Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
25Oct/122

Defining American Democracy Differently

How do our understandings of democracy shape how we imagine racial equality and the means by which it might be achieved? That was the question posed by Maribel Morey at the most recent lunchtime talk at the Arendt Center. Morey is currently a fellow at the New York University School of Law, and she has recently completed her dissertation in the Department of History at Princeton University. Building upon her research on the Swedish economist and social theorist Gunnar Myrdal, Morey offered an incisive comparative reading of Myrdal’s book An American Dilemma (1944) and Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959).

As became evident in the course of her talk, these texts posit different visions of democracy in the U.S., and they come to different conclusions about a central feature of the civil rights era: the federally enforced integration of public schools in the segregated South.

Myrdal was a strong advocate of such government intervention. In his argument, the premises and principles of American democracy effectively demand the racial integration of schools and other institutions, and it is legitimate for the federal government to enforce such integration for the sake of America’s ongoing democratic life. This position insists that education constitutes a crucial public resource provided by the state, and it proposes that inequitable access to this resource limits individual and collective participation in the political realm. Indeed, Myrdal goes even further by contending that discrimination and segregation violate the very “American creed”—the liberal commitment to equality and fair treatment—that makes national co-existence possible. Since its initial publication, Myrdal’s position has exerted a deep influence on U.S. public discourse: it played a key role in civil rights activism in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it figured prominently in the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

Arendt was also committed to the project of political equality in the U.S., but she parts ways with Myrdal by sharply questioning the legitimacy of federally enforced integration. On the one hand, she objects to this form of intervention because it “burden[s] children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve”. Government-mandated integration thereby inserts young people into a political struggle for which they are not prepared and to which they do not properly belong. On the other hand, Arendt takes issue with the way that federally mandated integration transgresses the boundaries that ought to be maintained between the realms of political, social, and private life.

These boundaries are necessary, in Arendt’s argument, because polity, society, and privacy are defined by different animating principles. Politics is defined by the principle of equality: all adult citizens enjoy the same right to vote and be voted into office, and no differences should exist in their ability to participate in the polity. By contrast, the social realm is characterized by the principle of discrimination: social relations follow the adage “like attracts like,” according to Arendt, and individuals are therefore entitled to associate—and not associate—with others along the lines of profession, class origin, ethnicity, level of education, and other vectors of difference. Finally, the private realm is defined by the principle of exclusiveness: individuals choose the people with whom they will spend their lives on the basis of those people’s unique qualities, and the government should and indeed must assure “the rights of every person to do as he pleases within the four wall of his own home.”

Arendt charges that state action in the service of racial integration is acceptable when it attacks the legal enforcement of discrimination in the political realm. One of her key differences with Myrdal, however, lies in the fact that she does not regard the education provided by the school as necessary for political participation. Indeed, she does not ultimately consider the school to be a “political” institution at all. To be sure, the state has the right to prescribe educational content that will prepare children for future work and citizenship. But in Arendt’s argument government cannot dictate the forms of association and social life that emerge in school, and it cannot infringe on parents’ rights to bring up their children as they deem appropriate. These points lead her to a rather provocative conclusion: “to force parents to send their children to an integrated school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies—the private right over their children and the social right to free association.”

As Roger Berkowitz writes in his essay "Solitude and the Activity of Thinking," Arendt's argument is grounded on her belief that a vibrant private realm is a constitutive need of a free political society. Without a strong protection of the private realm where people can grow to be different, unique, and self-thinkers, there will be no true plurality, which is the condition for action and politics. The price for plurality, she writes, is that we allow for people to live freely in private. It is for this reason that Arendt argues against anti-miscegenation law and why she would insist on the right to gay marriage. For Arendt, there is nothing more constitutive of privacy than the right to raise one's children as one wishes. For the state to forcefully require parents to send their children to a specific kinds of school means, she writes, that there would be no meaningful realm of privacy left—which would endanger the plurality she understands is the pre-condition of politics. As Berkowitz writes:

What offends Arendt in the Little Rock case is not the ideal of desegregation, but the danger that well-intentioned governmental attacks on social discrimination will erode the walls of privacy that nourish the possibility of thinking and of acting—and thus of plurality. Since the space for solitary thought depends on the protection of a vibrant private realm, the protection of privacy is a necessary first step in the cultivation of thoughtful political action.

