In the most recent NY Review of Books, 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?”
Cole is beyond convincing in listing the dangers to privacy in the new national security state. Like many others in the media, he speaks the language of necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world, but suggests we are trading away too much and getting back too little in return. He warns that if we are not careful, privacy will disappear. He is right.
What is often forgotten and is absent in Cole’s narrative is that most people—at least in practice—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.
Cole simply assumes the value of privacy and doesn’t address the benefits of privacy until his final paragraph. When he does come to explaining why privacy is important, he invokes popular culture dystopias to suggest the horror of a world without privacy:
More broadly, all three branches of government—and the American public—need to take up the challenge of how to preserve privacy in the information age. George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report all vividly portrayed worlds without privacy. They are not worlds in which any of us would want to live. The threat is no longer a matter of science fiction. It’s here. And as both reports eloquently attest, unless we adapt our laws to address the ever-advancing technology that increasingly consumes us, it will consume our privacy, too.
There are two problems with such fear mongering in defense of privacy. The first is that these dystopias seem too distant. Most of us don’t experience the violations of our privacy by the government or by Facebook as intrusions. The second is that on a daily basis the fact that my phone knows where I am and that in a pinch the government could locate me is pretty convenient. These dystopian visions can appear not so dystopian.
Most writing about privacy simply assume that privacy is important. We are treated to myriad descriptions of the way privacy is violated. The intent is to shock us. But rarely are people shocked enough to actually respond in ways that protect the privacy they often say that they cherish. We have collectively come to see privacy as a romantic notion, a long-forgotten idle, exotic and even titillating in its possibilities, but ultimately irrelevant in our lives.
There is, of course, a reason why so many advocates of privacy don’t articulate a meaningful defense of privacy: It is because to defend privacy means to defend a rich and varied sphere of difference and plurality, the right and importance of people actually holding opinions divergent from one’s own. In an age of political correctness and ideological conformism, privacy sounds good in principle but is less welcome in practice when those we disagree with assert privacy rights. Thus many who defend privacy do so only in the abstract.
When it comes to actually allowing individuals to raise their children according to their religious or racial beliefs or when the question is whether people can marry whomever they want, defenders of privacy often turn tail and insist that some opinions and some practices must be prohibited. Over and over today, advocates of privacy show that they value an orderly, safe, and respectful public realm and that they are willing to abandon privacy in the name of security and a broad conception of civility according to which no one should have to encounter opinions and acts that give them offense.
The only major thinker of the last 100 years who insisted fully and consistently on the crucial importance of a rich and vibrant private realm is Hannah Arendt. Privacy, Arendt argues, is essential because it is what allows individuals to emerge as unique persons in the world. The private realm is the realm of “exclusiveness,” it is that realm in which we “choose those with whom we wish to spend our lives, personal friends and those we love.” The private choices we make are guided by nothing objective or knowable, “but strikes, inexplicably and unerringly, at one person in his uniqueness, his unlikeness to all other people we know.” Privacy is controversial because the “rules of uniqueness and exclusiveness are, and always will be, in conflict with the standards of society.” Arendt’s defense of mixed marriages (and by extension gay marriages) proceeds—no less than her defense of the right of parents to educate their children in single-sex or segregated schools—from her conviction that the uniqueness and distinction of private lives need to be respected and protected.
Privacy, for Arendt, is connected to the “sanctity of the hearth” and thus to the idea of private property. Indeed, property itself is respected not on economic grounds, but because “without owning a house a man could not participate in the affairs of the world because he had no location in it which was properly his own.” Property guarantees privacy because it enforces a boundary line, “ kind of no man’s land between the private and the public, sheltering and protecting both.” In private, behind the four walls of house and heath, the “sacredness of the hidden” protects men from the conformist expectations of the social and political worlds.
In private, shaded from the conformity of societal opinions as well from the demands of the public world, we can grow in our own way and develop our own idiosyncratic character. Because we are hidden, “man does not know where he comes from when he is born and where he goes when he dies.” This essential darkness of privacy gives flight to our uniqueness, our freedom to be different. It is privacy, in other words, that we become who we are. What this means is that without privacy there can be no meaningful difference. The political importance of privacy is that privacy is what guarantees difference and thus plurality in the public world.
