Back in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin called out President Barack Obama for carrying out a foreign policy based in American exceptionalism. Around the same time conservatives in the GOP argued that President Obama was abandoning American exceptionalism, pushing a secular and even socialist agenda that leads him to apologize for American greatness. According to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon.
Now comes Peter Beinart who writes in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself.
The core of the first part of Beinart’s argument concerns a generational shift regarding the place of religion in American society. That younger Americans are fundamentally changing their attitudes toward religious life is a theme Beinart has written about often. In short, one pillar of American exceptionalism has been its religiosity. America has long been the most religious of the western democracies. But the current younger generation is an exception.
For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.” But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age. In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.
Beinart’s point is that the younger generation is less religious and thus less tied to one of the core components of American exceptionalism than previous generations of Americans. That he is right is apparently beyond dispute. And it is not unimportant.
The deflation of religion removes one of the pillars that has long-distinguished American life. For Tocqueville, religiosity was necessary in a democratic country, as it gave the people a moral language to restrict the unimpeded longings of individualism. Religion also feeds the confidence and sense of purpose lends to the American project its jeremiad-like quality. And this is nowhere better illustrated than in Philip Freneau’s 1795 poem “On Mr. Paine’s Rights of Man:”
So shall our nation, formed on Virtue’s plan,
Remain the guardian of the Rights of Man,
A vast republic, famed through every clime,
Without a kind, to see the end of time.
The religious roots of American exceptionalism are well established and form the central argument of Deborah Madsen’s book American Exceptionalism. Madsen traces the doctrine to 17th century Puritan sermons and poetry, including Peter Buckley’s famous “Gospel-Covenant sermon” that proclaims,
We are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth; the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore not only the Lord our God, with whom we have made covenant, but heaven and earth, angels and men, that are witnesses of our profession, will cry shame upon us, if we walk contrary to the covenant which we have professed and promised to walk in.
According to Madsen, this religious sense of distinction and purpose translated easily to a rationalist project as well. Benjamin Franklin embraced the exceptionalist rhetoric but covered it in a rationalist patina, arguing the “providence” is a “rational principle that controls the operation of the world.” For Franklin, American newness meant that it was “unhampered by the complexities of European history and unburdened by a sophisticated class system and structure of inheritance.” Thus, Madsen writes, America “offered an unrivalled opportunity for the establishment of a democratic society based on rational principles…. Franklin represents the American errand as the creation of a secular state that is purified of the corruption of European politics and a social structure based on inherited title.”
By the time Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the vision of the United States as a unique and exemplary democracy marked by a distinct approach to freedom and equality had established itself in the nation’s psyche.
The United States of America was understood not simply to be one country amongst many, but it was “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The survival and success of the United States was hardly a local matter, but was a grand experiment testing whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Americans understood that America mattered as an example for the world.
Seymour Lipset summed up the idea of American exceptionalism in his 1996 book American Excptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.
The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being “the first new nation,” the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d’être ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln’s emphases on the country’s “political religion.”
For Lipset, the “American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” Exceptionalism, he argues, doesn’t mean American is better than other countries. It means that America “is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier. Exceptionalism is a double-edged concept.”
There have always been opponents of what Godfrey Hodgson calls The Myth of American Exceptionalism. And there is the question of how fully different races and classes have embraced the idea of American exceptionalism. But overall, the myth has had some basis in sociological reality. Americans were more religious than other democratic and liberal states. Americans believed they had more economic mobility, and saw their country as the first truly multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy; one that developed in fits and starts towards an ideal of equality over 200 years.
So what does it mean when this idea of American exceptionalism is in retreat? Beinart traces the increasingly suspicious attitudes of the young to traditional tenets of American exceptionalism in foreign affairs and also in economics.
