Maybe why writing is hard

This morning, the more I write, the more my thoughts jump ahead of what I’m writing. The writing is making me think, and the thinking is making the writing very difficult.

Writing is hard anyway. Some people would like to hire ghostwriters to capture their thoughts. These people mistake writing for the visual transmission of one’s thoughts. Instead, writing is thinking. Writing makes us think, and the process of writing makes us discover realizations and examples and exceptions and connections that slow down the writing.

Ghostwriting carries an essential fraud, and not because one person is writing in another’s name. The fraud is the illicit self-protection the ghostwriter provides, similar to the self-protection each spouse can access in marriage counseling. If I am in marriage counseling, I have an out: when the counseling gets too close, I tell myself and my counselor that it’s my spouse’s fault. If I hire a ghostwriter, I have an out: I’m not challenged to fix the words and the thinking they represent because they’re never thrown back at me. The best marriage counselors treat “marriage counseling” as a necessary euphemism and get their clients to take responsibility for their own lives. And the best ghostwriters insist on involving their clients in the writing process.

Our president and his immediate predecessor wrote important memoirs. President Obama wrote Dreams from My Father, and President Trump wrote The Art of the Deal. President Obama wrote his memoir. President Trump hired a ghostwriter to write his, and the ghostwriter latter admitted that he never challenged his client. The two presidents couldn’t be any more different in their integrity and capacity for reflection.

Worthy of the saving

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. Let us turn slavery from its claims of “moral right,” back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of “necessity.” Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south — let all Americans — let all lovers of liberty everywhere — join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.

 – Lincoln (Peoria, 1854)

Democrats are split on what to amputate. Some would simply cut off the head, so to speak — the head being the current president. The public understands this sentiment so long as the president is removed the usual way, by defeating him in his bid for reelection. But some Democrats would go further. They would eliminate ICE, for example. Instead of eliminating only the head, who has been misusing ICE, they would eliminate ICE itself, which both the president uses and his immediate predecessor used to extensively limit illegal immigration. The Democrats are split on eliminating ICE, and the Republicans sense a winning issue leading up to this year’s midterms.

There are other points of potential amputation to save the patient, the American polity. Sue the president under the War Powers Act. Amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College. Amend it to nullify Citizens United. And so on. All of these issues needed addressing before 2016, of course. President Clinton violated the War Powers Act in Kosovo. President Bush II won the presidency while losing the popular vote in 2000. And money has been running national politics long before Citizens United, which only made a deplorable situation worse.

The current Democratic despair is reminiscent of its despair during much of the second term of the second Bush administration. It’s more intense now because the financial, political, social, and media walls seem to be closing in on the Democratic Party. The president makes frequent, unprecedented attacks on democratic and republican norms and institutions (e.g., elections, legal immigration, the FBI, the free press), but none of this bothers a large segment of Americans. Democrats — and many independents and Republican never-Trumpers, too — are left defending democracy itself as well as these institutions that have long been eroding in the public’s estimation. But how to save democracy?

This question about means quickly turns into a question about ends, however. “How to save it?” points to “What are we saving?” Is the Union, the Constitution (as it survives today) and its brand of republicanism worth saving? Have we washed our republican robes sufficiently to make our Union, in Lincoln’s words, “forever worthy of the saving”?

From a political standpoint, this conversation is unfortunate. The president and his supporters attack those seriously discussing these greater issues that his own election and conduct raise. It’s ironic, yes. Even as the president’s attacks on democratic and republican institutions give rise to his opponents’ reexaminations of those institutions, the president characterizes his opponents as un-American for doing so. Particularly for Democrats, who have been as guilty as the Republicans since World War II of turning our republic into a corporate-run empire unresponsive to its people, this is a difficult conversation. But covering up the big questions with a campaign platform of “Us, too, but we’re nicer about it” didn’t win in 2016, and it shows even fewer signs of prevailing in the future.

These issues have been discussed in certain circles before. For instance, George W. Bush’s blind eye toward torture, his invasion of Iraq, and his support for encroachments on individual rights in the name of national security lead to at least an academic debate about how to fix our system and what in the system is worth fixing at all. Movitvated to write in part by Bush’s push against the executive branch’s constitutional limits, political theorist Dana Villa in 2008 concluded that “the only way to prevent ‘legitimate’ structures of political power from devolving into structures of domination is to make sure we provide for both individual rights and the institutionalization of public freedom” — i.e., a public space where men and women can develop their political voice and practice.1 One of political theorist Sheldon S. Wolin’s last essays, “Agitated Times,” urges the immediacy of democratic agitation at the local level in order to challenge national assumptions. He concludes his 2005 essay with this ironic sentence: “Democratic agitation takes time.”2 Democracy must begin again at the local level — in many cases it must recreate a local level — and it must tune out the noise of those who would silence it.

