Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
14Mar/142

Heidegger, De Man, and the Scandals of Philosophy

ArendtWeekendReading

The first of the three volumes of the Gesammtausgabe of Martin Heidegger’s work, titled Überlegenungen or Reflections arrived in the mail. Somehow I’ll read the over 1,000 pages in these three volumes. And on April 8 in New York City I’ll be moderating a discussion on these volumes at the Goethe Institute in New York City, with Peter Trawny, the editor, as well as Babette Babich and Andrew Mitchell. But these volumes, even before they are published, have preemptively elicited dozens upon dozens of reviews and scandalized-yelps of outrage, nearly all by people who haven’t read them. What is more, most of these commentators also have never seriously read Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. The occasion for the outrage is that these so-called Schwarzen Hefte (The Black Notebooks) include statements that clearly trade in Jewish stereotypes and anti-Semitic tropes.

No one should be surprised that Heidegger had certain opinions about Jews that are anti-Semitic. Heidegger may be the most important philosopher of the 20th century. Be wary of anyone who denies his importance. But that does not mean he was a good person or without prejudices. The fact that his published work had never previously included anti-Semitic remarks is hardly evidence of his tolerance.

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Amongst the most salacious of the literati pronouncing “Heidegger’s Hitler Problem is Worse Than We Thought” is Rebecca Schumann at Slate.  Slightly better is the horrifically titled “Heidegger's 'black notebooks' reveal antisemitism at core of his philosophy,” by Philip Oltermann in The Guardian. On the other side, Jonathan Rée writes in defense of Heidegger. Rée makes an excellent point about the confusion of the charge of antisemitism and philosophy:

I think that those who say that because he was anti-Semitic we should not read his philosophy show a deep ignorance about the whole tradition of writing and reading philosophy. The point about philosophy is not that it offers an anthology of opinions congenial to us, which we can dip into to find illustrations of what you might call greeting card sentiments. Philosophy is about learning to be aware of problems in your own thinking where you might not have suspected them. It offers its readers an intellectual boot camp, where every sentence is a challenge, to be negotiated with care. The greatest philosophers may well be wrong: the point of recognising them as great is not to subordinate yourself to them, but to challenge yourself to work out exactly where they go wrong.

But the charge of many of Heidegger’s critics is not simply that he is an antisemite, but that his philosophy is founded upon antisemitism. As someone who has read Heidegger closely for decades, I can say confidently that such an opinion is based on fundamental misunderstandings. There is no need to deny Heidegger’s antisemitism. And yet, that is not at all an indictment of his philosophy. But Rée goes further, and concludes:

As for the hullaballoo over the Schwarzen Hefte. In the first place it seems to me a remarkable piece of publicity-seeking on the part of the publisher, who hints that we may at last find the black heart of anti-Semitism that beats in every sentence Heidegger wrote. That would of course be very gratifying to people who want an excuse for not taking Heidegger seriously, but it seems to me—from the few leaked passages I have seen, dating from 1938-9—that if Heidegger is on trial for vicious anti-Semitism, then the newly published notebooks make a case for the defence rather than the prosecution.

While I agree with Rée that this is largely a case of insane overreaction, one cannot say that the notebooks offer a defense of Heidegger, certainly not before reading them. What is more, only three of the planned four volumes of these notebooks are being published. The final notebook, covering the years 1941-1945, is apparently being held back and not even Peter Trawny, the editor of the first three volumes, is permitted to read the final one. We are left to imagine how much more damaging that final volume may be. What is undeniable, it seems, is that Heidegger certainly adopted and reflected upon some vulgur examples of antisemitism.

It is no small irony that the Schwarzen Hefte are being published in Germany at the same moment as a new biography of Paul de Man (The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish) is being released and reviewed in the U.S. De Man, like Heidegger, stands accused of Nazi writing and opinions during the war. Peter Brooks has an excellent essay on the controversy in the New York Review of Books. He writes:

Judging the extent and the gravity of de Man’s collaboration is difficult. At the war’s end, he was summoned for questioning in Brussels by the auditeur-général in charge of denazification, who decided not to bring any charges against him (whereas the editors of Le Soir were condemned to severe punishments). One could leave it at that: if not guiltless, not sufficiently guilty to merit sanction. Yet both those to whom de Man was an intellectual hero and those to whom he was akin to an academic Satan have wanted to know more.

