Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
17Nov/140

Amor Mundi 11/16/14

Arendtamormundi

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

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

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Place As Destiny

neighborhoodIf Charles Murray's book Coming Apart chronicles the vast divergences between the richest and poorest communities in America, Claude S. Fischer gathers a series of studies and new books to argue that the places we live and grow up have an outsized impact on our future. Writing in the Boston Review, Fischer reports that "the places-the communities, neighborhoods, blocks-where people live act as a factor in slowing economic mobility." There are many reasons that poor and dysfunctional neighborhoods pass on poverty. "Consider the ways that the immediate environment shapes a child's development. It does so physically. Air and soil pollution, noise, and traffic, for example, measurably affect children's health, stress, and cognitive development. Local institutions and resources, such as the policing, quality of the schools, availability of health services, food options, parks, and so on matter, as well. And the social environment may matter most of all. Growing up in a community with gangs, dangerous streets, discouraging role models, confused social expectations, and few connections to outsiders commanding resources is a burden for any child. Just getting by day-to-day can be a struggle. In a pair of studies, Sharkey found that a violent crime occurring near black children's homes in the days before they took a standardized test reduced their scores on the test, presumably because of anxiety and distraction." One major difference between Murray and Fischer is their consideration of race. Murray focuses on white poverty and the incredible rise of white inequality to argue that the decadence and disconnect of the new poor happens regardless of race. Fischer demurs: "No discussion of neighborhood effects can ignore the racial dimension, because the residential segregation of blacks has been and, though reduced, continues to be extreme: 41 percent of the African-American parent-child pairs in the study grew up in poor neighborhoods in both generations; only 2 percent of white families did. Poor whites were less likely to live in concentrated areas of poverty and are more likely to get out of them if they did. The weight of the past is much heavier for some than others."

Will The Masses Procrastinate By Writing Papers

leisureContrarian poet and uncreative writer Kenneth Goldsmith is going to spend next semester teaching 21st century leisure. He explains: "Come January, fifteen University of Pennsylvania creative-writing students and I will sit silently in a room with nothing more than our devices and a Wi-Fi connection, for three hours a week, in a course called 'Wasting Time on the Internet.' Although we'll all be in the same room, our communication will happen exclusively through chat rooms and listservs, or over social media. Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing. The students will be encouraged to get lost on the Web, disappearing for three hours in a Situationist-inspired dérive, drowsily emerging from the digital haze only when class is over. We will enter a collective dreamspace, an experience out of which the students will be expected to render works of literature. To bolster their practice, they'll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting, through critical texts by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, and John Cage. Nothing is off limits: if it is on the Internet, it is fair play. Students watching three hours of porn can use it as the basis for compelling erotica; they can troll nefarious right-wing sites, scraping hate-filled language for spy thrillers; they can render celebrity Twitter feeds into epic Dadaist poetry; they can recast Facebook feeds as novellas; or they can simply hand in their browser history at the end of a session and present it as a memoir."

Forget Privacy

online privacy12 years ago, Felix Stalder could already see how the rise of a networked society would lead individuals to trade privacy for personal service: "We live in a surveillance society. The creation, collection and processing of personal data is nearly a ubiquitous phenomenon. Every time we use a loyalty card at a retailer, our names are correlated with our purchases and entered into giant databases. Every time we pass an electronic tollbooth on the highway, every time we use a cell phone or a credit card, our locations are being recorded, analyzed and stored. Every time we go to see a doctor, submit an insurance claim, pay our utility bills, interact with the government, or go online, the picture gleaned from our actions and states grows finer and fatter." For Stalder, the traditional idea of privacy - that I control my information and data-is simply impossible to uphold in the modern world. Instead of talking about privacy - which he thinks an antiquated idea-we need to begin asking how to prevent the abuse of information. "Rather than continuing on the defensive by trying to maintain an ever-weakening illusion of privacy, we have to shift to the offensive and start demanding accountability of those whose power is enhanced by the new connections. In a democracy, political power is, at least ideally, tamed by making the government accountable to those who are governed and not by carving out areas in which the law doesn't apply. It is, in this perspective, perhaps no co-incidence that many of the strongest privacy advocates (at least in the US) lean politically towards libertarianism, a movement which includes on its fringe white militias that try to set up zones liberated from the US government. In our democracies, extensive institutional mechanisms have been put into to place to create and maintain accountability and to punish those who abuse their power. We need to develop and instate similar mechanisms for the handling of personal information - a technique as crucial to power as the ability to exercise physical violence - in order to limit the concentration of power inherent in situations that involve unchecked surveillance. The current notion of privacy, which frames the issue as a personal one, won't help us accomplish that."

Fail Quicker

age of failureAdam Davis says that our present and sped up culture of disruptive innovation is really as much a culture of failure: "An age of constant invention naturally begets one of constant failure. The life span of an innovation, in fact, has never been shorter. An African hand ax from 285,000 years ago, for instance, was essentially identical to those made some 250,000 years later. The Sumerians believed that the hoe was invented by a godlike figure named Enlil a few thousand years before Jesus, but a similar tool was being used a thousand years after his death. During the Middle Ages, amid major advances in agriculture, warfare, and building technology, the failure loop closed to less than a century. During the Enlightenment and early Industrial Revolution, it was reduced to about a lifetime. By the 20th century, it could be measured in decades. Today, it is best measured in years and, for some products, even less.... The closure of the failure loop has sent uncomfortable ripples through the economy. When a product or company is no longer valued in the marketplace, there are typically thousands of workers whose own market value diminishes, too. Our breakneck pace of innovation can be seen in stock-market volatility and other boardroom metrics, but it can also be measured in unemployment checks, in divorces and involuntary moves, and in promising careers turned stagnant. Every derelict product that makes its way into Weird Stuff exists as part of a massive ecosystem of human lives - of engineers and manufacturers; sales people and marketing departments; logistics planners and truck drivers - that has shared in this process of failure."

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The Eternal Jew

eternal jewIn "Antisemitism," Part One of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt discusses the emergence of the Jewish Type, the Jew in General, as it came to be in Germany in the 19th century. "Jewishness," she wrote, "became a psychological quality and the Jewish question became an involved personal problem for every individual Jew." And yet it is also the case that the Nazis still imagined Judaism as a physical attribute and not simply a psychology. As Sara Lipton reminds us in the New York Review of Books, "In 1940 the Nazis released a propaganda film called The Eternal Jew. The film claimed to show the Jews in their 'original state,' 'before they put on the mask of civilized Europeans.' Stagings of Jewish rituals were interspersed with scenes of yarmulke- and caftan-wearing Jews shuffling down crowded alleys, all meant to show the benighted nature of Jewish life. Above all, the filmmakers focused on Jewish faces. They trained their cameras in lingering close-up on their subjects' eyes, noses, beards, and mouths, confident that the sight of certain stereotypical features would arouse responses of loathing and contempt."

The Human Sciences

botsteinIn an interview with the Yale Daily News, Leon Botstein speaks about his lecture "Beyond Fashion and Fear: The Future of the Humanities and the Arts in the University." Botstein advises that we stop the high-minded defenses of the humanities and focus on teaching them in ways that are meaningful: "If we really believed that the humanities were vital, how would we organize them?" It may well be that what is most useful about the humanities is not the most advanced and critical research but the reading and consideration of foundational texts and works of art. The humanities, as Hannah Arendt understood, are important insofar as they preserve and conserve the common world. An example of their importance is visible in Botstein's answer to a question about the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math: "My position is that the STEM fields cannot exist without the humanities, and that the humanities cannot exist without the STEM fields. The separation is purely bureaucratic; it's purely a structural separation having to do with the way it's 'easier' to organize things within a university. My view is that anybody who is interested in the humanities is at his or her peril to not think about the fundamental role of science, technology, engineering and the character of science, and vice versa; there's no serious scientist in the world that isn't confronted with - that doesn't deal with - the non-'purely scientific' or nontechnical motivations or consequences of their work. The separation of the two is nonsensical."

