 when she was editor of Schocken Books, the German-Jewish publishing house recently moved to New York. She needed a part-time assistant to do literary chores (copy for book jackets, cleaning up translations, and so forth), and for the handy sum of $150 a month I took the job. With it came the privilege of visiting Hannah at her office every week. She had not yet published her major work on totalitarianism, but everyone in the intellectual world respected her and some feared her. She liked to “adopt” young people, and while I was not one of her chosen—perhaps because I was deaf to philosophy, or had been contaminated by Marxism, or was visibly intent upon resisting her intellectual lures—she would take an hour off and talk to me about Kafka and Brecht, Yiddish folk tales and American politics.
See more here.
A.O. Scott gives "Hannah Arendt", the new film by Margarethe von Trotta a rave in the New York Times today:
We may need [Arendt’s] example more than ever. It’s probably too much to hope that Ms. von Trotta and her star, Barbara Sukowa, will do for Arendt what Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep did for Julia Child, but surely a fellow can dream. And in a manner not altogether dissimilar to the way “Julie & Julia” mastered the art of French cooking, “Hannah Arendt” conveys the glamour, charisma and difficulty of a certain kind of German thought. Ms. Sukowa, compact and energetic and not overly concerned with impersonation, captures Arendt’s fearsome cerebral power, as well as her warmth and, above all, the essential, unappeasable curiosity that drove her.
The movie turns ideas into the best kind of entertainment. There is an undeniable nostalgic thrill in stepping into an era in New York when philosophers lived in apartments with Hudson River views, and smoking was permitted even in college lecture halls, especially if you are someone for whom the summit of early-’60s Manhattan magic is not Madison Avenue or Macdougal Street but Riverside Drive. But it would be a mistake to file this film with all the other rose-colored midcentury costume dramas.
Read the whole review here.
"Hannah Arendt" opens tonight at Film Forum in Manhattan. We will be on hand and there is a Q&A afterwards with Margarethe von Trotta, Pam Katz (writer), Barbara Sukowa (playing Hannah Arendt) and Janet McTeer (playing Mary McCarthy).
The opening is sold out, but on Wednesday June 5th, there will be a Q&A with Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, following the 6:30 show. Buy tickets here.
“One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”
- Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem, November 4, 1943
Hannah Arendt had lived for a year and a half in the United States when she noted in a letter to her friend Gershom Scholem: “One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”
This entails, Arendt continues, a certain attitude of “permanent absence (by which I mean ‘absent-mindedness’), rendering human contact between people to be very difficult.” Scholem, who received Arendt’s letter from New York in Jerusalem, was familiar with this phenomenon. “All my friends in the U.S. are muted by this ‘public isolation’,” hence communicating with them became very difficult, he writes in December 1943, “unfortunately you are not an exception in that regard.”
Scholem’s response is noteworthy, for he addresses the political implication of Arendt’s (self-) observation. In general, being busy and leading a public life is not a contradiction. “One can be occupied by his daily work, and when this period of work in the private realm of a factory or an office space has ended, one can enter the public sphere by being a citizen – or a friend” (Jerome Kohn). Arendt had a political understanding of friendship; for her, friendship consists of the world that appears between friends who are diverse and embody plurality rather than an imagined or imposed ‘unity’. In a state of “absent-mindedness” though, one cannot be in public, nor political, nor with friends in a meaningful way.
The problem starts with the absent need for “leisure,” Arendt states. In her letter to Scholem she uses a particular (untranslatable) German term for leisure: “Musse,” which is the German version of the Latin concept of otium. It denotes the free time I have for contemplation when I’m not busy (opposed to neg-otium, the time when I’m not free for contemplation, i.e. when I’m busy).
