Anand Giridharadas has written a thoughtful and thrilling new book, The True American. It tells two interlocking stories of Rais Bhuiyan and Mark Stroman. Bhuiyan is a striver, an immigrant from Bangladesh, and a Muslim. Stroman is a drug addict, a charmer, and a Texan who is hateful and broken. Shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Stroman goes on a rampage and shoots three people he thinks are Muslim. Two die. Rais Bhuiyan, the third, is badly wounded; losing his right eye, his face becomes permanently disfigured.
Giridharadas chronicles their lives. Rais seeks to rise above his adversity and live the American dream; Stroman finds God and redemption on death row. Ultimately Rais forgives Stroman and wages an international campaign to stop his execution. The story risks being cliché at every turn. But Giridharadas discovers amidst banality a brutal, shattering, and also inspiring window into modern America.
Reviewing The True American in the Washington Post, Eboo Patel writes:
The premise is simple — Bhuiyan forgives his attacker in the name of Islam and then wages a campaign to save Stroman from execution. An inspiring enough story, surely worthy of the flurry of news coverage it received around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But a book-length treatment, especially with a title like “The True American,” runs the risk of being taken for a middle-school morality tale. Simply put, it’s not. This is a haunting book, one that penetrates deep into the lives of two complex individuals and reveals the worlds that made them.
Patel rightly sees that the richness of Giridharadas’ book is the way he offers two very different Americans in attempting to explore the sense of what it means to be a “true American.”
The individual stories are certainly compelling, but what sets this book apart is when it zooms out and illuminates the broader social context of the lives at the center. We get Bhuiyan’s immigrant eyes on America: his gratitude for the upward opportunities provided to the resourceful and industrious; his despair for those who have fallen into what he calls the SAD life, beholden to empty sex, alcohol and drugs; and above all his confusion at how so many Americans seem abandoned, unable to find family members to co-sign for car loans or take them in when they have no place to go.
Rais Bhuiyan is at once enraptured by the America he adopts and also aghast at the loneliness and dysfunction he witnesses – something so different from his life back home. Poverty in Bangladesh was much worse than in America, but the lives of the poor in the USA are worse than back home.
If he had only recently settled in America and already had friends who would sign on a lease for him, how could people who had been here for donkey’s years lack such connections? Rais saw his colleagues having to beg for rides or commute by foot on major roads in the searing heat, and he wondered why their family members weren’t picking them up—especially the young women. He felt offended on their behalf.
And Rais has more than a bit of that immigrant hubris, a frustration bordering on contempt for Americans who want a good life without struggle:
Ever since his arrival in America, a part of Rais—at first a small part, swollen by time—had wanted to grab these people, shake them by the shoulders, and wake them from their misery and depression and self-loathing and family-breaking and money-grabbing and loneliness and violence. He wanted to tell them: “Look, why you guys are still suffering? If I can overcome, if I can turn around my life, with the mercy of God, in this country, from that negative point to this point—you guys are born here, you guys speak better than me, you understand the culture better than me, you have more networks, more resource. Why can’t you stay in the same place—even going down day by day? Why you have to struggle on a regular basis, just to survive?
As Rais resolves to forgive Stroman for his violence, Giridharadas shows that the real agenda is more grand. Rais is out to save America from itself. In seeking to save him, Rais wants not only to save Stroman’s life from what in Texas is called “The Death,” but to save his soul and the souls of millions of other Americans like him. Rais, a newly minted American, wants to “stay true to this vision of waking his countrymen up.” The True American is a story of regeneration, a call to America from its optimistic and immigrant soul, to reclaim its freedom.
[Rais] wanted, he said, to save them from childhoods with “no peace at home”; from an idea of life centered on “sex, alcohol, and drugs, starting from your teenage until when you grow up”; from people staying poor “generation-wise because of lack of education”; from members of an overclass that “never even know what is happening in the poor people’s life”; from “lack of in-touch with family”; from stressed and fragmented parents “busy with their own lives,” who tell their young to “just feel comfortable, just make your life happy” and thus nudge them towards things like drugs; from people who are “free, but the way they’re living their life, they’re losing their freedom.”
Meanwhile, Giridharadas paints an equally nuanced and at times compelling picture of Mark Stroman. Stroman insists that he is no racist because he is married to a Mexican. Yet he spouts racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Here is Patel:
It would be easy to dismiss Stroman, with his Aryan Nation friends and swastika tattoo, as simply a murderous white supremacist. But Giridharadas spends time with Stroman’s kids, visiting his son Robert in the maximum-security area of a maximum-security prison, and hanging out in a halfway house with Stroman’s first wife and their daughters as they try to beat addictions and hold down fast-food jobs. The Stromans’ problems are replicated throughout lower-class America: the uncertain parentages and anarchic families, the ubiquity of meth, the race-gang-dominated prisons, the sex that begins at the turn of puberty.
Giridharadas also tells the story of the friendship between Stroman and Ilan Ziv, an Israeli documentarian who comes to befriend Stroman. Ziv tells of the days after the killing of 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military base by an American Muslim of Palestinian provenance.