Given the controversial nature of Arendt’s position, it should come as no surprise that much of the discussion turned on the questions her essay leaves unanswered. For example, many audience members wondered about the connections between private upbringing, social discrimination, and political equality. What is it that enables or requires citizens to forego the discrimination they practice in social life so that they might recognize other citizens as equals?

For that matter, how is it possible for people to transcend those aspects of their familial socialization that might hinder them from participating in politics without prejudice?

Other listeners focused on the two writers’ divergent intellectual predilections. As several of them noted, Myrdal’s work reveals a basic confidence in the ability of government, working in tandem with enlightened social science, to conceive and implement policies that further democratic freedoms. Arendt, on the other hand, betrays a much more skeptical stance not only on power of the state, but also on the capacity of social scientists (like Myrdal) to guide productive social and political interventions.

Finally, discussion turned to one point where Arendt, despite the contentious nature of her remarks, might be developing a more interesting view of democratic societies than Myrdal. As Morey noted in the Q and A, Myrdal’s reflections on democracy are ultimately premised on the existence of a national Volk defined by broad moral and cultural commonality. Prejudice and discrimination are pernicious, in his reading, because they prevent racial minorities from complete integration into the nation and its defining sense of peoplehood. Arendt’s vision, by contrast, adopts a much more guarded stance toward “conformism” of this sort. Indeed, “Reflections on Little Rock” proposes that people have a strong right to their opinions and sentiments in the private and social realms, even when those opinions and sentiments are deeply unpalatable in the wider public sphere and polity. As a result, Arendt’s notion of democracy appears to allow much greater room for the existence and maintenance of difference.

On the whole, then, Morey’s talk cast thoughtful light on the work of these two thinkers. It sought neither to venerate nor to dismiss their claims wholesale, but instead probed the many differences in their starting points and claims. In the end, Myrdal and Arendt’s positions seemed so divergent that it was hard not to regard them as “two ships passing in the night”—despite their common abhorrence of racial segregation.

You can view Maribel Morey's talk and the ensuing discussion on the Hannah Arendt Center website, here.

Maribel Morey's essay, "Reassessing Hannah Arendt's 'Reflections on Little Rock' (1959)" was published in the Journal of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. You can sign in with a password to read the article here

-Jeff Jurgens

 

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.
14Sep/120

Casualties on “The War on Fat

Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology

Common wisdom has it that the U.S. now faces an “obesity epidemic.” Ample statistical evidence would seem to support this claim. According to recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sixty-eight percent of adults, and thirty-two percent of children and adolescents, qualify as obese or overweight as determined by the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is the biomedical measure of “healthy” and “unhealthy” weight currently employed by most doctors, researchers, educators, and policymakers in the U.S. (and a growing number of other countries).

The public health response to this state of affairs, initially launched by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in 1997, has been promoted as a “war on obesity” or a “war on fat” that echoes the militaristic rhetoric of other governmental campaigns (against poverty, drugs, and terror[ism], for example). This war effort has consistently conceived of obesity as a medical abnormality or disease that can be remedied through concerted social and political intervention. Health professionals and policymakers have regularly enjoined Americans to diet and exercise so that they might achieve—and then maintain—a normative body weight and shape. In addition, political figures like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and First Lady Michelle Obama have publicly thrown their support behind measures that encourage healthy eating and regular physical activity.

Public reactions to the war on fat have varied a good deal. Most of its advocates argue that the campaign is a necessary response to a serious threat to the nation’s health and health care system, while some of its detractors contend that, at its extreme, it unduly interferes with individual Americans’ ability—or right—to eat, drink, and otherwise attend to their bodies as they find appropriate. Other critics focus on what I consider to be a more significant issue: the lived consequences of the war on fat, particularly for those young people who are its main targets.

