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Amor Mundi:Minority Rule and State Federalism

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.


Minority Rule and State Federalism

Americans are in for a long period of minority rule. As more of us move to urban and suburban areas in a small number of states, the vast majority of the population is increasingly at home in a few blue and purple states. What this means, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute recently pointed out, is that “By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent [of the voters] will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent.” We are heading towards a situation in which one important branch of the federal government will increasingly be controlled by a homogeneous minority of the population. For Jonathan Taplin, this means that President Trump—whether or not he wins the Presidency again in 2020—is a transitional figure in the nation’s history. The Republican Party will shrink, but it will maintain an increasing hold on the Senate and possibly on the Supreme Court. This suggests, as I argued at the recent Hannah Arendt Center Conference “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience,” that there will be increasing chaos and violence and the real possibility of another Civil War—unless we come up with a solution.

Taplin argues that there is in fact a solution this problem of minority built into the Constitution: The Tenth Amendment. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” As Taplin writes:

The origins of the amendment stem from Thomas Jefferson’s debates with his friend James Madison during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. After reading the first draft of the Constitution, Jefferson wrote Madison that the great fault in the document was “the omission of a bill of rights.” He believed that the modifications to the British constitution, enshrining a bill of rights in the wake of Cromwell’s excesses, were critical to a free society. Although Madison originally opposed a bill of rights, over the next two years of ratification of the document by the states he came to see Jefferson’s point that the greatest threat to both individual and local liberty might flow from an authoritarian federal government of the Cromwellian sort. The solution lay, in Jefferson’s words, in including an amendment making clear that “the true theory of our Constitution is that the states are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations.”

It has taken two hundred and thirty years to put Jefferson’s defensive measure against an autocratic federal government to the test. While the press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment and the privacy protections enshrined by the Fourth Amendment are being tested, progressives are looking to the Tenth Amendment for relief. Since Trump took office, twenty-two Democratic state attorneys general have sued the Trump Administration. Nineteen attorneys general sued to stop Trump from putting an end to certain Obamacare subsidies, eighteen sued to stop the rollback of environmental protections, and sixteen sued to reverse Trump’s decision to rescind DACA protections for young immigrants. Although these lawsuits are working their way through the courts, the Trump Administration has lost many of the early cases, including a suit in August 2017 in which a California judge ordered the EPA to enforce its own clean-air standards.

So far in 2018, twenty-four states have passed thirty-seven bills to curb rising prescription drug costs, according to Trish Riley, the executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy. And a suit has been recently brought by eight states and the District of Columbia to block the Trump Administration’s decision to allow a Texas company to publish downloadable blueprints for a 3-D-printed handgun.

Across the country, state attorneys general are suing the national government. The Massachusetts attorney general brought suit against the secretary of education to allow the states to rein in student loan debt collectors. A federal judge recently agree with Massachusetts. The California attorney general has won twelve suits against the Trump administration. As Taplin sees, these attorney generals from the states are “posing the Jeffersonian question: Where does the power to govern reside?”

The question of where political power resides is central to Hannah Arendt’s understanding of politics and specifically the political foundation of the United States. Power, Arendt argues, emerges from mutual action. Written laws, and even written constitutions, will not restrain the determined power of democratic actors. The only reliable protection from the tyranny of the majority comes not from constitutional rights but from a dispersal and multiplication of powers. As James Madison argued in Federalist 10, when there are plural and competing powers—Madison called them factions—the plurality of factions frustrate the dangerous concentration of power in  one sovereign. For Arendt, the dispersal of power amongst the states and the national government is the greatest innovation of the American Constitution.

—Roger Berkowitz


State Constitutions

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens writes that the mainspring of civil rights protections is not the United States Constitution. Building on an old tradition that is being revived today, he argues that the effort to protect and expand basic rights might most productively be fought at the level of state constitutions.