[T]hey spoke of a book that Stroman had been reading and had grown infatuated with: Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. It was not clear whether he had read it because of his relationship with Ziv. … They spoke at length about the book that first day. There was much in the work—born of Frankl’s years in Nazi concentration camps and his investigation of how people survive the direst circumstances—to calm a man in Stroman’s situation: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Stroman, who used to spout terms like “nigger-loving Jew,” now found himself drawn to one Jewish man’s story of inner transformation: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Yet even as Stroman spoke of his power to change and the “responsibility he bears toward a human being,” he remains also the bigot he has been. When he learns of the Fort Hood shootings,
that news of the attack had reawakened the specter of 9/11 for him and roused his dormant hatred of Muslims, whom he still thought to be evil. “You know me and Muslims,” Stroman snarled.
Ziv responds angrily and honestly:
“I looked him in the eye,” Ziv said, “and I say, ‘You know what, Mark? You’re a fucked-up person, and now I see how fucked you are,’ because that’s the way we talked. I said, ‘I see how fucked-up because you know what your problem is? You don’t see people. You see groups, right? You see groups, and I see people. And that person who did this killing is a very fucked-up individual. From everyone’s perspective, you’re a very fucked-up person. Nobody would say you’re white and you’re Christian, and all white Christians are fucked up. You’re fucked up.’”
Stroman looked at Ziv for the longest time and finally said, “So this is what they did to the Jews, right?”
Giridharadas has written an excellent book about America, hate, and redemption. At once despairing of and affirming the American dream, The True American is your Weekend Read. You can read an excerpt here. Better yet, order The True American here.
For too long now high school has been a waste of time for too many people. I always remind my students that Georg Friedrich Hegel developed his lectures on the Philosophy of Right as a course for a German Gymnasium, the equivalent of high school in the United States. Most American high schools have long abandoned the idea of offering challenging courses that demand students think and engage with the world and the history of ideas. Our brightest students are too often bored, confirmed in their intelligence, but rarely pushed. This is especially true of our public high schools in our poorest neighborhoods.
One of the most heartening trends in response to this tragedy is the idea of early college. Bard College has been a leader in the early college movement, now embraced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others.
The New York Times has an excellent article on Bard’s newest Early College in Newark:
Across the country in communities like Newark, the early college high school model is being lauded as a way to provide low-income students with a road map to and through college. According to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, 68 percent of all high school graduates make it to a two- or four-year institution, but only 52 percent of low-income students do the same. Of poor students in four-year institutions, only 47 percent graduate within six years, compared with 58 percent of the general population.
Not surprisingly, the challenges are greatest for students whose parents did not attend any college: their graduation rate hovers around 40 percent. Early college high schools seek to rectify that, by merging high school and some college. Students can earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree, and some are set on the path to a four-year degree.
Educators and big-ticket donors have praised the schools for saving students money and time — most schools compress the academic experience into four years. Since 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided more than $40 million toward initiatives. The Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York have also chipped in. President Obama is a proponent, giving a shout-out in his State of the Union address to P-Tech, a public-private partnership that pairs the New York City public school system and the City University of New York with I.B.M., which promises graduates a shot at a well-paying job.
There are now more than 400 early college high schools across the country — North Carolina has 76 of them — educating an estimated 100,000 students.
Bard, a liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., is at the vanguard of the movement, with a president, Leon Botstein, who has long chastised the American high school system for its inefficiencies. More than 30 years ago, Bard took over Simon’s Rock, a private college for 11th graders and up in Great Barrington, Mass. In 2001, it opened an early college high school in Lower Manhattan, enormously popular with hyper-motivated New Yorkers, and in 2008 it started one in Queens that has become a magnet for the high-achieving offspring of Chinese, Polish and Bengali immigrants. Until now, Bard’s model has largely focused on elite students.
In Newark, Bard moved into a school building across from a tire shop and a bail bond business. Hanging outside is a cheerful red banner with the Bard name etched in white, as if to signal that new life is being breathed into the neighborhood.
The white smoke ushered in a Pope from the New World, but one firmly planted in the old one. Pope Francis I is from Argentina but descended from Italy. According to the Arch-Bishop of Paris, quoted in The New York Times, the Pope was not of the Curia and not part of the Italian system. At the same time, because of his “culture and background, he was Italo-compatible.” Straddling the new and the old, there is some glimmer of hope that Francis I will be able to reform the machinery of the ecclesiastical administration from the inside.
Amidst this tension, the new Pope signaled his desire to be seen as an outsider by choosing the name Francis I, aligning himself with St. Francis as protector of the poor and the downtrodden. At a time of near universal distrust in the ecclesiastical order, the Pope and his supporters present the choice of Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio as an affirmation of simplicity and humility.
And in some respects the new Pope does appear to be a Pope for whom the life of Jesus and life of St. Francis serve as an example of humility and service. At least if such stories like this one told by Emily Schmall and Larry Rohter are to be credited:
In 2001 he surprised the staff of Muñiz Hospital in Buenos Aires, asking for a jar of water, which he used to wash the feet of 12 patients hospitalized with complications from the virus that causes AIDS. He then kissed their feet, telling reporters that “society forgets the sick and the poor.” More recently, in September 2012, he scolded priests in Buenos Aires who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. “No to hypocrisy,” he said of the priests at the time. “They are the ones who separate the people of God from salvation.”
