Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.
-Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem
Recent commentators have marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove, by noting that the film contained quite a bit more reality than we had thought. While national security and military officials at the time scoffed at the film’s farfetched depictions of a nuclear holocaust set off by a crazed general, we now know that such an unthinkable event would have been, at least theoretically, entirely possible. Yet there is another, deeper sense in which Kubrick’s satire puts us in touch with a reality that could not be readily depicted through other means.
The film tells the story of a rogue general who, at the height of the Cold War arms race, launches a nuclear attack that cannot be recalled, which leads to the destruction of most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. These are events that we would conventionally describe as “tragic,” but the film is no tragedy. Why not? One answer, of course, is the comic, satirical touch with which Kubrick treated the material, his use of Peter Sellers to play three different characters, and his method of actually tricking his actors into playing their roles more ridiculously than they would have otherwise. But in a deeper sense, Stranglove is about the loss of a capacity for the tragic. The characters, absorbed in utter banalities as they hurtle toward collective catastrophe, display no real grasp of the moral reality of their actions, because they’ve lost contact with the moral reality of the world they share. Dr. Strangelove, then, is a satire about the impossibility of tragedy.
In order to think about what this might mean, it’s helpful to turn to the idea, famously invoked by Hannah Arendt at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the banality of evil. As Arendt stressed in a later essay, the banality of evil is not a theory or a doctrine “but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Eichmann was no villainous monster or demon; rather, he was “terrifyingly normal,” and his chief characteristic was “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” The inability to think has nothing to do with the capacity of strategizing, performing instrumental calculations, or “reckoning with consequences,” as Hobbes put it. Rather, thinking has to do with awakening the inner dialogue involved in all consciousness, the questioning of the self by the self, which Arendt says dissolves all certainties and examines anew all accepted dogmas and values.
According to Arendt, the socially recognized function of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct” is to “protect us against reality”; their function is to protect us against the claim that reality makes on our thinking. This claim, which awakens the dissolving powers of thought, can be so destabilizing that we all must inure ourselves to some degree against it, so that ordinary life can go on at all. What characterized Eichmann is that “he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Eichmann’s absorption in instrumental and strategic problem solving, on the one hand, and clichés and empty platitudes on the other, was total. The absence of thought, and with it the absence of judgment, ensured a total lack of contact with the moral reality of his actions. Hence the “banality” of his evil resides not in the enormity of the consequences of his actions, but in the depthless opacity of the perpetrator.
The characters in Dr. Strangelove are banal in precisely this sense. All of them—from the affable, hapless president, the red-blooded general, the vodka-swilling diplomat, the self-interested advisors and Dr. Strangelove himself—are silly cardboard cutouts, superficial stereotypes of characters that any lack depth, self-reflection or the capacity for communicating anything other than empty clichés. They are missing what Arendt called “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results…” They also lack any contact with the moral reality of their activity. All of their actions takes place in an increasingly claustrophobic series of confined spaces carefully sealed off by design: the war room, the military base, the bomber cockpit. The world—Arendt’s common world of appearances that constitutes the possibility of narrative and story telling—never appears at all; reality cannot break through.
The presence of some of Arendt’s core themes in Kubrick’s film should not come as a surprise. Although she dedicated very little attention in her published works to the problem of nuclear war, in an early draft of a text that would later become The Human Condition, Arendt claimed that two experiences of the 20th century, “totalitarianism and the atomic bomb – ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time. They are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world.” Moreover, the culmination of strategic statecraft in social scientific doctrines mandating the nuclear arms race reflects on some of the core themes Arendt identified with political modernity: the emergence of a conception of politics as a strategic use of violence for the purposes of protecting society.
