Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
27Oct/140

Amor Mundi 10/26/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

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The Making of a Hero

Laura PoitrasIn a revelatory and subtle profile of Laura Poitras and her experience making "Citizenfour," her new documentary about Edward Snowden, George Packer raises questions about how close Poitras comes to Snowden's true story, and how uncritically Snowden's own narrative of his actions have become entrenched in the public consciousness: "The heart of the film is the hotel room in Hong Kong, where Poitras finds emotion in the small moments that give 'Citizenfour' the human truth she's always after. Even when the pace slows to the verge of boredom, the footage is mesmerizing, because we are watching a private encounter of great political significance unfold. For Poitras, the film is all about Snowden's decision. But, in this case, ... Snowden had already made his decision to go public, long before he got in touch with Poitras, so by the time we meet him it's a fait accompli. By e-mail and in Hong Kong, he presents his motives as so high-minded and public-spirited that they never become interesting. In Poitras's terms, he has already created a narrative of himself-it's a "locked path." He has stopped being a complicated character, and Poitras doesn't look for ways to complicate him. ... Snowden describes himself as an ordinary government employee who was going about his business until he could no longer ignore the wrongdoing he observed. This self-portrait doesn't completely square with others' accounts or with the historical record. Snowden was not as deeply embedded in the N.S.A.'s institutional culture as were previous agency whistle-blowers, like Binney, who arrived at their breaking points after sustained bureaucratic struggles. Snowden was more alienated and self-isolated, more radical, than that. His biographical trail reveals a young man who becomes most passionate when promoting the importance of maintaining absolute privacy on the Internet-he wore an Electronic Frontier Foundation hoodie to work-and who seems less eager to acknowledge how difficult the trade-off between liberty and security can be in a democratic society. Before the meeting in Hong Kong, he wrote a letter to Poitras and Greenwald that said, in part, "While I pray that public awareness and debate will lead to reform, bear in mind that the policies of men change in time, and even the Constitution is subverted when the appetites of power demand it. In words from history: Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography." Snowden went to great trouble over a long period to amass the astonishing quantity of secrets that he passed on to Poitras and Greenwald-including taking a private-contractor position solely with the aim of downloading N.S.A. files. None of this is revealed under Greenwald's questioning."

The Phantom in the Opera

death of klinghofferAlex Ross on why the response to the Metropolitan Opera's staging of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer has been so vitriolic: "Adams and his librettist...do not advertise their intentions in neon. The story of the Achille Lauro hijacking is told in oblique, circuitous monologues, delivered by a variety of self-involved narrators, with interpolated choruses in rich, dense poetic language. The terrorists are allowed ecstatic flights, private musings, self-justifications. But none of this should surprise a public accustomed to dark, ambiguous TV shows like 'Homeland.' The most specious arguments against 'Klinghoffer' elide the terrorists' bigotry with the attitudes of the creators. By the same logic, one could call Steven Spielberg an anti-Semite because the commandant in 'Schindler's List' compares Jewish women to a virus. In the opera, the opposed groups follow divergent trajectories. The terrorists tend to lapse from poetry into brutality, whereas Leon Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, remain robustly earthbound, caught up in the pleasures and pains of daily life, hopeful even as death hovers. Those trajectories are already implicit in the paired opening numbers, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews. The former splinters into polyrhythmic violence, ending on the words 'break his teeth'; the latter keeps shifting from plaintive minor to sumptuous major, ending on the words 'stories of our love.' The scholar Robert Fink, in a 2005 essay, convincingly argues that the opera 'attempts to counterpoise to terror's deadly glamour the life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.' Moreover, subtle references to the Holocaust suggest that a familiar horror is recurring. 'At least we are not Jews,' an old Swiss woman says. 'I kept my distance,' an Austrian frigidly intones. The mellifluous, ineffectual Captain indulges in fantasies of appeasement, conversing under the stars with a silver-tongued terrorist named Mamoud."

Moral Equivalence

death of klinghoffer(2)Alan Dershowitz argues that The Death of Klinghoffer is an affront, first because it establishes a false moral equivalence between Jewish Zionism and Palestinian terrorism and second between the Holocaust and the Occupation. He also faults the music: "By any standard, The Death of Klinghoffer is anything but the 'masterpiece' its proponents are claiming it is. The music is uneven, with some lovely choruses-more on that coming-one decent aria, and lots of turgid recitatives. The libretto is awful. The drama is confused and rigid, especially the weak device of the captain looking back at the events several years later with the help of several silent passengers. There are silly and distracting arias from a British show girl who seems to have had a crush on one of the terrorists, as well as from a woman who hid in her cabin eating grapes and chocolate. They added neither to the drama nor the music of the opera. Then there were the choruses. The two that open the opera are supposed to demonstrate the comparative suffering of the displaced Palestinians and the displaced Jews. The Palestinian chorus is beautifully composed musically, with some compelling words, sung rhythmically and sympathetically. The Jewish chorus is a mishmash of whining about money, sex, betrayal and assorted 'Hasidism' protesting in front of movie theaters. It never mentions the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, though the chorus is supposed to be sung by its survivors. The goal of that narrative chorus is to compare the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians-some of which was caused by Arab leaders urging them to leave and return victoriously after the Arabs murdered the Jews of Israel-with the systematic genocide of six million Jews. It was a moral abomination.... At bottom The Death of Klinghoffer-a title deliberately selected to sanitize his brutal murder-is more propaganda than art. It has some artistic moments, but the dominant theme is to create a false moral equivalence between terrorism and its victims, between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups, and between the Holocaust and the self-inflicted Nakba."

Don't Give Up the Fight

Hong Kong protestsKeane Shum on why he won't give up on change in Hong Kong: "So many voices-our own government, the central government, foreign governments, much of the international media, and even some of the protesters themselves-say there is no chance of any concession by the authorities, that this is a futile battle against an intransigent force and can yield only moral victories. It is all just the dreams of naive students, they say, a fantasy. But so is Hong Kong. On that recent Sunday morning in Victoria Harbour, when I had swum to roughly the midpoint between Hong Kong Island and the mainland, I took a moment to drift on my back and let the city wash over me. The harbor and the skyline, the hills and the bays, the food, the movies, the money, and, of course, these protests-politically engaged teenagers doing homework on the streets, collecting garbage, singing songs-all these are unreal. Our city is a dream, a place where umbrellas float through tear gas, schoolchildren lead civic debates instead of virtual lives, and 999 of every 1,000 trains run on time. On that ship in Nanjing 172 years ago where China signed us away, after the British surrendered us on Christmas Day, 1941, when the tanks plowed into Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989, we were never supposed to exist, not like this."