Some complain that the Pope abjures liberation theology for its connection to Marxism and rejects the using of the Gospel for political and economic transformation. Nevertheless, stories like the one above are important and show an exemplary character in Pope Francis I.
Bigger questions arise about new Pope’s past connection to what is called the Dirty War in Argentina, the period from 1976-1983 in which a brutal dictatorship stole children from their communist parents and gave them to military families while also disappearing political and ideological opponents. As one of my colleagues wrote to me, “Almost alone among major Latin American Churches, the Argentine Church officially allied itself with the military in a campaign to eradicate political dissidents (mostly left-wingers).” Bergoglio was a Catholic Church official during this period and he has been accused by many in Argentina of either not doing enough to oppose the regime or, more scandalously, actively collaborating with the dirty war. In 2005, a formal lawsuit claimed that that Bergoglio had been complicit in the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests, Orland Yorio and Francisco Jalics. The priests were working in a poor barrio advocating against the dictatorship. Bergoglio insisted they stop and they were stripped from the Jesuit Order. They disappeared and months later they were found drugged and partially undressed, according to the reporting of Emily Schmall and Larry Rohter.
Margaret Hebbelthwaite, in the Guardian, defends Bergoglio, whom she knows and respects. “It was the kind of complex situation that is capable of multiple interpretations, but it is far more likely Bergoglio was trying to save their lives.” And this is the account Bergoglio gives himself, as Schmall and Rohter report:
In a long interview published by an Argentine newspaper in 2010, he defended his behavior during the dictatorship. He said that he had helped hide people being sought for arrest or disappearance by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country’s military rulers directly for the release and protection of others.
I of course have no idea whether Bergoglio is the victim of baseless calumny, as he claims, or whether he actively or meekly collaborated with a ruthless dictatorship. What is clear, however, is that at the very least, Bergoglio and his colleagues in the Argentine Catholic Church over many years looked the other way and allowed a brutal government to terrorize its population without a word of opposition.
With that history in mind, it is worthwhile to consider Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Christian Pope,” published in the New York Review of Books in 1965. Arendt was reviewing Journal of a Soul, the spiritual diaries of Pope John XXIII, the former Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. The Jewish thinker has little patience for “endlessly repetitive devout outpourings and self-exhortation” that go on for “pages and pages” and read like “an elementary textbook on how to be good and avoid evil.” Arendt had little patience with such things and little hope that clichés, no matter how well meaning, would have much impact on the moral state of our time.
What did fascinate Arendt, however, were the anecdotes Pope John XXIII tells and the stories about him that she heard while traveling in Rome. She tells of a “Roman chambermaid” in her hotel who asked her, in all innocence:
“Madam,” she said, “this Pope was a real Christian. How could that be? And how could it happen that a true Christian would sit on St. Peter’s chair? Didn’t he first have to be appointed Bishop, and Archbishop, and Cardinal, until he finally was elected to be Pope? Had nobody been aware of who he was?”
Arendt had a simple answer for the maid. “No.” She writes that Roncalli was largely unknown upon his selection and arrived as an outsider. He was, in the words of her title, a true Christian living in the spirit of Jesus Christ. In a sense, this was so surprising in the midst of the 20th century that no one had imagined it to be possible, and Roncalli was selected without anyone knowing who he was.
Who he was Arendt found not in his book, but in the stories told about him. Whether the stories are authentic, she writes, is not so important, because “even if their authenticity were denied, their very invention would be characteristic enough for the man and for what people thought of him to make them worth telling.” One of these stories shows Roncalli’s common touch, something now being praised widely in Bergoglio.
The story tells that the plumbers had arrived for repairs in the Vatican. The Pope heard how one of them started swearing in the name of the whole Holy Family. He came out and asked politely: “Must you do this? Can’t you say merde as we do too?”
My favorite story tells of Roncalli’s meeting with Pope Pius XII in 1944 in Paris. Apparently Pius tells Roncalli that he is busy and has only 7 minutes to spare for their conversation. Roncalli then “took his leave with the words: “In that case, the remaining six minutes are superfluous.”
And then there is the story of Roncalli’s reaction when he was given Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, which portrayed Pope Pius XII as silent and indifferent to the persecution and extermination of European Jews. When Roncalli was asked what one could do against Hochhuth’s play, he responded: “’Do against it? What can you do against the truth?’”
These stories are essential, Arendt writes, because they
show the complete independence which comes from a true detachment from the things of this world, the splendid freedom from prejudice and convention which quite frequently could result in an almost Voltairean wit, an astounding quickness in turning the tables.
