Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College
10Jan/16Off
Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 1/10/16

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.

amor_mundi_sign-upWhat We Cling To

the beatlesAdam Gopnik investigates why some pasts are more available than others: "The most persistent mistake that historians and politicians have made in analyzing the modern world is to imagine, again and again--a fallacy shared by liberals and Marxists alike--that people will pursue their own economic interests in preference to their ideological fixations. They don't. They never will. Nationalist ideology has been a much stronger force in the modern world than class interest. This dates at least to the memorable moment when the Great War began and socialists throughout Europe were sure that transnational class-consciousness would trump nationalist war fever. It didn't. It never has. The better question may be what divides our past so radically between the things we remember and the things we don't. It may be that the general force of anxiety that affects everything in modern life is also responsible for the way our pasts get divided. The truth about modern life is that it creates enormous anxiety at every moment. It's like a traumatic force that suppresses some memories and refuses to suppress others at all. Our past is divided between the archival and the available exactly because it is so quickly past--so rapidly dissolved in confusion. We all want to stop the process of traumatic change from happening, and sometimes we do it by forgetting everything, sometimes by remembering almost too much. The Beatles linger; other bands unduly fade. (Do we really need to remember 'Mr. Moonlight' or 'Don't Pass Me By?' We do, though.) When he was running for President the first time, Barack Obama got into some trouble for saying that people in small towns that had lost manufacturing jobs 'cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them' as a way to explain their frustrations. It was impolitic, but, with a crucial proviso added, true: we all are clinging to something, if no more than an app at our Beatle-loving fingertips." Gopnik is right that people cling to fantasies over and above their interests. Nationalism is at times one of those fantasies, but as Hannah Arendt points out, nationalism, while dangerous, is nevertheless limited by national boundaries. As bad as nationalism is, the real danger in the modern world is when coherent fantasies are ideological and transnational. This is part of what she means by the total domination of totalitarianism, when fantasies expand eternally with the aim of overrunning the world.--RB

The Critic-in-Chief

obamaEdward Mendelson praises President Obama's college-age criticism of T.S. Eliot: "Obama sees that Eliot's conservatism differs from that of fascist sympathizers who want to impose a new political hierarchy on real-world disorder. Eliot's conservatism is instead a tragic, fatalistic vision of a world that cannot be reformed in the way that liberalism hopes to reform it; it is a fallen world that can never repair itself, but needs to be redeemed. Behind this insight into Eliot's conservatism is Obama's sense that the goal of partisan politics is not the success of one or another party or program, but the means by which private morality can be put into action in the public sphere. So the liberal Obama can respect the conservative Eliot, because both seek what are ultimately moral, not political, ends... Obama asks his friend, 'You seem surprised at Eliot's irreconcilable ambivalence; don't you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?' Instead of isolating Eliot in some social, ethnic, or sexual category, instead of hearing in him the voice of political or ideological error, Obama finds a deep ambivalence that might be felt by anyone, just as Kermode sees Eliot's 'shudder' as a special case of something felt by everyone. And instead of making an assertion to his friend about her own ambivalence, Obama asks her a rhetorical question, because no one can be certain about someone else's inner life, though sympathy makes it possible to guess. Having first placed Eliot in his historical and literary context, then having pointed to what is unique in him, Obama ends by showing how he speaks to any individual reader who pauses to listen. This is what the finest literary criticism has always done."

