The Hannah Arendt Center
Seventh Annual Fall Conference
October 9-10, 2014
Olin Hall, at Bard College
In her essay “Tradition and the Modern Age,” Hannah Arendt wrote:
"The rebels of the 19th and 20th centuries fought against tradition. They were occupied with critique and destruction of past and authoritative structures. Today, in the wake of the fact of the break of tradition and the loss of authority, we face the ominous silence that answers us whenever we ask: 'What are we fighting for?'"
In the United States of America, there has long been an assumption that we had an answer to Arendt’s question. We fight for freedom and democracy. We fight for equality and difference. Above all we fight for “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
In the last year, popular books like The Unwinding by George Packer and Coming Apart by Charles Murray have bemoaned the fading of the American Ideal. On the left, The Unwinding tells the tale of the demise of American institutions and the loss of American ideals as an inspiring dream. On the right, Coming Apart gives voice to the sense that America no longer exists as a single nation; Murray argues that Americans in wealthy zip codes have pitifully little in common with their countrymen in poor zip codes. These differences include not simply lifestyle, but also values and dreams. If Murray thinks Americans are increasingly living in fundamentally different worlds, Packer sees the once great American dream crumbling around us, consumed by corruption, consumption, and institutional failure.
We confront today the weakening of our collective vision of freedom and equality. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party manifest anger at the betrayal of American constitutional democracy, but with little awareness of a common heritage. Americans are dismayed at the power of money, the decay of self-governance, and a bureaucracy that seems impervious to popular control. And yet few dare to articulate a collective vision that might hold the country together.
In his 1996 book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Lipset writes: The “American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” Exceptionalism, he argues, doesn’t mean American is better than other countries. It means that America “is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier. Exceptionalism is a double-edged concept.” In the words of Peter Buckley’s famous “Gospel-Covenant sermon:”
We are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth; the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore not only the Lord our God, with whom we have made covenant, but heaven and earth, angels and men, that are witnesses of our profession, will cry shame upon us, if we walk contrary to the covenant which we have professed and promised to walk in.
There have always been opponents of The Myth of American Exceptionalism. But overall, the myth has had some basis in sociological reality. Americans were more religious than other democratic and liberal states. Americans believed they had more economic mobility, and saw their country as the first truly multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy; one that developed in fits and starts towards an ideal of equality over 200 years.
And yet, today, the country that for 200 years saw itself confidently as the "New World"—the Novus Ordo Saeculorum—is shedding its missionary zeal. In opinion surveys, younger Americans are significantly less likely to be “extremely proud to be American” or to believe that American possesses a special virtue as a force for good in the world. Upward income mobility, the heart of the American dream, is more rare in the United States than in most of Europe. And the American tradition of local self-government—what Hannah Arendt saw as the true innovation of American freedom—has been superseded by the rise of centralized power in the service of national security. It is hard to deny the truth that America is, today, increasingly less exceptional than in the past.
At the same time, every country must announce and ennoble those values that distinguish it and make it special if it is inspire citizens to greatness and sacrifice. To raise the question of what, today, can we as Americans embrace is to ask:
•Are there common ideals left that we share as Americans?
•How can racial justice co-exist with American ideals?
•Can Americans build institutions that will nurture a common world?
•What are the common ideas that can inspire America in the 21st century?
We invite you to join us as we explore the fundamental question, what American means today?