Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
26Apr/140

Race, Democracy, and the Constitution

ArendtWeekendReading

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
14Mar/142

Heidegger, De Man, and the Scandals of Philosophy

ArendtWeekendReading

The first of the three volumes of the Gesammtausgabe of Martin Heidegger’s work, titled Überlegenungen or Reflections arrived in the mail. Somehow I’ll read the over 1,000 pages in these three volumes. And on April 8 in New York City I’ll be moderating a discussion on these volumes at the Goethe Institute in New York City, with Peter Trawny, the editor, as well as Babette Babich and Andrew Mitchell. But these volumes, even before they are published, have preemptively elicited dozens upon dozens of reviews and scandalized-yelps of outrage, nearly all by people who haven’t read them. What is more, most of these commentators also have never seriously read Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. The occasion for the outrage is that these so-called Schwarzen Hefte (The Black Notebooks) include statements that clearly trade in Jewish stereotypes and anti-Semitic tropes.

No one should be surprised that Heidegger had certain opinions about Jews that are anti-Semitic. Heidegger may be the most important philosopher of the 20th century. Be wary of anyone who denies his importance. But that does not mean he was a good person or without prejudices. The fact that his published work had never previously included anti-Semitic remarks is hardly evidence of his tolerance.

heid

Amongst the most salacious of the literati pronouncing “Heidegger’s Hitler Problem is Worse Than We Thought” is Rebecca Schumann at Slate.  Slightly better is the horrifically titled “Heidegger's 'black notebooks' reveal antisemitism at core of his philosophy,” by Philip Oltermann in The Guardian. On the other side, Jonathan Rée writes in defense of Heidegger. Rée makes an excellent point about the confusion of the charge of antisemitism and philosophy:

I think that those who say that because he was anti-Semitic we should not read his philosophy show a deep ignorance about the whole tradition of writing and reading philosophy. The point about philosophy is not that it offers an anthology of opinions congenial to us, which we can dip into to find illustrations of what you might call greeting card sentiments. Philosophy is about learning to be aware of problems in your own thinking where you might not have suspected them. It offers its readers an intellectual boot camp, where every sentence is a challenge, to be negotiated with care. The greatest philosophers may well be wrong: the point of recognising them as great is not to subordinate yourself to them, but to challenge yourself to work out exactly where they go wrong.

But the charge of many of Heidegger’s critics is not simply that he is an antisemite, but that his philosophy is founded upon antisemitism. As someone who has read Heidegger closely for decades, I can say confidently that such an opinion is based on fundamental misunderstandings. There is no need to deny Heidegger’s antisemitism. And yet, that is not at all an indictment of his philosophy. But Rée goes further, and concludes:

As for the hullaballoo over the Schwarzen Hefte. In the first place it seems to me a remarkable piece of publicity-seeking on the part of the publisher, who hints that we may at last find the black heart of anti-Semitism that beats in every sentence Heidegger wrote. That would of course be very gratifying to people who want an excuse for not taking Heidegger seriously, but it seems to me—from the few leaked passages I have seen, dating from 1938-9—that if Heidegger is on trial for vicious anti-Semitism, then the newly published notebooks make a case for the defence rather than the prosecution.

While I agree with Rée that this is largely a case of insane overreaction, one cannot say that the notebooks offer a defense of Heidegger, certainly not before reading them. What is more, only three of the planned four volumes of these notebooks are being published. The final notebook, covering the years 1941-1945, is apparently being held back and not even Peter Trawny, the editor of the first three volumes, is permitted to read the final one. We are left to imagine how much more damaging that final volume may be. What is undeniable, it seems, is that Heidegger certainly adopted and reflected upon some vulgur examples of antisemitism.

It is no small irony that the Schwarzen Hefte are being published in Germany at the same moment as a new biography of Paul de Man (The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish) is being released and reviewed in the U.S. De Man, like Heidegger, stands accused of Nazi writing and opinions during the war. Peter Brooks has an excellent essay on the controversy in the New York Review of Books. He writes:

Judging the extent and the gravity of de Man’s collaboration is difficult. At the war’s end, he was summoned for questioning in Brussels by the auditeur-général in charge of denazification, who decided not to bring any charges against him (whereas the editors of Le Soir were condemned to severe punishments). One could leave it at that: if not guiltless, not sufficiently guilty to merit sanction. Yet both those to whom de Man was an intellectual hero and those to whom he was akin to an academic Satan have wanted to know more.

Brooks is at his best when he takes seriously the charges against de Man but also reminds us of the context as well as the lost nuance in our backward looking judgments:

The most useful pieces in Responses come from the Belgians Ortwin de Graef, who as a young scholar discovered the wartime pieces, and Els de Bens. They help us to understand the nuances of collaboration in the occupied country, the different degrees of complicity with an enemy whom some saw as a liberator, and the evolution of a situation in which an apparent grant of at least limited freedom of speech and opinion gradually revealed itself to be an illusion. They do not conduce to excusing de Man—he clearly made wrong choices at a time when some others made right, and heroic, choices. They give us rather grounds for thought about life under occupation (which most Americans have not known) and the daily compromises of survival. They suggest that in our hindsight we need to be careful of unnuanced judgment. To try to understand is not in this case to excuse, but rather to hold ourselves, as judges, to an ethical standard.

On that ethical standard, Brooks finds Barish lacking. Her assertions are unsupported. And footnotes lead nowhere, as, for example, “I shared this information, and it has since been previously published in Belgian sources not now available to me.” And also, “This writer understands that an essay (citation unavailable) was produced by a student in Belgium.” As Brooks comments, “That does not pass any sort of muster. One could do a review of Barish’s footnotes that would cast many doubts on her scholarship.”

deman

Brooks’ review is an important reminder of the way that charges of antisemitism are crude weapons. Barish, he writes,” goes on to conclude that de Man was not a pronounced anti-Semite but rather “one of the lukewarm, whom Dante condemned to sit eternally at the gates of Hell, men without principles or convictions who compromised with evil.”” I am left to wonder what it means to condemn lukewarm antisemites or racists to purgatory.

As the Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, I confront all kinds of misinformation on behalf of those who insist that Hannah Arendt defended Adolf Eichmann (on the contrary she called for him to be killed and erased from the face of the earth), that she blamed the Jews for the Holocaust (she never equates Jewish cooperation with the crimes of the Nazis), and that she opposed the state of Israel (she thought the existence of Israel important and necessary). No matter how often it is corrected, such misinformation has the tendency to spread and choke off meaningful thought and consideration.

The propagandists and vultures are circling the new  Heidegger affair with open mouths. It is important at such moments to recall how easily such feeding frenzies can devour the good and the middling along with the bad and horrifically evil. It is helpful, therefore, to read a few sober cautions about the current Paul de Man controversy. Susan Rubin Suleiman has an excellent account in the NY Times Book Review. And then there is Brooks' essay in the NYRB. They are your weekend reads.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
4Feb/140

John F. Kennedy on Thinking

Arendtthoughts

“Too often we... enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

-John F. Kennedy

ken

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
2Feb/140

Amor Mundi 2/2/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Right to Not Care

womanEvincing a particular kind of anti-political judgment, the editors at N+1 are trying to wiggle their way out of the internet's world of opinion: "We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation. We are all cosmopolitans online, attentive to everything; but the internet is not one big General Assembly, and the controversies planted in establishment newspapers aren’t always the sort of problems that require the patient attention of a working group. Some opinions deserve radical stack (like #solidarityisforwhitewomen), but the glorified publicity stunts that dress up in opinion’s clothes to get viral distribution in the form of “debate” (Open Letters to Miley Cyrus) do not. We ought to be selective about who deserves our good faith. Some people duke it out to solve problems. Others pick fights for the spectacle, knowing we’ll stick around to watch. In the meantime they’ll sell us refreshments, as we loiter on the sideline, waiting to see which troll will out-troll his troll." Read Roger Berkowitz’s  response on the Arendt Center blog.