To my knowledge, Hannah Arendt never directly engaged with the state’s role in the biomedical health of society and polity, but I suspect that she would have regarded the current campaign with skepticism. If her essay “Reflections on Little Rock” is any indication, she would be troubled by the ways that today’s children and adolescents are being asked to scrutinize their food choices and physical activity and thus bear the burden of a public health problem that ultimately derives from this country’s political economy of food production and consumption. In addition, she might well insist that children are “first of all part of family and home” and should therefore be shielded “against the demands of the social and the responsibilities of the political realm” (pp. 241-242 in The Portable Hannah Arendt). Indeed, she might even consider the war on fat to be a troubling infringement on parents’ private right to “bring up their children as they see fit” (p. 242), a right to which they are entitled even if they fail to conform to society’s prevailing conventions and customs.

This line of argument certainly possesses its own consistency and coherence. But I would suggest that it remains open to question on two (if not more) counts. First, it implies that young people’s diet and exercise are ultimately matters of private discretion in a fashion that is troublingly close to some industry objections to the war on fat. It thereby offers little basis to challenge the ways that corporate “big food” has invoked individual choice to defend dietary habits and tastes that it has not merely cultivated, but profited from handsomely. Second, and more broadly, this line of argument proposes a sharp distinction between public and private that prevents us from grasping the ways that young people—whether we like it or not—are implicated in larger political debates and struggles. Moreover, it does not really equip us to grasp how public discourse, including government-sponsored injunctions to diet and exercise, can mold individual sentiments, attitudes, and sensibilities.

This last issue is a central concern in anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh’s article “Weighty Subjects,” which appears in the most recent issue of American Ethnologist. Much of Greenhalgh’s argument turns on her analysis of student essays written for “The Woman and the Body,” a lecture course she taught at the University of California, Irvine from 1995 to 2011. Inspired by Michel Foucault’s work on governmentality and bio-power, Greenhalgh argues that the ultimate product of the war on fat is not a large number of thinner, fitter bodies, but rather a great deal of intimate and public “fat talk.” Such fat talk either instructs heavyset people about how they can attain a normative body or else derides their “excessive” weight as a mark of personal shame and failure.

In Greenhalgh’s analysis, this pervasive stream of fat talk induces all too many young women and men to adopt a “fat” subjectivity, even if they do not formally qualify as obese or overweight according to the BMI.

Building on a close reading of several students’ essays, she asserts that these “fat subjects” come to treat their weight as an essential component of their selfhood and social (un)acceptability. They engage in forms of exercise, dieting, and more extreme self-denial that may result in some temporary weight loss but which often pose major health risks in the long run. And they internalize the moralizing idioms of fat talk to the point where they ultimately hold themselves responsible for their weight and their frequent inability to achieve a normative body. Fat talk and the larger war on fat thereby resonate with the broader neoliberal turn in American public life, which holds individual self-governance, not industry regulation and other structural measures, as the preferred response to pressing social problems.

In sum, Greenhalgh’s objections to the war on fat ultimately rest not on the notion that local, state, and federal government is intervening (illegitimately) in a realm of private decision-making, but rather on the evidence that the preoccupation with obesity is creating significant emotional suffering for a considerable number of people. Like many other anthropologists, she thereby underscores how the political realm does not merely impinge on intimate senses of self and personhood, but actually works to produce them.

-Jeff Jurgens

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.
23Jul/120

The Intimate World

“What in thinking only occasionally and quasi-metaphorically happens, to retreat from the world of appearances, takes place in aging and dying as an appearance… in this sense thinking is an anticipation of dying (ceasing, ‘to cease to be among men’) just as action in the sense of ‘to make a beginning’ is a repetition of birth.”