Why So Serious?

zizekIn a review of Slavoj Zizek's two newest books, Terry Eagleton considers the Slovenian philosopher's sense of humor: "There is a dash of the Dubliner Oscar Wilde in Zizek, a man who couldn't hear a pious English sentiment without feeling an irresistible itch to reverse its terms, rip it inside out, or stand it on its head. Zizek, who has the grim appearance of a hired assassin in a Jacobean tragedy, lacks Wilde's stylishness and elegance. He also lacks his distinctive brand of humour. Zizek is funny but not witty. He tells some excellent jokes and has a well-honed sense of the absurd, but one couldn't extract a book of epigrams from his writing, as one can from Wilde's. Both men, however, are natural-born debunkers and deconstructors, allergic to high moral tones and good clean fun. That Zizek should be a skilled exponent of Jewish black humour, the Woody Allen of Ljubljana, comes as no surprise. Even so, his urge to deface and deflate is a long way from cynicism. Remarkably, he combines the tragic vision of Freud with a Marxist faith in the future."

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Featured Events

Alexei GloukhovLunchtime Talk with Alexei Gloukhov

Arendt and the Question of Positive Freedom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm - 2:00 pm

 

 


Film Screening & Director's Discussion: Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 5:00 - 8:00 pm


Roundtable on Academic Freedom

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bard College Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm

 


Film Screening & Director's Discussion: A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 5:00 - 8:00 pm

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Thomas Wild discusses Arendt's conception of freedom as a state of being experienced only in public in the Quote of the Week. Victor Hugo provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we remember a 2012 discussion between historian Deborah Lipstadt and Roger Berkowitz on Arendt's treatment of the Eichmann trial. And we appreciate Arendt's deep love of art in our Library feature.

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.
27Oct/141

Amor Mundi 10/26/14

Arendtamormundi

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-up
The Making of a Hero

Laura PoitrasIn a revelatory and subtle profile of Laura Poitras and her experience making "Citizenfour," her new documentary about Edward Snowden, George Packer raises questions about how close Poitras comes to Snowden's true story, and how uncritically Snowden's own narrative of his actions have become entrenched in the public consciousness: "The heart of the film is the hotel room in Hong Kong, where Poitras finds emotion in the small moments that give 'Citizenfour' the human truth she's always after. Even when the pace slows to the verge of boredom, the footage is mesmerizing, because we are watching a private encounter of great political significance unfold. For Poitras, the film is all about Snowden's decision. But, in this case, ... Snowden had already made his decision to go public, long before he got in touch with Poitras, so by the time we meet him it's a fait accompli. By e-mail and in Hong Kong, he presents his motives as so high-minded and public-spirited that they never become interesting. In Poitras's terms, he has already created a narrative of himself-it's a "locked path." He has stopped being a complicated character, and Poitras doesn't look for ways to complicate him. ... Snowden describes himself as an ordinary government employee who was going about his business until he could no longer ignore the wrongdoing he observed. This self-portrait doesn't completely square with others' accounts or with the historical record. Snowden was not as deeply embedded in the N.S.A.'s institutional culture as were previous agency whistle-blowers, like Binney, who arrived at their breaking points after sustained bureaucratic struggles. Snowden was more alienated and self-isolated, more radical, than that. His biographical trail reveals a young man who becomes most passionate when promoting the importance of maintaining absolute privacy on the Internet-he wore an Electronic Frontier Foundation hoodie to work-and who seems less eager to acknowledge how difficult the trade-off between liberty and security can be in a democratic society. Before the meeting in Hong Kong, he wrote a letter to Poitras and Greenwald that said, in part, "While I pray that public awareness and debate will lead to reform, bear in mind that the policies of men change in time, and even the Constitution is subverted when the appetites of power demand it. In words from history: Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography." Snowden went to great trouble over a long period to amass the astonishing quantity of secrets that he passed on to Poitras and Greenwald-including taking a private-contractor position solely with the aim of downloading N.S.A. files. None of this is revealed under Greenwald's questioning."

The Phantom in the Opera

death of klinghofferAlex Ross on why the response to the Metropolitan Opera's staging of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer has been so vitriolic: "Adams and his librettist...do not advertise their intentions in neon. The story of the Achille Lauro hijacking is told in oblique, circuitous monologues, delivered by a variety of self-involved narrators, with interpolated choruses in rich, dense poetic language. The terrorists are allowed ecstatic flights, private musings, self-justifications. But none of this should surprise a public accustomed to dark, ambiguous TV shows like 'Homeland.' The most specious arguments against 'Klinghoffer' elide the terrorists' bigotry with the attitudes of the creators. By the same logic, one could call Steven Spielberg an anti-Semite because the commandant in 'Schindler's List' compares Jewish women to a virus. In the opera, the opposed groups follow divergent trajectories. The terrorists tend to lapse from poetry into brutality, whereas Leon Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, remain robustly earthbound, caught up in the pleasures and pains of daily life, hopeful even as death hovers. Those trajectories are already implicit in the paired opening numbers, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews. The former splinters into polyrhythmic violence, ending on the words 'break his teeth'; the latter keeps shifting from plaintive minor to sumptuous major, ending on the words 'stories of our love.' The scholar Robert Fink, in a 2005 essay, convincingly argues that the opera 'attempts to counterpoise to terror's deadly glamour the life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.' Moreover, subtle references to the Holocaust suggest that a familiar horror is recurring. 'At least we are not Jews,' an old Swiss woman says. 'I kept my distance,' an Austrian frigidly intones. The mellifluous, ineffectual Captain indulges in fantasies of appeasement, conversing under the stars with a silver-tongued terrorist named Mamoud."

Moral Equivalence

death of klinghoffer(2)Alan Dershowitz argues that The Death of Klinghoffer is an affront, first because it establishes a false moral equivalence between Jewish Zionism and Palestinian terrorism and second between the Holocaust and the Occupation. He also faults the music: "By any standard, The Death of Klinghoffer is anything but the 'masterpiece' its proponents are claiming it is. The music is uneven, with some lovely choruses-more on that coming-one decent aria, and lots of turgid recitatives. The libretto is awful. The drama is confused and rigid, especially the weak device of the captain looking back at the events several years later with the help of several silent passengers. There are silly and distracting arias from a British show girl who seems to have had a crush on one of the terrorists, as well as from a woman who hid in her cabin eating grapes and chocolate. They added neither to the drama nor the music of the opera. Then there were the choruses. The two that open the opera are supposed to demonstrate the comparative suffering of the displaced Palestinians and the displaced Jews. The Palestinian chorus is beautifully composed musically, with some compelling words, sung rhythmically and sympathetically. The Jewish chorus is a mishmash of whining about money, sex, betrayal and assorted 'Hasidism' protesting in front of movie theaters. It never mentions the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, though the chorus is supposed to be sung by its survivors. The goal of that narrative chorus is to compare the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians-some of which was caused by Arab leaders urging them to leave and return victoriously after the Arabs murdered the Jews of Israel-with the systematic genocide of six million Jews. It was a moral abomination.... At bottom The Death of Klinghoffer-a title deliberately selected to sanitize his brutal murder-is more propaganda than art. It has some artistic moments, but the dominant theme is to create a false moral equivalence between terrorism and its victims, between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups, and between the Holocaust and the self-inflicted Nakba."

