Hannah Arendt Center at Bard Hosts International Conference on American Exceptionalism
In her essay “Tradition and the Modern Age,” Hannah Arendt writes: “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 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.” However, 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. 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.Despite controversies over the myth of American Exceptionalism, Americans historically were more religious than citizens of other democratic and liberal states. Americans believed they had more economic mobility, and saw their country as the first truly multiethnic and multiracial democracy; one that developed in fits and starts towards an ideal of equality. And yet today, the country that for 200 years saw itself confidently as the “New World” 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American tradition of local self-government—what Hannah Arendt saw as the true innovation of American freedom—has been superseded by the rise of centralized power in the service of national security.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.
“The Unmaking of Americans” convenes a diverse group of thinkers to ask questions such as: Are there common ideals left that we share as Americans? How can racial justice coexist 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? Above all, the conference will explore the fundamental question: what does “American” mean today?
Featured speakers at the conference include:
Roger Berkowitz, associate professor of political studies and human rights at Bard College, academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, author of Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, and coeditor of Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics.
Leon Botstein, president of Bard College since 1975, chairman of Central European University, board member of Open Society Foundations, music director of American Symphony Orchestra (1992 to present), artistic director of SummerScape and the Bard Music Festival, music director of Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (2003 to 2010), and author of Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture.
David Bromwich, fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Sterling Professor of English at Yale University, author of The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence and Moral Imagination, and frequent contributor to Huffington Post, New Republic, and New York Review of Books.
Kennan Ferguson, associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, author of All in the Family: On Community and Incommensurability and William James: Politics in the Pluriverse.
Jerome Kohn, trustee of Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust, editor of Arendt’s unpublished and uncollected writings: The Promise of Politics, Essays on Understanding 1930-1954, Responsibility and Judgment, and The Jewish Writings (with Ron Feldman).
Ann Lauterbach, David and Ruth Schwab Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College, cochair of writing in the Milton Avery School of the Arts, author of a number of poetry collections including Under the Sign and Or to Begin Again, and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1995.
Lawrence Lessig, Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, cofounder of Creative Commons, author of several books including Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—And a Plan to Stop It and Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0.
Charles Murray, political scientist, libertarian, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute since 1990, former Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, author of a number of books including Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which explores the new ways in which classes are forming in America regardless of race or ethnicity, and the New York Times bestseller The Bell Curve.
George Packer, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of several books including The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, which explores the sense of crisis and division in contemporary American politics, and The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, which was named one of the 10 best books of 2005 by the New York Times and won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award and an Overseas Press Club’s book award.
Joan Richardson, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center, CUNY, author of numerous publications including A Natural History of Pragmatism: The Fact of Feeling from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens: The Later Years, 1923-1955, Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879-1923, and Pragmatism and American Experience. Norman Rush, American author best known for his novel Mating, which won the 1991 National Book Award and the 1992 Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize for its exploration of notions such as society, poverty, and heterosexual relationships.
Amity Shlaes, author of the New York Times bestseller The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, chair of the board of trustees of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, professor of economic history at NYU Stern School of Business, current event columnist for Forbes, and regular contributor to Marketplace.
Jim Sleeper, American journalist, author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism, political science professor at Yale University, and member of the editorial board of the journal, Dissent.
Zephyr Teachout, associate professor of law at Fordham University, author of forthcoming book, Corruption in America (September 2014), and currently challenging NY Governor Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture at Columbia University, coeditor of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Founded the Movement and What’s Left of Theory?, and an inaugural recipient of the Berlin Prize Fellowship of the American Academy in Berlin, Germany.
Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Brazilian philosopher, politician, author of numerous books in Chinese, Portuguese, and English including The Left Alternative and The Religion of the Future, and whose work on legal theory in the 1970s and ’80s is largely credited for helping to form the Critical Legal Studies movement.
Arendt Center conferences are attended by nearly a thousand 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, New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, and presidential candidate and political activist Ralph Nader. Previous conferences have explored the intellectual roots of the economic crisis, the future of humanity in an age increasingly dominated by technology that’s changing how humans live, and the crisis in American education.
For a full conference schedule and bios of featured speakers, please visit www.bard.edu/hannaharendtcenter. For more information or any questions about the conference, please contact Tina Stanton at email@example.com or 845-758-7878.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 9
America: What Are We Fighting For?
Is there Still an Idea of America that Can Inspire People to Sacrifice for the Common Good?
Moderator, Marina van Zuylen
Discussants, Philip K. Howard and Kendall Thomas
What Imaginary Idea Can Inspire a Just and Vibrant American Future?
Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Disscussant, Uday Mehta
Is America’s Pragmatism American?
Moderator, Laurie Naranch
Discussant, Kennan Ferguson
Is there an American Idea of Justice?
Moderator, Wyatt Mason
Discussant, David Bromwich
Moderated by Roger Berkowitz
Wine and Truffle Reception in Olin Auditorium
Truffles and cookies will be provided by Pound for Pound Bakery in support of the HAC.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 10
Is American Exceptionalism a Force for Moral Good?
Moderator, Richard Aldous
Discussant, Joan Richardson
Does American Democracy Presume Racial Justice?
Moderator, Tabetha Ewing
Discussant, Jim Sleeper
Is America a Land of Freedom?
Moderator, Jennie Han
Discussant, Thomas Wild and Jennifer Hudson
Can We Restore American Democracy?
Moderator, Peter Rosenblum
Discussant, Robert Post
All Speakers will have three minutes to make final points and answer the question:
Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?
Moderator, Roger Berkowitz
Wine and Truffle Reception in Olin Atrium
Truffles and cookies will be provided by Pound for Pound Bakery in support of the HAC.
ABOUT THE HANNAH ARENDT CENTER
The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking 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 Civic Engagement Initiative, 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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