Arendt found in Roncalli the kind of independence and “self-thinking” she valued so highly and that unites all the persons she profiled in her book Men in Dark Times. For Roncalli, his “complete freedom from cares and worries was his form of humility; what set him free was that he could say without any reservation, mental or emotional: “Thy will be done.”” It was this humility that girded Roncalli’s faith and led to his being content to live from day to day and even hour to hour “like the lilies in the field” with “no concern for the future.” It was, in other words, his faith—and not any theory or philosophy—that “guarded him against ‘in any way conniving with evil in the hope that by so doing [he] may be useful to someone.’” A true Christian in imitation of Jesus, Roncalli was one who “welcomed his painful and premature death as confirmation of his vocation: the “sacrifice” that was needed for the great enterprise he had to leave undone.”
There was one exception, however, to Roncalli’s sureness of his innocence, and that was his action and service during World War II. Here is Arendt’s account:
It is with respect to his work in Turkey, where, during the war, he came into contact with Jewish organizations (and, in one instance, prevented the Turkish government from shipping back to Germany some hundred Jewish children who had escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe) that he later raised one of the very rare serious reproaches against himself—for all “examinations of conscience” notwithstanding, he was not at all given to self-criticism. “Could I not,” he wrote, “should I not, have done more, have made a more decided effort and gone against the inclinations of my nature? Did the search for calm and peace, which I considered to be more in harmony with the Lord’s spirit, not perhaps mask a certain unwillingness to take up the sword?” At this time, however, he had permitted himself but one outburst. Upon the outbreak of the war with Russia, he was approached by the German Ambassador, Franz von Papen, who asked him to use his influence in Rome for outspoken support of Germany by the Pope. “And what shall I say about the millions of Jews your countrymen are murdering in Poland and in Germany?” This was in 1941, when the great massacre had just begun.
Even in his questioning of himself in his actions during the war, Roncalli shows himself to be a man of independence and faith. Yes, he might have done more. But unlike so many who did nothing, he made his dissent known, worked to do good where he could, and yet still fell short. And then struggled with his shortcomings.
These stories of the self-thinking independence of Pope John XXIII offer a revealing and humbling reflection in relation to the new Pope Francis I. Like Roncalli, Bergoglio is praised for his humility and his simple faith. And like Roncalli, Bergoglio served the Church through dark times, when secular authorities were engaging in untold evils and the Church remained silent if not complicit. But Roncalli not only did speak up and act to protect the persecuted and hopeless, he also worried that he had not done enough. He was right.
Many are accusing Pope Francis I of war crimes and complicity. I worry about jumping to conclusions when we do not know what happened. But the new Pope carries baggage Roncalli did not—formal accusations of complicity with terror and torture. It is human to respond with denials and anger. It would be befitting, however, if Pope Francis I would throw aside such defenses and let the truth come out. That would be an instance of leadership by example that might actually serve to cleanse the dirty laundry of the Catholic Church.
On this first weekend of Pope Francis I new reign, it is well worth revisiting Hannah Arendt’s The Christian Pope. It is your weekend read.
The NY Times Editorial page takes aim at online education on Monday. It turns out that studies show that more students in online classes drop out of classes, more fail, and fewer graduate. This is not surprising. But one might ask so what? Online courses are proliferating and will continue to do so because they are less expensive. For some students, they may even be better. But for high-risk students, the track record is poor. Here is the Times editorial board’s conclusion:
A five-year study, issued in 2011, tracked 51,000 students enrolled in Washington State community and technical colleges. It found that those who took higher proportions of online courses were less likely to earn degrees or transfer to four-year colleges. The reasons for such failures are well known. Many students, for example, show up at college (or junior college) unprepared to learn, unable to manage time and having failed to master basics like math and English.
Lacking confidence as well as competence, these students need engagement with their teachers to feel comfortable and to succeed. What they often get online is estrangement from the instructor who rarely can get to know them directly. Colleges need to improve online courses before they deploy them widely. Moreover, schools with high numbers of students needing remedial education should consider requiring at least some students to demonstrate success in traditional classes before allowing them to take online courses.
The Times’ solution is based on a common lament, that young people are caught in a double bind, what Joseph Stiglitz recently described as a Catch-22:
Without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.
Stiglitz, like the NY Times editorial board, worries that the current higher educational system is poorly suited to addressing questions of class. Both are right. College education is too expensive for most poor and even many middle class Americans. This is especially true since many people spend much of their time (and money) in college taking remedial courses where they learn little of extra value. And when these at-risk students do attend college, they too often emerge with life-altering debt rather than a transformative education.
What both the Times and Stiglitz want is to change the system of college and how we subsidize it. I leave aside the argument over whether government subsidies for higher education are the right answer. That becomes a question of how much money we want to pay as a percentage of our GDP.
But what does seem strange is that we continue to see our colleges as the problem here. As the Times rightly sees, the problem is that students arrive at college unprepared.
Our overburdened public colleges must spend a fortune on remedial education for students. And then we charge students for this remedial education, which frequently fails, leaving them with debt and nothing else.
Whereas colleges cost students money, high school education is typically free. The first line of attack on inequality through education should be reforming and improving high schools. Yet no one speaks about that. President Obama’s education initiatives focus on early pre-school education and community college. High Schools are left out. But if we could divert the huge resources currently spent on remedial college education to high schools, maybe college wouldn’t be so necessary. And maybe those who attended college might then be ready to work at a college level.