Don't Give Up the Fight

Hong Kong protestsKeane Shum on why he won't give up on change in Hong Kong: "So many voices-our own government, the central government, foreign governments, much of the international media, and even some of the protesters themselves-say there is no chance of any concession by the authorities, that this is a futile battle against an intransigent force and can yield only moral victories. It is all just the dreams of naive students, they say, a fantasy. But so is Hong Kong. On that recent Sunday morning in Victoria Harbour, when I had swum to roughly the midpoint between Hong Kong Island and the mainland, I took a moment to drift on my back and let the city wash over me. The harbor and the skyline, the hills and the bays, the food, the movies, the money, and, of course, these protests-politically engaged teenagers doing homework on the streets, collecting garbage, singing songs-all these are unreal. Our city is a dream, a place where umbrellas float through tear gas, schoolchildren lead civic debates instead of virtual lives, and 999 of every 1,000 trains run on time. On that ship in Nanjing 172 years ago where China signed us away, after the British surrendered us on Christmas Day, 1941, when the tanks plowed into Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989, we were never supposed to exist, not like this."

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Now and Then

Daniel MendelsohnDaniel Mendelsohn, suggests that books, even ones we love, should change as we do: " I teach Sophocles' 'Antigone.' My students, who are in their late teens and early 20s, tend to identify with the fiercely idealistic young heroine, who stands up for family and religion - for freedom of conscience, as we often see it today - against the decrees of her uncle, the autocratic new ruler of the state. But over the past quarter-century I have increasingly appreciated the validity of the uncle's claims: the necessity for order, the incoherence of a state that consists of individuals who cannot recognize the views of others. However much Holden Caulfield's helplessness and sensitivity may move us, it's important to remember that what is problematic in 'The Catcher in the Rye' is its hero's aversion to negotiation and compromise - not the negotiations and compromises themselves, which are simply part of adult life. Whatever else it may mean, the Museum of Natural History scene in Salinger's beloved classic can be read as a powerful allegory of how not to read beloved classics. Like Holden, we can and do keep revisiting them; but when we do, we should always be seeing something new, because the eyes with which we read should have changed."

To Grieve or Not to Grieve?

Colm ToibinIn a comprehensive essay on grief in literature, Colm Toibin points to Hamlet as a model: "I remember in school sitting at the back of the class soon after my father had died and listening to a discussion about Hamlet's madness and Hamlet's character and everyone wondering why Hamlet could in one second be in love, and the next out of love, and then angry and ready for revenge and then ready to procrastinate, the next minute melancholy and the next putting an antic disposition on, and why his tone could be so wise and then also so bitter and sharply sarcastic and rude. How could he be so many things, and how could we define his character? I wish I had put up my hand to say that I thought I understood what was at the root of all his antics. His father had died not long before. That was all. He had been unmoored. While those around him were trying to explain that what had happened was normal, a part of nature, and were trying to get on with things, Hamlet had become wayward and, luckily, Shakespeare had seen the dramatic possibilities of this."

A Lost Generation

South Boston busMichael Patrick MacDonald has a vivid essay-part investigative journalism, part personal recollection of his time growing up in South Boston-about the forced busing that integrated South Boston High School in 1974: "Among the rarely discussed facts about my neighborhood was that white South Boston High School had the highest number of students on welfare in any school, citywide. The school mostly served the population of Southie's three large housing projects and the 'Lower End,' three contiguous census tracts that collectively held the highest concentration of white poverty in the United States, with 73 percent single-parent female-headed households and upwards of 40 percent unemployment rate among adult men. In the years before busing, only 16 percent of students at white South Boston High school went on to college, and when they did, they were usually the first in their families to do so. Former Boston NAACP President Ken Guskett has recently said that, during the battle for desegregation, while white students citywide received more funding per student ($450) than black students ($250 at the black schools in Roxbury)-'the South Boston kids got less than Roxbury.' This is the problem with looking at statistics only by race, rather than also looking at economics." MacDonald brings a panoramic lens to the busing history, exploring how it happened that black children were integrated into the only Boston schools worse than their own, how South Boston united against that integration and lost its soul, and how the Boston elite stood apart from the fray. Above all it is a riveting tale of the personal toll of a well-meaning but poorly instituted government policy. 

How to Read a "Politically Charged Sentence"

heideggerJulia Ireland has published a long essay that centers upon one of those rare genuine scholarly discoveries. Reviewing original manuscripts of Martin Heidegger's lecture courses, she discovered that the published versions of the texts mistakenly read Heidegger's notation for "National Socialism" as "The Natural Sciences." Ireland argues that restoring Heidegger's original words actually helps make sense of his controversial claims in another essay written in the same year in which he speaks of the "inner truth of National Socialism." In doing so, Ireland offers an extraordinary example of how to treat controversial philosophical texts. As she explains in a footnote that should be read more widely: "I am deeply opposed to that style of scholarship whose tendentious use of quotations preempts genuine philosophical analysis in a manner I understand to actively mislead. It remains true that substandard scholarship continues to determine the wider debate surrounding Heidegger's politics and that in the United States such scholarship has received the imprimatur of a university press. (Emmanuel Faye's division of his 'Bibliography' into categories such as 'Works by Other National Socialist and Völkisch Authors,' 'Apologetic and Revisionist Studies,' and 'Works Critical of Heidegger,' in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-35, is blatantly ideological; and his representation of student Protokolle as Heidegger's own words is specious; both should have been challenged by reviewers as violating the most basic principles of scholarship.) By contrast, I intend my analysis here as an alternative for what it means to read a single, politically charged sentence when interpretation has been constrained by the necessity of a philological reconstruction and the willingness to affirm the often surprising layers of complication that have accompanied it."

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Featured Events

Yasemin SariLunchtime Talk with Yasemin Sari

An Arendtian Recognitive Politics: "The Right to Have Rights" as a Performance of Visibility

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm

 

 


humanitiesRediscovering the Humanities: Humanities Advocacy in the Digital Age

The Fall Experimental Humanities Mellon Lecture

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Jim Ottaway Jr. Film Center, 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm


Alexei GloukhovLunchtime Talk with Alexei Gloukhov

Arendt and the Question of Positive Freedom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm - 2:00 pm

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Andrew T. Dilts reflects on forgiveness, punishment, and vengeance with respect to George Zimmerman's slaying of Trayvon Martin in the Quote of the Week. C. G. Jung provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back at a talk Bard College President Leon Botstein gave on the state of American education at the Hannah Arendt Center's seventh annual fall conference. And we appreciate a small yet powerful personal library of Arendt's works in our Library feature.

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.
6Oct/140

Amor Mundi 10/5/14

Arendtamormundi

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-up
We Have Nothing To...

marilynne_robinsonIn a brilliant profile of Marilynne Robinson, whose new book Lila will be out this month, Wyatt Mason (a Senior Fellow at the Arendt Center) notes that Robinson thinks that fear dominates our contemporary condition; fear, she says, is the root of a cultural cynicism: "I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear." Robinson comes to speak about fear in answer to Mason's question: "What do you think people should be talking about more?" Her answer: "'One of the things that bothers me,' she began, with feeling, 'is that there are prohibitions of an unarticulated kind that are culturally felt that prevent people from actually saying what they think.' From there, she raised her well-documented relationship to faith; said that students at Iowa from faith-based backgrounds seek her out; sketched the inhibition these students nonetheless feel in describing the sacred ('If you're Jewish or Catholic, you can make all the jokes about your mother or the nun, but in terms of saying on one's deathbed, "What will it mean to me that this is how I would have described myself, how does the cosmos feel as it nestles in my particular breast?" they are completely inarticulate about that'); addressed that inhibition and suggested its root ('It's as if when you describe something good, you are being deceived or are being deceptive'); offered Flannery O'Connor as an example of a religious writer who fails to describe goodness ('Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me'); evoked the nature of O'Connor's failure ('There's a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart'); complained about the widespread ignorance of religion in American life; told the story of Oseola McCarty, a laundress who bequeathed most of her life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi ('[An] interviewer was talking about how McCarty took down this Bible and First Corinthians fell out of it, it had been so read. And you think, Here is this woman that, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, that by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians!'); suggested that McCarty's understanding of First Corinthians - in which Paul lays out the kind of communitarian behaviors upon which Christian decency might depend - reveals what it means to read a text well ('It makes you think that comprehension has an ethical content'); jumped to some reading she has been doing that has an explicit ethical content - essays by John Wycliffe, who played a crucial role in the first English translations of the Bible ('Wycliffe says that if you do not object strenuously to a superior's bad behavior, you are as bad, as guilty as he is of what happens'); and rehearsed the radical activist tradition of translating the Bible, how rendering it into English was a courageous act, a risky resistance of royal authority. ... And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should 'do something.' In her case, that 'something' has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is 'testimony,' a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves."