Actions of post-World War II Democratic administrations raised issues similar to those raised under Republican administrations, and to fail to admit it is to fail to address those issues. Wolin wrote about some of them during the latter years of the Carter administration. In his 1980 essay “The People’s Two Bodies,” he concluded that Carter’s  “historical mission” was “to prove a mass basis for a new state — corporate, bureaucratic, technocratic, and managerial.”3 Every modern presidency seems to have made Wolin, who wrote for over half a century, question the responsiveness of our institutions, including some major aspects of the Constitution’s federal system, to the American people.

Issues involving empire, racism, xenophobia, and public participation won’t disappear with the current president. We must admit, despite the president’s desire for the country’s entire attention, that he is only another floor built perilously higher on a bad foundation. Moving from merely examining his dizzy, tottering eminence to also inspecting matters down closer to the foundation may be a short-term political loser, but in the long run, such self-examination is our only chance to make our Union worthy of the saving.

  1. Villa, Dana, Public Freedom, p. 300.
  2. Wolin, Sheldon S., “Agitated Times,” in Fugitive Democracy, p. 448.
  3. Wolin, Sheldon S., “The People’s Two Bodies,” in Fugitive Democracy, pp. 390 – 391.

Being and politics

Paul Manafort helped [former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych] to pursue a “Southern strategy” for Ukraine reminiscent of the one that his Republican Party had used in the United States: emphasizing cultural differences, making politics about being rather than doing.1

– Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom (2018)

If politics is speech and action, as Hannah Arendt claims, then Nixon’s and Manafort’s strategies weren’t politics at all. For Arendt, there is no “politics of being.”

Arendt also wouldn’t like today’s “identity politics,” the liberal version of the conservative politics of being, even though this liberal mix of being and politics demands action instead of inaction.

While true politics (and timely action or inaction) is not being, it must be rooted in being. Politics’ roots are ontological: equality is political identity since it points to each person’s relationship with others before God.

But equality on paper is not what equality leads to, which is suffering and (eventually) maturity. A culture that recognizes maturity generally adopts lively, long-lasting politics and political institutions.

Immaturity is another term for the false self. The immature man puts pieces of himself together to serve as identity much as a child puts pieces of the world together to create generalities. This inductive reasoning eventually succeeds in putting the functional world together but doesn’t lead to maturity — that is, to true identity. Only suffering does.

To bring maturity, suffering must have two components, permission and pain. Both permission and pain were present in the word “suffer” during King James’s reign. In the Bible James commissioned, Jesus bids his disciples to “suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.” Jesus himself is made “perfect through sufferings.” Though both of these uses of “suffer” involve both permission and pain, the former use emphasizes permission, and the latter use emphasizes pain. The opening we give to the universe when it waits at our door, peddling pain, and our long, fitful intercourse with this visitor, bring maturity.

I leave out how love figures in this.

The kingdom of God, like Arendt’s politics, is action. The action comes from maturity (i.e., true identity). God’s kingdom is the model for civil government and the authority for legitimate civil government. Other visions of politics, like Nixon’s and Manafort’s, are groundless imitations that keep us asleep on the couch.

Republican virtues, like private virtues, are important, but only if they get us off the couch and to the door when the universe calls. Virtue only prepares us for transformation.  We have to be not what we thought we were to see the kingdom of God. And we need a few such men and women to lead the rest of us to virtue, which itself is but a path to our own front door.

  1.  Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (pp. 141-142). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

Liberal self-examination

My favorite part of a favorite book (Philip Gorski’s American Covenant, published last year) involves competing concepts of political time. Liberals understand political time as linear, pointing onward and upward on a graph (x = time; y = progress) – time as never-ending progress. In contrast, many conservatives understand political time as cyclical. For them, no new thing appears under the sun, and the future eventually leads back to the past.

Timothy Snyder’s book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, released two weeks ago, is largely structured around these time concepts. In Russia over the past decade, though, a cyclical cycle became “the politics of eternity” as Putin sought to keep power by way of creating crises and pretending that outside forces were acting to challenge the Russian people’s inherent innocence. Eternity is in the present; there is no political future — no plan of succession and no plan for a polity’s self-correction.

