Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
3Mar/141

Amor Mundi 3/2/14

Arendtamormundi

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.

The End of Hide and Go Seek

gorey

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

David Cole wonders if we've reached the point of no return on the issue of privacy: “Reviewing seven years of the NSA amassing comprehensive records on every American’s every phone call, the board identified only one case in which the program actually identified an unknown terrorist suspect. And that case involved not an act or even an attempted act of terrorism, but merely a young man who was trying to send money to Al-Shabaab, an organization in Somalia. If that’s all the NSA can show for a program that requires all of us to turn over to the government the records of our every phone call, is it really worth it?” Everyone speaks about the need for a National Security State and the necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world. What is often forgotten is that most people simply don’t care that much about privacy. Whether snoopers promise security or better-targeted advertisements, we are willing to open up our inner worlds for the price of convenience. If we are to save privacy, the first step is articulating what it is about privacy that makes it worth saving. You can read more on an Arendtian defense of privacy in Roger Berkowitz’s Weekend Read.

The Mindfulness Racket

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

In the New Republic, Evgeny Morozov questions the newly trendy rhetoric of “mindfulness” and “digital detox” that has been adopted by a variety of celebrities and public figures, from Deepak Chopra to Google chairman Eric Schmidt to Arianna Huffington. In response to technology critic Alexis Madrigal, who has argued in The Atlantic that the desire to unplug and live free of stress and distractions amounts to little more than “post-modern technoanxiety”—akin to the whole foods movement in its dream of “stripping away all the trappings of modern life”—Morozov contends that there are legitimate reasons for wanting to disconnect, though they might not be what we think. “With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural,” he writes. “In other words, why we disconnect matters: We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas—and not just the subject of hand-wringing by the Davos-based spirituality brigades.”

"Evil is unspectacular and always human"

audenEdward Mendelsohn has a moving and powerful portrait of W.H. Auden in the New York Review of Books, including this discussion of Auden’s account of evil: “He observed to friends how common it was to find a dedicated anti-fascist who conducted his erotic life as if he were invading Poland. Like everyone who thought more or less as he did, Auden didn’t mean that erotic greeds were morally equivalent to mass murder or that there was no difference between himself and Hitler. He was less interested in the obvious distinction between a responsible citizen and an evil dictator than he was in the more difficult question of what the citizen and dictator had in common, how the citizen’s moral and psychological failures helped the dictator to succeed. Those who hold the opposite view, the view that the citizen and dictator have nothing in common, tend to hold many corollary views. One such corollary is that a suitable response to the vast evil of Nazi genocide is wordless, uncomprehending awe—because citizen and dictator are different species with no language they can share. Another corollary view is that Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), was offensively wrong about the “banality of evil,” because evil is something monstrous, exotic, and inhuman. The acts and thoughts of a good citizen, in this view, can be banal, not those of a dictator or his agents. Auden stated a view like Arendt’s as early as 1939, in his poem “Herman Melville”:

"Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table.”

Looking Intensely

sunYiyun Li tells why, if you were to run into her on the subway, you might find her staring at you: "Writing fiction is this kind of staring, too. You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on the train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you. This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away. I believe all characters try to trick us. They lie to us. It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world—no one’s going to be 100 percent honest. They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are. There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people. People don’t want to tell you their secrets. Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you."

Through a Veteran's Eyes

ptsdIn an interview, writer Jennifer Percy discusses rethinking how we talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: "I wanted to more fully imagine the homecoming experience of soldiers and their time at war. The language we use to talk about PTSD has historically been determined by political and economic factors. It’s attached to a vocabulary that intentionally limits our ability to imagine atrocity because it’s protective and reductive. It benefits the perpetrators but dehumanizes the other. It’s a process of rationalization. But what happens when that vocabulary is discarded, and we partake in an effort to fully imagine the experience of soldiers and veterans? This is the space I hoped to inhabit. We might refuse to imagine wartime experience because it’s outside the realm of the ordinary; or maybe it feels unnecessary, or is too demanding on our psyches. But when we do imagine it, what we find is often the familiar. It’s ourselves. And that might also be a reason we turn away."