Same Spot, Different Day

hereSteven Heller considers cartoonist Richard McGuire's newly updated project Here, a comic set in one room over the course of many centuries: "Here is, furthermore, a meditation on 'impermanence,' which is what makes it emotionally compelling yet unsettling-as though every moment in time is preserved in some random playback mode. Structurally, everything and everyone has what McGuire calls a 'walk-on part' as the mysterious scenes go flowing by. 'If you stop to think about this, the "now" becomes heightened,' he says. 'We are so rarely "in the moment," we spend most of our time thinking of the past or worrying about the future. The "now" is the only thing that really exists. The book starts with the question, "Why did I come in here again?" Which is what I was asking myself when I started this project. It took me a long time to figure out how exactly to make this book. The book ends with a moment of recognition of the "now." The person finds the book they are looking for. Which is also my answer, I came back to this idea to make it into a book.'"

Why Acadamese?

academic_writingSteven Pinker suggests that, although there are lots of reasons why academics write so poorly, most it is because they are not encouraged to write well: "Fog comes easily to writers; it's the clarity that requires practice. The naïve realism and breezy conversation in classic style are deceptive, an artifice constructed through effort and skill. Exorcising the curse of knowledge is no easier. It requires more than just honing one's empathy for the generic reader. Since our powers of telepathy are limited, it also requires showing a draft to a sample of real readers and seeing if they can follow it, together with showing it to yourself after enough time has passed that it's no longer familiar and putting it through another draft (or two or three or four). And there is the toolbox of writerly tricks that have to be acquired one by one: a repertoire of handy idioms and tropes, the deft use of coherence connectors such as nonetheless and moreover, an ability to fix convoluted syntax and confusing garden paths, and much else. You don't have to swallow the rational-actor model of human behavior to see that professionals may not bother with this costly self-improvement if their profession doesn't reward it. And by and large, academe does not. Few graduate programs teach writing. Few academic journals stipulate clarity among their criteria for acceptance, and few reviewers and editors enforce it. While no academic would confess to shoddy methodology or slapdash reading, many are blasé about their incompetence at writing. Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other's time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock."

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Weaponising Religion

samsonWriting about former nun Karen Armstrong's new book Fields of Blood: Religion of History and Violence, Ferdinand Mound troubles the commonly understood relationship between the two: "Armstrong argues persuasively that it is under the cumulative pressure of invasion by outsiders and internal oppression that secular grievance morphs into jihad. To use an apt but unlovely term, invented I think by Dr. Henry Kissinger, religion is 'weaponised' - how Dr. Strangelove would adore the word. After years of Israeli blockade and creeping land grabs, Yasser Arafat's entirely secular Palestine Liberation Organisation has segued into the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. Israel herself, founded as a secular haven in the teeth of the rabbis, has become a holy land after half a century of Arab encirclement. Now young men all over the Middle East, many of them originally secular and ignorant of Islam, as were the majority of the 9/11 bombers, are being hyped up by selective quotation of holy writ to commit crimes as unspeakable as, well, Samson's. Religion makes its comeback into politics in this hideous perverted form for much the same reason as it emerged in the first place - as an anguished reaction against a heartless world. Westerners lament that Islam never had a Reformation. Muslims may retort that if we had not trampled all over them, they wouldn't have needed one."

Arendt's Kantianism

eichmannSeyla Benhabib has an excellent account of the poverty of those American critics who take to the media to denounce Hannah Arendt every time a new opportunity emerges. In doing so, she provides an excellent account of Arendt's use of Kant in her understanding of Adolf Eichmann: "Commenting on Eichmann's claim that he was 'neither a murderer nor a mass murderer,' Stangneth writes that his 'inner morality is not an idea of justice, a universal moral category, or even a kind of introspection.... Eichmann was not demanding a common human law, which could also apply to him, because he, too, was human. He was actually demanding recognition for a National Socialist dogma, according to which each people (Volk) has a right to defend itself by any means necessary, the German people most of all.' Stangneth explains that for Eichmann 'Conscience was simply the "morality of the Fatherland that dwells within" a person, which Eichmann also termed "the voice of the blood."' This recalls the famous exchange during Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem between Judge Yitzhak Raveh and the defendant about Kant's moral philosophy, which Arendt cites in 'Eichmann in Jerusalem.' She quotes Eichmann saying, 'I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws.' But Arendt notes that Eichmann's meaning perverts Kant's Categorical Imperative: Whereas 'In Kant's philosophy the source, that source was practical reason, in Eichmann's household use of him, it was the will of the Führer.' So when Arendt uses the phrase 'the inability to think' to characterize Eichmann's reduction of conscience to a 'voice of blood' and of the categorical imperative to the command of the Führer, she is taking as given the Kantian terminology, in which 'to think' means to think for oneself and to think consistently, but also from the standpoint of everyone else. The Categorical Imperative in one of its formulations says, 'Act in such a way that the principle of your actions can be a universal law for all.' Eichmann neither thought for himself nor from a universal standpoint in any Kantian sense, and Arendt returned to the relationship between thinking and moral action in several of her essays after 'Eichmann in Jerusalem.'"

 The Secular Diamond

baseball_diamondIn an interview at the end of the regular season, baseball fan George Will takes on the idea that baseball is somehow religious: "Part of the beauty of baseball, and sport generally, is that it doesn't mean a damn thing. It's valued for itself. Now, it can be the pursuit of excellence. It is competition tamed and made civil by rules. It is aggression channeled in a wholesome direction. These are all virtues. They tiptoe up to the point and stop well short of giving baseball meaning. It's a game. It's a very pretty, demanding, and dangerous game. I do think that baseball satisfies a longing in people, particularly urban people. There is a vestigial tribal impulse in all of us. For instance, when you get on the L and the cars begin to fill up with people wearing their Cub blue and you're all going to the same place for the same reason, for about three hours a little community exists. It disperses after three hours, but it will come back tomorrow. Daniel Patrick Moynihan talked about what he called the 'liberal expectancy.' He said that with the coming of modernity the two drivers of history, religion and ethnicity, would lose their saliency. Sport caters to this and entertains this desire for group identification. But there's nothing transcendent about baseball."

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Featured Events

milgramHuman Rights Course, Studies in Obedience, hosts Dr. David Mantell

As a Fellow at Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, Mr. Mantell replicated the Milgram experiment.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm


congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved: "Individualism is an American value worth fighting for."

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


conference_14THIS WEEK - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this week on Thursday and Friday, October 9-10!

Registration closes Monday, 10/6! You can register here before it's too late!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.

