Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College
21Feb/16Off
Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 2/21/16

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-upA Party of One

party crasherJill Lepore wonders if we're at the start of something new: "There will not be a revolution, but this election might mark the beginning of the seventh party system. The Internet, like all new communications technologies, has contributed to a period of political disequilibrium, one in which, as always, party followers have been revolting against party leaders. So far, neither the R.N.C. nor the D.N.C., nor any of their favored candidates, has been able to grab the wheel. Trump, meanwhile, is barrelling down the highway toward the White House, ignoring every road sign, a man without a party. The fate of the free world does not hinge on this election. But the direction of the party system might. And that's probably worth thinking about, slowly and deeply. Parties, while not written into the U.S. Constitution, do sustain our system of government. As the political scientist V. O. Key pointed out, half a century ago, 'They perform an essential function in the management of succession to power, as well as in the process of obtaining popular consent to the course of public policy. They amass sufficient support to buttress the authority of governments; or, on the contrary, they attract or organize discontent and dissatisfaction sufficient to oust the government. In either case, they perform the function of the articulation of the interests and aspirations of a substantial segment of the citizenry, usually in ways contended to be promotive of the national weal.' The American party system is not only a creation of the press; it is dependent on it. It is currently fashionable, indispensable, even, to malign the press, whether liberal or conservative. 'That's the media game,' Sanders said, dismissing a question that Cooper had asked him during CNN's town hall. 'That's what the media talks about. Who cares?' But when the press is in the throes of change, so is the party system. And the national weal had better watch out. It's unlikely, but not impossible, that the accelerating and atomizing forces of this latest communications revolution will bring about the end of the party system and the beginning of a new and wobblier political institution. With our phones in our hands and our eyes on our phones, each of us is a reporter, each a photographer, unedited and ill judged, chatting, snapping, tweeting, and posting, yikking and yakking. At some point, does each of us become a party of one?"

Parties are coalitions, and they in some way connect voters based on common interests. The breakdown of parties reflects the retreat of interest as a prime motivation for voting. Candidates are selected for being likable, honest, and fresh. The breakdown of interests and classes is accompanied by the rise of mass politics, one that appeals to coherent fantasies rather than complicated realities. For Hannah Arendt, "The breakdown of the class system meant automatically the breakdown of the party system, chiefly because these parties, being interest parties, could no longer represent class interests.... The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that, consequently, the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the power that be were not so much evil as they equally stupid and fraudulent." The hatred of the establishment today and the anger of individuals is connected, as Lepore argues, to the rise of social media--it is no accident that the two leading beneficiaries of popular anger are both running campaigns focused around social media. The point that Arendt makes and Lepore here affirms is that mass movements, separate from interest, rises alongside a "highly differentiated individualism and sophistication" that brings about "social atomization and extreme individualization." Arendt's point is that "the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class." The atomizing impact of social media along with the breakdown of interest-based parties does, as Lepore writes, threaten a meaningful change in the American political landscape. --RB

Device People

device managerJacob Weisberg considers our fate as "device people." In 2015, "Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer." Amazingly, "we check our phones 221 times a day--an average of every 4.3 minutes--according to a UK study." But what does our device dependence mean? "It is the troubling aspects of social and mobile media that Sherry Turkle attends to in her wise and observant new book, Reclaiming Conversation. A clinical psychologist and sociologist who teaches at MIT, Turkle is by no means antitechnology. But after a career examining relations between people and computers, she blends her description with advocacy. She presents a powerful case that a new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships--with family and friends, as well as colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking: parents who are constantly distracted on the playground and at the dinner table; children who are frustrated that they can't get their parents' undivided attention; gatherings where friends who are present vie for attention with virtual friends; classrooms where professors gaze out at a sea of semiengaged multitaskers; and a dating culture in which infinite choice undermines the ability to make emotional commitments. Turkle finds the roots of the problem in the failure of young people absorbed in their devices to develop fully independent selves, a topic she began to explore in Alone Together (2011). In that book, she examined the way interaction with robotic toys and 'always on' connections affect adolescent development. She argued that phones and texting disrupt the ability to separate from one's parents, and raise other obstacles to adulthood. Curating a Facebook profile alters the presentation of self. Absorption in a gaming avatar can become a flight from the difficulties of real life. Young people face new anxieties around the loss of privacy and the persistence of online data. In her new book, she expresses a version of those concerns that is as much philosophic as psychiatric. Because they aren't learning how to be alone, she contends, young people are losing their ability to empathize. 'It's the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent,' Turkle writes. Without an ability to look inward, those locked into the virtual worlds of social media develop a sensibility of 'I share, therefore I am,' crafting their identities for others. Continuous digital performance leaves teenagers experiencing what ought to be the satisfactions of solitude only as 'disconnection anxiety.'"

