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Hannah Arendt Center at Bard Hosts Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair, “Does the President Matter?”

International Conference to Be Held at Bard College, September 21–22

Mark Primoff
Featuring Ralph Nader, Bernard Kouchner (Founder of Doctors Without Borders and Foreign Minister of France), Todd Gitlin (author of Occupy Nation), Rick Falkvinge (Founder of the Swedish Pirate Party), Jeffrey Tulis (author of The Rhetorical Presidency), John Zogby (fonder of The Zogby Poll), and Leon Botstein (President of Bard College) 

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.—The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College will host its fifth annual international conference on Friday, September 21 and Saturday, September 22 in Olin Hall at Bard’s Annandale-on-Hudson campus. The two-day conference, “Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair,” asks: Is political leadership either possible or desirable? The Arendt Center asks this question not in the trivial sense of whether a Republican or a Democrat would benefit different groups; of course they would. Rather, the Arendt Center asks political, business, and cultural leaders to question the structural features of modern society that make meaningful presidential and political leadership difficult if not impossible. The aim is to ask: How can we re-imagine presidential leadership today?

From Europe to Japan, from Russia to Egypt, and from China to the United States, political leaders are proving singularly inept at making decisions and addressing the turmoil of our times. As governments lurch from crisis to crisis without the will or the ability to lead, we must ask:

Is political leadership possible? How can political leadership reemerge? Or, alternatively, what would it mean to conceive of politics absent of leaders? These are pressing questions. Liberal democracies are suffering profound cynicism and corrosive political alienation. The rise of the Pirate Parties in Europe and the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the United States suggest dissatisfaction with democratic governance not experienced since 1930s Europe.

The Arendt conference convenes a diverse group of thinkers to ask questions such as: Is political leadership still possible at a time of large and splintered polities? Have focus groups brought about the end of inspired political leaders? Does the hyper-scrutiny of politicians mean the loss of charismatic leadership? Should the President Lead or Govern? Is the President Too Weak? What do we make of the demand for leaderless politics coming from Occupy Wall Street? Does the fracturing of the media and the populace reduce the power of the presidency? Does the legislature now set the agenda in a way that one president cannot resist? 

Keynote speakers at the conference include Ralph Nader, presidential candidate and political activist; Bernard Kouchner, former foreign minister of France and cofounder of Doctors Without Borders; John Zogby, founder of the Zogby Poll and author of The Way We’ll Be; Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party; and Jeffrey Tulis, author of The Rhetorical Presidency. Other featured speakers include Eric Liu, CEO of the Guiding Lights Foundation and President Clinton’s domestic policy advisor; Anne Norton, author of 95 Theses on Politics, Culture & Method; Tracy Strong, author of Politics Without Vision; James Zogby, author of Arab Voices; Bernadette Meyler, professor of law, Cornell University Law School; Todd Gitlin, author of Occupy Nation; Ian Buruma, Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College; Walter Russell Mead, James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College and blogger at the American Interest; Elizabeth Frank, Joseph E. Harry Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Bard College; and Richard Aldous, Eugene Meyer Professor of British History and Literature at Bard College, and author of Reagan and Thatcher.

“Hannah Arendt does not always speak kindly of politicians, but she does praise political people, those who act and speak in the public realm,” says Roger Berkowitz, academic director of the Arendt Center. “She believed that a human politics would never come easy, by sitting back and letting elected representatives govern us. Political freedom requires courage—the courage to risk one’s reputation and life in the public pursuit of the common good. Political leaders, for Arendt, are those who act in unexpected ways. Leaders emerge when their actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire their fellow citizens to reimagine a common sense of belonging to a common people with a common purpose.” 

At a time when every word and movement a candidate makes is tested, calculated, and planned, how can our overly cautious and hypercritical age encourage the kind of action that Arendt saw was necessary in politics? Amidst the leaderless paralysis of our current politics, one wonders where real, unifying leaders might come from—leaders, in the words of David Foster Wallace, who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

As we prepare to elect another president, it is incumbent upon us to take Arendt’s advice and “think what we are doing.” The Arendt Center’s fifth annual conference is designed to inspire creative and deep thinking about what place, if any, the role of a strong president must have in our future. In the spirit of Hannah Arendt, the conference convenes thoughtful people whose views transcend political and disciplinary boundaries to collectively reflect upon the most important issues of our day.

Arendt Center conferences are attended by nearly 1,000 people and reach an international audience via live webcast. Past speakers have included maverick inventor Ray Kurzweil, irreverent journalist Christopher Hitchens, businessman Hunter Lewis, author Zadie Smith, and New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus. Previous conferences have explored the intellectual roots of the economic crisis and the future of humanity in an age increasingly dominated by technology that’s changing how humans live.

For more information or to register, go to; click on the "Conference 2012" tab to register.

For additional information or any questions about the conference, please contact Bridget Hollenback at or 845-758-7878.




Friday, September 21

10:00 a.m. Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center;

10:30 a.m. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College

11:00 a.m. Todd Gitlin, professor and chair of the Ph.D. Program at the Columbia School of Journalism; author of, most recently, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street

2:00 p.m. Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party

5:00 p.m. Bernard Kouchner, former foreign minister of France and cofounder of Doctors Without Borders

6:00 p.m. Jeffrey Tulis, author of The Rhetorical Presidency


Saturday, September 22

10:00 a.m. Wyatt Mason, contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine

10:30 a.m. Walter Russell Mead, James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and editor-at-large at the American Interest.

12:00 p.m. Ralph Nader, presidential candidate and political activist

5:00 p.m. John Zogby, founder of the Zogby Poll and author of The Way We’ll Be



The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt. The Arendt Center’s double mission is, first, to sponsor and support the highest quality scholarship on Hannah Arendt and her work; and, second, to be an intellectual incubator for engaged humanities thinking at Bard College and beyond, thinking that elevates and deepens the public argument that is the bedrock of our democracy.

 As the intellectual cornerstone of Bard College’s Center for Civic Engagement, the Arendt Center insists that liberal arts thinking is at the core of an enlightened politics. While policy questions are important, serious political engagement requires that citizens confront the intellectual foundations of the crises and challenges facing our world. The Arendt Center nurtures the foundational thinking that prepares students for active citizenship that can humanize an often inhuman world.





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This event was last updated on 09-10-2012