Ignorance Praised in Art and Education

artBarry Schwabsky wonders what the proliferation of MFAs and not Ph.D.’s in art means for artists. Could it be dangerous and lead to intellectually gifted but sterile artists? Don’t worry, Schwabsky writes, since art schools have adopted ignorance as their motto: "Just as no one family of techniques can be prescribed as the right content of art education, neither can any one set of ideas. The instructor’s knowledge and experience are always in principal too limited for the job they’ve taken on. They’re supposed to help usher their students into the not-yet-known, toward what, in Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, the Canadian artist Jon Pylypchuk calls "another place where there was no grade and just a friend telling you that what you did was good."  Sooner or later teaching art, and making art, is about coming to terms with one’s own ignorance.  Maybe that’s why the art world’s favorite philosopher these days is, whose best-known book—published in France in 1987 and translated into English four years later—is called The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Its subject is Joseph Jacotot, a forgotten French educator of the early nineteenth century whose “intellectual adventure” was founded on a paradoxical—one might be tempted to say nonsensical—principle: “He proclaimed that one could teach what one didn’t know.” The educator’s job, since teacher and student are assumed to be equal in intelligence, is nothing more than to “use all possible means of convincing the ignorant one of his power” of understanding. The teacher is there simply to remind the learner to pay attention, to keep working.” It might be helpful to recall Arendt’s argument in “The Crisis in Education,” that teaching must teach something if it is to give students the possibility of rebuilding the world anew.

Not Dead Yet

bookDigital journalism professor Meredith Borussard explains why she's banned e-readers from her classroom, and gives a short history of the book while she's at it: "The user interface for a book has been refined for centuries. What we call a ‘printed book’ today is a codex, a set of uniformly sized pages bound between covers. It was adopted around the 3rd or 4th century. A book’s interface is nearly perfect. It is portable, it never runs out of power, and you can write notes in it if you forget your notebook. The physical book is seamlessly integrated into the educational experience: It fits on any desk, even those cramped little writing surfaces that flip up from the side of a seat. You can sit around a table with 15 other people, each of whom has a book, and you can all see each other to have a conversation about what is on the page."

Hopelessly American

flagCarol Becker confronts “the first time I was aware that the world had changed and that "we" (my age group) were no longer the "younger generation." Another group was ascending, and its members appeared confoundedly different from us.” Becker reflects on what it is that identifies her generation and suggests that their idealism was hopelessly American: “I was asked if I still believed in making a “better world.” I was taken aback. I could not imagine a life where that was not a goal, nor a world incapable of movement forward. Having grown up believing in progress–not the progress of technology or material wealth but that of personal and social transformation—it probably is the concept of “hope” that most separates my generation from those that immediately followed. Perhaps I am delusional and, like all who suffer from delusions, unable to function without them. Or it could be that I am “hopelessly American”, as my students in Greece used to say, because of my conviction that the world can be changed for the better and that I or we, must have a hand in that process.”

The Last of the Unjust

filmClaude Lanzmann, maker of the magisterial Shoah, has been deeply critical of Hannah Arendt’s appraisal of Jewish leaders. Now Lanzmann has a new film out that is proving almost as controversial as Eichmann in Jerusalem. I wrote about it earlier, here. This weekend, Jeremy Gerard has a short profile of the movie in the New York Times.  “Life and death in Theresienstadt were overseen by successive heads of the Judenrat, the Jewish council set up by the Nazis in ghettos and camps to enforce Nazi orders and to oversee labor and the transfer of people to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau and other camps. The first two were executed when their usefulness ended. The final elder, serving from December 1944 to May 1945, was a brilliant Viennese rabbi, Benjamin Murmelstein, who called himself “the last of the unjust,” a phrase that Mr. Lanzmann appropriated for the title of his 3-hour-40-minute look at this divisive figure. In the documentary, opening on Feb. 7, he revisits an intense week he spent filming Rabbi Murmelstein nearly four decades ago. Some critics and Holocaust survivors have found the new documentary overly sympathetic to the rabbi; Mr. Lanzmann himself has therefore become an unlikely player in the continuing debate over how we are to remember Jews who worked in any way with the Nazis.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Ian Storey writes about Arendt, Steve McQueen, and Kanye West. And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz takes on the editors at N+1 who berate the internet for inciting too much free speech.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
31Jan/143

Why Must We Care

ArendtWeekendReading

Is there such a thing as too much free speech? The Editors at N+1 think so. They posted an editorial this week lamenting the overabundance of speaking that has swept over our nation like a plague:

A strange mania governs the people of our great nation, a mania that these days results in many individual and collective miseries. This is the love of opinion, of free speech—a furious mania for free, spoken opinion. It exhausts us.

The N+1 Editors feel besieged. And we can all sympathize with their predicament. Too many people are writing blogs; too many voices are tweeting; too many friends are pontificating about something on Facebook. And then there are the trolls. It’s hard not to sympathize with our friends at N+1. Why do we have to listen to all of these folks? Shouldn’t all these folks just stop and read N+1 instead?

n1

Of course it is richly hypocritical for the Editors of an opinion journal to complain of an overabundance of opinions. And N+1 acknowledges and even trumpets its hypocrisy.

We are aware that to say [that others should stop expressing their opinions] (freely! our opinion!) makes us hypocrites. We are also aware that America’s hatred of hypocrisy is one of few passions to rival its love of free speech—as if the ideal citizen must see something, say something, and it must be the same thing, all the time. But we’ll be hypocrites because we’re tired, and we want eventually to stop talking.

Beyond the hypocrisy N +1 has a point: The internet has unleashed packs upon packs of angry often rabid dogs. These haters attack anything and everything, including each other. Hate and rage are everywhere:

The ragers in our feeds, our otherwise reasonable friends and comrades: how do they have this energy, this time, for these unsolicited opinions? They keep finding things to be mad about. Here, they’ve dug up some dickhead writer-­professor in Canada who claims not to teach women writers in his classes. He must be denounced, and many times! OK. Yes. We agree. But then it’s some protest (which we support), and then some pop song (which we like, or is this the one we don’t like?), and then some egregiously false study about austerity in Greece (full of lies!). Before we know it, we’ve found ourselves in a state of rage, a semi-permanent state of rage in fact, of perma-rage, our blood boiled by the things that make us mad and then the unworthy things that make other people mad.

Wouldn’t it be nice of public discourse were civil and loving? I too would prefer a rational discussion about the Boycott, Diversity, and Sanction movement. I would be thrilled if the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could join forces to fight political corruption and the over-bureaucratization of government that disempowers individuals. And of course I would love it if those who religiously attack Hannah Arendt for her opinion that Adolf Eichmann was a superficial and banal man responsible for unspeakable evils could find common cause with those who find her provocative, moving and meaningful.