-Hannah Arendt, -Denktagebuch, p. 792

One of the wonderful aspects of reading the Denktagebuch is its peculiar intimacy.  As with so much of Arendt’s way of thinking about the world, it is a kind of intimacy which is familiar, but unique and strange enough to make us rethink the place of that category in our lives, how we sense it and find it meaningful.  The sense of intimacy is present from the very first entry – a long, fluid contemplation of responsiveness and evil written in the wake of her first visit to Germany (and Heidegger) after the war – to the last, when the notebooks trail off into a bare succession of dates and places.

It infuses each echo of her published work with a sense of its interconnection with a hundred fragmentary thoughts, occasions, meditations, and struggles.  The Denktagebuch helps renew the liveliness of Arendt’s work as not just a set of arguments, but a profound, rich sensibility, a sensibility in the double sense of a way of sensing what is going on in the world around us, and the dense world-experience of a human, a thinker, a woman, a writer who set herself the gravid task of thinking what we are doing.

Of course, the intimacy found in Arendt’s notebooks was never going to be quite what we usually think of when we use the term.  In general, Arendt’s is not a thought that we associate with intimacy.  On the contrary, what distinguishes Arendt’s writing, even on the most personal topics, is its resolute publicity, its unwavering concern for what is common, what is shared, and what is political in writing: its specific capacity to make things appear to others.  This resolutely public (or perhaps simply political) character to her analysis was a commitment that got her into trouble repeatedly when she moved into topics which were, for her American audience and beyond, violently emotionally charged.  A consistent refrain, in the hostile reception of both the Eichmann essays for The New Yorker and “Reflections on Little Rock” in Dissent, was the apparent coldness or withdrawal with which her critics saw her as treating desperately dear subjects.  So perhaps it is unsurprising that the peculiar intimacy of the Denktagebuch, even in the time when it was a quasi-private record for her own uses, was what might be called by the paradoxical name of political intimacy, the intimacy specific to what she calls here a “world of appearances.”  What can intimacy even mean in a sensibility staunchly committed to rejecting our historical prioritization of the internal (the soul, the mind, the self) over our external lives of appearing to and acting with others?

This passage comes from a section of the Denktagebuch that not only provides an idea of what that form of intimacy might be, but does so in a way that brings out the intimacy already present throughout her work.  The 27th notebook is the last substantive one, and it is saturated with thoughts about ends.  The two senses of the word in English and German weave in and out of her entries: both purposes – the purposes of thought, of philosophy, of acting, of being in the world – and finality, conclusions, ultimately death itself.  At times, there is a deep, almost bitter sadness to the omnipresence of the end in this notebook.  She concludes in one entry with Kant’s thoughts in Critique of Judgment about the ends of human life that “no one would go through life again of their own free will.”  At other times, there is an old contentment with the prospect of the end, as when she writes that “death is the price we the living pay for having lived.  To not want to pay this price, is miserable.”  Birth, natality, the human capacity to bring something new into the world was always central to Arendt’s idea of a public and action.  Here, death and thought appear together for the first time as the inverse, a retreat initially in mind and then in body from the world in which we write the stories of our lives with others.  And the idea of thought as death’s companion, and our companion in the end, gives the first hint of what this uniquely Arendtian intimacy-in-publicity holds.

The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s un-ended work, gives us glimpses of something that comes out even more strongly in the Denktagebuch.  In the life-process of Arendt’s thought there seems to be a constant attempt to return to what was put aside, to reckon with, and to a certain extent, redeem the things that at first glance in the earlier works seemed like ideas and practices that were supposed to be the problem or the threat.  Her stunning elegies for Heidegger and Brecht – both neither pardon nor disavowal – reflect this process of problematization and partial redemption, turned from the analysis of concepts to telling the stories of lives lost.  We should all be so lucky.  And so it is here, in the Denktagebuch, in the case of endfulness and end-orientation.  In a whole series of the earlier works, this end-orientation was the thing that most threatened what was supposed to be the Arendtian good, whether it was action or culture or the public itself.  It was always the baunism of workers (The Human Condition) or philistines (“The Crisis in Culture”) that was the thing that threatened to remove from action and the political life what was peculiar to it.  But in this section Arendt returns to the scene to do something like right by ends, to think about whether or not there is a place for endfulness and what that place might be.