Just in case you are unable to make it to our conference, you can watch a live webcast of all the lectures and panel discussions here.


dorst_ehlerReading: Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler

Two of Germany's most distinguished contemporary playwrights read from Discovery of America and other works.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Olin Room 102, 7:30 pm


One Day University Film School Presents: "Robot and Frank" and a Discussion with Roger Berkowitz

Robot and Frank explores the depths of friendship and even love between a robot and a man. Though the film is a comedy, the underlying questions it raises are both timely and serious. What is friendship? Can a machine love? More importantly, what happens when humans fall in love with machines?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, 2:00 pm - 5:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Kazue Koishikawa discusses Arendt's conception of the self and how our thoughts, our bodies, our speech, and our love shape our existence as communal beings in the Quote of the Week. Portuguese poet and philosopher Fernando Pessoa provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back to a 2012 lecture delivered by Michael McCarthy analyzing Arendt's critique of "the world alienation of modernity" in our Video Archives. In our Library feature, we appreciate Arendt's collection of Lichtenberg's works. And Roger Berkowitz reflects on the decline of and how we might reinvigorate America's exceptionalism in the Weekend Read.

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.
16Jun/141

Amor Mundi 6/15/14

Amor Mundi

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

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

Unconstitutional Schools

1Dana Goldstein in The Atlantic partly agrees with the California superior-court judge who ruled this week that the state's teacher tenure system is a mess and discriminates against the state's poorest students. But Goldstein argues that simply abolishing tenure is not the answer. The problem is that good teachers simply don't want to teach in decrepit, disorganized, and discontented schools. "The lesson here is that California's tenure policies may be insensible, but they aren't the only, or even the primary, driver of the teacher-quality gap between the state's middle-class and low-income schools. The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country's most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from plain old racism and classism to the higher principal turnover that turns poor schools into chaotic workplaces that mature teachers avoid. The schools with the most poverty are also more likely to focus on standardized test prep, which teachers dislike. Plus, teachers tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods and may not want a long commute. Educational equality is about more than teacher-seniority rules: It is about making the schools that serve poor children more attractive places for the smartest, most ambitious people to spend their careers." Read more in this week's Weekend Read.

Drones and Humanity

1In the Carnegie Journal of Ethics and International Affairs, Roger Berkowitz argues that the increasing reliance on drones is threatening our humanity-but not as usually thought. In "Drones and the Question of 'The Human,'" Berkowitz argues it is a mistake "to use the term 'drone' to refer only to these much publicized military devices. Drones, more precisely understood, are intelligent machines that-possessed of the capacity to perform repetitive tasks with efficiency, reliability, and mechanical rationality-increasingly displace the need for human thinking and doing.... The trend Jünger and Turkle worry about is unmistakable: we are at risk of losing the rich and mature relationships that mark us as human. The rise of social robots, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other one-dimensional machines that act like humans-without the perceived human weaknesses of distraction, emotion, exhaustion, quirkiness, risk, and unreliability-answers a profound human desire to replace human judgment with the more reliable, more efficient, and more rational judgment of machines. For all the superficial paeans to human instinct and intuition, human beings, in practice, repeatedly prefer drone-like reliability to the uncertain spontaneity of human intuition. In other words, we confront a future in which 'human' is a derogatory adjective signifying inefficiency, incompetence, and backwardness."

Take This Job and Shove It

509Karl Marx imagined that in a socialist utopia, everyone would work less and have more time to study or pursue hobbies. But contrary to Marx's prophecy-and also the prediction of John Maynard Keynes, who argued in the 1930s that improving productivity would result in significantly more leisure time for workers-increases in productivity have coincided with longer workdays. In an ever-wealthier society with more disposable income, the idea of leisure time is becoming culturally devalued. In an interview with Thomas Frank, David Graeber observes that this development has happened in part because of the creation of "bullshit jobs," which he describes as "the kind of jobs that even those who work them feel do not really need to exist," and work coming to be seen as a virtue in itself-and all the more virtuous if the job in question offers little intrinsic gratification: "Suddenly it became possible to see that if there's a rule, it's that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you're paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people's lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded. But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, 'well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work,' by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite-that they didn't get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there's now an assumption that if there's work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn't have to pay for it. He gave the example of translation work. But it extends to the logic of internships and the like so thoroughly exposed by authors like Sarah Kendzior and Astra Taylor. At the same time, these companies are willing to shell out huge amounts of money to paper-pushers coming up with strategic vision statements who they know perfectly well are doing absolutely nothing."

Min Kamp

1Evan Hughes considers Karl Ove Knausgaard's suggestive titling of his six book autobiographical opus My Struggle, rendered in its original Norwegian as Min Kamp. Noting that the title was proposed by a friend, and suggesting that it is in some way a response to Knausgaard's childhood spent near the home of famous Norwegian author and Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun, Hughes also considers the way that Knausgaard's distinguishes himself, "sometimes speak[ing] in interviews and public appearances of an irony inherent in the name of the book; where Hitler is all ideology and rigid perfection in Mein Kampf, Knausgaard's struggle as a middle-class dad is quotidian, messy, faintly ridiculous. But his book is not all that ironic or clever. In fact, its directness and sincerity-to the point of frequent, unembarrassed cliché-contributes to the almost shocking immediacy of the voice. My Struggle makes no apologies. Knausgaard does not protect himself from the charge of narcissism by turning to self-deprecation or rationalization or literary tricks. Go ahead and say it's nothing much, he seems to say, but this is my struggle. For me, it counts."

The War Over "Good"

1Evgenia Peretz considers the recent blowup in literary criticism over the quality of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch deserves its popularity. Noting that these questions are malleable, she provides an example: "The questions are as old as fiction itself. The history of literature is filled with books now considered masterpieces that were thought hackwork in their time. Take Dickens, the greatest novelist of the Victorian period, whose mantle writers from John Irving to Tom Wolfe to Tartt have sought to inherit. Henry James called Dickens the greatest of superficial novelists ... 'We are aware that this definition confines him to an inferior rank in the department of letters which he adorns; but we accept this consequence of our proposition. It were, in our opinion, an offence against humanity to place Mr. Dickens among the greatest novelists.... He has added nothing to our understanding of human character.'"

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses the dual nature of thinking as a human activity in the Quote of the Week. Swiss philosopher and poet Henri-Frédéric Amiel provides this week's Thought on Thinking. And Roger Berkowitz discusses the value of tenure as both a luxury and evil in the Weekend Read.

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.
14Jun/141

Who Does Tenure Help?

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A judge in California has ruled that the state’s method of granting tenure to teachers is unconstitutional under California’s guarantee of equal protection. At the heart of the ruling is a finding that between one and three percent of teachers in California are “grossly ineffective.” That amounts to between 3,000 and 9,000 thousand teachers, most of whom are gathered together in many of the poorest and worst school districts in the state. Evidence shows that one year of instruction by a “grossly ineffective” teacher can significantly retard a child’s progress. Multiple years of such teaching is dangerous and patently unfair. Because these teachers cannot be fired and because they end up teaching the poorest Californians, the judge found that tenure “impose[s] a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”

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".
30May/140

The True American

ArendtWeekendReading

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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".
10May/140

Equality and Singularity

ArendtWeekendReading

Thomas Piketty is not the only Frenchman making waves with a new book about inequality. The Society of Equals by Pierre Rosanvallon was just published in a translation by Arthur Goldhammer with Harvard University Press (the same press that published Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century). As does Piketty, Rosanvallon employs philosophy and history to characterize the return of inequality in the late 20th and now 21st centuries. But Rosanvallon, unlike Piketty, argues that we need to understand how inequality and equality now are different than they used to be. As a result, Rosanvallon is much more sanguine about economic inequality and optimistic about the possibilities for meaningful equality in the future.