Of course it is exhausting dealing with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. And there is always the impulse to say simply, “enough! I just don’t want to hear your opinions anymore.” This is precisely what N+1 is saying: “We don’t care!”

We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.

Underlying N+1’s ironic distance from the arena of opinions and discord is a basic anti-political fantasy that opinion is a waste of time, if it is not destructive. Wouldn’t it be better to skip the opinions and the battles and the disagreements and just cut straight to the truth? Just listen to the truth.

Truth is not an imperative, but something that must be discovered. Unlike liquid opinion, truth does not always circulate. It is that which you experience, deeply, and cannot forget. The right to not care is the right to sit still, to not talk, to be subject to unclarity and allow knowledge to come unbidden to you. To be in a constant state of rage, by contrast, is only the other side of piety and pseudoscience, the kind of belief that forms a quick chorus and cannot be disproved. Scroll down your Facebook feed and see if you don’t find one ditto after another. So many people with “good” or “bad politics,” delivered with conviction to rage or applause; so little doubt, error, falsifiability—surely the criteria by which anything true, or democratic, could ever be found.

What N+1 embraces is truth over opinion and escapism against engagement with others. What they forget, however, is that there are two fundamentally opposed routes to truth.

In one, the truthseeker turns away from the world of opinion. The world in which we live is a world of shadows and deceptions. Truth won’t be found in the marketplace of ideas, but on the mountaintop in the blinding light of the sun. Like Plato’s philosopher king, we must climb out of the cave and ascend to the heights. Alone, turned toward the heavens and the eternal truths that surf upon the sunrays, we open ourselves to the experience of truth.

A second view of truth is more mundane. The truthseeker stays firmly planted in the world of opinion and deception. Truth is a battle and it is fought with the weapons of words. Persuasion and rhetoric replace the light of the sun. The winner gains not insight but power. Truth doesn’t emerge from an experience; truth is the settled sentiment of the most persuasive opinion.

Both the mountain path and the road through the marketplace are paths to truth, but of different kinds. Philosophers and theologians may very well need to separate themselves from the world of opinion if they are to free themselves to experience truth. Philosophical truths, as Hannah Arendt argues, address “man in his singularity” and are thus “unpolitical by nature.” For her, philosophy and also philosophical truths are anti-political.

Politicians cannot concern themselves with absolute truths; they must embrace the life of the citizen and the currency of opinion rather than the truths of the philosopher. In politics, “no opinion is self-evident,” as Arendt understood. “In matters of opinion, but not in matters of [philosophical] truth, our thinking is discursive, running as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality.” In politics, truth may emerge, but it must go through the shadows that darken the marketplace.

What Arendt understands about political truths is that truths do indeed “circulate” in messy and often uncomfortable ways that the n+1 editorial board wishes to avoid. Political thought, Arendt argues, “is representative.” By that she means that it must sample as many different viewpoints and opinions as is possible. “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” It is in hearing, imagining, and representing opposing and discordant views that one comes to test out his or her own views. It is not a matter of empathy, of feeling like someone else. It is rather an imaginative experiment in which I test my views against all comers. In this way, the enlarged mentality of imaginative thinking is the prerequisite for judgment.

When Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann that he was possessed of the “fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” because he did not think, what she meant was that he was simply incapable or unwilling to think from the perspective of others. His use of clichés was not thoughtlessness itself, but was evidence that he had barricaded himself inside an ideological cage. Above all, his desire to make others including Jews understand his point of view—his hope that they could see that he was a basically good man caught up on the wrong side of history—was for Arendt evidence of his superficiality and his lack of imagination. He simply could not and did not ever allow himself to challenge his own rationalizations and justifications by thinking from the perspective of Jews and his other victims. What allowed Eichmann to so efficiently dispatch millions to their deaths was his inability to think and encounter opinions that were different from his own.

In the internet age we are bombarded with such a diversity of angry and insulting and stupid and offensive viewpoints that it is only naturally to alternate between the urge to respond violently and the urge to withdraw.

opinion

It is easy to deride political opinion and idolize truth. But that is to forget that “seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.”

Political thinking requires that we resist both the desire to fight opinions with violence and the desire to flee from opinions altogether. Instead, we need to learn to think in and with others whose opinions we often hate. We must find in the melee of divergent and offending opinions the joy that exists in the experience of human plurality. We don’t need to love or agree with those we find offensive; but so long as they are talking instead of fighting, we should respect them and listen to them. Indeed, we should care about them and their beliefs. That is why the N+1 manifesto for not caring is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
14Oct/132

On Facts (for Elisabeth Young-Bruehl)

Arendtquote

This "Quote of the week was originally published on December 19, 2011.

“Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”

— Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics”

I spent December 2 in Greencastle, Indiana, talking about politics, political theory, and the life and work of Hannah Arendt at DePauw University.  Over dinner, I had sung the praises of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of the World—a book that needs no publicity from me, but which I’ve come to admire all the more as I’ve learned how much and what kind of effort it takes to recount even a slice of someone’s story, much less a whole life.  When I came back to my hotel room after dinner, I found, online, the news of Elisabeth’s death.  In this terrible retrospect, my comments about the biography felt inadequate.  I’d said something about the care she devoted to the facts of Arendt’s life, which, I worried, might have sounded trivializing, as if a biographer were just an assembler of details, and as if Elisabeth hadn’t also been an interpreter and a thinker in her own right. Not to mention that invoking the facts must have seemed quaint, or naïve: who talks that way anymore?

elisabeth

Arendt, of course, talked that way, and it had always sounded a little jarring to my constructivist ear.  Maybe that’s why, like many other readers, I had usually remembered her essay “Truth and Politics” as a forceful attempt to emancipate politics from the category of philosophical truth, and neglected its other half: a defense of the political relevance of “factual truth,” which Arendt had no trouble characterizing as a matter of respect for the “brutally elementary data” of human events.  (Her preferred example: “On the night of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the frontier of Belgium.”)  But I had recently had occasion to come back to “Truth and Politics” and to Arendt’s invocation of factual truth, and—I now realized—the line of thought that had emerged from that reading wasn’t unrelated to my deepening appreciation of For Love of the World.

The real reason Arendt’s appeal to brute facts was so jarring, I think, is that we’re used to hearing such appeals as table-thumping attempts to end a conversation, to put doubt to rest, to anchor a political judgment in something undeniable; and that sounds like the very strategy Arendt criticized in the case of appeals to rational or philosophical truth, which are supposed to have enough “compelling force” to cut through the tangle of competing and conflicting opinions.

color

But this wasn’t Arendt’s point.  She conceded that claims to factual truth, like all truth-claims, assert a kind of peremptoriness, and therefore strike us as “despotic” in their “infuriating stubbornness.”  At the same time, though, she insisted on the weakness and fragility of factual truth, not only in the sense that facts are vulnerable to manipulation at the hands of political actors, but also in the sense that the “mere telling of facts,” on its own, “leads to no action whatever.”  The bruteness of facts is extraordinarily limited in its reach: that it was the German army and not the Belgian that crossed the frontier in 1914 may be one of those givens that we “cannot change,” but nothing further follows from the fact itself.