Russia has, therefore, already arrived in the political millennium. Putin’s millennium is different than the end of history Marx envisioned and the Soviet Union was working toward. Marx was, after all, a “Left Hegelian,” while the white nationalist philosopher championed by Putin, Ivan Ilyin, was a “Right Hegelian.” But all political eternities involve magical thinking as a replacement for history and facts, so Putin, in championing the old Soviet Union as an ideology-free Russia, can ignore Ilyin’s detestation of the Soviet model. Ilyin, as Snyder points out, would have loved Putin’s revisionism.

The ease by which Russia switched from cyclical to “eternal” thinking may explain how easily virulent nationalism has infected American conservatism over the past two years.

True American conservatives, mostly known by reference to their conquerer as “Never Trumps,” are already reassessing what went wrong and exploring how their political understanding was so quickly routed from the nation’s consciousness. Liberals, though preoccupied in opposing to Trump, need to reassess how their worldview also aided Trump’s rise.

How was liberalism complicit in the political atmosphere that gave rise to Trump’s election? Three things come to mind. First, American liberals failed to see how their “politics of inevitability,” as Snyder characterizes it, blinded them to Russia’s response to the failure of its own “politics of inevitability” in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Russia is, in this sense, thirty years ahead of us, Snyder argues. Our purblind politics is evident in retrospect: we laughed in 2012, for instance, when Mitt Romney declared Russia as our greatest adversary.

Second, American liberals failed to understand how their lockstep pro-choice position on abortion has for decades alienated half of the American electorate and undercut their fundamental argument about the primacy of life as a moral guide in crafting other areas of public policy. For many pro-life voters, national elections have for years represented a deflating contest between their hearts (morality) and their heads (middle- and lower-class oriented policies; financial regulations; steps to combat global warming, etc.).

Third, both the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity purport to be irresistible. In this sense, both deny agency, and therefore both have little need of or care for a vibrant public sphere. Because the politics of inevitability is irresistible only in the long run, it better protects the public sphere and the positive freedom that the public sphere requires. But not much better. This failure to regard public freedom (i.e., positive freedom, as opposed to negative and private, First-Amendment freedoms, generally understood as freedom from politics) should be a matter of liberal self-reflection, too.

If liberals take up self-examination along with the conservatives, self-examination could become, to a large extent, a joint conversation, maybe the first sane and extended one between the two factions in generations. The means by which such a conversation would occur could p0int to the rebirth of the public sphere.

[Photo of Timothy Snyder taken in 1996. By Frauemacht – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47883997 ]

All or nothing

John Stuart Mill surfs tension. In one chapter of Considerations on Representative Government, he pleads Tocqueville-like for democratic participation, but a couple of chapters later, his distrust of public opinion leads him to something like Hegel’s “universal class” – bureaucracy.1

Hegel thinks bureaucracy is history’s answer to history: bureaucracy’s professional universalism will resolve history’s tribal divisions. Bureaucracy is, admittedly, a bland eschatology, Hegel’s version of clouds and harps. But there’s peace.

Tocqueville’s greatest disciple, on the other hand, describes bureaucracy as “rule by nobody . . . an ever-present danger of any society based on universal equality.” In a bureaucracy, Hannah Arendt warns, “the personal element of ruler-ship has disappeared.”2

Ironically, the authoritarian Hegel gives a better account of today’s federal bureaucracy than the democratic and republican Arendt. The president’s withering attacks on the intelligence services test the universal rule of law. But is the rule of law also “rule by nobody”?

Just as ironically, then, the appeal of Arendt’s republican view of bureaucracy aids Trump. Mueller and the “deep state” (an updated, sinister “rule by nobody”) intelligence agencies have little power against what Hitler approvingly calls “the authority of personality.”3

Nationalism has its own eschatology, and eschatology puts tension to rout. The American government, of course, is built on tension. The Constitution both separates the government’s branches and redefines federalism to create tension. As history’s wave again begins to crest, Americans may choose to destroy their government rather than to endure this tension. Anything for peace.

[Photo of John Stuart Mill]

  1. I here paraphrase Dana Villa observations in his book Public Freedom at 135.
  2. Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics at 77 – 78.
  3. Vokler Ullrich, Hitler:Ascent (1889 – 1939) at 250.

Dénouement

Washing dishes this morning while listening to the HomePod play the New World Symphony. Hannah Arendt isn’t the only one who writes about the new world’s work on the old one’s mind. Reading between Tocqueville’s lines, of course, one learns more about the old world than the new. Democracy in America is about the beholder.