In a law review article published over forty years ago, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan argued that state constitutions are a “font of individual liberties” and that their protections, in matters like search and seizures and the right to a jury trial, often extend beyond the protections of federal law.* In 51 Imperfect Solutions: States and the Making of American Constitutional Law, Jeffrey Sutton, a well-respected judge who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, endorses Brennan’s thesis and provides four examples in which state constitutional protections were or are more robust than federal ones. These examples demonstrate that the law may be best served if proponents of a new or expanded right give priority to a claim based on their state constitution, and that state judiciaries can set an example for the federal judiciary. Each of them—as well as a fifth example, regarding partisan gerrymandering, that Judge Sutton does not take up but is also worthy of study—merits separate discussion.

The first example involves the equality and adequacy of funding for public education. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court removed a major barrier to equal educational opportunities by prohibiting the segregation of public schools, but it left in place the financial obstacle faced by poor school districts unable to provide their students with an education comparable to that offered by wealthier districts. In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973), over the dissent of four justices, including Thurgood Marshall, the Court rejected a challenge to Texas’s school-financing system, which was based on local property taxes and thus created wealth-based barriers to equal educational opportunities in Texas’s public schools.

The plaintiffs received no relief in their federal case, but in three cases in the 1980s and 1990s the Supreme Court of Texas held that the state’s school-financing system violated the Texas Constitution. Courts in other states, like New Jersey and Ohio, have similarly held that their state constitutions require some measure of equal funding among school districts, demonstrating that state constitutions sometimes offer greater protections than the US Constitution does.


A Successful War Crimes Trial in Cambodia

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, an international war crimes tribunal in Cambodia, ruled this week that the Khmer Rouge mass-killings of Vietnamese and Muslims was a genocide. Peter Maguire admits that the war crimes trials in Cambodia were overpriced. They did not help “end impunity in the public consciousness”? Nor did they “help Cambodia transition to a better place”? For Maguire, the trials in Cambodia, like every similar effort before, “proved once again that politics are an indelible part of any war crimes trial.” And yet, “as overpriced and overcomplicated as ECCC was, thanks to the historical record compiled by generations of valiant researchers, it can be counted as a success.”

Thirty-nine years ago, the world’s response to Khmer Rouge atrocities shattered the “never again” promise once and for all. In three years, 10 months, and 20 days, the Chinese-backed Cambodian communists killed roughly 20 percent of their population (1.5 to 2 million people). When the Vietnamese tried the Khmer Rouge leaders in absentia in 1979, they were widely ridiculed for their efforts. After the world learned of Cambodia’s “Killing Fields,” China, the United States, and the United Nations protected and rearmed the perpetrators while Western leftists, led by Noam Chomsky, attacked “the extreme unreliability of refugee reports” of crimes against humanity. Although the United Nations spent $2 to 3 billion dollars during their Cambodian occupation (1992-1993), no Khmer Rouge leaders were captured, much less held legally accountable….

By far the ECCC’s most important legacy was the creation of an unassailable historical record that will withstand the test of time and make historical revisionism virtually impossible. However clear the historical facts seem to Western scholars, they remain unclear to some Cambodians and for good reason. Over the course of three decades, Cambodians were subjected to the competing and contradictory propaganda claims of the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime (1970–1975), the Khmer Rouge (1975–1979), the Vietnamese-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979–1989), the State of Cambodia (1989-1992), the United Nations Transitional Authority Cambodia (UNTAC) (1992–1993), and since 1993 the iron-fisted Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). It is now clear for all to see, in meticulous detail, who did what to whom.


Quote of the Week: The Kids Are Responsible

By Jana Schmidt, Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.


I now see that I simply didn’t understand the complexities in the situation.