In this notebook, thought is the dominion of ends, and the spontaneous, undetermined originality of action and the titanic worldly power of understanding find their end in thought’s retreat from the world’s appearances.  Even in her darkest moments of facing the end this is not a tragedy to be mourned: it is simply the price of doing and being and living with others, the inescapable departure point of a world that we enter “confronted with what appears only once, with the sensuously perceptible” (780).  After all, as Arendt cautions, action would disappear from the world in the moment of its enactment without being taken up and made a part of our collective story by a process of end-making.  This necessary grave of the end gives the Human Condition in particular a different kind of normative bent than we might otherwise read in it – almost an odd kind of Platonism – in which it no longer appears that the natural instrumentality of work threatens everything around it, at least not simply so.  Endfulness too has its place, indeed all of these familiar categories (labor, action, the social, the private) in their place are both necessary and productive.  It is only those places where the messily amalgamated categories of our living in the world inevitably cross and mix that dangers, but perhaps also possibilities, are produced: every untidy palisade and nook of the shared world in which we can appear to each other.

This is, in the end, the sole place where that uniquely Arendtian sense of intimacy, a political intimacy, can exist.  The intimacy of the Denktagebuch, which is no less present in Arendt’s confrontation with totalitarianism and is beautifully echoed in the struggles of those on this site with issues like the punishment of George Zimmerman and the decimations wrought by homophobic schooling systems, is not an intimacy of distilled selves but an intimacy of our selves with our world, an intimacy with what is shared and what forms, for good or for terrible ill, the fabric of what we can experience together.  Arendt shows us what it means to be unblinkingly, meaningfully, at times painfully intimate with the human world.  To engage in Arendtian politics is to enter into a relationship of intimacy, an intimacy with the terrible and the evil as much as with the beautiful and the good, and to find through that intimacy what we can do and who we can be with each other.  And that intimacy, for Arendt, is what makes it possible for us to bear our ends.

-Ian Storey

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.
29Jun/123

Circumcision and Segregation

A German Court this week declared that circumcision is illegal. The court decided that the time immemorial Jewish law—the mark of a Jewish boy's covenant with God—is an inhumane act that does "grievous bodily harm" to young Jews and Muslims (the case actually originated when the parents of a four-year-old Muslim boy had him circumcised). But the Court's ruling went further. According to Der Spiegel:

The court ruled that the child's right to physical integrity is more important than the parent's basic rights. The ruling stated that a mother's or father's right to freedom of religion as well as their right to determining how they raise their child would not be limited if they were forced to wait and allow their child to decide for himself if he wanted to be circumcised. The ruling states a child's right to self-determination should come first.

The regional court in Cologne, Germany, held that the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents."   You can read about the decision here.

This is an amazing decision for many reasons, not the least of which is that a court in Germany has basically said that Jewish and Muslim families do not have a right to practice their religious obligations, which for Jews include the requirement of circumcision as a mark of their covenant with God. A Jewish father who does not circumcise his son on the 8th day after birth is in violation of basic Jewish commandments. This prohibition on what is a fundamental matter of Jewish law and practice is especially shocking given Germany's history. 

The blogosphere has erupted over the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim implications of the decision, even as the U.S. mainstream press has ignored it. You can find a helpful and typically smart recap of the dispute over at ViaMeadia.

Beyond the questions of antisemitism and Islamophobia, the decision to outlaw circumcision reveals the frequently overlooked conflict between human rights and the basic rights of privacy. The German court's decision imagines the parental rights to practice religion as a right to privacy—to determine how to raise their child. Against this right it balances the child's human right to bodily integrity. And the court decides the matter on the side of human rights over the right of privacy.

