Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
17Jan/140

On Civic Journalism

ArendtWeekendReading

In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes a man with a Muck Rake, a man who looks only down, raking the muck off the floor. Earthly, gazing down, collecting the muck around himself, the Muck Raker sees only the detritus of our world. He never looks up, neither into the heavens or even into the face of another. For Bunyan, the Muck Raker is blind to the spiritual and sublime.

The journalists who beginning in the late 19th century came to be called Muckrakers looked down at the painful truth that was America in an age of corruption, inequality, and corporatism. As Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in her excellent new book Bully Pulpit, the muckrakers turned a “microscope on humanity, on the avarice and corruption that stunted the very possibility of social justice in America.”

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One of the central storylines of Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit is the alliance between Theodore Roosevelt and the Muckraking journalists around McClure’s Magazine. Roosevelt met frequently with Sam McClure and his writers, feeding them stories and also soliciting their advice and knowledge as he promoted his progressive agenda and took on corporate trusts. Roosevelt both needed the journalists, but also feared the excess of their truthtelling zeal. Here is how Teddy Roosevelt describes the Muckrakers in one speech from 1906:

In Pilgrim's Progress the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.

The McClures crowd always insisted that they “muck-raked never to destroy, but with utter faith in reason and progress.” It was because McClure and his writers “criticized in full confidence that, once understood, evils would be speedily corrected,” that they so fully gained Roosevelt’s trust and confidence. What Kearns Goodwin so vividly makes clear was the power of such an alliance between crusading journalists and a courageous politician.

Complaints about the contemporary state of the press are common. Rarely, however, does someone lay out in stark detail both the failures of the press, as well as providing insight into when, why, and how the press does succeed in fulfilling its role as the watchdog of corruption and the attendant for crusading change. But that is just what Dean Starkman does in his new book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (recently excerpted in Columbia Journalism Review).

Starkman sets out to argue a simple thesis: “The US business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.” In short, he argues that if the press had done a better job of alerting the public and our political leaders to the corruption and crises within the mortgage markets, the financial crisis likely could and would have been avoided.

Starkman offers an optimistic view. It is based on the assumption that the people and our leaders actually respond to rational warnings. It is equally likely, however, that the press doesn’t warn us because we don’t really want to be warned. Over and over again on questions of importance from torture to totalitarianism and from corruption to criminality, complaints that the press failed are myopic. In nearly every case, the press has indeed reported the story. What has happened, however, is that the hard-hitting stories about torture or cover-ups or financial misdeeds rarely find an audience when times are good or the country feels threatened. The problem, indeed, may be less a feckle press than dormant population.

The beauty of Starkman’s analysis is that he makes clear that serious muckraking journalism about the illegal and corrupt practices in the mortgage lending industry did appear if briefly—it just had little effect and faded away. While most of these articles appeared in small non-mainstream journals, some larger papers and magazines like Forbes and the Wall St. Journal did run such hard-hitting investigative reports. The problem is that they did so only early on in the build up to the crisis—from 2001-2003. After that period, they dropped the ball. Starkman sees this as evidence that the press did not bark. On one level he is right. But it could also be seen as evidence that the press barked and learned a sad lesson: That so long as chickens were plentiful, the people didn’t care to know that the fox was in the hen house.

The lesson Starkman draws is different. It is that we need to preserve the muckraking tradition, which now goes under the bland professionalized name of “accountability reporting.”

Now is a good time to consider what journalism the public needs. What actually works? Who are journalism’s true forefathers and foremothers? Is there a line of authority in journalism’s collective past that can help us navigate its future? What creates value, both in a material sense and in terms of what is good and valuable in American journalism?