Unkindred Spirits

malheur national wildlife refugeHal Herring offers one of the few really meaningful accounts of the recently ended occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. "What more can be said? I was one of the hundreds of journalists who went to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the Ammon Bundy occupation, and I saw the same things that all the rest of them did. If there was any difference between myself and those hundreds of other journalists, maybe it was that I went there looking for kindred spirits. I am a self-employed, American-born writer with a wife and two teenage children living in a tiny town on the plains of Montana. I'm a reader of the U.S. Constitution, one who truly believes that the Second Amendment guarantees the survival of the rest of the Bill of Rights. I came of age reading Edward Abbey's The Brave Cowboy, Orwell's 1984, and a laundry-list of anarchists, from Tolstoy and Kropotkin to Bakunin and Proudhon, who gave me the maxim that defined my early twenties: 'Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant: I declare him my enemy.' I read Malthus and Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, and am a skeptic of government power. I was not surprised when I read about the outrage over the sentencing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond for arson: Federal mandatory minimum sentencing has been a terrible idea since its inception. I am gobsmacked by an economy that seems engineered to impoverish anyone who dares try make their own living, and by a government that seems more and more distant from the people it represents, except when calling up our sons and daughters to attack chaotic peoples that clearly have nothing to do with me or anybody I know. I am isolated by a culture that is as inscrutable to me as any in the mountains of Afghanistan. For loving wilderness and empty lands and birdsong rather than teeming cities, I risk being called a xenophobe, a noxious nativist. For viewing guns as constitutionally protected, essential tools of self-defense and, if need be, liberation, I'm told that I defend the massacres of innocents in mass shootings. When I came to Montana at age twenty-five, I found in this vast landscape, especially in the public lands where I hunted and camped and worked, the freedom that was evaporating in the South, where I grew up. I got happily lost in the space and the history. For a nature-obsessed, gun-soaked malcontent like me, it was home, and when Ammon Bundy and his men took over the Malheur refuge, on a cold night in January, I thought I should go visit my neighbors." What Herring found at Malheur was not what he expected. "I went to the Malheur looking for kindred spirits. I found the mad, the fervent, the passionately misguided. I found the unknowing pawns of an existential chess game, in which we are, all of us, now caught. Driving home across the snow-packed Malheur Basin, through mile after mile of sage, with towering basalt cliffs in the near distance, herds of mule deer appearing as gray specks in the tongues of slide rock and wind-exposed yellow grass, I did not wonder what Edward Abbey would have said about all of this, or Kropotkin or the lugubrious monarchist Thomas Hobbes. I thought instead of the old C.S. Lewis books of my childhood, and of Lewis' writings on the nature of evil, where evil is never a lie, because lying implies creation, and evil, by its nature, has no creative power. Instead, the nature of evil is to take a truth and twist it, sometimes as much as 180 degrees. Love of country becomes hatred of those we believe don't share our devotion, or don't share it the same way. The natural right of armed self-defense becomes the means to take over a wildlife refuge, to exert tyranny on those who work there, or those who love the place for the nature it preserves in a world replete with man's endeavors. The U.S. Constitution, one of the most liberal and empowering documents ever composed, becomes, with just a slight annotation or interpretation, the tool of our own enslavement." h/t Tom Keenan.

The HAC Is Hiring a Media Coordinator

hacThe Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is looking for a leadership-oriented and dependable Part-Time Media Coordinator (20 to 25 Hours/Week) who can lead the expansion of the Center's public impact and media presence, both online and in print. While no deep knowledge of Hannah Arendt is required, we seek someone passionate about the power of ideas to provoke thinking and elevate our public discourse. This job may be done remotely, but the Media Coordinator will need to be on campus at Bard College to assist with major events 2-3 times per year. To apply ASAP for this position, please click here.

amor_mundi_sign-upBy Law and Custom

great migrationIsabel Wilkerson argues that we are experiencing a second nadir in race relations in this country, one that is premised on racial hierarchies enforced by "law and custom." "It has been a century since the Great Migration that produced both [Emmett Till and Tamir Rice] began. Our current era seems oddly aligned with that moment. The brutal decades preceding the Great Migration--when a black person was lynched on average every four days--were given a name by the historian Rayford Logan. He called them the Nadir. Today, in the era of the Charleston massacre, when, according to one analysis of F.B.I. statistics, an African-American is killed by a white police officer roughly every three and a half days, has the makings of a second Nadir. Or perhaps, in the words of Eric Foner, the leading scholar of Reconstruction, a 'second Redemption.' That is what historians call the period of backlash against the gains made by newly freedmen that led to Jim Crow. Today, with black advancement by an elite few extending as far as the White House, we are seeing 'a similar kind of retreat,' Professor Foner said. 'The attack on voting rights, incarceration, obviously but even more intellectually and culturally, a sort of exhaustion with black protest, an attitude of "What are these people really complaining about? Look at what we've done for you."' The country seems caught in a cycle. We leap forward only to slip back. 'We have not made anywhere near the progress we think we have,' said Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. 'It's as if we're at halftime, and we started cheering as if we won the game.' What befell Emmett and Tamir reflects how racial interactions have mutated over time, from the overt hatreds now shunned by most Americans to the unspoken, unconscious biases that are no less lethal and may be harder to fight. For all of its changes, the country remains in a similar place, a caste system based on what people look like. The men and women of the Great Migration were asking questions that remain unanswered today: What is to be the role of the people whom the country has marginalized by law and custom and with state-sanctioned violence for most of their time on this soil? How might these now 45 million people, still the most segregated of all groups in America, partake of the full fruits of citizenship? How can deeply embedded racial hierarchies be overcome?"

