April 24, 2018
David Frum on his latest book: Trumpocracy
April 24, 2018
April 22, 2018
Is Trump’s election a step on the road to authoritarianism, or is he an anomaly? That depends—on us.
Are we on the road to authoritarianism? Donald Trump’s first year in office has prompted many observers to draw analogies to autocrats who have risen to power elsewhere, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Commentators across the spectrum have raised the alarm, including David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush; the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen; and Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die.
Trump certainly talks like an authoritarian and walks like an authoritarian. But at least thus far, he has not been able to rule like an authoritarian. That’s because his initiatives have met with resistance from the people, the states, and the courts—though, conspicuously, not from the Republican Party. Despite enjoying single-party control of both houses of Congress, Trump has succeeded in passing only one major piece of legislation, his tax reform bill, following multiple failures to repeal Obamacare. His administration is most often consumed by its own infighting and scandals. Much of what he has implemented has been via unilateral executive action, and can be reversed if and when a new president takes office. All in all, he has been a most incompetent authoritarian.
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in the Oval Office of the White House. | Photo: Rueters
Still, as we enter the second year of the Trump administration and look toward the midterms in November, a critical question remains: Is Donald Trump’s election a step on the road to authoritarianism, or is he an anomaly, likely to be remembered as a failed leader who unwittingly catalyzed a new progressive majority? Which narrative is the right one will ultimately be determined as much by us as by Trump himself.
The significance of Trump’s election should not be lightly discounted, as it reflects an emerging and troubling trend in democracies across the world. Populism—defined by Princeton Professor of Politics Jan-Werner Müller in What Is Populism? as anti-elitist, anti-pluralist, and asserting an exclusive claim to speak for “the people” while dismissing as enemies those who disagree—is on the rise. In the United States and Europe alike, we have seen increasing support for a politics that defines itself by what it is against: elites, racial minorities, immigrants, and, often, government itself. Trump’s populist authoritarian tendencies share disturbing parallels with those of Orbán in Hungary, the Alternative for Germany party, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, and the Five Star Movement in Italy, which gained a troubling one-third of the votes cast in the March 4 elections.
Like his European counterparts, Trump treats his base as the “real people” and dismisses people who disagree as enemies or traitors. He rails against checks and balances, including the courts and the press. He foments scapegoating, xenophobia, and racial and religious hatred—from the Muslim ban to his reluctance to condemn white supremacists. He evinces reckless disregard for truth; The Washington Post has counted more than 2,000 false statements in just his first year in office. And Trump has shown antipathy toward the rule of law—interfering with an ongoing criminal investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the presidential election.
These are actions we associate with despots, not democrats. If unchecked, such attitudes pose an existential threat to democracy. The fact that similar trajectories are evident in any number of European nations means that Trump cannot be dismissed as an outlier.
But there is a second, and perhaps equally plausible, account of Trump’s rise. Trump’s victory was extraordinarily unlikely. All the pollsters predicted Hillary Clinton would win. She actually did win the popular count, by nearly 3 million votes. Trump prevailed only because of the perverse Electoral College system, which gives disproportionate weight to the less populous states and to rural areas. Trump was not the recipient of a vast new wave of conservative votes. He received a smaller proportion of the popular vote than Mitt Romney four years earlier, and only 0.4 percent more than John McCain received in 2008. But Hillary Clinton received only 48.2 percent of the popular vote, compared to Obama’s 52.9 percent in 2008 and 51.1 percent in 2012.
The Republicans did not so much win the election as the Democrats, by not turning out, lost it—at least in part because, believing that Clinton would win, too many of them did not vote. Moreover, it’s possible that had FBI director James Comey not publicly reopened the criminal investigation of Clinton’s e-mail server days before the election, just when the Access Hollywood tape seemed to have killed Trump’s campaign, Trump would have lost. Trump quite likely could not have won before the e-mail investigation was reopened, and almost certainly would have lost any day after November 8, as those who stayed home out of confidence that Clinton would win without their votes would have shown up if they knew it might make a difference—as so many have shown up at countless protests ever since. In retrospect, there appears to have been about one week in 2016 when Trump could have won. Unluckily for us, we held the election that week. But his victory is more windfall than mandate.
Trump entered office with the lowest approval rating in history. And his approval rating has fallen since. Far larger crowds came out for the Women’s March, to protest his election, than showed up for his inauguration. Trump has shown little aptitude for the job, spending much of his time golfing, tweeting, and watching cable news shows, while the White House, embroiled in scandal, has had the highest staff turnover ratio in recorded memory. He and his campaign remain the subjects of a major criminal investigation that, despite his protestations that it’s a witch hunt, has already led to indictments and convictions of high-level campaign officials and aides.