Brooks is at his best when he takes seriously the charges against de Man but also reminds us of the context as well as the lost nuance in our backward looking judgments:

The most useful pieces in Responses come from the Belgians Ortwin de Graef, who as a young scholar discovered the wartime pieces, and Els de Bens. They help us to understand the nuances of collaboration in the occupied country, the different degrees of complicity with an enemy whom some saw as a liberator, and the evolution of a situation in which an apparent grant of at least limited freedom of speech and opinion gradually revealed itself to be an illusion. They do not conduce to excusing de Man—he clearly made wrong choices at a time when some others made right, and heroic, choices. They give us rather grounds for thought about life under occupation (which most Americans have not known) and the daily compromises of survival. They suggest that in our hindsight we need to be careful of unnuanced judgment. To try to understand is not in this case to excuse, but rather to hold ourselves, as judges, to an ethical standard.

On that ethical standard, Brooks finds Barish lacking. Her assertions are unsupported. And footnotes lead nowhere, as, for example, “I shared this information, and it has since been previously published in Belgian sources not now available to me.” And also, “This writer understands that an essay (citation unavailable) was produced by a student in Belgium.” As Brooks comments, “That does not pass any sort of muster. One could do a review of Barish’s footnotes that would cast many doubts on her scholarship.”

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Brooks’ review is an important reminder of the way that charges of antisemitism are crude weapons. Barish, he writes,” goes on to conclude that de Man was not a pronounced anti-Semite but rather “one of the lukewarm, whom Dante condemned to sit eternally at the gates of Hell, men without principles or convictions who compromised with evil.”” I am left to wonder what it means to condemn lukewarm antisemites or racists to purgatory.

As the Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, I confront all kinds of misinformation on behalf of those who insist that Hannah Arendt defended Adolf Eichmann (on the contrary she called for him to be killed and erased from the face of the earth), that she blamed the Jews for the Holocaust (she never equates Jewish cooperation with the crimes of the Nazis), and that she opposed the state of Israel (she thought the existence of Israel important and necessary). No matter how often it is corrected, such misinformation has the tendency to spread and choke off meaningful thought and consideration.

The propagandists and vultures are circling the new  Heidegger affair with open mouths. It is important at such moments to recall how easily such feeding frenzies can devour the good and the middling along with the bad and horrifically evil. It is helpful, therefore, to read a few sober cautions about the current Paul de Man controversy. Susan Rubin Suleiman has an excellent account in the NY Times Book Review. And then there is Brooks' essay in the NYRB. They are your weekend reads.

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".
31May/131

Yes and No: The Split the Difference Approach to the Banality of Evil

ArendtWeekendReading

“Hannah Arendt” the movie by acclaimed Director Margarethe von Trotta, opened in the United States this week at Film Forum in New York. It will begin its national release on June 6th.  Around the world the movie has garnered rave reviews and played to excited audiences. Reviews in the U.S. are appearing, including a rave by A.O. Scott in the New York Times.

In reading the many reviews and comments on the film, one trend stands out. This trend is epitomized by Fred Kaplan’s essay in the New York Times last weekend. Kaplan plays umpire and seeks to adjudicate whether Arendt was right or wrong in her controversial judgment of Adolf Eichmann. And like so many others in recent years, Kaplan tries to have it both ways. He writes that Arendt was in general right about the fact that “ordinary people become brutal killers,” but she was wrong about Eichmann. In short, Kaplan claims that Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil is right, but Eichmann himself was not banal, he was a monster.

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This Yes and No reading of Arendt’s judgment is now a commonplace. One sees it pop up in reviews of the new film in Europe and here in the U.S. Take, for example, Elke Schmitter, reviewing the film in the German Weekly Der Spiegel. Schmitter likes the film, and writes that von Trotta has “made an extremely vivid cinematic essay, thrilling in its every minute, deeply moving in its seriousness and suitably unsettling.” Yet Schmitter’s review prefigures Kaplan’s in its Janus faced analysis. She points to the interview with Eichmann by Willem Sassen as evidence that Arendt was deceived by Eichmann:

The [Sassen] tapes clearly show that Eichmann was an ardent anti-Semite, incapable of the direct use of force, and yet determined to exterminate the Jewish people. His performance in Jerusalem was a successful deception.

For both Kaplan and Schmitter, the larger truth of Arendt’s thesis that evil emerges from thoughtlessness must not obscure the apparent fact that Eichmann put on an act at trial and deceived Arendt. This view of Eichmann the actor who pulled the wool over Arendt’s eyes has become now the dominant reading of Arendt’s analysis. My colleague and fellow political thinker David Owen agrees with this basic Yes/No thesis.  Writing on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog, Owen argues:

And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews.