When conservatives worry that America is not as economically exceptional anymore, they're right. A raft of studies suggests that upward mobility is now rarer in the United States than in much of Europe. But if America's exceptional economic mobility is largely a myth, it's a myth in which many older Americans still believe. Among the young, by contrast, attitudes are catching up to reality. According to a 2011 Pew poll, young Americans were 14 points more likely than older Americans to say that the wealthy in America got there mainly because "they know the right people or were born into wealthy families" rather than because of their "hard work, ambition, and education." And as young Americans internalize America's lack of economic mobility, they are developing the very class consciousness the United States is supposed to lack. In 2011, when Pew asked Americans to define themselves as either a "have" or a "have-not," older Americans chose "have" by 27 points. In contrast, young Americans, by a 4-point margin, chose "have-not." According to the exceptionalist story line, Americans are all supposed to consider themselves "middle class," regardless of their actual economic fortunes. For seniors, that's largely true. According to a 2012 Pew study, they were 43 points more likely to call themselves "middle" than "lower" class. Among young Americans, by contrast, the percentage calling themselves "middle" and "lower" class was virtually the same.
Perhaps the most interesting generational change Beinart identifies is what he calls the loss of American civilizational self-confidence, which he ties to our loss of religious feeling.
[A]s conservatives suspect, Americans' declining belief in our special virtue as a world power really is connected to our declining belief in our special virtue as a people. And the young are leading the way. A 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while almost two in three Americans over 65 call themselves "extremely proud to be American," among Americans under 30 it is fewer than two in five. According to a Pew study in 2011, millennials were a whopping 40 points less likely than people 75 and older to call America "the greatest country in the world."
Young Americans, in fact, are no more "civilizationally self-confident" than their European counterparts. When Pew asked respondents in 2011 whether "our culture is superior" to others, it found that Americans over the age of 50 were, on average, 15 points more likely to answer yes than their counterparts in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. Americans under 30, by contrast, were actually less likely to agree than their peers in Britain, Germany, and Spain.
It is easy to worry about the effects of the loss of exceptionalism in America, but hard to deny the truth that America is, today, increasingly less exceptional than in the past. Beinart is worried and rightly so. For what would a country be that had no common ideals? It would be a geographic entity held together by fear and bureaucratic inertia.
So Beinart holds out the hope that, in the end, Americans will reinvigorate their mythic exceptionalism. His prescription is a war on inequality that will return our faith to America as the land of economic mobility. If we can break down the Republican coalition with the plutocratic one percent and between Republicans and religionists, we could re-inspire both religious and economic exceptionalism that have undergirded so much of the progress toward social and racial justice in American history.
What Beinart’s hoped for return of American exceptionalism forgets is that historically what most distinguished America from other nation-states in Europe and elsewhere was its uniquely federalist and decentralized and constitutional structure—something that has long been abandoned and is a distant memory in today’s national security state. Not only Tocqueville in the 19th century but also Hannah Arendt in the 20th century saw in the United States a unique and exceptional country, one that for Arendt was fundamentally different from all European countries. The difference, for Tocqueville, was in America’s incredible multiplication of distinct power centers at all levels of government and society. Arendt agrees, arguing,
The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny and the same.
Arendt understood that what truly made America exceptional was its decentralized system of power, that the states did not surrender their powers to the Federal government, but that that Federal government should check the powers of the states and the considerable powers that still remained with them. By multiplying power sources, the American constitutional republic created a system that both prevented one sovereign power from acquiring tyrannical power and, equally importantly, insured that local power structures would persist that would give individual citizens reason and incentive to engage in the American practice of democratic self-government.
Arendt’s love for America, as she expressed it in her last interview, was for a country that refused to be a nation-state. “America is not a nation-state and Europeans have a hell of a time understanding this simple fact.” As a country and not a nation, America was comprised of a plurality of persons and groups that each could found and support their own institutional bases of power. Politics in America had no center, but proceeded according to the contest of local and dispersed groups. And what unites all Americans is one thing: “citizens are united only by one thing, and that’s a lot: that is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.” The Constitution in the United States is not just a scrap of paper. I it “a sacred document, it is the constant remembrance of one sacred act, and that is the act of foundation. And the foundation is to make a union out of wholly disparate ethnic minorities and regions, and still (a) have a union and (b) not assimilate or level down these differences.” It was this view of the United States as a country that did not require the assimilation or leveling down of meaningful differences that so impressed Arendt. It was American pluralism free from a nation-state that Arendt found so exceptional.
In the same interview, however, Arendt expressed her fear that the exceptional American pluralism that she found in the country was coming to an end. And the culprit, she identified, was the rise of the national security state.