— Hannah Arendt


What responsibility lies in seeing accurately, in stepping so close to an object that it is “touched by the gaze” and, in turn, activates something in the viewer? How is it that one may look at something for decades, centuries even, without seeing a defining quality of its aspect? In “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture,” a recent piece for the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot shines a light on the centuries-long reign of a “collective blindness” with regard to classical sculpture. As scholars and scientists could have long known (and often did), and as even casual readers may gather from textual evidence, Greek and Roman marble busts of the Ancient period did not originally appear as we see them today in the permanent collections of museums or, as reproductions, in parks, hotel lobbies, university libraries, movies, and places of government. They were neither smoothly uniform in hue, nor did they expose the milky near-translucence of unveined marble (and they were not shown in museums, a related fact). The neo-classicist styles of presidential busts and pietas, the chalky whiteness of armless beauties in columned hallways, all the reinventions of “classical” style that signify power, gravity, and the golden ratio — an entire symbolic universe built on a failure to see. For on close examination the original ancient busts and torsos give the lie to their whiteness: they were once painted from head to toe with “copper lips and nipples, luxuriant black beards, wiry swirls of dark pubic hair,” a variety of skin tones, and vivid robes. Yet, despite the fact that scholars have repeatedly made this knowledge available and despite the reality that, on many sculptures, conspicuous specks of color are visible even to the bare eye, dominant representations of the birthplace of the West have changed very little.

In 1965 Hannah Arendt acknowledged an oversight of her own: Writing in a private letter to Ralph Ellison, she admits that she had misinterpreted the situation of the Little Rock Nine and their parents in her essay “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959). Her letter to Ellison, dated July 29, 1965, was a reaction to an interview with Ellison printed in Robert Penn Warren’s collection Who Speaks for the Negro?, which came out the same year. At the beginning of Arendt’s 1959 essay stands a short reading of an image, a newspaper photograph of “a Negro girl on her way home from a newly integrated school […] persecuted by a mob of white children, protected by a white friend of her father.” Arendt takes the image of the young woman and the mob as an entry point for the question “what would I do if I were a Negro mother?” and, ultimately, to argue that black parents were wrong to expose their children to a situation in which their “personal integrity” was threatened. Parents, Arendt reasoned, should never push children to force themselves into “a group where it was not wanted.” To force an end to the kind of social discrimination that is inevitably a part of human existence, Arendt claims, merely has the effect of covering up the true political issues that adults should address within the sphere of the political. Even without taking into account her argument, however, it is clear that Arendt misread the aforementioned photo, which shows not a concerned friend leaning over the student, Elizabeth Eckford, but a team of journalists trying to get a statement after Eckford had been denied entrance to the high school. The young woman’s resolute appearance — “her face bore eloquent witness to the obvious fact that she was not precisely happy,” writes Arendt, presuming that Eckford was suffering from her exposure to the white mob — seems, rather, to register her immense self-possession, lone determination, and, possibly, the activist’s refusal to speak to journalists.

Ralph Ellison had underlined precisely this quality of self-control as a motive for the students’ struggle for school integration. In the interview that prompted Arendt’s letter Ellison rejects the pathos of victimhood he discerns in white liberal and radical black political narratives, claiming instead a more nuanced understanding of African American identity, history and politics. Where other critics denounced the complete devastation of African American culture, Ellison saw a continuity of resistant practices, a gradual unfolding of black identity in spite of and because of “li[f]e under pressure.” “For when the world was not looking, when the country was not looking at Negroes, […] something was present in our lives to sustain us.” Ellison, whose novel Invisible Man works through then-prominent ways of interpreting the black condition — namely as alienation, self-hatred, and “split personality” — locates sustenance in the rich cultural forms developed by African Americans, “that expressiveness for which we’ve suffered and struggled and which is a product of our effort to make meaning of our experience.” Part of this heightened sense of self-control for Ellison is a willingness to forego revenge and a readiness to accept responsibility in spite of persistent exclusion: “I’m referring to the basic, implicit heroism of people who must live within a society without recognition, real status, but who are involved in the ideals of that society.” In Ellison’s view, the photograph of Elizabeth Eckford would thus show exactly this “basic heroism” of a citizen whose demand for democracy and whose “act[ing] out” of democratic ideals saves democracy for the unseeing majority. To white segregationists, the actions of black activists carried a clear message: “‘We live and act out the truth of American reality, while to the extent that you refuse to take these aspects of reality, these inconsistencies, into consideration — you do not live the truth.’” In Arendt, we find this heroism by a different name: political responsibility, the power to “set the time aright” and “renew the world.”

