Itching to pick a fight with someone today? Are you aghast at the apathy of your fellow Americans, who seem to be wandering about in a haze, numbed by their latest addictive consumer gadgets and oblivious to the imminent collapse of democratic institutions and global ecosystems? Or did you just wake up on the wrong side of bed this morning?
Well, if you’re casting about for a topic, I can’t imagine one more sure to provoke an argument than questioning American Exceptionalism. Even the most relentless critics on the right of the current presidential administration will do an abrupt and irate turnabout if someone suggests to them that our way of life might not be the best in the world, or that we might at least have something to learn from other systems.
Yet contemplating scary notions, in a spirit of civil discourse, is the bailiwick of scholars who believe in what used to be called a liberal education. Get a bunch of them together in a conference and toss out a provocative idea and you’ve got a public spectacle as grand as an ancient Roman gladiator battle, without all the mess. That’s what’ll be happening next Thursday and Friday at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities in Annandale, where Bard College president Leon Botstein will utter the fighting words, “Are there still American values worth fighting for?” to a top-shelf panel of intellectuals from various humanities and social science disciplines and let them have at it, with the ultimate goal of identifying some common ground to stake out on this very divisive topic.
Among the participants in this conference, called “The Unmaking of Americans,” will be a MacArthur Fellowship “genius,” two National Book Award-winners, an American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow, several academicians wearing the laurels of Distinguished Professor at their respective institutions, pundits for publications as diverse in viewpoint as Forbes and Dissent and a certain Columbia University law professor whom Andrew Cuomo was justifiably reluctant to debate, and who gave him a good scare (carrying Ulster and Dutchess Counties, incidentally) in last month’s gubernatorial primary. A Brazilian philosopher/politician will also be on hand to provide a perspective from the “outside.”
The faceoff getting top billing in this arena is between the authors of two recent rabble-rousing best-sellers from polar political and economic perspectives about how America is going to Hell in a handbasket. One is the American Enterprise Institute’s “paleoconservative,” “paleolibertarian” gadfly Charles Murray, who in 2012 raised the specter of class warfare caused by “moral decline” with Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. His earlier book The Bell Curve, which suggests a link between race and intelligence, has long been regarded by some intellectuals on the left as an exercise in “racist pseudoscience.” In the opposite corner will be The New Yorker’s George Packer, who made a lot of thoughtful people nervous last year with The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, using a series of biographical sketches to chronicle the unraveling of the American Dream and blaming it on “organized money.” His usual journalism beat is foreign policy, previously authoring The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq.
This odd couple will kick off the conference on Thursday morning by debating the question, “Is there Still an Idea of America that Can Inspire People to Sacrifice for the Common Good?” Discussions later in the day will focus on such concepts as pragmatism and justice, and on the second day will examine questions of race and freedom. While Packer and Murray will have moved on by Friday, Zephyr Teachout will replace their celebrity wattage by joining the group that afternoon to help address the question, “Can We Restore American Democracy?”
The list of featured speakers at “The Unmaking of Americans” also includes Yale English professor David Bromwich and Political Science professor Jim Sleeper, University of Wisconsin Political Science professor Kennan Ferguson, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, CUNY Graduate Center Comparative Literature professor Joan Richardson, novelist Norman Rush, NYU Stern School of Business Economic History professor Amity Shlaes, Columbia University Law professor Kendall Thomas, the aforementioned Brazilian legal scholar Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Bard’s own Languages and Literature professor Ann Lauterbach and Political Science professor Roger Berkowitz, plus Jerome Kohn, the editor of Hannah Arendt’s unpublished and uncollected writings. Full bios can be found online at www.hannaharendtcenter.org.
Since this colloquium was inspired by questions that she raised herself, it is perhaps useful to view it in the light of one of Arendt’s own top criteria for what made her adoptive country arguably exceptional. In the words of the conference organizers, her candidate for the “true innovation of American freedom” was “the tradition of local self-government,” which “has been superseded by the rise of centralized power in the service of national security” in more recent times. If our once-vibrant institution of bottom-up leadership through feisty town meetings has devolved in your community into squabbles so ugly and personalized that they make you begin to wonder if there isn’t some merit in Charles Murray’s hypothesis about a decline in the intellect of Americans through genetic self-selection, maybe a visit to a high-level gathering of diverse-thinking scholars would be tonic. While spirited, at least the debate is likely to remain polite and focused on the issues.
The Hannah Arendt Center’s seventh annual international fall conference, “The Unmaking of Americans,” runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on October 9 and 10 at Olin Hall on the Bard campus, and is open to the general public. The fee to attend – remarkably low, for a gathering with this level of intellectual star-power – is only $20. For additional information about the conference, contact Tina Stanton at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (845) 758-7878 or visit www.hannaharendtcenter.org.
Hannah Arendt Center conference “The Unmaking of Americans,” Thursday/Friday, October 9/10, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., $20, Olin Hall, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7878, www.hannaharendtcenter.org.