So, should we be deathly afraid that our President shows troubling parallels to Viktor Orbán or Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, or should we be confident that this, too, shall pass? The proper response is neither panic nor denial. We are witnessing a significant and disturbing phenomenon, across the United States and Europe—but at the same time, Trump’s governance is chaotic, and his hold on authority is tenuous. Most important, we have the resources to resist, and if we choose to deploy them, we can succeed not just in forestalling the forces of populist authoritarianism but in reinforcing constitutional democracy and building a progressive majority.
Framing an appropriate response requires first that we understand not only the mechanisms by which populist authoritarians wrest and maintain control, but also the sources of their appeal. Although he died in 2010, before the full force of today’s populism had emerged, Tony Judt, the eminent public intellectual and historian of Europe, offers valuable guidance on both questions. In one of his last books, Ill Fares the Land, he gave as good a summary of the causes of the current politics as I have found anywhere:
We have entered an age of fear. Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Insecurity born of terrorism, of course; but also, and more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of our daily life.
Globalization, automation, rapid technological advances, climate change, the prevalence and easy availability of increasingly powerful weapons, the surveillance state—all of these forces can seem beyond our control and deeply unsettling. But of all these causes of insecurity, the resentment born of widening class inequality is perhaps the most corrosive. The United States and Britain, two of the Western democracies where populist causes have actually won elections, also happen to be the two democracies with the largest gaps between the rich and poor. Deregulation and tax “reform” in both countries have led to wealth gaps unseen since the late 19th-century’s Gilded Age. In 1982, the average member of the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans had a net worth of $230 million. In 2016, the average member was worth $6 billion, over 10 times the 1982 average after adjusting for inflation. Today, the 20 richest Americans have more wealth between them than the bottom half of the national population—some 152 million people.
According to Judt, with this degree of inequality come multiple pathologies. He argued that infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, incarceration rates, mental illness, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teen pregnancy, illegal drug use, personal indebtedness, and anxiety are “more marked” in Britain and the United States than in continental Europe. The biggest cost is in trust, an essential component of a healthy body politic. If people don’t trust their fellow citizens, it will be extraordinarily difficult to convince them to support the public good over private self-interest.
The wealth gap lends fuel to other divides: between black and white, rural and urban, citizen and immigrant, educated and uneducated, Democrat and Republican. In 1960, 4 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans said they would be displeased if their child married someone from the other party. In 2010, 33 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans felt that way. The media often make it worse. According to former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, “If you stray the slightest from the far right, you get hit by the conservative media.” And as Richard Hofstadter argued in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, when citizens grow anxious about their social status, identity, and sense of belonging, it leads to “overheated, over-suspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic” political styles. Which pretty much describes Donald Trump.
Yet we are also increasingly interconnected, and the problems we face, probably more than ever before, demand collective solutions. What is needed, as Judt recognized in 2010, is an ethics and politics that rejects untrammeled private interest and affirms the critical importance of concern for one another. Judt argued that social democracy—the notion that the state bears an obligation to protect its citizens from hunger, homelessness, and poverty—was the necessary corrective to a world otherwise devoted to free markets. But social democracy is not sufficient. A commitment to human rights is also essential, as these, too, are tools by which authoritarianism can be resisted. Both of these ideals, one born of the progressive response to the industrial era and the other rising from the ashes of World War II, identify basic commitments owed to all human beings by virtue of their being human. As such, they are the antithesis of populism’s division of society into “real people” and “enemies”—and the antidote to authoritarian abuse.
If social democracy is the ideal we must uphold, and human rights the legal and moral obligation we must fulfill, bipartisanship and multilateralism are the methods we must pursue. We need bridges, not walls; constructive engagement, not Brexit; global dialogue, not isolationism; efforts to unite, not divide. Europe and the United States both learned this lesson in the wake of World War II. In an essay Judt wrote near the end of his life, he quoted Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a former French diplomat and UN official, who wrote, “Having lost the comfort of our geographical boundaries, we must in effect rediscover what creates the bond between humans that constitute[s] a community.” Judt argued that European nations had begun to do just that. He conceded that “they don’t always do it very well.… But something is better than nothing; and nothing is just what we shall be left with if the fragile international accords, treaties, agencies, laws, and institutions that we have erected since 1945 are allowed to rot and decline.”
Skeptics might ask whether it is possible to revive a commitment to such public-regarding virtues in a world in which anxiety, division, and hate seem to be ascendant. Doesn’t Trump’s election illustrate that these values lack currency in today’s political arena?
The fate of Europe in the wake of World War II, a subject about which Judt wrote in his magisterial history, Postwar, offers at least some reason for hope. In the first half of the 20th century, some 60 million Europeans were killed in war or at the hands of states. Yet in the second half of the century, Europe developed a common market, a political union, a rough consensus in support of social democracy, and a supranational court of human rights. And most of Eastern Europe eventually saw a peaceful transition to democracy. There has been backsliding in the 21st century, to be sure, but the larger point is that the politics of division and hate can themselves spark a reaction that underscores the need for unity and the pursuit of common ends.