Why, then, are these “brutally elementary data” politically relevant?  Because in an era of “organized lying,” in which political actors and ideologists do not simply deny or falsify particular facts, but struggle to represent factual truth in general as a tightly ordered, internally consistent system, the recounting of inconvenient facts can disrupt such efforts to give factual truth a compulsive power that, Arendt thought, reality itself lacks. In this context, an appeal to the bruteness of facts needn’t obscure plurality or bypass the need for judgment: on the contrary, it can disclose that need, showing an audience its situation in sufficient factual richness that nothing will seem to follow from that situation automatically.  (“The question was never to get away from facts but to get closer to them,” Bruno Latour once wrote; perhaps he and Arendt are not so far apart after all.)

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had a brilliant sense for this Arendtian chemistry of facts, for their paradoxical power to serve, precisely in their bruteness, as a kind of leaven, opening up rather than shutting down occasions and spaces for judgment.  Maybe all great biographers do.  Yes, she did much more than recount the facts of Arendt’s life; she was also an interpreter, who transformed the “raw material of sheer happenings” into a meaningful story, one that was informed by her own interest in and knowledge of matters for which her teacher and subject had little patience, like psychoanalysis.

forlove

But For Love of the World is not and does not feel tendentious in its treatment of the facts of Arendt’s life. It is too generous for that, it tells us too much more than it would need to if the facts were only there to prove a point, and, in the disinterested care with which it treats those many factual matters that are not cruxes in her own interpretation—and most of them are not—it invites and enables its readers to tell the story differently.  It is not the authoritativeness of Elisabeth’s account of why Arendt matters, but the firmness of her grasp of small details, and the lightness with which she deploys them, that make her book, for so many readers of Arendt of so many different theoretical persuasions, an indispensible part of “the ground on which we stand, and the sky that stretches above us."

-Patchen Markell

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
14Oct/130

Amor Mundi – 10/13/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Educated Citizen in Washington

rogerRoger Berkowitz opened the Arendt Center Conference "Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis": "In the early years of our federal-constitutional-democratic-republican experiment, cobblers, lawyers, and yeoman farmers participated in Town Hall meetings. Today, few of us have the experience or the desire to govern and we have lost the habit of weighing and judging those issues that define our body politic. Why is this so? Are we suffering an institutional failure to make clear that participation in governance is a personal responsibility? Do the size and complexity of bureaucratic government mean that individuals are so removed from the levers of power that engaged citizenship is rationally understood to be a waste of time? Or do gerrymandered districts with homogenous populations insulate congressmen from the need for compromise? Whatever the cause, educated elites  are contemptuous of common people and increasingly imagine that the American people are no longer qualified for self-government; and the American people, for their part, increasingly distrust the educated elite that has consistently failed to deliver the dream of a well-managed government that provides social services cheaply and efficiently. It is against this background that we are here to think about 'The Educated Citizen in Crisis.'  Over the next two days, we will ask: What would an educated citizen look like today? Read the whole talk; you can also watch his speech and the whole conference here.

When You Need a Job for Job Training

jobClare McCann points to a surprising fact about government student loans: "Most people typically have undergraduates in mind when they think about the federal loan program, but in reality, the program is nearly as much about financing graduate studies as it is about undergraduate programs. Sure, graduate school can cost more than an undergraduate education, but that's not necessarily why graduate loans feature prominently in the breakdown. Actually, it's because the federal government does not limit how much graduate students can borrow." Perhaps more so than loans for undergraduates, loans to students entering grad programs can lead to enormous debt loads that they can't afford.

The Internet Arendt

peopleDavid Palumbo-Liu considers the role of the public intellectual in the internet age. He argues that amongst the proliferation of intellectual voices on the web, the role of the public intellectual must change:  "A public intellectual today would thus not simply be one filter alongside others, an arbiter of opinion and supplier of diversity. Instead, today's public intellectual is a provocateur who also provides a compelling reason to think differently. This distinction is critical." In other words, what we need are more public intellectuals who write and think as did Hannah Arendt.

Dual Citizenship

photoAndrea Bruce's new photo project, Afghan Americans, depicts a group of people with a particular dual identity alongside quotes from its subjects. This work grew out of work she did as a photojournalist in Iraq, where she sought to "show that Iraqis weren't all that different from our readers... that they, too, love their children. They care about education. They have to deal with traffic and health care in ways that are surprisingly similar to Americans."

Ceasing to Make Sense of the World

womanIn an interview about, among other things, whether a machine can help us separate art we like from art we don't, essayist Michelle Orange answers a question about why we like formulaic art, and the consequences of that preference: "In the 1960s there was a great hunger for tumult and experiment at the movies that matched the times. I often wonder about A.O. Scott's line on The Avengers: 'The price of entertainment is obedience.' When did it happen that instead of gathering to dream together, we trudged to the movies to get the shit entertained out of us? Robert Stone has a great line: 'The way people go crazy is that they cease to have narratives, and the way a culture goes crazy is that it ceases to be able to tell stories.' In American culture you find a mania for stories - the internet, social media, the news cycle, endless cable channels. But I wonder if being fed in constant junk-nutrition fragments only intensifies that appetite, because what it really wants is something huge and coherent, some structuring context."

Featured Events

October 16, 2013

A Lecture by Nicole Dewandre: "Rethinking the Human Condition in a Hyperconnected Era"

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium

Learn more here.

 

October 27, 2013

Blogging and the New Public Intellectual - A Conversation with Jay Rosen and Megan Garber

Bard Graduate Center

Learn more here.

blogging

 

October 28, 2013
Seth Lipsky Lunchtime Talk on Opinion Journalism
Arendt Center

Learn more here.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

On the Arendt Center Blog this week, read "Irony as an Antidote to Thoughtlessness," a discussion of Arendt's ironic stance in Eichmann in Jerusalem by Arendt Center Fellow Michiel Bot. And Jeffrey Champlin reviews Margaret Canovan's classic essay, "Arendt, Rousseau, and Human Plurality in Politics."

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Apr/130

Thinking Metaphors

Arendtquote

This Quote of the Week post was first published on August 27, 2012.

“What connects thinking and poetry [Dichten] is metaphor. In philosophy one calls concept what in poetry [Dichtkunst] is called metaphor. Thinking creates its “concepts” out of the visible, in order to designate the invisible.”

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 2, p. 728 (August 1969) (translation my own)

Arendt’s Denktagebuch is less a “book” than a collection of “thought fragments”. These fragments, such as the one quoted above, are perhaps best considered not as advocating some position, but as specific angles or starting points from which we are invited to think something through.

All too often, her published works are understood in an “advocatory” fashion. Accordingly, The Human Condition, is sometimes read as a “plea” in favor of the vita activa over and against the vita contemplativa. In fact, however, Arendt explicitly denies that she wishes to reverse the traditional hierarchy between the two ways of life. Rather, she is questioning the conceptual framework within which both ways of life have traditionally been understood.

color

Hence, I take it to be her aim not only to liberate acting [Handeln] from its being reduced to nothing more than an instrument in the process of making [Herstellen], but, analogously, to liberate the activity of thinking from its being reduced to nothing more than an instrument in the process of cognition culminating in contemplation, in “seeing” the truth which, in turn, serves as blueprint for the process of making. She notes that both the process of making, which uses mute violence, and the end of contemplation, which is reached in a state of speechless wonder, entail a loss of language.[1] As a consequence, the element of speech has disappeared not only from our conception of action (including politics), but also from our conception of thinking (including philosophy).

