Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.
The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.
Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?
“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”
Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?
““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”
Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:
“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”
It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire 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.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but 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.
There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:
“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”
As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.
The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.
Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.
Decompression: Before my hands heal I should sit down and find a way to wrap this up. I have been out of the desert (Black Rock City) for over a week now. I am back in the state of ‘normalcy,’ and yet I cannot help to feel that this ‘normal’ world is the exception. Have I been bedazzled, indoctrinated by some paganistic ritual? Did the “party” get me?
“Playa hands,” or feet, is the term used to describe what happens to ones hands, and feet, when they are overexposed to the conditions of the desert. They begin cracking -- “playafied” -- like the desert floor itself. Moisturizer helps, but the secret is to spray them down with vinegar every morning -- something about alkaline, acidity, etc...
I was out there for almost three weeks. Blood had begun to escape through some of the cracks. Yet, amid the sensory overload that is Burning Man -- coupled with the knowledge that whatever happens in the desert is hyper-transient -- your bodily concerns become secondary to the need to engage the world created for you. You celebrate despite the discomfort, or maybe even in part driven on by it. You don’t want to miss anything.
My hands have almost healed, new skin appearing underneath. I miss the damage. I miss what Burning Man proved.
I was moved towards Burning Man by the stories of others. What most attracted me to these stories were the themes of ritual, ceremony, and story telling. What I experienced, as a byproduct of being there, is the stuff I do not want to leave behind -- the concepts of ‘intent of environment’ (architecture and guiding principles), and ‘currency of gratitude.’ To feel complete, my new skin must now make space for these.
For this past week I have been needling my brain to pin down the difference between ritual and ceremony. I find it easy to mix them up. Why is there such confusion? Ultimately, I have come to see ritual as a loosely prescribed set of practices, or intentions, while ceremony is the celebration, or interpretation, of the prescribed by the practitioner. Certainly some anthropologists and theologists will find fault with my definitions. Well, I challenge you to bring me another set and if it reveals itself to be an exercise beyond semantics, I will be happy to sacrifice my hard won approximations. But that’s the catch, isn’t it? Definitions are the products of their society. They move, evolve... disappear. They are ‘approximate,’ in accordance to the pressure exercised upon them by what I call The Social Body -- our communal practices, beliefs and values, toys (inventions), cultural narratives, and the principles we deduce from the tangible matter of our environment.
Maybe what’s most worth exploring in the road towards a definition of ritual and ceremony is the location of the struggle itself: Why do we so struggle in defining them? What does this say about our society, and its practices? In the simplistic thinking somewhat necessary to engage such questions I had hoped to use my time at Burning Man as an aperture into the society at large. I brought my child brain, the one asks to see before judgement -- the one open to signs of proof.
What burning Man provides is a scaffolding of a society, a set of pillars (in its principles and architecture) to be built upon, and filled in by the participants. It is in this movement, from the scaffolding -- from the available structures -- towards the experience, that ‘ritual’ is made into ‘ceremony.’ It is where meaning is formed, and body is found. The concept of the ‘social body’ implies more then mere existence, or survival, more than just the fractals of society; it is a narrative, it is consciousness (a self-aware organism, capable of self correction), it is the accumulation of meaning.
The set of principles for this experimental society (Burning Man) are “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” To survive, and thrive in the desert, and to feel a part of the experience, one must find their own relationship to these principles, otherwise the experience will be tedious and lonely.
The other part of the scaffolding is the architectural intent. There is the city (its streets), its coordinates measured in the units of time, and thus when you arrive at a place you arrive to a time -- time is appropriated into a location (brings us closer to the definition of ‘being here’ doesn’t it?); there is the Playa floor, a space for various art installations; the camp space, the themes to be supplied by each individual camp, each camp identifying its own purpose; the Man, to be empowered with whatever meaning one finds necessary to bring to it; and the Temple, a spiritual space to be used for remembering loved ones, the execution of weddings, and a creative space for communion. There is also Center Camp, where you will find lectures, performances, coffee (it is in fact the only place where you can “buy” something). A friend of mine described Center Camp as “the heart of Burning Man.” Maybe because this is where the exchange of stories, connectivity, takes place.
The scaffolding of ritual is provided (a labor intensive process on the levels of planning, recruiting, development, and construction). In my conversation with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, he summed up the intention behind this social scaffolding like this, “I am, we are, it is.” He was not pointing to himself, or to the structure of the Man, rather, the gesture was towards the “participant.” No further elaboration is given. Meaning is not handed out here, nor is it imposed. What is implied by this is that the highest level of “participation,” is to give meaning. This is “radical inclusivity.” No ones experience is void. You can come here for a great party, or to say goodbye to a passed parent. You can have your own vision quest after sunrise, way out in deep playa, or you can don the outfit of a renegade and strap yourself up in the Thunder-Dome, just to see how you feel in the costume of primal power. All experiences are affirmed, accepted. The forms are created for you, and you fill in the space. Two experiences may further elaborate on this.