Niccolò Machiavelli, a thinker for whom Arendt had a lot of admiration, helped inaugurate this modern adventure of strategic statecraft by reframing politics as l’arte della stato – the art of the state, which unlike the internal civic space of the republic, always finds itself intervening within an instrumental economy of violence. For Machiavelli the prince, shedding the persona of Ciceronian humanism, must be willing to become beastly, animal-like, to discover the virtues of the vir virtutis in the animal nature of the lion and the fox. If political modernity is inaugurated by Machiavelli’s image of the centaur, the Prince-becoming-beastly, Strangelove closes with a suitable 20th century corollary to the career of modern statecraft. It is the image of the amiable, good-natured “pilot” who never steers the machines he occupies but is himself steered by them, finally straddling and literally transforming himself into the Bomb. It is an image that, in our own age of remote drone warfare and the possible dawning of a new, not yet fully conceivable epoch of post-human violence, has not lost its power to provoke reflection.
‘This child, this in-between to which the lovers are now related and which they hold in common, is representative of the world in that it also separates them; it is an indication that they will insert a new world into the existing world.’
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
What can we know about Arendtian action? In The Human Condition, Arendt tells us, variously, that it belongs to the public sphere, “the space of appearance”, that it takes place between political equals, and that it is “ontologically rooted” in “the fact of natality”. “Natality”, here, is not the same as birth, though it relies on the fact of birth for its conceptual understanding. Natality is the distinctly human capacity to bring forth the new, the radical, the unprecedented: that which is unaccountable by any natural causality, but the fact that we must recourse to the patterns of the natural world in order to explain it is what interests me here.
When we try to fix a notion of Arendtian action, it becomes clear that speech has an important role to play, though the precise relationship between speech and action is a slippery one. Actions are defined in speech, becoming recognisable as actions only when they have been placed in narrative, that is: regarded with “the backward glance of the historian”. At the same time, most actions “are performed in the manner of speech”. Speech is rendered as the revelatory tool of action, but, further to this, both action and speech share a number of key characteristics so that it is impossible to fully disentangle the one from the other.
A moment of possible illumination arrives under the heading “Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive”. For Arendt, action has no end. It contains within it the potential to produce an endless chain of reactions that are both unforeseeable and irreversible. With such terrifying momentum attached to everything we do, forgiveness is our release from the consequences of what we have done, without which “our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to a single deed from which we could never recover”. In this context, forgiveness is always radical. It is the beginning of the possibility of the new: “… the act of forgiving can never be predicted, it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action”.
What’s more, forgiveness is personal, though not necessarily individual or private. It is, traditionally, connected to love, which Arendt describes as unworldly, indeed: “the most powerful of all anti-political human forces”. In the image of the lovers’ child, the child is used to represent the possibility of forgiveness, that is made representative of the world in its ability to join and divide.
Ultimately, it is not love that Arendt places in relation to forgiveness, it is a distant respect that can only occur “without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us”. Yet, in this moment in the text, Arendt leans upon an image of the unworldly in order to pull from it the particular activities of the world. It is the ability of action to emerge -- unforeseeable, unprecedented -- that Arendt performs here in language. It is the movement of the imagery that alerts us to the essential quality of action to appear, unexpected, as well as to the fragility of the political realm and its complex array of differences from and interconnections with the private. One need only examine the syntax to understand the dynamic of action that Arendt illustrates here: where a semi-colon would usually indicate two halves of a balanced equation, Arendt uses it as a springboard from which to make a tiger’s leap into the new.
There are a number of things to be gained from a close reading of the linguistic representation of the movement of action, not least in light of the fact that, in writing this book, Arendt is expressing a deep-seated fear that the faculty for action is about to slip away from us entirely. While much ink has been spilled over whether or not the categories and oppositions that arise in The Human Condition can be fully understood in any concrete way, on whether or not they hold, it may be that the apparent slippages in the text are, in fact, our most fruitful way in to understanding the particular dynamics and character of Arendtian action; an understanding that may then be put to some homeopathic use in our own work.
This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,” a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.
Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":
You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.
The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.
At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.
Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.
To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education.
The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.
The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.
Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.
Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.
What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!”
At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:
To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!
At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.
Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.
It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.
Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.
That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?
According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand. Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet. Build a personal website.”
None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.
What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.
Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.
We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.
One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.
I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,
The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.
I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.
One week ago this was the most important and yet the most boring election in history. No longer. Ryan's selection adds a jolt of seriousness and consequentialness to the next 90 days of electioneering. Or at least so we are told. Why?
