For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”
I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.
I was regularly reminded that the immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.
I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.
Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?” Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.
The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.
Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”
I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”
To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.
“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.
I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.
I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.
Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.
They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River” would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.
More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.
Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.
“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.
Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”
“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?
Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”
Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.
I am on the road this week so in place of a normal post, I am presenting an ongoing Arendt-related work by the artist Kika Thorne, titled Work Labor Action. I plan to post about what contemporary art can learn from Arendt’s definitions and distinctions between Work and Action later this Fall. Kika is a friend of mine, and it was only after telling her about this blog that I discovered she has made work about Hannah Arendt since 1999. If you know of artists who have made work about Arendt, or dealing with her scholarship, please share some links in the comments.
The captions below are by the artist.
Work Labour Action
Photographs document the project on the streets of Toronto (1999), Vancouver (2001), New York (2007). Each poster approx. 30" x 36" Blueprint (black).
The title(s) of the book(s) she was writing at the time the photograph was taken is written in 9pt Times New Roman font at the bottom of each poster. eg. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958)
Work Labour Action was also wheat pasted onto the walls of Murray Guy, NY for a show that Lee Plested curated in 2007 called Street. For this exhibition I had the opportunity to put the posters all over New York, including near the New School, which houses part of her archive.
The atmosphere around the Hannah Arendt Center this week has been jovial yet intense. Ten Arendt scholars have gathered to read closely Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, loosely translated as her "Book of Thoughts." We meet every day for two sessions, each 150 minutes, with no breaks.
One participant leads a discussion about a selection of the book. The sessions have been riveting. The plan is to bring out a book that collects essays based on these presentations. It will be called Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch. We hope it will appear around the time that the English translation of Arendt's Denktagebuch is published.
The Denktagebuch is a "unique artifact," as one participant put it during our opening dinner. It is comprised of two, thick, beautifully rendered, hardcover volumes that together contain over 1,200 pages. It is not really a book, but is comprised of individual entries that Arendt wrote down in 28 notebooks over 23 years from 1950-1973. The entries are chronologically arranged (except for a thematically organized final book containing Arendt's notes on Immanuel Kant's thinking about judgment). The whole, masterfully edited by Ursula Ludz and Ingeborg Nordmann, contains extensive scholarly apparatus at the back.
One question we have asked is how to read the Denktagebuch. Some participants have chosen a particular chronological period and sought relationships and associations amongst Arendt's entries. Others identified recurring themes that Arendt returns to over the years, such as the relation between truth and metaphor, Kant's theory of judgment, and the connection between action and thinking. A few of our sessions have used the Denktagebuch to elucidate passages from Arendt's published work—this is especially fruitful since a full 500 pages of the Denktagebuch reflect entries from 1950-1954, the time when Arendt was at work on The Human Condition. Some excavated ideas are largely absent from the published work but vividly present in the Denktagebuch—for example love, reconciliation, and grammar. Finally, we have tried reading the Denktagebuch as a proper book, namely as a book of short aphorisms or poems, each standing on its own and yet fitting into the totality that is Arendt's thinking.
The origin of the Denktagebuch is interesting in itself. Arendt traveled to Germany in the winter of 1949-50 as the director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her mission was to search for Jewish ceremonial objects and, mainly, for Jewish books. The Commission recovered 1.5 million Jewish books under Arendt's leadership, part of what Leon Wieseltier calls "a campaign for the re-capture of a people’s dignity." During her visit, Arendt wrote "The Aftermath of Nazi-Rule. Report from Germany,“ which was published in Commentary. Also while in Germany, Arendt visited her old teacher, mentor, and lover, Martin Heidegger.
We know from Arendt's correspondence with Heidegger that they spoke at length about language, revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Heidegger had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and served for about one year as Rector of Freiburg University. He abandoned many of his Jewish friends and colleagues and promoted a philosophical version of Nazism before he resigned in 1934. The Heidegger case is complicated and controversial. Heidegger was a Nazi, but what kind of Nazi he was is not a simple question; there is no better account of the complexity of Heidegger's Nazism than Tracy Strong's powerful and nuanced retelling of the affair in his recent book Politics Without Vision.