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Paul Star of Princeton and The American Prospect reviews The Society of Equals in the New York Review of Books. Rosanvallon begins, Star writes, by noting that the return of massive inequality in European and American societies has not been met with real anger or revolutionary unrest. There is, instead, “passive consent to inequality,” and, as Rosanvallon writes, “‘a generalized sense that inequalities have grown ‘too large’ or even become ‘scandalous.’” And yet, that sense “‘coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.’” Economic inequality for Rosanvallon is rampant and important, but the widening income gap in and of itself is no longer seen as unjust. As Star writes:

The crisis of equality therefore involves more than widening economic disparities: “It reflects the collapse of a whole set of old ideas of justice and injustice” and “must be grasped as a total social fact.”

In other words, Rosanvallon wants to enlarge and transform what we mean when we speak about inequality. He seeks to “provide a comprehensive understanding that would help overcome the general sense of resignation and revive equality as a moral ideal and political project.”

Specifically, Rosanvallon wants to move the discussion of inequality away from an exclusive focus on income and towards an equality of individual self-flourishing, what he will call an “equality for a new ‘age of singularity’ when ‘everyone wants to ‘be someone.’” Here is how Star summarizes Rosanvallon’s approach to equality:

The story that Rosanvallon tells here is that as new forms of knowledge and economic relations have emerged, people have come to think of their situation in less collective ways. Since the 1980s, he writes, capitalism has put “a new emphasis on the creative abilities of individuals,” and jobs increasingly demand that workers invest their personalities in their work. No longer assured of being able to stay at one company, employees have to develop their distinctive qualities—their “brand”—so as to be able to move nimbly from one position to another.

As a result of both cognitive and social change, “everyone implicitly claims the right to be considered a star, an expert, or an artist, that is, to see his or her ideas and judgments taken into account and recognized as valuable.” The demand to be treated as singular does not come just from celebrities. On Facebook and many other online sites millions are saying: here are my opinions, my music, my photos. The yearning for distinction has become democratized. Yet amid this explosion of individuality, equality loses none of its importance: “The most intolerable form of inequality,” Rosanvallon writes, “is still not to be treated as a human being, to be rejected as worthless.”

The kind of inequality that Rosanvallon is concerned with—the kind that makes one feel rejected and worthless—is neither economic nor political, but a matter of social status.

social inequality

There is good reason for such a focus, but one that has little to do with the purported Marxist revival that Piketty’s book is supposed to herald. The strange thing about the incessant talk about inequality today is that rarely does one encounter genuine concern regarding the plight of the poor. The inequality debate has little to do with poverty or the impoverished and everything to do with the increasing gap separating the super-rich from the merely rich and the middle class. For Rosanvallon, we need to simply accept that economic inequality is part of our reality; what is more, he suggests that most of us have accepted that reality. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the ideal of equality. Instead, we must re-imagine equality for the modern age.

Rosanvallon wants to renew the egalitarian tradition in line with the changed circumstances of our time. “We live today in an individualist age and must reformulate things accordingly,” he writes in his new book. Does he solve the contemporary puzzles about inequality? I don’t think so. But he analyzes them in so illuminating a way that anyone interested in understanding and reversing the surge in inequality should read his work.

Reading Star’s account of Rosanvallon recalls John Adams’ claim that the true evils of poverty are less economic than invisibility:

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed…. He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market… he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen… To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. If Crusoe on his island had the library of Alexandria, and a certainty that he should never again see the face of man, would he ever open a volume?

For Hannah Arendt, from whom I take this quotation of Adams, these words express “the feeling of injustice” and “the conviction that darkness rather than want is the curse of poverty.” For Arendt, as for Adams, the “political predicament of the poor” could only be seen because of the relative “absence of misery” prevailing in revolutionary America.

Of course there was misery and poverty in revolutionary America, some amongst whites but clearly amongst black slaves. But as Arendt writes, even as the founding fathers “were aware of the primordial crime upon which the fabric of American society rested, if they ‘trembled when [they] thought that God is just’ (Jefferson), they did so because they were convinced of the incompatibility of the institution of slavery with the foundation of freedom, not because they were moved by pity or by a feeling of solidarity with their fellow men.” She concludes from this that “the institution of slavery carries an obscurity even blacker than the obscurity of poverty; the slave, not the poor man, was ‘wholly overlooked.’” It was this blindness to misery that allowed the founders of America to imagine the true evils of inequality to rest not in deprivation but in invisibility. And it was upon this blindness that the American Revolution imagined a kind of political equality in which the freedom to appear in public could flourish.

AR Equality

What Rosanvallon sees is that the fact of extreme inequality today carries the threat not of misery but of irrelevancy. But such an analysis of inequality has very nearly obscured the question of poverty; it focuses, instead, on the feelings of disempowerment and resentment of the upper and lower middle classes. It is for these classes that Rosenvallon’s new ideal of equality will appeal—the right to equally appear as a singular individual. Here is how Star understands the new ideal of equality as singularity:

The idea of framing equality around the principle of singularity is provocative and appealing. Of course, even in the age of YouTube and Twitter, no society could possibly satisfy the desire of everyone to be a star, but in Rosanvallon’s conception singularity is a basis of human connection: “The difference that defines singularity binds a person to others; it does not set him apart. It arouses in others curiosity, interest, and a desire to understand.” Singularity demands recognition and acceptance:

‘Each individual seeks to stand out by virtue of the unique qualities that he or she alone possesses. The existence of diversity then becomes the standard of equality.’

Star raises serious questions about the way Rosanvallon depoliticizes economic inequality as he refocuses the idea of equality around the equal right to stand out and exist in public. But Star also recognizes that there is something true in Rosanvallon’s account, something that all the attention given to his countryman Piketty continues to overlook: That inequality absent misery may not be the real problem of political justice. The reason so much inequality is greeted with resentment but acceptance, is that our current imagination of justice concerns visibility and singularity more than it does equality of income. Of course, both these points depend upon our leaving the truly miserable and poor outside of the debate on inequality. So far, that has proven a fairly reliable assumption.

Star’s review is well worth being 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".
26Apr/140

Race, Democracy, and the Constitution

ArendtWeekendReading

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
3Feb/146

Totalitarianism and the Sand Storm

Arendtquote

“If this practice [of totalitarianism] is compared with […] [the desert] of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth.
The conditions under which we exist today in the field of politics are indeed threatened by these devastating sand storms.”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

In the concluding chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarianism must be understood as a new “form of government” in its own right, rather than as a transitory or haphazard series of external catastrophes afflicting classical forms like democracy or monarchy.  Essentially different from the extralegal form of tyranny as well, totalitarianism’s emergence marks a terrifying new horizon for human political experience, one that will surely survive the passing of Hitler and Stalin.  Arendt’s point is that the totalitarian form is still with us because the all too protean origins of totalitarianism are still with us: loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare.

sand

The sand storm is Arendt’s metaphor for this volatile and shifting space that throws together the totalitarian form, the enduring civilizational crises that produced it, and the public realms that are precariously pitched against it.  The ambiguities and subtleties of Arendt’s striking metaphor are worth pausing over.  Her image of the sand storm can tell us a lot about the nature and environs of the totalitarian form - and the kinds of politics that might withstand it.