This conflict between human rights and privacy recalls Hannah Arendt's essay "Reflections on Little Rock." Arendt's essay on the school desegregation controversy has been roundly criticized. It has been less well understood. Arendt's argument against forced-federal desegregation turns on her worry about the private realm.  She makes four arguments:

1. Arendt is in favor of politically invalidating all laws supporting segregation.
2. She is against forced desegregation of social discrimination that in places such as vacation spots, which she argues are not relevant to the public life. In such spaces, integration may be desirable, but it is not publicly necessary.
3. She supports forced desegregation of social worlds that are publicly necessary (buses and hotels in business districts). Schools would of course usually fit here.
4. But Arendt is against forced integration of schools. Schools are different. Why? Because education is a question of how a parent raises his or her children, and this is the quintessential private right.

Arendt's rejection of forced school integration was not based on a social defense of all discrimination since she clearly thinks that some kinds of discrimination are subject to forced integration. Instead, her rejection of forced school integration is based on her insistence on the need to preserve private rights. For many, her argument does not take seriously enough the public role of education. But Arendt insisted that education must be seen as part of the private sphere.

For Arendt, there is no more basic private right than the right to raise one's children as one sees fit. Since education of one's children is the quintessential private right, Arendt reasons that to deprive people of such a right is to eradicate the very idea of an inviolable sphere of the private realm. If we can tell people how to educate their children, what can't we tell them about how to live their private lives? 

Arendt clearly understands education as a private practice. It is in this sense similar to the rights of religious practice and circumcision that, likewise, go to the fundamental authority of parents to raise their children as they see fit. It is important to be vigilant against the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and those who have been critical of the German Court's decision are right. But there is a more pressing threat that this decision raises, which is the desire to continually restrict or eviscerate the realm of the private in the name of humane and efficient regulation.

Private rights are deeply important. It is in the private realm where young people grow up and are led into the world by parents, teachers, and friends. If we value plurality, difference, and individuality, it is essential that we protect the private realm—that world in which individuals are formed in their singularity and uniqueness. As well meaning as human rights advocates may be, they are antagonistic to the private realm. They will forever seek to impose a world of humane conformity at the expense of the singularity suffering. This is the tension that Arendt provokes us to consider. 

It is in such conflicts between the private and the social realms that Arendt takes her stand against the social conformity of the regulatory state. She makes fine distinctions that are too frequently overlooked. Thus, she defends the absolute right of mixed marriage (and also by extension gay marriage) as important rights to live privately and uniquely—since these are rights to live privately as one wishes. It is justified for the federal government to overturn discriminatory anti-miscegenation laws. She rejects federal intervention to combat discrimination in vacation spots, but supports such a federal role in matters of buses, hotels and business districts. But she would surely not defend the federal imposition of the right to bodily integrity when it interferes with the right to raise one's child as one wants.

Reading Arendt reminds us that the real controversy in the German Court's decision is less about antisemitism (although it is about that too) and more about the danger that a human rights agenda seeking to eradicate suffering poses to freedom and meaningful difference. It is easy (and right) to get riled up about antisemitism. It is also fairly easy (and right) to speak up for the right to circumcise one's children for religious reasons. What is more difficult, and thus even more necessary, is defending private and often unpopular uniqueness from the social conformism of those who would eradicate suffering in the name of human rights.

There is no more clear-headed articulations of the need for a private sphere of uniqueness than Hannah Arendt's essay "Reflections on Little Rock." It is, this fourth of July weekend, 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".
26Mar/121

Some Reflections on Anoka-Hennepin

“And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?”

—Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock”

Within the last two years, nine teenage students in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin public school district have committed suicide (and many more have attempted to). The driving force behind this “epidemic” is the persecution, by other children at the district’s middle and high schools, of students perceived to be gay.

The persecution is encouraged by prominent local individuals and organizations, and until recently was allowed to continue by virtue of a school district policy of nonintervention.

That much was reported, in much greater and highly affecting detail, in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s February 2 article in Rolling Stone, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens.” The most recent developments were taken up by The New York Times: the federal government has finally intervened in the name of civil rights, forcing the Anoka-Hennepin district to adopt new anti-harassment policies and to agree to five years of monitoring by the departments of Justice and Education.