Dana Villa, writing in 2005, resolves his chapter on Tocqueville’s conception of a public sphere akin to “Montesquieu’s pouvoirs intermédiares” with this reversal of fortune:

It is an irony of history that the political conception of civil society Tocqueville introduced to Europe must now be reintroduced to America — from, of all places, a democratic and secular Europe.1

Researching the HomePod, I was sickened by this Apple ad. Our protagonist leaves a cramped public space — she apologizes her way out of an elevator car packed with impersonal shoulder blades — for her small apartment, which she widens with waves of her hand as the HomePod plays a favorite. If our new worlds are private ones, Tocqueville warns, the old world will hunt us down.

Title page of the autograph score of Dvorák’s ninth symphony

  1. Villa, Dana. Public Freedom (2008) at 45, 48.

Don’t fix civics class. Fix civics.

The rise of Donald Trump has led to calls to fix high school civics. Some want to change its content, others its delivery, and still others its share of the curriculum. Representing this last view is the Washington Post‘s Colbert I. King, whose column includes this peroration: “The declining civic portion of public education . . . is a threat to our democratic values. It must be addressed, and now. Only a demagogue would argue with that.”

I argue with that.

In Kansas, the Post informs me this morning (we demagogues, unlike our victims, still read the paper), six high school boys are running for governor. The article is full of ironies: the would-be governors aren’t old enough to vote; one candidate, Tyler Ruzich, rushes from a debate to his part-time work as a grocery store cashier; and Ruzich observes that, in Hamilton’s time, “someone my age could be commander of a frigate.”

The article’s climax involves an interchange among two of these candidates, Ruzich and Jack Bergeson, and Soledad O’Brien on her nationally syndicated show. The show is taped the day after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The article implies that the Florida shooting makes O’Brien take the candidates seriously: O’Brien “didn’t ask whether they were old enough to drive.”

Instead, she asks Ruzich about Parkland.

Instead of finding better ways to tell teens the political facts of life, many adults after Parkland have begun to listen to and learn from high school students. As a high school English teacher, I’ve spent years learning from them through their discussions and research papers, most of which address matters of public concern. Now some American students, suddenly in the news, are taking their learning outside the classroom to discover how the kind of argumentation they’ve been trained in, based on facts and reasoning and respect, works in our public realm.

Parkland students were in the galleries when, days after the shooting, Florida’s House of Representatives voted two-to-one not to consider a bill banning the kind of military weapon that mowed down their friends. One Parkland student was photographed covering her mouth as if she were about to sob or vomit. So it goes.

At his hotel with his mom the morning of O’Brien’s show, Ruzich watches Parkland student David Hogg address Florida’s lawmakers on CNN: “We’re children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action.”

But most of the action recently has come from the students. They – and we – are up against what Hannah Arendt calls “automatic historical or political processes,” ones that seem both disastrous and inevitable. Yet action – “the work of faith,” as Arendt calls it – can perform miracles to interrupt these processes1:

. . . in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them – men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.2

Man’s civic action stems from his ontological relation to the world, Arendt says: “man is a beginning and a beginner.”3 Because these teens are closer to their beginning than adults are, as I see it, Arendt’s “men” now include boys.

On national television, Ruzich, a Republican, answers O’Brien’s question about gun control:

If I’m making an enemy of the NRA, that’s something I’m kind of proud of, to be honest. I’ve seen what gun violence does. It’s time that we change the rhetoric and the discussion. Because clearly we are too far gone to say it’s a mental illness problem.

The students in Florida and Kansas are not just entering public space; they are creating it.

Our public realm is shrinking. As Philip Gorski puts it, our society believes, with Ronald Reagan, that “the true domain of human freedom [is] the marketplace, not the public square.”4 We are not far behind China in this respect. Our students are trained in civics, but they leave high school or college for the “real world” in which leadership and creativity are not often put to the public’s service but to private gain. American conservatives used to mistrust the modern marketplace – a liberal idea, after all – precisely because it tempted citizens away from republican virtue.

We vaguely believe our democracy is modeled after ancient Athens’s, but we’ve forgotten our civics lessons that informed us about Athenian democracy. It wasn’t just the city’s small size that permitted more participation. After all, Athens became the center of a Greek empire after the Persian Wars, and most places its league conquered became their own democratic poleis. Athenian juries sat not twelve but at least five hundred.5 Any citizen could speak at the general assemblies. In nearly every civic position, Athens had not a single officeholder but a college or a group of magistrates, and the citizens rotated in and out of office annually. These policies were inspired by the Athenians’ fear of tyranny.6 Many Americans believe that a fuller democracy leads to demagoguery and tyranny. But the Athenians reasoned that the greater the democracy, the smaller the chance of tyranny.

