Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
In the wake of the shootings at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo and the correspondent backlash against the manner of certain depictions and the choices of certain subjects, Anthony Lane considers the role of humor in civil society: "But we need to bear in mind that Charlie Hebdo, the target of the murders in Paris, is a satirical magazine. Its raison d'être was to make people laugh. You may disagree, saying that its more substantial mission was to provoke, to outrage, and to scold unreason and prejudice, bringing institutions to account or into disrepute--but many publications do that with an air of frowning solemnity. If Charlie Hebdo sought the truth, it did so by treading the path of the grotesque, littering the ground with jokes, often cheap and silly ones, as it passed along. That path led to catastrophe. Members of staff were exterminated for making fun. Were they sometimes irresponsible? Yes. Is there not something juvenile, or at least eternally adolescent, about men and women who continue to sneer at power and to snicker at the dignified proceedings of high office long after the rest of us, not without regret, have accepted the rites of dullness as the way of the world? Of course. Freedom of speech, that noblest of abstractions, can easily coarsen and shrink into freedom of snort. Nonetheless, a certain rakish splendor hangs over those who refuse to calm down, shut up, or grow up. To claim, as Tony Barber, the Europe editor of the Financial Times, did in an opinion piece yesterday, that 'some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo,' is to grasp the wrong end of the stick. One of the joys--more often than not, a joyful embarrassment--of a democracy is that it allows time and room for people who find the whole lark of maturing, whether in politics or in personal conduct, to be overrated. Common nonsense has its place and purpose, too." If you read Lane's essay, you'll also get this provocative and pertinent quotation from Henri Bergson, on the nature of comedy: "We have shown that the comic character always errs through obstinacy of mind or of disposition, through absent-mindedness, in short, through automatism. At the root of the comic there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen. In Molière's plays, how many comic scenes can be reduced to this simple type: A character following up his one idea and continually recurring to it in spite of incessant interruptions! The transition seems to take place imperceptibly from the man who will listen to nothing, to the one who will see nothing, and from this latter to the one who sees only what he wants to see."
Frederik deBoer is frustrated with the nature of the response to the shootings at the French humor magazine Charlie Hedbo; we are, he says, debating dead questions: "Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat and Jon Chait and hundreds more will take the time in the week to come to beat their chests and declare themselves firmly committed to brave ideas like 'murder is bad' and 'free speech is good.' None of them, if pressed, would pretend that we are at risk of abandoning our commitment against murder or in favor of free speech. None of them think that, in response to this attack, we or France or any other industrialized nation is going to pass a bill declaring criticism of Islam illegal. In fact, all of them would, if pressed, likely admit that the result will be literally the opposite: that we will become more belligerent against Muslim extremism, not less; that we will become more aggressive in our posture against Islam, not less; that the public mood, already dark towards Islam, will grow only darker. They know all of this. They simply won't tell you about it. This is a liar's conversation we're having right now. It's built on a foundation of unreality. People debating it rail against an outcome that not one of them think is actually going to happen. And they do it for the same reason they always do it, to avoid talking about the rot underneath their feet. I have no time to debate the immorality of murder, and I see no one who disagrees with me on that immorality with whom I could debate. There are real questions that this lurching, violent country should ask itself, and won't." He is right. It is unlikely we will pass laws making the criticisms of Muslims or Jews illegal. What Charlie Hedbo responded to with satire was a cultural and social unwillingness to speak certain opinions, a kind of self-censorship that limits critiques not only of Muslims but also of other minorities and so too of powerful interests. There is a place for those who speak up to power, including for those who do so irreverently and, yes, sometimes rudely and stupidly.
Seyla Benhabib responds to the Charlie Hebdo massacres: "No, I don't think that the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the ensuing violence is just a reaction to the offense to Prophet Mohammed or to Islam; neither do I think that it is about what the Koran says or does not say about blasphemy and apostasy. At its root, it is driven by Muslim rage and Arab Muslim civilizational despair. Islam's current-day reformers are few and far between, while itinerant and fiery preachers like al-Madoudi have captured global audiences. But even if there were a significant reform movement within Islam, I don't believe that this would be enough. What is needed is a regional or international effort on the scale of a Marshall plan for the Arab Muslim world that will invest in infrastructure, communications, agriculture, industry, medicine and education. Just as Europe was pulled out of its devastation after WWII, so too this region which is almost bleeding to death, needs to be resuscitated."
David Brooks adds an insight to the discussion about irresponsible satire of the kind practiced by Charlie Hedbo. For Brooks, such satire is juvenile, and yet it has an important role to play. "In most societies, there's the adults' table and there's the kids' table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults' table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher, are at the kids' table. They're not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying. Healthy societies, in other words, don't suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct. The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating." Even in monarchies, the importance of the fool was recognized, the one person who could say the truth that others were afraid to utter. To make the truth palatable, it had to be vulgarized and hidden in humor.