Disasters, in short, sometimes bring people together. And as disastrous as Trump’s election was, it has also prompted citizens to stand together in defense of the very public-regarding values to which Trump is so blind. The Women’s Marches, the town-hall meetings to defend Obamacare, the countless protests on behalf of Dreamers, the #MeToo movement, and the high-school students demanding gun control after the Parkland shooting all reflect renewed civic engagement—driven by concern for the rights and welfare of others. They show that we can do better.
The response to Trump’s Muslim ban is illustrative. In targeting Muslim foreign nationals in the name of our security, Trump followed a tried and true path. Inroads on foreigners’ rights don’t generally provoke widespread protest from citizens, as shown by the limited public opposition when George W. Bush rounded up thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But this time was different: Americans responded to Trump’s ban by streaming to airports across the country to demonstrate—not in defense of their own rights, but to advance the rights of others. Lawyers filed suit in courts across the country on behalf of people held at the border. University presidents, the leading science organizations, the most successful corporations in Silicon Valley, and a legion of former national-security officials all signed petitions, letters, and amicus briefs opposing the ban. Among the ban’s critics were former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, former vice president Dick Cheney, and former torture lawyer John Yoo. By targeting Muslim foreigners, Trump had succeeded in uniting America—against himself.
The courts thus far have invalidated all three versions of the ban that Trump has issued. The third version, struck down by two federal appellate courts, will be heard by the Supreme Court in April, with a decision expected by June. Whether or not the latest iteration is ultimately struck down, Americans showed the president that they would stand up to his unconstitutional actions.
In Ill Fares the Land, Judt singled out the naked pursuit of self-interest as the root of what ails us. If Donald Trump stands for anything, it is that. But Trump’s election has provoked a response that rejects that ethic for a commitment to the common good, akin to what Judt saw in the best of Europe’s postwar developments. Like Europeans responding to World War II, many Americans reacting to Trump have placed unity over division and the public good over pure private interest. If political candidates can tap into that spirit, we can emerge from this period a stronger nation.
Judt identified the United States with the pursuit of private interest, Europe with an effort to serve the public good. He opened a 2005 essay with a discussion of coffee on the two continents:
Consider a mug of American coffee. It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheap—and refills are free. Being largely without flavor, it can be diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact.
In this account, the United States is about efficiency, consumption, and profitable mass production—the market rules. Aesthetic and other qualities not subject to quantification or franchising agreements are discounted or ignored. Europe, by contrast, is focused on human interaction, the aesthetic, the good, perhaps even to the point of ignoring basic economics. What Judt celebrated in the Italian tradition was coffee as an everyday ritual that brings people together, that emphasizes their common interest, not just a drug imbibed in large quantities by individuals pushing ever onward to advance their private interests.
But note that in this description Italian coffee is not a drink but an “artifact.” An artifact, of course, is an item of historical interest. If we are to extricate ourselves from the populist moment, we need to ensure that human rights, social democracy, and cooperation—three key features of postwar Europe—do not become artifacts, of merely historical interest, but remain living, collective ends.
As Starbucks Grande Macchiato has infiltrated the world, so, too, the American pursuit of private markets and self-interest has also spread. If Judt is right, it may be just the American glorification of the market, and the growing wealth gap it has spawned, that has sown the virulent populism so prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic today. But at the same time, millions of Americans have chosen to act in defense of liberty and equality. If we continue to stand together for justice, we may well look back upon Trump himself as an artifact, a historical object lesson in how not to govern.
*David Cole, national legal director of the ACLU, is legal affairs correspondent for The Nation and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author, most recently, of Engines of Liberty: How Citizen Movements Succeed (April 2016).
April 21, 2018
Truth is good. Truth is great. Truth is so much better than loyalty that the former F.B.I. director James Comey wrote a book about it. Much of the coverage of Comey’s new memoir, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” has focussed on the insults its author has hurled at President Donald Trump, and on Comey’s narrative of how he handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, but these two topics make up relatively small parts of the book. The true subject of “A Higher Loyalty” is the goodness of James Comey. The premise is that a man whose value is truth is superior to a man whose value is loyalty, and Comey’s understanding of “truth” is as basic as Trump’s understanding of “loyalty”: he believes that there is such a thing as “all the truth” that exists outside of history, context, and judgment.
Dishonest men who value loyalty bracket the book. Early in the story, Comey narrates his career in the New York U.S. Attorney’s Office that was working to break up La Cosa Nostra. He describes vicious killers who demanded and promised loyalty but were rotten to the core—not so much, one senses in Comey’s telling, because they killed, as because they lied to one another about the killings, Mafia rules, and drugs. Two hundred pages later, he describes the now-infamous February, 2017, White House dinner during which the recently inaugurated President of the United States asked the F.B.I. director for his loyalty. Comey rightly points out that Trump has the style and the substance of a Mafia boss.