Mr. Trump wasn’t elected because of democracy; he was elected because of an institutional check on democracy that gave him the election despite his losing it by almost three million votes.

A lack of democracy causes misinformation, which in turn can lead to tyranny. King cites a study indicating that only a third of American adults in a recent survey could name their country’s vice president. But misinformation that exploits powerlessness is worse than ignorance. Vast numbers of Americans believe, for instance, that Trump won the popular vote and should postpone our next presidential election until he is satisfied that the system is no longer rigged. This isn’t the result of an inadequate civics curriculum. It’s the result of inadequate civics. Our politics is a spectator sport, and a dull one at that. People are susceptible to believing anti-government, “deep state” conspiracies because they feel powerless and invisible.

This invisibility worried John Adams. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, he believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings:

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.7

Of course, Adams’s observations about the poor’s lack of free time apply as well to a large portion of today’s American middle class, which works longer and harder than its counterparts in other industrialized countries. Our emphasis on the marketplace over the public square is costing us.

Compared with today’s America, my public high school is a hotbed of democracy. Its many clubs and teams resemble what Alexis de Tocqueville describes in his 1835 classic Democracy in America. Like most high schools, the cafeteria is broken into cliques, and students must learn how to navigate among them, a great skill in a pluralistic society. Students are inoculated against demagoguery not so much by learning the three branches of government as by learning how to distinguish popularity from friendship and truth. The student-officeholder-to-student ratio is high. When they vote – and they vote in both class and schoolwide elections, and their turnout is near one hundred percent each election – they listen to candidates who are empowered to make changes that affect how students experience high school. Officeholders negotiate with the school administration to realize changes that are outside of their direct control. By the way, the civics classes and teachers are first rate. I saw all of this at my previous high school, too.

How does this high school civics experience apply to the civic responsibilities students face when they graduate from high school or college? We consider an adult a model citizen if she doesn’t dodge jury duty and votes once a year. Is that enough democracy? The students go from practicing democracy in school to becoming mere spectators as adults, and the school’s inoculation against demagogues, in many cases, loses its efficacy.

How can we transplant high school’s civic engagement to our adult world? For one thing, we should seek to shield politics from necessity. We can learn even from the Athenians’ practice of slavery if we understand the institution as a cruel means of conquering necessity, which for the Greeks constituted a private, pre-political sphere. Only Athenian men who had conquered economic necessity could participate in public life. A school tries to insulate students from some aspects of poverty – it institutes clothing drives and free and reduced lunch programs, for instance – in part for the same reason Athens allowed only free men in its polis – so its members can learn and participate without the distraction of necessity, and so the community can have the benefit of their talent and insights. If we believe in equality, then we could take steps to move the poor into the public realm, not because they otherwise wouldn’t be adequately represented but because they otherwise wouldn’t be seen – wouldn’t be fully human in our eyes, despite our idealistic protestations to the contrary. In the private realm, their poverty is measured by their lack of life’s necessities. In the public realm, though, their poverty is measured by their transparency and ultimately by our own commensurate civic poverty.

High school teaches us also to take responsibility for the local. We connect to government if we participate in it. What if we took steps to take responsibility for our subdivisions the way the Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are taking responsibility for their school community? What if the states ceded more power to the local governments, and the local governments more power to the precincts, boroughs, and subdivisions? What if the local mattered again? Edmund Burke may have gotten it right if one applies his idea of the local not to love but to civic friendship and engagement:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.8

We need a revival of local, civic engagement. Our republic, in other words, needs a deeper democracy.

Public space can be created by policy, as the Athenians created it, or by acts of faith, as the members of the French Resistance created it when, as Arendt puts it, “without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute wily-nilly a public realm where – without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe – all relevant business in the affairs of the country were transacted in deed and word.”9

Through action, these students in Kansas and Florida are creating public space. At the risk of sounding like a demagogue, I think we could learn more about democracy from our children.

Feature image: “Philly students #CounselorsNotCops rally” by Joe Piette. Above image: “Student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws” by Lorie Shaull. Both used by permission.

  1. Arendt, Hanna. Between Past and Future, at 166.
  2. Id. at 169.
  3. Id.
  4. Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 188.
  5. McInerney, Jeremy. “Athenian Courts and Justice.” The Age of Pericles. www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/age-of-pericles.html.
  6. McInerney, Jeremy. “Democracy and Government.” The Age of Pericles. www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/age-of-pericles.html.
  7. Adams, John. Discourses on Davila, Works, Boston, 1851, vol. V1, p. 239-40, 267. 279.
  8. Burke, Edmund, quoted in Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, at 359.
  9. Arendt, supra, at 3.