The Riddle of Human Suffering

prosperity gospelKate Bowler, a scholar of American evangelism sick with late-stage cancer, writes about how the strain of American Christianity known as the prosperity gospel deals with illness like hers: "The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me? For years I sat with prosperity churchgoers and asked them about how they drew conclusions about the good and the bad in their lives. Does God want you to get that promotion? Tell me what it's like to believe in healing from that hospital bed. What do you hear God saying when it all falls apart? The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say 'yes.' It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you. It's also distressingly similar to the popular cartoon emojis for the iPhone, the ones that show you images of yourself in various poses. One of the standard cartoons shows me holding a #blessed sign. My world is conspiring to make me believe that I am special, that I am the exception whose character will save me from the grisly predictions and the CT scans in my inbox. I am blessed. The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that--those who have lost the test of faith. In my work, I have heard countless stories of refusing to acknowledge that the end had finally come. An emaciated man was pushed about a megachurch in a wheelchair as churchgoers declared that he was already healed. A woman danced around her sister's deathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet live. There is no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel. There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability. The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America's addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I'm going to need to let go."

Flaneurs and Salesmen

istanbul vendorKaya Genç walks with Istanbul's street vendors: "Take a walk in Istanbul this winter and you will likely come across a kestaneci (chestnut seller), a pilavcı (chickpea rice man), or a macuncu (candyman) on one of its labyrinthine streets. Kestaneci sells chestnuts from his fancy little cart where he has a small oven, scales and a collection of paper bags to prepare your order. Kestaneci carts, most of them crimson-colored, are located on Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue. There is one near Taksim Square and if you come to the city by boat you will certainly find one by the pier. Kestaneci provides the finest cure for a depressing day: you hand him five liras (around two dollars) and he hands you 50 grams of chestnuts, carefully measured in those miniature scales, before wishing you a very good afternoon. Whilst living in Amsterdam I used to love visiting the free market on the city's streets during Queen's Day (now known as King's Day) where locals sold their crafts and bric-a-brac for bargain prices. Dutch authorities allowed the free market to take place one day every year. Here, street selling is a year long occupation; every day is for the Istanbul Street Vendor. In this city, vendors illuminate your way during nocturnal walks. Not long ago, after a heavy night of drinking, I came across a pilavcı in Karaköy. He seemed to have been placed there for the sole purpose of helping me to sober up a bit. Vendors often make you feel this way: their sudden appearances on street corners are quite miraculous, almost angel-ish. Pilavcı's cart had large wheels and an umbrella affixed to its top. The main part of the cart consisted of a huge metal plate covered on four sides with thick glass. The inside was illuminated so I got a nice view of the warm rice that awaited me, which, on that and other winter nights, was a particularly mouthwatering sight. This pilavcı had placed a selection of drinks on top of this. With his long white mustache and benevolent face, he calmly filled a plastic case with spoonfuls of newly cooked rice, rich with chickpea and pepper. It was delicious. Exhausted after a long day I gratefully sat down on one of his wooden stools and, while filling my plastic spoon, chatted with the elderly man. Where did he get his rice, I asked him. How long had he been doing this job? Did he earn well? He was used to questions like mine, which he answered quickly before complaining about the lack of interest to his food, the rise of unemployment in the country, and his problems with paying his electricity bills. The pilavcı wore a white apron that night, which gave him the air of a surgeon; hipsters in Karaköy mostly ignore his offerings, preferring to eat overpriced pizza and sushi in places that make them feel like they are having lunch in Paris or Tokyo. They should know better."

