“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Over the past decade, European public opinion has roiled with controversy over the full face covering – the niqab or burqa - of Muslim women. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, conducted between April 7th and May 8th 2010, the majority of citizens in France, Germany, Britain, and Spain approve of banning veils that cover the whole face. Subsequently, France and Belgium have implemented national laws that ban the full veil in public places.
Municipal bans are sprinkled across Europe as a whole. Is there an Arendtian angle on the discomfiture that one finds in Europe over the niqab and the burqa (hereafter N/B), a properly political angle that avoids pathologizing the response as simply Islamophobic or xenophobic?
Arendt claimed that the word public evokes two “interrelated phenomena”. First:
everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life – the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses – lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance…The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves…
The second referent of public is “the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.”
Arendt captures an idea prominent in Western traditions: the notion, both intuitive and articulated, that being visible to one another is an integral part of politics. This expectation is registered in theories of judgment (consider the role played by the “spectator” in Adam Smith and Kant’s theories of judgment) and in some of our most potent democratic metaphors: enlightenment, openness, transparency, illumination, recognition, social legibility, accountability, “publicity” and, not least, public. Liberals trumpet the virtue of the Open Society and liberalized Marxists idealize the translucent speech-situation. Socialists and radicals extol debunking, the heir of Rousseau’s crusade to remove the “deceitful veil of politeness” which conceals “fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud”. Negating these images are opacity, the Dark Ages, the dark arts, dark times, heart of darkness, artifice, living in the closet, a shadowy realm, cave-like illusion, Stygian gloom, moral blindness, the id, concealment, inscrutability, subterfuge, murkiness, obscurantism, and backroom deals - notions which variously imply various states of ignorance, menace and deceit. True, prominent French intellectuals of the last century sought to demote vision’s status in the pantheon of sensibility, while conservatives still remain attached to the “decent drapery of life” (Burke). Yet these perspectives have done little to impede the centrality of seeing within the Western, Apollonian political aesthetic.
This formulation suggests what is discordant about the N/B’s existence in the Western political space. While for its bearer the N/B may be understood as a badge of tradition and piety, from the standpoint of a constitutional pluralist citizenry it is a mode of concealment incompatible with public recognition in which visibility of face is central. The N/B denudes facial and, to a degree, vocal recognition. It standardizes human features and hence contributes to the very stereotyping that N/B wearers themselves deplore. Faces and voices are all different, evidence of human plurality. The N/B literally effaces these variations, with the partial exception of the eyes that may sometimes be seen. The N/B also symbolically ruptures the bond of citizenship reciprocity because while its wearer can see her real or potential interlocutor, can take advantage of the visibility of others, non-wearers are denied such access.
Consider two objections to this line of reasoning.
Users of the Internet are often obscured from view and no one assumes that their being invisible is uncitizenly. Indeed, under some definitions of politics, the internet might be considered the quintessentially modern medium of political life: informing the public of political events, orchestrating voting, requesting or inciting people to participate in demonstrations, directing attention to abuses of rule, mobilizing citizens for collective action. Search engines like Google ever more assume traditional government functions. Its engineers claim that the company’s predictions of flu epidemics and employment trends are already more accurate than those of the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, in Western societies the Internet is an ancillary to public display not a substitute for it, a tool to expand communication, rather than an obstacle to constrict it. Computer webcams are employed between interactants and in web chat rooms; interviews of foreign job applicants conducted via Skype grow daily in popularity. And it is no coincidence that the world’s most prominent social networking site is called Facebook. Moreover, where Internet use takes place without face recognition (as with email or instant messaging) it typically does so reciprocally: both users are in the same position and hence issues of visibility imbalance and citizen asymmetry do not arise.
A second objection to the claim that N/B attire in public places is uncitizenly turns the tables on the author: it draws on the Graeco-Roman tradition itself, the origins of Western notions of citizenship. In that tradition, being a public person was considered a kind of theatricality in which an agent adopts a persona, a mask. But the comparison between the N/B and the persona is superficial and not only because one mask is made of cloth while another is a metaphor. In antiquity, the function of persona was not to conceal public visibility but precisely to do the opposite: to shine the light of the polis on the political actor, to dramatize the fact that the individual had entered the public stage and that, as such, had left the private world of intimacy so as to consort freely with his peers and deliberate on political affairs. The political persona was, then, an addition to, or rather a rupture with, private life, not a replication or extension of it, a vehicle of distinction, not a mantle contrived to expunge from public view the unique personality of the woman beneath its folds. Politics, in Western traditions, entails a split within the being that engages in it, the construction of a second self: as an equal of others who are familial strangers bound together by the common tie of citizenship; a self able to cooperate with these strangers, to “see” things from multiple points of view and be seen seeing.