Arendt develops her thinking on privacy most explicitly in her essays on education. Education must perform two seemingly contradictory functions. First, education leads a young person into the public world, introducing them and acclimating them to the traditions, public language, and common sense that precede him. Second, education must also guard the child against the world, care for the child so that “nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The child, to be protected against the destructive onslaught of the world, needs the privacy that has its “traditional place” in the family.
Because the child must be protected against the world, his traditional place is in the family, whose adult members return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls. These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. This holds good not only for the life of childhood but for human life in general…Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however, strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.
The public world is unforgiving. It can be cold and hard. All persons count equally in public, and little if any allowance is made for individual hardships or the bonds of friendship and love. Only in privacy, Arendt argues, can individuals emerge as unique individuals who can then leave the private realm to engage the political sphere as confident, self-thinking, and independent citizens.
The political import of Arendt’s defense of privacy is that privacy is what allows for meaningful plurality and differences that prevent one mass movement, one idea, or one opinion from imposing itself throughout society. Just as Arendt valued the constitutional federalism in the American Constitution because it multiplied power sources through the many state and local governments in the United States, so did she too value privacy because it nurtures meaningfully different and even opposed opinions, customs, and faiths. She defends the regional differences in the United States as important and even necessary to preserve the constitutional structure of dispersed power that she saw as the great bulwark of freedom against the tyranny of the majority. In other words, Arendt saw privacy as the foundation not only of private eccentricity, but also of political freedom.
Cole offers a clear-sighted account of the ways that government is impinging on privacy. It is essential reading and it is your weekend read.
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.
Is there such a thing as too much free speech? The Editors at N+1 think so. They posted an editorial this week lamenting the overabundance of speaking that has swept over our nation like a plague:
A strange mania governs the people of our great nation, a mania that these days results in many individual and collective miseries. This is the love of opinion, of free speech—a furious mania for free, spoken opinion. It exhausts us.
The N+1 Editors feel besieged. And we can all sympathize with their predicament. Too many people are writing blogs; too many voices are tweeting; too many friends are pontificating about something on Facebook. And then there are the trolls. It’s hard not to sympathize with our friends at N+1. Why do we have to listen to all of these folks? Shouldn’t all these folks just stop and read N+1 instead?
Of course it is richly hypocritical for the Editors of an opinion journal to complain of an overabundance of opinions. And N+1 acknowledges and even trumpets its hypocrisy.
We are aware that to say [that others should stop expressing their opinions] (freely! our opinion!) makes us hypocrites. We are also aware that America’s hatred of hypocrisy is one of few passions to rival its love of free speech—as if the ideal citizen must see something, say something, and it must be the same thing, all the time. But we’ll be hypocrites because we’re tired, and we want eventually to stop talking.
Beyond the hypocrisy N +1 has a point: The internet has unleashed packs upon packs of angry often rabid dogs. These haters attack anything and everything, including each other. Hate and rage are everywhere:
The ragers in our feeds, our otherwise reasonable friends and comrades: how do they have this energy, this time, for these unsolicited opinions? They keep finding things to be mad about. Here, they’ve dug up some dickhead writer-professor in Canada who claims not to teach women writers in his classes. He must be denounced, and many times! OK. Yes. We agree. But then it’s some protest (which we support), and then some pop song (which we like, or is this the one we don’t like?), and then some egregiously false study about austerity in Greece (full of lies!). Before we know it, we’ve found ourselves in a state of rage, a semi-permanent state of rage in fact, of perma-rage, our blood boiled by the things that make us mad and then the unworthy things that make other people mad.
Wouldn’t it be nice of public discourse were civil and loving? I too would prefer a rational discussion about the Boycott, Diversity, and Sanction movement. I would be thrilled if the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could join forces to fight political corruption and the over-bureaucratization of government that disempowers individuals. And of course I would love it if those who religiously attack Hannah Arendt for her opinion that Adolf Eichmann was a superficial and banal man responsible for unspeakable evils could find common cause with those who find her provocative, moving and meaningful.
Of course it is exhausting dealing with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. And there is always the impulse to say simply, “enough! I just don’t want to hear your opinions anymore.” This is precisely what N+1 is saying: “We don’t care!”