You Think What You Eat

food flavor In a profile of celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, Maria Konnikova argues that molecular gastronomy is the art of putting biology back into eating: "What we eat and why we eat it is as much a psychological phenomenon as a physical one. Throughout most of history, eating has been understood as a primitive human characteristic, an evolutionary necessity, the stuff of base survival instinct. This perception turns out to be far too simplistic. The more we learn about flavor, the more we realize just how easy it is to manipulate. Not just by the overclocked sensations of processed food, but in ways that makes healthier choices seem at once tastier and more satisfying. Though most of us would like to think we have discerning palates, our taste is quite easy to fool. When we try to imagine the flavor of something, we tend to focus on our mouth--the experience of placing, say, a ripe strawberry on our tongue. But that, in fact, is taste, and though we tend to conflate it with flavor, a vast chasm exists between the two. Taste is an experience composed of only five elements: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. Thousands of receptors on our tongue are designed to identify and respond to these elements, each one specializing in one of the five qualities. Without input from other senses--most notably our nose, but also our eyes, ears, and even hands--taste is merely a flat, single-note sensation with none of the nuance or enjoyment we associate with food in general and with specific foods in particular. Flavor is at once a broader and more powerful property than taste, one that marries the senses and their associate properties--memory, experience, neurobiology--to create and control the way we eat. The promise that neurogastronomy holds is that once we understand how the mind combines the disparate biological and evocative forces that create flavor, we will be able to circumvent the learned and innate preferences of our taste buds. And with that capacity--truly an example of mind over matter--instead of stimulating appetite via the conventional and unhealthy trifecta of salt, sugar, and fat, we can employ the neural pathways through which flavor is constructed in the brain to divert attention to different, more nutritious foods. Control flavor and you control what we eat--and perhaps, given time and more research, begin fighting the global nutrition problems that are a direct result of the industrialized production of food."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

Lunchtime Talk with Klemens von Klemperer Post Doctoral Fellow Jana Schmidt

jana schmidt

In the Shadow of Forgetting: Iconic Thinking

In one of Oliver Sacks’ “clinical tales,” the popular neurologist describes a man whose identity is threatened by the perpetual dissolution of his self. “He remembered nothing for more than a few seconds. He was continually disoriented. Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them, nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds.” Afflicted with a severe case of Korsakoff’s syndrome, a neurological condition brought on by alcoholism, the unfortunate man appears hardly human to Sacks for he lacks all sense of relation and reality. Thus, in reading his patient’s “mythomania,” his prolific production of stories and images, as an illusory substitute for a genuine connection to the world, Sacks’ musings on what remains when forgetting takes hold reach beyond the confines of clinical diagnosis toward a theory of forgetting, imagination, and “iconic” thinking.

It is not by accident then that Sacks was reading Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind when he was writing the narratives of neurological disability, of amnesia and aphasia that populate his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In it, Sacks develops a model of iconic thinking that furthers some of Arendt’s own ideas on the interrelation of thought and the making of images; ideas she herself at least partly borrowed from thinkers in the life science (Adolf Portmann, Konrad Lorenz, and Rudolf Arnheim). My talk will revisit these mutual influences to explore whether forgetting, rather than the “other” of thinking, might itself be considered an operation of thinking, and in particular of “iconic thinking.”

BIO: Jana V. Schmidt's research pertains to questions of literature and art, their status vis-à-vis the political and the social, image theory, mimesis, and the representation of intersubjectivity. Her main focus as a literary scholar is on twentieth century German and American literature, literary theory (including "continental" philosophy and critical theory), and literature's relation to violence.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at cstanton@bard.edu.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm


HAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #18

vrg banner headingHAC 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, March 4, 2016

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


Joyce Dalsheim: Cultural Anthropologist Researching Nationalism, Religion, and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

joyce dalsheimOn Goat Surveillance and the False Promises of Sovereignty

In her critique of the Rights of Man, Hannah Arendt analyzed the problem of the "abstract" human being who was nowhere to be found. If Arendt's political analyses stemmed from her grappling with the Jewish Question and the problems of minorities or stateless people, this talk takes a different turn. Rather than considering the outcomes of the Rights of Man for subaltern groups or refugees, this talk follows the transformation of the Jewish Question when Jews themselves are no longer a minority, but sovereign citizens in their own ethno-national state. It considers some of the many ways in which Israeli Jews struggle to be Jewish-from conversion and keeping kosher to the everyday surveillance of goats-suggesting that popular sovereignty might not be liberating in the ways we imagine.

BIO: Joyce Dalsheim is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Global, International and Area Studies at UNC-Charlotte. She is a cultural anthropologist who studies nationalism, religion and the secular, and conflict in Israel/Palestine. She earned her her doctorate from the New School for Social Research, and has taught at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and Wake Forest University.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at cstanton@bard.edu.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm - 3:00 pm


Celebrating the Complete Works of Primo Levi

primo leviToni Morrison described Primo Levi's writing as a "triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction." Levi is the distinguished author of decisive books such as If This Is a Man, and The Periodic Table. For the first time the entire oeuvre of the most acclaimed Holocaust survivor is available in English, after a 7-years collective endeavor lead by Ann Goldstein, New Yorker editor and celebrated translator of Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri. Together with Goldstein, the event will feature Michael F. Moore, a most accomplished translator from Italian and UN interpreter.