Accountability reporting comes in many forms—a series of revelations in a newspaper or online, a book, a TV magazine segment—but its most common manifestation has been the long-form newspaper or magazine story, the focus of this book. Call it the Great Story. The form was pioneered by the muckrakers’ quasi-literary work in the early 20th century, with Tarbell’s exposé on the Standard Oil monopoly in McClure’s magazine a brilliant example. As we’ll see, the Great Story has demonstrated its subversive power countless times and has exposed and clarified complex problems for mass audiences across a nearly limitless range of subjects: graft in American cities, modern slave labor in the US, the human costs of leveraged buyouts, police brutality and corruption, the secret recipients on Wall Street of government bailouts, the crimes and cover-ups of media and political elites, and on and on, year in and year out. The greatest of muckraking editors, Samuel S. McClure, would say to his staff, over and over, almost as a mantra, “The story is the thing!” And he was right.

Starkman opposes “accountability reporting to “access reporting,” what he calls “the practice of obtaining inside information from powerful people and institutions.”  The press relies too much on simply telling us what the companies want us to know rather than digging deeply to tell the untold story. This is even more the case in the internet era, Starkman worries, because news organizations are cutting budgets for investigative reporters as the economics of journalism turns to commentary and linking rather than investigation. What the public needs, he writes, is a public-centered support for accountability journalism in the mainstream media.

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To buttress his claim, Starkman invokes Walter Lippman.

Walter Lippmann is as right today as he was in 1920. It’s not enough for reporters and editors to struggle against great odds as many of them have been doing. It’s time to take the public into our confidence. The news about the news needs to be told. It needs to be told because, in the run-up to the global financial crisis, the professional press let the public down.

But after his early call for a better kind of public-spirited journalism in 1920, Lippmann shifted gears with the publication of Public Opinion in 1922. As Jim Sleeper writes recently in Dissent, Public Opinion was much less optimistic about the power of the press to serve the public good.

Lippmann later claimed to identify something more profoundly problematic than bad reporting: “the very nature of the way the public formed its opinions,” as his biographer Ronald Steele put it. He despaired of a public of citizens with enough time and competence to weigh evidence and decide important questions, and in 1922 he published Public Opinion, which contended that experts needed to be insulated from democratic tempests when making decisions, which could then be ratified by voters. Lippmann’s contemporary John Dewey called it “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned.”

Sleeper recognizes, in a way Starkman does not, that such optimism runs counter to Lippmann’s powerful conclusions about the formation of public opinion in democracy. Sleeper nevertheless praises “Starkman’s civic faith, which enables him to distill from his experience some real clarity about journalism and its proper mission.” Undoubtedly the mission is laudable. His story about journalism should be told. Starkman does it well and it should be read. It is your weekend read. As you do so, ask yourself:  If we want to revitalize democracy can a revitalized muckraking journalism lead the way?

-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".
25Nov/130

Some Thoughts on the Importance of Personality

Arendtquote

Action is “the miracle that saves the world from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

“I mentioned the quality of being a person as distinguished from being mere human..., and I said that to speak about a moral personality is almost redundancy...In the process of thought in which I actualize the specifically human difference of speech I explicitly constitute myself a person, and I shall remain one to the extent that I am capable of such constitution ever again and anew.”

-Hannah Arendt, "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy"

 

We are used to finding in Arendt’s work a clear distinction between action and speech on the one hand and thinking and judging on the other. But here in the second quote, Arendt declares that only this thinking through and - qualified - speech can transform a mere human being into a personality.

Now, when, as Arendt writes in the first quote, the miracle of action saves the world from its normal‚ 'natural’ ruin, defining nature as non-civilization, as barbarity, then this means that such an action is insolubly connected to the question of the personality of those who act. Who are those who acted in Occupy Now! or joined Los Indignados in Spain: were they individuals in the literal sense of independent human beings as the smallest units, which change sometimes rapidly into parts of masses, or were they persons, personalities? This question is much more important than the question of political goals or theoretical programs. Because it depends on those, who act, whether the world can be saved from its neo-liberal ruin and if yes, how.