Because Ryan has been, over the last year, one of the very few politicians in the United States who seems to really understand the magnitude of the crisis we are facing and who is willing to propose and support radical steps to address it. His proposed budget is draconian. It has some great ideas, including simplifying the tax code and getting rid of tax breaks like the Carried Interest provision. And yet, it is one-sided and highly partisan. Ryan calls for enormous cuts to the entitlements that will cause incredible suffering to the poor and middle classes, while providing large tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. If we are to suffer to repay our debts, as I think we must, we must all suffer together.
It is hard to imagine that Ryan's budget is what most Americans want or should want. And yet, Ryan's willingness to propose a deeply unpopular budget and argue eloquently and strongly for it is praiseworthy. At times, it seems as if Ryan is the only grown up in the room, the only politician who is willing to deal honestly with our predicaments.
The opinion that the election is now more meaningful and more serious is one that many share—on both the left and the right. On the right, Ryan's selection means that the election is a referendum on the crisis of big government. Glenn Reynolds writes in USA Today :
Romney's selection of Ryan shows that he understands the dire nature of the problem, and that he's serious about addressing it.
Paul Rahe argues that Romney's choice amounts to a clarion call for radical change:
In choosing Paul Ryan as his Vice-Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has opted to go for broke, and he has indicated that he is a serious man — less concerned with becoming President of the United States than with saving the country from the disaster in store for it if we not radically reverse course, willing to risk a loss for the sake of being able to win a mandate for reform.
And in the Wall St. Journal (which ran an Op-Ed calling upon Romney to select Ryan) Gerald Seib could hardly contain his excitement:
The Ryan pick wasn’t the safest one Mr. Romney could have made—not by a long shot. But as the author of the budget plan that most clearly delineates the view of limited government that most Republicans hold, and with more specificity and crystalline explanation than most can muster, Mr. Ryan best guarantees the country will get the kind of philosophical debate worthy of a presidential campaign.
On the left as well, there is a gleeful sense that Ryan's presence on the ticket will prove President Obama's claim that this is the most important election in ages. For Democrats, Ryan's extremism is a blessing, allowing them to paint Romney-Ryan as out-of-touch radicals who will undo a century of gains in middle class benefits while giving tax breaks to the very wealthiest Americans.
John Cassidy, at The New Yorker, writes that Ryan is a dream pick for Obama-Biden because it makes the election what Obama has said it is all along—a choice between Obama's moderation versus Romney and Ryan's radicalism:
In placing a lightning rod like Ryan on the ticket, Romney appears to have decided that the best form of defense is attack. For months, he and his campaign have been trying to turn the election exclusively into a referendum on Obama’s record. That strategy has now been abandoned. Ryan’s mere presence ensures that the election will be framed in the way that Team Obama has wanted all along: as a choice between the President’s moderate progressivism and the anti-government radicalism of today’s G.O.P.
John Nichols at The Nation agrees and argues that Ryan solidifies Romney's choice to run far to the right—so far as to be out of touch with the moderate electorate. This means, he writes, that team Obama can win big.
On every issue that you can imagine, from reproductive rights to environmental protection to labor rights, Ryan stands to the right. Way to the right. The Ryan selection moves the Grand Old Party harder to the right than at any time since 1964, when the true believers got a nominee, a platform and 39 percent of the vote. America’s more divided now. The Romney-Ryan ticket will run better than Goldwater and Bill Miller did forty-eight years ago, But by bending so far toward the base, Romney has given the Democrats an opportunity to dream not just of winning but of winning bigger than anyone dared imagine forty-eight weeks or even forty-eight days ago.
The new Ryan budget is a remarkable document — one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature. In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids. It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history). ... Even as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget would impose trillions of dollars in spending cuts, at least 62 percent of which would come from low-income programs, it would enact new tax cuts that would provide huge windfalls to households at the top of the income scale. New analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center finds that people earning more than $1 million a year would receive $265,000 apiece in new tax cuts, on average, on top of the $129,000 they would receive from the Ryan budget’s extension of President Bush’s tax cuts. The new tax cuts at the top would dwarf those for middle-income families. After-tax incomes would rise by 12.5 percent among millionaires, but just 1.8 percent for middle-income households. Low-income working families would actually be hit with tax increases.