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Now and Then

Daniel MendelsohnDaniel Mendelsohn, suggests that books, even ones we love, should change as we do: " I teach Sophocles' 'Antigone.' My students, who are in their late teens and early 20s, tend to identify with the fiercely idealistic young heroine, who stands up for family and religion - for freedom of conscience, as we often see it today - against the decrees of her uncle, the autocratic new ruler of the state. But over the past quarter-century I have increasingly appreciated the validity of the uncle's claims: the necessity for order, the incoherence of a state that consists of individuals who cannot recognize the views of others. However much Holden Caulfield's helplessness and sensitivity may move us, it's important to remember that what is problematic in 'The Catcher in the Rye' is its hero's aversion to negotiation and compromise - not the negotiations and compromises themselves, which are simply part of adult life. Whatever else it may mean, the Museum of Natural History scene in Salinger's beloved classic can be read as a powerful allegory of how not to read beloved classics. Like Holden, we can and do keep revisiting them; but when we do, we should always be seeing something new, because the eyes with which we read should have changed."

To Grieve or Not to Grieve?

Colm ToibinIn a comprehensive essay on grief in literature, Colm Toibin points to Hamlet as a model: "I remember in school sitting at the back of the class soon after my father had died and listening to a discussion about Hamlet's madness and Hamlet's character and everyone wondering why Hamlet could in one second be in love, and the next out of love, and then angry and ready for revenge and then ready to procrastinate, the next minute melancholy and the next putting an antic disposition on, and why his tone could be so wise and then also so bitter and sharply sarcastic and rude. How could he be so many things, and how could we define his character? I wish I had put up my hand to say that I thought I understood what was at the root of all his antics. His father had died not long before. That was all. He had been unmoored. While those around him were trying to explain that what had happened was normal, a part of nature, and were trying to get on with things, Hamlet had become wayward and, luckily, Shakespeare had seen the dramatic possibilities of this."

A Lost Generation

South Boston busMichael Patrick MacDonald has a vivid essay-part investigative journalism, part personal recollection of his time growing up in South Boston-about the forced busing that integrated South Boston High School in 1974: "Among the rarely discussed facts about my neighborhood was that white South Boston High School had the highest number of students on welfare in any school, citywide. The school mostly served the population of Southie's three large housing projects and the 'Lower End,' three contiguous census tracts that collectively held the highest concentration of white poverty in the United States, with 73 percent single-parent female-headed households and upwards of 40 percent unemployment rate among adult men. In the years before busing, only 16 percent of students at white South Boston High school went on to college, and when they did, they were usually the first in their families to do so. Former Boston NAACP President Ken Guskett has recently said that, during the battle for desegregation, while white students citywide received more funding per student ($450) than black students ($250 at the black schools in Roxbury)-'the South Boston kids got less than Roxbury.' This is the problem with looking at statistics only by race, rather than also looking at economics." MacDonald brings a panoramic lens to the busing history, exploring how it happened that black children were integrated into the only Boston schools worse than their own, how South Boston united against that integration and lost its soul, and how the Boston elite stood apart from the fray. Above all it is a riveting tale of the personal toll of a well-meaning but poorly instituted government policy. 

How to Read a "Politically Charged Sentence"

heideggerJulia Ireland has published a long essay that centers upon one of those rare genuine scholarly discoveries. Reviewing original manuscripts of Martin Heidegger's lecture courses, she discovered that the published versions of the texts mistakenly read Heidegger's notation for "National Socialism" as "The Natural Sciences." Ireland argues that restoring Heidegger's original words actually helps make sense of his controversial claims in another essay written in the same year in which he speaks of the "inner truth of National Socialism." In doing so, Ireland offers an extraordinary example of how to treat controversial philosophical texts. As she explains in a footnote that should be read more widely: "I am deeply opposed to that style of scholarship whose tendentious use of quotations preempts genuine philosophical analysis in a manner I understand to actively mislead. It remains true that substandard scholarship continues to determine the wider debate surrounding Heidegger's politics and that in the United States such scholarship has received the imprimatur of a university press. (Emmanuel Faye's division of his 'Bibliography' into categories such as 'Works by Other National Socialist and Völkisch Authors,' 'Apologetic and Revisionist Studies,' and 'Works Critical of Heidegger,' in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-35, is blatantly ideological; and his representation of student Protokolle as Heidegger's own words is specious; both should have been challenged by reviewers as violating the most basic principles of scholarship.) By contrast, I intend my analysis here as an alternative for what it means to read a single, politically charged sentence when interpretation has been constrained by the necessity of a philological reconstruction and the willingness to affirm the often surprising layers of complication that have accompanied it."

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Featured Events

Yasemin SariLunchtime Talk with Yasemin Sari

An Arendtian Recognitive Politics: "The Right to Have Rights" as a Performance of Visibility

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm

 

 


humanitiesRediscovering the Humanities: Humanities Advocacy in the Digital Age

The Fall Experimental Humanities Mellon Lecture

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Jim Ottaway Jr. Film Center, 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm


Alexei GloukhovLunchtime Talk with Alexei Gloukhov

Arendt and the Question of Positive Freedom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm - 2:00 pm

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Andrew T. Dilts reflects on forgiveness, punishment, and vengeance with respect to George Zimmerman's slaying of Trayvon Martin in the Quote of the Week. C. G. Jung provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back at a talk Bard College President Leon Botstein gave on the state of American education at the Hannah Arendt Center's seventh annual fall conference. And we appreciate a small yet powerful personal library of Arendt's works in our Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Sep/140