The term “Musse” that Arendt uses also appears in the title “Musse und Müssiggang” (Leisure and Idleness) of section no. 329 in Nietzsche’s Gay Science. Nietzsche, who is not known for having great interest in the New World, in this very passage talks explicitly about America, and in particular about the Americans’ “distinctive vice”: “the breathless haste with which they work,” so that “one no longer has time or energy […] for otium at all.” Arendt read this passage thoroughly: her private (German) copy of Nietzsche’s Gay Science has marked up not only this sentence, but shows underlinings and marginalia throughout the entire entry on “Leisure and Idleness.”
One would think with a watch in one’s hand, Nietzsche continues in his depiction of America’s oblivious take on “Musse,” and the common principle "Rather do anything rather than nothing," would throttle all culture and good taste. In effect, all forms and “the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements” were visibly perishing because of the haste of the busy people. Before the takeover of the protestant work ethic, it actually was ‘busy action’ that suffered from a bad consciousness, Nietzsche recalls, and Arendt underlined the related sentence: “the desire for enjoyment already calls itself ‘need of recreation,’ and even begins to be ashamed of itself.”
Arendt’s underlining, with regard to her letter to Scholem, outlines – at a very early stage – her larger political and theoretical project: the modern problem of world-alienation and its threat to the human faculty of judgment.
Thinking needs solitude, according to Arendt, not loneliness or isolation (another distinction inspired by Nietzsche).
World-alienated loneliness or isolation precludes the thinker from the common world; yet, out of the state of solitude he can reenter it once he has ended his act of thinking. Judging relates abstract thoughts back to the world by giving them a concrete form perceivable and disputable in public, in company with others. Absent-mindedness is oblivious of this company. That’s why the perished “feeling for form itself,” deriving from a common lack of “Musse,” may entail a crisis of political judgment: in other words, a disconnection between vita contemplative and the public sphere. Nietzsche, in the passage intensely marked by Arendt, offers a form of counteracting this disconnect: “to take a stroll with thoughts and friends.”
Communism and Commerce.
From the recent art show at the New York Armory.
“German Jewry, like Western European Jewry in general, never understood that the simple person is the true center of politics in all democratically governed countries.
And this is also the reason why German Jews often do not understand the just national aspirations of the Jewish people [folk]. Most do not know at all what a people [folk] really is and what it wants. The most beautiful Hebrew in the world will not teach them that. Let the German Jews learn to respect simple person [poshete mentshn], in general, and the simple Jew [yiddishe folks-mentsh], in particular – and then you will be able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”
These are the closing words of an op-ed written by Hannah Arendt in November 1942 for the New York Yiddish daily Morgen Zshurnal. The short piece is a response to an account of recent conflicts between German and Hebrew speakers in the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the Yishuv) written by Aaron Zeitlin, a Yiddish author and regular contributor to the newspaper.
It is, by all evidence, Arendt’s only Yiddish-language publication. (A year earlier, in December 1941, the News Bulletin of the “Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs” published a Yiddish translation of Arendt’s first Aufbau op-ed, “The Jewish Army – The Beginning of Jewish Politics?” But the Morgen Zshurnal piece seems to be the only one that Arendt published exclusively in Yiddish.) Arendt’s Yiddish voice is both familiar and surprising, and, as I shall sketch very briefly here, her exchange with Zeitlin fascinatingly prefigures significant moments in Arendt’s thinking and her dialogue with others later in life, for example her exchange with Gershom Scholem about Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In the fall of 1942, tensions between immigrants from Nazi Germany and the veteran Zionist community of the Yishuv had reached a violent peak with the bombing of a press in Jerusalem, which had been printing a German-language newspaper. Zeitlin bases his account of the event, and of the political atmosphere that led up to it, on a report by Menachem Ben Eliezer, which appeared in October in the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, published in New York by the Hebrew Federation of America. The Hebrew reporter and the Yiddish commentator both blame the German Jews, known as “Yekkes,” for failing to assimilate into the society of the Yishuv and, especially, for obstinately refusing to learn Hebrew. In Zeitlin’s words, the German Jews are not patriotic because they lack a love of Israel (“ahavat Israel” or, in Yiddish, “ahaves Yisroel”).