For the left, Ryan moves Romney outside of the political mainstream and thus offers a stark contrast with the middle-of-the-road President. They agree with the right on the basic contrast. And yet each side believes the contrast works in their favor. This is because, of course, each side increasingly speaks only to itself and has so convinced itself that it is absolutely right that it cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with it.
A new received wisdom is emerging and the pundits on the left and right agree: Ryan's place in the election makes this a watershed election that will be a referendum on the future of the country. And even from a position outside partisan pugilism, Walter Russell Mead makes the point that the selection of Paul Ryan guarantees that this is an important election. In perhaps the most clear-headed and provocative essays on the Ryan selection I've read, Mead writes:
2012 looks like an election between two united parties who will both be enthusiastic and both be convinced that the fate of the nation hangs on the November result. That’s a good thing, on the whole, for the country. Whatever else can be said about our electoral politics, nobody can argue that they are inconsequential or that real issues have disappeared. This is a serious election about important affairs and the two sides will both be offering a coherent vision of American values that allows voters to make a clear choice.
There is something hopeful and true in this consensus that Ryan will up the seriousness of this race. I remain skeptical. Here is why.
We have to question the basic assumption that sharpening the question in the election will lead to a greater likelihood that the winning side will successfully carry out its agenda. This seems unlikely for the simple reason that the stark question being posed is furthering the partisan split in the country rather than seeking a middle ground. Rather than a sustained debate, we are just as likely to watch both sides dig themselves into ever-more-fortified trenches on opposing sides of the partisan front. What this means is the Ryan's selection is just as likely to increase the partisanship and vitriol in American politics as it is to elevate the tone of the election to being one about ideas and the future of the country. As the two sides become more polarized, the chances are diminished that either party will be able to actually make the kinds of radical changes that both think are necessary.
The reason for this is the basic institutional limitations that our constitutional system places on the power of the President. For all the talk in recent years about an "Imperial Presidency," the facts are largely otherwise. Outside of foreign policy, the president is largely constrained to make far-reaching policy changes. Large bureaucracies, a resilient and skeptical media, and now the fractured political world of competing ideological realities—each with their own newspapers, news shows, and blogs—means that it is increasingly difficult to imagine a President with the power to drive through a meaningful agenda.
Just consider, if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, they will be able to negotiate major concessions in or even block entirely any Republican efforts to roll back entitlements. And even if the Democrats lose the Senate, the power of the filibuster means that they will be able to block many of the more extreme Republican initiatives. The same dynamic goes the other way as we have seen. Republicans have been able to frustrate much of President Obama's domestic agenda, even when the President had large majorities in both houses of Congress. The demands for ideological purity on both sides rewards conviction politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, but it does not necessarily bode well for a serious and deliberative approach to our real political problems.
At the root of this difficulty is the fallacy of The Rhetorical Presidency. As Jeffrey Tulis argues, the most fundamental shift in American politics since the Founding has been the rise of a rhetorical presidency: The idea that the President should lead as a popular leader.
Tulis writes that from the Founders until the early 20th century, U.S. Presidents assiduously avoided trying to become popular leaders. As an institution, the Presidency was designed to resist the power of demagoguery and yet also to stand as a check on the power of Congress. The president himself engaged with Congress, but did not mobilize the people as a popular leader.
The role of the President changed with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson insisted that only a president could like a lightning rod call forth the will of the people "unconscious of its unity and purpose" and "call it into full consciousness." For Wilson, the President leads with simplicity. Wilson writes:
Mark the simplicity and directness of the arguments and ideas of [true leaders.] The motives which they urge are elemental; the morality which they seek to enforce is large and obvious; the policy they emphasize, purged of all subtlety.
If early American Presidents were forbidden to use direct appeals to the people, Wilson insists that modern 20th century presidents must do so. And as Tulis shows, Wilson's ideas underlie our modern idea of the president as a popular leader.