It is clear from the interview that Ellison did not conceive of self-mastery as repression or denial. In fact, just before he criticizes Arendt’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” the former Bard College professor clarifies that self-mastery names a kind of understanding; an ability, that is, to maintain self-confidence and “an alertness to human complexity” under great strain. It was this “ideal of sacrifice” or, as Arendt herself might have said, the capacity of the newcomer to save the world, as the “space between,” from ruin even and perhaps especially if such an act should require a sacrifice on the part of the newcomer, which Arendt admitted she had misunderstood. For this failure, Ellison called her out when he accused her of a fundamental misrecognition: “But she [Arendt] has absolutely no conception of what goes on in the minds of Negro parents when they send their kids through those lines of hostile people [….] in the outlook of many of these parents (who wish that the problem didn’t exist), the child is expected to face the terror and contain his fear and anger precisely because he is a Negro American. Thus he’s required to master the inner tensions created by his racial situation, and if he gets hurt — then his is one more sacrifice.”

Acknowledging that she had failed to understand the “‘ideal of sacrifice,’” Arendt grants that her argument in the essay had taken off in “an entirely wrong direction.” At the time, she reports, while knowing that something was amiss, she had speculated that perhaps she did not “grasp[] the element of stark violence.” However, as she immediately qualifies, the problem was not merely one of focus (“grasping”) but much more fundamental: “I now see that I simply didn’t understand the complexities in the situation.” Had Arendt really seen the image and understood the event, she might have judged the students’ act in light of her own insights on education, responsibility, and world-making — connections she could have offered up in her letter. For it was these same complexities, which required parents and children who did not yet fully belong to the political sphere to seize responsibility for the world as a way of visibly claiming their belonging to it. The actions of the Little Rock Nine and others would suggest that in a state of invisibility, when something is right before “our” eyes and is yet not seen or, if seen, violently denied, that is, in a state where parents are denied recognition yet supposed to take responsibility, if only for their children, real responsibility has to assert itself in the sacrifice. The purpose of such sacrifice would not be that of catharsis, as Ellison’s reference to tragedy may lead us to believe, but merely the visualization, the making visible of responsibility. In so doing, the “visible assumption” of responsibility by black parents and teenagers initiated a relation in a society in which any sense of the in-between was still largely and violently denied by Southern whites. At the same time, the act of seizing responsibility, a key term for both Ellison and Arendt, would suggest that democracy lies, in this case, in the margins: the locus of politics isn’t in the “center” but beside it. Ralph Ellison and Hannah Arendt’s difficult exchange could thus yield an answer to the vexed question, articulated by Jacques Rancière, Étienne Balibar, and other contemporary critics of Arendt, of how those not yet included in the polis may not only “do politics” but also change how we see it.


  1. The polychromy scholar Mark Abbe explains this reticence as a result of an unwillingness on the part of Westerners to cede privilege: “We benefit from a whole range of assumptions about cultural, ethnic, and racial superiority. We benefit in terms of the core identity of Western civilization, that sense of the West as more rational — the Green miracle and all that. And I’m not saying there’s no truth to the idea that something singular happened in Greece and Rome, but we can do better and see the ancient past on a broader cultural horizon.” Cited in Margaret Talbot, “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture,” The New Yorker, 29 October 2018, Accessed 29 October 2018.
  2. The collection of interviews can be found in Arendt’s personal library at Bard College.
  3. Robert Penn Warren, “Leadership from the Periphery,” Who Speaks for the Negro? New Haven: Yale UP, 2014. 325–54.
  4. In two of her main texts on responsibility, “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship” and “The Crisis in Education,” Arendt cites Hamlet’s cry: “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right!” Audible in the cry is the sense of sacrifice that the one who takes on political responsibility has to accept. In a recent “Quote of the Week,” Thomas Wild points out that Arendt is thinking of the maintenance of the world (“im Sein halten”) when she speaks of the responsibility of the adults toward the young (“For the Sake of What is New”). In some sense, Ellison is asking us to understand the commitment of the Little Rock Nine’s parents as just that: a world-conserving act to enable newness to emerge and “to introduce it as a new thing into an old world.”