Arendt, described in the byline as “a well-known German-Jewish writer and Zionist activist” who, “in 1935, visited the Land of Israel, where she spent three months and had the opportunity to get to know the Yishuv and the new immigration (Aliyah),” responds to the accusations ambivalently. Outraged by the violent act of the Hebrew purists of the Yishuv, she nevertheless concedes that the failure of German Jews to understand the simple Jews of Eastern Europe and their justified national aspirations is a problem.
The brief op-ed piece thus reveals a fascinating moment in the development of Arendt’s identity and her political affinities. Having recently arrived as a refugee from Europe, Arendt was writing for the German-language Aufbau and would soon start publishing in English-language publications such as Partisan Review and Nation. But her attention was evidently also devoted to publications such as Morgen Zshurnal and their Yiddish-speaking readership. As Thomas Wild has recently argued on this website, Arendt’s career would continue to move productively between German and English, for example when she substantially revised the English The Human Condition to produce the German Vita Activa.
And even after this brief stint, the Yiddish language did not disappear from her writing entirely, as I briefly mention below. She would also find opportunities to reflect publicly on issues of language choice, for example in her 1948 dedication of the German book Sechs Essays to her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers, where she explains the difficulty and the necessity of writing and publishing in her native language. But this Yiddish op-ed – written in a language that she had studied as an adult and that was rapidly moving aside to make space for English, not only in her mind but also in the American-Jewish public sphere – is probably the only statement that Arendt made about Jewish language politics.
Interestingly, at this juncture in her own linguistic affiliations, Arendt insists that the battle over languages is a political red herring. “Unlike Herr Zeitlin,” she writes, “I am of the opinion that the entire education and psychology of the world could not successfully separate people from their mother tongue […]. It is a process of a generation or two, and in America we have the best proof of that.” Instead of focusing on the struggle between the languages, Arendt points her readers in two different directions. The piece opens, in a familiarly sarcastic tone, with an expression of Arendt’s interest in Jewish militancy as a form of political response to the current crisis (an interest that was expressed in her contemporary writing for Aufbau): “I am of the opinion that it would be better for the Yishuv to boycott German merchandise rather than the German language, and that the hotheads would do better to save the bombs for Rommel’s soldiers rather than to use them against the Jews for their German language.” But it ends on a different note, with a vision of a post-Babelian politics that grows out of solidarity with the simple people. If the German Jews only understood what a true Jewish “folks-mentsh” is, the conversation could transcend linguistic divisions and one would be “able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”
As Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes in her biography and as evidenced also in the early correspondence with Heinrich Blücher, Arendt had studied Yiddish with her friend Chanan Klenbort in Paris. But in the absence of further information about the composition process – was the piece written in German and translated into Yiddish? Or did a native speaker aid Arendt, in the way that friends such as Randall Jarrell and Alfred Kazin later helped her with her English? – one can only speculate about the significance of the highly Germanic style of the Yiddish in which the piece is written or of word choices such as “folks-mentsh” and “posheter mentsh.” Reading Arendt in Yiddish can feel like a glimpse through a door to an alternative history. What would have been the circumstances – in Arendt’s own intellectual development, in the history of the Jews – that would have compelled her to keep writing in Yiddish? Would the Yiddish version of The Human Condition have placed the “posheter mentsh” at the center of politics? In other words, the Yiddish op-ed focuses our view on Arendt’s preoccupations and her transformation during her early years in the United States. It also sharpens questions that have already been raised in relation to her writing for Aufbau: Does the writing of this period prepare the ground for her later philosophical and political work? And if it does, how should we describe this ground? Or does the shift of her positions on Zionism rather constitute a break in her thinking?