In the 1940's Arendt was deeply critical of Heidegger. Her visit in 1950 provided an opportunity to think through her proper response to his activities. Shortly after her return to New York City in March1950, Arendt received a letter from Heidegger (along with some love poems) that read, in part:
I am happy for you that you are surrounded by your books again. The line with “the burden of the logs” is in “Ripe and dipped in Fire”—around the same time you probably wrote it [presumably a lost letter—RB], I had been thinking about the burden of logs.
The reference is to a poem “Reif Sind” by Friedrich Hölderlin. The poem is about memory, the past, and the question of whether to recall the past or to live in the present. One of the poem's central images is of the burden of logs that one carries on one's shoulders.
Shortly after Arendt receives Heidegger's letter, she begins her Denktagebuch, with the opening line:
The wrong that one has done is the burden on one’s shoulders, something that one bears because he has laden it upon himself.
That Arendt would initiate her book of thoughts with a meditation on the burden of past wrongs is not surprising. After all, she had recently finished the manuscript for The Origins of Totalitarianism—originally entitled The Burden of Our Times—which explored not simply the elements of totalitarianism, but more importantly the burden that such a past, a recent past, places on people in the present day: to comprehend and come to terms with what men had done as well as to acknowledge what any of us is capable of doing again. And, of course, she had just returned from a reunion with her past in Germany and Heidegger. The past is this burden that we bear on our shoulders, and Arendt begins her Denktagebuch with a reflection that is at once personal and yet also deeply abstract and universal.
The question of how to respond to the burden of wrongful deeds is woven through Arendt's writing. What is fascinating is that in the first pages of the Denktagebuch and then throughout the 1,200 pages, Arendt continues to think about the response to wrongs as a kind of reconciliation. This is surprising because reconciliation is not an idea prevalent in much of Arendt's published work.
In an article published last year, I explore the meaning and sense of reconciliation in Arendt's thinking. In it, I argue,
By focusing on Arendt's discussion of acts of reconciliation and also of non-reconciliation—her response to her reunion with Martin Heidegger in 1950, her judgment of the impossibility of reconciling oneself to Adolf Eichmann, her account of Jesus' forgiving and not-forgiving of petty and colossal crimes in the Gospel of Luke, and her reconciliation to life after the death of her husband, Heinrich Blücher—I show how Arendt places the judgment for or against reconciliation at the center of political action. Above all, I argue that the question—"Ought I to reconcile myself to the world?"—is, for Arendt, the pressing political question in our age.
There are not many articles published on the Denktagebuch in English. My article, focusing on the first seven pages of Arendt's notebooks, offers a glimpse into one way the Denktagebuch can help expand and enrich our reading of Arendt. You'll have to wait a bit for the book Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch, but for now you can read "Bearing Logs on Our Shoulders: Reconciliation, Non-Reconciliation, and the Building of a Common World."
You can also read this account of the Denktagebuch by Sigrid Weigel, at Telos (payment required).
You can also watch a video of Ursula Ludz discussing editing Arendt's work here, from a talk she gave in 2010 at the Hannah Arendt Center.
The governors of two of our largest states gave "State of the State" messages this week. Both were controversial. Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York took on the teacher's union and demanded that teachers be subjected to measures of accountability. Governor Jerry Brown in California dared California to dream big and challenged the state to move forward with the high-speed train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Arendt Center is focusing its attention on the desperate need to rethink leadership in our time and wondering how we might encourage bold and courageous leadership. Cuomo's speech does just that. Brown's falls short.
Both Brown and Cuomo embraced the mantle of bold leadership. Brown styled himself the daring doer with his call to build a much-debated high-speed train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco:
Critics of the high-speed rail project abound, as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed. The Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical, and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal, ‘Totally impossible to be carried out.’ The critics were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.
Cuomo, for his part, imagined himself the rampaging reformer taking on the entrenched interests of the unions. He challenged the teacher's union to accept teacher evaluation that would carry meaningful consequences for ineffective teachers. And promised to withhold funding to districts that do not. “No evaluation, no money. Period,” the Governor said.