Amor Mundi 9/21/14

Amor Mundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

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Anxiety and Writing

donald_antrimJohn Jeremiah Sullivan tells a tale of the anxieties and rare talents of Donald Antrim. At one point he recounts the story of Antrim's battles with mental illness and Antrim's decision to check himself into a psychiatric hospital. His doctors said: "'You're very sick, and you're very psychotic, and we can take care of you.' They told him they wanted him to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. He could take time to think about it. A nurse led him back into the hallway and down to his room. The news destroyed him. Not because he didn't believe them, that it was the best thing for him, nor even because he feared the procedure itself (though naturally it terrified him to face it), but because he believed it would mean the end of him as a writer. That his talent would be scattered. His brains scrambled. The mechanism disassembled. Not to write? A living death. What would it even mean to go about your day? Also he felt that it was, he said, 'a confirmation that I would never leave hospitals.' He sat down on a chair. 'Not 20 minutes later,' he said, 'a patient called out, "Mr. Antrim,­ there's a phone call for you."' He shuffled down to the phones near the medication dispensary. He picked up. 'Donald,' a voice said, 'this is Dave Wallace. I heard you were in bad shape....' Wallace, who had undergone the procedure himself, spent at least an hour telling Antrim that he shouldn't be afraid, that he would still be there when it was over, that it would still be there."

What Kind of Nazi Was He?

heideggerWe live in a time dominated by the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, the idea that one aspect of a person's life dominates the whole. Thus someone who has strong faith in God is dismissed as a fundamentalist just as someone who opposes the wearing of Burqas in public is labeled an Islamophobe and those who oppose Israel are called antisemites. In each of these instances, one opinion or quality of the person is used to devalue the entirety of their persona, as if to hold an offensive opinion makes one offensive. There are few opinions that are considered to disqualify one for good society more than to be a Nazi, which is why the publication of Martin Heidegger's Black Notebooks has unleashed a frenzy of self-satisfied accusation. In two recent reviews, Gregory Fried in the LA Review of Books and Peter Gordon in the New York Review of Books each make obligatory statements that the Notebooks prove Heidegger was a Nazi. But each also makes the effort then to ask what that means, to understand Heidegger's fully atypical and metaphysical Nazism. Here is Fried: "For one thing, the Notebooks show that the Nazi revolution was only an opportunity for Heidegger, a moment when the overturning might be possible, not guaranteed. He was proud enough to think he could become the leader in spirit of this movement, as Marx was to Communism, but the movement failed him and the historical rupture it should have served, not the other way around. Furthermore, Communism itself was, for Heidegger, just another form of Platonism. Much like the Christian end-times and apocalypse, Communism promises an end of history, a complete fulfillment of human destiny. Platonism in all its forms, according to Heidegger, explains what it means to be human as something grounded in a timeless realm beyond history that applies universally to all human beings, whether as created in God's image, or as bearers of human rights that apply to 'all men' - as the American Declaration would have it - or as participants in Communism's world revolution that would put an end to the question of what humanity has been and will become. To all such movements Heidegger applies the name 'liberalism,' not in the parochial, contemporary sense of modern welfare liberalism, but rather in a sense that reaches back to Plato and that defines human 'liberty' on the basis of an appeal to timeless and universal truths. In the Nazis, Heidegger thought he had found a movement that would reject universalistic liberalism in all its forms - Christianity, the secular Enlightenment, Communism - in favor of a politics that would root human history in the communal belonging of a finite historical people. By the end, though, the Notebooks show Heidegger accusing Nazism itself of falling prey to liberalism through its metaphysical reduction of all human differences to race, its treating the Volk as kind of super-subject akin to conventional liberalism's subjective individual, and its capitulation to the idols of machination and gigantism.... The promise of the Nazi revolution had devolved, for Heidegger, into a kitschy mish-mash of blood-and-soil myth-making, its followers qualified only by their willingness not to think or to question the meaning of modernity." You can view a discussion between Roger Berkowitz and Peter Trawny, the translator of the Black Notebooks, here.

A Metaphysical Nazi

martin_heideggerPeter Gordon also makes an effort to explore the depths and not simply the fact of Heidegger's Nazism: "As rector he tried to resist 'vulgar National Socialism.' He knew that Nazism was a concatenation of competing ideologies, and he expressed both resentment at his rivals and fear that the ascendant language of allegedly scientific racism would mislead the German people from its true historical mission. Although he grasped at the official jargon of 'blood and soil,' he eschewed 'dull biologism' because he felt it wrongly applied the schema of the natural sciences to human existence, as if the entire 'intellectual-historical world' grew in a 'plantlike' fashion from the body of the Volk. In April 1934, Heidegger tendered his resignation as rector. The details of his career have received ample documentation, notably in the scrupulous historical study by Hugo Ott. But the notebooks give us a fuller picture of Heidegger's personal disappointment. On April 28 he made sketches for a farewell address, desperately seeking a higher significance for the 'wrecked year.' The failure was not his alone, he wrote, and perhaps it was not a failure at all, since wreckage itself was 'the highest form of human experience, in which we meet with the effective world-powers in their merciless efficacy.' Failure or not, from this point onward the notebooks assume a tone of marked bitterness. Everywhere he saw only 'rushers and alarmists, makers and strivers.' By the summer of 1936 Heidegger was under surveillance, and although he continued to nourish hopes for Germany's political future, his own chances for a career as a public official of the Third Reich began to dwindle." You can view a discussion between Roger Berkowitz and Peter Trawny, the translator of the Black Notebooks, here.

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The Stamp of Disapproval

authorRobert Darnton wonders at the relationship between author and censor: "When exiles from the Soviet system invoked 'freedom' and 'truth,' they were not appealing to the protection of the First Amendment or speaking as philosophers. They were using words to describe their experience of censorship as a force operating in specific circumstances, a force that determined the nature of literature in an oppressive political system. 'Freedom of speech' served as a standard against which to measure the oppression. It did not apply to constraints of all kinds, although many kinds had weighed on the lives of the writers. Freedom for them was a principle made meaningful by the experience of its violation. Experiences varied, of course, and the variations make it hopeless to search for a general proposition that would encompass all of them, including some that have been studied up close, such as censorship under apartheid in South Africa. They also understood that literature in what Westerners called the 'free world' suffered from constraints. Does their experience argue for a relativistic notion of freedom?"