Ayana Mathis has a beautiful essay in Guernica on her struggles with faith. "For many years I was a lion. I answered to no one, really. And I was free. There were periods in which my freedom was a terror, as though I were untethered and floating off into the high thin air. And there were times my freedom made me ferocious and strong. I have lived, for the most part, as I wanted to, and I have had the liberty to attempt, always failing, to become a person I admired. I am not sure what this has cost me. I am not sure now of what I mean by freedom. I do know that I have doggedly refused to belong--to a community, to a family, to a religion. It seems to me now that this is naïve and foolhardy, the idea that I could somehow outwit the nature of being alive." For Mathis, faith has a faceted and deep history, but it is also importantly political. "In 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, a young girl named Bettie Mae Fikes sang 'This Little Light of Mine' in a church in Selma, Alabama. Fikes was sixteen and a member of the Freedom Singers, the musical arm of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She sang with the soul of a warrior, improvising the lyrics of the second verse, 'Tell Governor Wallace [the rabidly pro-segregation governor of Alabama], I'm gonna let it shine...' The song rose out of her like trumpets sounding before battle. And indeed young Fikes was going into battle, armed with, among other things, the theology of freedom. We have diminished the spiritual aspects of, as it was called at the time, The Struggle. History has transformed Martin Luther King Jr. into an activist first and a minister second, when in reality it was the other way around. The movement he led, along with his stance against the Vietnam War and his Poor People's Campaign in the late 1960s, was a spiritual one to its very roots. He referred often to the establishment of what he called 'the beloved community,' a global fellowship based on the dignity of all humankind as creatures of God and the eradication of poverty and racism through nonviolent protest. At the heart of that community, in King's theology, was love: Christ's commandment that we love one another. Love, not as a toothless feel-good sentiment, but love in all its ferocious and transformative possibility. Paul Tillich defines it thusly: 'Love is not an emotional but an ontological force.' Buoyed by this theology, ordinary people summoned extraordinary courage in the name of liberation. They were spat on at lunch counters from Greensboro to Montgomery, beaten bloody with batons and zapped with cattle prods in jail cells. All the while they sang those old church hymns I thought so insipid when I was a teenager. They sang 'We shall overcome... The Lord will see us through...' and '...like a tree that's planted by the waters, we shall not be moved.' They fought for their freedom and, in a radical interpretation of Jesus's admonition to turn the other cheek, their struggle would also liberate the whites who had so terribly oppressed them. They aimed to cut out the rot so as to save the whole body, not just its parts. What happened to that church? Where is the movement's radical spirituality when we so desperately need it?"
Glenn Loury opens a debate on the legacy of Ferguson in The Boston Review: "Once again a high-profile but disputed encounter on the streets of an American city has become the site for a national debate over issues of race, order, and social justice. This is, in my view, an unfortunate and unproductive state of affairs. The case of Michael Brown should not frame our deliberations on racism and public order. A stark conflict of narratives in an unavoidably ambiguous factual context may set the stage for considerable drama but is unlikely to yield progress toward the reconciliation of two irrefutably legitimate claims: first, all American communities must be kept secure from the depredations of violent criminals; second, all Americans must be treated with dignity and respect by the law enforcement officers they encounter on the streets where they live. Both claims express fundamental requirements of social justice: the residents of disadvantaged and marginal communities, too often people of color, also deserve public order and individual protections. But, as a practical matter, these imperatives are in tension. Maintaining order in dangerous communities is bound to engender some conflicts between the police and the residents of these places. Achieving social justice today means both acknowledging the moral force of these claims and remaining open to the complex and troubling social realities to which they apply. We are a long way from doing either. Our current ways of thinking involve a series of binaries that, in my view, preclude a reasoned weighing of the two basic moral imperatives. A precondition for having a serious and effective deliberation about policies, laws, and practices is, on this argument, to dispel such simplistic ways of thinking." For one thing, Loury argues that the protests following Ferguson are ineffective because they don't target laws: "[Rosa] Parks's protest targeted a law. Responsibility for changing that law was clear, as was the moral conviction at stake. Brown's death under ambiguous circumstances provides no such path to change. Indeed, the reactions to it have every prospect of leading to further entrenchment of the status quo--not just because Brown seems to have been the aggressor, but also because issues about crime, policing, and poverty cannot be addressed in the ways that traditional civil rights issues could."
In the same issue of The Boston Review, Danielle Allen responds to Loury by defending Al Sharpton's focus not on policies but on highlighting inequality. "But two generations of scholarship in history and political philosophy have shown that the inclusion/exclusion paradigm is inadequate to reality. Our problem is not exclusion, to be solved by inclusion. Our problem is domination, to be solved by non-domination. Liberal institutions in America were built on documents and principles that provided liberty for some and domination for others. These differential statuses were not accidentally but intrinsically connected to each other. Those who enjoyed liberation and the benefits of domination, which we have come to call white privilege and male privilege, mistakenly understood themselves to be experiencing equality. Thus began the mis-education of our people. We have not yet learned what it means and feels like to live with one another, with the many and different others among whom we find ourselves, on the footing of equality. Sharpton's network relentlessly spotlights this fact. In order to achieve our egalitarian aspirations, we need not so much include the excluded as reconstitute our social order. In this sense our project is no longer one of racial justice, of fixing something for a part of the population, as the image of inclusion suggests. Instead we need an egalitarian order for everyone."
Katrina Forrester, in a review of Edmund Fawcett's book Liberalism: This History of an Idea, suggests that liberalism's history does not start with Locke and liberty but as a way of finding alternatives to a certain other competing idea: "The liberal dream, Fawcett writes, was 'a myth of order in a masterless world.' Crucially, for liberals, this was only a dream. What distinguished them from conservatives was their belief that progress toward such a world was possible; what distinguished them from socialists was their belief that they would never get there. Conflict was intractable; there was no utopia in which politics would cease. The aim of liberalism was to manage conflict, while still treating people with 'civic respect'--a catchall phrase for the various kinds of legal and political equality owed to citizens of liberal societies... To do so, they turned to whatever institutions worked best. In the German case, Bismarck's antisocialist strategy resulted in the national welfare schemes hailed as the origins of the welfare state. But the best institutions were not always those of the state: while philosophers tended to describe state authority as coherent and unitary, in reality its power was messy and diffuse. As a result, liberalism in the age before the fully centralized state was highly experimental. It looked to all sorts of institutional arrangements--national and local, collectivist and individualist. The mid-nineteenth century saw a proliferation of voluntary associations, self-help cooperatives, unions, mutual banks, friendly societies for insurance and other forms of collectivism, both in theory (the writings of Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill and the German theorist of 'mutualism' Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch) and in practice. Though these associations are usually thought of as more socialist than liberal, they were often first imagined as alternatives to state socialism."