In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard D. Kahlenberg lifts (or rips) the band-aid off a wound that has been festering for decades. For much of the 20th century, class animated campus Marxists. Since the 1970s, race and gender have largely supplanted class as the source of youthful protest. But the pendulum is swinging back. Studies find that "being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever." Will racial and gender politics give way to a renewed interest in class? Will there be a divide on the left between class and identity politics? In either case, the debate is beginning.
Here is Kahlenberg:
Long hidden from view, economic status is emerging from the shadows, as once-taboo discussions are taking shape. The growing economic divide in America, and on American campuses, has given rise to new student organizations, and new dialogues, focused on raising awareness of class issues—and proposing solutions. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to curtail the consideration of race in college admissions this year, the role of economic disadvantage as a basis for preferences could further raise the salience of class.
This interest represents a return to an earlier era. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, class concerns animated Marxists on campus and New Deal politicians in the public sphere. Both groups papered over important dimensions of race and gender to focus on the nation's economic divide. Programs like Federal Housing Administration-guaranteed loans and the GI Bill provided crucial opportunities for upward mobility to some working-class families and students.
Colleges, meanwhile, began using the SAT to identify talented working-class candidates for admission. But FHA loans, the GI Bill, and the SAT still left many African-Americans, Latinos, and women out in the cold.
In the 1960s and 70s, that narrow class focus was rightly challenged by civil-rights activists, feminists, and advocates of gay rights, who shined new light on racism, sexism and homophobia. Black studies, women's studies, and later gay studies took root on college campuses, along with affirmative-action programs in student admissions and faculty employment to correct for the lack of attention paid to marginalized groups by politicians and academics alike.
Somewhere along the way, however, the pendulum swung to the point that issues of class were submerged. Admissions officers, for example, paid close attention to racial and ethnic diversity, but little to economic diversity. William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, and his colleagues reported in 2005 that being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever. Campuses became more racially and ethnically diverse—and all-male colleges began admitting women—but students from the most advantaged socioeconomic quartile of the population came to outnumber students from the least advantaged quartile at selective colleges by 25 to 1, according to a 2004 study by the Century Foundation.
Read the whole article here.
Kahlenberg’s inquiry into the return of class to debates on campus cannot be seen outside the context of rising inequality in the U.S. Just this week Anne Lowrey reports in the New York Times that incomes are rising briskly for the top 1% but are actually stagnant or falling for everyone else:
Incomes rose more than 11 percent for the top 1 percent of earners during the economic recovery, but not at all for everybody else, according to new data.
It may be true that prices are declining and the middle class, despite its wage stagnation, is still living well. But we cannot ignore the increasing divide between the rich and the middle class. Not to mention the poor.
This was the topic of an op-ed essay in Monday’s New York Times by Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, who writes, “The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider.” Stiglitz, like Kahlenberg, sets the question of class inequality against increasing racial equality:
While racial segregation decreased, economic segregation increased. After 1980, the poor grew poorer, the middle stagnated, and the top did better and better. Disparities widened between those living in poor localities and those living in rich suburbs — or rich enough to send their kids to private schools. A result was a widening gap in educational performance — the achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40 percent larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier, the Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon found.
Many on the left will respond that race and class are linked: minorities, who are poor, they say, suffer worst of all. That may be true. But race, gender, and identity have dominated the conversation about equality and oppression in this country for 50 years. That is changing. This will be hard for some to accept, and yet it makes sense. Poverty, more than race or gender, is increasingly the true mark of disadvantage in 21st century America.
The crisis must matter.
The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.
The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.
It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.
We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.
According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:
We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once. Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.
Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.
Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.
Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.
Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age. It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.
There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.
If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".
One week ago this was the most important and yet the most boring election in history. No longer. Ryan's selection adds a jolt of seriousness and consequentialness to the next 90 days of electioneering. Or at least so we are told. Why?
Because Ryan has been, over the last year, one of the very few politicians in the United States who seems to really understand the magnitude of the crisis we are facing and who is willing to propose and support radical steps to address it. His proposed budget is draconian. It has some great ideas, including simplifying the tax code and getting rid of tax breaks like the Carried Interest provision. And yet, it is one-sided and highly partisan. Ryan calls for enormous cuts to the entitlements that will cause incredible suffering to the poor and middle classes, while providing large tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. If we are to suffer to repay our debts, as I think we must, we must all suffer together.
It is hard to imagine that Ryan's budget is what most Americans want or should want. And yet, Ryan's willingness to propose a deeply unpopular budget and argue eloquently and strongly for it is praiseworthy. At times, it seems as if Ryan is the only grown up in the room, the only politician who is willing to deal honestly with our predicaments.
The opinion that the election is now more meaningful and more serious is one that many share—on both the left and the right. On the right, Ryan's selection means that the election is a referendum on the crisis of big government. Glenn Reynolds writes in USA Today :
Romney's selection of Ryan shows that he understands the dire nature of the problem, and that he's serious about addressing it.