Revision is Joy

richard_rodriguezIn an interview, Richard Rodriguez describes his writing life: "My own writing life is as predictable as the old priest preparing to say the dawn mass. The pleasant cold, the mild pain of being alive. I have the same breakfast every day-cold cereal, yogurt, coffee. I read the newspapers. I take a fistful of vitamins. I shower. I linger at my bookshelf or at the window. I read a chapter or a poem from a shelf I keep above my desk of former lovers and seducers, impossible rivals-Nabokov or Lawrence, Larkin. Woolf. Sitting down at the computer is as daunting as the altar boy's first genuflection. Aquinas described writing as a form of prayer. Writing is for me dishearteningly hermetic. Revision is writing. Revision is humiliation-Tuesday saying something less well than Monday. Revision is open to noticing connections. Revision is joy at precisely that moment when the sentence no longer seems mine but speaks back to me and haughtily resists further revision. I read in the afternoons. I take long walks. I watch TV in the evening. I write letters at all times." Richard Rodriguez gave the keynote lecture at the 2013 Hannah Arendt Center Conference. Revisit it here.

How Easy It Is to Distort Reality

realityJake Flanagan offers a cautionary tale of internet deception on Facebook. "Zilla van der Born, a Dutch national, spent five weeks traveling through Southeast Asia and documented the trip in photos on Facebook. She posed for pictures while dining on dumplings, snorkeling among colorful fish in azure waters and visiting ornately decorated Buddhist temples - compiling the lot into a series of videos for her Vimeo account. All in all, Ms. van der Born seemed to have enjoyed a busy, albeit conventional, trip to Phuket, Luang Prabang or some other regional tourist hub. Or so it would appear. In reality, Ms. van der Born never left her home city, Amsterdam. Each photograph was expertly contrived.... The ultimate goal was to 'prove how easy it is to distort reality,' she said. 'Everybody knows that pictures of models are manipulated. But we often overlook the fact that we manipulate reality also in our own lives.'"

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Featured Events

milgramHuman Rights Course, Studies in Obedience, hosts Dr. David Mantell

As a Fellow at Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, Mr. Mantell replicated the Milgram experiment.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm


congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


conference_14SAVE THE DATE - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch discusses Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt's shared investment in literary pearls, fragments, and moments in the Quote of the Week. French dramatist Jean Racine provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on Roger Hodge's talk "Alchemies of Deception" for our 2011 conference in our Video Archives. In our Library feature, we admire Arendt's impressive collection of Kant's writings. And Roger Berkowitz reflects on American exceptionalism and its decline in the Weekend Read.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
13Aug/133

Contesting Statelessness

FromtheArendtCenter

“The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human” (The Origins of Totalitarianism). Refugees and other stateless people embodied this condition of loss for Hannah Arendt, and she regarded them as “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.”  But is the loss of all qualities and relationships an irrevocable outcome for those who experience it? How might refugees contest their status as stateless people? How, if at all, might they work to recover rights that make them something other than merely human beings? These questions have recently arisen in Germany, where hundreds of refugees have established “protest camps” in Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg to demand the right to free movement and legal employment.

The camps in question are makeshift tent complexes that the protesters and their supporters have assembled from found and donated materials.

tent

They provide a base of operations from which the refugees can assert their demands to policymakers and the public at large. By deciding to live in these camps, stateless people from every corner of Germany have abandoned the asylum homes to which they were assigned by bureaucratic agencies at the state and federal level. They thereby violate the legal terms of their refugee status, which stipulate that they may not (except with express permission) step foot outside the local jurisdiction in which they have been registered.

The protesters demand that these restrictions on their mobility be lifted so that they might travel in Germany in a manner comparable to other residents and citizens. They also seek the right to work legally and, when feasible, secure their own housing. These provisions might conceivably result in better material conditions for some refugees. But the protesters do not justify their activism on such narrow grounds.

Instead, they argue that rights of mobility and employment are necessary requirements for a dignified life (ein menschenwürdiges Leben). These rights would recognize them as autonomous beings with distinctive capacities, desires, and aspirations. They would also minimize, if not necessarily eliminate, their dependence on state institutions and social service agencies. Such dependence is particularly acute in the provision of food, clothing, and other material needs. At the moment, refugees in Germany are entitled to a modicum of basic care that falls short of the welfare provisions available to other residents and citizens. They are also largely if not entirely reliant on non-cash, in-kind benefits with little access to money they might spend at their own discretion. Mobility and employment, these refugees insist, would allow them to exert greater influence and control over the fundamental conditions of their lives.

Hannah Arendt was herself a refugee during a pivotal stretch of her life, and her experiences in France and the U.S. left a deep imprint on her later thought. Her most mature insights into the fate of stateless people were formulated in “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” perhaps the pivotal chapter in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But she also offered a series of earlier, more immediate and polemical reflections in “We Refugees,” an article that initially appeared in The Menorah Journal in 1943. Although these two essays are now more than fifty years old, they still offer important tools for thinking through both the implications and the limits of the current protests.

On the one hand, these texts help us to read the protesters’ efforts as a sharp rejection of their current treatment as refugees. Through their words and deeds, the protesters draw attention to the restrictions that German authorities have placed on their activities, restrictions that do not apply to other residents and citizens. The protesters thereby expose their positioning as, to paraphrase Arendt, “anomalies for whom the general law does not provide.”

Moreover, the protesters’ rejection of their present treatment is evident not simply in their explicitly articulated demands, but in the very ways they inhabit the space of the nation-state. By leaving their assigned jurisdictions and living in provisional camps, they offer a pointed rebuttal to governmental efforts to isolate them as human beings who may receive exceptional aid but who do not, in the end, rightfully belong to the state, its people, and its territory. In response to such containment efforts, the protesters’ actions convey a pointed message: we will not remain in our designated place. Indeed, we would rather be homeless, for all intents and purposes, than interned in asylum homes.

But the current protests do not simply constitute a refusal to abide by the current terms of their refugee status. They also aim to fashion a different, more constructive relationship between stateless people and the German nation-state. Arendt’s writings are once again helpful here. For in demanding rights of mobility and employment, the protesters also articulate a desire for “a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective.”  They seek social and legal conditions where they might have “the confidence that [they] are of some use in this world”, where they might be acknowledged—and judged—as freely acting people who “carry their dignity within themselves.”