National security is a new word in the American vocabulary, and this, I think, you should know. National security is really, if I may already interpret a bit, a translation of “raison d’etat.” And “raison d’etat,” this whole notion of reason of state, never played a role in this country. This is a new import. National security now covers everything, and it covers, as you may know form the interrogation of Mr. Ehrlichman, all kinds of crimes. For instance, the president has a perfect right… the king can do no wrong; that is, he is like a monarch in a republic. He’s above the law, and his justification is always that whatever he does, he does for the sake of national security.
Arendt expressed a similar worry about the rise of a national security state in American in 1967, when she wrote:
There is no reason to doubt Mr. Allan W. Dulles’ statement that Intelligence in this country has enjoyed since 1947 “a more influential position in our government than Intelligence enjoys in any other government of the world,’ nor is there any reason to believe that this influence has decreased since he made this statement in 1958. The deadly danger of “invisible government” to the institutions of “visible government” has often been pointed out; what is perhaps less well known is the intimate traditional connection between imperialist policies and rule by “invisible government” and secret agents.
If American exceptionalism is about religious freedom and religious passion, if it is about equal rights to participate in government, if it is about populism, and if it is about a moral vision of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” then American exceptionalism is incompatible with the increasingly large, centralized, and bureaucratic security state that has emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Whether the security sought is national or economic security, the demand that a central government secure our freedoms lives in tension with the basic desire for freedom understood as self-government. It is the loss of that American tradition more than any other that underlies the waning belief of Americans in their exceptionalism. And for that loss, both parties are at fault.
While Beinart misses the connection between national security and the decline of American exceptionalism, his presentation of that decline is convincing, important, and troubling. His essay is well worth your time.
“Hannah Arendt, Feminist Theorizing, and the Debate Over New Reproductive Technologies”
Kimberley F. Curtis, Polity, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 1995), pp. 159-187
Kimberley Curtis employs Arendt’s conceptual categories in The Human Condition to critically distinguish between scientific interventions that control fertility and those that endeavor to produce fertility. In doing so, she both offers an alternative to current feminist stances toward reproductive technology and contributes to our understanding of the relation between labor and action in the Arendt’s work.
Politically, Curtis responds to “liberal feminists” who tend to favor all new developments as instruments of choice, “socialist feminists” who also favor them in the broader context of their project of controlling nature through production, and “radical feminists” who oppose new reproductive technologies as instruments of patriarchal oppression. In contrast, Curtis proposes that:
[Arendt's] theorizing [...] powerfully embraces the need for control, which has been the cornerstone of feminist concern over reproductive technologies, while also offering some critical grounds for limiting the development and use of these technologies and practices.
Thus, Curtis adopts some of the enthusiasm of liberal feminists and some of the reservations of radical feminists. Socialist feminists, however, in her view make a serious mistake in their justification of their stance. She agrees with Arendt that nature must emphatically remain separate from human artifice. Arendt’s distinction between labor and work codifies this distinction. At the same time though, critics often over-emphasize the separation between the two realms. Curtis articulates her objection by eloquently linking labor and work to action:
To be fully human we must be, to some extent, subject to necessity's compulsion; we must feel its impact. Not to be so subject is to risk losing both the very capacity for action that makes us human and the hope for and renewal of the world it promises. There is multidimensionality to Arendt's conception of necessity that feminists (as well as most other students of Arendt) have largely ignored.
“Necessity” here corresponds to “labor” in Arendt’s schema. Rather than viewing the steps of labor, work, and action as a gradual progression toward freedom, Curtis proposes these terms as equally important “viewpoints.” The actor sees labor as an anchor and dead weight in light of his effort to start something new. Homo faber, the one who works to create a permanent world, sees the natural world of labor as raw material. Humans as laboring animals, Animal laborans, enjoy, at least to an extent, their immersion in natural life. Here, one might object that Arendt’s momentary praise of “the sheer bliss of being alive,” takes on an ironic tinge in light of her larger goal of defending action.
Curtis’s next defense of labor stands up better to scrutiny: she sees the darkness and obscurity that Arendt attributes to the realm of labor as a very important way of describing the “givenness” of existence. In protecting the private realm in this way, Arendt ensures a space between labor and work that allows the creation of different (at least potentially better) worlds in work free of deterministic forces.