We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.
Underlying N+1’s ironic distance from the arena of opinions and discord is a basic anti-political fantasy that opinion is a waste of time, if it is not destructive. Wouldn’t it be better to skip the opinions and the battles and the disagreements and just cut straight to the truth? Just listen to the truth.
Truth is not an imperative, but something that must be discovered. Unlike liquid opinion, truth does not always circulate. It is that which you experience, deeply, and cannot forget. The right to not care is the right to sit still, to not talk, to be subject to unclarity and allow knowledge to come unbidden to you. To be in a constant state of rage, by contrast, is only the other side of piety and pseudoscience, the kind of belief that forms a quick chorus and cannot be disproved. Scroll down your Facebook feed and see if you don’t find one ditto after another. So many people with “good” or “bad politics,” delivered with conviction to rage or applause; so little doubt, error, falsifiability—surely the criteria by which anything true, or democratic, could ever be found.
What N+1 embraces is truth over opinion and escapism against engagement with others. What they forget, however, is that there are two fundamentally opposed routes to truth.
In one, the truthseeker turns away from the world of opinion. The world in which we live is a world of shadows and deceptions. Truth won’t be found in the marketplace of ideas, but on the mountaintop in the blinding light of the sun. Like Plato’s philosopher king, we must climb out of the cave and ascend to the heights. Alone, turned toward the heavens and the eternal truths that surf upon the sunrays, we open ourselves to the experience of truth.
A second view of truth is more mundane. The truthseeker stays firmly planted in the world of opinion and deception. Truth is a battle and it is fought with the weapons of words. Persuasion and rhetoric replace the light of the sun. The winner gains not insight but power. Truth doesn’t emerge from an experience; truth is the settled sentiment of the most persuasive opinion.
Both the mountain path and the road through the marketplace are paths to truth, but of different kinds. Philosophers and theologians may very well need to separate themselves from the world of opinion if they are to free themselves to experience truth. Philosophical truths, as Hannah Arendt argues, address “man in his singularity” and are thus “unpolitical by nature.” For her, philosophy and also philosophical truths are anti-political.
Politicians cannot concern themselves with absolute truths; they must embrace the life of the citizen and the currency of opinion rather than the truths of the philosopher. In politics, “no opinion is self-evident,” as Arendt understood. “In matters of opinion, but not in matters of [philosophical] truth, our thinking is discursive, running as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality.” In politics, truth may emerge, but it must go through the shadows that darken the marketplace.
What Arendt understands about political truths is that truths do indeed “circulate” in messy and often uncomfortable ways that the n+1 editorial board wishes to avoid. Political thought, Arendt argues, “is representative.” By that she means that it must sample as many different viewpoints and opinions as is possible. “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” It is in hearing, imagining, and representing opposing and discordant views that one comes to test out his or her own views. It is not a matter of empathy, of feeling like someone else. It is rather an imaginative experiment in which I test my views against all comers. In this way, the enlarged mentality of imaginative thinking is the prerequisite for judgment.
When Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann that he was possessed of the “fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” because he did not think, what she meant was that he was simply incapable or unwilling to think from the perspective of others. His use of clichés was not thoughtlessness itself, but was evidence that he had barricaded himself inside an ideological cage. Above all, his desire to make others including Jews understand his point of view—his hope that they could see that he was a basically good man caught up on the wrong side of history—was for Arendt evidence of his superficiality and his lack of imagination. He simply could not and did not ever allow himself to challenge his own rationalizations and justifications by thinking from the perspective of Jews and his other victims. What allowed Eichmann to so efficiently dispatch millions to their deaths was his inability to think and encounter opinions that were different from his own.
In the internet age we are bombarded with such a diversity of angry and insulting and stupid and offensive viewpoints that it is only naturally to alternate between the urge to respond violently and the urge to withdraw.
It is easy to deride political opinion and idolize truth. But that is to forget that “seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.”
Political thinking requires that we resist both the desire to fight opinions with violence and the desire to flee from opinions altogether. Instead, we need to learn to think in and with others whose opinions we often hate. We must find in the melee of divergent and offending opinions the joy that exists in the experience of human plurality. We don’t need to love or agree with those we find offensive; but so long as they are talking instead of fighting, we should respect them and listen to them. Indeed, we should care about them and their beliefs. That is why the N+1 manifesto for not caring is your weekend read.