So You Want to Be a Writer

bookEmily Gould, who once sold a book for a big payday, only to find that her book sold just a few thousand copies, writes about what happened after the money ran out and she found she couldn't write anything else: "With the exception of yoga earnings and freelance assignments, I mostly lived on money I borrowed from my boyfriend, Keith. (We’d moved in together in fall 2010, in part because we liked each other and in larger part because I couldn’t afford to pay rent.) We kept track of what I owed him at first, but at some point we stopped writing down the amounts; it was clear the total was greater than I could hope to repay anytime soon. He paid off one credit card so that I wouldn’t have to keep paying the monthly penalty. When I wanted to cancel my health insurance he insisted I keep it, and paid for it. He was patient when my attempts to get a job more remunerative than teaching yoga failed; he didn’t call me out on how much harder I could have tried. Without questioning my choices, he supported me, emotionally, creatively, and financially. I hated that he had to. At times he was stretched thin financially himself and I knew that our precarious money situation weighed heavily on his mind, even though he never complained. 'You’ll sell your book for a million dollars,' he said, over and over again."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Michiel Bot discusses Étienne Balibar’s interpretation of Arendt’s work, Jeffrey Champlin considers whether Arendt's celebration of the council system, as discussed in On Revolution, can be applied to feminism, and Roger Berkowitz examines the promise and peril present in today's Ukraine.  And  in the Weekend Read, Berkowitz argues the importance of the private realm for the political world.

Upcoming Events

blogBlogging and the New Public Intellectual - A Discussion with Tom Goldstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 , 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Bard Graduate Center, NYC
Learn more here.

R.S.V.P. to arendt@bard.edu

 

on"Colors Through the Darkness: Three Generations Paint and Write for Justice"
Monday, March 10, 2013, 1:30  pm
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Zito '60 Auditorium (RKC 103)
Learn more here.

18Feb/140

Blogging and the New Public Intellectual – Jay Rosen & Megan Garber

FromtheArendtCenter

On October 27, 2013, Walter Russell Mead and Roger Berkowitz sat down with Jay Rosen and Megan Garber as part of the "Blogging and the New Public Intellectual" series. The series engages in ongoing discussion with the nation’s leading bloggers in politics, history, art, and culture.

Jay Rosen is a media critic, a writer, and a professor of journalism at New York University. You can visit his blog, "Pressthink" here. Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media. Read her work from The Atlantic here.

videoshot

Roger Berkowitz started the evening by asking: Should journalists be objective or should they be political actors?

Jay Rosen answered: "Journalists have to do more than just flood us with facts." Rosen thinks of the journalist, "as a heightened form of an informed citizen." The panel discussed the idea of the journalist vs. the citizen and the myriad of ways in which the two overlap.  As well, the role the Internet plays in creating an informed public through the sharing of information.

Megan Garber added, "I'm not interested in getting my ideas out, I'm interested in exploring things publicly...There is value in convening people together to talk about one thing."

Watch the video of the discussion here.

The next event in the "Blogging and the New Public Intellectual" series will take place March 9 and features a discussion with Tom Goldstein, the Publisher and a regular contributor to the SCOTUSblog.

Learn more about the event  here and RSVP to arendt@bard.edu.

3Sep/130

Amor Mundi Newsletter – 9/1/13

Arendtamormundi

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.