In between, Comey marches through life telling the truth. He falters at first: when he was a law student at the University of Chicago, he confesses, he sometimes fibbed about having played basketball in college. But then he found his way to truth, and even wrote to his former law-school classmates confessing the lie. (They seem to have known all along.) From that point on, truth was his sole guiding light.
In a country whose politics have been hijacked by lying liars, a man of truth has a palpable appeal. If only we had a leader who told the truth! The longing is so strong that Michiko Kakutani, the former book critic for the Times and the author of a forthcoming book called “The Death of Truth,” devoted six paragraphs of her recent review of Comey’s book to comparing Trump and Comey. One has “autocratic instincts,” while the other is “an apostle of order and the rule of law.” One “uses language incoherently,” while the other is so devoted to truth telling that when he gave a tie decorated with tiny Martini glasses to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, he made sure to note that it was a regift. One is a narcissist, while the other wrote his college thesis on the religious ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. The reader might wonder how exactly the last pair of characteristics stand in opposition to each other, or, indeed, who but a narcissist would consider it appropriate to inform the reading public that he not only regifted a tie but informed the recipient that it was a regift. But this side-by-side comparison of Trump and Comey—which his book all but explicitly invites—has the peculiar effect of highlighting their key similarities. Both are anti-political politicians, each of whom has a single, simple solution for how to run things.
One should wonder about the argument for the primacy of a single moral value, even if that value is truth over loyalty. Part of Comey’s zeal is prosecutorial: he headed an agency that loves to punish people for the coverup rather than the crime. For Comey, this is principle rather than method. As a U.S. attorney, he writes, he made sure that Martha Stewart went to jail—not, he stresses, because she engaged in insider trading of a kind that would have warranted but a warning, but because she lied about it. As the F.B.I. director, he hoped that his agents would catch Hillary Clinton in a lie about her e-mail servers. By this time, investigators had concluded that the use of Clinton’s private server had caused no damage, but Comey makes it clear that his primary concern and objective was to catch the former Secretary of State in a lie. The pursuit of the prosecutable lie has been a cornerstone of F.B.I. strategy, especially in its post-2001 incarnation as an anti-terrorism agency, and Comey wastes no time reflecting on its tenuous relationship to actual crime, or actual justice.
As Comey walks the reader through American history since 9/11, truthtelling is his only lens. It’s not always a good fit—it’s not clear, for example, how illegal surveillance or torture were lies, exactly, or how these crimes could have been remedied by telling the truth. By the time the story gets to the Black Lives Matter movement—which was gaining momentum when Comey was serving as director of the F.B.I., under President Obama—the moral vacuousness of an ahistoric focus on facts becomes painfully clear. Comey positions himself as the good guy because he can “tell the truth” about “both sides”: the Black Lives Matter activists and the police. In two different speeches in 2015, Comey discussed what he saw as communities of color and the police pushing each other away. “Each time somebody interprets the hashtag #blacklivesmatter as anti-law enforcement, one line moves away,” he said in a speech in Chicago, describing police and African-Americans as two arcing lines. “And each time somebody interprets the hashtag #policelivesmatter as anti-black, the other line moves away.”
During this period, Obama met with Comey to try to explain to him how his comments were coming across to black communities, including his use of the term “weed and seed” when referring to poor black neighborhoods suffering from high levels of crime. (In the 2015 speech in Chicago, Comey said, of his past work as a prosecutor in Richmond, Virginia, “We worked hard to weed those neighborhoods by removing those who were strangling it, so that seeds could be planted to allow good things to grow and fill that space . . . We did this work because we believed that all lives matter.”) Comey writes, “I hadn’t taken the time to consider how the term ‘weed and seed’—one we had been using in law enforcement for decades—might strike people, especially black people at a challenging time.” But he persisted in asserting the equivalence of “both sides”: if Comey had to give up “weed and seed,” then Obama should give up “mass incarceration,” which, Comey said, was offensive to the police: “The term was both inaccurate and insulting to a lot of good people in law enforcement who cared deeply about helping people trapped in dangerous neighborhoods.” This passage is one of the most tone-deaf and self-absorbed in a book characterized by tone-deafness and self-absorption.