Ian Storey made the case for satire in an essay published last year: "Some are suspicious of jokesters and satirists in moments of political crisis, on the one hand because they seem to rarely offer any positive way forward, and on the other because they work to make light of things that, in their graveness, ought not be made light of. Arendt herself emerged from the pale of the events that offer our best examples of horror's power to make us resist its translation into humor (though it should be remembered that one of her first pieces after the war was the darkly witty 'We, The Refugees'). In that, we risk becoming horror's willing agents, but perhaps in some cases it has already won its victories and we can only subsequently mourn. It's a difficult question, which terrible things can be made funny, and those who would play in the languages of politics should be granted a measure of leniency for those times when they traipse over the line. In their defense, that line is one that can never be drawn in advance, because it comes bearing ever-shifting whens and whoms that can always be pushed further back by an extraordinary gift that not even the most talented satirists can live up to in every moment. The line can be pushed back, and should be pushed back, because when undertaken by the most talented, satire and seriousness have never been opposites, but on the contrary are what allow each other to do the utmost that they can do. This is what made Orwell, for all his limitations, one of the great political writers of and on the English language: in the face first of empire and then of anti-semitic totalitarianism, he staked his artistic life on a faith in the power to express what is most utterly serious better through wit, to join the sustaining narrative power of sad mirth to the deepest and most inexpressible of pains. The lesson of 'Shooting an Elephant' always seemed to me to be something along the lines of an idea that horror must be swallowed just long enough to give us sustenance, if we are to go once more into the breach against it. It's a difficult and contentious thought, but worth swallowing."
Everywhere people are aghast that terrorists killed in response to cartoons. But the reason to defend satire is precisely that such speech can be radical, revolutionary, and dangerous. Thus there is something heartening in the anger at Charlie Hedbo, the discomfort that so many express with the magazine's juvenile satirical stance. To be effective, satire must discomfort. It must grate and piss off. Indeed, the great danger in a decadent society is when satire loses its ability to infuriate. This is the danger that Arendt saw in Weimar Germany, specifically in the popularity of Berthold Brecht's satirical classic, the "Threepenny Opera." Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht's play: "'The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, 'Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral' [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one's hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.' According to Arendt, Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence. However, the effect of 'Threepenny Opera' was exactly the opposite since all groups in society reacted to Brecht's satire with joy instead of repulsion. Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt 'genuine delight' in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob 'destroy respectability.' As Arendt explained, the 'members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.' Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean."
Satirical cartoonist Joe Sacco draws his response to the killings in Paris: "My first reaction was sadness. People were brutally killed, among them several cartoonists--my tribe." Sacco knows that "tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now believed to be dangerous." He thinks it is also "vapid." Satire, he writes, "is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone? What exactly is the target? And why?" He struggles to figure that out and writes: "But perhaps when we tire of holding up our middle finger we can try to think about why the world is the way it is... And what it is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image. And if we answer 'Because something is deeply wrong with them'--certainly something was deeply wrong with the killers--then let us drive them from their homes and into the sea. For that is going to be far easier than sorting out how we fit in each other's world."
Ulrich Beck died on New Years Day. The German sociologist was best known for his book The Risk Society. He is eulogized here in the Financial Times: "In Risikogesellschaft, published in Germany in 1986, Beck, who died aged 70 on New Year's Day, argued that the theme of freeing humanity from its traditional constraints was being eclipsed by a new imperative; the need to manage the risks created by mankind's technological advances. Mads Sørensen, an academic at Aarhus university and author of an introduction to Beck's work said: 'Beck knew very well that we can't avoid taking risks. That risk-taking is part of life. However, some of the "new risks" that were the focus of his analysis--radioactivity is perhaps the best example--have the potential to destroy us.' The only way to avoid such risks, in Beck's view, was, for example, to shut down nuclear power plants; the social scientist praised Germany's plans for an accelerated nuclear exit after the Fukushima disaster. Other risks, such as climate change or terrorism, had to be managed rather than avoided entirely. Beck pointed out that these risks were transnational, cutting across old boundaries between nations. 'There is therefore no way around increasing transnational co-operation if we want to protect ourselves against them,' Mr Sørensen said."
The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.
To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.
Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015
Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Eyal Press
The Courage To Refuse
Monday, February 9, 2015
Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm
Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Keith Haring Fellow in Art and Activism, Jeanne van Heeswijk
Monday, February 16, 2015
Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm
Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Uday Mehta
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Monday, March 30, 2015
Manor House Cafe, 6:00 pm
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, Time TBA
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015!
This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin investigates Arendt's claim that the racist Nazi government and Soviet communist government both followed a deeper underlying idea in the Quote of the Week. C. G. Jung provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We appreciate a testament to Arendt's interest in Jewish historiography in our Library feature. And Seyla Benhabib has written an essay explaining what the Charlie Hebdo attacks mean to the West's negotiation with Islam in the modern world.
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Charlie Huenemann takes on the ghettoization of philosophy: "Most academic philosophy departments see themselves primarily as housing a specialized academic discipline, and contributing only incidentally here or there to a university's general education curriculum. The priority needs to be reversed. Frankly, there is little or no need for specialized academic philosophy; if it disappeared overnight, the only ones who would notice would be the practitioners themselves. But on the other hand, despite the occasional iconoclastic polemic saying otherwise, there is a widespread recognition that philosophy provides a valuable contribution to the mind of an educated person, even if the person is not working toward a degree in the field. Philosophy professors need to see their primary job as enriching the mental lives, values, and discourses of non-philosophers. For almost everyone, we should be a side dish rather than the main course. That is where our societal value lies." I've ridden this hobby horse before: "As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay 'On Violence,' humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant....We should, of course, continue to support scholars, those whose work is to some extent scholarly innovative. But more needed are well-read and thoughtful teachers who can teach widely and write for a general audience.... To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. 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 who 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." Read more here.