If not from the model of the passive contemplation, how does Arendt wish to understand the activity of thinking? In my view, there are at least three thinking “motifs” which can be traced throughout her oeuvre. The first, and certainly the best known, is that of “dialectical thinking”, that is, the soundless dialogue between me and myself (“two-in-one”). It is used in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and it keeps recurring in many of her later works, including The Life of the Mind. The second, somewhat less prominent motif is that of “representative thinking”, which denotes the capacity of placing oneself in the perspectives of (more than two) fellow human beings, and which prepares the formation of opinions and judgments. The notion itself occurs for the first time in ‘The Crisis in Culture’ (1960), but it is clearly related to, if not identical with, the “communicative” thinking introduced in her essays on Karl Jaspers a few years earlier.

The third motif, “poetic thinking”, is perhaps the most interesting one. Although she uses the term itself exclusively in her essay on Walter Benjamin (1968), a description of the underlying phenomenon recurs in The Life of the Mind, more specifically in its two chapters on metaphor. Arendt describes the function of metaphor as “turning the mind back to the sensory world in order to illuminate the mind’s non-sensory experiences for which there are no words in any language.” (The Life of the Mind, vol.1, p. 106)

birds

As soon as we realize, as do the poets, that all language is metaphorical, we will, as thinkers, be able to assess the crucial role of our language in bridging the gap between the visible phenomena of the outer world and the invisible concepts of our inner mind. To give an example, by tracing a concept – such as “politics” – to its originally underlying experience – the Greek polis – we will be able to assess whether the way in which we employ it, is “adequate”, that is, whether we actually employ it in any meaningful way, whether it really “makes sense”.

In concluding her chapters on metaphor, Arendt raises the challenging question whether there exists a metaphor that could serve to illuminate the invisible activity of “thinking” itself. The most she is willing to offer, however, is the metaphor of “the sensation of being alive”, of which she herself readily admits that it “remains singularly empty” (idem, p. 124).

Why does she not mention the metaphor of poetry here? In the Denktagebuch fragment quoted above, written while she was preparing The Life of the Mind, Arendt clearly points to a certain correspondence between the role of metaphor in poetry and the role of concept in thinking. Perhaps we may go so far as to suggest that she uses poetry – or rather, since she uses the substantivized German verb “Dichten”, the activity of “making poetry” – as a metaphor for thinking.

However, the word “poetry” itself is derived from the Greek word “poièsis”, which should be rendered as “making” [Herstellen]. Hence, she might have thought that by using poetry as a metaphor for thought, she would have reiterated the traditional problem of the activity of thinking having been overlaid with the contemplative element in the experience of making. Indeed, in The Human Condition, in the section titled ‘The Permanence of the World and the Work of Art’, she seems to imply that writing poetry involves “the same workmanship which, through the primordial instrument of human hands, builds the other durable things of the human artifice.” (The Human Condition, p. 169)

Yet, in the very same section another, more promising, understanding of “poetry” is beginning to emerge. Arendt calls music and poetry “the least “materialistic” of the arts because their “material” consists of sounds and words” – note her use of quotation marks here – and she adds that the workmanship they demand is “kept to a minimum”.

words

Moreover, after having suggested that the durability of a poem is not so much caused by the fact that it is written down, but by “condensation”, she speaks of poetry as “language spoken in utmost density and concentration” (idem, p. 169). The German word for condensation is “Verdichtung” and for density “Dichte”. While being absent in the English expression of “making poetry”, both words clearly resonate in the German verb “dichten”.

Arendt does not draw any explicit connection between the activity of condensation and the use of metaphor. Still, she might have had it in mind. One page earlier (idem, p. 168), she referred to a poem by Rilke in order to illustrate the “veritable metamorphosis” a work of art is capable of bringing about, being more than a mere reification, more than a matter of “making” in the ordinary sense. Consider especially the second strophe, which simultaneously articulates and demonstrates the power of metaphor in “calling” the invisible:

Here is magic. In the realm of a spell
the common word seems lifted up above...
and yet is really like the call of the male
who calls for the invisible female dove.[2]

- Wout Cornelissen

[1] See, amongst others, Denktagebuch, pp. 345-346.

[2] Translation by John J.L. Mood. Arendt quotes the German original only.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
11Mar/131

The Wonder That Man Endures

Arendtquote

“The wonder that man endures or which befalls him cannot be related in words because it is too general for words….That this speechless wonder is the beginning of philosophy became axiomatic for both Plato and Aristotle.”

-Hannah Arendt, "Philosophy and Politics"

Aristotle had told us that philosophy begins in thaumázein--  θαυμάζειν –“to wonder, marvel, be astonished.”    In the New Testament, the word appears only twice. In the parallel occurrences (Matthew 27:14 and Mark 15:5), Pilate marvels at the fact that Jesus says nothing.  What is significant is that thaumázein is associated there with an experience for which there were no words.  The word means a kind of an initial wordless astonishment at what is, at that that is is. For Aristotle, thaumázein is the beginning of philosophy as wonder.  It is not for the Greeks, therefore, the beginning of political philosophy.

aristot

Key here is the fact of speechlessness.  This wonder “cannot be related in words because it is too general for words.”  Arendt suggests that Plato encountered it in those moments in which Socrates, “as though seized by a rapture, [fell] into complete motionlessness, just staring without seeing or hearing anything.”  It follows that “ultimate truth is beyond words.” Nevertheless, humans want to talk about that which cannot be spoken. “As soon as the speechless state of wonder translates itself into words, it … will formulate in unending variations what we call the ultimate questions.”  These questions – what is being? Who is the human being? What is the meaning of life” what is death? And so forth “have in common that they cannot be answered scientifically.” Thus Socrates “I know that I do not know” is actually an expression that opens the door to the political,  public realm, in the recognition that nothing that can be said there can ever have the quality of being final.

According to Arendt, Socrates has three distinct aspects.  First he arouses citizens from their slumber – this is the gadfly who gets others to think, to think about those topics for which there is no final answer.  Secondly as “midwife” he decides – he makes evident – whether an opinion is fit to live or is merely an unimpregnated “wind-egg” (cf Theateatus 152a; 157d; 161a): Greek midwives not only assisted in the delivery but determined if the new-born was healthy enough to live.  Socrates concludes his discussion in the Theateatus (210b) by saying all they have done is to produce a mere wind-egg and that he must leave as he has to get to the courthouse for his trial. Lastly, as stinging ray, Socrates paralyzes in two ways.  He makes you stop and think; he destroys the certainty one has of received opinions.  Arendt is clear that this can be dangerous.  She goes on to say that “thinking is … dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed,” but she is equally clear that “non-thinking … has its dangers [which are] the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars.”  To think is dangerous: but to think is to desire wisdom, what is not there.  It is thus a longing; it is eros and, as with all things erotic, “to bring this relationship into the open, make it appear, men speak about it in the same way that the lover wants to speak of his beloved.” Where does this leave one? For the most part, in normal times, thinking is not of political use.  It is, however, of use, in times when the “center does not hold,” in times of crisis.

At these moments, thinking ceases to be a marginal affair in political matters.  When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by whatever everyone else does and believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join is conscious and thereby becomes a kind of action.  The purging element … is political by implication. For this destruction has a liberating effect on another human faculty, the faculty of judgment, … the faculty to judge particulars without subsuming them under those general rules which can be taught and learned until the grow into habits.

