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Pensions and Pariahs

My post on the Public Pension Crisis has found an intriguing embrace. It has been taken up with gusto by a series of good government groups who are sounding the alarms about the pension crisis.  I am heartened they responded so favorably to the essay.  Indeed, I have to admit I am pleasantly surprised that so many well meaning people are trying to sound the alarm about the danger unfunded pensions pose. Many of the commentators added important comments of their own, and are worth reading: State Budget Solutions, Republic of Costa Mesa, and Statehouse News Online.

One unified theme of the responses is that they sought to enlist the Arendt Center as a non-partisan or left-wing authority. Repeatedly, these groups emphasized that the fact that the Hannah Arendt Center was writing about the issue of pensions was evidence that the pension crisis is not simply an issue for right-wing fanatics. A headline in one newspaper blared: “Another lefty organization calls for pension reform.”

I understand this felt need. While pensions are not a partisan issue, or need not be, they have somehow become one. This is largely a result of recent history in Wisconsin and elsewhere. But the fact is that both parties have fed at the trough of public union largesse and both parties are now struggling, with grave difficulty, to turn off the spigot. It seems that politicians are so accustomed to financial and organizational support of public employees that reform is deeply unpalatable. This is true even though many democrats, as I argued in my post, understand that pensions are threatening to devour the funds necessary for basic governmental services. It does seem that to simply point out facts today is to risk being branded a right-wing nut.

It is important to point out that the Arendt Center is neither a left nor a right organization. Nor is it non-partisan or bi-partisan. As Frank Keegan, the most astute of the bloggers who picked up our post rightly puts it (citing our own mission statement, thank you!), the Center aims simply to think about political and ethical issues in the spirit of Arendt.  Keegan writes:

Let them try to put that [right-wing extremist] brand on the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College, which describes itself as “an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt. ….an intellectual incubator for engaged humanities thinking … that elevates and deepens the public argument that is the bedrock of our democracy.”

Keegan correctly and respectfully read through our website and noted that the Center aims to promote thinking about politics in the spirit of Arendt, by which we mean neither left, nor right, nor bi-partisan. Thinking, is always of necessity opposed to all ideological positions and is even pallid to the idea of bi-partisanship.  Keegan thus also quotes our description of Hannah Arendt herself:

“No other scholar so enrages and engages citizens and students from all political persuasions, all the while insisting on human dignity, providing a clear voice against totalitarianism, and defending freedom with extraordinary intelligence and courage.”

Others were less careful. The editors who drafted the headline for Will Swain’s column were careless: “Another lefty organization calls for pension reform.”  Swain himself, who I now know to have been writing very smartly about the crisis, is more circumspect. On the one hand, he writes: “Arendt was a lefty.” But Swain continues to add, “there was nothing dogmatic in her politics.” The second part is true, but the characterization of her as a lefty is suspect, even if it is a widespread conviction.

Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, once made the mistake of characterizing Arendt as a left intellectual. Arendt responded forcefully:

“I am not one of the “intellectuals who come from the German Left.” You could not have known this, since we did not know each other when we were young. It is a fact of which I am in no way particularly proud and which I am somewhat reluctant to emphasize—especially since the McCarthy era in this country. I came late to an understanding of Marx’s importance because I was interested neither in history nor in politics when I was young. If I can be said to “have come from anywhere,” it is from the tradition of German philosophy.”

Arendt had many allegiances on the left; but equally so on the right. Just this month Irving Louis Horowitz, the great sociologist who died last weekend, published a new volume of essays on Arendt titled: Hannah Arendt: Radical Conservative.  But Arendt was neither a radical conservative nor a traditional liberal. As she describes herself, rightly, she was a thinker.

Thinking is dangerous to all “isms,” party programs, and ideologies. The Arendt Center seeks not to offer solutions or prescriptions, but to think about politics. That is why the main point of my essay was less about economics and more about the way that the pension crisis is challenging the independence and vibrancy of government itself. The hope is to make clear how the problem with pensions is rooted deeply in habits and conventions of our government and our thought, as well as to show it to be dangerous to both politics and freedom.

Another way to understand Arendt is as a conscious pariah, a term she lovingly steals from Bernard Lazarre. Throughout her life, Arendt was obsessed with those people whose outsider status made them pariahs. She held, however, that being a pariah could be advantageous if one consciously embraced that outsider role and became a conscious pariah, a rebel in the name of truth. Similarly, all those who want to tell the truth must, Arendt sees, adopt the role of a conscious pariah and abandon all claims to social and political success. The conscious pariah/rebel/truthteller must live in isolation and seek the truth outside of the public sphere.

Nothing perhaps distinguishes Hannah Arendt from her peers more than her insistence on standing aloof as a conscious pariah. It is from that apartness that flows the radical independence of her thought. Neither left nor right, neither capitalist nor socialist, and neither liberal nor conservative, Arendt looked at every issue from radically fresh viewpoints. That independence is in large measure the secret of her continuing appeal.

Whether the Arendt Center can claim that same independence and authority is, of course, a huge question. We do not presume to speak in Arendt’s voice or as her equal. However, the pension crisis is ripe for Arendtian thinking. It is at root about the corruption of politics as well the idea of the public realm. There is simply a presumption by too many today that working for a public institution means that one is by definition working in the public interest. This is a mistake, and rethinking the nature of public employment is one of our most pressing tasks.

-RB

Posted on 26 March 2012 | 3:59 pm

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