Tulis is not interested in defending or condemning the rhetorical presidency, but in exploring its possibilities and limitations. He makes an exceptional point that while 20th century presidents like Wilson and Lyndon Johnson regularly appeal to the people, "the same popular rhetoric that provided the clout for victory [e.g. in in Johnson's War on Poverty] substituted passionate appeal and argument by metaphor for deliberation." The rise of rhetorical presidency and the tools for popular leadership may at times be politically effective, but they clash with the institutional role of the President who must still work with Congress. The President's popular leadership translates poorly into legislative deliberation and thus often yields less of a change or less good change than was sought. One can see this exemplified in President Obama's attempt to mobilize his enormous popular mandate to reform healthcare.
While the modern rhetorical President can enlist the people to pressure the legislature, there are limits and consequences to these pressures. Congress can resist the power of the presidency, as the recent abuse of the filibuster shows. What is more, the increase in speeches and popular appeals constitutes, in Tulis' prophetic words,
a decay of political discourse. It replaces discussion structured by contestability of opinion inherent to issues with a competition to please or manipulate the public. ... The rhetorical presidency enhances the tendency to define issues in terms of the needs of persuasion rather than to develop a discourse suitable for the illumination and exploration of real issues—that is, problems that do not depend upon the certification of a public opinion poll to be recognized as needful of examination. It is increasingly the case that presidential speeches themselves have become the issues and events of modern politics rather than the medium through which issues and events are discussed and assessed. Subsequent speeches by presidents and other politicians often continue to elaborate the fictive world created in the initial address, making that world, unfortunately, a constitutive feature of "real" national politics.
What Tulis forces us to confront is the possibility that the very kind of rhetorical leadership that makes Barack Obama and Paul Ryan such compelling politicians leads to a transformation of politics in which passions and fictive worlds replace the sober discussion of policy. As appealing and promising as such rhetorical leadership appears, it too frequently spends its power on populist slogans that translate poorly into real legislative transformation.
There is a strange disconnect between the rise of a rhetorical presidency and the common sense of an increasingly cynical public that thinks the choice of president seems to move the needle very little. While the papers and blogs are filled with assurances that now the election is serious (a necessary belief to sell papers and drive traffic), the people don't always agree.
At a time of mediated and fragmented politics, the promise of bold political leadership is ever less likely. Given the apparent abdication of leadership throughout our politics, we must ask: Does the President Matter? This seems an absurd question as we confront what is imagined to be such a consequential election. And yet, as the country is about to elect a President, it is a pressing question.
Precisely because it is an open question whether the President can translate his popular appeal into political leadership, the Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is sponsoring its Fifth Annual Conference and asking: Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair. The conference features Jeffrey Tulis and Walter Russell Mead amongst other speakers, including Rick Falkvinge (founder of the Swedish Pirate Party), Ralph Nader and Bernard Kouchner (Founder of Doctors without Borders and Foreign Minister of France under Nicolas Sarkozy). Paul Ryan is undeniably serious and he is raising important questions about the future of the country. But there is a question of whether our political system in the 21st century is still capable of presidential leadership.
During a conference organized in her honor in Toronto, Hannah Arendt was asked by Hans Morgenthau, to categorize herself as such: “What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position in the contemporary possibilities?”
Arendt replied: “I don’t know and I’ve never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am conservative, and the conservatives think that I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think that the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.”
It is precisely in this spirit that one should read Jens Hanssen’s recent paper “Reading Hannah Arendt in the Middle East: Preliminary Observations on Totalitarianism, Revolution and Dissent”.
Hanssen offers in his paper a rather detailed survey of how Arendt has been read – and misread – by the Middle East, beginning with Kanan Makiya’s World Policy Journal article (2006) “An Iraqi Discovers Arendt”, all the way to Israeli revisionist (and evidently critical of Israel) scholars such as Idith Zertal and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.
The particular examples he brings up are paradigmatic of this already established tradition of appropriations of Hannah Arendt that though emerging from her political thought, have much to do with politics and little with thinking.