The book’s subtitle contains the third keyword of the book: leadership. The words “leader” or “leadership” show up two hundred and fourteen times, to a hundred and ten instances of “truth” or “true.” It’s a hollow word: Comey thinks that a good leader is someone like his first boss at a grocery store, who didn’t lose his temper even when Comey broke a price gun or spilled milk. He thinks that he himself was a good boss because, as F.B.I. director, he coerced his employees into dressing more casually, directing both men and women to attend his morning meetings in shirtsleeves. A good leader has a sense of humor—Comey points out that both George W. Bush and Obama could laugh, while Trump does not. A good leader can listen: Bush wasn’t great at this, Obama was a master, and Trump simply doesn’t do it. All of this is undoubtedly accurate, but one wonders if a good leader—especially the leader of a country, this country—might also need vision, beliefs, values, principles, judgments.
In one striking passage, Comey describes telling F.B.I. agents that they need to get enough sleep because “when you sleep, your brain is actually engaged in the neurochemical process of judgment. It is mapping connections and finding meaning among all the data you took in during the day.” It’s a telling detail—this idea that judgment is the unconscious processing of data—and it seems characteristic of a technocratic understanding of political leadership that Comey and Trump in fact share. Comey’s conviction that a man who faces, discloses, and processes the whole truth is the best leader, is surely more appealing than Trump’s belief that a man who can run a company can manage a country. But both are equally devoid of substance.
Indeed, Trump and Comey appear to share a fundamental perception of reality. Comey begins his book with a description of surviving a break-in as a teen-ager, and frames his career in law enforcement as a reaction to what is apparently constant and mortal danger. He claims that anyone who has ever stared down the barrel of a gun sees the world in similarly catastrophic terms. (I feel compelled to say this is not a true statement.) He and Trump are looking through the same window at a terrifying, us-versus-them world. Comey is simply making the argument that, amid American carnage, a truthful man makes a better protector than a loyal one.
April 13, 2018
THINKING WITHOUT A BANISTER
Essays in Understanding, 1953-1975
By Hannah Arendt
Edited by Jerome Kohn
569 pp. Schocken Books. $40.
What is the relationship between thinking, acting and historical consciousness? How do we preserve a spirited intellectual autonomy that yet includes enough sense of the past to contextualize and resist those power-grabbers who would bamboozle the public with their own fun house versions of truth? Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and political theorist, was always acutely concerned with questions of how to make thought and knowledge matter in the struggle against injustice, never more so than in the last two decades of her life, when the rich medley of the material collected in “Thinking Without a Banister” was created. “What really makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other kind of dictatorship to rule is that the people are not informed,” she remarked in a 1973 interview. “If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore — and rightly so, because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, to be ‘re-lied,’ so to speak.” A lying government pursuing shifting goals has to ceaselessly rewrite its own history, leaving people not only dispossessed of their ability to act, “but also of their capacity to think and to judge,” she declared. “And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
She’d seen this process firsthand. Born in Germany in 1906, a Jew by birth and an iconoclast by temperament, she fled her native country after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, first for Czechoslovakia, then Switzerland, then Paris, where she was living in 1937 when the Nazis officially eradicated her citizenship so that she became stateless. Some of her most potent work reflects on the consequences of eliminating people’s national identity. Deprivation of citizenship should be classified as a crime against humanity, Arendt argued, because most legal protections are now conferred through functioning state governments. “Some of the worst recognized crimes in this category have … not incidentally, been preceded by mass expatriations,” she wrote, adding that the state’s ability to sentence someone to death was minor compared with its right to denaturalization, since the second could put the subject entirely beyond the pale of the law. Such passages make for particularly chilling reading at a moment when America has begun rescinding the temporary protected status of thousands of longtime residents, threatening to deport them to their countries of origin, some of which labor under severe economic disadvantages and sociopolitical strains, where their rights and safety cannot be assured.
A year after the fall of France, in the spring of 1941, Arendt emigrated to the United States. Through her prolific essays, she began building a reputation as a penetrating thinker with an urbane and unceremonious style that she would attribute to her zest for “pearl diving” in history. Tradition having been shattered by the calamitous events of the 20th century, she saw her task as plucking the precious bits from time’s waves and subjecting them to her critical thinking, without pretending they could be melded back into any grand, systemic whole. She warned her audience that if they attempted to practice her “technique of dismantling,” they had to be “careful not to destroy the ‘rich and strange,’ the ‘coral’ and the ‘pearls,’ which can probably be saved only as fragments.”
In New York, Arendt’s intellectual acuity and conversational punch swiftly translated into social cachet. After meeting her at a dinner party in the mid-1940s, the literary critic Alfred Kazin was smitten: “Darkly handsome, bountifully interested in everything, this 40-year-old German refugee with a strong accent and such intelligence — thinking positively cascades out of her in waves,” he wrote in his diary.
Arendt’s sheer delight in intellectual speculation counterpoints her intense ethical commitment to thinking as a form of political engagement.
Though she would only fully embrace the principle of amor mundi, love of the world, after contending philosophically with the cataclysm of World War II, the insatiable curiosity was there early on. “I believe it is very likely that men, if they ever should lose their ability to wonder and thus cease to ask unanswerable questions, also will lose the faculty of asking the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded,” she declared in one address. Arendt’s sheer delight in intellectual speculation counterpoints her intense ethical commitment to thinking as a form of political engagement.