One night I was warned to wear white. “The white procession,” is what I was told. After being out all night, meeting people, seeing art pieces on the playa and dancing, we made our way to the temple for sunrise. After a night of being engulfed in noise and neon lights, we arrived at the wooden, ornate temple. The quiet, a gesture of respect to the space, was hyper-pronounced all around us. People praying, crying, meditating, talking in the open space. There were pictures and poems and notes stapled to every reachable surface of the structure. As the sun began to rise a small ensemble of musicians began to play soft wooden instruments. More and more people showed up, wearing white. Some in intricate feather outfits, some on stilts, some in a simple white shirt and seersucker pants (well, me!) -- the playa was flooded in white. I have been to spiritual spaces from Eastern Europe, to Europe, to the U.S., but the power of that space, its sincerity, was unlike anything I have ever experienced (I have no elegant words for this -- it was really something “I have never experienced”).
I can tell you more of that morning, the conversations, the white anonymous mask I had carried with me, the umbrella we found, the way this umbrella became empowered through a dance, through the power of movement and intention, when an art-car showed up with a music group called the Human Experience, how that empowerment became an opportunity for someone to say goodbye to her mother who had passed two years ago. How the anonymous mask, as more people in white arrived, as people celebrated the space and the new day, was endowed with personality of the dancers behind it. But I will simply say that ‘we filled the space,’ and allow you to unpack this meaning. Did my scientifically educated mind attempt to balk at this scene? I am trained to bring skepticism, but skepticism is only useful in service to a greater goal -- to seek out what is true in the arena of living. Otherwise it becomes a defense against its initial intention. To be disarmed, to be taken-in by a communal experience, to sense the meaning of the practice, is to be a living part of the ‘social body.’
Another morning we had wondered out to deep playa, where the installations are few and far in between. There we stumbled upon a smaller temple (about 20 feet high) made of diamond shaped wooden pods -- a hive. Inside sat a man with a hot stove and four people joining him in a circle. On a low table before him were five glass ramekins filled with tea. As we approached he took two more out of his bag and added them to the already existing ones, making the pattern of a diamond on the table, now reflecting the shape of the pods. We accepted the invitation. On a cold desert morning a hot cup of tea is the power of the sunrise. Soon my partner took out a ceremonial orchid fragrance and offered it up to the others. We sat there in the quiet, warmed up and without hurry, without any knowledge of the time. Tea, orchid fragrances, tarot cards, all become an invitation to converse -- to join, to exchange, to fill-in the space. We sat for two hours and the tea master told us of his camp and how it was their mission to keep tea in this space, and his fiance and work with a non-profit music space on the West coast. There were individual pods about forty yards off to one side of the structure, the side that faced the central playa and the camp spaces. Later I found similar pods scattered throughout the playa, including inside the base of The Man. Call it metaphysics, call it the construction of myth, but after the tea experience, every time I saw one of the pods, I could not help but to feel the transmission of that experience. The space of ritual became empowered through the formation of our ceremony, and the experience felt transmitted through association from portal to portal. Is that not the fabric of culture and meaning? Is that not how we once created a society worth participating in? Practices, intention, invitation, and room for interpretation, is that not the scaffolding of purpose and faith?
If I had to mold that space into a single definition I would call it an ‘intentional space holder.’ The camp, committed to keep a tea going in that structure, held space for participants -- for the arrival of stories (the people that bring them, and the articles that facilitate them). And this is another crucial memento that I carry from Burning Man. How often do we sit down and create a story between us? How versed are we today in exchanging myth? We exchange information at a rapid pace, having now been conditioned to advertise ourselves at every opportunity. We lobby the enterprise of self, and self today is an entity that is simply trying to survive -- survive in a plethora of other voices. We seek “hits,” and, “tweets,” attention to a carefully crafted mask. With painful detail we foster an identify that can “sell” and we update its status in a witty, seemingly effortless, “I have nothing to hide” fashion, so that we become “liked,” so that our circle of “network connections” can explode. We, each, becoming conditioned to present a face on a book, but without dimensions to it. How are we known? Do we now even know what to be known is? How many, or how few, of our actions are intentioned with the creation of meaning? How much in our repertoire of communication comes from a departure from the the practice of being seen, a false conditioning to define ourselves through the limiting shapes of business, career, education, ‘appropriate‘ culture defined beliefs -- assimilation? Assimilation, but to what? Have we each become a corporation of isolated creatures -- human inc.? And have we fallen into the practice of survival (holding ground) rather then the practice of exploration (creating space)? These are lofty questions, I know. And yet, is not our struggle in defining “story telling” and “connectivity” similar to the struggle in defining “ritual” and “community?” Could this struggle of definitions point towards us having taken for granted the initial pillars of community forming? Having moved away from something essential, could we have paralyzed the ‘social body?’