Norman Rush's Subtle Writing

rushWyatt Mason of the Arendt Center has a deeply honest and invigorating feature essay on the writer Norman Rush in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. Rush is the author of Mating (winner of the National Book Award), Mortals, and Whites (a book of stories which was scandalously denied a Pulitzer Prize in a story Mason unearths for the first time).  Subtle Bodies, Rush's third novel, will be published this month.   Mason writes: "An awareness of the mechanism - of how our minds work, of the transits between self-certainty and self-doubt and the endless inner arbitrations litigating each - is a central Rushian preoccupation. Of course, most works of fiction engage, at some level, with the imaginative leap that allows us to cross into the cloistered consciousness of another. But Rush’s own demonstration of that process - of voice as a measure of the mind - has been unusual." Rush wants his novels to make a difference, to change the world. He asks: "How can I say this without seeming grandiose? The sense of things in the world has come to feel increasingly apocalyptic. In a personal sense, the parts of the world that I follow and am interested in, things seem to be going quite ... badly. Increasingly so. That raises questions of what writing is for. And as I was writing this book, this feeling was deepening in me, and there’s an occult connection between what you do and what its potential significance is in a time of crisis. What does it do? ... The answer is you do your witness and you see what comes out.”

The Touching Innocence of the NSA's Defenders

msaPeggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal has a clear-eyed take on the dangers of the NSA and the innocence of those who think that collected information will not be misused. She gleans important lessons from Open Secret, the memoir of Stella Rimington, who in the early 1990s served as director-general of MI5, the British domestic spy agency. Noonan’s conclusions are important: “There are too many built-in dynamics that make the national-security state want to grow, from legitimate fears of terrorism, to bureaucratic pride, to the flaws in human nature. And there are too many dynamics that will allow it to grow. The aftermath of 9/11 happened to coincide with a new burst in American technological innovation and discovery: The government has the ways and means to do pretty much anything now, and if they can do it they will do it…. If you assume all the information that can and will be gleaned will be confined to NSA and national security purposes, you are not sufficiently imaginative or informed. If you believe the information will never be used wrongly or recklessly, you are touchingly innocent.”

The Humanity of Drones

droneFour years ago Ronald Arkin spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center and argued that artificially intelligence weapons systems carried the potential to make war more humane. Human warriors get tired, get angry, and get scared, leading them to make mistakes, take revenge, and shoot blindly at anything that moves. Machines can be programmed to only shoot once certain legal and ethical conditions have been confirmed. Which leads to the paradox that war might become more humane as it becomes less human. This indeed is Michael W. Lewis’ argument in a recent post in the Atlantic: “Like any other weapons system, drones have caused civilian casualties. But they also have the potential to dramatically reduce civilian casualties in armed conflicts, and particularly in counterinsurgencies. Their ability to follow targets for days or weeks accomplishes two things that contribute to saving the lives of innocents: First, it confirms that the target is engaged in the behavior that put them on the target list, reducing the likelihood of striking someone based on faulty intelligence. Second, by establishing a "pattern of life" for the intended target, it allows operators to predict when the target will be sufficiently isolated to allow a strike that is unlikely to harm civilians.”

The Crisis in Writing

ereaderThere's been a lot of hand wringing about the newly digital world is doing to publishing, which, historically, was about publishing books, newspapers, and magazines that people could actually hold in their hands. As we've increasingly moved online, publishing has gone with it-- but is this transition changing just the way we read? Or the way we write as well? In a long essay with many threads, Thomas Larson suggests that's exactly what's happening. "Technology," he believes" has changed the writer's traditional role into that of the "author—that is, the private persona of the print-based writer is being overtaken by the public persona of the multimedia author. To be heard in the news din of our culture (internet and cable TV), writers add audio, video, and, if possible, a TV presence to their kit bags." Later, striking an Arendtian note, he adds that "When text rattles this many bells and whistles, it becomes as multiple and distractible as we are...  I find this performative side of the literary equation, which the device offers and whose buttons I press, is doing a number on the writing side." Still, he concludes with a note of hope. Maybe this is just new, and we're not used to it yet. The answer, he seems to think, lies in new, what he calls transliterate, forms.

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

immortalAdam Leith Gollner, author of the newly published The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever, investigates the tantalizing promise of the afterlife: "When the four-thousand-year-old Edwin Smith Papyrus first resurfaced, it seemed to contain ancient methods of rejuvenation. The Egyptian scroll commences with a tantalizing promise: 'The beginning of the book for making an old man into a youth …' Once the hieratic scribbles were fully decrypted, however, the directives turned out to be a base recipe for fenugreek oil—used to mask liver spots and as a hair restorative for balding men."