Setting aside the particular minority group concerned, the immediate question in Anoka in 2012 is the same as in Little Rock in 1957: can a socially unwanted minority be excluded, by a combination of official policy and casual intimidation, from public education? Hannah Arendt’s difficult answer to the Little Rock question (difficult because prejudice had nothing to do with it, and she thus had no common cause with those who answered in the same way) was: yes, because the school is a social space subject to the laws of free association, not a political space subject to the laws of equality. What Arendt insists on is that the government must not “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults … have confessed being unable to solve themselves.” Hence her outrage that the push for desegregation had begun in the schools, rather than where she urgently wanted to see racial equality realized, namely in marriage law. (Would her insistence on the fundamental political right “to marry whom I please” extend to gay marriage? An interesting but tangential question.)

I do not think Arendt would be similarly able to dismiss the situation in Anoka as not politically relevant, because the social conflict playing itself out there is inseparable from a set of political conditions to which Arendt’s own thoughts on government call our urgent attention. In scenes reminiscent of her Origins of Totalitarianism, the public sphere has been so utterly vacated of authority that the social has become the political to dizzying effect, and even the official agents of the government appear as just another social interest group struggling to exercise power on the ground. Local officials act in accordance with whatever group happens to have the upper hand at the moment; the prevailing law is not written down; and in the midst of this, a new tactic of political violence emerges with startling effectiveness.

Children make the ideal agents of this violence, not because they do not realize the violence they are doing—on the contrary—but because, being children, they instinctively know how to carry out this violence against other children, which adults never could, and because they lack the moral impulse to stop it, in other words, the ability to think for themselves. In harrying those of their peers who have been designated as “gay,” they are precisely not thinking for themselves.

They are being cruel, as children will be, but in order for their cruelty to take on the degree of directedness and organization that it has—for it to become conscious of “gays” as a group to be eliminated—adults logically have to be thinking for them. Indeed, the decision to remove homosexuality from the schools came from parents and from the prominent local antigay movement. At first it was merely a decision to remove any talk of homosexuality, to silence anyone who might defend homosexuals. There was no need for the adults in question to envision the violent path things would take from there. There was no conspiracy to speak of. Once the objective of removing “gay influence” was in place, the children themselves knew how best to achieve it; among them, as Erdely documents, there was never any doubt that the object of the game was to force “gay” kids to kill themselves.

Thus a peculiar combination of town hall strategy and schoolyard tactics spontaneously generated a form of organized, fatal violence for which, amazingly, nobody is directly responsible. Besides the parents and the children, the third set of  (non)agents in this scenario is of course the school employees. I’d like to focus in on the particular reasons for their inaction, because they reveal the heart of this problem, the baffling failure of authority and of political structure.

The district policy that specifically prevented school staff and teachers from intervening to stop the antigay harassment in school was referred to as a “neutrality policy.” In official language, “neutrality” consisted in the stipulation that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.” The vagueness of this language notwithstanding, the real effect of the “neutrality” policy consisted in its becoming an unwritten law. The official language was never published in any official district policy handbook, never conveyed to employees in writing at all; after its adoption, the policy was promulgated purely by word of mouth. This already incredible circumstance allowed the interpretation of the policy to expand even further, to the point where it was understood that adults in the schools were not to mention homosexuality in any context whatsoever, under the threat of losing their jobs. This meant that when confronted with instances of anti-gay harassment, they would reliably err on the side of inaction, out of concern that any action they might take could be held against them.

What governed the teachers’ conduct was thus more rumor than policy, but the enormous influence that the antigay movement wields over the Anoka-Hennepin school board, not to mention the broader local community, meant that the threats were real. The “neutrality” policy was drafted by the antigay movement, submitted to the school board, and adopted with no changes. At no point, then, did elected officials engage in legislating this policy. There are, to be sure, strong ties between the local antigay movement and the region’s congressional representative, Michelle Bachmann, but these ties do not lead through the political structure; they stem from Bachmann’s involvement in private organizations.