The Yes and No analysis of Arendt’s argument relies largely on what are now known as the Sassen tapes, based on an interview with Eichmann done by Willem Sassen, a fellow member of the SS who also fled to Buenos Ares. Partial transcripts of the tapes were published in Life Magazine before the Eichmann trial and were read by Arendt, but the tapes and the entire transcript only became available much later. Scholars like David Cesarani, Bettina Stangneth, and Deborah Lipstadt argue that the tapes show Arendt was—through no fault of her own, they usually emphasize to display their magnanimity—wrong in her judgment of Eichmann. It is simply a matter of the emergence of new facts.

This “factual claim” has gotten a free pass. What exactly do the Sassen tapes show? Above all, the tapes show that Adolf Eichmann was an anti-Semite. Here is one quotation that is nearly always referred to and that Kaplan brings forth. Eichmann says: “I worked relentlessly to kindle the fire. I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist.”

Kaplan actually leaves out an extra sentence between the last two quoted sentences, in which Eichmann adds: “Instead, I was part of the thought process. I was an idealist." Leaving out that line is hardly innocent as it establishes the context of Eichmann’s remarks, his claim to general participation in the Nazi thought process.

Critics point to the tapes to show that Eichmann was an anti-Semite. This is nothing new. Everyone knew Eichmann was an anti-Semite. And of course Arendt knew it. There are a few who argue that she denies this and some who go so far to argue that she thought Eichmann was a Zionist, but these are crazed and irresponsible Jeremiads. Arendt scoffed at Eichmann’s self-professed Zionism. She said that he said he was a Zionist and that he claimed he had no animus towards Jews. She did not credit these claims.

The revelation in the tapes is not that Eichmann was anti-Semitic. The claim is that if she had heard the tapes or seen the transcript, she would have been compelled to admit the ferocity of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism and thus the fact that his anti-Semitism contributed to his actions to a far greater extent than she believed.

Now this is an important point. Recall that the essence of Arendt’s rarely understood argument about the banality of evil is that evil motivations—that which really drives modern bureaucratic evil—is superficial, not deep. There is, of course, evil that is rooted deeply in hatred, as for example when I out of rage at a colleague who insults me I intentionally stick a dagger into his breast or when a suicide bomber blows himself and civilians up in a café from out of hatred and infinite hope that his actions will change the world. But such crimes, as horrible as they are, are not the true face of evil in the modern world. That face is recognizable in the mass administrative exterminations of innocent people for no justifiable reason other than their race or religion or creed. There are of course reasons for such evil acts, but those reasons have more to do with the internal logic of movements than personal animus. Such evil, she argues, may be initiated by psychopaths, but it is carried out by thoughtless nobodies. Eichmann, as a mid-level bureaucrat in charge of Bureau IV-B-4, the Gestapo division in charge of Jewish Affairs, was such a mid-level bureaucrat.

Now, if Arendt’s critics are correct, we must not only question her analysis of Eichmann, but her more general claims as well. Two scholars who recognize this are S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher. These two psychologists have written an intriguing paper taking on both Arendt and Stanley Milgram. As is well known, Milgram was led by the Eichmann trial to conduct experiments where residents of New Haven were asked to assist researchers in teaching students by administering what they thought were painful—and potentially lethal—electric shocks to students who gave wrong answers. The assistants largely did as they were instructed. Milgram concluded that most people will obey authority even when commands violate their deepest convictions; obedience, he argued, does not entail support. For many, Milgram’s experiment is confirmation of Arendt’s banality of evil thesis.

Arendt did not share this view; she insisted that obedience involves responsibility. She was shocked that her critics assumed that thoughtful people would act as Eichmann had. She worried experiments like Milgram’s would normalize moral weakness. Indeed, she saw the angry reaction to her book—her critics’ insistence on seeing Eichmann as a monster—as proof that they feared that they too lacked the moral independence and the ability to think that would allow them to resist authority.

The importance of Haslam and Reicher’s essay is to take the criticism that Eichmann was actually motivated by anti-Semitism to its logical conclusion. Haslam and Reicher say that Arendt’s portrayal was partial, and like Deborah Lipstadt, they fault Arendt for not staying to the end of the trial. But Arendt poured over the transcripts, and did view much of the trial. It is not at all clear what more viewing of Eichmann would have done to change her mind of his clownishness, an opinion shared by many who did watch the whole trial. But let’s assume that someone who watched the whole trial and heard the tapes came to a different conclusion. Namely, (Haslam and Reicher’s summation of the historical research):

Eichmann was a man who identified strongly with anti-semitism and Nazi ideology; a man who did not simply follow orders but who pioneered creative new policies; a man who was well aware of what he was doing and was proud of his ‘achievements’…. In short, the true horror of Eichmann and his like is not that their actions were blind. On the contrary, it is that they saw clearly what they did, and believed it to be the right thing to do. 