Curtis then makes another argument that, in contrast to the previous one, emphasizes the continual pressure of the life of the body:
[O]ur very capacity for initiative is tied to this sense of compulsion and unfreedom. Without the impact of nature's compulsion bearing down upon us, we have no way of distinguishing between a state of freedom and one of enslavement.
Technology, in Curtis’s view, can ameliorate our sense of the compulsion of nature but must not go as far as to do away with it. With an apparent paradox, she ends with an appeal to a “conservative attitude” to protect the possibility of novelty:
[A] conservative attitude is appropriate here: one that protects the newness of the new from the impulses of those who come from an established world which to the new will always appear old- no matter how revolutionary no matter how much a part of creating conditions of new freedom those from that established world conceive their actions to be.
Returning, in conclusion, to feminist approaches to reproductive technologies, Curtis admits that this “conservative attitude” has been, and will likely continue to be, instrumentalized politically in favor of patriarchal and economic interests. In this light, she sees the need to reflect on these larger political forces with the goal of holding open the tension between freedom of reproductive control and the dangers inherent in technological worldviews that replace nature and the new.
It would be too much to hope that my plea to end the ideological warfare over Hannah Arendt would win over either those who insist she is a Nazi-lover or those who thinks she walks on water. That said, I have been pleasantly surprised that most people saw my essay for what it was: a call for an end to the ideological warfare that leads both Arendt’s supporters and critics to interpret every fact and every statement as evidence for their side. Similarly, I ended my essay with a claim about the relevance of Arendt’s work in today’s overly heated ideological environment.
I expressed the hope that thinking deeply about Arendt’s characterization of Adolf Eichmann as a joiner might help defuse the petrified ideological positions of contemporary politics. I wrote:
At a time when confidence in American institutions is at an all-time low, Arendt’s insistence that we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement should resonate even more urgently today. That is ever more reason to free Arendt’s book, once again, from the tyranny of the conventional wisdom.
Good luck. In a post responding to my essay in the Magazine Commentary, Jonathan Tobin has this to say:
While he doesn’t say so bluntly, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Berkowitz is making a not terribly subtle reference to those middle-class Americans who want smaller government and a less intrusive federal oversight of their lives as being somehow the moral equivalent of Eichmann. I’ve read more than my share of attempts to justify Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, but this is the first that attempts to enlist her in the fight against the Tea Party.
The sheer chutzpah as well as the colossal inappropriateness of Berkowitz’s insinuation is, by itself, enough to disqualify him as a rational voice about the subject.
Let’s note a few facts. First, as Tobin admits, I nowhere mention the Tea Party. Second, he somehow insists that my worry about middle-class, anti-state, movements is a “not terribly subtle” left-wing swipe at the Tea Party. Third, Tobin decides to ignore what I write, inserts his own interpretation, and concludes that I am disqualified as a rational voice on the subject. Talk about chutzpah!
If Mr. Tobin had simply bothered to do a modicum of homework, he could have found past articles in which I ascribed anti-state tendencies to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Here is one example from 2011: “Occupy Wall Street is, like the Tea Party, driven by an apparent disdain of government, elites, and traditional institutions.” My argument is clearly a critique of tendencies on both the left and the right.
What is more, in the version of the essay that I originally wrote and handed in to the Times, I mentioned four groups in the final paragraph as examples of what I meant as “idealistic anti-state movements.” Yes, I included the Tea Party. But I also mentioned Occupy Wall Street, the radical environmental movement, and the anti-tax crusade. Hardly a one-sided and partisan group.
What unites these diverse movements is that they are all anti-state in important ways. The Tea Party and the anti-Tax movement seek to limit or immobilize government. At the same time, Occupy Wall Street and radical environmental movements are decidedly internationalist movements that either reject national politics in the favor of international solidarity or seek to subordinate national democratic will to international bureaucratic regulations. What all of them share, as movements, is a drive to create adherents and victories rather than a desire to actually govern.
Granted these examples are not in the final version run by the Times, but with or without my examples, there is absolutely nothing in my essay to suggest a liberal or a conservative agenda. This does not stop Tobin from branding me a “liberal ideologue” who seeks to tar “contemporary conservatives as somehow would-be Eichmanns.” Honestly, how he gets from my essay to such a ridiculous conclusion beggars belief. Tobin’s perverted fantasy of what he thinks I may have written is simply a prime example of the rabid ideological fervor that grips so many in this country, on both sides of the ideological divide.