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, George Fitzi examines what might be coming in the way humans relate to machines.

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"

Olin Hall, Bard College
Learn more here.

29Apr/131

Amor Mundi 4/28/13

Arendtamormundi

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.

Hannah Arendt: The Reviews are Coming In

tinymovieDavid Owen has this to say about Hannah Arendt, the new movie by Margarethe von Trotta: "Arendt sits reading and is haunted by voices from the trial, she spends a lot of time lying down on a divan smoking endless cigarettes, she types in a controlled frenzy. Here it seems to me that the film is linking these features in a way that is insightful and important, namely, that Arendt had to steel herself to write her report at all, that she had to set aside her own feelings and relationships to others in order to be able to try to serve truth, that intellectual conscience (redlichkeit) makes demands that are hard to bear." Read more here.

Natan Sznaider is less impressed. "...you can imagine how much I was looking forward to this movie.  Unfortunately, I came out deeply disappointed.  It's not simply that this portrait of Arendt is frozen in amber, and celebrates the misunderstandings of 50 years ago, when Eichmann in Jerusalem  had just came out.  It's not simply that it ignores the last 15 years of modern scholarship, which re-excavated her Jewishness in order to make sense of the many things in her writings and actions that otherwise don't.  It's that it turns her story inside out." Read more here.

Come see for yourself. The Hannah Arendt Center will be screening Hannah Arendt on Monday, April 29 at 7pm. Get more information here.

The Cost of Safety

rugsConor Friedersdorf asks hard questions in The Atlantic about New York City's Stop and Frisk program and its program of surveillance on Muslims. Friedersdorf lays out a long list of the harms caused by these programs, including: young Muslims feeling it is unsafe to pray in their mosques; the breach of the relationship of trust between Imam and congregations; the sense of persecution and suspicion associated with dressing as a Muslim; the de-politicization of the Muslim community; overall mutual suspicion of Muslims and police, and much more. These costs, he writes, must be balanced against the goal of keeping New Yorkers of all religions and races safe. Friedersdorf is clear that the costs are too high; and he is flabbergasted that most American liberals disagree with him:

"What does it say about American liberalism today that two of the most significant municipal programs abrogating the civil liberties of racial and ethnic minorities thrive in a deep blue city that also happens to be the media capitol of the country ... and the guy presiding over it remains popular?" Whether or not Friedersdorf is right, he does a good job of reminding us of the true cost of our safety.

Filling in the Gaps

booksStarting from the story of poet and essayist Muriel Rukeyser's long unpublished novel Savage Coast, to be issued for the first time next month, Anna Clark considers CUNY's Lost & Found project, which "resurrects" works of twentieth century fiction, poetry, and scholarship. Although Lost & Found isn't focused on women writers like Rukeyser, Clark believes that it and projects like it can be valuable to writing female authors back into the record: "The lack of this painstaking and intentional work risks skewing the narrative of our history and culture, ceding our past to appear more homogenous than it was. It is fair to point to literature's age-old gender gap that left most female writers on the sidelines-Virginia Woolf famously posited Shakespeare's Sister as the female counterpart of the Bard who, owing to her social role, would not have written a word."

 

Beyond the Flipped Classroom

mathSal Khan speaks with The Guardian about his transformative educational website Khan Academy. Khan began developing his now famous educational videos to teach his younger cousins fundamental concepts in math. He eventually quit his finance job to oversee the building of his non-profit empire, with the mission of "changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere." Khan's dream is to invert the usual classroom structure where teachers lecture in class and students work independently at home. When teachers can rely on his videos, students can learn the basics of their lessons at home and come into class to work collaboratively and get help from the teacher while they solve problems.