Kenan Malik, who will speak at the HAC on Sept. 17th, writes in the NY Times this week about the deeply worrying rise of both antisemitism and islamophobia in Europe, particularly in France. He refers soberly to the Pew Survey that shows "not just that anti-Semitism had increased throughout Europe, but also that the 'publics that view Jews unfavorably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light.' The fusion of xenophobia, conspiracy theory, identity politics and anti-politics that has nurtured the new anti-Semitism has also cultivated hostility to Muslims. The Pew report found that in every country surveyed, 'Opinions about Muslims in almost all of these countries are considerably more negative than are views of Jews.'" Above all, what Malik sees, is the fundamental Arendtian thesis that antisemitism and Islamophobia are not about hatred of Jews or Muslims but are ideologies born of loneliness and emptiness that project fears and frustrations onto minority groups. He writes: "At the same time, the emergence of 'anti-politics,' the growing contempt for mainstream politics and politicians noticeable throughout Europe, has laid the groundwork for a melding of radicalism and bigotry. Many perceive a world out of control and driven by malign forces; conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of politics, have become mainstream. Anti-Semitism has become a catchall sentiment for many different groups of angry people." There is, unfortunately, too much truth in Malik's essay, and what it points to in the rise of ideological antisemitism and islamophobia is the profound malaise in Europe that has people searching for movements and ideologies that can give sense to their world. That is the origin of totalitarianism.
Freddie deBoer takes aim at some of the practices of contemporary online social liberalism: "On matters of substance, I agree with almost everything that the social liberals on Tumblr and Twitter and blogs and websites believe. I believe that racism is embedded in many of our institutions. I believe that sexual violence is common and that we have a culture of misogyny. I believe that privilege is real. I believe all of that. And I understand and respect the need to express rage, which is a legitimate political emotion. But I also believe that there's no possible way to fix these problems without bringing more people into the coalition. I would like for people who are committed to arguing about social justice online to work on building a culture that is unrelenting in its criticisms of injustice, but that leaves more room for education. People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive. If we turn away from everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room. Surely there are ways to preserve righteous anger while being more circumspect about who is targeted by that anger. And I strongly believe that we can, and must, remind the world that social justice is about being happy, being equal, and being free." Or, as Hannah Arendt might say, true plurality is the basic condition of action and of politics, which means engaging with people as equals and finding our commonalities and shared ideals even when we fundamentally disagree with them. This is part of what it means to love the world, to reconcile ourselves with a world that is frustrating and angering and beyond our control - although there are, of course, some actions that cannot be loved. But they are much fewer and more rare than the one-sided screeds on social media would have you believe.
In a long essay in The Nation, Samuel Moyn engages with David Bromwich's new book on Edmund Burke and also on Bromwich's new-found political voice that emerged as a critique of George W. Bush and has grown with his critical analysis of President Obama. Bromwich, who will be speaking at the Arendt Center Conference The Unmaking of Americans in October, sees the President's failure rooted in his disingenuous posture of moderate reformism. Moyn writes that Bromwich mobilizes Burke as a critic of the 'peace-prize war president': "Most of all, Bromwich offered an abstract critique of abstraction and an attack on dreamers for not being moderate enough, a Burkean indictment to which he added his own charge that moderates never get anything done: 'The position of a moderate who aspires to shake the world into a new shape presents a continuous contradiction. For the moderate feels constrained not to say anything startling, and not to do anything very fast. But just as there is trouble with doing things on the old lines, there is trouble, too, with letting people understand things on the old lines. At least, there is if you have your sights set on changing the nature of the game. Obama is caught in this contradiction, and keeps getting deeper in it, like a man who sinks in quicksand both the more he struggles and the more he stays still.' Or more concisely: 'If it is bad, all things being equal, to appear grandiose and worse to appear timid, it is the worst of all to be grandiose and then timid.' Obama couldn't win: to the extent that he tried to hew to his revolutionary promises he betrayed Burke, but the converse was also true. It wasn't so much Obama's unexceptional compromises as it was the way he fooled Americans with his promise of saving us from politics that gave Bromwich's criticisms their power. He made himself a harsh deprogrammer who tapped into the quiet fury of many a betrayed cult member. How much anger at Obama's triangulations masked, or fed on, embarrassment about prior credulity? Bromwich caught the mood of this ire. Yet as Obama's ratings - real and moral - tank daily, more depends on why we conclude the president failed. The strengths and weaknesses of Bromwich's diagnosis stem from a Burkean configuration of interests: the personal and the anti-imperial. Burke was at his most convincing when defending freedom against empire, a fact that Bromwich has long emphasized. But the Irish protector of English liberty was at his most bombastic when his political rhetoric slipped into a merely personal hatred. Bromwich understood this point in his first book - 'What is weakest and most imitable in Burke's style,' he noted then, 'is a quickness of scorn that amounts at times to superciliousness' - but he sometimes forgets the lesson."
Hisham Melhem issues an angry call to Arab states to confront their loss of legitimacy: "It is no longer very useful to talk about Syria and Iraq as unitary states because many people involved in the various struggles there don't seem to share a national narrative. It is instructive to observe that those who are ruling Damascus and Baghdad don't seem to be extremely moved to do something about a force that eliminated their national boundaries and in the process occupied one third of each country, and is bent on creating a puritanical Caliphate stretching from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. ISIS is exploiting the rage and alienation of the minority Arab Sunni Iraqis by the increasing sectarian policies pursued by Nouri Maliki for 8 years, just as it is exploiting the anger of the Majority Sunni Arabs in Syria who have been marginalized by the Assad dynasty for more than 40 years.... ISIS may be the reject of al-Qaeda, but like al-Qaeda, it is the illegitimate child of modern political Islam that grew and expanded in what the Arabs refer to as البيئةالحاضنة, an 'embracing environment.' The ugly truth is that the ISIS cancer was produced by a very ill and weak Arab body politic." Melham is correct to see the danger; as we witness the growing legitimacy crisis in Western democracies, leaders in the West should take note as well.