For more info on Goldstein and the Complete Works of Primo Levi, view interview: HERE.

Primo Levi,  (born July 31, 1919, Turin, Italy-died April 11, 1987, Turin), Italian-Jewish writer and chemist, noted for his restrained and moving autobiographical account of and reflections on survival in the Nazi concentration camps.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Reem-Kayden Center László Z. Bitó '60 Auditorium, Bard College, 6:00 pm 


Now Hiring Two Post-Doctoral Fellows for the 2016-2017 Academic Year!

1The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College announces two post-doctoral fellowships for the 2016-2017 academic year. The fellows should have a Ph.D. in political theory, philosophy, or a related field in the humanities, and his or her work should intersect meaningfully with Hannah Arendt’s thinking. In residence at the Arendt Center, the fellow will pursue his or her independent research at the Center, which includes Hannah Arendt’s personal library. The fellow will have access to Arendt’s Digital Archive through a relationship with the Arendt Center in New York City. In addition, the fellow will have the opportunity to participate in seminars, conferences, lectures, colloquia, and workshops organized by the Center.

To apply for the fellowship, please apply through Interfolio.com at: http://apply.interfolio.com/33792 with a letter of application explaining your research project and interest in the Center and a description of your teaching experience, CV, and two letters of reference.

The Deadline for consideration is Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY


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

Learning 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 Activa - The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

vita activaThe Film Forum in New York City will be screening the new film, VITA ACTIVA - THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, directed by Ada Ushpiz, later this spring.

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 6, 2016

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


SAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusOn 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

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Samantha Hill explains that Arendt never gave an account of her methodology in political theory but in her notes offers us a way to engage the world of political thinking in the Quote of the Week. French writer Anatole France reflects on how education relates to knowledge in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Rukaya Al Zayani shares several images with us of her personal Arendt library and explains how Arendt has influenced her view of the world 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.
22Nov/15Off
Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 11/22/15

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-upHome Away From Home

yale protestsJeannie Suk notices that the student protests that erupted last week at Yale, Mizzou, and elsewhere mobilize the rhetoric of home and the family: "Particularly in the way things have unfolded at Yale, students' social-justice activism has been expressed, in part, as the need for care from authority figures. When they experience the hurt that motivates them to political action, they're deeply disappointed with parental surrogates for not responding adequately or quickly enough to support and nurture them. The world in which it's not bizarre for a young person to rebuke someone for failing to 'create a place of comfort and home,' or to yell, 'Be quiet ... You're disgusting!,' and storm away, is the world of family, where a child in pain desperately desires empathy and understanding from a parent. The online scorn heaped on the student who was filmed behaving this way represents an unproductive refusal to compassionately translate her behavior across the generational divide. In a piece called 'Hurt at Home,' another Yale student wrote, 'I feel my home is being threatened,' and contrasted her comforting relationship with her father to the care she felt students emphatically did not receive from the master of Silliman College. Yale tells its students that the residential college is their 'home away from home,' but this generation might be the first to insist so literally on that idea.... The president of Claremont McKenna College--which has recently seen racial-bias protests, hunger strikes, and a high administrator's resignation--wrote in an e-mail to the community that one role of higher education is to 'provide a very special home for our students as a bridge from their families to the truly adult and independent world.' This formulation is particularly poignant at a time when material independence will be elusive for many college students, who are coming of age during a recession, with onerous debt, and may actually go home to their parents for much of their twenties in order to make ends meet. In the midst of the developing story on campus activism, the horror of mass violence in Paris wrought by ISIS brought us back to our experience of the September 11th attacks, an event seared into the child psyches of current college students, and sufficient to have robbed them of the basic sense of safety that my generation enjoyed. The students' preoccupation with safe spaces and the comfort of home seems a plausible manifestation of the profound lack of security--from violence to financial insolvency--that their generation faces. No wonder that their calls for social justice return to the talisman of safety and care of parental figures." 

This isn't the first time that metaphors of home have been marshaled as pleas for safety in a suddenly dangerous world. They appeared during the Cold War, when the suburbs turned into a refuge for white families attempting to protect themselves in a homogenized home from the dual threats of Communism and the atomic bomb. The family and social formations encouraged by those metaphors led to an infamously flat and seemingly conformist culture, which led to the countercultural spasms of the 1960s and in turn to the conservative revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, which also mobilized home and family as symbols of a time when the world seemed a little safer, that is, somewhat ironically, than the 1950s. In both cases, the symbolism of the home was used to protect the private lives of white people. 