I learned my most important lesson in my first year as Governor in the area of public education. I learned that everyone in public education has his or her own lobbyist. Superintendents have lobbyists. Principals have lobbyists. Teachers have lobbyists. School boards have lobbyists. Maintenance personnel have lobbyists. Bus drivers have lobbyists. The only group without a lobbyist? The students.
Well, I learned my lesson. This year, I will take a second job — consider me the lobbyist for the students. I will wage a campaign to put students first, and to remind us that the purpose of public education is to help children grow, not to grow the public education bureaucracy.
I am no fan of union bashing. As an educator myself, I have enormous respect for those who teach. Teachers should be paid more, not less, and good teachers should receive performance bonuses, as is currently happening in Washington, DC. Study after study shows that the biggest factor in whether a child learns is the teacher, not how much money is spent. I think anyone who teaches knows this is true.
Cuomo's decision to take on the education establishment on teacher evaluation is a small step. But it does show a Democratic Governor exerting leadership by opposing a union that is part of his traditional constituency.
He is insisting that the services government provide be better. And he reminds us that government is first and foremost about providing services for citizens, not about providing jobs. If we are going to preserve faith in government, we need to make government work. Cuomo seems intent on doing just that.
Brown, on the other hand, seems entrenched in the failed policies of government. I love fast trains (so does my 2 year old son). I suffer every week on the slow train between New York City and the Hudson Valley where I teach. As someone who has lived in Europe and marveled at the Chinese, I desperately wish that the United States could build a transportation infrastructure that would work.
Thus I am open to Brown's risk-taking insistence we build fast trains. That said, he is committing to a project for which most of the funds are not yet raised and that won't be completed until 2033—under optimistic forecasts.
Who knows if a fast train designed in 2010 will even be useful in 2033? The Erie Canal took 8 years to build. The U.S. built the Panama Canal in less than 10 years. It is one thing for medieval towns to dream big and build a gothic cathedral over decades and centuries, for one has faith that God will still have need of a place of worship. But with technology changing so fast, the $100 billion train could be obsolete before it is completed.
Real leadership requires not simply dreaming big, but acting big. Leadership entails cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that makes it so expensive and time-consuming to take on major public-works projects in this country. Courage would be for a democratic governor to pursue his dream for major infrastructure while at the same time insisting on regulatory and labor reform that would allow the train to be completed in less time than the Erie Canal.
Cornell West was one of the first celebrity academics to arrive at Occupy Wall Street last week. Because amplified sound is prohibited in Zuccotti Park—the protesters have never applied for a protest permit—the speaker's words are repeated by the audience to make them audible for larger groups. Thus West's refrain issued repeatedly in the dark and across Wall Street. The protests, still small on the ground, are growing wings in cyberspace. New protests are springing up in cities across North America, from Los Angeles to Boston and from Seattle to Toronto. Seven hundred people were arrested Sunday during a peaceful crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge (including at least 20 Bard College Students). Seven hundred United/Continental airline pilots joined the demonstration over the weekend, as did 15 U.S. Marines. Unions are pledging their support, suggesting that the protests may get a real boost from traditional organizing. Clearly, "Something is happening here, Mr. Jones." "Don't be Afraid to Say Revolution.
Suddenly--very suddenly--too suddenly?---we are living through a time of revolutionary possibility. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the possibility of revolution was joined with action. Dictators were overthrown, and a sense of possibility ignited. In Syria and Bahrain, the revolutionary movements are being suppressed, violently, quashing the hopes of local revolutionaries. Still elsewhere—in Israel, Spain, Greece, and most recently in the United States—the spirit of revolutionary hope is alive as well.
Skeptics abound, for good reason. Whether these springtime Arab blossoms will grow into hearty summer stalks is still not known. Indeed, it is unlikely. The real powers in Egypt, the military, remain in control, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the more liberal democracy protesters have seen their dreams thwarted. Revolutions must not only tear down, but also build up; and building revolutionary institutions takes time. And yet, something is in the air. Everyone wants to judge the protesters. Are they good or bad? Before we judge, let's ask: What does this revolutionary moment mean? There is something going on here, but it is less radical and more dismal, than many of its supporters realize. That is not an indictment of Occupy Wall Street. But some reflection is called for. And a few points are in order.