Such confidence, acknowledgement, and judgment can only emerge, however, within a larger nexus of social and political relations. On this count, Arendt suggests that the protesters and other refugees have a right to belonging in an organized and self-determining political community. According to her analysis in Origins, it is precisely such belonging to which supposedly “inalienable” human rights have been historically tied, and it is precisely such belonging that stateless people lose when they are expelled from their countries of origin.

Here, of course, lies the rub. Many German state agencies and “ordinary” citizens continue to regard refugees as aliens who threaten the nation-state’s presumed homogeneity and territorial rootedness. They accordingly object to any expansion of refugees’ civil rights and any improvement of their prospects for inclusion. In fact, as cultural studies scholar Fatima El-Tayeb has recently noted, refugees with “an exceptional leave to remain” (a Duldung, in German legal parlance) may spend decades in the country without gaining anything more than the “right” to be present at the state’s discretion.

Furthermore, official and popular opposition is likely to grow more entrenched as the size of the refugee population increases. While the number of asylum applications in Germany decreased steadily after the constitutional right to asylum was restricted in 1993, it jumped dramatically in 2012 and the first half of 2013. Given ongoing suppression in Russia, Syria, Chechnya, and other global “hot spots,” this upward trend seems set to continue in the years ahead.

camp

Arendt’s writing anticipates many of these recent developments. Her analysis of the state’s colonization by “national interest” is as relevant today as it was in the years after World War II, as is her account of the corrosive effect of large numbers of stateless people on legal provisions like asylum and naturalization. Given the arc of refugee administration in Germany over the past few decades, Arendt’s work on the perplexities of human rights remains timely and incisive.

I can only imagine that Arendt would have applauded the current protests in Germany if she had lived to see them. As “We Refugees” makes clear, she found comparable determination and courage sorely lacking among Jewish refugees in Europe in the 1930s and early 1940s. Most, to her mind, were deeply misguided in their willingness to accept the treatment they received (and, not coincidentally, to deny their individual and collective existence as Jews).

But I also worry that Arendt diagnosed the very forces that seem poised, slowly but surely, to undermine the protesting refugees’ efforts. At least at the moment, the refugees’ camps generate both vocal solidarity and pointed opposition. But I doubt that this level of public engagement can be sustained over the long term. The more time passes, the more pressure the refugees will face to accept a cosmetic compromise or abandon their protest entirely. The more time passes, the more likely they are to lose a battle of attrition and inertia.

-Jeffrey Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Jan/131

Reflections on an Inaugural Address

I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.

The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.

In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:

 Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.  We affirm the promise of our democracy.  We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.  What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.

Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.

When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal.  This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?

And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements.  Well here is what he said:

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time.  So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.  But while the means will change, our purpose endures:  a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.  That is what this moment requires.  That is what will give real meaning to our creed.   We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.)  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”  Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?

More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.

Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.

That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.

The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.

The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
11Sep/121

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

The Convention season has unleashed an avalanche of half-truths and untruths. Some see this as politics as usual. Others claim we are living in a post-truth world. Stephen Colbert has long understood that our present condition has transformed truth into truthiness.

One response to our new practice of political lying is the rise of the fact finder. In general, I am all in favor of fact finders. When they labor in obscurity at, say, The New Yorker—or as I once did long ago at the Washingtonian Magazine—fact finders are supposed to check the facts referenced in an article and make sure that those factual nuggets are accurate: Does Mr. Green really live on 22 Wiley Street? Did he purchase a yellow car last year for $37,000? Is his house really worth $21 million? When I did this at the age of, I think, 18 before the Internet became what it is today, I spent my summer running over to the public records office and looking through the real-estate transactions of the rich and famous. We would not want to insult someone by saying he had paid less for his house than he really did.

Today, there is another kind of fact finding of increasing prominence: political fact checking. It is a different beast entirely. The most well-established of these is Politifact, which has the “Truth-o-Meter” that rates the truth or falsity of public claims on a spectrum that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Other sites deliver similarly clever reports on the statements uttered by politicians during the course of the campaign. Part marketing and part well-intentioned policing of a discourse divorced from reality, these fact checkers are trying to bring sense and seriousness to political debate. What they are actually doing is making the problem worse.

The reason for this is that what is being checked today are less facts and more opinions. Take for example the recent anger over Mitt Romney’s advertisement and the continuing Republican claims that the Obama administration is trying to gut the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. Politifact and CNN and many other fact-check organizations labeled the ad a lie. Here is what Politifact said about it:

Romney’s ad says, "Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."

That's a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs -- HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.

The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: "They just send you your welfare check." The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is "designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."

The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!

On the other hand, here’s what The Daily Caller’s Mickey Kraus had to say after he fact checked a CNN fact check that had come to the same conclusion about Romney’s welfare ad as Politifact had:

The oft-cited CNN-”fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:

The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare roles as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.” Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.

I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.

But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all.  Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive. But the point of welfare reform isn’t to get more people onto welfare .

How is it that Kraus and Politifact could have fact checked the same statement (with Kraus even claiming that he was fact checking the fact check) and yet have come to different conclusions? Why is that all the fact checking that is going on today is not leading to a more truthful debate? Why is it that Republican campaign operatives say they will not be governed by fact checkers? Shouldn't fact checkers be helping to keep political discourse grounded in truth? Actually, not.

The basic confusion here is that between a fact and an opinion. As Hannah Arendt argues in her prescient essay “Truth and Politics,” facts and opinions play very different and equally important roles in politics. Facts are essential insofar as they provide the ground and the sky on which and under which we live. It is crucial to have and accept common facts, for without agreed upon facts we cannot share a world with others. If I know that the President was born in Hawaii and you know he was born in Kenya (or doubt at least he was born in Hawaii) then we simply don't trust each other. We can't talk to one another. We don't share the same world. And we cannot politically live together in good faith as we try to actualize the common good.

Because facts of these kinds are so important, the rise to mainstream prominence of conspiracy theories that question the President's citizenship or insist that President Bush and his administration faked 9/11 are deeply destructive of our political world. Such destructive facts are always present in politics, and yet it is also the case that at certain periods they gain more credence and credibility than at other times. Now is clearly one of those times.