Tobin displays an extraordinary ignorance beyond his ideological blindness. He writes:
Contrary to [Berkowitz’s] assertion, Nazism was not an “anti-state movement” whether one wishes to call it “idealistic” or monstrous. It was, in fact, a classic example of a movement that worshiped the state and sought to sacrifice individual rights on the altar of the collective. In the case of Germany, it was the glorification of the German state and its leader while in Russia it was the socialist ideal and a different evil monster. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the Nazis, Eichmann or the Holocaust he helped perpetrate.
Excuse me, but Nazism was not a movement that worshipped the state, and to say that it was is simply false. Nazism was an imperialist and internationalist movement. Like Bolshevism, it sought a world-wide community based on a tribal identity (Aryanism or Bolshevism). What Hitler desired was an international “Third Reich” that stretched beyond the German state. In Mein Kampf, he wrote, that in Vienna he “laid the foundations for a world concept in general and a way of political thinking in particular.” Hitler spoke of a German people (Volk) that stretched beyond state borders, saying, “Wherever we may have been born, we are all the sons of the German people.” Ernst Hasse, founder of the anti-Semitic Pan-German League, wrote that the German people (and not the German state) “had the same right to expand as other great peoples and that if [they were] not granted this possibility overseas, [they would] be forced to do it in Europe.” As Arendt concludes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Hostility to the state as an institution runs through the theories of all pan-movements…. The Pan-Germans, who were more articulate politically, always insisted on the priority of national over state interest, and usually argued (citing the founder of modern anti-Semitism Georg Ritter von Schoenerer) ‘world politics transcends the framework of the state,’ that the only permanent factor in the course of history was the people and not states; and that therefore (citing Ernst Hasse again) national needs, changing with circumstances, should determine, at all times, the political acts of the state.”
In the pursuit of world domination, Nazism elevated party membership and blood purity above state identity. It set the party and national Volk above the institutions of the state. It was an imperialist and global movement, one that saw traditional state boundaries and institutions as bourgeois limitations that interfered with its global ambitions. That Tobin condemns me for saying so and simply asserting that Nazism “worshipped the state” is simply to parade his ignorance.
Tobin’s screed is filled with similar unsupported assertions, as when he writes “most serious thinkers understood [Arendt’s] misleading characterization of Adolf Eichmann was bad history.” The most esteemed historical biographer of Adolf Eichmann, Bettina Stangneth, largely embraces Arendt’s account, but not as a fawning admirer, just as someone who looks objectively at the facts. She takes issue with a few particular conclusions Arendt arrives at, but largely confirms Arendt’s understanding of Eichmann. And even the much more partisan and anti-Arendt-book by David Cesarani concedes that Arendt was generally right, and that Eichmann was no monster. But admitting these clear facts is something Mr. Tobin is clearly incapable or unwilling to do.
Shouting the same tired slogans over and over plays to the converted. But I ask you to judge whose arguments should be disqualified from rational discourse. You can read Tobin’s rant here, if you want. Compare it to my essay in the New York Times.
“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Over the past decade, European public opinion has roiled with controversy over the full face covering – the niqab or burqa - of Muslim women. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, conducted between April 7th and May 8th 2010, the majority of citizens in France, Germany, Britain, and Spain approve of banning veils that cover the whole face. Subsequently, France and Belgium have implemented national laws that ban the full veil in public places.
Municipal bans are sprinkled across Europe as a whole. Is there an Arendtian angle on the discomfiture that one finds in Europe over the niqab and the burqa (hereafter N/B), a properly political angle that avoids pathologizing the response as simply Islamophobic or xenophobic?
Arendt claimed that the word public evokes two “interrelated phenomena”. First:
everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life – the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses – lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance…The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves…
The second referent of public is “the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.”