Francis Fukuyama has a new essay up on “The Decay of American Political Institutions.” Fukuyama begins with a basic point that is undeniable, and is artfully made manifest in George Packer’s National Book Award Winning The Unwinding: “Many political institutions in the United States are decaying.” There are many reasons for that failure. But in Fukuyama’s analysis, two reasons stands out: First, the American penchant for addressing political problems through law, and second, the legalized corruption of interest groups. What unites these two culprits in Fukuyama’s grand synthesis is that both are born out of what he sees as a fundamentally American distrust of government.
Distrust of government means, Fukuyama writes, that American politics has elevated the judiciary to a position of power unlike other democracies. And this has led our political institutions to decay.
The decay in the quality of American government has to do directly with the American penchant for a state of “courts and parties”, which has returned to center stage in the past fifty years. The courts and legislature have increasingly usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient. The steadily increasing judicialization of functions that in other developed democracies are handled by administrative bureaucracies has led to an explosion of costly litigation, slow decision-making and highly inconsistent enforcement of laws. The courts, instead of being constraints on government, have become alternative instruments for the expansion of government. Ironically, out of a fear of empowering “big government”, the United States has ended up with a government that is very large, but that is actually less accountable because it is largely in the hands of unelected courts.
Fukuyama knows bureaucracy can be problematic—the rule of nobody, in Arendt’s formulation—but at least bureaucrat rule is rule. In his telling, the problem is that U.S. has developed a huge bureaucracy that we don’t trust and thus limit through lawsuits, injunctions, and constitutional challenges. So we have the worst of both worlds, a large unelected and anonymous bureaucracy that is itself disempowered and neutered by an even more powerful unelected and anonymous judiciary.
Because there is “too much law,” the bureaucracy doesn’t work. What is more, the combined power of an anonymous bureaucracy and an anonymous judiciary has led to our present crisis of representative democracy, one in which Americans of all political persuasions feel that government is a foreign occupying power that is unanswerable to them. This leads in turn to a distrust of all government, a cynicism that “further reduces the quality and effectiveness of government by reducing bureaucratic autonomy.”
The fact that Americans distrust government means that they place increasing judicial and legislative roadblocks in front of governmental decisions. There is the famous multiplication of agencies and competing authorities, which offers multiple points for influence by lobbyists. As long as so many different agencies have the power to veto or slow down governmental action, government is stymied. “The longstanding distrust of the state that has always characterized American politics had led to an unbalanced form of government that undermines the prospects of necessary collective action. It has led to vetocracy.” Lobbyists thus have an outsized power to capture authorities and disproportionately impact legislation, which furthers cynicism about government. These problems are deeply ingrained in American values and in our Constitution, which makes them unsolvable. Which is the depressing note upon which Fukuyama ends his essay:
Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document. Persuading them to rethink its most basic tenets short of an outright system collapse is highly unlikely. So we have a problem.
What is striking is how Fukuyama is unable to find resources in the American Constitutional system that might reinvigorate our political institutions. It is as if the American distrust of government means that American democracy is unsalvageable. At times of partisanship, it will lead to Civil War or sclerosis. There is no alternative.
It is a mistake—although one commonly made—to understand the U.S. Constitution as one dominated by a mistrust of governmental power and thus marked by institutions designed to limit governmental power. The genius of the American Constitution, as Hannah Arendt argues, is not the limitation of power, but the multiplication of powers. More important than the three branches of the Federal government in Arendt’s account is the preservation of multiple levels of federal, state, county, city, and village power. The Congress’ power was limited not simply by the President and the Judiciary, but by the states and local authorities. The grant of powers to Congress was limited and expansion of national power was to be constrained by the power of local institutions.
What Arendt saw in a way Fukuyama ignores is that Americans don’t distrust power so much as they distrust the concentration and centralization of power. It his been quintessentially American for citizens to engage in government, especially local government, and to take active part in public debates about political questions. From their arrival in the New World, Americans formed councils, engaged in public affairs, and empowered democratic institutions. The federalist elements of the Constitution provide ample support for vibrant democratic and local institutions.