There are many reasons for the splitting of the common-sense world, but one at least is the speed and ruthlessness of change in our modern world. As people are dislocated, uprooted, and unsettled, they naturally seek certainty in what is increasingly an uncertain world. Arendt labeled this phenomenon homelessness and rootlessness.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explores how the spiritual and material rootlessness of the 20th century have made people today uniquely susceptible to grand narratives provide clear and simple explanations for complicated and often upsetting events. That Jews were the root of Germany's problems or that collective ownership in the Soviet Union could usher in a utopia were stories contradicted by myriad facts. One core element of totalitarian times is that people prefer the security of a coherent narrative to the uncertainty of reality. People latch on to ideologies because they provide meaning and security. What Arendt saw is that the uncertainties of the modern era have made people so needy for such ideologies that they will sacrifice truth to fiction.

There is no doubt that the Internet eases the dissemination and also the force of conspiracies, as people can click through hundreds of links and never leave what is in essence an echo chamber of ideological purity. When people fall into such rabbit holes, they are enveloped by a world that seems real and is difficult to penetrate from the outside.

For that reason it is important to starkly and loudly confront ideological fictions. President Obama was right to launch his "Fight the Smears" website in 2008 to contest and disprove the smears about his religion and citizenship. Many of the fact-checking sites that now exist emerged out of a similar initiative, and in this sense they are deeply important.

But these sites today have gone beyond their original mission of checking facts.  It is a fact that welfare reform was passed. It is a fact that the President's administration offered waivers to states to change how the reforms are implemented. As far as I know it is a fact that Republican governors requested those waivers. Whether these waivers go against the spirit of the reforms and whether they are wise, however, those are matters of opinion. No amount of fact-checking can tell you whether what the President did “guts” welfare reform or strengthens it. These are opinions about which reasonable people can and do differ.

While facts are essential to provide us with a common world that we share and in which we can advocate for our particular opinions, opinions are the life-blood of politics. Politics is the activity of people who, while sharing a factual world, come together to talk and act in public. Since people are different, their opinions will differ and they will seek to persuade each other that one way of handling welfare is better than another. That is the beauty of politics, the incessant talking and debating and compromising and leading through which common decisions are made.

That we today seek to transform opinions into facts is, at least in part, a result of our desire for clear answers. We live in a time when we have little patience for meaningful public engagement. We want government to work, which means we want it to keep the roads safe and the borders sound. We want our water to be clean and our food to be safe. And we want children to be fed and the sick to be healed. We don't much care how this is done so long as we can live comfortably and securely and go on with what is really important, namely our private lives. In essence, what we dream of today is a technocratic government that gives us much and demands from us very little.

If government is to work like a well-oiled machine, we need to input the correct facts. This leads us to insist that there are indeed such correct facts, even when we are confronted over and over again with evidence to the contrary. If there is a totalitarian element of modern politics, it is the technocratic insistence that if we simply all agreed on the facts and analyzed them correctly, our problems would be solved. It is no accident that both Mitt Romney and President Obama are technocratic pragmatists. Romney may have more interest in the power of data, but the President has an equally profound faith in the power of experts. Both appeal to the technocratic demand of an electorate desperate for clarity, certainty, and coherence in at a moment of profound upheaval.

As important as facts are, it is just as important to remain clear about the border between fact and opinion. Instead of gimmicky truth-o-meters, which give the illusion that political questions have easy answers, we need to encourage people with different opinions to discuss them in good faith. But the plague of fact checking what are in fact opinions has the opposite effect, since it proceeds on the assumption that opinions are true or false and that one who differs from you is a liar. The effect of fact checking in 2012 is to further polarize discourse and make political discussion almost impossible.

Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.

The problem today is that when confronted with opinions we don't like, we demand not arguments and other opinions but facts and objectivity.  Ironically, it is the very demand for facts and objectivity in politics that leads to ideological organs like Fox News and CNBC. Because people insist on technocratic clarity in the mess that is politics, they now gravitate towards those news organization, blogs, websites, and communities that deliver them coherent narratives.

—RB (with assistance from Josh Kopin)

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Jun/1211

The New Class War: Public vs. Private

Occupy Wall Street focused attention on one conception of class conflict-the super wealthy against the 99%.  As successful as OWS was in spreading its message, almost no legislative agenda emerged.

The Tea Party focused its attention on the tax burdens faced by the middle classes and the upper middle classes.  The villain for the Tea Party is not the .5% who earn over $3 Million every year, but the firefighters and policemen and teachers who protect us and educate our children. The battle the Tea Party is fighting is against a vision of big government that is part reality and part fantasy.

The Tea Party's battle goes to the heart of who we are as a nation and it is less a battle between rich and poor than between progressives and conservatives. The Tea Party has given laser-like focus to what will now be a defining battle of the decade: Is the government going to continue to play a leading role in providing our health care, protecting the environment, and supporting our industries.

After Tuesday, one must face the facts that the Tea Party is winning in the democratic forum. Four votes Tuesday make this clear.

•Scott Walker's victory in the recall election in Wisconsin proves that even in democratic states with a historically pro-union electorate, the anger against public unions is palpable.

•Voters in San Diego and San Jose approved referendum that not only cut future pension benefits for public workers but more radically cut pensions for current workers as well.

•The City Council in Stockton, California granted the City Manager authority to declare bankruptcy—Stockton would be the largest city ever in the US to have done so.

It is important to note that the battle is not over welfare or even over healthcare.  Scratch beneath the surface and the Tea Party is not anti-welfare. In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, Harvard scholars who have interviewed adherents of the new insurgency in different regions of the country, report that:

83% of South Dakota Tea Party supporters said they would prefer to “leave alone” or “increase” Social Security benefits, while 78% opposed cuts to Medicare prescription drug coverage, and 79% opposed cuts in Medicare payments to physicians and hospitals…. 56% of the Tea Party supporters surveyed did express support for “raising income taxes by 5% for everyone whose income is over a million dollars a year.

While the Tea Party activists are eager to shrink government, they do not seem to welcome a decimation of the welfare state. If the battle is not over a minimal welfare state, it is a battle over public sector unions.

Why are public sector unions so important?