The N/B, however, is not a fictive mask designed to open up its wearer to the public recognition of peers acting in concert or in conflict; it is a carapace projected into the public space, a material mask that signals exclusivity, an emblem of segmental occlusion, of what Durkheim, discussing the primacy of resemblance in tribal societies, called the politico-familial.
Nor is the N/B artificial or dualistic. On the contrary, it signifies Sharia’s total claim on the individual in all her activities, the type of claim that the public-private distinction expressly repudiates. It transpires that the classical concept of the mask and the N/B have nothing substantively in common.
These brief reflections, prompted by my reading of Arendt, are not a rationale for banning the full veil but they do allow us to think of the European response to it in a political way. Readers who are interested in the more extensive argument that Dan Gordon (UMass Amherst) and I have developed on this topic, contrasting American and European legal regimes, may wish to read our “On the Edge of Solidarity: The Burqa and Public Life,” and “From the headscarf to the burqa: the role of social theorists in shaping laws against the veil,” Economy and Society 2012 (forthcoming).
-Peter Baehr, Lingnan University Hong Kong
My post on the Public Pension Crisis has found an intriguing embrace. It has been taken up with gusto by a series of good government groups who are sounding the alarms about the pension crisis. I am heartened they responded so favorably to the essay. Indeed, I have to admit I am pleasantly surprised that so many well meaning people are trying to sound the alarm about the danger unfunded pensions pose. Many of the commentators added important comments of their own, and are worth reading: State Budget Solutions, Republic of Costa Mesa, and Statehouse News Online.
One unified theme of the responses is that they sought to enlist the Arendt Center as a non-partisan or left-wing authority. Repeatedly, these groups emphasized that the fact that the Hannah Arendt Center was writing about the issue of pensions was evidence that the pension crisis is not simply an issue for right-wing fanatics. A headline in one newspaper blared: "Another lefty organization calls for pension reform."
I understand this felt need. While pensions are not a partisan issue, or need not be, they have somehow become one. This is largely a result of recent history in Wisconsin and elsewhere. But the fact is that both parties have fed at the trough of public union largesse and both parties are now struggling, with grave difficulty, to turn off the spigot. It seems that politicians are so accustomed to financial and organizational support of public employees that reform is deeply unpalatable. This is true even though many democrats, as I argued in my post, understand that pensions are threatening to devour the funds necessary for basic governmental services. It does seem that to simply point out facts today is to risk being branded a right-wing nut.
It is important to point out that the Arendt Center is neither a left nor a right organization. Nor is it non-partisan or bi-partisan. As Frank Keegan, the most astute of the bloggers who picked up our post rightly puts it (citing our own mission statement, thank you!), the Center aims simply to think about political and ethical issues in the spirit of Arendt. Keegan writes:
Let them try to put that [right-wing extremist] brand on the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College, which describes itself as "an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt. ....an intellectual incubator for engaged humanities thinking ... that elevates and deepens the public argument that is the bedrock of our democracy."
Keegan correctly and respectfully read through our website and noted that the Center aims to promote thinking about politics in the spirit of Arendt, by which we mean neither left, nor right, nor bi-partisan. Thinking, is always of necessity opposed to all ideological positions and is even pallid to the idea of bi-partisanship. Keegan thus also quotes our description of Hannah Arendt herself:
"No other scholar so enrages and engages citizens and students from all political persuasions, all the while insisting on human dignity, providing a clear voice against totalitarianism, and defending freedom with extraordinary intelligence and courage."
Others were less careful. The editors who drafted the headline for Will Swain's column were careless: "Another lefty organization calls for pension reform." Swain himself, who I now know to have been writing very smartly about the crisis, is more circumspect. On the one hand, he writes: "Arendt was a lefty." But Swain continues to add, "there was nothing dogmatic in her politics." The second part is true, but the characterization of her as a lefty is suspect, even if it is a widespread conviction.
Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, once made the mistake of characterizing Arendt as a left intellectual. Arendt responded forcefully:
"I am not one of the "intellectuals who come from the German Left." You could not have known this, since we did not know each other when we were young. It is a fact of which I am in no way particularly proud and which I am somewhat reluctant to emphasize—especially since the McCarthy era in this country. I came late to an understanding of Marx's importance because I was interested neither in history nor in politics when I was young. If I can be said to "have come from anywhere," it is from the tradition of German philosophy."