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The distinction between individuals and personalities always has an elitist appearance. But it is evident that we find personalities independent of their social status among workers, academics and politicians. A personality is not formed by its social origin or intellectual Bildung, but by a practical everyday education of citizens. This education is not based on the separation of reason and emotion, but on that what Arendt referred to as the “understanding heart” of the biblical King Solomon, which comprises equally heart and mind. The European 18th century, facing a secular society increasingly oriented towards an open freedom, searched for the possibility of a self-bound orientation in judgment. It discussed taste as a power of cognition. Melchior Grimm for example, a more or less forgotten German illustrator, essayist and diplomat, wrote: “The condition of a pronounced and perfect taste is to have a sharp intellect, a sensitive soul and a righteous heart.” Here taste does not only mean the aesthetic but also the moral judgment. In Grimm’s trilogy all three elements are indispensible in their mutual conditionality: reason can become inhuman without soul and heart; the sensitive soul apolitical due to an unchecked compassion; the righteous heart confused without reason.

Back then there was a prevailing understanding that moral and artistic quality rest in equal measure on independent thinking and on independent judgment. This is still visible in our everyday use of language whenever we speak of a “beautiful” or “ugly” gesture or figure of speech or of the “inner beauty” which a person possessing integrity shows by that integrity. These examples are, according to Kant, expressions of the harmony of the different powers of cognition both in regards to their inner proportions and in respect to the free coexistence of these powers and their mutual influence on one another. It is a harmony which occurs between form and content as well as between “an enlarged mentality” and reason, it differs from purely rational judgment.

Therefore, it is not the reason, which we are proud of because it distinguishes us from animals, but rather what Arendt calls an enlarged mentality which is of decisive political importance. In her Denktagebuch (Thinking Diary) she wrote: “Because of the fact that not self-bound reason but only an enlarged mentality makes it possible ‘to think in the place of another’, it is not reason, but the enlarged mentality which forms the link between human beings. Against the sense of self fueled by reason, by the I-think, one finds a sense for the world, fueled by the others as common-sense (passive) and the enlarged mentality (active.)”

From this interpersonal perspective follows the aspect that freedom is to be understood as “freedom for,” as inter-subjective, common freedom, which is inseparably bound to the responsibility for everything that happens in the political community. This responsibility does not deal with moral or juridical guilt for one’s own actions but instead with the responsibility of someone who is “a responder,” who understands that the actions of all decide whether or not we live in a decent society.

Though with Kant the era of investigations into the conditions for an independent judgment ended and the Kantian “capacity to judge” was replaced during the 19th and 20th centuries by logic, ideologies and theoretical systems, there were still some ambassadors of the 18th century left – Arendt of course, and her contemporaries like George Orwell and Albert Camus. Orwell’s works are marked by a hypothesis; namely, that the decency inherent in the everyday life of normal people can resist the general loss of orientation in an age of ideology. “It looks like a platitude,” he wrote, but his message was nothing more than: “If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” He tried to interpret what he called the “common decency” as a compass not only of single persons but also of the social and political life of citizens. According to Orwell this common decency rests on general, practical everyday moral norms and habits. Common decency differs from explicit and rigid moral prescriptions of “the good human being” by its openness and flexibility. For Orwell it was not human dignity in an abstract way that had to be protected but the behaviour to which a society commits itself that was in need of defending. The decent life affords social regulations that consist of respect for others, the absence of domination or humiliation, and social, economic or cultural equality. The highest income should not be ten times higher than the lowest. All laws should respect or support a decent life and include all citizens in the “pouvoir constituant des vie ordinaries.” Orwell was against the socialism of his time as an oligarchic collectivism, which attracted only the socially marginalized and intellectuals. “In our country,” he wrote, “the liberals fear freedom and the intellectuals are ready for any sort of ignominy against thinking.” That means: “The direct conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.”

This aspect of decency refers to what for Arendt is the basis of all political action and independent judgment; the effort to recover in a political community the right middle ground and human scale that marks the place where civilization ends.