For example, the case of Kanan Makiya is interesting if only because of his controversial – and rather maverick – position in the landscape of Iraqi politics. This Marxist engineer-turned-neo-conservative political advisor (in Hanssen's telling) is apparently credited with being the first Arab author to apply Arendt’s phenomenology of totalitarianism to Baathist Iraq.
Makiya makes a case for Iraq as a totalitarian regime in Arendt’s terms, drawing a straight line from anti-Semitism and intellectual support for Saddam Hussein to comparisons with Nazi Germany. Though his book The Republic of Fear stands for many Iraqis as the greatest testimony to the sad state of affairs under Hussein, the analysis is at best a misappropriation in many respects and seems to fall within the line of warmongering that Arendt so vehemently criticized as McCarthyism: To use totalitarian means to fight – real or imagined – totalitarian enemies.
The most interesting reading he brings up however is Vince Dolan’s course at the American University in Beirut, “Contemporary Philosophical Reflections on the Use of Political Violence”, in the spring of 1983. Dolan tailored the course to polemicize Arendt’s distinction between power and violence – perhaps the most difficult in all of her thought – by first exposing students to Habermas’ evaluation of Arendt’s project and then bringing her into conversation with Popper, Adorno and Horkheimer.
While this practice is common among liberal academics, the integration of Arendt into the corpus of critical theory has been time and again debunked by serious Arendt scholars, of which I might bring only two salient examples:
First, Dana Villa (Arendt and Heidegger, 1996, p. 3-4) argues that although Habermas called Arendt’s theory of political action “the systematic renewal of the Aristotelian concept of praxis”, there is no one that would argue more vehemently against Aristotle (and the whole project of critical theory) than Arendt.
According to Villa, critical theory has immensely profited from Arendt’s renewal of Aristotelian praxis as opposed to the instrumentalization of action in order to highlight the intersubjective nature of political action, when in fact this renewal is a radical reconceptualization whose renewal is nothing but a renewal in order to overcome rather than to restore the tradition of political thought of and since Aristotle.
Second, Fina Birulés insisted in an interview from 2001 that there is a wide gap between Arendt’s radical theory of democracy and Habermas. According to Birulés, though Habermas is deeply indebted to Arendt, his theory of communicative action is hardly political at all and he reduces the concept of plurality to some sort of ideal community of dialogue.
Doubtless Hanssen is correct in pointing out that Arendt did not provide a concise definition of totalitarianism. Definition is a privilege of theory that Arendt’s story-telling didn’t embrace and she “merely” listed phenomenological elements. However he also indicates how Arendt insisted that only two forms of totalitarianism existed: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This distinction is crucial to understand the rest of his paper.
Nowadays totalitarianism – as much as the banality of evil – is a slogan in newspapers and politics, often lacking in meaning and intention and this brings to mind the whole post 9-11 discourse in philosophy and politics in which Islam and Islamism – among other things – take the place of the “old” totalitarian movements.
While it is true that in phenomenological and structural terms nothing since the collapse of the Soviet Union can be called strictly totalitarian, there is no doubt that there are totalitarian elements in many movements and policies not only in the Middle East today, but also in the democratic West.
Among other – far less influential readings of Arendt – Hanssen lists the translations into Arabic and Persian, providing crucial information about how and why Arendt informed certain – mostly – Arab authors.
Lastly there is an elaborate discussion on the use – and again, abuse – of Arendt by Israeli scholars since her “rehabilitation” in Israel that coincided with the rise to prominence of certain revisionist scholars.
Though Hannah Arendt wasn’t exclusively concerned with Zionism or the Jewish question, it is undeniable that her entire work was informed by her status and experience as a Jew in the Europe of the early 20th century.
There are many Hannah Arendts and to this effect Jerome Kohn writes in the introduction to her “Jewish Writings”: “In 1975, the year she died, she spoke of a voice that comes from behind the masks she wears to suit the occasions and the various roles that world offers her. That voice is identical to none of the masks, but she hopes it is identifiable, sounding through all of them”.