In an interview, author and filmmaker Etgar Keret talks about our weird and intense proclivity for loyalty to sports teams, organizations which we follow by choice and can stop following whenever we please: "When I was young - this is a true story - I always wanted my parents to take me to football games. I had no interest in the teams; I just liked the people. I did have a distant relative who worked in a football club. The club had a fixture against an opposing club in which the losing team would drop down a division. I didn't care about that; I just wanted to watch people and I felt the vibe and was into it. What happened was that my relative's team lost in the last minute of the game. And he had got me there sitting on the front bench - I was six or seven years old. My interest was so abstract that when the other team won, I ran into the pitch and started hugging the players - and my relative didn't speak to me for ten years after that, because for him I was a traitor. But for me, I was just going to games for the joy of the players. Whenever I went to games, I focused on people who were happy. I was trying - and able, in fact - to be part of it. For me, it was beyond this totally arbitrary team thing. But when I tried to explain this to my relative, he almost killed me. It was one of the most aggressive experiences of my life."
Zephyr Teachout, author of Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United and a Democratic Primary Candidate in the upcoming Gubernatorial Election, will be visiting Bard College to address students, staff and community members.
Friday, September 5th, 2014
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 3:00-4:00 pm
For more information about this event, please click here.
Details soon to follow.
Wednesday, September 17h, 2014
The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm
Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."
Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!
Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!
Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!
Learn more about the conference here.
This week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch discusses the significance of "betweenness" for Arendt's work to understand the meaning of politics in the Quote of the Week. Mahatma Gandhi provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a Lunchtime Talk with Victor Granado Almena on cosmopolitan citizenship in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz discusses the nature of democracy in the modern world in the Weekend Read.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes a man with a Muck Rake, a man who looks only down, raking the muck off the floor. Earthly, gazing down, collecting the muck around himself, the Muck Raker sees only the detritus of our world. He never looks up, neither into the heavens or even into the face of another. For Bunyan, the Muck Raker is blind to the spiritual and sublime.
The journalists who beginning in the late 19th century came to be called Muckrakers looked down at the painful truth that was America in an age of corruption, inequality, and corporatism. As Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in her excellent new book Bully Pulpit, the muckrakers turned a “microscope on humanity, on the avarice and corruption that stunted the very possibility of social justice in America.”
One of the central storylines of Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit is the alliance between Theodore Roosevelt and the Muckraking journalists around McClure’s Magazine. Roosevelt met frequently with Sam McClure and his writers, feeding them stories and also soliciting their advice and knowledge as he promoted his progressive agenda and took on corporate trusts. Roosevelt both needed the journalists, but also feared the excess of their truthtelling zeal. Here is how Teddy Roosevelt describes the Muckrakers in one speech from 1906:
In Pilgrim's Progress the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.
The McClures crowd always insisted that they “muck-raked never to destroy, but with utter faith in reason and progress.” It was because McClure and his writers “criticized in full confidence that, once understood, evils would be speedily corrected,” that they so fully gained Roosevelt’s trust and confidence. What Kearns Goodwin so vividly makes clear was the power of such an alliance between crusading journalists and a courageous politician.
Complaints about the contemporary state of the press are common. Rarely, however, does someone lay out in stark detail both the failures of the press, as well as providing insight into when, why, and how the press does succeed in fulfilling its role as the watchdog of corruption and the attendant for crusading change. But that is just what Dean Starkman does in his new book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (recently excerpted in Columbia Journalism Review).
Starkman sets out to argue a simple thesis: “The US business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.” In short, he argues that if the press had done a better job of alerting the public and our political leaders to the corruption and crises within the mortgage markets, the financial crisis likely could and would have been avoided.
Starkman offers an optimistic view. It is based on the assumption that the people and our leaders actually respond to rational warnings. It is equally likely, however, that the press doesn’t warn us because we don’t really want to be warned. Over and over again on questions of importance from torture to totalitarianism and from corruption to criminality, complaints that the press failed are myopic. In nearly every case, the press has indeed reported the story. What has happened, however, is that the hard-hitting stories about torture or cover-ups or financial misdeeds rarely find an audience when times are good or the country feels threatened. The problem, indeed, may be less a feckle press than dormant population.
The beauty of Starkman’s analysis is that he makes clear that serious muckraking journalism about the illegal and corrupt practices in the mortgage lending industry did appear if briefly—it just had little effect and faded away. While most of these articles appeared in small non-mainstream journals, some larger papers and magazines like Forbes and the Wall St. Journal did run such hard-hitting investigative reports. The problem is that they did so only early on in the build up to the crisis—from 2001-2003. After that period, they dropped the ball. Starkman sees this as evidence that the press did not bark. On one level he is right. But it could also be seen as evidence that the press barked and learned a sad lesson: That so long as chickens were plentiful, the people didn’t care to know that the fox was in the hen house.
The lesson Starkman draws is different. It is that we need to preserve the muckraking tradition, which now goes under the bland professionalized name of “accountability reporting.”
Now is a good time to consider what journalism the public needs. What actually works? Who are journalism’s true forefathers and foremothers? Is there a line of authority in journalism’s collective past that can help us navigate its future? What creates value, both in a material sense and in terms of what is good and valuable in American journalism?