In her essay "What Is Freedom," Arendt writes that "the public realm stands in the starkest possible contrast to our private domain, where, in the protection of family and home, everything serves or must serve the security of the life process." Similarly, Richard Rodriguez in his book Hunger of Memory distinguishes the intimacy and safety of the home life of a young Latino immigrant from the publicity and challenges of life at school. As Rodriguez argued at his talk during the 2013 Arendt Center conference "Failing Fast," becoming a citizen means learning to switch between the two worlds of home and public life; it means acquiring a public self. One important role of higher education is to give students the experience of living away from home, in public, where they can experiment with and learn to assume their public personas. That college, which constitutes a time for taking chances, also means that it is a moment of failure and danger. This has always been the case, but it is also true that students today negotiate a more complicated world of class, race, religion, and gender than students of any prior generation. So many college students now find themselves without safe homes and private places to which they can retreat at moments of crisis. More students at colleges and universities are from diverse and insular communities than ever before. Thrust from their often-sheltered lives, students now must negotiate public interactions with people whose opinions they have never before encountered and that they frequently find threatening. And in college dorms teeming with sometimes obnoxious students eager to try out new ideas, tensions can rise. 

No one can live in public all the time, and all of us need moments alone where we can, in private, collect ourselves and steel ourselves for the courage public life demands. At a time when the security of a private space is fleeting for so many young people, colleges and universities have added layers of student deans and counselors to help students through emotional, racial, and sexual crises. Students now call upon and depend on the very administrators for help whom they criticize and protest against. In such a situation, the danger lies less with students and more with administrators who, in the name of consumerism and motivated by an aversion to risk, are creating policies and procedures that shut down the vibrancy of the student experience. Some students may demand trigger warnings, disciplinary procedures, and censorship. That is part of the experience of being young and experimenting with new and powerful if also dangerous ideas. We shouldn't blame students for speaking and trying out new ideas. The fault, if there is one, is with administrators who accede to these demands. --RB (with assistance from JK)

Save the date for the Hannah Arendt Center's 2016 conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus." October 20-21, 2016.

The Challenge of Unmediated Media

jonathan hollowayIn the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb interviews Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway. Cobb: "There have been people who look at this situation and say, 'These students, who are at one of the most élite institutions in the United States and are reacting in this way, they are coddled and thin-skinned and they should just maybe toughen up. That's the biggest thing they need to do." Holloway: "I understand that. This is not just a black problem or a brown problem or a women's problem or whatever. We are seeing a generation of students, and I don't know why, who do seem less resilient than in the past. I think part of it is that things aren't mediated like they have been in the past. You don't have the luxury of sitting down and pondering what somebody just said, because you're too busy putting it into a Tweet and saying, 'This is an outrage.' There's no mediation of ideas. It's all off the top of my head and it's pain, in this case. I think that, because people are not getting enough sleep, and these things just keep on, Tweets keep coming in, that they are not equipped properly to process it all. I think that's a major part of it. The other part is that students have been struggling at Yale for a long time, and at similar institutions. The administrations were not set up even to care about them. It's not just that maybe students are less resilient, it's that the administrations actually are doing more work to identify people who are struggling. In a different era, if you had a drinking problem, there's a nod and a wink, and that's just the way Buster behaved. Now we understand women's side, that this thing is a real problem, and, hey, wait a second, this guy drinks and he sexually assaults somebody. We've got to deal with that. You build up an apparatus to deal with people in crisis, and it actually helps us understand that--you know what?--more people are in crisis than we actually thought. I think these things go hand in hand, and I don't think anybody's really figured it out. We can claim we figured it out, but I think no one's got the patent on that one yet. I think I've said it, but I've actually been buoyed in the last couple days, because I've seen the Yale that I believe is normal--a really smart school confronting a problem and trying in a creative way to solve it together. That sounds like an advertisement but I actually believe that it operates that way. People are being increasingly willing to presume good faith on someone else's behalf instead of just being negative. It's as simple as that. Time will tell where this all shakes out, but I am cautiously optimistic that we are moving to a different place here. Hell, I've been wrong three or four times already this week, so who knows?"

Snowden Against Sousveillance

snowden sousveillanceAmong the many accounts of Edward Snowden's recent talk at the Hannah Arendt Center's conference "Why Privacy Matters," Ruth Starkman's essay in the LA Review of Books stands out for raising the wide range of issues discussed, including some of the more controversial. For example, Starkman focuses on Snowden's somewhat unpopular (at least at Bard) rejection of sousveillance as a response to surveillance. Sousveillance means to observe from below as opposed to the observation from above, that is, surveillance. "Indeed, Snowden flung the doors wide open on public discussions of privacy and the internet. His legacy was clear at the Bard College 'Why Privacy Matters' conference, which featured prominent speakers whose careers have one way or another been shaped by Snowden, including Ben Wizner. Senior editor from The Intercept Peter Maass interviewed Snowden. Fritz Schwarz of the historic Church Commission took student questions about information before and after 9/11. Kate Crawford asked questions about the sort of ethical education computer science students should receive. Jeremy Waldron argued for 'an accountable, open' surveillance, which allows people to talk back to and cooperate with government agencies. Astrophysicist and sci-fi author David Brin took the radical position that students and the general public at large should fight surveillance with their own cameras, as people have in the Black Lives Matter movement. Brin describes this kind of grassroots, defensive surveillance as 'sousveillance.' Sousveillance appeals to students of all stripes. In fact, when the Bard College Debate Union invited the West Point Debate Society to debate the question of surveillance, both sides argued that surveillance could become an instrument of the public as well as the government, and could protect 'black and brown bodies, the LBGTQ community and other vulnerable populations.' West Point debaters on both sides of the debate reminded the audience that this debate was purely educational and did not reflect the opinions of the United States or its military. Snowden disagrees with sousveillance: 'We don't need a surveillance arms race; we need to protect individual privacy.' Bard students defended grassroots public surveillance as a tactic against the elite (an elite to which institutions like Bard, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton also belong). Snowden didn't budge much here."