The Color of the Sky

claudia rankineDai George writes about the upcoming T.S. Eliot Prize and Citizen by Claudia Rankine: "The T. S. Eliot Prize carries serious money (£20,000, the most of any single poetry prize in the UK) and serious bragging rights. The list of its past winners doubles as a one-stop index of poetic celebrity on this side of the Atlantic: David Harsent, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, John Burnside, and Sinéad Morrissey take their places alongside a host of other stars in the contemporary British firmament. In recent years the prize has also acted as a lightning rod for minor controversy. David Harsent's win last year led some observers to suggest that an oligarchy was rigging the system, dishing out prizes among its members while a growing constituency of smaller presses and their poets are effectively disenfranchised. One doesn't have to travel too far down the road of conspiracy and recrimination to recommend the sober, factual analysis of Fiona Moore, a poet and blogger who has done valuable work crunching the numbers to prove how far British poetry prizes have to go before they can claim to represent the full breadth of an increasingly vibrant and diverse publishing ecosystem. The representation question feels particularly urgent this year since the favorite has to be Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, a book that scrutinizes how black men and women--particularly black American men--are diminished and violated every day. It would seem a woeful category error to invite comparison between the serious, insidious brutality exposed in Citizen and this rarefied anxiety over how a book by a black woman will fare in competition for a literary prize that reflects the white cultural establishment--would seem so, were it not for the fact that Citizen confronts the white British literary establishment in its very text. In a passage titled 'August 4, 2011 / In Memory of Mark Duggan,' Rankine restages an encounter between her multivalent 'you' and 'A man, a novelist with the face of the English sky--full of weather, always in response, constantly shifting, clouding over only to clear briefly.' They are talking at a party in an expensive house in Hackney, the borough that erupted into violence during the 2011 London riots. The casus belli for the riots was, ostensibly, the police execution of the unarmed Duggan, and our craggy, well-meaning novelist wants to know if Rankine would ever write about this moment of specifically British racism. His question, apparently innocent and engaged, turns into one of those flare points of estrangement that Rankine captures with gut-churning precision: Why couldn't he write about it himself? 'How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?' Rankine pulls off a great, and slightly risky, technical feat when she turns the novelist by degrees into first 'the man made of English sky' and then simply 'the English sky.' By conflating him with the low-key melodrama of English weather, Rankine risks demeaning the novelist as an exotic 'other' himself, an object defined by the clichés of his homeland. But this transition to 'sky' works precisely because it enacts the inverted prejudice that prejudice provokes: the blankness, the zoning out from particularities, the reflexive withdrawal that occurs when someone feels unexpectedly isolated by racial assumptions."

Rage in America

rageOver at Esquire, they have published one of the most fascinating surveys of the year. (OK, it is only January.) "American Rage" is an exploration of how angry we are and who is angry at whom. The results are worth considering: "LET'S BEGIN WITH THE BIG REVEALS: Half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago. White Americans are the angriest of all. And black Americans are more optimistic about the future of the country and the existence of the American dream. There are depths and dimensions, dark corners and subtle contours to our national mood, and setting aside the issue of who actually has a right to be angry and about what--these pages are neutral territory; everyone is allowed their beef--we found three main factors shaping American rage. EXPECTATIONS: Are you disappointed? Do you feel stifled and shortchanged and sold a bill of goods? Then you're probably pretty angry. Consider the white men and women in our survey: From their views on the state of the American dream (dead) and America's role in the world (not what it used to be) to how their life is working out for them (not quite what they'd had in mind), a plurality of whites tends to view life through a veil of disappointment. When we cross-tabulate these feelings with reports of daily anger (which are higher among whites than nonwhites), we see the anger of perceived disenfranchisement--a sense that the majority has become a persecuted minority, the bitterness of a promise that didn't pan out--rather than actual hardship. (If anger were tied to hardship, we'd expect to see nonwhite Americans--who report having a harder time making ends meet than whites, per question three--reporting higher levels of anger. This is not the case.) Indeed, despite having what many would consider a more legitimate case for feeling angry, black Americans are generally less angry than whites. Though they take great issue with the way they are treated by both society in general and the police in particular, blacks are also more likely than whites to believe that the American dream is still alive; that America is still the most powerful country in the world; that race relations have improved over the past eight years; and, most important in the context of expectations, that their financial situation is better than they thought it would be when they were younger. Their optimism in the face of adversity suggests that hope, whatever its other virtues, remains a potent antidote to anger." And one further note: "Seventy-three percent of whites say they get angry at least once a day, as compared with 56 percent of blacks and 66 percent of Hispanics. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans get angry at least once a day, as compared with 67 percent of Democrats. The least angry household-income brackets: the very rich ($150,000-plus) and the very poor ($15,000 and less). The most angry: the middle of the middle class."