Arendt had many allegiances on the left; but equally so on the right. Just this month Irving Louis Horowitz, the great sociologist who died last weekend, published a new volume of essays on Arendt titled: Hannah Arendt: Radical Conservative. But Arendt was neither a radical conservative nor a traditional liberal. As she describes herself, rightly, she was a thinker.
Thinking is dangerous to all "isms," party programs, and ideologies. The Arendt Center seeks not to offer solutions or prescriptions, but to think about politics. That is why the main point of my essay was less about economics and more about the way that the pension crisis is challenging the independence and vibrancy of government itself. The hope is to make clear how the problem with pensions is rooted deeply in habits and conventions of our government and our thought, as well as to show it to be dangerous to both politics and freedom.
Another way to understand Arendt is as a conscious pariah, a term she lovingly steals from Bernard Lazarre. Throughout her life, Arendt was obsessed with those people whose outsider status made them pariahs. She held, however, that being a pariah could be advantageous if one consciously embraced that outsider role and became a conscious pariah, a rebel in the name of truth. Similarly, all those who want to tell the truth must, Arendt sees, adopt the role of a conscious pariah and abandon all claims to social and political success. The conscious pariah/rebel/truthteller must live in isolation and seek the truth outside of the public sphere.
Nothing perhaps distinguishes Hannah Arendt from her peers more than her insistence on standing aloof as a conscious pariah. It is from that apartness that flows the radical independence of her thought. Neither left nor right, neither capitalist nor socialist, and neither liberal nor conservative, Arendt looked at every issue from radically fresh viewpoints. That independence is in large measure the secret of her continuing appeal.
Whether the Arendt Center can claim that same independence and authority is, of course, a huge question. We do not presume to speak in Arendt's voice or as her equal. However, the pension crisis is ripe for Arendtian thinking. It is at root about the corruption of politics as well the idea of the public realm. There is simply a presumption by too many today that working for a public institution means that one is by definition working in the public interest. This is a mistake, and rethinking the nature of public employment is one of our most pressing tasks.
I recently was sent the following quotation by Friedrich Hayek, the economist and political thinker.
Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into or prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.
The quote is from an essay titled "Why I am Not a Conservative." Hayek is still today labeled a conservative (for whatever labels are worth). Here Hayek rejects the label, while also disdaining the modern conceptions of both liberalism and socialism. His efforts to stake out a position that defends freedom is as honest as it is relevant. It deserves to be read.
Hayek's quote is making the rounds not because of an interest in Hayek. Rather, the quote is being used (dare I say abused?) because it is thought to show the anti-science obscurantism and thoughtlessness of those who refuse to believe in evolution or global warming. The duplicitous refusal of politicians to even acknowledge the now undeniable scientific consensus about global warming is just the kind of obscurantism Hayek disdains. But it is a mistake to find in Hayek's attack common cause with efforts to enlist the government in the environmental cause.
Hayek's chief complaint with conservatism is its often uncritical defense of authority. The "main point" he takes issue with is the "characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened, rather than that its power be kept within bounds." In other words, the conservative is willing to put so much trust in authority and leadership that he tends to overlook those instances when government exceeds its authority and impinges on individual freedoms. This is why Hayek argues that conservatives are often closer to socialists than to liberals. Like socialists, conservatives are willing to excuse governmental action they agree with, even when such action impedes on liberty.
It should be clear that many who go by the name liberal today are not liberal in the sense Hayek means--which is closer to libertarian, although he also rejects that label and what it represents. His problem is with all those who would excuse government overreach for particular ends, when that regulation will restrict individual liberty.
Hayek's thought warns about the political dangers for freedom posed by both conservatism and socialism, two forms of increased respect for authority, one in the persona of a charismatic leader and the other in the rationality of bureaucracy and the welfare state. On both scores, Hayek's impassioned defense of freedom shares much with Hannah Arendt, although she undoubtedly disagrees with Hayek and liberalism's location of freedom in the private sphere.
For Arendt, liberal constitutional government is absolutely essential insofar as it is the best way to protect the realm of private liberty Hayek values so highly. For Arendt, however, it is not enough to protect freedom as a private citizen. Freedom includes not simply the right to do as one will in private, but also the right and the ability to act and speak in public. Freedom—human freedom—is more than the freedom simply to live well. Freedom also demands spaces of appearance, those institutionally protected realms where free citizens can engage in the debate and action about the dreams and hope of their life together. It is this freedom to be participate and act directly in government that is too frequently forgotten by those like Hayek.
That said, few thinkers better call us to vigilance in the cause of freedom. You can read the entirety of Hayek's "Why I am Not a Conservative" here.
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