1. The Question of Hope: There is something very noble, yes even hopeful, in the fact that many hundreds and even a few thousands of people are trying to have their say and make a difference. The numbers on the interweb are much larger, but the feet on the ground are significant, especially at a time of acknowledged bourgeois narcissism. What is it that motivates pilots, marines, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—not to mention the unemployed and underemployed—to occupy city squares in the Middle East, major boulevards in Israel, and parks in New York City, all to call for political change?
In an age when most people are content to be left alone by government to pursue their own private desires and dreams, how is that people around the world are suddenly acting and participating in politics?
2. One answer is public happiness. Arendt named the joy one experiences when acting in public "public happiness." Public happiness is the great treasure of all of those who live through revolutionary times and feel the exhilaration of acting in such a way as to make a difference in the world. One sees the joy in the faces and voices of the protesters. It is similar to the joy evidenced by Tea Partiers at the beginning of that revolutionary moment, before the Tea Party was taken over by ideologues. These protesters are learning, as do all revolutionaries, that freedom is found neither in the freedom from government nor in the welfare state bureaucracy, but in the "public happiness" found in acting together with others in public.
3. Another answer is anger. Where has the anger been? Banks have been bailed out; worse, so have the bankers. It is infuriating to hear bankers who have destroyed their companies and cost investors trillions defend their right to million-dollar bonuses. These are salaried employees who invest billions of dollars with great upside potential and no downside risk. These folks are not evil. The vast majority are not criminals. But they certainly are not the geniuses they think themselves to be, and most do not merit the exorbitant paydays that they have come to view as an entitlement.
Why is it that when AIG bankers insisted their contractually mandated bonuses be upheld after AIG received $182 billion from taxpayers, everyone gave in, but when pensioners demand their contractually guaranteed pensions, talking head after talking head says we have to get real and cut the pensions. The talking heads are right: the public union contracts that mayors and governors negotiated are as un-affordable as they are overly generous. But I am aghast that the senseless and unsustainable contracts of the bankers are seen as inviolable while those of public employees are rendered mere pieces of paper.
And then there is Ken Lewis, the CEO who drove Bank of America to insolvency. Lewis was not fired, nor has he been compelled to recoup the billions in bonuses he authorized for Merrill Lynch executives in 2008, the year Bank of America acquired the all but bankrupt Merrill Lynch. Indeed, all that “Pay Czar” Ken Feinberg demanded was that Bank of America limit the average size of bonuses in 2009 to $6.5 million.
And when Lewis himself finally resigned, he left with his own $125 million golden parachute, on top of the many millions he took home while bankrupting his company during the boom years. Three years later, excessive compensation of failed executives continues, as the NY Times reported just this week.
It is not radical or revolutionary to be incensed at the unqualified entitlement that pervades certain members of the financial community. There is a great deal in the Manifesto of Grievances put out by Occupy Wall Street that, as Henry Blodget admits, is downright reasonable (although much also that is nutty). This anger has been missing from our public discourse. Because of Occupy Wall Street, it may be finally coming to the fore. This is a good thing.
Anger need not be indiscriminate. There are plenty of good people on Wall Street and excellent businessmen and women. There is no need to demonize a whole profession, nor is there a value in simply insulting the wealthy. One of the ugly aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement is the indiscriminate anger at all wealthy people, as if being wealthy were wrong. Let's hope that the protests can focus their irate passions at the fraud and hubris of those who have continued to pay themselves multi-million dollar bonuses when their firms would have failed and gone belly up but for the generosity of their countrymen.
4. A third reason for these protests is The Loss of Governmental Legitimacy. Without a doubt, there is a growing sense that the powers that be have lost their right to rule. This was true in Egypt and Tunisia and is also the case in Israel and the U.S. Respect for government is a record lows, and for good reason. Illegitimate is a mild word for what many Americans are feeling. As my colleague Walter Russell Mead writes:
"Watching so many second class talents struggle against first class problems is a dispiriting exercise, especially when one reflects on the costs of failure. It is no secret anywhere that our leaders are failing. The Europeans know their political class is floundering; the Japanese have despaired of their politicians for almost a generation; in the US the only people less popular than President Obama are his Democratic allies and Republican adversaries in the US Congress."