The relationship was sometimes uneasy and often controversial, most famously in the case of her account of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, in which she coined the term “the banality of evil.” Watching Eichmann testify in his glass booth, Arendt became convinced that he was, above all, an inarticulate buffoon whose wicked deeds resulted from his participation in a bureaucratic structure that dissipated the sense of personal responsibility, and deadened the capacity for cognition. Gershom Scholem, the pioneering scholar of kabbalah, was one of many public intellectuals who felt that Arendt had lost track of the human reality of the Holocaust amid the scintillating twists of her argument. She had failed to reckon with the raw pleasure that playing God over others could afford, and so had overemphasized the role of systemically enforced thoughtlessness in preparing individuals to execute enormous crimes. Recent historical scholarship suggests that Arendt did, indeed, underestimate Eichmann’s ideological passion for National Socialism: Much of his clownish bumbling in Jerusalem may have been a conscious, self-exculpating performance. But her core insight into how even mediocrities can be institutionally benumbed and conscripted into heinous projects remains fertile.
Some of the work anthologized in this volume, edited by Jerome Kohn, comprises Arendt’s responses to current events, like her analysis of the televised 1960 national conventions, in which Kennedy and Nixon were the principal rivals, offering a rather surprising defense of the onscreen experience as a revealing format for viewing those “imponderables of character and personality which make us decide, not whether we agree or disagree with somebody, but whether we can trust him.” Other essays provide deep conceptual etymologies of historical events, key figures and schools of thought. These include her profoundly enlightening study of how Karl Marx fits into the long Western political tradition and her detailed analysis of the challenge that the 1956 Hungarian revolution posed to the Russian military and propagandistic juggernaut. The most dynamic pieces here are Arendt’s interviews, in which the sweep and depth of her ruminations are layered with the caustic wit and engagé appeal of her voice. For all Arendt’s opposition to totalitarianism — and her willingness to implicate Marx in the development of certain totalitarian movements — Arendt remained unabashedly enamored of Marx’s proposition that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world. … The point, however, is to change it.” She relished his determination to wrest higher thought from the supine realm of the Greek symposium and thrust it into the ring of political activism, challenging, as she wrote, “the philosophers’ resignation to do no more than find a place for themselves in the world, instead of changing the world and making it ‘philosophical.’” For Arendt, thinking that helped advance the cause of human freedom entailed a form of relentlessly critical examination that imperiled “all creeds, convictions and opinions.” There could be no dangerous thoughts simply because thinking itself constituted so dangerous an enterprise.
Almost every essay in this book contains “pearls” of Arendt’s tonically subversive thinking, and many of her observations push readers to think harder about the language in which political activity is conducted. Reflecting on the numerous allusions to “reason of state” that crept into White House discourse after Watergate, she notes how the term became synonymous with national security. “National security now covers everything,” she commented, including “all kinds of crime. For instance, ‘the president has a right’ is now read in the light of ‘the king can do no wrong.’” This is no longer a matter of justifying particular crimes, she warns, but rather concerns “a style of politics which in itself is criminal.” The indictment chimes with her taxonomy of the tyrant in an essay titled “The Great Tradition”: “He pretends to be able to act completely alone; he isolates men from each other by sowing fear and mistrust between them, thereby destroying equality together with man’s capacity to act; and he cannot permit anybody to distinguish himself, and therefore starts his rule with the establishment of uniformity, which is the perversion of equality.”
April 8, 2018
In Defense of Liberal Education
New York: W.W. Norton, 2015
208 pp., $16.00 hc
by Marvin Lansverk, PhD
Professor of English Literature
Montana State University Bozeman
“I understand that we need a certain number of philosophers, and I understand that it’s important to have a certain number of people who study history. But we’re not currently creating a lot of jobs in those areas. So we have to look at what curriculums we really need…. People who are getting degrees in philosophy and history, God bless them, it’s wonderful that they’re critical thinkers. But now they’re going back to a college of technology to get a life skill to get a job.” —Brian Schweitzer, Governor of Montana, 2005-2013 (Hechinger Report, 27 June 2012)—Marvin Lansverk
Perhaps I should start with a bias warning: I went to a liberal arts university. I teach English literature. I like the liberal arts, whether as a major or part of a broad-based undergraduate education. And I’m dismayed by the recent rhetorical turn in the media, along with legislative and policy initiatives, away from the liberal arts—as if they are suddenly passé or something to be feared your kid will become interested in, like drugs, especially when such expressions are accompanied by statements implying that the liberal arts don’t lead to employable skills. As an antidote, I like to read defenses of liberal education, whether John Henry Newman’s nineteenth century classic The Idea of a University, or articles from current CEOs explaining why they actually prefer to hire liberal arts majors, or statistics that show that the salaries of liberal arts majors stack up favorably against other majors, or books like this latest one by Fareed Zakaria, someone with a real job—if being a public intellectual, editor of Foreign Affairs and of Newsweek and Time, a TV host and commentator, a Washington Post columnist, a college professor, and an influential writer count as having a real job. Thus even before I picked it up, I expected I would like Zakaria’s recent In Defense of a Liberal Education, and I do: but not just because it validates my own views. Actually I disagree with a number of his views and am bothered by some of his analysis, which seems overly glib. But what I especially like about Zakaria’s modest book is that it isn’t simply another jeremiad about the ills of American higher education, nor an uninformed call for radical changes which too often tend to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, nor an ideological rant with more ideology than information. Instead, it’s a welcome call for balance, written with balance: balancing data, personal stories, social policy, and an understanding of the history of liberal education in America and the multiple purposes of higher education, all accomplished in the context of Zakaria’s deep knowledge of the present social and political global landscape.