I have no clear answers to these questions. Only the sense that some of what I experienced at Burning Man helps to redirect my personal exploration of these subjects back to an older mode, to a practice that I had already sensed absent, yet one which when I am faced with, I recognize as essential. In part, this rerouting is somehow centered in the principles behind the event.
For those looking for more tangible examples to the power of “participant,” consider this: Burning Man, for a week the third largest city in Nevada, has almost no crime rate. It is a city that literally leaves nothing behind in trash, or MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) as it is called here. Everyone brings their own trash bags and collects MOOP while on the playa. In fact, when a group of Nevada policy makers came to examine Burning Man their collective surprise was centered on the absence of both public trash receptacles, and trash. Participants take pride in their society -- there is ownership of the ‘social body.’
Finally, I move to “intent of environment” and “currency of gratitude.” Once I left Black Rock CIty, and drove back into “our” society, I experienced a sense of vertigo. At each new scene I encountered my mind worked to solve the riddle of intention. At a starbucks, I wanted to ask the barista, what is the theme of your camp? What experience are you charged to awake in me? When I order one of your “luxurious hot chocolate beverages for the sophisticated palate” what am I inviting? What are the articles of facilitation within this camp? At a strip-mall outside of Reno I asked, what is the purpose of this installation? What does this space inspire? What psychic and creative pressure does it exercise on me? I had become sensitive to these questions.
We float from one “must do” to another, from one operational space to the next. Our practice has become ‘to-accomplish,’ ‘to-get-done,’ a checklist of survival before we come back to the safety of homes and return to sleep. We know a thing by what it does, by what it does for us, but not what it does to us or what it ‘impresses’ upon us. We have become too busy in the ritual of ‘getting-by’ to examine this question. No wonder the irony of Frank Gehry having been tapped to design the new Facebook campus speaks so loudly to us (even if we’re not sure of the words): An abstractionist tapped to give tangible form to the institution that most clearly provides us with the venue through which we can best abstract the condition of being. The questions our our being are finally visible in the structures which surround us -- that’s the irony we now interact with. Arthur Koestler, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and others, had predicted and observed this movement -- the emergence of space that comments on the loss of self. And now we live within this triangle -- self, our physical structures, our virtual structures -- uncertain which is the commentary, which is the creator, and which is in service of which.
Lastly I want to comment on the major form of currency at Burning Man. As mentioned earlier the exchange of money is extremely rare. Yet, there is exchange. Millions of dollars are spent yearly by individuals and groups, just to create an experience. I talked to a computer engineer who had been coming to Burning Man for five years. “It changed my life,” he said. “How?” “It made me want to give more, without asking for anything in return.” Such a cliche, right? You give without asking for anything in return, and you receive the gift of gratitude. Such a cliche, right..? And yet, this is the most obvious currency at Black Rock City. Each person is provided with an opportunity to form an experience for another. From the grand structures that hold space for everyone, to the theme camps that invite you to join them and pour gifts upon you -- from drinks to ice cream, to food, to conversation, to workshops, to tarot readings, to music, to showers and espresso, costumes, to confessionals, to the Thunder-Dome, to tea ceremonies, to trinkets and bracelets and other handcrafted articles of remembrance, to the extent of the human imagination. Such a cliche? Right? No competition, no “one-upmanship.” ‘You are invited,’ they say. You, are enough.
It is in the examination of such cliches that maybe we can begin a return to that place where we lost meaning. When did we decide that we are too busy, too smart, to be truly humanist? What made us this? The humanist tradition asks us to examine our being on every level -- the concentric circles of community (world, culture, self -- it, we, I). To use the full spectrum of our gifts in examining the state of being. To not hold “contempt prior to investigation” because such a state can lead one to loose the trail, and a skill once in service (skepticism) becomes a master -- a true state of purposelessness. Maybe it’s time to stop and reexamine our society, to allow for our deepest and most personal, and maybe most essential questions and concerns on the state of being, to catch up to the gifts of our inventions.
The creating of space: I cannot get away from this idea. This is what Burning Man does. It creates a space (a space for meeting, for discovery, serendipity, a space for creating) and I, pressurized (or inspired) by this space -- its subtle intentions, architecture and principles -- am left to empower this space with meaning, to fill in the forms. I am endowed with the magic of meaning making. From ritual to ceremony I make matter -- I make this time (this space) matter.
Left to my own devices I perform the rituals of living, but without the movements of meaning. I struggle to empower the mask.
We have passed to the end of the existential age. Someone declared God to be dead. Science, with all its promise and discovery, has too failed in filling in the shapes of existence. Consumerism, the god of the 20th century, has also, ultimately, failed to provide us with the kind of purpose that leads to a greater belonging, or safety. The internet age, having initially promised to connect us, is now making us even more isolated. The onus is placed on us. On the individual. In this age of the spectator (internet, TV, emotional removal from the immediacy of our world) we are left to create a ceremony of our existence, to question our rituals, to define the space of our community, and our coordinates within it -- to become participants. To bring the social body back to a state of being.
“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.
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.
Watch Roger's opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.