Suppose we read Arendt as saying that political philosophy must now turn and thaumázein – and wonder – not at that what is, is, but at the human reality, at the world of human activity.  This would involve a change in philosophy – for which she says philosophers are not particularly well equipped.  She thinks such a turn would rest on and derive from several elements – she mentions in particular Jaspers’ reformulation of truth as transcending the realm that can be instrumentally controlled, thus related to freedom;  Heidegger’s analysis of ordinary everyday life; and existentialism’s insistence on action.  It will be an inquiry into the “political significance of thought; that is into the meaningfulness and the conditions of thinking for a being that never exists in the singular and whose essential plurality is far from explored when an I-Thou relationship is added to the traditional understanding of human nature.”

polisci

What is problematic with purely philosophical thaumázein?  The Thracian maid who appears in the title to Jacques Taminiaux’s book and stands for Arendt in his analysis derives from an account in the Theateatus.  Upon encountering Thales who, all-focused in his wondering, had fallen into a well, the maid notes that the philosopher had “failed to see what was in front of him.”  Mary-Jane Robinson notes four elements to Arendt’s suspicion of excessive wonder, a suspicion one assumes was directed at Heidegger.  First, such wonder allows avoidance of the messiness of the everyday world; secondly, such “uncritical openness” leads philosophers to be “swept away by dictators.”  Thirdly, such wonder alienates the philosopher (as with Heidegger post-1945) from the world around him, and lastly, such openness to the mystery of the world, “disables decision making.”

If politics is the realm of how humans appear to each other when they act and speak, from whence does it come?  The only possible answer is that politics is an emergence from a realm which is neither that of action nor that of speech.  The political emerges from nothingness.  Perhaps this is the realm to which poetry can call us – and some of Arendt’s most moving essays are on poetry and literature – but such a realm is not political.  In this sense there is a limit to political science, as there is to all science.  For Arendt, there are no underlying causes out of which that which is political must emerge.  This is why political action is always for her a beginning and a marvel for which we have to try to find words.

- Tracy B. Strong - University of California, San Diego
The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
24Jan/132

The Rationality of Breaking the Rules

Controversy is raging around Thomas Friedman’s column today advising the presumptive Secretary of State John Kerry to “break all the rules.”

In short, Friedman—known for his faithful belief that technology is making the world flat and changing things for the better—counsels that the U.S. ignore hostile governments and appeal directly to the people. Here’s the key paragraph:

Let’s break all the rules. Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.

Foreign policy types like Dan Drezner respond with derision.

Friedman's "break all the rules" strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials.  Worse, he's recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran.  This is the worst kind of "World is Flat" pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy.  God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman's advice.

I’ll leave the debate to others. But look at the central assumption in Friedman’s logic. If the leaders of a country don’t agree with us, go to the people. Tell them our plan. They’ll love it.  But why is that so? For Friedman and so many of his brothers and sisters on the left and the right in the commentariat, the answer is: because our proposals are rational. Whether it is Friedman on Iran or Brooks on the economy or liberals on gun control or conservatives on the budget, there is an assumption that if everyone would just get together and talk this through like rational individuals, we would agree on a workable and rational solution. This is of course the basic view of President Obama. He sees himself as the most rational person in the room and wonders why people don’t agree with him.

This rationalist fallacy is wrong. Neuro-scientists tell us that people respond to emotional and non-rational inputs. But long ago Hannah Arendt understood and argued that the essence of politics is neither truth nor reason. It is plurality and opinion. The basic condition of politics is plurality, which means people need to come together and pursue a common good in spite of their disagreements and differences.

For Arendt, Western history has seen politics had come under the sway of philosophy and thus the pursuit of rational truth instead of being what it was: a space for the public engagement of different opinions. The tragedy of the last 50 years is that philosophical rationality has now been supplanted by technocratic rationality, so that politics is increasingly about neither opinion nor common truths, but technocracy.

One lesson Arendt took from her fundamental distrust of unity and rationality was the importance of the diffusion of powers and her distrust of centralized power. Her embrace of American Constitutional Federalism was neither conservative nor liberal; it was born from her insistence that politics cannot and should not seek to replace opinions with truths.

Friedman wants rational truth to win out and believes that if we just talk to the people, the veils will fall from their eyes. Well it doesn’t work here at home because people really do disagree and see the world differently. There is no reason to think it will work around the world either. A thoughtful foreign policy, as opposed to a rational one, would begin with the fact of true plurality. The question is not how to make others agree with us, but rather how we who disagree can still live together meaningfully in a common world.

-RB

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Dec/121

What is a Fact?

What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”

But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?

Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered:  ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.

Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.

Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]

For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.

Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.

The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'

Immanuel Velikovsky

It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.

No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.

Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”

Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.

Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.

The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.

What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.

When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
15Oct/127

The Political Weakness of Empathy

Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints….This process of representation does not blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere else, and hence look upon the world from a different perspective; this is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.

-Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics” in Between Past and Future, p. 241

In response to the shootings in Aurora, Colorado in July, President Obama had this to say:

While we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living. The people we lost in Aurora loved and they were loved….They had hopes for the future and they had dreams that were not yet fulfilled. And if there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile…What matters at the end of the day is not the small things; it’s not the trivial things…Ultimately it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.

This speech was disturbing for a number of reasons. Yes, it was full of clichés and tired appeals to the hopes and futures of people who are nothing but a vague idea to Obama’s audience. But most disturbing of all was the fact that it revealed the response of the country’s highest public official to a breakdown of public safety was essentially a complete abdication of responsibility for the public.

In this speech, Obama refuses to articulate what Arendt calls political thought, instead luxuriating in the experience of empathy and asking the audience to the do same. The problem with speaking and thinking of politics as a sphere in which individuals must try “to be or to feel like somebody else,” as Arendt saw it, is that feeling with another does nothing to acknowledge and maintain the plurality that is so necessary to politics. In empathy, one remains isolated and alone as an individual, albeit an individual with a different set of emotional experiences than what one had before. In this instance, Obama puts himself into the shoes of those individuals who lost family and friends in the shooting and asks his Florida audience to do the same. In so doing, he transforms the event from one that confronts the American polity with questions about our shared public space—about national gun control laws and issues connected to the lack of appropriate physical and mental health care—into a question of the appropriate personal response to loss. Seen in this light, it is not at all surprising that the President would conclude his speech by telling the audience that he and his wife will hug their daughters a bit more tightly that night.

Characterizing what is surely a public problem into an issue of bedtime rituals among family members reveals not only the extent to which politics has given way to personal concerns, but also the unhappy possibility that not even our political leaders are able to move beyond personal concerns to take responsibility for the public as a whole.

It is tempting to interpret Arendt’s quote as an admonition to individuals to reveal themselves in political action. This understanding of Arendtian politics and action is the most familiar one and Arendt’s language of “being and thinking in my own identity” certainly evokes the language of personal courage she uses to describe the political actor in The Human Condition. There she ascribes to the decision to enter politics a courage that is necessary to bring to the public light one’s thoughts and deeds as undeniably one’s own and to “ris[e] into sight from some darker ground” (The Human Condition, 71).