Journal Feature: Occupy Wall Street and Liberal Democracy

By Anne Norton

I’m a very obedient person, so I do want to address the question asked by the conveners of the conference: “Is Occupy Wall Street a symptom of an irreparable loss of faith in liberal democracy?” And I want to argue that if it isn’t, it should be, and that we should lose faith in liberal democracy. Or more precisely, if we want to keep faith with democracy, we need to lose faith in liberalism. We need to begin to question insistently, fundamentally, whether liberalism is securing or damaging democracy.

We tend to speak about liberal democracy as if one word slid easily into another, as if there were no space between the protection of individual rights associated with liberalism and the democratic form of government; in other words, that liberalism solves the problem of democracy. Liberalism was supposed to guarantee rights, establish the rule of law, establish regular transparent procedures; it was a little supplement to democracy that would tame and domesticate it and make it safe—safe for minorities, safe for unpopular opinions. But instead, I think liberalism has acted as a supplement in the Derridean sense: it’s something that adds only to replace. That liberalism may have secured democracy in the past, but now liberalism puts democracy in peril.

Now, I’m not the only person who thinks this. Sheldon Wolin, a friend and colleague of Hannah Arendt, argues that democracy has become distorted—principally by liberal economics, by capitalism; that reliance on the free market to spread wealth and power has concentrated power; that the press, under the conditions of the free market and the concentration of the media, has become a gatekeeper and a censor—not something that gives us access to more information, more opinion, more thought, but something that constrains what acceptable thought is, what can be said, and who can say it. Rather than protecting minority opinions, the liberal press today often mutes or silences them. So the institutions that we were taught to think of as undoing private power have come instead to serve and consolidate private power. The institutions that were represented to us as securing means of the liberation of our people have become the tools of a more effective dominion.

The subjection of democracy to the liberal rule of law and liberal proceduralism serves in the same way. Consider, first, the freedom of assembly and how thoroughly that has been abridged. I mean, the idea that you must obtain a permit for a demonstration, that you must go to the state and say “May we demonstrate, sir?” is fundamentally counter to what a demonstration is meant to be—that it is meant to demonstrate that the power of the people is beneath, beyond, and above the power of the state. And that reminder is obscured; instead, demonstrations are tucked away where they can’t be seen, where they become powerless and often invisible.

What strikes me most about this subjection of democracy to liberal proceduralism is that it reminds me of the poverty of public space in our democracy. Think about how difficult it is to find a public space. I mean, if you’re looking for a public space in which to assemble, you readily find out that most of them are privately owned, and so it’s actually quite difficult; the places where people naturally assemble, like shopping malls, are obviously privately owned places. They’re highly regulated places, we might say non-places. And they’re very policed, so there is a poverty of public space.

I’ve been teaching the Twelve Articles of the Swabian peasantry written during the German Peasants’ War of 1525. There are many interesting things about these Twelve Articles, one of which is that the Swabian peasants insist on the return of their commons. In the very poignant Article Seven, the peasants demand that they will not be oppressed anymore. But the pressure to create a commons, I do believe, has changed. I continue to believe in the importance of physical assembly, but I am struck by the way that it works with technology—by the way in which people can now call to one another to organize, assemble and advocate virtually. As physical spaces for assembly become overregulated and insufficient, the virtual realm can play a powerful role in bringing voices together and projecting them publicly. So, I think it is enormously important to create a virtual commons, in addition to a physical commons.