Paul Rahe argues that Romney's choice amounts to a clarion call for radical change:
In choosing Paul Ryan as his Vice-Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has opted to go for broke, and he has indicated that he is a serious man — less concerned with becoming President of the United States than with saving the country from the disaster in store for it if we not radically reverse course, willing to risk a loss for the sake of being able to win a mandate for reform.
And in the Wall St. Journal (which ran an Op-Ed calling upon Romney to select Ryan) Gerald Seib could hardly contain his excitement:
The Ryan pick wasn’t the safest one Mr. Romney could have made—not by a long shot. But as the author of the budget plan that most clearly delineates the view of limited government that most Republicans hold, and with more specificity and crystalline explanation than most can muster, Mr. Ryan best guarantees the country will get the kind of philosophical debate worthy of a presidential campaign.
On the left as well, there is a gleeful sense that Ryan's presence on the ticket will prove President Obama's claim that this is the most important election in ages. For Democrats, Ryan's extremism is a blessing, allowing them to paint Romney-Ryan as out-of-touch radicals who will undo a century of gains in middle class benefits while giving tax breaks to the very wealthiest Americans.
John Cassidy, at The New Yorker, writes that Ryan is a dream pick for Obama-Biden because it makes the election what Obama has said it is all along—a choice between Obama's moderation versus Romney and Ryan's radicalism:
In placing a lightning rod like Ryan on the ticket, Romney appears to have decided that the best form of defense is attack. For months, he and his campaign have been trying to turn the election exclusively into a referendum on Obama’s record. That strategy has now been abandoned. Ryan’s mere presence ensures that the election will be framed in the way that Team Obama has wanted all along: as a choice between the President’s moderate progressivism and the anti-government radicalism of today’s G.O.P.
John Nichols at The Nation agrees and argues that Ryan solidifies Romney's choice to run far to the right—so far as to be out of touch with the moderate electorate. This means, he writes, that team Obama can win big.
On every issue that you can imagine, from reproductive rights to environmental protection to labor rights, Ryan stands to the right. Way to the right. The Ryan selection moves the Grand Old Party harder to the right than at any time since 1964, when the true believers got a nominee, a platform and 39 percent of the vote. America’s more divided now. The Romney-Ryan ticket will run better than Goldwater and Bill Miller did forty-eight years ago, But by bending so far toward the base, Romney has given the Democrats an opportunity to dream not just of winning but of winning bigger than anyone dared imagine forty-eight weeks or even forty-eight days ago.
The new Ryan budget is a remarkable document — one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature. In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids. It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history). ... Even as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget would impose trillions of dollars in spending cuts, at least 62 percent of which would come from low-income programs, it would enact new tax cuts that would provide huge windfalls to households at the top of the income scale. New analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center finds that people earning more than $1 million a year would receive $265,000 apiece in new tax cuts, on average, on top of the $129,000 they would receive from the Ryan budget’s extension of President Bush’s tax cuts. The new tax cuts at the top would dwarf those for middle-income families. After-tax incomes would rise by 12.5 percent among millionaires, but just 1.8 percent for middle-income households. Low-income working families would actually be hit with tax increases.
For the left, Ryan moves Romney outside of the political mainstream and thus offers a stark contrast with the middle-of-the-road President. They agree with the right on the basic contrast. And yet each side believes the contrast works in their favor. This is because, of course, each side increasingly speaks only to itself and has so convinced itself that it is absolutely right that it cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with it.
A new received wisdom is emerging and the pundits on the left and right agree: Ryan's place in the election makes this a watershed election that will be a referendum on the future of the country. And even from a position outside partisan pugilism, Walter Russell Mead makes the point that the selection of Paul Ryan guarantees that this is an important election. In perhaps the most clear-headed and provocative essays on the Ryan selection I've read, Mead writes:
2012 looks like an election between two united parties who will both be enthusiastic and both be convinced that the fate of the nation hangs on the November result. That’s a good thing, on the whole, for the country. Whatever else can be said about our electoral politics, nobody can argue that they are inconsequential or that real issues have disappeared. This is a serious election about important affairs and the two sides will both be offering a coherent vision of American values that allows voters to make a clear choice.
There is something hopeful and true in this consensus that Ryan will up the seriousness of this race. I remain skeptical. Here is why.
We have to question the basic assumption that sharpening the question in the election will lead to a greater likelihood that the winning side will successfully carry out its agenda. This seems unlikely for the simple reason that the stark question being posed is furthering the partisan split in the country rather than seeking a middle ground. Rather than a sustained debate, we are just as likely to watch both sides dig themselves into ever-more-fortified trenches on opposing sides of the partisan front. What this means is the Ryan's selection is just as likely to increase the partisanship and vitriol in American politics as it is to elevate the tone of the election to being one about ideas and the future of the country. As the two sides become more polarized, the chances are diminished that either party will be able to actually make the kinds of radical changes that both think are necessary.
The reason for this is the basic institutional limitations that our constitutional system places on the power of the President. For all the talk in recent years about an "Imperial Presidency," the facts are largely otherwise. Outside of foreign policy, the president is largely constrained to make far-reaching policy changes. Large bureaucracies, a resilient and skeptical media, and now the fractured political world of competing ideological realities—each with their own newspapers, news shows, and blogs—means that it is increasingly difficult to imagine a President with the power to drive through a meaningful agenda.