But these lines of “Truth and Politics” strongly suggest that the public appearance one makes as an individual must somehow be tied intimately to other people. What one reveals, in other words, is not oneself in one’s personal sentiments, but rather one’s opinion, which necessarily takes into account the viewpoints of other people. The rising from a dark ground into the light of the public is less about revealing oneself in all one’s uniqueness and more about situating or orienting oneself within a realm of others from whom one may or may not differ. It is for this reason, I think, that Arendt considers empathy to be destructive of politics. In empathy, we appropriate the other to collapse the distance between us that would make possible our orientation in the world. One cannot be “oriented” in the absence of external markers against which one can orient oneself.

The consequences of reading politics as a world of empathetic individuals are dire. Empathy makes it easy to justify the appropriation of others’ lives and perspectives as one’s own. In the name of feeling with the victim, we can often leave the victim even more impoverished than he was before the outpouring of empathy. The loss suffered by those in Aurora has become the sadness and pain of those for whom the victims of the shooting, both living and dead, were really nothing but examples of our country’s political failure. On top of what these victims had already lost, it is possible that they might also lose ownership of the event. Such an appropriation has implications beyond the aesthetic or moral. The political problem with Obama’s speech is not simply that he did not reveal himself or that he appropriated the suffering of the Colorado victims. It is that his empathy allowed him to refuse to take responsibility for the community as a whole and it made it easy for the rest of us to do the same and to do so with a clear conscience. Taking care of one’s community and one’s neighbors is measured by the degree to which one can take care of the imagined personal pains of others, not one’s response to the institutional and other structural conditions that have made such events so commonplace in this country.

Aurora shooting victims

Arendt’s distinction between engaging with the viewpoints of others and feeling with another is ultimately a foundation for political responsibility, not just courageous action understood independently of one’s responsibility to the public world. To the extent that politics requires courage, it requires courage not simply to reveal oneself in a crude individualism, but to take responsibility for the big questions of our community. There is of course nothing wrong with hugging one’s children at night. But to define one’s political self in this act and to ask others do so as well is to shirk one’s responsibility for the community and to tell us that such an abdication of responsibility is not only acceptable, but also laudable because it is “human” and feeling. This might not be a necessary consequence of empathy, but, as Arendt tells us, it is an inherent possibility and a threat.

-Jennie Han

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
23Dec/110

Vaclav Havel’s Endless Spring

 

I first encountered Vaclav Havel's work in college. Later, he was a constant presence during my trip through the former states of Eastern Europe in the summer of 1990. The Velvet Revolution was our inspiration, not only for what it achieved in Czechoslovakia, but also for what it promised in the West: a restoration of hope and utopian dreams to politics.

When Havel became President of the Czechoslovakia Assembly and then of the Czech Republic, I, like many, let hope take root. Here was a President who could speak of the soul and of the human needs of his citizens. Here is Havel speaking in 1990, as President of the Czech Republic:

But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous.

This was not a President speaking in platitudes. Havel of course criticized the communists. But his critique was universal, aimed at our entire civilization:

When I talk about contaminated moral atmosphere … I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all — though naturally to differing extremes — responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery; none of us is just its victim: we are all also its co-creators.

Politicians simply don't talk this way, and it was thrilling for those of us following what was happening in the center of Europe. Could it be that he was a new type of politician for our times? Might we finally have found a philosopher king, one who could rejuvenate politics both in the former Soviet bloc and also in the West?  It was a time for grand dreams, dreams that reach from the post-communist revolutions of 1989 to the Arab Spring of 2011.

In the week since I heard that Havel had died, I have thought much about what he has given me and those of us who were touched by his politics and his writing. Havel wrote not simply about the horrors of totalitarianism, but as movingly about the horror of living in a world in which people have stopped meaning what they say. The true evil of our time is not simply repression—although we should never ignore or accept the horrors of repression—but soul-destroying meaninglessness, the loss of a politics of purpose, and the absence of higher truths that might inspire human greatness.  In such a world, individuals retreat into their private lives, focus on themselves and their careers, and abandon the political aspect of human being: the need to live in public together with others as part of a common world. Havel did not only identify and write about this problem; his Velvet Revolution is, along with recent movements like the Arab Spring, a shining example of the power of people to reassert human meaning in an inhuman world. 

I have also since Havel's death been thinking about his essay, "The Power of the Powerless." Hannah Pitkin had me re-read Havel's essays in a course on Hannah Arendt, and "The Power of the Powerless" stands out as one of the all time classic works of political thinking. I teach it frequently and often recommend it to my students. In memory of Vaclav Havel, and as a present to you all, we have laid out a version for you. Enjoy your Holiday Read. But do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a gift that will enthrall you for years

In "The Power of the Powerless," Havel makes famous the story of the green grocer. Every year the grocer receives from the Communist Party a sign that reads: "Workers of the World, Unite!" He is told to display the sign in his shop window. He does so year after year, thoughtlessly, because the Party tells him to and doing so harms nobody. It is easier to comply than to resist. There seems to be no point in refusing, since what can one individual do against the Party machine.

Years such as 1989 and 2011 remind us of the power of one. So too does Vaclav Havel. Such reminders are well worth heeding. For what the green grocer does not realize is that he is not as powerless as he thinks. If he were simply to refuse to put the sign up in his window, that one act of resistance will speak volumes. For his refusal shows both the weakness of the state and the power of the one—a power embodied in Havel's life and, perhaps, most nobly expressed by Henry David Thoreau:

I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name--if ten honest men only--ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.

What Thoreau knew and Havel showed is that man is a beginner, someone whose actions can have surprising and spontaneous reactions. Simply acting when others behave is a clarion call to return to our human potential to act and to take up our own freedom.

To act, to tell the truth, to upend expectations and be surprising, is difficult, especially since today nearly all actions are easily dismissed as simply the expected behavior of some political, social, or economic group. Occupy Wall Street is too easily dismissed as a fringe of the left just as the Tea Party is too easily written off as a bunch of right wing Republicans. In both movements, real anger and passion and humanity have striven to rise above the efforts of the spectators to reduce the calls for change to recognizable political programs. It is rare for an action today to truly surprise and force the world to take notice, as happened in Tunisia this Spring when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and ignited the revolutions of the Arab Spring.

Beginning something has always been hard, but it gets more challenging when all action is knowingly set within sociological and behavioral categories, thus rendered rational and unsurprising. And yet, even when it seems impossible to begin something new, the new breaks out in the world. It is this profoundly Arendtian insight that Havel teaches: that tired and meaningless political systems are always vulnerable to those who think and act. The power to think and to act can expose the lies upon which any totalitarian or post-totalitarian system must be based.

Havel's great insight is that at a time when politics is vapid and false, one person's action, his or her refusal to simply accept the status quo as inevitable, can set in motion profound political change. This is a lesson we continue to learn and re-learn. It is one we must never forget. "The Power of the Powerless" is one of the great essays of the 20th century. In honor of Vaclav Havel's death, it is well worth reading again. Click here to read the essay in its entirety.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
19Dec/110

On Facts (For Elisabeth Young-Bruehl)-Patchen Markell

“Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”

— Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics”

I spent December 2 in Greencastle, Indiana, talking about politics, political theory, and the life and work of Hannah Arendt at DePauw University.  Over dinner, I had sung the praises of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of the World—a book that needs no publicity from me, but which I’ve come to admire all the more as I’ve learned how much and what kind of effort it takes to recount even a slice of someone’s story, much less a whole life.  When I came back to my hotel room after dinner, I found, online, the news of Elisabeth’s death.  In this terrible retrospect, my comments about the biography felt inadequate.  I’d said something about the care she devoted to the facts of Arendt’s life, which, I worried, might have sounded trivializing, as if a biographer were just an assembler of details, and as if Elisabeth hadn’t also been an interpreter and a thinker in her own right. Not to mention that invoking the facts must have seemed quaint, or naïve: who talks that way anymore?