There may be no better example of utter government incompetence and malfeasance than the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fiascos. If the Occupy Wall Street Protesters want a real, live culprit, here they have one. That the Democrats are protecting Fannie and Freddie is, quite simply, just as wrong as their refusal to bring criminal or civil suits against executives who engaged in fraud.
The vacuum in leadership fanned by a global wave of anti-elite anger risks radicalizing politics in dangerous ways. Occupy Wall Street is, like the Tea Party, driven by an apparent disdain of government, elites, and traditional institutions. These protests began with a call to action from a Canadian group called Adbusters and its embrace by an organization of hackers called Anonymous, a group closely associated with Wiki-leaks. These are groups that also were intimately engaged in protests in the Middle East and around the world and they represent, above all, a particular view of democracy. The hope, it seems, is that if you just tear down all barriers to information, allow for absolute transparency, and present citizens with the facts, a citizen democracy will emerge that ushers in a more rational and fair system of government. This is actually a technological version of the communicative rationality theories made popular by Jürgen Habermas in the 20th century—the idea that in a system of transparent and perfect communication, democratic reason will lead to rational decisions. As a result, we don't need leaders, or elite institutions. A radical horizontal democracy is enough.
The call is for a "people-powered" movement. Of course not all the protesters embrace this, but Occupy Wall Street is propelled by the belief in the power of networked individuals, as well as a profound suspicion of all traditional and institutional power centers. The dream is to replace a government by governors and politicians with a government by the collective wisdom of the masses.
It is thus no accident that the masks worn by many protesters pay tribute to Guy Fawkes, the English Catholic who was tortured and sentenced to be quartered (he killed himself instead) for his participation in the Gunpowder plot whose tagline read: “people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”
The Tea party, as I noted earlier, provides us with an interesting comparison. It also began, initially, with individuals venting their anger. There was, and remains, a joy amongst the Tea Party faithful, one that comes from finding a public voice and engaging in public action. And it is a very similar joy that one can embrace amongst the protesters in Zuccatti Park. Very quickly, however, the Tea Party got directed by ideological leaders who have hijacked the Republican Party, an event that is both the source of its political strength and its intellectual incoherence.
What needs to be seen, though, is that there is a profound convergence between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. On both sides, there is deep dissatisfaction with Democratic representative government. The current zeitgeist seeks to replace democratic government with people power, to replace authority with transparency, to reject professionalism and expertise for cloud governance. Thus, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street need to be seen in connection to the extraordinary and surprising (again, to the mainstream media) success of the Pirates in Berlin. What all these movements share is a suspicion of representative democracy and traditional institutions.
5. It might be helpful to recall, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, that the fundamental elements of totalitarian governance are: 1) its disdain for government institutions and political limits; 2) its embrace of mass movements that overwhelm national boundaries as well as traditional moral and political limits; 3) its disdain for politics as usual; and 4) its susceptibility to coherent narratives rather than a confrontation with factual reality.
Let me be clear: I don't see fascist or totalitarian dangers at this point in the Occupy Wall Street or in the Tea Party movements . But that is largely because neither group has a message that is compelling to a large enough section of the population. Their marginality is at this point diminishing their threat. And yet, there are common elements to at least be aware of:
1) Opposition to the state: both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have a deep hostility to the state, as did totalitarian movements (but not fascist movements). That said, the TP is focused on state borders in a way that is closer to fascism than totalitarianism.
2) Both are MOVEMENTS, and thus to persist cannot have realizable goals, but must have goals that continue to shift and grow so that adherents always have issues to be motivated by.
3) Both display an aversion to facts and a tendency toward coherent myths at the expense of truth. The Tea Party imagines that all government spending is bad, even when confronted with the fact that it wants funding for certain entitlements, emergencies, and the military.