 

 

An African Caeser

caeserTeju Cole recently attended a staging of The Royal Shakespeare Company's Julius Caesar at B.A.M. Cole takes time to consider both the play itself and the African setting of this particular production, which features an "all-black cast": "The assassination of Caesar himself feels like a story from one of the newly independent African countries of the nineteen-sixties. [Director Gregory] Doran highlights the political aspect of the play, and this is to the good, for it is still necessary to insist on Africa as a site of political and ideological contest, and not a static place mired in an unchanging anthropological past. Caesar... is in the company of such manipulative despots as Idi Amin Dada, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida."

 

 

Featured Upcoming Event

The Hudson Valley Premiere of the biopic, Hannah Arendt

tinymovieApril 29, 2013 at Olin Hall, Bard College at 7:00 PM

Learn more here.

 

 

 

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog Wout Cornelissen considers Arendt's understanding of poetry. Roger Berkowitz thinks through Philip Roth's recent tribute to his favorite good teacher. And Berkowitz also considers the suspension and disciplining of the Albany high school teacher who asked students to think like a Nazi.

4Dec/120

The Irony of Sincerity

A few weeks ago, Christy Wampole, a professor of French at Princeton, took to the New York Times to point to what she sees as a pandemic of irony, the symptom of a malignant hipster culture which has metastasized, spreading out from college campuses and hip neighborhoods and into the population at large. Last week, author R. Jay Magill responded to Wampole, noting that the professor was a very late entry into an analysis of irony that stretches back to the last gasps of the 20th century, and that even that discourse fits into a much longer conversation about sincerity and irony that has been going on at least since Diogenes.

Of course, this wasn’t Magill’s first visit to this particular arena; his own entry, entitled Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull), came out in July. Magill very effectively recapitulates the main point from his book in his article for the Atlantic, but, if you were to read this new summary alone, you would both deny yourself of some of the pleasures of Magill’s research and prose, as well as spare yourself from some of his less convincing arguments, arguments which, incidentally, happen to suffice for the thrust of his recent article.

The most interesting chapters of Magill’s book deal with the early history of the rise of sincerity, which he traces back to the Reformation. In Magill’s telling, the word “sincere” enters the record of English in 1533, when an English reformer named John Frith writes, to Sir Thomas More, that John Wycliffe “had lived ‘a very sincere life.’” Before that use, in its origin in Latin and French, the word “sincere” had only been used to describe objects and, now, Frith was using it not only for the first time in English but also to describe a particular individual as unusually true and pure to his self, set in opposition to the various hypocrisies that had taken root within the Catholic Church. Magill sums this up quite elegantly: “to be sincere” he writes “was to be reformed.”

Now, this would have been revolutionary enough, since it suggested that a relationship with God required internal confirmation rather than external acclamation—in the words of St. Paul, a fidelity to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. And yet reformed sincerity was not simply a return to the Gospel. In order to be true to one’s self, there must be a self to accord with, an internal to look towards. Indeed, Magill’s history of the idea of sincerity succeeds when it describes the development of the self, and, in particular, that development as variably determined by the internal or the external.

Image by Shirin Rezaee

It gets more complicated, however, or perhaps more interesting, when Magill turns towards deceptive presentations of the self, that is, when he begins to talk about insincerity. He begins this conversation with Montaigne, who “comes to sense a definite split between his public and private selves and is the first author obsessed with portraying himself as he really is.” The most interesting appearance of this conversation is an excellent chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that people should aspire to self-sameness, should do their best to “reconcile” one’s self to one’s self, a demand for authenticity that would come to be fully expressed in Immanuel Kant’s moral law, the command that I must set myself as a law for myself.

Sincerity, the moral ideal first put forth by John Frith, started as the Reformation’s response to the inability of the Catholic Church to enact that particular principle, in other words, its hypocrisy. This follows for each of the movements that Magill writes about, each responding to the hypocrisy of their own moment in a specific way. On this matter he has a very good teacher, Hannah Arendt, an inheritor of Kant, who was himself a reader of Rousseau. Arendt writes, in Crisis of the Republic, what might serve as a good summation of one of Magill’s more convincing arguments: “if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy.”