Like Arendt and Orwell, Albert Camus stressed the importance of moderation while he observed excess among Marxist intellectuals after WW II, described in his most provocative book The Rebel. Revolutionary errors, he declared, disregarded natural limits and in so doing betrayed human inviolability. The experience of modern revolutions shows that “revolutions when they have no limits other than historical effectiveness, means endless slavery.” For Camus it is the task of revolt to redefine the place of the right middle and human scale in a permanent critical confrontation with present conditions.

Herein lays the actuality of these three authors, Arendt, Orwell and Camus: writing about totalitarianism, they described the conditions of a decent society, which was menaced then by revolutionary dogmatism and ideological mass-movements, and which is menaced today - not by revolts, or mass protests - but quite the contrary, by the destruction of politics and the common good by neo-liberalism.

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Therefore, it is not by chance that Arendt in her portraits of writers, politicians and thinkers, which she wrote on various occasions and published in her book Men in dark Times, always came to speak about their personal qualities. For example, Lessing’s critical mentality which could “never give rise to a definite worldview which, once adopted, is immune to further experiences in the world because it has hitched itself firmly to one possible perspective”; Rosa Luxemburg’s cultural background of an assimilated Jewish life in Poland characterized by excellent literary taste, independent moral concepts and the absence of social prejudices, and Waldemar Gurian’s independent judgment and non-conformism – he was her friend and the dean of the University of Notre Dame - who “was delighted when he could break down the(se) barriers of so-called civilized society, because he saw in them barriers between human souls.

-Wolfgang Heuer

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.
10Jun/131

Labor and Summer Vacation

Arendtquote

"There is no lasting happiness outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration, and whatever throws this cycle out of balance – poverty and misery where exhaustion is followed by wretchedness instead of regeneration, or great riches and an entirely effortless life where boredom takes the place of exhaustion and where the mills of necessity, of consumption and digestion, grind an impotent human body mercilessly and barrenly to death – ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive."

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

A great deal has been written about Hannah Arendt’s philosophical and political thinking, but as the academic year draws to a close, it is important to remember that she urges her readers to think about and appreciate all aspects of human existence, including the life of the body. The passage quoted above comes from the Labor chapter of The Human Condition, in which Arendt traces the worrisome trend in the modern world where human activity is more and more dominated by a concern for the cyclical process of production and consumption. It is safe to say that ours is the kind of “waste economy” she speaks of, in which all objects become consumed and used up rather than used and re-used over time. Even highly technologically advanced devices such as our mobile phones are manufactured and treated as more or less disposable, made to last for a few years before they become obsolete and need to be replaced.  The threat that a laboring and consuming society poses to a stable and durable human world has potentially disastrous consequences not only for political life, but also more generally for our ability to feel at home in our condition as earthly beings. In light of Arendt’s critique of labor as a human activity, it is remarkable that she pauses to acknowledge that this essentially worldless cycle of production and consumption with the aim of merely preserving our biological existence is the only activity that holds the key to “lasting” and “elemental” happiness in our lives.

The need to labor is “prescribed” by our condition as living beings most obviously in the case of needing to eat. In one way or another, all of us must continually expend energy in order to have food on the table. Happiness is found in this cycle of exhaustion and regeneration when each side balances the other, when pain and pleasure each contribute to feeling fully alive.

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For most Americans this cycle is somewhat indirect since the number of people working on farms or growing food remains a minority. As the expenditure of energy through labor is abstracted (usually through the medium of money) from the regenerative act of consumption, it becomes more difficult to find happiness in the endless cycle of necessity. Furthermore, Arendt points out that the balance of exhaustion and regeneration can only be found in a middle-class life that is harder to come by today given the ever widening gap in income distribution. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, life itself becomes a burden for both extremes – a source of misery on one hand and a sign of impotence on the other – rather than a source of sustaining fulfillment.