Occupy Wall Street wants to bring down Wall Street, empower the 99%, and eliminate student debt. They don't seem to realize that the standard of living they aspire to was possible because of the speculative boom that Wall Street's excesses made possible, and that the loss of debt-financing for students will decimate universities that depend on such funding and make a college education inaccessible to most Americans. BOTH organizations seem to believe that the solutions are clear, but neither side is actually willing to confront the depth of our economic and political problems and think about the collective sacrifice that would be required to address them. Furthermore, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have innovative and absolute readings of the U.S. Constitution. The Tea Party has somehow decided that the government regulation and taxation are unconstitutional. Occupy Wall Street has convinced itself that it has a constitutional right to protest without seeking permits. On both sides, the din of an echo-chamber of like-minded views compresses interesting opinions into unquestioned facts.
4) Both groups have bogeymen that stand in for all evils. The Tea Party excoriates immigrants and public unionists. Occupy Wall Street rails against bankers and anyone on Wall Street. Such blanket hatred can, of course, become dangerous.
6. What distinguishes Occupy Wall Street is its youthful and optimistic faith in technocratic solutions. I hope I have made my sympathies with the protesters clear; and yet, there are good reasons to ask serious questions of Occupy Wall Street.
In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:
"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries." --Ms. Arendt, 1970.
The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives. Is there a serious and thoughtful confrontation with reality that underlies Occupy Wall Street?
The answer to this has to be no, at least, not yet. It is simply a mistake to think that our current problems flow from a lack of transparency and elitism. On both scores, it is more likely the opposite that is the case.
We are not suffering from a secret cabal of evil masterminds who plotted to bring down the world economy. The problem was not secrecy. On the contrary, the ballooning debt of the last 20 years, the massive student levels of student debt, the internet bubble, the real-estate bubble, the rise of speculation, the replacement of pensions with market-oriented retirement investing—none of these were secrets. Plenty of smart people warned us that we were walking on thin air, but we chose, collectively, not to listen.
Nor is elitism our present problem. In fact, we might have been served better if the so-called elites had actually acted a bit more like elites, and stood apart from the madness of the crowd feeding at the trough of easy money. If we had more true elites—people who felt themselves justified to judge the thoughtless, greedy, and common behavior of our bankers, politicians, and consumers—they might have been able to better deter us from our merry way. It may very well be that we are suffering today not from the cabal of elites, but from the absence of an elite culture that might be able to meaningfully resist and question the folly of crowd behavior.
If we really want be revolutionaries, as Arendt counsels, we must first of all face our present reality. Rather than secret evil machinations, our current world crisis is the result of millions of every day people acting thoughtlessly—knowing that they could not afford that new house, but buying it anyway; knowing they were selling and buying worthless bonds, but giddy at the possibility of flipping them to someone else at a handsome profit. Of course there was greed. But that is not going away. The information was there as well, we just did not want to see it. Transparency will not solve that.
7. The media coverage of the protesters has been excoriated. Some of it has been awful, focusing on the dirty laundry, or ignoring the protests altogether. There have also been demands for demands, which are answered either by vague manifestos or claims that this is a movement without leaders, one that like a startup will find its market as it grows. As Heather Gold notes it is telling that the metaphor for the protests comes from the lingo of internet startups. The revolution is offering a new product—the disaffected anger of the left and the center, combined with the need to believe that our lives matter and that we can make a difference. It is putting that anger out into the world, mixing it with the joy of public acting, and seeking a market for that potent brew.
The protests are growing and multiplying and undoubtedly they will lead to more clashes with the police. The question of violence will emerge, whether from the protesters’ camp or from the police. We should expect mistakes to be made on both sides. That should not diminish the demonstrators or what they are fighting for. We must break a few eggs to make an omelet, as Arendt writes in her essay, The Eggs Speak Up. Politics is, as Max Weber reminded us, not like a nursery. It is a mistake to be hyper-critical of Occupy Wall Street at this point. They will make strategic errors, (like bringing down the website of the new agency designed to regulate the banks!--why that target?). Despite inevitable missteps, the protesters are succeeding, it seems, in breaking enough eggs to finally wake some people up to the terrible tragedy that is unfolding around us. In this, they are similar to the Tea Party and yet also an antidote to the ideological rigidity that the Tea Party has adopted. For this reason alone, we should welcome Occupy Wall Street.