It is easy to see the continuity between the criticism Arendt expresses here and her sharp critique of German Jewry in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. But there are other, far more uncanny, linguistic continuities, not only in Arendt’s own writing but also in her dialogues and polemics with others. In his famous response to the Eichmann book, Gershom Scholem echoes Zeitlin – most probably unwittingly – when he laments Arendt’s lack of “Ahabath Israel” (as Scholem rather Germanically transcribes the Hebrew expression). Arendt seems to hear that echo when she inserts in her reply to Scholem’s letter a parenthetical inquiry about the history of the term: “I would, by the way, be very thankful if you could tell me since when this concept plays a role in the Hebrew language and scripture, when it first appears, etc.” Indeed, the echo seems to conjure up in Arendt elements of her original response to Zeitlin, and so she returns to the same simple person she had once hoped that German Jewry could listen to, in Yiddish or in “all the languages of the world.” Thus, when she attempts to defend her (to many readers indefensible) position on Jewish collaboration with the Nazis, she explains to Scholem: “There was no possibility of resistance, but there was a possibility of doing nothing. And in order to do nothing, one need not have been a saint, but rather one needed simply to say: I am a simple Jew (ein poscheter Jude) and I do not want to be more than that.”
The Yiddish was excised from the German version that was published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in October 1963 (where it was replaced by “einfacher Jude”) and from the English translation published in Encounter in December 1964 (which refers to “a Simple Jew”). The act of self-censorship is probably as revealing as Arendt’s use of the term itself.
Arendt’s brief foray into Yiddish journalism also has a fascinating postscript on the pages of the Morgen Zshurnal (or rather its continuation Der Tog Morgen Zshurnal). As Richard I. Cohen has described, in 1965 the newspaper carried Aaron Zeitlin’s raging response to Arendt’s Eichmann book, a response in which he described her as the agent of the devil. Zeitlin does not explicitly mention his previous disagreement with Arendt, indeed, he conspicuously avoids mentioning her by name. But, in its emphasis on Arendt’s misnaming of Eichmann when she describes him as a “grey, simple (posheter) average person,” his vitriolic attack can be read as a response to Arendt’s polemic twenty-three years earlier
Based on research and translation conducted in collaboration with Sunny Yudkoff. Many thanks to Barbara Hahn and Thomas Wild, who uncovered the Yiddish piece in the Hannah Arendt archive.
NOTE: This Saturday, February 23, 2013 marks the launch of the Hananh Arendt Center three part series, "Music in the Holocaust: Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism". The series is made possible through the generosity of grant from the Bertha Effron Fund of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley. Learn more here.
COERCION, COLLUSION & CREATIVITY - Music of the Terezin Ghetto & the Central European Experience
NATIONALISM, CONTINUITY & SYNTHESIS - Music of Warsaw, Lodz, & other Eastern ghettos
KURT WEILL & THE MODERNIST MIGRATION - Music of Weill & Other Émigrés
“To my dear Hannah,
In these years our friendship has stood the test.
In this relationship we no longer need to have any worries.
New York, April 30th 1945.”
“Meiner lieben Hannah,” reads a handwritten inscription in a copy of Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial), gifted from publisher Kurt Wolff to Hannah Arendt in New York; the book is a Schocken Verlag 1935 edition published in Berlin. “In diesen Jahren hat sich unseren Freundschaft bewährt,” Wolff writes: “Wir brauchen in dieser Beziehung keine Sorge mehr zu haben. Auf Wiedersehen, Dein Kurt. New York, 30. April 1945.”
This inscription stands as a symbol of survival on many levels: from the survival of the names mentioned – Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka, and Kurt Wolff as well as Schocken Publishing House – to the survival of friendship, to the implications of the date which invite this reading.