The crisis & the merely urgent

“The old forms rattle, and the new delay to appear.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, February 3, 1861

I remember, years ago, reading Bruce Chadwick’s 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See, a book about the eponymous year, and thinking: they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the war came, and swept them all away.

That book, like my news feed, covers missed clues as well as more reassuring events, such as marriages and economic trends. John Brown’s raid vied for public attention with a nasty economic recession, and I’d be a Monday-morning quarterback not to acknowledge that it must have been hard to sift through all of the merely important news to discern the momentous.

To make it more difficult, the former masks the latter. We’re used to our divisions on issues like women’s rights, gun control, taxes, and the government’s role in health care, and the news about them justifiably garners headlines. Florida’s school shooting last week revived the gun-control debate for a few days; the White House was relieved that the shooting turned the restive social media focus away from the Russia probe and its investigation into one administration threat to our very democracy.

We’re in something like what James Hurst once called the “clove of seasons”: our decades-long, divisive season is not yet dead, but our crisis season has not fully arrived. The political weather on any given day can feel more like chilly division than stormy crisis. It must have felt that way to Americans picking up the newspapers in 1858. And a lot of 1858 is like 2018 so far – a mid-term election year, a deeply divided and incendiary press, a host of conspiracy theories (including Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech), and there’s much evidence of food, drink, and sex. But the similarities aren’t the point. Rather, can we discern the times any better than our forebears given the equal portion of news from the old and new political seasons?

Generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe posit that, every four generations or so, America moves from an “unraveling era” to a civil crisis. It happened around 1858, and over a quarter-century ago Strauss and Howe argued that it would be happening now. The civil crisis, they said, would threaten our national existence. Our civil-crisis news concerns a president who often threatens our press’s freedom – not just by threatening to change the libel laws but also by cooperating with foreign disinformation campaigns – a president who often attacks our country’s intelligence services, a president who refuses to protect the integrity of our electoral system despite the clear and present danger four of our intelligence services conclude that Russia poses to it – indeed, he has attacked the system’s veracity himself by repeatedly claiming without evidence that almost three million illegal aliens voted against him in 2016 – and a president who has, by his own admission, obstructed justice – he has twice admitted to firing the FBI director in order to “fight back” against accusations concerning his and his campaign’s ties to a foreign enemy.

Over the last few generations we’ve had other scandals and cover-ups, of course – Nixon during what Strauss and Howe call our latest age of spiritual renewal and Clinton during the middle of our own unraveling age – but neither previous presidential scandal was as serious and, given the groundwork of our deepening political divisions, more likely to succeed. The members of our intelligence services are in my prayers day and night.

It would be hard to run for Congress this year on just the existential threats, of course. One may be tempted to run as an independent and emphasize the threats, but any attractive third-party movement based on such a strategy may split the vote and result in a Congress that would ignore the president’s threats to our government and Constitution as much as the current Congress does. Countries with united oppositions against would-be tyrants are much better at ridding themselves of them, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt report in their new book How Democracies Die.

One doesn’t have to wait for this fall’s elections, though, to hear the resurgence of the old partisan issues. Over the past few months, it has been difficult for certain “resistance” groups formed in response to the president’s election to maintain a crisis-era focus. In league with the political left, many of these groups now indiscriminately mix unravelling-era issues with crisis-era ones.

Besides, if we think our unravelling-era political opponents are worse than our crisis-era foreign enemies, then we may allow a would-be tyrant to use what James Madison ruefully calls in Federalist 48 “some favorable emergency” to consolidate power – for instance, to make the Justice Department and the FBI loyal to him alone. However, it may not take that much. Given our country’s preference twenty years ago for a strong economy over the well-founded accusations brought by Kenneth Starr against President Clinton, good economic times may give the administration as much cover as an emergency to quash the investigations into its Russia ties.

I acknowledge that, unless things get a lot worse, meeting the crisis probably won’t solve the problems that got us to this point. Indeed, if we don’t resolve our underlying problems, we may face a worse crisis in the future. But avoiding today’s crisis can’t help matters. Politics in the best sense is speech and action. We must practice what we can of politics, or it won’t exist.

I’m not suggesting a choice between the crisis and the merely urgent. It’s a matter of precedence: political existence comes before policy debate. Jesus once castigated the scribes and Pharisees for tithing “mint and anise and cumin” while omitting “the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” Jesus made clear that he wasn’t asking these religious leaders not to tithe: “These [weightier matters] ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” We neglect the weightier matters, too, by involving ourselves only in matters that in a less dangerous political age would be of the first moment.