Just consider, if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, they will be able to negotiate major concessions in or even block entirely any Republican efforts to roll back entitlements. And even if the Democrats lose the Senate, the power of the filibuster means that they will be able to block many of the more extreme Republican initiatives. The same dynamic goes the other way as we have seen. Republicans have been able to frustrate much of President Obama's domestic agenda, even when the President had large majorities in both houses of Congress. The demands for ideological purity on both sides rewards conviction politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, but it does not necessarily bode well for a serious and deliberative approach to our real political problems.
At the root of this difficulty is the fallacy of The Rhetorical Presidency. As Jeffrey Tulis argues, the most fundamental shift in American politics since the Founding has been the rise of a rhetorical presidency: The idea that the President should lead as a popular leader.
Tulis writes that from the Founders until the early 20th century, U.S. Presidents assiduously avoided trying to become popular leaders. As an institution, the Presidency was designed to resist the power of demagoguery and yet also to stand as a check on the power of Congress. The president himself engaged with Congress, but did not mobilize the people as a popular leader.
The role of the President changed with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson insisted that only a president could like a lightning rod call forth the will of the people "unconscious of its unity and purpose" and "call it into full consciousness." For Wilson, the President leads with simplicity. Wilson writes:
Mark the simplicity and directness of the arguments and ideas of [true leaders.] The motives which they urge are elemental; the morality which they seek to enforce is large and obvious; the policy they emphasize, purged of all subtlety.
If early American Presidents were forbidden to use direct appeals to the people, Wilson insists that modern 20th century presidents must do so. And as Tulis shows, Wilson's ideas underlie our modern idea of the president as a popular leader.
Tulis is not interested in defending or condemning the rhetorical presidency, but in exploring its possibilities and limitations. He makes an exceptional point that while 20th century presidents like Wilson and Lyndon Johnson regularly appeal to the people, "the same popular rhetoric that provided the clout for victory [e.g. in in Johnson's War on Poverty] substituted passionate appeal and argument by metaphor for deliberation." The rise of rhetorical presidency and the tools for popular leadership may at times be politically effective, but they clash with the institutional role of the President who must still work with Congress. The President's popular leadership translates poorly into legislative deliberation and thus often yields less of a change or less good change than was sought. One can see this exemplified in President Obama's attempt to mobilize his enormous popular mandate to reform healthcare.
While the modern rhetorical President can enlist the people to pressure the legislature, there are limits and consequences to these pressures. Congress can resist the power of the presidency, as the recent abuse of the filibuster shows. What is more, the increase in speeches and popular appeals constitutes, in Tulis' prophetic words,
a decay of political discourse. It replaces discussion structured by contestability of opinion inherent to issues with a competition to please or manipulate the public. ... The rhetorical presidency enhances the tendency to define issues in terms of the needs of persuasion rather than to develop a discourse suitable for the illumination and exploration of real issues—that is, problems that do not depend upon the certification of a public opinion poll to be recognized as needful of examination. It is increasingly the case that presidential speeches themselves have become the issues and events of modern politics rather than the medium through which issues and events are discussed and assessed. Subsequent speeches by presidents and other politicians often continue to elaborate the fictive world created in the initial address, making that world, unfortunately, a constitutive feature of "real" national politics.
What Tulis forces us to confront is the possibility that the very kind of rhetorical leadership that makes Barack Obama and Paul Ryan such compelling politicians leads to a transformation of politics in which passions and fictive worlds replace the sober discussion of policy. As appealing and promising as such rhetorical leadership appears, it too frequently spends its power on populist slogans that translate poorly into real legislative transformation.
There is a strange disconnect between the rise of a rhetorical presidency and the common sense of an increasingly cynical public that thinks the choice of president seems to move the needle very little. While the papers and blogs are filled with assurances that now the election is serious (a necessary belief to sell papers and drive traffic), the people don't always agree.
At a time of mediated and fragmented politics, the promise of bold political leadership is ever less likely. Given the apparent abdication of leadership throughout our politics, we must ask: Does the President Matter? This seems an absurd question as we confront what is imagined to be such a consequential election. And yet, as the country is about to elect a President, it is a pressing question.
Precisely because it is an open question whether the President can translate his popular appeal into political leadership, the Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is sponsoring its Fifth Annual Conference and asking: Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair. The conference features Jeffrey Tulis and Walter Russell Mead amongst other speakers, including Rick Falkvinge (founder of the Swedish Pirate Party), Ralph Nader and Bernard Kouchner (Founder of Doctors without Borders and Foreign Minister of France under Nicolas Sarkozy). Paul Ryan is undeniably serious and he is raising important questions about the future of the country. But there is a question of whether our political system in the 21st century is still capable of presidential leadership.
“‘[T]he revolution was effected before the war commenced,’ not because of any specifically revolutionary or rebellious spirit but because the inhabitants of the colonies were ‘formed by law into corporations, or bodies politic,’ and possessed ‘the right to assemble … in their town halls, there to deliberate upon the public affairs."