Arendt captures an idea prominent in Western traditions: the notion, both intuitive and articulated, that being visible to one another is an integral part of politics. This expectation is registered in theories of judgment (consider the role played by the “spectator” in Adam Smith and Kant’s theories of judgment) and in some of our most potent democratic metaphors: enlightenment, openness, transparency, illumination, recognition, social legibility, accountability, “publicity” and, not least, public. Liberals trumpet the virtue of the Open Society and liberalized Marxists idealize the translucent speech-situation. Socialists and radicals extol debunking, the heir of Rousseau’s crusade to remove the “deceitful veil of politeness” which conceals “fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud”. Negating these images are opacity, the Dark Ages, the dark arts, dark times, heart of darkness, artifice, living in the closet, a shadowy realm, cave-like illusion, Stygian gloom, moral blindness, the id, concealment, inscrutability, subterfuge, murkiness, obscurantism, and backroom deals - notions which variously imply various states of ignorance, menace and deceit. True, prominent French intellectuals of the last century sought to demote vision’s status in the pantheon of sensibility, while conservatives still remain attached to the “decent drapery of life” (Burke). Yet these perspectives have done little to impede the centrality of seeing within the Western, Apollonian political aesthetic.
This formulation suggests what is discordant about the N/B’s existence in the Western political space. While for its bearer the N/B may be understood as a badge of tradition and piety, from the standpoint of a constitutional pluralist citizenry it is a mode of concealment incompatible with public recognition in which visibility of face is central. The N/B denudes facial and, to a degree, vocal recognition. It standardizes human features and hence contributes to the very stereotyping that N/B wearers themselves deplore. Faces and voices are all different, evidence of human plurality. The N/B literally effaces these variations, with the partial exception of the eyes that may sometimes be seen. The N/B also symbolically ruptures the bond of citizenship reciprocity because while its wearer can see her real or potential interlocutor, can take advantage of the visibility of others, non-wearers are denied such access.
Consider two objections to this line of reasoning.
Users of the Internet are often obscured from view and no one assumes that their being invisible is uncitizenly. Indeed, under some definitions of politics, the internet might be considered the quintessentially modern medium of political life: informing the public of political events, orchestrating voting, requesting or inciting people to participate in demonstrations, directing attention to abuses of rule, mobilizing citizens for collective action. Search engines like Google ever more assume traditional government functions. Its engineers claim that the company’s predictions of flu epidemics and employment trends are already more accurate than those of the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, in Western societies the Internet is an ancillary to public display not a substitute for it, a tool to expand communication, rather than an obstacle to constrict it. Computer webcams are employed between interactants and in web chat rooms; interviews of foreign job applicants conducted via Skype grow daily in popularity. And it is no coincidence that the world’s most prominent social networking site is called Facebook. Moreover, where Internet use takes place without face recognition (as with email or instant messaging) it typically does so reciprocally: both users are in the same position and hence issues of visibility imbalance and citizen asymmetry do not arise.
A second objection to the claim that N/B attire in public places is uncitizenly turns the tables on the author: it draws on the Graeco-Roman tradition itself, the origins of Western notions of citizenship. In that tradition, being a public person was considered a kind of theatricality in which an agent adopts a persona, a mask. But the comparison between the N/B and the persona is superficial and not only because one mask is made of cloth while another is a metaphor. In antiquity, the function of persona was not to conceal public visibility but precisely to do the opposite: to shine the light of the polis on the political actor, to dramatize the fact that the individual had entered the public stage and that, as such, had left the private world of intimacy so as to consort freely with his peers and deliberate on political affairs. The political persona was, then, an addition to, or rather a rupture with, private life, not a replication or extension of it, a vehicle of distinction, not a mantle contrived to expunge from public view the unique personality of the woman beneath its folds. Politics, in Western traditions, entails a split within the being that engages in it, the construction of a second self: as an equal of others who are familial strangers bound together by the common tie of citizenship; a self able to cooperate with these strangers, to “see” things from multiple points of view and be seen seeing.
The N/B, however, is not a fictive mask designed to open up its wearer to the public recognition of peers acting in concert or in conflict; it is a carapace projected into the public space, a material mask that signals exclusivity, an emblem of segmental occlusion, of what Durkheim, discussing the primacy of resemblance in tribal societies, called the politico-familial.
Nor is the N/B artificial or dualistic. On the contrary, it signifies Sharia’s total claim on the individual in all her activities, the type of claim that the public-private distinction expressly repudiates. It transpires that the classical concept of the mask and the N/B have nothing substantively in common.