Arendt’s judgments about totalitarianism in the book’s conclusion are carefully measured and quietly demur from the Cold War bombast with which she is now so often associated.  Although Arendt argues that totalitarianism will most certainly recur after Hitler and Stalin, she insists that this new form is too self-destructive to last for very long in any given time and place. Totalitarianism’s suicidal rage for conquest and violence renders it unable to secure anything like a permanent world order.  (She notes in the second edition’s 1966 preface that it has undoubtedly thawed into tyranny in the Soviet Union.)  Critics and admirers of Arendt’s theory alike often overlook both the fast burn of totalitarianism’s death-drive and the wider geopolitical amorphousness that ignites it.  Totalitarianisms emerge for a time, then disappear suddenly, only to have some of their elements migrate, shape-shift, and re-emerge elsewhere, accomplishing fantastical destruction in the course of their coming-to-be and passing-away.  There is, then, paradoxically, a kind of fluidity, turbulence, and even formlessness that attends this new political form, which is partly what Arendt’s sand storm metaphor tries to convey.

What in the world could cause the desert of tyranny to be thrown into the air and perambulate the earth?  One might guess that the cause is something like absolute lawlessness.  And, indeed, the extraordinary criminality of totalitarianism makes it tempting to think of it as a mere modern tyranny, but Arendt’s desert-in-motion metaphor argues against this commonplace.  She likens tyranny to a desert because it is a political space that is evacuated of laws, institutions, and traditions.  What remains under tyranny, however, is the open space of plurality, where human beings can still confront one another within a cohering field of action and power.  Totalitarianism radically eliminates the space of plurality through the mobilizations of mass terror, collapsing the spaces between us that make us human.  Such mobilizations are not simply lawless.  Although contemptuous of positive law, totalitarianism is lawfully obedient to its own images of Nature and History.  More than this, the totalitarian form seeks to embody the laws of Nature and History.  Because it imagines that these laws can be directly enacted by politics, the totalitarian movement tries vainly to form their more-than-human movements.  Ideology helps to put the desert into motion too, but again not mainly through the lawlessness of unreason.  Rather, Arendt argues that totalitarian ideology is distinguished by its logical lawfulness.  Totalitarian logicality at once divorces thought from worldly common sense and attaches it to arbitrary and fleeting first principles.  The resulting conclusions are half-believed, inchoate certitudes that cling feverishly to a tight deductive form.  Thanks to this a priori sandblasting of common sense, the desert of tyranny is no longer a setting for the creative solace of solitude, exile, or contemplation.  It can only become the whirlwind of ideological reason in concert with the supra-human laws of everyday terror.

The most important force that throws the desert into motion is loneliness, which Arendt distinguishes from isolation.  Isolation, the old game of divide and conquer, belongs to the desert of tyranny.  Isolated women and men lack an organized public realm in which to create freedom with others. Yet they nonetheless retain a private realm that roots them in the world through home, family, work, and labor.  To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one’s place in the world completely.  The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of “uprootedness” and “superfluousness” that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism.  Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway.  Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone.  The genius of mass terror is that it is able to sustain precisely this kind of loneliness among many millions of people together simultaneously.  This is in part, Arendt argues, because totalitarian ideology seems to promise an escape from loneliness, that is, to offer form to what was before felt as superfluous and uprooted.  It is also because there is something in the psychology of loneliness that makes it singularly susceptible to the ideological calculus of despair and fatalism, to “deducing […] always the worst possible conclusions,” as Arendt puts it.

origins

Arendt herself does not pursue the worst possible conclusions in the final chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism.  She does, however, entertain the dark possibility that the “true predicaments” of our times have yet “to assume their authentic form,” a form that she does not expect to be totalitarian.  Given her sand storm metaphor, this remark might be understood as a double warning about the emergence of still newer political forms and the persistent dangers of political formlessness.  While it may be difficult to imagine worse forms than totalitarianism, Arendt’s story is also about the generative origins of totalitarianism.  She concludes her book by arguing that these origins are still very much in the wind.  The protean creativity of these airborne elements makes political life a much more precarious and circumscribed affair than it might otherwise appear, especially in the wake of Nazi defeat and Stalinism’s thaw.  That said, there exist other protean forces that are more congenial to the power of the public realm.  Against the sand storm, Arendt wagers on the formless forces of natality, the new beginnings that attend every human being for the sheer fact of having been born into the world as a distinct someone, different from all who have lived or will live.  The stubborn facts of natality do not yield reliably to loneliness or ideology or terror precisely because of their radical novelty, their inevitable disruptions of whatever preceded them, but also because of their inherent worldliness.  Natality’s stubborn facts will always push - sometimes weakly, sometimes irresistibly - toward plurality, action, power, and the public realm.  It is for this reason, if for no other, that totalitarianism’s origins will never be the only origins given to us.

-Bill Dixon

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/130

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.

alive

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.
8Apr/130

“The Kings of Roma”

FromtheArendtCenter

The New York Times recently ran an article about a Roma/Gypsy community from my country, Romania. I am Roma, and currently a visiting scholar at the Hannah Arendt Center studying Hannah Arendt’s understanding of Jewish identity and its relevance for making sense of the Roma experience. In this context, the NY Times story is surprising. It is not the typical story of Roma/Gypsies who are subject to expulsion, human rights violations, migration and poverty. On the contrary, it covers wealthy Roma who live in houses that look like palaces. No wonder the NYT entitled the article “The Kings of Roma.” I once visited such a house in this community, and I looked at it then the way I look at the photos in the article now: with awe and fascination. And that $ sign at the end of the stairways? Boy, it takes a lot of courage (and desire to show off wealth) to place it right in the heart of one’s mansion. If the law of attraction really works, they will continue to “attract” more and more $$$.

Karla Gaschet & Ivan Kashinsky for The New York Times.

Karla Gaschet & Ivan Kashinsky for The New York Times.

I didn’t grow up in such a mansion, but neither did I lack housing, as many Roma still do. Rather, I lived in an average sized Romanian house. My family strived to be part of society and valued education. When I was as teenager, my parents didn’t debate whom I should marry, but rather how to afford private tutoring so I could better prepare for college admission. We Roma (as is the case with many other ethnic groups), although we share the same ethnicity, don’t necessarily share a sense of identity, values or traditions., as we ourselves learned from the very different lifestyles among Roma, even within the same region.

The NY Times article presents a different story about Roma than the usual “poverty - discrimination - petty criminality - expulsion” cycle; I like that. I welcome the possibility for a new, more nuanced narrative on Roma issues in the international media. I also cannot help but see the artistic value of the photos that accompany the piece —they remind me of Kusturica’s masterpiece “Time of the Gypsies,” or the poetic image of the Russian movie, “The Queen of the Gypsies.” But perhaps most important of all, I like it because it presents Roma who, in their peculiar and entrepreneurial way, managed to “rise above.”

Hannah Arendt addresses the "rising above" phenomenon in her book Rahel Varnhagen, referring to Jewish individuals: "They [the Jews] understood only one thing: that the past clung inexorably to them as a collective 'group; that they could only shake it off as individuals. The tricks employed by individuals became subtler, individual ways out more numerous, as the personal problem grew more intense; the Jews become psychologically more sophisticated and socially more ingenious."

Whether Jewish, Roma or members of other marginalized groups, such people are forced by the difficulty of their situation to “become psychologically more sophisticated and socially more ingenious.” One Roma man said in the NYT story that after Communism fell “one has to be dumb not to make money?” Some Roma have striven to rise above by accumulating wealth (as the subjects of this article); others by achieving social status and/or accessing a high-class education (such as yours truly). But, while having different approaches, they all enact the same phenomenon: today more and more Roma strive to develop and struggle to overcome their poor and stigmatized condition.

-Cristiana Grigore

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.
24Feb/130

Amor Mundi 2/24/13

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

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

Addicted to Corruption

Clocking in as the longest article ever in Time (h/t Dylan Byers), Steven Brill’s cover story is the single-best account of the insanity and corruption of our current medical system. Why do we accept the skyrocketing costs of medical care? “Those who work in the health care industry and those who argue over health care policy seem inured to the shock.” Brill shows us why the bills are really way too high. Hint: it is not because the care is so good. There are so many excess costs in the system, that reforming it should be easy, if it weren’t so corrupt.