Arendt, of course, talked that way, and it had always sounded a little jarring to my constructivist ear.  Maybe that’s why, like many other readers, I had usually remembered her essay “Truth and Politics” as a forceful attempt to emancipate politics from the category of philosophical truth, and neglected its other half: a defense of the political relevance of “factual truth,” which Arendt had no trouble characterizing as a matter of respect for the “brutally elementary data” of human events.  (Her preferred example: “On the night of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the frontier of Belgium.”)  But I had recently had occasion to come back to “Truth and Politics” and to Arendt’s invocation of factual truth, and—I now realized—the line of thought that had emerged from that reading wasn’t unrelated to my deepening appreciation of For Love of the World.

The real reason Arendt’s appeal to brute facts was so jarring, I think, is that we’re used to hearing such appeals as table-thumping attempts to end a conversation, to put doubt to rest, to anchor a political judgment in something undeniable; and that sounds like the very strategy Arendt criticized in the case of appeals to rational or philosophical truth, which are supposed to have enough “compelling force” to cut through the tangle of competing and conflicting opinions.

But this wasn’t Arendt’s point.  She conceded that claims to factual truth, like all truth-claims, assert a kind of peremptoriness, and therefore strike us as “despotic” in their “infuriating stubbornness.”  At the same time, though, she insisted on the weakness and fragility of factual truth, not only in the sense that facts are vulnerable to manipulation at the hands of political actors, but also in the sense that the “mere telling of facts,” on its own, “leads to no action whatever.”  The bruteness of facts is extraordinarily limited in its reach: that it was the German army and not the Belgian that crossed the frontier in 1914 may be one of those givens that we “cannot change,” but nothing further follows from the fact itself.

Why, then, are these “brutally elementary data” politically relevant?  Because in an era of “organized lying,” in which political actors and ideologists do not simply deny or falsify particular facts, but struggle to represent factual truth in general as a tightly ordered, internally consistent system, the recounting of inconvenient facts can disrupt such efforts to give factual truth a compulsive power that, Arendt thought, reality itself lacks. In this context, an appeal to the bruteness of facts needn’t obscure plurality or bypass the need for judgment: on the contrary, it can disclose that need, showing an audience its situation in sufficient factual richness that nothing will seem to follow from that situation automatically.  (“The question was never to get away from facts but to get closer to them,” Bruno Latour once wrote; perhaps he and Arendt are not so far apart after all.)

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had a brilliant sense for this Arendtian chemistry of facts, for their paradoxical power to serve, precisely in their bruteness, as a kind of leaven, opening up rather than shutting down occasions and spaces for judgment.  Maybe all great biographers do.  Yes, she did much more than recount the facts of Arendt’s life; she was also an interpreter, who transformed the “raw material of sheer happenings” into a meaningful story, one that was informed by her own interest in and knowledge of matters for which her teacher and subject had little patience, like psychoanalysis.

But For Love of the World is not and does not feel tendentious in its treatment of the facts of Arendt’s life. It is too generous for that, it tells us too much more than it would need to if the facts were only there to prove a point, and, in the disinterested care with which it treats those many factual matters that are not cruxes in her own interpretation—and most of them are not—it invites and enables its readers to tell the story differently.  It is not the authoritativeness of Elisabeth’s account of why Arendt matters, but the firmness of her grasp of small details, and the lightness with which she deploys them, that make her book, for so many readers of Arendt of so many different theoretical persuasions, an indispensible part of “the ground on which we stand, and the sky that stretches above us."

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
5Aug/111

Ignore the Facts

Ignore the facts. At least that is what Michele Bachman willfully does, according to her former Chief of Staff.

In today's Wall St. Journal, Bachman's former Chief of Staff Ron Carey has this to say about the current Congresswoman and Republican Presidential Candidate (Bachmann has won all the recent straw polls in Iowa):

"Another staff frustration, according to Mr. Carey and some other former aides: It was often hard to get Ms. Bachmann to stope repeating assertions shown to be false.

Ms. Bachmann earned headlines in 2007 when she claimed to have seen secret Iranian plans to carve a "terrorist safe-haven zone" from Iraq once U.S. forces left. She later said her remarks were misconstrued.

Last year she accused Mr. Obama of spending $200 million a day on a trip to India. The White House vehemently deinied the figure, which had surfaced in an Indian newspaper, attrtibuted to a questionable source.

For months, Mr. Carey said, the staff tried to get Ms. Bachmann to stop saying in speeches that Mr. Obama had added more to the federal debt load than all other presidents combined. "It was simply not true, and yet I could never get her to drop that line," he said.

Amazingly, these revelations are minor parts of the WSJ story and are barely commented upon. I gather this is because it is simply not considered news, let alone shocking, when a major political figure today continues to play fast and lose with the facts. That is just politics, or so it is thought.

Bachmann is not the only politician who seems convinced that if you repeat a falsehood often enough it becomes a valued opinion, if not a truth. Writing in the New York Review of Books 40 years ago, Hannah Arendt Arendt noticed that today unwelcome facts are tolerated only to the extent that they are consciously or unconsciously transformed into opinions. This tendency to transform fact into opinion, to blur the dividing line between them, has led to the now widely observed de-factualization of our world. In her essay “Truth and Politics,” she suggests that our de-factualized politics demands a pre-political discourse of truth-telling.

Without a shared factual world, we cannot talk, argue, or disagree with others; we are left with nothing to do but talk to those with whom we already agree. In a world without facts, we risk undermining the venture of politics as Arendt understood it: to create together a common world, one as unruly, disorderly, and argumentative as such togetherness demands.

Against the danger of de-factualization stands the truth-teller. The truth-teller, Arendt writes, takes her stand outside the realm of politics. The artist, the scholar, the scientist, the fool: the truth-teller shares their allergy to all political causes. What politics needs, in Arendtian terms, are institutions and persons dedicated to truth outside the scramble for power. In a time when everything is political, the demand for truth only grows more urgent.

It is clear that we face today a crisis of fact that is rotting the core of American politics. It is hard not to be struck by the ascendant stupidities that lately emerge under the umbrella of free speech: that global warming is a myth; that childhood vaccines cause Autism; that President Obama is a Marxist; that some members of Congress are sure he isn’t an American; that a cabal of American Jews collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the attacks on 9/11; that many law-abiding liberals seem to have forgotten that illegal immigrants are here, as yet, illegally; and on. Even before the technologists have made good on their promises to provide virtual realities, we today have created multiple, insular, and conflicting manmade realities with nothing more than the internet, cable news, and human nature.

I think we can agree that our democracy needs rescuing, the question is how to do so. From all sides we hear two opinions:

1) Responsible political discourse begins with facts.
2) There is little or no responsible political discourse.

The first opinion is a fact. The second, need not be.

Which is why the Hannah Arendt Center is sponsoring a conference "Truthtelling: Democracy in An Age Without Facts" on Oct. 28-29.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".