Kurt Wolff, who founded the publishing house Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig in 1912 and soon became one of the leading publishers of expressionist literature in Germany, worked extensively with Kafka’s works up until the author’s death in 1924. With the exception of the unfinished, posthumously published writings, Wolff published the majority of Kafka’s works. A look at their correspondence indicates how significant Wolff was in convincing a hesitant Kafka to prepare his manuscripts for publication. Despite his efforts to come to terms with the gap between what the public wants to read and what the public should want to read, a problem which troubled him personally and financially throughout his publishing career, Wolff closed down the Kurt Wolff Verlag in 1933.
Wolff came from a German-Jewish family and, after fleeing to the United States, he started a new publishing house with his wife, Helen Wolff, what was to become Pantheon Books in New York. It was there in New York in the early 1940s that he first made Hannah Arendt’s acquaintance.
Although Arendt never met Kafka personally (she was 17 when Kafka died), she did seriously engage with his work during the last thirty years of her life. Indeed, after immigrating to the United States in 1941 she resolved to ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ many eastern-European Jewish authors threatened by abandonment through an idea for a ‘Jewish Journal’ (Jüdische Zeitschrift) featuring these writers. As Marie Luise Knott writes in her co-authored book with Barbara Hahn on Arendt, Von den Dichtern erwarten wir Wahrheit, this goal was something which, while never reaching fruition, endured throughout Arendt’s career.
Kafka, in particular, represented for Arendt a distinct voice articulating the alienation involved in the assimilation into a new place or society. In fact, after finally meeting Salman Schocken (of Schocken Verlag) in 1945 and accepting a position as a Chief Editor at Schocken Books (which had also recently recently moved its offices from Berlin to New York), her initial project was to edit the first English translation of Kafka’s diaries. Even before that, Arendt wrote an essay in 1944 for the 20th anniversary of Kafka’s 1924 passing, entitled “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation”; she spends the first half of the essay discussing The Trial (the novel Kurt Wolff chose for his inscription a year later). Kafka also appears in Arendt’s essay “The Jew as Pariah”, and she would go on to work with Helen Wolff, after Kurt’s death, for example, to co-edit Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations in 1968.
With all of this in mind, why did Wolff send this particular book of Kafka’s to Arendt, and why at this specific date?
“April 30th 1945” has become a historically significant date: it is the date of Adolf Hitler’s suicide, marking a turning point and a near-end to World War II. It is unlikely, though, that anyone in New York knew of this on the actual day it happened. For Wolff and Arendt, however, both transplanted German Jews, the date after the fact also connects them symbolically to their survival of Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust.
In a different yet related reading, the date concerns Kurt Wolff’s publishing ventures in New York where he started Pantheon Books in January 1943. In Kurt Wolff: A Portrait in Essays and Letters, he is quoted as having written that “Pantheon was founded on an extremely small amount of initial capital to give me the chance to earn a living. It was an experiment- and since no matter what the balance sheet says on April 30, 1944, a profit is unavoidable- the experiment is a success.” One can read this, in conjunction with the Kafka inscription, as April 30 taking on a new meaning in his life. It marks, in addition to his personal survival, the survival of his first publishing undertaking in the United States, and it now points to his valuable lasting friendship with Hannah Arendt.
Wolff, though Kafka’s first publisher, never published The Trial. Max Brod prepared the manuscript from Kafka’s Nachlass for Verlag Die Schmiede in Berlin in 1925, then in 1931 gave full publishing rights of Kafka’s works and manuscripts to Schocken Verlag. That The Trial itself was not published by Wolff, but more importantly, was not published in Kafka’s lifetime, speaks to this theme of survival in the inscription. The Trial survived Kafka, this copy published in 1935 survived World War II, and Arendt, through her essays and editorial work, helped Kafka to survive and arrive in the public world after 1945.
Wolff sent this book to Arendt certainly not as a reading recommendation, but rather as a symbolic gift. For Arendt, as Wolff surely knew, had not only already read The Trial, but had also written essays on it. Thus, in contrast to other books in her personal library, there are no annotations or markings to be found anywhere else in the book. This particular copy was not meant to be read, it seems, but to be appreciated in a different way.