Accountability reporting comes in many forms—a series of revelations in a newspaper or online, a book, a TV magazine segment—but its most common manifestation has been the long-form newspaper or magazine story, the focus of this book. Call it the Great Story. The form was pioneered by the muckrakers’ quasi-literary work in the early 20th century, with Tarbell’s exposé on the Standard Oil monopoly in McClure’s magazine a brilliant example. As we’ll see, the Great Story has demonstrated its subversive power countless times and has exposed and clarified complex problems for mass audiences across a nearly limitless range of subjects: graft in American cities, modern slave labor in the US, the human costs of leveraged buyouts, police brutality and corruption, the secret recipients on Wall Street of government bailouts, the crimes and cover-ups of media and political elites, and on and on, year in and year out. The greatest of muckraking editors, Samuel S. McClure, would say to his staff, over and over, almost as a mantra, “The story is the thing!” And he was right.
Starkman opposes “accountability reporting to “access reporting,” what he calls “the practice of obtaining inside information from powerful people and institutions.” The press relies too much on simply telling us what the companies want us to know rather than digging deeply to tell the untold story. This is even more the case in the internet era, Starkman worries, because news organizations are cutting budgets for investigative reporters as the economics of journalism turns to commentary and linking rather than investigation. What the public needs, he writes, is a public-centered support for accountability journalism in the mainstream media.
To buttress his claim, Starkman invokes Walter Lippman.
Walter Lippmann is as right today as he was in 1920. It’s not enough for reporters and editors to struggle against great odds as many of them have been doing. It’s time to take the public into our confidence. The news about the news needs to be told. It needs to be told because, in the run-up to the global financial crisis, the professional press let the public down.
But after his early call for a better kind of public-spirited journalism in 1920, Lippmann shifted gears with the publication of Public Opinion in 1922. As Jim Sleeper writes recently in Dissent, Public Opinion was much less optimistic about the power of the press to serve the public good.
Lippmann later claimed to identify something more profoundly problematic than bad reporting: “the very nature of the way the public formed its opinions,” as his biographer Ronald Steele put it. He despaired of a public of citizens with enough time and competence to weigh evidence and decide important questions, and in 1922 he published Public Opinion, which contended that experts needed to be insulated from democratic tempests when making decisions, which could then be ratified by voters. Lippmann’s contemporary John Dewey called it “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned.”
Sleeper recognizes, in a way Starkman does not, that such optimism runs counter to Lippmann’s powerful conclusions about the formation of public opinion in democracy. Sleeper nevertheless praises “Starkman’s civic faith, which enables him to distill from his experience some real clarity about journalism and its proper mission.” Undoubtedly the mission is laudable. His story about journalism should be told. Starkman does it well and it should be read. It is your weekend read. As you do so, ask yourself: If we want to revitalize democracy can a revitalized muckraking journalism lead the way?
John Duncan has in interesting response to Bill Dixon’s Quote of the Week this week. Dixon wrote about the importance of power (as opposed to violence or domination) in political life. And he worried that power was being lost and, what is more, becoming impossible to hold on to or acquire in the modern world. He writes:
The dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world. Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.
Duncan wonders how power can be created and made in our world. He answers:
Express, discuss, decide, persuade, negotiate, compromise: these are the skilled activities that bring power into existence. These are the skills that direct the course of an organization and allow it to change without losing support of its individual members. The skills are used with other people (which is why they’re political). The skills require a space where their use can take place; imply a basic equality of participation; a reason or purpose to be together; and a love and respect for language and the power of well chosen words.
I am particularly taken by Duncan’s discussion of persuasion as a source of power.
Persuading is the art of convincing and winning-over others in a non-manipulative way. It presupposes strong convictions in one’s view of reality — particularly opportunities, threats, organizational strengths and weaknesses. It requires a well articulated vision of what the enterprise might become that is inspiring while solidly grounded. It requires a belief that the right words will bring others around to see things your way. It also implies a willingness to be persuaded oneself, to recognize and accept superior insights and understandings of others.
These thoughts on the possible manufacture of power in modern politics raise important points about modern social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and also the horizontalidad movement in Chile. One question we should ask is why the Chilean movement has proven so powerful whereas OWS (and now it seems also the Tea Party) has fizzled and died.
Exploring the lessons of the Chilean movement is indeed the theme of an interview Zoltan Gluck conducted with Camila Vallejo and Noam Titleman, leaders of the social justice movement in Chile (Zoltan is a former student of mine, just a shout out of congratulations!)
In response to a question about the connection between leaderless and consensus based ideology of OWS and how it relates to the Chilean movement, Noam Titleman answers:
Let me say that I think the Chilean movement does place a special emphasis on its decision-making processes and does truly want to involve everyone in these processes. But one of the reasons that the movement has been able to build such strength has been its ability to concentrate its collective force in an organized fashion. That is, not just leaving decisions to the sort of ritualistic or experiential feeling of being in one place with a lot of people and discussing things, but actually putting them into action. And this obviously requires a high degree of organization. I think there is a danger that by criticizing institutions, we end up criticizing organization and that’s really a big mistake. I think that horizontalidad allows us to make sure that the decisions are made by everyone, but in the execution of those decisions we need to have some sort of organization, otherwise we are doomed to be in a beautiful, noble, and naïve movement but not a not very efficient one.
Organization is, of course, another way power can be created in modern politics. That is, unless protest leaders are so caught up in theories of oppression, domination, and hierarchy that they are unwilling or unable to organize or lead.