Something that is identifiable in her entire work – but not identical anywhere, is her concern with the young State of Israel in spite of the controversies into which she became trapped later on.
While it is true that Arendt was very critical of the Zionist establishment and of the course that Israel had taken, it is also important to remember that her writings (“The Crisis of Zionism” and “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East”) were anchored in an intense anxiety over the Jewish people regaining control of their own destinies and entering the realm of politics.
Julia Kristeva expressed this best in her speech upon receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize in 2006, making it clear how for Arendt the survival of Israel and the refoundation of politics in the West was part of one and the same task:
Thirty years after her death, added to the danger she tries to confront through a refoundation of political authority and which, as they get worse, make this refoundation increasingly improbable, is the new threat that weighs on Israel and the world. Arendt had a premonition about it as she warned against underestimating the Arab world and, while giving the State of Israel her unconditional support as the only remedy to the acosmism of the Jewish people, and as a way to return to the “world” and “politics” of which history has deprived, she also voiced criticism.
But Jerome Kohn writes also in the introduction to the Jewish Writings, “Already in 1948 Arendt foresaw what now perhaps has come to pass, that Israel would become a militaristic state behind closed but threatened borders, a “semi-sovereign” state from which Jewish culture would gradually vanish” (paraphrased from her “To Save the Jewish homeland”).
In her piece “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East,” Arendt laid out what is in my opinion a foundation for what could be the ideal of Arab-Jewish cooperation in the Middle East – including even a surprisingly rare background on Arab personalities that had lent support to the possibility of a Jewish settlement from Lebanon and Egypt – but the element of religious fundamentalism and anti-Semitism that have crystallized now in the Middle East couldn’t be foreseen by Arendt, or at least not to the extent that they were articulated by Kristeva:
Although many of her analyses and advances seem to us more prophetic than ever, Arendt could not foresee the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, nor the havoc it is wreaking in a world faced with the powerlessness of politics to respond, and the apolitia, the indifference created by the omnipresent society of the spectacle.
Hanssen concludes from reading Arendt on totalitarianism, revolution and dissent in the Middle East that “one of the most powerful (in Arendt’s sense of power as consent-based), non-violent movements coming out of the Arab World today is the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestments campaign that Palestinian civil society groups have called for in 2005 and has now become a global counter-hegemonic phenomenon” and raises the question whether Hannah Arendt would have supported Palestinian BDS movement to bring about the end of Israeli occupation.
On the one hand he argues that “the intellectual merit of BDS campaign from an Arendtian standpoint is that it is not based on old and invalid hyperbolic equation of Israel with Nazi Germany.” On the other hand, he also says:
There is certainly ample room for this kind of non-violent action in her writings. For one, she supported the economic boycott of German businesses in the 1930’s and was furious when Zionist Organization in Palestine broke it.
Leaving the associations with Nazi Germany asides, it is vital to recall that it was Arendt who said that not even in the moon is one safe from anti-Semitism and that the State of Israel alone wouldn’t come to solve the Jewish question.
It is clear by now that BDS campaign has blended elements no doubt altruistic of non-violent struggle with elements from the old anti-Semitism, in which there’s little distinction made between Israelis and Jews.
BDS has come to include not only boycott to the settlements (as has been articulated with great intelligence by Peter Beinart and his book “The Crisis of Zionism”) but also academic and cultural boycott. In extreme cases, there have been boycotts of products not for being Israeli or produced in the settlements, but merely out of being kosher products produced in Britain and the United States.
While it is more than clear that Arendt saw and foresaw the risks and dangers to which Israel polity was exposed by its leaders, she also articulated with clarity that it wasn’t the Jews alone who were responsible for this sad state of affairs and whether or not Hannah Arendt’s ideal of a binational state is at all realizable at this point – bearing in mind the complexities of Arab Spring – what is clear is that an ideology fed on old anti-Semitism and prejudice as much as on uncritical views of Arab and Palestinian history is very unlikely to produce the Arab-Jewish councils (at the heart of her theorizing on revolutions) upon the basis of which a secular and democratic state might be founded.