To conclude the inscription, Wolff writes Auf Wiedersehen. To translate this as the usual “Goodbye” gives this entire gift - of the book, of their friendship, of their survival – a perhaps unnecessarily ominous and melancholic feeling. Rather, the literal meaning is here the more accurate one: “See you again”.
- Kerk Soursourian, Bard College
The after effects of Super-storm Sandy are felt from the beaches to the statehouses. First of all, let’s realize it was not a hurricane, but a freakish combination of storm systems. Super-storm is more truthful than hurricane. Whatever it was, it has upended lives, and politics.
The Financial Times reports today that Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has now joined NY Governor Andrew Cuomo in requesting not only emergency aid to repair the damage caused by the storm, but also preventative money to build dunes, use eminent domain to purchase property, and generally re-engineer the New Jersey coastline.
The political transformation here is lost on few. As the FT writes:
Mr. Christie, a Republican, has previously sounded more skeptical than Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, about using state powers to dictate how the state was rebuilt. But he said on Wednesday he might take away local towns’ power to grant “easements” to homeowners objecting to new dunes blocking their sea views and would not rule out using government powers to purchase properties it believed were in the wrong place.
“I have to protect the Jersey shore, both as an economic engine and as a cultural engine,” Mr. Christie said.
The desire to take away local powers and give them to states and to take away state powers and give them to the federal government is neither a democratic nor a republican idea anymore. While the party of the elephant may give lip service to local governance, it has rarely, if ever, backed that up with action. As is now well known, the federal government has grown as fast if not faster under Republican Presidents than it has under democratic.
Hannah Arendt argued that the greatest danger to freedom in the United States was the rise of a large and bureaucratic government. She worried, as she once wrote, that the true threat to freedom was the sheer size of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The sheer size of the country combined with the rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for freedom she saw as the potent core of American civic life.
Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo may well be their respective parties’ nominees for President in 2016. They are both deeply popular and have taken a pragmatic and largely centrist approach to governing at a time of financial crisis and natural disaster. And yet, from an Arendtian angle, it is striking that both governors have so internalized the view that problems are to be solved by bureaucrats and technocrats rather than on a local level.
That the bureaucratic approach is so entrenched should not be a surprise. It is both a consequence of a further spur to the retreat from politics that Hannah Arendt describes. Even Christie’s insistence that he must save the Jersey shore as an economic engine shows the near complete victory of economic thinking over politics.
Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a "love of the world." When writing about education she argues that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?
The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.
In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.
In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.
In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.
How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?
This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen's essay "House For Sale," about his return to his mother's house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother's house.
This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item "Decide about the afterlife" and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.
Franzen offers us a house in many valences.
It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother's house. Later he writes that the house was "my mother's novel, the concrete story she told about herself." In this house she "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas." It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And "she wanted you to want to stay."
The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother's house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with "sturdy and well made" furniture that "my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want." He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.
If Mrs. Fanzen's house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son's house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:
I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else's apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I'd spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy's apartment.
House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.
I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen's essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play "House For Sale" is based on his essay by the same name.
It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen's essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can't recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.
Or, if you simply can't get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen's book of essays in which "House For Sale" originally appeared. It is your weekend read.
The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.
-Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979
Contemporary observers of secondary education have appropriately decried the startling lack of understanding most students possess of the American presidency. This critique should not be surprising. In textbooks and classrooms across the country, curriculum writers and teachers offer an abundance of disconnected facts about the nation’s distinct presidencies—the personalities, idiosyncrasies, and unique time-bound crises that give character and a simple narrative arc to each individual president. Some of these descriptions contain vital historical knowledge. Students should learn, for example, how a conflicted Lyndon Johnson pushed Congress for sweeping domestic programs against the backdrop of Vietnam or how a charismatic and effective communicator like Ronald Reagan found Cold War collaboration with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.