Thomas Frank makes this point vividly in a recent essay in The Baffler. Frank is reviewing a series of recent books about Occupy Wall Street. Frank is clear-sighted in detailing not simply the limits of OWS, but of the books that are now pouring forth about the movement. The books are all, he writes, “deeply, hopelessly in love with this protest. Each one takes for granted that the Occupy campaign was world-shaking and awe-inspiring.” Not only is this wrong, it prevents these authors and I would add most liberal supporters of Occupy Wall Street from confronting the stunning failure of Occupy Wall Street. Here is Frank:
The question that the books under consideration here seek to answer is: What is the magic formula that made OWS so successful? But it’s exactly the wrong question. What we need to be asking about Occupy Wall Street is: Why did this effort fail? How did OWS blow all the promise of its early days? Why do even the most popular efforts of the Left come to be mired in a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing.
What Frank points to is the dominance of academic talk and theorizing. Surprisingly he makes the case that this is true of both OWS and the Tea Party. The books about OWS and the protesters, Frank writes, cared more about the “mechanics” of the protest—the fact that it was non-hierarchal, open, inclusive, and consensual—than any ends, goals, or accomplishments. Whereas the Chilean movement embraced getting things done and working to build institutions, the anti-institutional bias of the theorists within Occupy Wall Street militated against building an organization. Talk was allowed, but no persuasion.
As John Duncan writes in his comments, persuasion cannot be empty or purely mechanical. It requires a “well articulated vision of what the enterprise might become that is inspiring while solidly grounded. It requires a belief that the right words will bring others around to see things your way.” This is deeply true and it requires the openness to leadership and inspiration that the forces guiding Occupy Wall Street would not allow.
What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. What has happened in Egypt is so far only a rebellion. It has liberated Egypt from the yoke of tyranny. Time will tell whether Egypt will experience a revolution that builds institutions of freedom. At the core of Arendt's political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that power, freedom, and collective action belong together.
What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Since written laws cannot control power, but "only power arrests power," freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the "consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same."
What Dixon, Duncan, Titleman, and Frank help us see in an Arendtian vein is that power today will only reappear if we work to build and found new organizations and new institutions. Such a building requires vision as well as tactics. Arendt offers us one vision: it is the ideal of federalism, the radical diffusion of multiple sources of power throughout society. That vision is in danger of disappearing today under the fiscal and political forces of centralization. If it is to be resisted, those who would resist it will have to be willing to articulate a vision of a different way. In Frank’s words, it will require a movement.
whose core values arise not from an abstract hostility to the state or from the need for protesters to find their voice but rather from the everyday lives of working people. It would help if the movement wasn’t centered in New York City. And it is utterly essential that it not be called into existence out of a desire to reenact an activist’s fantasy about Paris ’68.
Frank’s essay is bracing reading and should keep you warm with thoughts over this cold weekend. Enjoy. It is your weekend read.
I am not usually hanging out on the Archbishop of Canterbury's website, but a former student and current Arendt Center Intern alerted me to his Reverence's recent review of Marilynne Robinson's newest book, When I Was A Child I Read Books. It turns out the Archbishop and I share a fondness in brilliant contemporary authors:
These essays are pure gold. Written with all her usual elegance, economy, and intellectual ruthlessness, they constitute a plea for recovering the use of "liberal" as an adjective, and, what is more, an adjective whose central meaning is specified by its use in scripture. "The word occurs [in the Geneva Bible] in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity" - and not a generosity of "tolerating viewpoints" alone, but of literal and practical dispersal of goods to those who need them.
Psalm 122 is, you could say, the theme song of this vision, and it is a vision that prompts Robinson to a ferocious critique of the abstractions of ideology - including "austerity" as an imperative to save the world for capitalism. She offers a striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism: rationalism as she defines it is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic.
Two points jump out here, besides the Archbishop's excellent taste. First, the Archbishop's desire to defend an old-fashioned ideal of liberality, one that has little to do with political partisanship. The liberalism Archbishop Rowan Williams defends has its secular antecedent in the philosophy of Aristotle. In his Ethics, Aristotle defines the liberal man as one who is praised with regard to "the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving." The liberal man knows how to give to the right people and how much. And such liberality, especially when directed toward the public, is an essential part of public virtue. In giving to the public, freely, the liberal man offers an example of public spirit and generosity that, more so than paying required taxes, affirms a belonging to something bigger and more meaningful than just himself. This is one reason for the importance of a culture of philanthropy.
The question of liberalism is much in the air today. Not only do Republicans deride liberals, but since Paul Ryan's selection there has been a raging debate about the tradition of liberal Christianity. Many Catholics have argued that Ryan's calls for austerity violate the Catholic ideals of social justice. In response, Bill McGurn argued this week in the Wall Street Journal that social justice is an optional requirement for Catholics, whereas support for human life is non-negotiable. McGurn writes:
Mr. Ryan's own bishop, the Most Rev. Robert C. Morlino, addressed the subject with his most recent column in the diocesan paper for Madison, Wis. The church, he wrote, regards abortion as an "intrinsic evil" (meaning always and everywhere wrong, regardless of circumstances). In sharp contrast, he said, on issues such as how best to create jobs or help the poor, "there can be difference according to how best to follow the principles which the church offers."
It is hard not to see the Archbishop of Canterbury's review of Robinson's book as a contribution to this debate over the requirements of liberal Chistianity. For Archbishop Rowen, and unlike McGurn and Ryan's own bishop, liberality is biblical in origin and demands an ethic of "non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity." What that means is, of course, open for debate. But the requirement of liberal Catholic generosity itself is, pace the Archbishop, indisputable.
A second point to glean from the Archbishop's review is his interest in Robinson's "striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism." The difference between thinking and rationalizing is that thinking refuses to sacrifice reality to the coherence of theory. Rationalism as Robinson has described it in so many of her essays and novels, elevates logical coherence above the factual messiness of reality. Rationalism "is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic."
Where thinkers shine is in their responsiveness to individuals and singular events, and few writers today are more attentive to particulars than Marilynne Robinson. Robinson has spent the last few decades showing up the world's leading scientists and theorists, exposing the leaps of faith upon which their scientific rationalizations are predicated. The effort is not to diminish science, but to warn us against denigrating the complexity of scientific knowing to simple faiths that offer easy answers to life's perplexing questions.