I should say that I’m one of those people who regard the term scholaractivist as not a nice name, and so I rarely speak as an activist; I speak as a scholar. But one’s mind does sometimes go to questions of strategy, and that raises the importance of time. One of the interesting things about virtual assemblies that are called up by the social media we have now is that they can come and go. They can appear and disappear. The possibilities of the flash mob are very interesting, but they also remind us that assembly is a matter of time as well as space. You can’t go camp out in Occupy Wall Street if you’ve got a kid to feed, or you have yourself to feed, and so we have to take time into account. And so that is, I think, part of rethinking assembly—raising the questions of how you call people together for a moment and what can you do in that moment.

Even as the right to assembly has been compromised by the loss of the commons, so too has free speech, the greatest contribution of liberalism, been turned against democracy. It has even been turned against individual rights. Globally, freedom of speech is used to secure majority power over minorities and to affirm imperial hierarchies. When people tell you that the publication of the Mohammed cartoons in the Jyllands-Posten in Denmark is about freedom of speech, or that the French antireligious satirical journal Charlie Hebdois about individual rights, think again. These claims of free speech serve to protect the powerful against the powerless. That is not freedom of speech, properly used, to advance democratic government and to challenge authority; that is freedom of speech used to secure authority, to secure hierarchies, to limit freedom, to limit what people can say. Now, if the Danes had decided to defend the wearing of the burqa, that would have been a courageous act in support of the freedom of the powerless. If Hebdohad decided to argue for the public chanting of the call to prayer in the streets of Paris, I would speak out in support of its courage. But what it is doing is not courageous and not what we should mean by freedom of speech because it does not secure democracy.

I should say too, to clarify things, that I am a free speech absolutist. I do think people should be able to say anything, and in that respect I am very American, although I think I would like America to be more American; I think free speech should extend from the boardroom to the shop floor and I’d like to see more of it aired. But, what troubles me about these great spectacles of free speech that dominate the press is that they’re profoundly fictional. For example, in the case of the Mohammed cartoons, at issue were commissioned cartoons. It wasn’t the case that one couldn’t find a picture of Mohammed in Denmark. The publication of the cartoons was a piece of theater.

I emphasize, the newspaper had every right to do it; it was contemptible to publish these cartoons, but it was their right. And further, the publication was a nonevent in Denmark. What happened in Denmark? Nothing. No Danish Muslims were upset. Other people were upset, there were some demonstrations, but no one was hurt, no one was killed. Nothing happened. In fact, in the entirety of Europe, and the United States, and Canada, and Australia, the entirety of the west, nothing happened. There was one death associated with the Mohammed cartoons—it was the death of a Muslim in police custody. No death, no injuries, nothing. That’s what happens in free countries when you have free speech that you don’t like. We should be really proud of that. We should say, “That’s what free speech looks like among free people.”

We also have to understand the reactions to such spectacles of free speech in non-free countries. When people who live under censorship see something like the Mohammed cartoons, the logical assumption they make is that the offensive speech has the sanction of the state. They live in a world in which news and the distribution of ideas are censored and regulated. Their presumption is that such speech must have the sanction of the state, and this is a rational presumption based on the standards that pertain in most of the world. In most of the world there are things that are forbidden, such as hate speech and Holocaust denial, so the presumption is that the state is giving its seal of approval. That presumption is an error, it’s a most unfortunate error, and it testifies to the need for more speech. But it is not a question of a given culture, a given civilization being hostile to the freedom of speech. On the contrary, it’s an objection to the state, it’s an objection to certain persistent hierarchies.