Beyond the judicializaiton of politics and the rise of a corruption by lobbyists, another cause of the present decay of American politics is the increasingly national approach to government and the hollowing out of local institutions. There are many other causes for the increasing concentration of power and the loss of local institutional power, but there are plenty of resources for reinvigorating local self-governmental institutions in the American political tradition and in the Constitution itself. Yes, “we have a problem.” But there are always ways forward.
Francis Fukuyama’s analysis of our current political decay is powerful and important. It is your weekend read.
The secret of American exceptionalism may very well be the uniquely American susceptibility to narratives of decline. From the American defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet launch of Sputnik to the quagmire in Afghanistan and the current financial crisis, naysayers proclaim the end of the American century. And yet the prophecies of decline are nearly always, in a uniquely American spirit, followed by calls for rejuvenation. Americans are neither pessimists nor optimists. Instead, they are darkened by despair and fired by hope.
Decline, writes Josef Joffe in a recent essay in The American Interest, “is as American as apple pie. “ The tales of decline that populate American cultural myths have many morals, but one common shared theme: Renewal.
“Decline Time in America” is never just a disinterested tally of trends and numbers. It is not about truth, but about consequences—as in any morality tale. Declinism tells a story to shape belief and change behavior; it is a narrative that is impervious to empirical validation, whose purpose is to bring comforting coherence to the flow of events. The universal technique of mythic morality tales is dramatization and hyperbole. Since good news is no news, bad news is best in the marketplace of ideas. The winning vendor is not Pollyanna but Henny Penny, also known as Chicken Little, who always sees the sky falling. But why does alarmism work so well, be it on the pulpit or on the hustings—whatever the inconvenient facts?
Joffe, the editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, writes from the lofty perch of an all-knowing cultural critic. Declinism is, when looked at from above, little more than a marketing pitch:
Since biblical times, prophets have never gone to town on rosy oratory, and politicos only rarely. Fire and brimstone are usually the best USP, “unique selling proposition” in marketing-speak.
The origins of modern declinism, pace Joffe, are found in “the serial massacre that was World War I,” the rapacious carnage that revealed “the evil face of technology triumphant.” WWI deflated the enlightenment optimism in reason and science, showing instead the destructive impact of those very same progressive ideals.
The knowledge that raised the Eiffel Tower also birthed the machine gun, allowing one man to mow down a hundred without having to slow down for reloading. Nineteenth-century chemistry revolutionized industry, churning out those blessings from petroleum to plastics and pharmacology that made the modern world. But the same labs also invented poison gas. The hand that delivered good also enabled evil. Worse, freedom’s march was not only stopped but reversed. Democracy was flattened by the utopia-seeking totalitarians of the 20th century. Their utopia was the universe of the gulag and the death camp. Their road to salvation led to a war that claimed 55 million lives and then to a Cold War that imperiled hundreds of millions more.
America, the land of progress in Joffe’s telling, now exists in a productive tension with the anti-scientific tale of the “death of progress.”
“Technology and plenty, the critics of the Enlightenment argued, would not liberate the common man, but enslave him in the prison of “false consciousness” built by the ruling elites. The new despair of the former torchbearers of progress may well be the reason that declinism flourishes on both Left and Right. This new ideological kinship alone does not by itself explain any of the five waves of American declinism, but it has certainly broadened its appeal over time.
Joffe stands above both extremes of the declinism pendulum. Instead of embracing or rejecting the tale of decline, he names decline and its redemptive flipside the driving force of American exceptionalism. Myths of decline are necessary in order to fuel the exceptional calls for sacrifice, work, and innovation that have for centuries turned the tide of American elections and American culture.
[D]awn always follows doom—as when Kennedy called out in his Inaugural Address: “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear who had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted: “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back”, and again on top. Collapse was yesterday; today is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration—and wilts quickly after the next victory.
Over and over the handwriting that showed that decline was on the wall was, in truth, “a call to arms that galvanized the nation.”