The book started as a commencement address defending liberal education to the 2014 graduating class of Sarah Lawrence College—certainly preaching to the choir. Ten months later, the well-received address was expanded into this book, the best audience for which now might be said to be the skeptics, or cold-cruel-world realists who wonder if our students still have time for Chaucer when our global competitiveness is at stake. To them, Zakaria says yes, the liberal arts matter, using his own life story as an important perspective on the material, making the book partly a personal memoir, partly a history of higher education, and partly a call for more informed and data-driven education policies, especially by our leaders who should know better, whether President Obama’s “I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” or the governors from Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin with their recent attempts to de-fund the liberal arts at their state universities, with Rick Scott of Florida’s: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
Zakaria’s response is this book. It is actually a collection of six essays (the six chapters of the book) with a fairly broad focus. But what ties the chapters together is Zakaria’s personal story and his ongoing ethical authority on the subject: as someone who draws daily on his liberal education and the life skills it imparted.
Chapter One, “Coming to America,” tells Zakaria’s personal story, of being raised in India in its education system focused on memorization, content, and tests (steering children, boys especially, almost exclusively into science and business), then almost on a lark finding himself applying to and getting into Yale in the 1980s (when liberal arts institutions in the U.S. were barely on the radar of Indians). Zakaria then tells how at Yale he discovered the power of a liberal education and through it also discovered his future path in international politics and economics, majoring in history (subsequently earning a PhD in Government from Harvard). What makes the story powerful and contemporary is that it’s a version of the classic “American” story, in its Global 2.0 incarnation, of an individual making good through hard work, determination, and exposure to the American system of higher education. And the story itself is a necessary reminder to policymakers now, appropriately worried about American global competitiveness and statistics showing us falling behind in the educational attainment of our population. And the moral of the story is that our education system, with all its problems, is still the envy of the world. And still producing remarkable results.
Chapter Two, “A Brief History of Liberal Education,” though brief, covers a two thousand year history, starting with the Greeks, dashing through the establishment of medieval universities, with a glance at Britain, to an examination of the American system, with a focus on Harvard’s curricular innovations, the rise of electives, and the emergence of our standard liberal arts curricula—with a core curriculum, a major, and a healthy dose of exploration and free choice. Zakaria’s theme throughout is that societies have always struggled with balancing competing needs in their education systems, that curricula in this country have always been undergoing changes, that they aren’t frozen in the medieval past (which some critics continue to claim). Nevertheless, Zakaria recognizes that improvements still need to be made: especially in increasing the scientific literacy of all students. Zakaria again offers a personal example of change, of Yale’s recent joint venture (where Zakaria had become a trustee) with the National University of Singapore to establish a new liberal arts institution in Asia, Yale-NUS College, which opened its doors Fall 2013. Recognizing Singapore’s own need to develop more of the kinds of creativity and critical thinking and entrepreneurship characteristic of American higher education—and even more of the self discovery—it has made a recent bet on more liberal education, not less.
The value of this Chapter 2 actually lies in its brevity. It isn’t that the history Zakaria tells here is new, and it is developed in far less detail than in the sources that Zakaria draws upon (carefully citing the sources in this first book since his own citation scandal in 2012 that we have seen affect other public intellectuals similarly writing at speed with research staffs, and therefore sometimes not as careful about citations as the standards of academic research require). But overviews have their role as well. And many current skeptics or other busy people paying only occasional attention to higher education debates aren’t going to take the time to read the comprehensive histories of the liberal arts (such as Wesleyan’s president, Michael Roth’s 2014 erudite Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which Zakaria also cites). So there is value in quickly retelling the story, reminding us of how we got here, and reminding us what the liberal in liberal education means, which seems especially important for those made queasy by having any association with a term that also serves as a political label as well (Zakaria’s own political views have been variously characterized as centrist, moderate, liberal, and/or conservative). In this case, Zakaria reminds readers that the liberal in liberal education has its roots in a two thousand year history of liberation and freedom—and not in 21st century American politics.