Unintended Consequences

borderAlfredo Corchado in The New Yorker cites Hannah Arendt Center Fellow Natalia Mendoza as a means to explore the unexpected consequences of beefed up security at the U.S.-Mexican border. "Like many other policies from Washington, this one had unintended consequences. The anthropologist Natalia Mendoza, a fellow at Bard College, observes that, because of greater border securitization, 'the cost of smuggling has increased to a point that smugglers can no longer be independent.' That is, as small, autonomous, local 'mom and pop' smuggling became more expensive and difficult, bigger, more structured, and violent organizations took over. Common-use crossing points, for instance, were now 'privatized' by criminal networks able to keep their operations going, absorb the rising costs, and still make a profit. Hence, groups of smugglers who used to work on their own or as subcontractors for different bosses were either pushed out of business or forced to join a larger cartel. Even if unanticipated, this process of criminal professionalization was a perfectly rational result of border security acquiring 'industrial' proportions: with the post-9/11 clampdown, the business of drug smuggling consolidated. The old and close-knit communities along the border never prevented drug trafficking or illegal crossing. Yet they used to function as a sort of social-control mechanism that kept drug-related violence relatively under check. People knew one another; they kept an eye on things. Suddenly, though, fear and hardened policies broke those bonds. Border communities started resembling ghost towns. The result was a surge of violence in Mexico, as cartels fought to establish dominance over important drug-shipping routes. According to estimates, the drug trade makes up between half a per cent and four per cent of Mexico's $1.2 trillion annual G.D.P.--totaling between about six billion dollars and forty billion dollars--and employs at least half a million people. Contraband U.S. guns that are trafficked into Mexico facilitate the drug traffickers' work. Around two hundred and fifty thousand firearms are purchased each year to be trafficked, and U.S. and Mexican authorities are seizing only about fifteen per cent of them, according to a study by the University of San Diego and Igarapé Institute."

amor_mundi_sign-upPrecedent

japanese internmentSeeking a way through the questions, the grandstanding about whether or not the United States should accept Syrian refugees following last week's attack in Paris, Matt Ford suggests that we look back to the internment of Japanese residents and citizens during WWII, as well as the Supreme Court case, Korematsu v. United States, that upheld that policy: "The Supreme Court has never overturned Korematsu, largely because federal and state governments have not attempted the mass internment of an entire ethnic group since then. But the decision belongs to what legal scholars describe as the anti-canon of American constitutional law--a small group of Supreme Court rulings universally assailed as wrong, immoral, and unconstitutional. Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Buck v. Bell, and Korematsu form the anti-canon's core; legal scholars sometimes include other decisions as well. Korematsu's place in that grim pantheon is well-earned. Courts apply strict scrutiny, the highest level of review, when weighing laws or policies that discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, or alienage. Korematsu was the standard's first application; it was also the last time it failed to protect the group in question. 'There is only one situation in which the Court expressly upheld racial classifications burdening minorities: the rulings affirming the constitutionality of the evacuations of Japanese-Americans during World War II,' wrote Erwin Chemerinsky, a UC Irvine law professor and prominent scholar of constitutional law. 'No evidence of a specific threat was required to evacuate and intern a person. Race alone was used to determine who would be uprooted and incarcerated and who would remain free.'... Expelling all Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast would have seemed unthinkable in 1940. Then came the fear and paranoia that pervaded cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco after Pearl Harbor. Frenzied reports of Japanese submarines off Oregon and saboteurs in California fueled a climate in which extreme constitutional violations towards an unpopular few seemed reasonable to a fearful many. Korematsu is a reminder that, in times of crisis, there will always be an unpopular minority to fear and opportunistic demagogues to demonize them. But central to the Bill of Rights' purpose is the protection of the few from the cruelty of the many, no matter who that few or many may be."