Haslam and Reicher argue that if one looks closely at Milgram’s and other related studies, one sees that people do not blindly and mindlessly obey. Some do and others do not. So from these obedience studies, they write,

It is not valid to conclude that people mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality. Rather both studies (and also historical evidence) suggest that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology. This leads them to advance that ideology knowingly, creatively and even proudly…. People do great wrong, not because they are unaware of what they are doing but because they consider it to be right.

For Haslam and Reicher, the question is not: why are people thoughtless cogs in bureaucratic machines, but rather, why do people identify with hateful ideologies that allow them to participate in mass excursions of evil? Their point is that if indeed Eichmann committed his crimes because of his virulent anti-Semitism, that suggests that the bureaucrats who participate in great schemes of administrative evil are not simply unthinking nobodies and that Arendt’s overarching thesis about the banality of evil is wrong as well.

Haslam and Reicher have done a great service with their essay insofar as they at least pierce the halo that surrounds Milgram’s conclusions. What they show, and here they agree with Arendt against Milgram, is that human beings are not simply slaves to their situations. Character and thoughtfulness (or thoughtlessness) matter. Human action is not simply behavior. Or, as Arendt writes, in political and moral matters, obedience and support are the same.

At the same time, however, Haslam and Reicher are altogether too sure of their ability to know why Adolf Eichmann acted. Like David Cesarani, Deborah Lipstadt, Bettina Stangneth, and others, they believe that somehow listening to the Eichmann tapes gives them more insight into Eichmann’s true character than Hannah Arendt’s viewing of him on the witness stand for three weeks.  There is, it seems, an uncritical acceptance of the idea that Eichmann’s boasts about his importance and his refusal to express regrets in his conversations amongst former Nazis is better evidence of his character than his testimony in Jerusalem.  

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But why privilege the interviews over the trial? In both the trial and the interviews, Eichmann refused to express regret for what he did. In both, he admitted wanting to carry out his job to the fullest of his abilities. In both he denied murdering or killing anyone. The real difference is that at trial in Jerusalem Eichmann claimed to have wanted to help the Jews and in Argentina he claimed to share the Nazi anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jews. Of course, no one in Jerusalem believed his claims of philo-Semitism, least of all Arendt. What she saw and what she argued is that his anti-Semitism alone was not of the type that would lead someone to do what he had done.

To evaluate the factual claim made by Kaplan and his fellow critics, we must also consider the context of the Sassen interviews themselves. Amongst the community of former Nazis in Buenos Aires, Eichmann was different. Many of these Nazis repudiated the final solution, claiming it was Allied propaganda. Eichmann, who had been mentioned frequently in Nuremburg, could confirm or reject that claim. It was thus that Sassen, who was working as a journalist, sought Eichmann out through Eberhard Fritsch, another Nazi who published a German-language journal in Buenos Ares and argued for a new ascent of National Socialism. Fritsch, Sassen, and Eichmann met for a series of conversations that Sassen taped and used for articles he wrote that appeared in Life Magazine. 

Eichmann himself had much to gain from these interviews. The Adolf Eichmann who agreed to be interviewed by Sassen was living as a poor man struggling to support his family. It was a far cry from his position of power and relative wealth in Germany during the War. And if there is one quality of Eichmann that Arendt and her critics can agree upon it is his vanity. Eichmann was, as Arendt noted, quite boastful. He desperately desired to be important and meaningful. Bettina Stangneth saw the same quality in Eichmann: “Eichmann hated being anonymous. He missed power. He wanted to matter again. On some level I think he even enjoyed his trial.” It is far from clear that Eichmann bared his true soul to Willem Sassen.

How to know whether the Eichmann speaking to former Nazis and seeking friends and importance is the truer Eichmann than the Eichmann brought before posterity at the trial in Jerusalem? One can, of course, argue that neither is the true Eichmann, that he would say whatever he thought would endear him to the crowd he was in, but that would simply go to support and confirm Arendt’s thesis that Eichmann was a nobody, a joiner. If Eichmann thought that lying about his anti-Semitism would convince anybody, and if he thought that saying he was just obeying orders would help him whereas it hadn’t his predecessors at Nuremburg, he was as thoughtless as Arendt said he was. In any case, there is nothing in the Sassen transcripts that shows Arendt’s factual analysis of the trial to be wrong. 