—Hannah Arendt, quoting John Adams, in On Revolution
These remarks represent casual, back-of-the-envelope thoughts. The question they pose is: what would the Occupy movement, or something like it, have to look like in order to succeed in altering the structure of American governance? This assumes that the goal of Occupy is, or should be, to change the structure of American governance, and it assumes an idea of what “the structure of American governance” means, which I will try to explain. My answer to that question—what would Occupy have to look like—can be summed up in a few words: it would have to stop being a movement of the left. As a thought experiment, I propose to imagine an Occupy movement without leftism, and with the goal of changing the structure of governance.
The first thing to work out is wherein the leftism of Occupy actually consists. It does not consist in espousing the interests of the poor—or attacking the interests of the rich. Wealth is neither liberal nor conservative by nature, and wealth in today’s America flows alternately to Republicans and Democrats. Right-wing movements can be populist as well, and garner the support of the economically marginal. Wealth looks after its own interests and treats politics as secondary—which is why the catchphrase of the Occupy movement, “the 99 percent,” theoretically constitutes an appeal to both left and right. It is supposed to be a call to unite along economic rather than political lines. This—“Forget politics and unite for your common economic interest!”—is what I take to be the intended message of Occupy. Those who primarily hear this intended message thus think that Occupy is a new kind of populist movement, having left behind the identity politics of liberalism for a unifying, class-based cause.
But whatever you make of this intended message, there is also an effective message of Occupy, somewhat different from its intended one. The effective message of Occupy proceeds, inevitably, from the demographic composition of the movement. Is it plain for anyone beholding an Occupy rally to see that its membership is drawn from the educated, bourgeois, liberal left; that other contingents (sympathetic Ron Paulites, unionists, etc.) are essentially tokens; and that the members of the real economic underclass are present only on the other side of the fast food counter, selling burritos to hungry protestors. At a march I attended in Chicago, I could stand in one spot and see signs proclaiming dozens of demands: that we go green, withdraw from foreign wars, respect women and minorities, legalize gay marriage, realize that “we are one with the cosmos”—and, oh yes, punish the banks while we’re at it. I happen to agree, at least in some sense, with most of these demands (oneness with the cosmos being one that I would have to find out more about before deciding on), but I was puzzled by their presence. I asked myself: are these particular demands separable from the core economic message? It seems they ought to be, and in theory they are, but here the concrete trumps the theoretical. Get rid of all the people holding those “Regulate x” and “Legalize y” signs at the Occupy rally, and you will have gotten rid of most of the movement. Occupy pursues its universalism as a process of expansion from a preexisting social base. It is like a Facebook group that keeps adding members (in fact, it is that, literally). But this process has natural limits, which Occupy has probably already reached.
So Occupy has its economic message (“the 99 percent”), and it has its social message. The social message is: “Join the left! We liberals have everybody’s best interests at heart, and our concern is with economic justice for the 99 percent.
All you have to do to be part of our movement is to drop your uneducated prejudices—your racism, xenophobia, homophobia, chauvinism, et cetera. Then, once you have become educated liberals, we can move beyond liberalism and fight together for our economic interests!” In the very act of asserting its universalist economic agenda, Occupy reinscribes the particularist demands of the liberal left as prerequisites for participation.
Better than trying to cleanse the economic message of those distracting particularist agendas would be instead to think beyond the economic message itself. What would it mean for Occupy to think at the level of the political? The question of defining the political as such is a point that risks involving Arendt scholars, somewhat uncharacteristically, in long, subtle, almost scholastic discussions; but for our purposes, the answer is easy enough. It would mean to think about constitutions.
A constitution can be a written document embodying the “higher law of the land”—but it need not be. A constitution can just as well consist in an unwritten tradition (as in Great Britain), or, as Arendt reminds us, in an institution such as the Roman senate (or perhaps, in our day, the loya jirga)—a political body that lasts just as long as it is cared for and maintained. (Similarly, a written constitution lasts only as long as people choose to obey it.) A successful revolution—this is the thrust of Arendt’s On Revolution—is one which does not stop at the point of liberating people from oppression, which might be of an economic or a political kind. Occupy aims at economic liberation. A successful revolution, on the other hand, puts its main energy into constitution-making, and results in the creation of lasting institutions, bodies politic that function and endure.
Founding, constituting, instituting: this would be the business of a truly political and, I think, a truly successful Occupy movement. These activities are by nature genuinely public and open to all comers without prerequisite. They might take various concrete forms. Lawrence Lessig advocates holding mock constitutional conventions across the country, with the eventual aim of demonstrating the effectiveness of the process as carried out by ordinary citizens and encouraging state legislatures to invoke Article V of the U.S. constitution and call a new federal convention. Another model would be to simply begin holding unconditional open meetings, publicized and accessible to all, neighborhood by neighborhood, “to deliberate upon the public affairs” until some structure of governance begins to emerge, good leaders come forward, actions are taken. While both these models have their idealistic aspects, both have some realistic aspects as well. We have barely begun to think through the possibilities, but we will eventually need to do the patient work of reconstituting the republic.
-Stephen Haswell Todd