amor_mundi_sign-upFrom the Mouths of Babes

gargoyleMark Edmundson wonders at the fact that profanity seems to have the most power when children are the ones with the foul mouths: "I suspect that the swearing of kids cracks open illusions for adults. When a mom overhears her beloved child swear for the first time, her heart contracts until it feels like it will disappear. But imagine how she feels when she overhears a son or daughter who not only curses, but is truly adept at profanity--someone who summons up what Shakespeare might have been, if he decided to become practiced in the art of the headlong cursing symphony. And who knows, lover of language that he was, he may actually have created such compositions from time to time. What if mom hears her little boy, not long out of Pampers, still in shorts, reel off a euphonious string of curses that sounds like the work of a top sergeant in rage at his recruits? What's lost then is the myth of innocence. Suddenly your child has become a kid. And what better way for the child to rebel against his period of confinement as a child than to become an adept curser? It's not like having sex just at puberty, or holding up the neighbors with a wooden gun and scampering away with a wallet and a purse. But it really can create a gap, a true facture, between the self that was and the self that now is. The first time you hear your beloved 10-year-old say motherfucker: well, on that day something changes. Why does it disturb us so? I suppose something called parental narcissism is involved. We want the child to be perfect. We want the child to avoid all the wounds and disappointments that we suffered. We want the child to be without flaws. (For surely we had our flaws.) The child is a sort of second chance for us--a way to approach life another time and this time to get it right."

We're Gonna Make It Through This Year

new year's resolutionMensah Demary praises the New Year's Resolution: "New Year's resolutions attempt to correct that which has gone awry. It often doesn't, in part because New Year's resolutions are abandoned so often that their abandonment is woven into American culture. A local newscaster speaks over stock footage of round bellies jiggling on treadmills in gyms, and, at the end of the segment, offers a reminder that it's okay if resolutions are forgotten, because there's always next year, and no one achieves their resolutions anyway. Failure is assured, or implied. But while New Year's resolutions are absurd, they are not without value. That the tradition even exists at all engenders a frame of mind necessary for personal change: Thinking about resolutions means I'm thinking about improving myself. I do need to return to the gym to remove the flab once and for all; I could also resolve to call my mother more often, or take a flight south to see her for the first time in four years; I might decide to write difficult essays that take me out of my head, my comfort zones, even if they won't garner any immediate shares, or likes, or favorites. Expanding my reading tastes is a worthwhile resolution; I could certainly stand to read more often, which would mean less time for other things, such as Twitter, but this would be a small loss, a trifle to relinquish, since social media has become anathema to my artistic pursuits. (I would rather be known as a bad writer than a good tweeter; this is a realization that is so baffling to me, and unexpected, that I've been unable to do anything about it except to sit with it, turn it over, and find the lie in it, if it exists.) I could be a better sibling to my brothers and sister, as well as a better uncle to their children; I could turn to God as I deal with my mortality; I could stop wasting my money on the latest gadgets and take-out lunches, and any money saved could then be used to see more of the world with my partner. We could go to South America, or Central America, and I could peck out some words on my laptop at the beach, brushing sand away from my keyboard; I could look at the tapestries and churches, the sculptures and the jewelry, all the details my partner sees and points out; we could forget to take photos and instead resolve to remember it all, to use both of our minds to remember this one, singular trip for ourselves, and keep all of it in our heads and offline; I could finish my book, and make a note in the acknowledgements that the book was written on a trip with my partner, who reminds me of black love, of black friendship, of black power, black excellence, black family, Blackness with a capital B; I could resolve to taste more varieties of bourbon, to give gin another chance (but only one more chance), and to continue to laugh at all the wrong times, at all the wrong things; I could resolve to be even more absurd."