The real core of free speech in a democratic society is the right to oppose, and for minority viewpoints to be heard, so that all people in a democracy have to listen to people who are alien to them. It’s important to listen to people who you think are your enemies, who are your enemies, and whom you hate. That’s enormously important, and it’s also surprising. It is surprising because some of the people we disagree with most tend to be closer than we think. They are people we choose to listen to, rather than balk from, because we assume they share our fundamental views. Too often in gatherings like this one people say, as someone said earlier, “We’re all liberals, we all agree.” That is absolutely not true, and let me give you a really serious fault line that runs through any liberal community. I mean the question of big government. I’m a small government democrat. I’m very suspicious of big government. I live with a woman who is a big believer in big government. We vote for the same people most of the time, but we have very different views about specific political issues and about how it should go, and in many respects that becomes a big dividing line. When the Iraq war broke out, I found my first and most vigorous allies among old-school conservatives because they were really angry. They were angry about the USA PATRIOT Act—they were more angry about the PATRIOT Act than my fellow liberals—and it’s important to keep your eye out for those chances to make an alliance. An alliance doesn’t have to last forever, it can be a really short alliance, but I would happily join up with the most hardened, old-school conservative in resisting the PATRIOT Act. Not only would I never think twice about it, I would be doubly grateful, because, as you say, it breaches that partisan wall, breaches the bubble. You learn certain things, and also, all of a sudden your alleged opponents are obliged to think of you as human.

Moving beyond both freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, we come to the great problem of liberalism and liberal economics; namely, the problem of property. And this is in some respects a strangely scholarly problem. For John Locke, property meant something quite different. Property meant first of all that which was most one’s own: the body, your body, the rights it sheltered, the claims that it made, the needs that it had. The body was the center of the rights, and only secondarily did it refer to things, things you held in your hand, things you had mixed your labor with. Yet, for liberalism now, property means something different. Property means wealth, goods—or a cipher for wealth and goods, a little entry in a bank that says “You have more power than that person has.” How does the sacred right to property sound, when it means the sacred right to money? Or, the sacred right to my stuff? That, I think, is not a right that can claim any sanctity, and yet, that is the right we have.

What would happen if we understood the sacred right of property to be concerned with what Locke thought it was concerned with? What if it was concerned with what is properly one’s own? With your body? With your mind? With your rights? With your thoughts? What if it conferred the rights the body requires: the right to food, the right to shelter, the right to health care? What if it conferred the rights that the mind requires: the right to have rights, the right to exercise those rights, the right to education, the right to access power? Some of the changes that would force would be quite benign changes—policies more sympathetic to universal health care, a little economic redistribution. But some things would be terrifying. We would have to consider what we can actually claim, justly, to be our own. That’s the old question of equality—equality of needs— and it’s an old question, it’s an old struggle. Why is it so hard? I think it’s hard because property has a perverse logic: those who have are served better by it than those who have not, but those who have the least have the most to lose. If you lose a million dollars, and you’re a billionaire, it’s an inconvenience, it’s a fluke of the stock market, it’s nothing to trouble you. But if you’re poor, and you lose a dollar, that’s the loss of a meal, or what passes for one. If you lose a house, it’s not a burden if you have six or seven, like John McCain. You might not even remember where that other house was. But if you lose your house and it’s your only house, you can lose a world. So it is the person who has the least who has the most to lose, in losing that sacred right of property. And so those with plenty have an army of those with little to defend their claims. They profit, as those with plenty have always done, from the labor, and the needs, and the desperation of those who have not. It is this perverse logic concerning property that I think continues to guarantee that the needs of the neediest citizens will not be met. It is what makes it so very hard to move forward at the question of equality.

I honor Occupy Wall Street because it has brought attention to that problem of inequality. If Occupy Wall Street seems to have withered away, the language of the 1 percent and the 99 percent—that has lingered. It is deployed in the presidential election, where it now includes something about the 47 percent. But I think it’s possible, too, that Occupy Wall Street has not withered. Dispersed, maybe, but perhaps it isn’t itself yet. It’s important for me to remember that Occupy Wall Street has still not occupied Wall Street; it has occupied Zuccotti Park, not the floor of the stock exchange. There are occupy movements and tents and encampments on universities, but they aren’t in the banks. They’re not in the headquarters of CitiBank, and they’re not in your local branch. That would be different. That would take thought, it would take risk, it would take courage.