These brief reflections, prompted by my reading of Arendt, are not a rationale for banning the full veil but they do allow us to think of the European response to it in a political way. Readers who are interested in the more extensive argument that Dan Gordon (UMass Amherst) and I have developed on this topic, contrasting American and European legal regimes, may wish to read our “On the Edge of Solidarity: The Burqa and Public Life,” and “From the headscarf to the burqa: the role of social theorists in shaping laws against the veil,” Economy and Society 2012 (forthcoming).
-Peter Baehr, Lingnan University Hong Kong
My post on the Public Pension Crisis has found an intriguing embrace. It has been taken up with gusto by a series of good government groups who are sounding the alarms about the pension crisis. I am heartened they responded so favorably to the essay. Indeed, I have to admit I am pleasantly surprised that so many well meaning people are trying to sound the alarm about the danger unfunded pensions pose. Many of the commentators added important comments of their own, and are worth reading: State Budget Solutions, Republic of Costa Mesa, and Statehouse News Online.
One unified theme of the responses is that they sought to enlist the Arendt Center as a non-partisan or left-wing authority. Repeatedly, these groups emphasized that the fact that the Hannah Arendt Center was writing about the issue of pensions was evidence that the pension crisis is not simply an issue for right-wing fanatics. A headline in one newspaper blared: "Another lefty organization calls for pension reform."
I understand this felt need. While pensions are not a partisan issue, or need not be, they have somehow become one. This is largely a result of recent history in Wisconsin and elsewhere. But the fact is that both parties have fed at the trough of public union largesse and both parties are now struggling, with grave difficulty, to turn off the spigot. It seems that politicians are so accustomed to financial and organizational support of public employees that reform is deeply unpalatable. This is true even though many democrats, as I argued in my post, understand that pensions are threatening to devour the funds necessary for basic governmental services. It does seem that to simply point out facts today is to risk being branded a right-wing nut.
It is important to point out that the Arendt Center is neither a left nor a right organization. Nor is it non-partisan or bi-partisan. As Frank Keegan, the most astute of the bloggers who picked up our post rightly puts it (citing our own mission statement, thank you!), the Center aims simply to think about political and ethical issues in the spirit of Arendt. Keegan writes:
Let them try to put that [right-wing extremist] brand on the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College, which describes itself as "an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt. ....an intellectual incubator for engaged humanities thinking ... that elevates and deepens the public argument that is the bedrock of our democracy."
Keegan correctly and respectfully read through our website and noted that the Center aims to promote thinking about politics in the spirit of Arendt, by which we mean neither left, nor right, nor bi-partisan. Thinking, is always of necessity opposed to all ideological positions and is even pallid to the idea of bi-partisanship. Keegan thus also quotes our description of Hannah Arendt herself:
"No other scholar so enrages and engages citizens and students from all political persuasions, all the while insisting on human dignity, providing a clear voice against totalitarianism, and defending freedom with extraordinary intelligence and courage."
Others were less careful. The editors who drafted the headline for Will Swain's column were careless: "Another lefty organization calls for pension reform." Swain himself, who I now know to have been writing very smartly about the crisis, is more circumspect. On the one hand, he writes: "Arendt was a lefty." But Swain continues to add, "there was nothing dogmatic in her politics." The second part is true, but the characterization of her as a lefty is suspect, even if it is a widespread conviction.
Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, once made the mistake of characterizing Arendt as a left intellectual. Arendt responded forcefully:
"I am not one of the "intellectuals who come from the German Left." You could not have known this, since we did not know each other when we were young. It is a fact of which I am in no way particularly proud and which I am somewhat reluctant to emphasize—especially since the McCarthy era in this country. I came late to an understanding of Marx's importance because I was interested neither in history nor in politics when I was young. If I can be said to "have come from anywhere," it is from the tradition of German philosophy."
Arendt had many allegiances on the left; but equally so on the right. Just this month Irving Louis Horowitz, the great sociologist who died last weekend, published a new volume of essays on Arendt titled: Hannah Arendt: Radical Conservative. But Arendt was neither a radical conservative nor a traditional liberal. As she describes herself, rightly, she was a thinker.