David Brooks is giving advice to radicals today on how to be radical. It's a strange spot for the left's favorite conservative to be in, although it is a role he's taken up in now a few of his columns. And he's only partly wrong.
The occasion for Brooks' advice to radicals is the latest viral YouTube sensation, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” a video by Jefferson Bethke. The genre is not new. Mr. Jefferson's namesake, Thomas Jefferson, wrote a famous and wonderful little book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, in which he separates out the purely ethical sprouts of Jesus' teachings from the religious chaff. Alexis de Tocqueville saw that religion in a democratic time would increasingly take the form of moral aphorisms without the strict commandments that democratic citizens would rebel against. And modern evangelicalism as practiced in mega churches like Rick Warren's Saddleback Church shuns discussion of sin and burdensome religious rituals or commands. The attraction of Jefferson Bethke's video poem is, precisely, how well it fits in with the anti-authoritarian spirit of our age that craves meaning and justice yet disdains the authority and tradition that give life meaning and embody the ideals of justice.
Brooks' column is less about Bethke's rebellion than about his re-conversion. For Bethke has, since his video, publicly admitted the error of his ways and returned to the bosom of the church. All of which leads Brooks to wonder: Why is rebellion so ineffective today?
This is a question many rebels ask today as well. One common complaint, on the left, is that the rise of humanitarianism has replaced political movements like Marxism, utopianism, and social democracy with the idea that it is simply enough to send food and clothes to those who are suffering. Today's radicals don't want to change the system, they simply perpetuate it by preventing the extreme suffering that might nurture real radicals. The dreamers of a better future seem to be busy with other pursuits. As Brooks rightly notes:
This seems to be a moment when many people — in religion, economics and politics — are disgusted by current institutions, but then they are vague about what sorts of institutions should replace them. This seems to be a moment of fervent protest movements that are ultimately vague and ineffectual.
Brooks has a theory for why this is so, one he has offered before.
My own theory revolves around a single bad idea. For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.
Aside from the silliness about Nietzsche—who certainly thought with and against a tradition—Brooks makes a valid point. Rebellion cannot be simply a negation of what is, an overturning.
Indeed, that was Nietzsche's point. Nihilism, which Nietzsche diagnosed, is the saying no to what is, an overturning of all values. Thus, a rejection of any value that is not simply a subjective value. This nihilism is precisely what Nietzsche saw and feared, which is why he struggled to think about how new higher values, new idols, new laws, new myths, might emerge.
Brooks wants young rebels to seek out the classics and find their mentors in rebellion. He is right that "Effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions." He is also right that "Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change."
But the point isn't simply to rediscover Marx so that we can, once again, fight for the proletarian revolution. That movie has run. The point of education is not to provide us with failed dreams of the past so that we can try again. As Arendt wrote in The Crisis of Education, the effort of education is to teach students about the world as it is. Only when they confront the world as it is, honestly, can they begin to resist it.
Instead of blaming our children, we need to look at ourselves. For Arendt, education requires teachers who "love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices." We must teach them about our world, as it is. And that means, we must teach them about what it means to live in a world in which there are no higher values that can sustain meaningful protests and rebellions. This is the world of nihilism Nietzsche saw emerging 130 years ago. And it is the world David Brooks is, in some ways, trying to articulate, even as he also refuses it and condemn it in his columns.
I don't disagree with Brooks' judgment of nihilism. But it is time for us, finally, to confront the reality of the world we live in. It is our world. If our leaders and public intellectuals won't be honest, how can we expect such courage from our youth?
We need to reconcile ourselves to the corrupting and debilitating nihilism of our world if we have any hope of educating young people who might be able to resist it. Arendt writes:
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same tame token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.
It is the job of education to “teach children what the world is like” so that they can begin the task of reconciling themselves with it; only then can they have a chance of truly resisting it. First come to see the ruin. Then learn to rebel against it. That is the promise of revolution, a circular process that offers the promise of a future that mere rebellion does not.
You'd do well to read Brooks' column.
Better yet, for your weekend read, pull out your edition of Between Past and Future and re-read The Crisis in Education.