Still, while what makes the sincerity of Frith (who was burned at the stake) or Wycliffe (whose body was exhumed a half century after his death so that it, too, could be burned) compelling is the turn inwards, it is Rousseau’s substitution of the turn back for that turn inward that appears to interest Magill, who decries “the Enlightenment understanding of the world” that “would entirely dominate the West, relegating Rousseau to that breed of reactionary artististic and political minds who stood against the progress of technology, commerce, and modernization and pined for utopia.”

The whole point is moot; Rousseau was himself a hypocrite, often either unable or unwilling to enact the principles he set out in his writings. As Magill moves forward, though, it becomes clear the he values the turn back as a manifestation of sincerity, as a sort of expressing oneself honestly. The last few hundred years in the development of sincerity, it seems, are finding new iterations of the past in the self. He writes that the Romantics, a group he seems to favor as more sincere than most, “harbored a desire to escape a desire to escape forward-moving, rational civilization by worshipping nature, emotion, love, the nostalgic past, the bucolic idyll, violence, the grotesque, the mystical, the outcast and, failing these, suicide.” In turn, in his last chapter, Magill writes that hipster culture serves a vital cultural purpose: its “sincere remembrance of things past, however commodified or cheesy or kitschy or campy or embarrassing, remains real and small and beautiful because otherwise these old things are about to be discarded by a culture that bulldozes content once it has its economic utility.”

The hipster, for Magill, is not the cold affectation of an unculture, as Wampole wants to claim, but is instead the inheritor “of the the entire history of the Protestant-Romantic-rebellious ethos that has aimed for five hundred years to jam a stick into the endlessly turning spokes of time, culture and consumption and yell, “Stop! I want to get off!”

There’s the rub. What Magill offers doesn’t necessarily strike me as a move towards sincerity, but it is definitely a nod to nostalgia. Consider how he recapitulates his argument in the article:

One need really only look at what counts as inventive new music, film, or art. Much of it is stripped down, bare, devoid of over-production, or aware of its production—that is, an irony that produces sincerity. Sure, pop music and Jeff Koons alike retain huge pull (read: $$$), but lately there has been a return to artistic and musical genres that existed prior to the irony-debunking of 9/11: early punk, disco, rap, New Wave—with a winking nod to sparse Casio keyboard sounds, drum machines, naïve drawing, fake digital-look drawings, and jangly, Clash-like guitars. Bands like Arcade Fire, Metric, Scissor Sisters, CSS, Chairlift, and the Temper Trap all go in for heavy nostalgia and an acknowledgement of a less self-conscious, more D.I.Y. time in music.

Here, Magill is very selectively parsing the recent history of “indie music,” ignoring a particularly striking embrace of artificial pop music that happened alongside the rise of the “sincere” genres, like new folk, that he favors. There’s no reason to assume that Jeff Koons’s blown up balloon animals or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are any less sincere than the Scissor Sisters’s camp disco, just as there is no reason to assume that a desire to return to nature is any less sincere than the move into the city. Although Magill makes a good argument for the hipster’s cultural purpose, that purpose is not itself evidence that the hipster is expressing what’s truly inside himself, just as there’s no way for you to be sure that I am sincerely expressing my feelings about Sincerity. Magill, ultimately, makes the same mistake as Wampole, in that he judges with no evidence; the only person you can accurately identify as sincere is yourself.

-Josh Kopin

25Sep/120

Does the President Matter?

“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”

                        —Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?

This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter?  The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.

This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.

If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.

And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?

­On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.

This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.

Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief.  In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.

No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.

Every President comes to Washington promising reform!  And they all fail.  According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.

On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."

A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:

The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.

The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible.  All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.

For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.

The question  "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:

“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”

So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.

The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.

When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.

Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence."  To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.

Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.

One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.

This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:

Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.

All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.

Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:

"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."

My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.

What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.

But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law.  Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator.  Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.

In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.

In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.

These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.

Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President,  the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.

Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask:  might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.

At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.

Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.

She continued:

It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.

I don't know if the president matters.

But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.

In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you.  If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.

-RB

Watch Roger's  opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.