This means that a public official had both the motive (sympathy with the antigay movement) and the means (though, I must note, there is no extant allegation that she exercised them in this case; probably, she did not have to) to act upon local school policy as a private, interested party. All the while, the proper local authority over this type of policy—the elected district school board—functioned at every turn not as an independent deliberating and decision-making body but as a symbolic functionary. That they voted, five to one, to accept the recent agreement with the Department of Justice only underscores the total helplessness of their proceedings, since they had also voted to institute the “neutrality” policy in the first place. They merely perceived that for a moment, the Justice Department had the upper hand, and aligned themselves with the temporarily prevailing authority.

In this light, statements such as that of the district superintendent that “[w]e have people on the left and the right, and we’re trying to find common ground on these issues” can be rephrased as: we have no way of deciding between our public duties and the demands placed upon us by private interest groups. In fact, the federal government is perceived in Anoka-Hennepin as just another private interest group, included among the “people on the left.” The reaction to the recent Justice Department settlement was to immediately frame it in terms of the local power struggle: an effort to “abolish conservative moral beliefs,” as a local activist told the Times. This points to another weakness of the government’s intervention: what is the likelihood that a future Department of Justice (perhaps under the administration of a conservative Republican president, say) will decline either to follow up on this agreement or to take similar action should the situation in Minnesota replicate itself elsewhere?

To reiterate: what ultimately allowed political violence to enter the schools was the fact that the teachers declined to intervene, and the teachers did so because if they acted in accordance with their public duty (which would obviously be to protect their students’ physical safety), they risked real retribution at the hands of private groups wielding effective power over them. Faced with a choice between their own financial security and the physical security of their students, teachers tended to prioritize their own interests. This is a perfect concrete instance of the phenomenon of “polycracy” that Greg Moynahan discussed in a recent essay on this site. Polycracy, which Arendt described in The Origins of Totalitarianism, arises when multiple instances of authority place demands on a person to act in multiple different ways, and the person in question is unable to discern which authority has the higher claim on her obedience. In general, when one’s public office calls on one to act in a way that might be damaging to one’s social position, one ought to be able to declare without much hesitation that the public good has the higher claim on one’s obedience. But under conditions of polycracy, such criteria for deciding vanish, replaced in every particular instance by an unspoken calculation of which authority wields de facto power over the others. In Anoka-Hennepin, the power was with the antigay movement. The fact that it has just now shifted to the federal government—where it seems unlikely to remain for long—does not address the underlying vacuum of authority, especially of local authority.

One final remark. The persecution of “gay” students in Minnesota, as elsewhere, was never really about their sexuality as such. Not all of the targeted students were “really” homosexual—as if teenagers’ sexual orientations were that stable to begin with. As Arendt emphasizes in “Little Rock,” a minority group must appear as such within a larger body politic; it is quite literally their perceptible appearance (voice, skin color, etc.) that determines their separate status. What marks so-called “gay” kids as different is obviously not their sexual activity. It is other kinds of behavior: the way they dress, talk, and otherwise express their individuality. The victims of antigay harassment are almost always described in terms that have nothing to do with sexuality as such: they are “sensitive,” “offbeat,” “stylish,” “bookish,” “musical,” etc. These are the attributes that other children use to identify them as targets. I wonder if what antigay movements really want to eliminate from the public sphere is not precisely these qualities, which can be found in individuals of all sexual preferences, and which together point to the more fundamental qualities that Arendt most prized in human beings: individuality and thinking.

Thinking is connected to fundamental human difference and individuality, both in that people differ from each other fundamentally with respect to their way of thinking and in that it is by thinking that we puzzle over and come to grips with everything that distinguishes us from one another. “Gay” behavior was, in this case, a visible expression of original thinking. Truly original thought is always found in a minority of people, and the attempt to make minorities disappear is secretly the attempt to make original thinking disappear.

-Stephen Haswell Todd

 

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