Thinking is dangerous to all "isms," party programs, and ideologies. The Arendt Center seeks not to offer solutions or prescriptions, but to think about politics. That is why the main point of my essay was less about economics and more about the way that the pension crisis is challenging the independence and vibrancy of government itself. The hope is to make clear how the problem with pensions is rooted deeply in habits and conventions of our government and our thought, as well as to show it to be dangerous to both politics and freedom.
Another way to understand Arendt is as a conscious pariah, a term she lovingly steals from Bernard Lazarre. Throughout her life, Arendt was obsessed with those people whose outsider status made them pariahs. She held, however, that being a pariah could be advantageous if one consciously embraced that outsider role and became a conscious pariah, a rebel in the name of truth. Similarly, all those who want to tell the truth must, Arendt sees, adopt the role of a conscious pariah and abandon all claims to social and political success. The conscious pariah/rebel/truthteller must live in isolation and seek the truth outside of the public sphere.
Nothing perhaps distinguishes Hannah Arendt from her peers more than her insistence on standing aloof as a conscious pariah. It is from that apartness that flows the radical independence of her thought. Neither left nor right, neither capitalist nor socialist, and neither liberal nor conservative, Arendt looked at every issue from radically fresh viewpoints. That independence is in large measure the secret of her continuing appeal.
Whether the Arendt Center can claim that same independence and authority is, of course, a huge question. We do not presume to speak in Arendt's voice or as her equal. However, the pension crisis is ripe for Arendtian thinking. It is at root about the corruption of politics as well the idea of the public realm. There is simply a presumption by too many today that working for a public institution means that one is by definition working in the public interest. This is a mistake, and rethinking the nature of public employment is one of our most pressing tasks.
I recently was sent the following quotation by Friedrich Hayek, the economist and political thinker.
Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into or prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.
The quote is from an essay titled "Why I am Not a Conservative." Hayek is still today labeled a conservative (for whatever labels are worth). Here Hayek rejects the label, while also disdaining the modern conceptions of both liberalism and socialism. His efforts to stake out a position that defends freedom is as honest as it is relevant. It deserves to be read.
Hayek's quote is making the rounds not because of an interest in Hayek. Rather, the quote is being used (dare I say abused?) because it is thought to show the anti-science obscurantism and thoughtlessness of those who refuse to believe in evolution or global warming. The duplicitous refusal of politicians to even acknowledge the now undeniable scientific consensus about global warming is just the kind of obscurantism Hayek disdains. But it is a mistake to find in Hayek's attack common cause with efforts to enlist the government in the environmental cause.
Hayek's chief complaint with conservatism is its often uncritical defense of authority. The "main point" he takes issue with is the "characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened, rather than that its power be kept within bounds." In other words, the conservative is willing to put so much trust in authority and leadership that he tends to overlook those instances when government exceeds its authority and impinges on individual freedoms. This is why Hayek argues that conservatives are often closer to socialists than to liberals. Like socialists, conservatives are willing to excuse governmental action they agree with, even when such action impedes on liberty.
It should be clear that many who go by the name liberal today are not liberal in the sense Hayek means--which is closer to libertarian, although he also rejects that label and what it represents. His problem is with all those who would excuse government overreach for particular ends, when that regulation will restrict individual liberty.
Hayek's thought warns about the political dangers for freedom posed by both conservatism and socialism, two forms of increased respect for authority, one in the persona of a charismatic leader and the other in the rationality of bureaucracy and the welfare state. On both scores, Hayek's impassioned defense of freedom shares much with Hannah Arendt, although she undoubtedly disagrees with Hayek and liberalism's location of freedom in the private sphere.
For Arendt, liberal constitutional government is absolutely essential insofar as it is the best way to protect the realm of private liberty Hayek values so highly. For Arendt, however, it is not enough to protect freedom as a private citizen. Freedom includes not simply the right to do as one will in private, but also the right and the ability to act and speak in public. Freedom—human freedom—is more than the freedom simply to live well. Freedom also demands spaces of appearance, those institutionally protected realms where free citizens can engage in the debate and action about the dreams and hope of their life together. It is this freedom to be participate and act directly in government that is too frequently forgotten by those like Hayek.
That said, few thinkers better call us to vigilance in the cause of freedom. You can read the entirety of Hayek's "Why I am Not a Conservative" here.