How might we seek to reclaim this balance?

While many students and teachers (myself included) may be feeling the need for a pleasurable regeneration in the form of a vacation after a long season of schoolwork, Arendt is clear that “intellectual labor” shares few characteristics of manual labor related to maintaining our biological existence. However, there is also a pervasive notion that summer vacation from school was not designed to give students a break from thinking, but rather out of the necessity for young people to work on their families’ farms. Summer vacation is often thought of as a remnant of America’s agrarian past. Despite the fact that this interpretation of summer vacation is in fact historically erroneous, its persistence in the American mind suggests a collective nostalgia for a time when there was a balance of work, labor, and leisure in our lives.

Many educators and politicians today are questioning the wisdom of taking two or more consecutive months off from school, citing the educational demands that the 21st century economy places on individuals trying to earn a living. Summer vacation has been shown to negatively impact those students who are most in need of academic support since they are the least likely to have the privilege of enriching summer experiences at home or in summer programs. Many charter schools have turned to extended school days and extended school years to improve test scores of historically failing (usually urban) populations. It would be wrong to oppose eliminating summer vacation on the grounds that it takes away regenerative time for students, because summer is only regenerative for a privileged segment of the population. But perhaps a case can be made for the present relevance of the historical misconception that summer vacation is a time for young people to learn by laboring for food.

Although the local food movement has largely been the preoccupation of the upper-middle class, it has the potential to change how people in communities across the country participate in cycles of production and consumption. Community based agricultural opportunities are popping up in urban and rural areas, many of which seek to involve as many young people as possible through schools and other community organizations. These farming programs have the potential to teach young people that happiness comes through painful laboring while reaping the direct benefits for oneself and one’s own community. These kinds of work opportunities could begin to shift the imbalance of human activity in our society and reclaim a more direct and fulfilling form of laborer than the mere “jobholder.”

farmers

Insofar as education aspires to be more than training in how to make a living in the modern economy – a task made nearly impossible given the rapid technological and societal changes that make it very difficult for teachers to predict what the world may be like when their students are adults – it can open opportunities for young people to reflect on and make meaning of the various aspects of human living on earth. Schools must stand apart from the economic life process long enough to foster a free appreciation for, rather than enslavement to, the cycles of being alive. Participating in the growing of one’s own food during the summer months – whether at home, in a community garden, or on an urban farm – is a good way to learn gratitude for the bodily pain and pleasure that define the life that we have been given.

-Steven Tatum

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.
16Nov/122

What is a House?

Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a "love of the world." When writing about education she argues that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?

The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.

In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.

In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.

In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.

How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?

This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen's essay "House For Sale," about his return to his mother's house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother's house.

This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item "Decide about the afterlife" and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.

Franzen offers us a house in many valences.

It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother's house. Later he writes that the house was "my mother's novel, the concrete story she told about herself." In this house she "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas." It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And "she wanted you to want to stay."

The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother's house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with "sturdy and well made" furniture that "my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want." He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.

If Mrs. Fanzen's house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son's house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:

I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else's apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I'd spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy's apartment.

House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.

I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen's essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play "House For Sale" is based on his essay by the same name.

It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen's essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can't recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.

Or, if you simply can't get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen's book of essays in which "House For Sale" originally appeared. It is your weekend read.

-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".
23Mar/120

The Humanity of Shame

One of the great surprises upon arriving at Bard College was meeting Norman Manea. Manea, who was born in Romania, spent four years as a child in a concentration camp, many more as a dissident, and finally relocated to NYC and Bard College. He is a prolific and exciting writer, the author of novels, memoirs and essays, and a generous colleague. The Hooligan's Return tells the exciting story of his return to Romania with Bard President Leon Botstein and his reconnection with his homeland.