My colleague and Arendt Center friend, Walter Russell Mead, articulates an answer. At the core of the democratic left for decades has been the "belief in a strong, well-funded state."  The many diverse environmentalists, egalitarians, and progressives have various agendas, but all depend on a vibrant bureaucracy to guide and rationalize public and private life. Some want government to fund schools and universities; other want government to save the environment; another group wants government to guarantee racial, sexual, gender, and religious equality; many want government to provide universal healthcare or guarantee a college education to anyone who wants it. In all these cases, what progressives want, in Mead's words:

Is control of the progressive, bureaucratic government machinery of the 21st century [which] is both the prize for whose control they struggle and the agent they hope will make their dreams real.

Mead encapsulates why the battle over public sector unions is so crucial at this juncture:

A Democratic Party dominated by its public sector unions is a party married to government and to bureaucracy. To the degree that the public unions shape its agenda, the Democrats become a lobby for the servants of the state. For the unions who represent its employees, the bureaucratic, civil service state is a solution permanently in search of new problems to solve and new worlds to conquer. The power of the public unions within the party pulls Democrats much farther to the left than they would otherwise go.

This is one reason the Wisconsin reforms stimulated such a powerful and united emotional wave of push back from virtually every section of the left. The threat to the public unions isn’t just a threat to a powerful source of funding for left-liberal candidates and to strong organizations with political experience and muscle; it’s a threat to the heart of the left coalition and to the structures that give the left much of its power in Democratic and therefore in national politics.

But the dominance of the public unions in the left had consequences for the left itself — bad ones. In contemporary America, the public sector unions are essentially a conservative constituency. That is, their core goal is to get more resources in order to fight all but superficial change in the structures their members inhabit. They want ever growing subsidies to the postal service, the public school system, the colleges and universities, even to health care — but they do not want the kind of reforms that could make these institutions more efficient, more productive, more serviceable.

Illustration by Sean Delonas

Mead offers wise counsel. One can of course believe that the reason for the victories in Wisconsin, San Jose, Stockton, and San Diego is simply the deep pockets of the Koch brothers. And those pockets are deep and deceptive. But money alone does not explain the voters' abandonment of public unions and the progressive model. The nation is seriously rethinking the role of the state and the public in our lives. We should be thinking with them. You can read more of Mead's post here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
11May/121

Moral Leadership and the New Era of Responsibility

I had the pleasure of discussing and debating at a Hannah Arendt Center event last night with John Cassidy, staff writer of The New Yorker and author of How markets fail : the logic of economic calamities as well as Dot.con : the greatest story ever sold. The topic was the presidential election.

I asked Cassidy about Matt Taibbi's recent comment that Obama was going to win the election easily. Actually, Taibbi's phrasing was more colorful:

But this campaign, relatively speaking, will not be fierce or hotly contested. Instead it'll be disappointing, embarrassing, and over very quickly, like a hand job in a Bangkok bathhouse. And everybody knows it. It's just impossible to take Mitt Romney seriously as a presidential candidate.

The view that Obama will cruise to victory is widespread. Cassidy largely affirmed it, although he rightly said that much depends on the continued economic recovery. If the economy turns south again, that plays into Romney's claim that he as a businessman is better able to right the ship of commerce.

I am no prognosticator. I think the election will be quite close and do not think Obama will win in a landslide. But where I really differ with Cassidy and Taibbi is over the question of whether Romney is an interesting candidate and on what he is running. To my mind, this election will be decided less on policy and social issues and more around a moral debate. It is here that Romney becomes interesting.

The President of the United States is not first and foremost a policy maker. He (or she one day) is the moral leader of the nation. FDR knew this well. As he once said:

The Presidency is preeminently a place of moral leadership. All our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.

The United States is at an inflection point. The 20th century has had three great presidential moments. In the 1930s, amidst the depression, FDR led the country down a new path and helped create the modern welfare state. In the 1950's, Eisenhower, a Republican, did not seek to roll back the New Deal and confirmed the new direction of the nation. Ronald Reagan's presidency was the beginning of an effort to resist the welfare state. We are now in a strange limbo, where much of the country has embraced the conservative credo while still remaining addicted to and desirous of their particular welfare perks. This is an untenable situation in the long run.

Obama is a defender of the status quo, but his defense is timid and pragmatic. He doesn't really believe in the welfare state as a moral good so much as a pragmatic necessity. It is all about budgets and saving money and rational arguments. We must, he tells us, spend now so that we can cut later. What will we cut later? Does he believe that everyone should have a pension in addition to social security? Should Wall Street bankers have  received bonuses in 2009 after they were bailed out by taxpayers? Should they have been fired? Should public pensions be honored or cut? Should we have unlimited taxpayer supported healthcare after we retire at 63 or 65 and then live for decades afterward? Should people who bought homes they can't afford be given new mortgages so that they can stay in their homes? On all of these questions, the President has offered technocratic answers rather than moral visions. Amidst an economic but also a moral crisis, the President has not been a leader.

If Romney wins the election, it will not be because he has better jobs policies or economic policies. It will be because people see in him a leader. His one strength, whatever you think of him personally or politically, is his history of leadership. He did build one of the largest and most successful private companies in the United States. He did win the governorship of one of the country's most liberal states and govern effectively with democratic legislators. And he did take over a failing Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and made it a success. People downplay these accomplishments and say there is no evidence he can lead as President. That is of course true.  But the promise that he can lead is the key to Romney's appeal.

On one level, this is an election between two pragmatic, centrist, technocrats. They differ on much and most deeply on social issues. They also differ on taxes (especially on taxing the wealthiest amongst us). These are important differences. But most people do not vote on policy.

The election will be decided on who makes the better claim to being able to lead the country. Obama is still searching for his theme and what he wants to accomplish. He of course is a deeply intelligent and moral man. On social issues, he can be a leader, as his endorsement (finally) of same-sex marriage proves. But the election will not likely be decided on social issues.

So what is the moral issue at stake in this election? It is clear. Romney and the Republicans are saying: we have spent too much, taken on too much debt, and lived beyond our means. Government programs, however well meaning, have not made us better off. We need to retrench. Romney has defended a very minimal welfare state to stop people from starving, but he clearly doesn't have much sympathy for people who are poor, unemployed, and homeless. His moral promise is a return to an America of individualism that promotes success and tolerates failure. It is a moral vision that galls many liberals and even some conservatives, and yet it clearly has enthralled many Tea Party enthusiasts around the nation.