And then, thinking of that, I want to say a word about courage, and remind us of one of the places that Occupy Wall Street came from. I mean, there are many practices and movements that fed into Occupy Wall Street, but Occupy Wall Street was conceived in part as an emulation of what happened in Tahrir Square. It was called up by people who were inspired by Tahrir Square, and that’s quite interesting. It reverses the direction of imperial influence; it puts the west—it puts Americans—in the position of students. It is important that we remember this; that we learn from others, that we have learned from others, that we have seen courage greater than our own. Because, frankly, it took a hell of a lot more courage to occupy Tahrir Square knowing what was going to happen; knowing that people were going to be beaten, that people, women, men too, probably, were going to be raped—that they were really facing death. And when you see that, when people pushed back the tanks on Qasr al-Nil bridge; that’s courage, and that is democracy in action.

I have enormous respect for Occupy Wall Street, but you have to know that nobody was likely to die in New York City. We are learning from what other people do who had more to risk. It should change our sense of ourselves from teachers of the world to students of the world, and it should make us refuse the claim, forever, that Islam is alien to democracy. What happened in Tahrir Square was and remains a democratic demand.

And, moreover, Tahrir teaches us certain fundamental democratic lessons. First, that individual rights are not opposed to collective action, but that they issue in collective action. Second, that democracy rests on something which is profoundly difficult—democracy requires daring. Democracy is not the work of domesticated people who vote in elections, and obey the law. Those are parts of democracy. Democracy is also the people who dare, the people who will put their bodies on the line.

Which is why it is deeply important that political theorists write about the world, and not just about other theorists. It is so much easier to write about the world, and so much more pleasurable. And it helps you think better, because the particularities of the world are constantly throwing up things that you don’t anticipate, that no one has taught you about, and that you can’t easily come to grips with. That need to deal with particularities— historical particularities, local particularities—is, I think, both demanding and enormously rewarding.

With regard to the question, “Does the president matter?” I want to put on the table the symbolic character of the presidency. I think there’s a tendency to regard that as trivial, and I don’t think it’s trivial. I think it’s enormously important. There is a particular dimension of the Obama presidency that I have personally benefitted from in my daily life. And that is, I live in Philadelphia—Philadelphia is a majority black city, and I live in an integrated neighborhood—and when I walk on the streets now, I have a different set of interactions than I did before Obama’s election. African American people are more likely to greet me, to talk to me. This became especially visible to me after the shooting of Trayvon Martin because there I am, walking my dogs—I have corgis, like the Queen of England—and I’m walking the dogs, and there are two young black men about the same age as Trayvon Martin kind of circling around me. And they have their hoodies on, and I know what they want. They want to pet my dogs.

But that used to be a really different situation. Young black men wouldn’t approach a white woman, my age. Why would they? They wouldn’t know if I could be trusted. They would have good reason not to trust me. And on my side, I want to prove “that I’m a nice human being,” but how do I do that? So we do this little dance on the street, but the dance doesn’t take as long as it used to. There’s a possibility for me—and there’s a possibility for them as well—that did not exist before Obama won the election. That is not a small deal. That’s a change that has transformed American racial relations, even if just at the edges. America is still a nation of white supremacy. But it’s a nation of white supremacy with a black president, and that changes daily life.

It also means that during the election, we got a phone call from a friend who’s an Algerian communist, and she is not a friend to the United States of America. Alya calls us up and she says, “You have shown the world that you are a great nation.” You couldn’t wring that out of Alya before the Obama presidency. His election makes a difference. It makes a difference locally on my street, on my sidewalk, in my neighborhood. And it makes a difference globally. We may squander the opportunity for change, but the possibility is there.

Video Feature: Democracy When the People are Thinking

A talk by James Fishkin, the Janet M. Peck Chair in International Communication at Stanford University where he is Professor of Communication and Professor of Political Science.

This talk was given at the Hannah Arendt Center’s 10th annual conference, “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times”.

Posted on 16 November 2018 | 3:19 pm

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