Behind this long history of nightmares of degeneration and dreams of rebirth is Joffe’s ultimate question: Are the current worries about the death of the American century simply the latest in the American cycle of gloom and glee? Or is it possible that the American dream is, finally, used up? In other words, is it true that, since “at “some point, everything comes to an end,” this may be the end for America? Might it be that, as many in Europe now argue, “The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010.” Is it true that the US is a “hate-filled country” in unavoidable decline?
Joffe is skeptical. Here is his one part of his answer:
Will they be proven right in the case of America? Not likely. For heuristic purposes, look at some numbers. At the pinnacle of British power (1870), the country’s GDP was separated from that of its rivals by mere percentages. The United States dwarfs the Rest, even China, by multiples—be it in terms of GDP, nuclear weapons, defense spending, projection forces, R&D outlays or patent applications. Seventeen of the world’s top universities are American; this is where tomorrow’s intellectual capital is being produced. America’s share of global GDP has held steady for forty years, while Europe’s, Japan’s and Russia’s have shrunk. And China’s miraculous growth is slipping, echoing the fates of the earlier Asian dragons (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) that provided the economic model: high savings, low consumption, “exports first.” China is facing a disastrous demography; the United States, rejuvenated by steady immigration, will be the youngest country of the industrial world (after India).
In short, if America is to decline it will be because America refuses to stay true to its tradition of innovation and reinvention.
As convincing as Joffe is, the present danger that America’s current malaise will persist comes less from economics or from politics than from the extinguishing of the nation’s moral fire. And in this regard, essays such as Joffe’s are symptoms of the problem America faces. Joffe writes from above and specifically from the position of the social scientist. He looks down on America and American history and identifies trends. He cites figures. And he argues that in spite of the worry, all is generally ok. Inequality? Not to worry, it has been worse. Democratic sclerosis? Fret not; think back to the 1880s. Soul-destroying partisanship? Have you read the newspapers of the late 18th century? In short, our problems are nothing new under the sun. Keep it in perspective. There is painfully little urgency in such essays. Indeed, they trade above all in a defense of the status quo.
There is reason to worry though, and much to worry about. Joffe may himself have seen one such worry if he had lingered longer on an essay he cites briefly, but does not discuss. In 1954, Hannah Arendt published “Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” in Commentary Magazine. In that essay—originally given as part of a series of talks at Princeton University on the relationship between Europe and America—she asked: “WHAT IMAGE DOES Europe have of America?”
Her answer is that Europe has never seen America as an exotic land like the South Sea Islands. Instead, there are two conflicting images of America that matter for Europeans. Politically, America names the very European dream of political liberty. In this sense, America is less the new world than the embodiment of the old world, the land in which European dreams of equality and liberty are made manifest. The political nearness of Europe and America explains their kinship.
European anti-Americanism, however, is lodged in a second myth about American, the economic image of America as the land of plenty. This European image of America’s stupendous wealth may or may not be borne out in reality, but it is a fantasy that drives European opinion:
America, it is true, has been the “land of plenty” almost since the beginning of its history, and the relative well-being of all her inhabitants deeply impressed even early travelers. … It is also true that the feeling was always present that the difference between the two continents was greater than national differences in Europe itself even if the actual figures did not bear this out. Still, at some moment—presumably after America emerged from her long isolation and became once more a central preoccupation of Europe after the First World War—this difference between Europe and America changed its meaning and became qualitative instead of quantitative. It was no longer a question of better, but of altogether different conditions, of a nature which makes understanding well nigh impossible. Like an invisible but very real Chinese wall, the wealth of the United States separates it from all other countries of the globe, just as it separates the individual American tourist from the inhabitants of the countries he visits.
Arendt’s interest in this “Chinese wall” that separates Europe from America is that it lies behind the anti-Americanism of European liberals, even as it inspires the poor. “As a result,” of this myth, Arendt writes, “sympathy for America today can be found, generally speaking, among those people whom Europeans call “reactionary,” whereas an anti-American posture is one of the best ways to prove oneself a liberal.” The same can largely be said today.
The danger in such European anti-Americanism is not only that it will fire a European nationalism, but also that it will cast European nationalism as an ideological opposition to American wealth. “Anti-Americanism, its negative emptiness notwithstanding, threatens to become the content of a European movement.” In other words, European nationalism threatens to assume on a negative ideological tone.