Obama's moral issue is, thus far, fairness and inequality. It is simply wrong and unfair that the very wealthy are paying so little in taxes while the middle class is struggling. And he is undoubtedly right. But a Buffet Rule, as justified as it surely is, is too small an idea to build a campaign around. Obama is hemmed in by his own unwillingness to moralize the economy. He will not take on the wealthy, and his instincts are to work with Wall Street, not against them and to value individual responsibility over government support.  He is simply constitutionally unable to take a populist tack. He cannot give the speech FDR gave in 1936 where FDR said:

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.

So if Obama is not going to become a populist, what option is left?

Over three years ago in his inaugural address, Obama called for a "new era of responsibility." He talked about shared sacrifice. He talked about living within our means and admitting that we were living beyond ourselves. He said:

Our challenges may be new.  The instruments with which we meet them may be new.  But those values upon which our success depends -- honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old.  These things are true.  They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths.  What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.  This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.  This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall; and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.  (Applause.)

His inauguration is the last time that Obama really set out a far-reaching moral argument that responds to the economic crisis and the crises of our times. The vision he then hinted at was one of shared sacrifice towards a renewal of American values. One that admitted with the Republicans that we had promised ourselves too much, had lived beyond our means, and had become too entitled in our expectations. It was a vision that returned an ethic of work and grit, but also one that affirmed American ideals of fairness and justice.

It is the vision that most Americans seemingly affirm, that involves both a pullback of entitlement programs and a progressive increase in taxes. It is a moral vision of common sense. It may be too late for President Obama to embrace that vision again. And yet a meaningful articulation of a new era of responsibility is, quite possibly, the path to a vision of moral leadership open to the President.

It is worth taking a look back at Obama's inaugural speech. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Note: Matt Taibbi is a Bard graduate ('92.)

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
15Feb/121

For the Welfare of All

A reader responds to my post on The Great Cultural Divide and reminds me that perhaps Charles Murray's most interesting suggestion in his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, is for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) or what used to be called a "negative income tax." The post, by a reader named Murfmensch, reads:

Murray also calls for a Basic Income Guarantee to replace all other government provisions. I think his particular proposal would harm the wrong people. He thinks provisions for “widows and orphans” have wrought harms that I don’t see.  However, I think a Basic Income Guarantee, funded by a tax on pollution and/or income past twice the median, would increase the number of people conducting civic, cultural, entrepreneurial, and political work. Alaska has a small BIG and it seems to help out in this way.

 One point Murray made at a conference was interesting. With a BIG, not only would people receive money they need, others would [not] know you are receiving money.

While I don’t know what amount would “do the trick” I think a BIG would offer a corrective to problems that Hannah Arendt diagnoses as stemming from a “job-holder” society.

The Basic Income Guarantee is basically a refashioning of the proposal for a negative income tax (NIT), which is commonly thought to have originated with economist Milton Friedman, who advocated it in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. I have long been an advocate of a negative income tax, for many of the reasons Murfmensch mentions.

A negative income tax, as Friedman wrote in 1968 in Newsweek,

is to use the mechanism by which we now collect tax revenue from people with incomes above some minimum level to provide financial assistance to people with incomes below that level.

The point is to replace the overlapping and bureaucratic welfare programs in society (welfare, food stamps, unemployment, etc.) with a simple cash payment to every citizen.

Let's imagine that every person would receive—to take just one number often used—$8,000/year. Whatever the number, it is one we determine is necessary to live with some dignity in contemporary society.  If you make $0 in a year, you receive $8,000 from the IRS—in essence a negative income tax. If you make $5,000, you'd receive $3,000. Anyone making more than $8,000 pays no taxes on that first $8,000 and begins paying the "positive" income tax on all extra income that supports those who make nothing. A family of four with no income would receive $32,000/year. With your base income you can do whatever you want. You can freeload or work, your choice. You can be an artist or a father. These are your choices.

The advantage of the negative income tax is that it offers a guaranteed minimal cash payment to every person and yet does away with the dehumanizing and costly apparatus of the welfare state. We could still offer Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. But all other bureaucracies go. Everyone, rich and poor, fills out the same tax forms. Those who choose not to work (let's stop calling them poor) simply get a check. They don't have to use food stamps or live in a shelter or apply for welfare. They can share apartments or group houses with others. There is no long-term unemployment insurance. They can simply use their money to live as they will.

Obviously some people will benefit pretty well doing nothing. Some will game the system and freeload. But the real advantage is that for those who don't care about making lots of money, for those who choose professions with inconsistent and often low remuneration, and even for those who simply prefer raising a family or doing community service to working, there is another option. You can basically choose to drop out of the jobholders society and the rat race with the security that you will have enough money to survive. Sure, you won't be buying fancy clothes or driving a big car. You won't be able to send your kids to fancy schools. But you can take years off work to take care of a dying relative or choose to be an artist, craftsperson, or thinker and know that in those years when you don't make enough to live on you will have a guaranteed income every year that you need it.

What the negative income tax or the Basic Income Guarantee does is make it possible to choose to opt out of the economy without stigma or danger to one's health and ability to live.

Political thinkers and economists on the left and right have embraced these proposals since Friedman originated them. There have been two major sticking points.

On the right, the fear of freeloaders and thus the desire to prevent people from choosing not to work—which is something I think is one of the great advantages of the program. There is a real debate about whether the negative income tax will increase laziness or free people to do what they love. It is probably some of both.

On the left, the fear is what happens when someone spends their money unwisely and then has nothing left. Once we get rid of welfare and food stamps to replace them with the negative income tax, there is always the danger that people will end up starving out in the cold. This too is a real risk and no doubt it will happen. There is of course charity, but that may not be enough for some people. And what about parents who waste their children's guaranteed income?

Questions remain about the negative income tax and there are details to be decided. But the benefits of negative income tax are worth these risks on both right and left. It seems that this is an Arendtian idea whose time has come.

Read an interview with Milton Friedman on the Negative Income Tax Here.

Read and essay in the NY Times about the Negative Income Tax Here.

-RB

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.