Chapter Three, “Learning to Think,” finally gets down to the business of defending liberal education. And the lead-in is the question: but what about jobs? Thus, the arguments Zakaria makes become both philosophical and practical at the same time, matching the balance that characterizes the book. His specific arguments why liberal education must continue to be valued aren’t new, but the examples and topical asides are. In brief, what liberal education imparts, and what it did for him personally, is three things: 1) it teaches you to write, 2) to think, and 3) to learn. This bald summary isn’t that interesting but the balance of examples, anecdotes, quotes from CEOs and data that Zakaria compiles makes for compelling reading. And one of the more interesting threads Zakaria pulls on is the paradox of international test scores—such as the, the Program for International Assessment (PISA), on which the U.S. and other nations with educational systems more like ours tend to do poorly on, revealing an increasing lack of preparation and competence in a variety of subjects by our students, yet whose results don’t track with actual global competitiveness and success. While a highly complex issue, one lesson—relevant in an age of increasing testing regimes—is that not everything that matters can be measured. Quoting Singapore’s former minister of education comparing our system to theirs, Zakaria reports Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s comparative comments: “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well—like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are areas where Singapore must learn from America.”
Chapter 4, “The Natural Aristocracy,” is an eclectic chapter continuing Zakaria’s theme of meritocracy and capitalism as effective and necessary backdrops for our education system (he takes the term natural aristocracy from Thomas Jefferson, indicating a meritocratic system based on talent rather than birth, wealth, and privilege). And he starts with a meditation on the founding fathers and especially on Ben Franklin as the poster child for the American system. Interestingly, this is also the chapter where Zakaria addresses some of the problems bedeviling higher education, including costs that continue to outpace inflation and the continued cost shifting from public sources to individuals, leading to increased individual debt. Zakaria doesn’t have a single solution to offer, but—experienced in the power of mass media to reach all parts of the globe as he is—he, like many others, is fascinated by the promises of technology and distance delivery of courses, especially MOOCs (still new enough to require an identification of the acronym: Massive Open Online Courses). Still in their infancy, they already are expanding access to information, to great teachers, and to American liberal education. One thing Zakaria finds interesting about MOOCs is that students worldwide aren’t just seeking out engineering and technical courses in this online environment; they are also interested in the liberal arts.
Chapters 5 and 6, “Knowledge and Power,” and “In Defense of Today’s Youth,” turn to even broader subjects, though are each short chapters. Chapter 5 addresses the power of knowledge to change the world, and Chapter 6 is Zakaria’s attempt to address the value of a liberal education in developing the individual life of the mind and ourselves as human beings. Though worthy subjects, both read a bit more like newspaper columns than book chapters at this point—and it’s not surprising that the most frequently referenced source in these latter chapters is New York Times columnist David Brooks, whom Zakaria sees himself in dialogue with here.
Ultimately, it is dialogue that Zakaria wants to promote with this book—informed dialogue. And his method of provoking it is to provide a “zoomed out” Google Earth view of American higher education, which—to keep the map metaphor going a bit—functions as a kind of Mercator projection with the importance of liberal education at the center. And as such, it is successful, bearing the strengths and weaknesses of such an intent. It makes effective use of Zakaria’s compelling success story, making his story emblematic of our times; it provides a good overview of issues in higher education; it provides a useful survey of many recent good books on the same subject (from Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012), to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010), and Excellent Sheep (2014)—all previously reviewed in Montana Professor, the latter in this issue); it’s written in a breezy, quick-reading journalistic prose, and it provides much concrete data to counter the recent public narrative that we’ve outgrown or can no longer afford our childish preoccupation with liberal education. As for its weaknesses, like an unfocused essay, perhaps, the book tries to do too much, thereby having to cover territory too quickly, occasionally relying on too many generalizations in the meantime. As such, it’s not always possible to tell what the generalizations mean (e.g., “Bill Gates was one of the first larger-than-life private figures in contemporary America”). Also, like many books on higher education, there’s a tendency to focus on and continue our culture’s obsession with our so called “elite” or “best schools” when much of the information is actually relevant to the whole education infrastructure—including the Montana University System. And sometimes Zakaria wraps up a survey of complex issues with a simple question as a conclusion, such as “Is this so bad?” That method, however, is a good indication of the purpose of the book. Its focus is on common sense, from someone with an uncommon biography, who is criticizing what is becoming too common: taking for granted the importance of a liberal education in this country that not only can we afford, but that we can’t afford to do without.
[The Montana Professor 25.2, Spring 2015 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>%5D