That Europe will understand itself primarily in opposition to America as a land of wealth impacts America too, insofar as European opposition hardens Americans in their own mythic sense of themselves as a land of unfettered economic freedom and unlimited wealth. European anti-Americanism thus fosters the kind of free market ideology so rampant in America today.
What is more, when Europe and America emphasize their ideological opposition on an economic level, they deemphasize their political kinship as lands of freedom.
Myths of American decline serve a purpose on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Europe, they help justify Europe’s social democratic welfare states, as well as their highly bureaucratized regulatory state. In America, they underlie attacks on regulation and calls to limit and shrink government. These are all important issues that should be thought and debated with an eye to reality. The danger is that the European emancipation and American exceptionalism threatens to elevate ideology over reality, hardening positions that need rather to be open for innovation.
Joffe’s essay on the Canard of Decline is a welcome spur to rethinking the gloom and the glee of our present moment. It is your weekend read.
On Thursday and Friday Oct. 3-4, the Hannah Arendt Center will host its 6th Annual International Conference, “Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis.”
At a time of blistering technological and cultural change, reformers want schools to prepare students for the future—but which future? And despite the polarizing polemics over curricular change and the learned arguments mounted by the most earnest reformers whatever their politics, we must admit that we have no idea where our increasingly virtual reality will take us next month, let alone in a decade. Which skills and knowledge will be needed? What brain enhancements will be available? Handwringing in the public square over whether children should still be taught cursive is much ado about nothing when, if futurists are correct, we soon may no longer need to learn how to die.
If we can no longer count on the ways of the past to guide us in a brave—or terrifying—new world, education must evolve with it. As such, thinking people must ask themselves how that evolution should be handled, considered, and undertaken.
In “The Crisis in Education," Hannah Arendt writes: "education can play no part in politics, because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated.” Arendt worried that when politicians talk about educating voters, they are really seeking unanimity. Political education sounds like indoctrination, which threatens the plurality of opinion at the core of intellectual life and the politics that protects it.
Against politics in its basest form, Arendt saw education as “the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” The educator must love the world and believe in it if he is to introduce young people to a world worthy of respect. In this sense, education is conservative—it conserves the world as it has been given. But education is also revolutionary, insofar as teachers must realize that the young people they nurture are newcomers whose fate is to change the world. Arendt argued that teachers must humbly teach what is; in this way they prepare students to transform what is into what might be.
Arendt shares Ralph Waldo Emerson's view that “He only who is able to stand alone is qualified for society.” Emerson’s imperative of self-reliance resonates with Arendt’s imperative to think for oneself. Education, Arendt insists, must risk allowing people their unique and even unpopular viewpoints, eschewing even well intentioned conformism and seeking, instead, to nurture independent minds. Education prepares the youth for politics by bringing them into a common world as courageous, independent, and unique individuals.
In the early years of our republican experiment, the American yeoman farmer participated in Town Hall meetings. Today, few of us have the experience or the desire to govern. Are we suffering an institutional failure to make clear to graduates that participation in governance is a personal responsibility? Or is our withdrawal from politics the conscious result of modern individualism now liberated from the demands of politics by a virtual technological reality? Whatever the cause, elites imagine that the common people are no longer qualified for self-government; and the people increasingly distrust the educated elite that has consistently failed to deliver the dream of a well-managed technocratic welfare state.
In the most literate and technologically advanced society in all history, we have produced citizens who are politically sterile. If it’s true that we learn by doing, most Americans have little experience with politics. With the exception of serving on juries, few engage in civic service. Voting is the only public activity demanded of citizens in our democracy. It takes little effort; and still, few vote. The old ideal of the citizen democracy is in crisis.
“Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis” asks how we can re-invigorate the cultural and educational institutions that have nurtured public-spiritedness that is the bedrock virtue of American constitutional democracy. In an increasingly global world, do we need a common public language? Is college education necessary for engaged citizenship? Should politically involved citizens have knowledge of the arts and practical skills like building and fixing things? What, in the 21st century, is an educated citizen?
We invite you to join us for the Conference. You can register here.
If you can’t make it to Bard in person, you can watch the conference via live webcast here.
And to prepare for the conference, here are a series of essays and blog posts from the last 12 months on the topic of education. These essays are your weekend reads.