But what might it mean to ask high school students to look across these and other presidencies to encourage more sophisticated forms of historical thinking? More specifically, what might teachers begin to do to promote thoughtful writing and reflection that goes beyond the respective presidencies and questions the nature of the executive office itself? And how might one teach the presidency, in Arendtian fashion, encouraging open dialogue around common texts, acknowledging the necessary uncertainty in any evolving classroom interpretation of the past, and encouraging flexibility of thought for an unpredictable future? By provocatively asking whether the president “matters,” the 2012 Hannah Arendt Conference provided an ideal setting for New York secondary teachers to explore this central pedagogical challenge in teaching the presidency.
Participants in this special writing workshop, scheduled concurrently with the conference, attended conference panels and also retreated to consider innovative and focused approaches to teaching the presidency.
Conference panels promoted a broader examination of the presidency than typically found in secondary curricula. A diverse and notable group of scholars urged us to consider the events and historical trends, across multiple presidencies, constraining or empowering any particular chief executive. These ideas, explored more thoroughly in the intervening writing workshops, provoked productive argument on what characteristics might define the modern American presidency. In ways both explicit and implicit, sessions pointed participants to numerous and complicated ways Congress, the judiciary, mass media, U.S. citizens, and the president relate to one another.
This sweeping view of the presidency contains pedagogical potency and has a place in secondary classrooms. Thoughtful history educators should ask big questions, encourage open student inquiry, and promote civic discourse around the nature of power and the purposes of human institutions. But as educators, we also know that the aim and value of our discipline resides in place-and time-bound particulars that beg for our interpretation and ultimately build an evolving understanding of the past. Good history teaching combines big ambitious questions with careful attention to events, people, and specific contingencies. Such specifics are the building blocks of storytelling and shape the analogies students need to think through an uncertain future.
Jimmy Carter’s oval office speech on July 15, 1979, describing a national “crisis of confidence” presented a unique case study for thinking about the interaction between American presidents and the populations the office is constitutionally obliged to serve. Workshop participants prepared for the conference by watching the video footage from this address and reading parts of Kevin Mattson’s history of the speech. In what quickly became known as the “Malaise Speech,” Carter attempted a more direct and personal appeal to the American people, calling for personal sacrifice and soul searching, while warning of dire consequences if the nation did not own up to its energy dependencies. After Vietnam and Watergate, Carter believed, America needed a revival that went beyond policy recommendations. His television address, after a mysterious 10-day sequestration at Camp David, took viewers through Carter’s own spiritual journey and promoted the conclusions he drew from it.
Today, the Malaise Speech has come to symbolize a failed Carter presidency. He has been lampooned, for example, on The Simpsons as our most sympathetically honest and humorously ineffectual former president. In one episode, residents of Springfield cheer the unveiling of his presidential statue, emblazoned with “Malaise Forever” on the pedestal. Schools give the historical Carter even less respect. Standardized tests such as the NY Regents exam ask little if anything about his presidency. The Malaise speech is rarely mentioned in classrooms—at either the secondary or post-secondary levels. Similarly, few historians identify Carter as particularly influential, especially when compared to the leaders elected before and after him. Observers who mention his 1979 speeches are most likely footnoting a transitional narrative for an America still recovering from a turbulent Sixties and heading into a decisive conservative reaction.
Indeed, workshop participants used writing to question and debate Carter’s place in history and the limited impact of the speech. But we also identified, through primary sources on the 1976 election and documents around the speech, ways for students to think expansively about the evolving relationship between a president and the people. A quick analysis of the electoral map that brought Carter into office reminded us that Carter was attempting to convince a nation that looks and behaves quite differently than today. The vast swaths of blue throughout the South and red coastal counties in New York and California are striking. Carter’s victory map can resemble an electoral photo negative to what has now become a familiar and predictable image of specific regional alignments in the Bush/Obama era. The president who was elected in 1976, thanks in large part to an electorate still largely undefined by the later rise of the Christian Right, remains an historical enigma. As an Evangelical Democrat from Georgia, with roots in both farming and nuclear physics, comfortable admitting his sins in both Sunday School and Playboy, and neither energized by or defensive about abortion or school prayer, Carter is as difficult to image today as the audience he addressed in 1979.