 

Can I Give you $1.8 Million?

David Goldhill wants to give all working Americans $1,800,000, the amount he calculates a 23 year-old beginning work today at $35,000/year will pay, directly or indirectly, in health care insurance benefits. Goldhill argues that our health care system wastes most of that money because people have no incentive to attend to costs. He suggests a dual system. Give every American health insurance for truly rare and unpredictable illnesses. But for regular costs and smaller emergencies, he would refund workers the money they are losing and let them pay for healthcare themselves.

 

Speak, Memory

Oliver Sacks walks through his past and, with the help of his brother, discovers that a memory he had believed his own had actually been that of another. Starting from there, he gives a short account of the weakness of individual remembering, which allows us to take in something we've heard or seen and make it our own. He concludes, finally, that "memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds."

 

 

The Subtlety of the Dole for the Rich

Michael Lewis writes of the rise of an unapologetic business class in the 1990s and early 2000’s, that they enjoyed the “upside to big risk-taking, the costs of which would be socialized, if they ever went wrong. For a long time they looked simply like fair compensation for being clever and working hard. But that’s not what they really were; and the net effect was… to get rid of the dole for the poor and replace it with a far more generous, and far more subtle, dole for the rich.”

 

The Faces of Terror

Five women. “Two are wives and daughters in ordinary families unable to comprehend why such misfortune has overtaken them. A third is a young bride living in the household of a high party official. The last two are wives of the Master’s executioners. These stories are based on their memoirs—some written by themselves, others by close friends or by their children. These five women put a human face on the terror of Stalin’s purges and the Gulag in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.”

 

Failed Ambitions

“Debt doesn’t look like much. It has no shape or smell. But, over time, it leaves a mark. In Spain, it manifested itself, first, as empty buildings, stillborn projects, and idled machines.” So writes Nick Paumgarten. To see how debt looks and smells, look at Simon Norfolk's surreal photographs of Residencial Francisco Hernando, an unfinished development near Seseña, Spain. Working his way through a half-finished city with few people in it, Norfolk's photography suggests that even beginning construction was an act of hubris; "everyone," he says, "wanted to get rich doing nothing."

 

Obama's Slugging Percentage?

The Arendt Center’s 2012 conference “Does the President Matter?” asked whether political leadership is still possible today. Guatam Mukunda believes that we can measure the value of a particular leader based on their behavior at the margins—what did that person accomplish over and above what another would have been able to do? In the accompanying video, Mukunda argues that leaders can only be great or terrible when the people selected for such roles are relatively unknown to those making the selection. In an age of information, the chances are slim.

 

This week on the blog

This week on the blog, we argued that American reformers should shift their efforts at reforming education towards high school and pointed towards Richard Kahlenberg's recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, adding that "poverty, more than race or gender, is increasingly the true mark of disadvantage in 21st century America." We also continued the inquiry into the growing threat that entitlements pose to the next generation, highlighting Geoffrey Canada and Peter Druckenmiller's argument that entitlements are a generational theft that must be arrested. Elsewhere, Na'ama Rokem quotes from Arendt's only Yiddish-language article to explore the philosopher's language politics and her Jewish identity. Jeff Champlin looked at some similarities between Habermas and Arendt in their understandings of power. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz argues that we need to free federalism from its present partisanship and recall the important connection between federalism and freedom.  Finally, if you didn't get around to our remembrance of Ronald Dworkin, you should take some time and give it a read.

Until next week,

The Hannah Arendt Center

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.
15Feb/130

Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul

Stephanie A. Miner, the Mayor of Syracuse NY, has an important op-ed essay in The NY Times Thursday. Syracuse is one of hundreds of cities around the state and tens of thousands around the country that are struggling with the potentially disastrous effects of out-of-control pension costs. Where this crisis is heading can be seen in California, where San Bernadino has become the third California city to declare bankruptcy. These cities are dying. They are caught in a bind. Either they decide not to pay their promised debts to pensioners; or, in honoring those debts, they so fully raise taxes and cut services as to ruin the lives of their citizens.

In Syracuse, Mayor Miner understands well the depth of the problem. First, public employee labor costs are too high not because salaries are high, but because pension costs and medical benefits are rising without limit. Second, revenues are being slashed, both from the recession and from cutbacks from the state and federal governments. Finally, the middle and upper class flight from cities to suburbs have left the tax base in cities low at the moment when poorer city dwellers are disproportionately in need of public services.

The result is that cities are faced with a stark choice: Do they pay older citizens what has been promised to them? Or do they cut those promised pensions in order to provide services for the young? This is a generational conflict that is playing out across the country.

Miner is worried that the response by NY State is making the problem worse. In short, Governor Cuomo and the legislature have decided to let cities that cannot afford to fund their burgeoning pension obligations borrow money to pay those pensions. The kicker is, that the cities are being told to borrow money from the very same pension plan to which they owe money.

If this sounds suspicious, it is. As Danny Hakim—one of the best financial reporters around—wrote almost exactly one year ago in the NY Times, this is a desperate and dangerous move:

When New York State officials agreed to allow local governments to use an unusual borrowing plan to put off a portion of their pension obligations, fiscal watchdogs scoffed at the arrangement, calling it irresponsible and unwise.

And now, their fears are being realized: cities throughout the state, wealthy towns such as Southampton and East Hampton, counties like Nassau and Suffolk, and other public employers like the Westchester Medical Center and the New York Public Library are all managing their rising pension bills by borrowing from the very same $140 billion pension fund to which they owe money.

The state’s borrowing plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments over the long term. Public pension funds around the country assume a certain rate of return every year and, despite the market gains over the last few years, are still straining to make up for steep investment losses incurred in the 2008 financial crisis, requiring governments to contribute more to keep pension systems afloat.

Supporters argue that the borrowing plan makes it possible for governments in New York to “smooth” their annual pension contributions to get through this prolonged period of market volatility.

Critics say it is a budgetary sleight-of-hand that simply kicks pension costs down the road.

Borrowing from the state pension plan to pay municipal pension costs is simply failing to pay the pensions this year and thus having to pay more next year.

Hakim, as good as he is, allows Thomas P. DiNapoli—the state’s comptroller—to get away with calling the scheme “amortization.”

The state’s comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said in a statement, “While the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest performers in the country, costs have increased due to the Wall Street meltdown.” He added that “amortizing pension costs is an option for some local governments to manage cash flow and to budget for long-term pension costs in good and bad times.”

But how is this amortization? The assumption or hope is that the market will rise, the pension fund will go up, and then the municipalities will owe less.  That is hardly amortization. No, it is desperate speculation with public monies.

The crisis in our cities afflicts the whole country, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.

Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.

The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).

Mayor Miner, a Democrat, takes a huge risk in standing up to the Governor and the legislature. She is rightly insisting that they stop hiding from our national addiction to the crack-cocaine of unaffordable guaranteed lifetime pensions. Piling unpayable debts upon our cities will, in the end, bankrupt these cities. And it will continue the flight to the suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core of America. Above all, it will sacrifice our future in order to allow the baby boomers to retire in luxury. Let’s hope Miner’s call doesn’t go unheeded.

-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.
22Jan/131

Reflections on an Inaugural Address

I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.

The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.

In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:

 Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.  We affirm the promise of our democracy.  We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.  What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.

Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.

When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal.  This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?

And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements.  Well here is what he said:

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time.  So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.  But while the means will change, our purpose endures:  a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.  That is what this moment requires.  That is what will give real meaning to our creed.   We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.)  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”  Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?

More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.

Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.

That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.

The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.

The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.

-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.