Arendt thought that it was a fact that Eichmann was thoughtless. Listening to his clichés and his boasts and hearing how he worshipped bureaucratic hierarchy, she determined that he had insulated himself from thinking. Her critics, in response, say he was creative and intelligent in carrying out his tasks. He was. He was not stupid, Arendt writes. He was thoughtless. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t anti-Semitic. What she means by thoughtlessness, contrary to much commentary, is not simple.

Arendt’s argument about thoughtlessness is complex and subtle.  First, Arendt says that what drove Eichmann to join the SS was not virulent hatred of Jews, but the need of a job and the desire to find meaning in his life. On this point, she and her critics largely agree. As a Nazi officer, Eichmann became a virulent anti-Semite. He adopted the rhetoric and language of those around him, even as he took pride in his ability to work with Jewish leaders. Even such an anti-Semite, however, insisted he did not kill Jews himself. That was important to him. He knew such killing was wrong. While he may indeed have wanted Germany to be free of Jews, and while he may have spoken in favor the killing itself, he knew that gassing Jews was wrong. He was not the kind of psychopath that breathes blood and relishes pulling the trigger. Eichmann describes how he was initially bothered and unsettled by the decision to gas the Jews, but that, over the course of about four weeks, he came to see the transport of Jews not as wrong, but as his legal obligation, one that he took pride in carrying out. In the space of one month, his moral universe around the question of genocide was upended. This is the famous inversion of Eichmann’s conscience that is at the core of Arendt’s argument.

It is this transition from anti-Semite who knows killing innocents is wrong to bloodless bureaucratic executioner who imagines it his conscientious and moral duty to follow the laws and orders by implementing the Final Solution that, Arendt argues, has its source neither in anti-Semitism nor a lack of goodness, but in moral weakness and thoughtlessness. In this sense, thoughtlessness is a willingness to abandon one’s common sense of right and wrong in order to fit in, be part of a movement, and attain success in the world. What thoughtlessness means is a lack of self-reliance, in an Emersonian vein, or, as Arendt puts it, the inability to think for oneself.

At the source of modern thoughtlessness is what Arendt calls the break in tradition that occurs in the modern era. Throughout history people have done wrongs, even great wrongs. But they eventually came to understand the wrongness of those wrongs as against religious, traditional, and customary rules. The rules persisted as rules, even in their breach. The distinction of the modern era and totalitarianism is that the old rules no longer held good. Eichmann and thousands like him in Germany and Soviet Russia were able to see bureaucratic genocide as lawful and right. They could only do so by abandoning their moral sense to the conventional wisdom of those around them. This is what Arendt means by thoughtlessness. The core of Arendt’s argument is that while anti-Semitism can explain hatred of the Jews and even pogroms and murdering of Jews, it cannot explain the motivation behind generally normal people putting aside their moral revulsion to murder and genocide and acting conscientiously to wipe out a race of human beings.

It is very possible that Arendt is wrong or that her argument is overstated. It may be as Haslam and Reicher argue that such action is motivated out of hatred and ideology. But all who think that should read Arendt’s book and see Margarethe von Trotta’s movie and look at the simplicity and clownishness and pettiness of Adolf Eichmann—and decide for themselves.

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The question we who confront her text should ask is not, “is she right or wrong.” Rather, we should seek with her to understand how it is possible for Eichmann and people like him to have done what he did. If Arendt is wrong about Eichmann, than her thesis that thoughtlessness is the motivation for modern evil is questionable as well.

We must be honest: the hypothesis that "she was right in general, but wrong about Eichmann" is contradictory. If she was right and mechanized evil is only possible with bureaucratic thoughtlessness, then how can Eichmann not be bureaucratically thoughtless? Why do we insist on making him a monster? The answer is that we still don't fully accept her argument that Eichmann transformed from a normal anti-Semite with a moral sense into someone for whom morality meant following the law requiring him to destroy Jews. In denying Eichmann’s normality we still need to make him into a monster and thus refuse to confront—and also to resist— the dangerous truth Arendt is seeking to make visible. 

As you prepare to see Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt,” do some reading. For one, read my review of the movie in The Paris Review and A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times. Also read Fred Kaplan’s essay in the New York Times. I suggest as well David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann. And then read S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher’s “Questioning the Banality of Evil.” Finally, check out the Arendt Center’s collection of Reviews of the film here. Best of all, of course, re-read Eichmann in Jerusalem itself. There is a lot to get through here, but take your tablet to the beach. You have a lot to get through for 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".
22Jan/131

Reflections on an Inaugural Address

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.