Right now, political practice involves triage. We’re in need of political triage and the discernment it requires.

What are we fighting for?

Hannah Arendt doesn’t claim to be a philosopher, political or otherwise. I agree: no philosopher can be such a prose stylist. I read philosophy, too, but philosophy seems to be about tearing down and rebuilding foundations, and I stumble among all the forms and footers. I like the tone of Locke, Kant, and Hobbes, though. For all their precision and rhetorical rebar, I find a passion that gets below the frost line.

I’ve always read for tone even when comprehension escapes me. When I was thirteen, I read The Brothers Karamazov and Tom Jones for tone alone, I believe, because for years all I could remember of them was their respective tones. I liked the passion that pushed Dostoevsky’s tragic pen and Fielding’s comedic one, but I can’t say I could have analyzed them well, for what that would have been worth.

Arendt reads philosophers for tone, too. In a beautifully developed metaphor, she compares the tone in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, and the rest of the big-name philosophers since Machiavelli to “children whistling louder and louder because they are whistling in the dark.” These men are a few steps ahead of us in this darkness, she believes: they understand before we do the ramifications of the loss of tradition and authority (the darkness is this loss) in Western politics due to the separation of church and state, itself due (in part) to the scientific revolution. (This separation ended a successful marriage of princely power and Papal authority that had begun in the fourth century. Of course, this marriage itself was one of convenience, coming as it did when Rome was losing its political authority, and I think for most of a millennium there were separate bedrooms.) In Arendt’s darkness metaphor, the break didn’t scare our big-name philosophers, but the darkness’s silence did. What will life be like when the silence gives way? We live after “the thunder of the eventual explosion” – Stalin and Hitler, presumably – so we can “hardly listen any longer to the overloud, ‘pathetic’ style” in the philosophers’ writing.1

What’s even more frightening for Arendt than Hitler and Stalin is what gives rise to them and what is still not addressed. She finishes her metaphor: the thunderous exigencies of the recent past – and of the present, we may now add – have “also drowned the preceding ominous silence that still answers us whenever we dare to ask, not ‘What are we fighting against’ but ‘What are we fighting for?’”2 We are against bureaucracy, white supremacy, and plutocracy, nationalism and fascism, but confusion reigns whenever we ask ourselves the latter question, as we must. We have quick answers, but they’re the stuff of coalitions, not of foundations. To read Arendt is to join her in exploring the silence.

Arendt has taught me not to blame the philosophers, with the possible exception of Plato. (More on him, perhaps, in another post.) These men intuited the problem and explored solutions, all of which Arendt believes failed. But if one views their proposals as theories, and if one further defines “theories” as that term was understood before the scientific revolution (“a system of reasonably connected truths which as such had been not made but given to reason and the senses,” and not the later “working hypothesis, changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it ‘reveals’ but on whether it ‘works’”3), then the philosophers are helpful. I can’t blame Hegel for Hitler or Marx for Lenin and Stalin.

Nor can I blame Ivan on Smerdyakov, much as I still love The Brothers Karamazov. And I no longer blame Smerdiakov on German historicism, bad as it is. Arendt is a better political theorist than Dostoyevsky.

Arendt – not a philosopher but a political theorist – is the philosophers’ supporter and friend. (She was also, of course, for four years Martin Heidegger’s lover.) She takes in centuries of philosophy – and history and literature, concerning which she’s also no slouch – and explains how the philosophers call and answer one another over time and space. I would be as good at understanding these communications as I would be at decrypting whale talk. She may touch on current events – she may write a book on German and Soviet totalitarianism and another on Eichmann – but all of her books, topical or otherwise, synthesize theory and history and speak to our present political predicament better than do our own commentators.

Our news commentary is, of course, shallow and divided, and it’s worse for having for its never-changing subject such a figure as our president. If today’s political climate were as funny as those desperate sketches on SNL insist it is, I’d read Fielding again. Tom Jones, a protean force, illegally shoots a partridge in one chapter, and the entire next chapter is given over to Tom’s schoolmaster and his family’s friend contextualizing the killing within their narrow, longstanding, competing, and futile political worldviews. In the succeeding chapters, of course, Jones, oblivious to the subtleties of such debates, is off on more misadventures.