Non-Professors Teaching Non-Students

student lifeRon Srigley offers yet another condemnation of the modern university. But unlike most, he identifies what kind of universities he is writing about. "A word about which universities I have in mind, because not all universities are the same. I wish to speak about third- and fourth-tier Canadian schools that are primarily undergraduate institutions. Historically, these schools have had few graduate programs and have focused their curriculum on the liberal arts and sciences. Today they are abandoning this tradition at an alarming rate in favor of professional programs like engineering, nursing, education, and business. As they stand, these schools are about as similar to, say, the Claremont Colleges as pickled eggs are to Coquilles Saint-Jacques. They're both universities, but ... So just to be clear about my subject, I'm going to be talking about the pickled eggs." Srigley writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, which raises the following question: Why should we readers of the LARB care about the failure of lower-tier Canadian colleges? He answers that one, too: "But one more thing before I begin: Why should you, parents of students at Claremont or Stanford or one of the UC schools, care? What's it to you how these universities are faring? Perhaps you shouldn't care. But I think it might be good for you, for two reasons. First, it's always good to think about the less fortunate. It can make you more merciful, because you see how fickle fate can be and how, social capital notwithstanding, one or two slight turns of the screw either way could have caused things to turn out quite differently. It can also build community and even create more equity because seeing others' misfortunes tends to make us less inclined to add to them. But second, and more to the point, the disease from which my university suffers, yours does too. It's not as bad where you are, stage one or two as opposed to stage four, but it is recognizably the same disease, and its just as aggressive: administrative bloat, student illiteracy, lots of 'student experience' but very little 'student intelligence,' dumb and dumber no longer a bad Hollywood joke but the unacknowledged consequence, if not the principle, of higher education. If you think I exaggerate, please read on. The university education you save may be your child's." And this is too good not to include: "During one class a couple of years ago, I dimmed the lights in order to show a clip of an interview. The moment the lights went down I saw dozens and dozens of bluish, illumined faces emerge from the darkness. That's when I understood that a lecture or discussion is now only one of several entertainment options available to students in the university classroom. Given the way the game is played, lectures and discussions rank well below Facebook or Tumblr. You can't get mad at them for this, not like in the old days. 'Hey, you, pay attention! This is important.' Say that today and you won't hear anger or shame. You'll hear something like: 'Wha...? Oh, sorry sir. My bad. I didn't mean anything.' And they don't. They don't mean anything. They are not dissing you; they are not even thinking about you, so it's not rebellion. It's simply that the ground has shifted and left you hanging there in empty space, like Wile E. Coyote. Just a few more moments (or years) and down we'll all tumble. These people look like students. They have arms and legs and heads. They sit in a class like students used to do; they have books and write papers and take exams. But they are not students anymore, and you are not a professor. And there's the rub."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #17

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm


A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of ImprovisationJazz, as the modern art form that lays claim to improvisation, situates music in a productive tension between individual freedom and a mysterious yet sentient order. As do modern theories of liberalism in politics, Jazz insists both on the individual liberty of each that is through fidelity to common truths, recognition of traditional customs, or embrace of collective ends is rendered compatible with a larger inter-subjective order. Freedom as an art of improvisation means that men are free only insofar as they act in ways that are both free and constrained. This is very much what Hannah Arendt means means when she writes that "Men are free-as distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom- as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” In this evening on "A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation,” we bring together leading thinkers and musicians to explore the nature of improvisation and the art of freedom.

Free & Open to the Public

Monday, February 15, 2016

László Z. Bitó '60 Conservatory Building, 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm


Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing EpidemicsLearning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics

“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” is a one-day conference in New York City exploring the hypothesis that building public trust in effective organizations is essential for fighting health crises such as Ebola. The conference is grounded in the Global Health Security Agenda that seeks to accelerate progress towards a world safe from infectious disease.

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

  • Prevent avoidable epidemics;
  • Detect threats early; and
  • Respond rapidly and effectively.

Combining social science and political actors with leading scientists and Ebola specialists, we will explore the Ebola epidemic and its consequences as a case study to explore how educational, governance and healthcare resources can be better deployed against future outbreaks. The conference is sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Citizen Science, CCE, and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Honorable Dr. Wilmot James, South African MP and the Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs.

To learn more about and register for our conference, please click here.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


vita activaVita Activa - The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, will be participating in the opening of the new film, VITA ACTIVA - THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, Directed by Ada Ushpiz, taking place at the Film Forum in New York City.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the "Banality of Evil" when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt's life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta's biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA


How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Wolfgang Heuer notes how it is worth analysing the different forms of violence and asking why and how they transgress various boundaries to approach omnipotence in the Quote of the Week. Sir Joshua Reynolds comments on the lengths to which a man will go to avoid the real labor of thinking in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We are pleased to announce the winners of our 2015 student opinion contest. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Arendt made to her copy of Nisbet's "Social Change and History" in this week's 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.
22Jan/13Off

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.