It is similarly difficult for us to imagine the Malaise Speech ever finding a positive reception. However, this is precisely what Mattson argues. Post-speech weekend polls gave Carter’s modest popularity rating a surprisingly respectable 11-point bump. Similarly, in a year when most of the president’s earlier speeches were ignored, the White House found itself flooded with phone calls and letters, almost universally positive. The national press was mixed and several prominent columnists praised the speech. This reaction to such an unconventional address, Mattson goes on to argue, suggests that the presidency can matter.
Workshop participants who attended later sessions heard Walter Russell Mead reference the ways presidents can be seen as either transformative or transactional. In many ways, the “malaise moment” could be viewed as a late term attempt by a transactional president to forge a transformational presidency. In the days leading up to the speech, Carter went into self-imposed exile, summoning spiritual advisors to his side, and encouraging administration-wide soul searching. Such an approach to leadership, admirable to some and an act of desperation to others, defies conventions and presents an odd image of presidential behavior (an idea elaborated on by conference presenter Wyatt Mason). “Malaise” was never mentioned in Carter’s speech. But his transformational aspirations are hard to miss.
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
It is this process—the intellectual act of interpreting Carter and his [in]famous speech as aberrant presidential behavior—that allows teachers and their students to explore together the larger question of defining the modern presidency. And it is precisely this purposeful use of a small number of primary sources that forces students to rethink, through writing and reflection, the parameters that shape how presidents relate to their electorate. In our workshop we saw how case studies, in-depth explorations of the particulars of history, precede productive debate on whether the presidency matters.
The forgotten Carter presidency can play a disproportionately impactful pedagogical role for teachers interested in exploring the modern presidency. As any high school teacher knows, students rarely bring an open interpretive lens to Clinton, Bush, or Obama. Ronald Reagan, as the first political memory for many of their parents, remains a polarizing a figure. However, few students or their parents hold strong politically consequential opinions about Carter. Most Americans, at best, continue to view him as a likable, honest, ethical man who is much more effective as an ex-president than he was as president.
Workshop participants learned that the initial support Carter received after the Malaise Speech faded quickly. Mattson and some members of the administration now argue that the President lacked a plan to follow up on the goodwill he received from a nation desiring leadership. Reading Ezra Klein, we also considered the possibility that, despite all the attention educators give to presidential speeches (as primary sources that quickly encapsulate presidential visions), there is little empirical evidence that any public address really makes much of a difference. In either case, Carter’s loss 16 months later suggests that his failures of leadership both transformational and transactional.
Did Carter’s speech matter? The teachers in the workshop concluded their participation by attempting to answer this question, working collaboratively to draft a brief historical account contextualizing the 1979 malaise moment. In doing so, we engaged in precisely the type of activity missing in too many secondary school classrooms today: interrogating sources, corroborating evidence, debating conflicting interpretations, paying close attention to language, and doing our best to examine our underlying assumptions about the human condition. These efforts produced some clarity, but also added complexity to our understanding of the past and led to many additional questions, both pedagogical and historical. In short, our writing and thinking during the Arendt Conference produced greater uncertainty. And that reality alone suggests that study of the presidency does indeed matter.
Stephen Mucher is assistant professor of history education in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College.
The workshop, Teaching the American Presidency, facilitated by Teresa Vilardi and Stephen Mucher, sponsored by the Institute for Writing and Thinking and Master of Arts in Teaching Program in collaboration with the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College was offered as part of the Center’s 2012 conference, “Does the President Matter? American Politics in an Age of Disrepair.”