William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

Fielding’s two commentators, “Mr. Thwackum the Divine” and “Mr. Square the Philosopher,” roughly represent the views of today’s two-party system. One could read Tom Jones as an early warning about what Arendt calls “the rise of political movements intent upon replacing the party system.”4 And one can read Thwackum and Squire any time on any number of news outlets, left and right.

Arendt is above – or, rather, beneath – all that. She writes in the spirit of Goethe, who compared the West’s political world to a big city:

Like a big city, our moral and political world is undermined with subterranean roads, cellars, and sewers, about whose connection and dwelling conditions nobody seems to reflect or think; but those who know something of this will find it much more understandable if here or there, now or then, the earth crumbles away, smoke rises out of a crack, and strange voices are heard.5

If political philosophers create foundations, then Arendt inspects them. She nods when we’re together and I see more smoke.

I’ve had lots of literary companions over the years, mostly for my private sphere. Now that the night’s thunder is reverberating again in our public world, I’m finding new poets, historians, theorists, and spiritual writers to walk in the dark with me. My favorite literary companion, though, is Arendt.

If you take me up on reading Arendt – perhaps by giving up political commentary for Lent (and to that limited extent re-coupling church and state) – you might start with something more concrete and topical, such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann on Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and On Revolution (mostly about the United States, Arendt’s new home after escaping Nazi Germany). Then move to Between Past and Future, the scariest and most hopeful book I may have ever read outside of scripture. The chapter on education is hardly worth reading, but I’ve read much of the rest of it four or five times so far. I’ve started another collection of Arendt essays cobbled together twenty years ago by Jerome Kohn, Arendt’s literary trustee, entitled The Promise of Politics. Promise serves as an understudy for Between Past and Future, and it fills in a lot of the historical and philosophical blanks the more lively and daring Between Past and Future leaps over.

Finally, I can’t recommend Richard J. Bernstein’s book Why Read Hannah Arendt Now? enough, though I’ve never read it. It won’t be released until June. But considering the title and the author, it should be good. At only 110 pages, Why Read will be on my nightstand, the Lord willing, with Timothy Snyder’s diminutive On Tyranny, not to mention Arendt’s Between Past and Future, the holy scriptures, and by then who knows what else.

[Featured image: “Storm” by rod amaru. Used by permission.]

  1. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future (1968), at 27.
  2. Id.
  3. Id. at 39.
  4. Id. at 91.
  5. Goethe, quoted in Arendt, Hanna, The Promise of Politics (2005), at 41.

Arendt on walking out that door

Why do some recent writers lump Hannah Arendt with the liberals? She castigates liberalism. She thinks twentieth-century liberalism’s wish to further divorce religion from politics works against its goal of freedom. Liberals see any setback to progress as a threat of totalitarianism, she says, while conservatives are more apt to care about distinctions among authoritarian regimes, tyrannies, and totalitarian states — distinctions that she also cares a great deal about.

Arendt is not even a Lockean liberal. She understands classical liberalism as she does Christian and Jewish teaching: life is the highest ideal. But she calls concerns about life “pre-political” — they must be addressed before we walk out the door each morning into a public realm in which “not life but the world is at stake.”

Arendt is pre-Locke, a democrat — small “d” — and she loves democracy in what she considers its purest expression, the Greek polis. She doesn’t advocate a return to the polis, which she concedes would be impossible. (She doesn’t often advocate a return to anything, thankfully, though she wants history and philosophy clearly heard and understood as we move in and out of politics, searching for it, as we do, like a receiver trying to pull in a long-lost signal.) But she understands from the polis that freedom is possible in politics alone, and the best politics involves a public space in which free men and women work at living together.

In such politics wisdom is possible and reason, despite its severe limitations within a given individual, wins over majorities. Her understanding of reason is Madison’s, and she quotes Federalist 49 with approval: “The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated.”

But pure democracy may not be liberal. The Athenian polis, of course, was underwritten by slavery, the system that allowed husbands and slaveowners to leave their domestic tyrannies and walk into the polis as free men, and the equal of other free men, all unencumbered by necessity. Without slavery, is a polis — a community of equals who can dedicate time to political speech and action — possible? And in what sense today can we consider necessity “pre-political”?

Does the first nonpolitical use of the word “freedom” — Jesus’ reference in John 7 to being free from sin — suggest a way to a polis of sorts among those who, like Jesus, have chosen to live a life without fear of necessity? Is this one reason Arendt advocates mining the Gospels for a theory of faith that would spur political action against our grinding world systems? Or are we doomed to put up with our corrupted version of the polis in which only the rich can afford to use our politics as their plaything?

[Featured photograph by Giorgio Raffaelli. Used by permission.]