In 2009, Manea gave the Wyliam Philips Lecture at The New School for Social Research. The lecture, "20 Years After the Berlin Wall: Monuments of Shame," which has only been published in Spanish as "Monuments de Vergonya." The lecture judges the consequences and meanings of the revolutions of 1989. It is not a moral judgment, but rather a remembering of the lands, places, and languages from which Manea was exiled. At the end of his talk, Manea also makes a fascinating proposal.

Manea begins his lecture with reflections on the revolutions of 1989. For one thing, freedom is not the simple blessing it is often thought:

As slavery has to be learned, step by step, in order to survive its terror and tricks, freedom must also to be learned, step by step, in order to face its chances and competitions, its rewards and restrictions.

In his novels, Manea is ever alert to the way that bourgeois comforts offer a false sense that the freedom to choose amongst restaurants or living accommodations can actually deflect us from the experience of freedom. As have many who lived under the evils of totalitarianism, Manea recognizes that there is a kind of freedom in brutal societies as well:

My dream throughout my postwar life was to find an inner resistance against the ubiquitous external pressure.

Living within yourself, it turned out, was for me the mode of resistance; it formed a center for the moral being, a means of separating from a corrupt and corrupting environment, a hope, however uncertain, for maintaining your conscience with integrity. Reading and writing were a shelter, even if menaced, and the best therapy against the poisonous spread of lies and hypocrisy.

Manea saw also that the outbreak of freedom in 1989 was going to bring dangers as well as hopes.

In addition to a "cheap and manipulated populism," that pervaded the public discourse of the new “democratic” politicians, there were of course the cheap freedoms of revenge, xenophobia, pornography and mass entertainment. This is to be taken in stride, and yet also not. We must always be alert to the morphing of freedom into its opposite:

One of the most outrageous examples of this sort of quick change act occurred in Romania, where a former court-poet of the Ceausescu clan, a fierce nationalist and anti-Semite, Comrade Corneliu Vadim Tudor became the leader of a new extreme right party called, no surprise, Great Romania. Changing only a bit the cosmetics of his old slogans, this noisy old-new agitator was elected a member of Romania’s Parliament, even becoming at one point a serious candidate for the Presidency. Today, comrade Corneliu is a member of the European Parliament. Nobody can say that afterlife isn’t interesting...

We don't have "a real alternative to freedom." We must make do with its defects and shortcomings, since the dangers of the "free system are as bad as the dogmatic remedies ranged against them. Indeed, in the end, the question always comes down to freedom – and it is right that it should.

In the interest of living with freedom, Manea closes his speech with an intriguing proposal, one that he argues would go a long way towards keeping the question of freedom present before our eyes. He writes:

Some ten years ago I proposed something very much non-utopian, and I would like to revisit that proposal. It was in an intervention I made to the famous Walser Debate of 1998 in Germany. As some of you may recall, the esteemed German writer Martin Walser, in his acceptance speech on receiving the Peace Prize of German Booksellers Association at the Frankfurt Book Fair warned against the “permanent representation” and the “monumentalizing of German shame.”

My response was to suggest that every country -- and I emphasize again every country and every people -- should complement its monuments of heroism with monuments of shame. This would mean recalling a nation’s wrong doings towards other countries, other people and also to its own people.

To love our neighbors as ourselves may also imply scrutinizing ourselves with the same objectivity as our neighbor and not to do to others what we don’t like to suffer ourselves. It is probably good therapy to look at ourselves with the same exigency as we look at others, to put ourselves in the shoes of others in order to understand their otherness. Aren’t modesty and humility and self questioning a desirable and sound exercise for being truly human?

There are such monuments to shame. Some that I recall vividly are the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, two of the most extraordinary and provoking memorials I have ever encountered. I have no idea if it is good therapy, as Manea writes, to put ourselves in the shoes of others. But it does make for an exercise in being truly human. 

For your weekend read, I recommend an excerpt from The Hooligan's Return, available here.

Even better, order The Hooligan's Return here.

-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.