You can read the Archbishop of Canterbury's review of Marilynne Robinson's essays here. Better yet, download and read Marilynne Robinson's 'When I Was a Child I Read Books'. You can also read past discussions of Robinson's work here and here.
How many times can we watch the latest European movie? Once again Europe is buckling under the weight of debt and austerity. And once again, Greece, the birthplace of democracy, has led the democratic leaders of Europe to shun their responsibilities and beg for technocratic saviors.
As the Financial Times reports, European leaders are as bankrupt as their economies and they are seeking to be bailed out politically and economically by Mario Draghi, the unelected President of the European Central Bank.
To the frustration of Mario Draghi, its president, the European Central Bank is once again being eyed as a possible saviour of Europe’s monetary union. Since he became president last November, Mr Draghi has urged bolder action by politicians to strengthen public finances and build effective “firewalls” against spreading crises. Earlier this month he scolded governments for creating a European Financial Stability Facility that “could hardly be made to work”. He saw the unelected ECB’s role as strictly limited. Instead, eurozone politicians, led by François Hollande, France’s new president, have sought to turn the tables, demanding action from Frankfurt.
As one person the FT quotes says, “There is a constant frustration at the ECB with politicians.” Sounds familiar. It is not only in Europe that politicians have refused to lead and take responsibility for solving our growing and increasingly insoluble problems.
It is easy to blame politicians. But keep in mind, they are elected. And that may be the problem. For it is we, those self-interested and apparently spoiled folks who elect them, who refuse to consider tax raises or austerity, or both, which would actually be necessary to bring our financial houses into order. This is especially true in Greece where voters have repeatedly refused to honestly and pragmatically accept the reforms needed to right the ship of the Greek state.
Which is why Amartya Sen's Op-Ed in the NY Times Tuesday sounds so shrill. Sen rightly sees that democracy in Europe is being replaced by technocratic fiat, and this understandably bothers him. He writes:
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Europe’s current malaise is the replacement of democratic commitments by financial dictates — from leaders of the European Union and the European Central Bank, and indirectly from credit-rating agencies, whose judgments have been notoriously unsound.
But Sen's response is out of touch. If the Greeks would just be given an opportunity to publicly discuss the matter and engage in a rational public discourse, they would be able to take appropriate steps. In his own words:
Participatory public discussion — the “government by discussion” expounded by democratic theorists like John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot — could have identified appropriate reforms over a reasonable span of time, without threatening the foundations of Europe’s system of social justice. In contrast, drastic cuts in public services with very little general discussion of their necessity, efficacy or balance have been revolting to a large section of the European population and have played into the hands of extremists on both ends of the political spectrum.
This is of course a good point. It would be best if the Greeks were to engage in. It would be best if the Greeks were to engage in participatory public discussion leading toward appropriate reforms. But this doesn't seem to be happening, resulting in the draconian cuts, which, yes, are revolting to a large section of the European population. Unmentioned is the fact that other Europeans are revolted by the fact that Greeks for years have worked pitifully few hours in comparison to other Europeans, have paid significantly lower taxes, and supported a political patronage system that creates an untouchable class of political bureaucrats who live well for doing very little. The New York Times reports, today, on the class of Greek plutocrats who for years have avoided taxes and now, when times are tough, are abandoning philanthropies in Greece and secreting their money to tax havens. If the Greeks won't help Greece, why should the Germans?
The point is not simply to punish the Greeks for their past transgressions (although that too is not out of place), but that Germans also no longer trust the Greeks and refuse to go on paying for their profligate ways. And since the Greeks have not and seemingly will not democratically make the changes to their lifestyles that are required by their economic position, they are putting their hopes in undemocratically elected technocrats at the European Central Bank to save them.
The Greeks are not alone in seeking to trade democracy for technocracy. As I have written here and here and here over the past months, the trend toward technocratic governance is growing as people around the world lose faith not simply in democratic leaders, but in democracy itself. Around the world, democracies are electing politicians who are handing off power to non-democratically elected technocrats. This is happening in Europe and also here in the U.S. I am sure some of "the people" disagree with this. But more and more seem fine with it.
It is easy to blame the politicians, just as it has been easy for years to blame the press. But as Edward Luce writes in his recent book Time to Start Thinking, the real problem with democracy is us. He focuses on America:
Americans reflexively single out Washington, D.C., as the cause of their ills. As this book will explore, however, Washington's habits are rooted in American society. Blaming politicians has turned into a lazy perennial of modern American life.
The problem as Luce sees it is that left and right are caught in a thoughtless nostalgia for a golden age that no longer exists. The left, he writes,
yearns for the golden age of the 1950s and '60s when the middle class was swelling and the federal government sent people to the moon. Breadwinners worked eight hours a day in the factory and could bank on "Cadillac" health care coverage, a solid urban or suburban lifestyle, and five weeks' vacation a year.
On the other side, the right is nostalgic for
the godly virtues of the Founding Fathers from whom their country has gravely strayed. People stood on their own two feet and upheld core American values. It was a mostly small town place of strong families, where people respected the military and were involved in their community churches.
Luce understands not only that both these visions are nostalgic, but that they are preventing us from thinking honestly and seriously about our present. The problem is that thinking honestly today requires accepting sacrifice.
The wealthy and the upper middle classes (not just the 1% but the top 20%) will have to pay more in taxes. The poor and the middle classes will have to receive smaller pensions, work longer, and get fewer governmental services in return. Maybe citizens will have to do public service. Standards of living across the board will be hit. This is the payback for decades of debt-infused living that we all need to confront. Luce is right, it is time to start thinking.