A Lesson in Courage

syrian refugeesPhil Klay, a decorated Marine and winner of the National Book Award, engaged the debate over refugees in a series of twelve tweets. Here are a few: "3. The Marine hymn claims that Marines are the 'first to fight for right and freedom and to keep our honor clean.'--Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015. 4. You're not supposed to risk your life just for the physical safety of American citizens--Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015. 5. You're supposed to risk your life for American ideals as well.... 11. Millions of pilgrims are hurtling through the darkness, but it's Germany that has recently been the beacon standing strong and true. Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015."

The Risk It May Be Boring

homerIn the NY Times Magazine, Arendt Center Senior Fellow Wyatt Mason recommends Christopher Logue's half-completed and finally posthumously published translations of Homer's Iliad. "'I find it boring,' Logue said to a friend, Doris Lessing, about Homer's epic, echoing a feeling that I--and perhaps you, too--have had upon trying to read any of the translations we've endured in school: I'm looking at you, Richmond Lattimore! 'Professor Lattimore adheres to the literal at times as stubbornly as a mule eating briars,' wrote the Thoreauvianly literate American critic Guy Davenport in his great 'The Geography of the Imagination.' Lattimore's literality--English words arranged in Greek syntax--produces a language that is barely English, let alone representative of Homer's poetry. 'One can say in this language,' Davenport explains, quoting Lattimore, 'such things as "slept in that place in an exhaustion of sleep" (for Homer's "aching with fatigue and weary for lack of sleep") and "the shining clothes are lying away uncared for" (for "your laundry is tossed in a heap waiting to be washed").' Carne-Ross, who was commissioning his new 'Iliad' to evade translatorese, wouldn't accept Logue's demurral. He, too, found many translations of Homer--Lattimore's especially--boring and had the Greek to back it up. He also had a plan for how Logue could manage the impossible task of translating a language he did not know. 'I will make you a crib,' Carne-Ross told Logue. A crib: a word-for-word translation of the Greek for Logue to work from. Carne-Ross also read the Greek aloud to Logue, to give him a sense of how it felt. Logue quickly discovered that there was nothing boring about Homer, only the risk of translating Homer into something boring."

OUCH!

dying comicJared Gardner suggests that comics may be a form particularly suited for describing illness: "As the authors behind the Graphic Medicine Manifesto argue, the comics form that emerged simultaneously with the new imaging technologies at the end of the 19th century was in the 20th the constant subject of experiments in the relationship between two semantic systems--word and image--as they collaborated and competed to convey meaning. The highly charged relationship wherein neither text nor image conveys the truth but together succeed in saying something more true than either could individually has been termed 'the vital blend' by Robert C. Harvey. This blend extends further to the relationship between creator and reader, who must, as Scott McCloud and others have argued, collaborate at every turn to make meaning by filling in the gaps of what this highly elliptical and fragmentary form necessarily leaves unwritten and undrawn. Arguably more than any other narrative form, comics have always wrestled with the challenges of making meaning out of competing systems and storytellers, yielding something different--and, when it is done right, better--than either could tell alone. And here is where comics can come to the rescue of medicine, as they did for this patient and for so many others over the last generation, modeling generative collaborations between image and text, data and narrative, creator and reader, and doctor and patient in the face of experiences seemingly impossible to relate. Graphic autobiography was born with an illness narrative--Justin Green's Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972), about debilitating OCD--but it was not until the 1990s that illness memoirs began truly to proliferate in comics, with such seminal texts as Al Davison's The Spiral Cage (spina bifida) and Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's Our Cancer Year (testicular cancer and chemotherapy). In the 21st century, narratives about mental and physical illness have emerged as the dominant form of nonfiction comics."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #15

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, December 4, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm

 

 


images of surveillanceImages of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies

Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, will be a participant at the interdisciplinary symposium: Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies. The symposium is presented by the Goethe-Institut in New York, NY December 4-6, 2015.

The symposium will combine lectures, panel discussion, artist talks, and presentations to explore the topic in its various political, economic, and aethetic dimensions and open new ways to think about surveillance in the 21st century. At the heart of Images of Surveillance is the recognition that surveillance as object of study is far too complex to be grasped from any single point of view and thus requires us to combine multiple perspectives into a fuller picture of what surveillance might be. Such an approach rejects both disciplinary boundaries and post-modern indeterminacy in favor of a concerted effort to create overlaps and conceptual chains across a wide variety of practices and discourses.

To learn more about the symposium, schedule, and participants visit goethe.de/ny/sensitivedata.

Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 6, 2015

Goethe Institut, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003


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, Stefanie Rosenmüller discusses how Arendt scarcely addressed distributive justice but how her reasoning could nonetheless augment that of Martha Nussbaum, who criticized the liberal model of John Rawls, in the Quote of the Week. Albert Camus discusses the responsibility of thinking people in a world of victims and executioners in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to E. P. Thompson's "The Making of the English Working Class" 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.