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Ben Klutsey and Roger Berkowitz talk about reimagining pluralism in politics, the importance of the humanities and how to foster productive political discourse
In this seventh installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of academic outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, speaks with Roger Berkowitz about pluralism, democracies both liberal and illiberal, loneliness in contemporary society and getting people of different beliefs and backgrounds together in a room to make decisions. Berkowitz is the founder and academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and a professor of politics, philosophy and human rights at Bard College. He is the author of The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, and his research interests include law, political theory and human rights.
This series also includes interviews with Alan Charles Kors, Emily Chamlee-Wright, Ilana Redstone, Richard Ebeling, Robert Talisse, Danielle Allen, Virgil Storr, Kevin Vallier, Juliana Schroeder, John Inazu, Jonathan Rauch and Peter Boettke.
BEN KLUTSEY: Thank you very much, Professor Berkowitz, for joining us today.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: It’s a pleasure, Ben.
KLUTSEY: Today our conversation will focus on pluralism and its role in a liberal society. We’ll just delve right in. How do you define pluralism? When we say we’re in a pluralistic society, what does that mean? Are we just talking about America as a melting pot?
Pluralism vs. Diversity
BERKOWITZ: It’s a good question. Pluralism for me is not quite the same as a melting pot or diversity. Diversity is an interesting value. Biodiversity is a value. There’s a certain claim that people make that simply being different, being diverse, is good. Yet one of the problems with diversity is, every time we get to another diversity, then there’s micro-diversities and other micro-diversities. You’re a Jew, but are you an Orthodox Jew or a Reform Jew or a Conservative Jew? You’re a liberal, but are you an economic liberal or a free-speech liberal?
If we value diversity, which is an important value, it’s not entirely clear where it ends. Why is it that we always value ever more difference and difference and difference? Whatever happened to community or solidarity or commonality? Diversity is an important value, but it’s a little different from what I mean by plurality or what Hannah Arendt would mean by plurality. Plurality is the backbone of what it means to be human insofar as to be human means to live a public and political life.
Hannah Arendt says that human plurality is the basic condition of both action and speech and that it has the twofold characteristic of equality and distinction. What she means by that is that we are all equal, which means that we can understand each other. Even if I’m from another country and we speak a different language, we can figure out ways to understand each other. We can also understand those ancestors who came before us and our progeny who will come after us. That’s the basic equality that she sees as bound up in human plurality.
Yet part of plurality is also that we are distinct. In the ways we appear to others, as we act and speak, we are unique. Not merely, she says, through our natural, racial, religious or physical otherness. So not just in the way we appear or who we are in some religious sense, but in our opinions. And our opinions change. Each one of us has distinct opinions. And so plurality is this mix of our uniqueness and distinctness on the one hand and our equality on the other.
Thus plurality is the space where people who are equal and distinct come together and talk—come together and try and figure out what we share and what we don’t share, and how we can live together amidst what we share and don’t share. So plurality is a political principle. It’s different from diversity, which is more of a value difference. Plurality is a valuing of difference but also equality, and thus the political effort to negotiate both our equalities and our differences. That’s how I understand plurality.
I should add, plurality is a dangerous thing because it announces that there are real and meaningful differences amongst us. Whereas diversity can be superficial, plurality means we really do disagree about things, things that people will kill each other for—my God versus your God, equality versus inequality. When we live amongst plurality, we can threaten each other.
Thus politics founded upon this dangerous plurality itself is dangerous because politics means that we embrace this danger. We embrace our willingness to confront each other as equal and different, equal and distinct, and recognize our plurality. This is the source of really an ancient prejudice against politics that starts with Plato.
It starts with Plato saying, “We want the philosopher-king to tell us what’s right and true. We don’t want the multitude, the doxa, the people, the hoi polloi—we don’t want them getting into it because that’s dangerous, and it can lead to the death of Socrates. We want some people in charge, some experts—the philosophers, the intellectuals, the experts.”
Plurality for me also—and I’ll just end here with this first question of yours—is very much against an overestimation of expertise and truth. The premise of a plural world is one in which there are an infinite number of opinions. While some may be preferable—and I will prefer others and you’ll prefer others—none of them are true, and there’s no philosopher or expert or scientist who’s going to tell us which one is true.
KLUTSEY: I really like the “we are equal yet distinct” phrasing. I think it really highlights the point that you’re making. I want to come back to the discussion on experts. But before we move on, a previous guest, Professor Danielle Allen, in our conversation made a distinction on this topic here between wholeness and oneness—oneness referencing the e pluribus unum concept when talking about a pluralistic society. She mentioned that we shouldn’t seek a monolithic oneness in society but incorporate many different cultures that work together. Do you or Hannah Arendt have any thoughts on looking at it from this angle?
BERKOWITZ: I fundamentally agree with Danielle that to engage freely in a plural world, we have to see ourselves in some way as part of a wholeness. And yet, we have to respect meaningful differences. If we want to go there, we can get into a conversation about federalism. For Arendt, one of the great principles of freedom that was discovered largely by Montesquieu and by the United States is the principle of federalism. You not only have to divide power through the branches of government—the executive, judiciary and legislative—but you have to disperse power throughout society into multiple different power sources—states, counties, nonprofits, nongovernmental institutions.
Since laws can’t protect freedom, only power can protect freedom, from Arendt’s point of view, you need as many different power sources in society as possible to protect freedom. You don’t want an unum; you don’t want a one. You want a multiple. You want a wholeness, but it comes out of a respect for a multiple group of people, many groups of people, many institutions, many power sources, each pursuing their vision of the good life. That’s the vision I share quite strongly.
Prejudices about Democracy
KLUTSEY: I’d love for you to reflect a bit on where we are as a society on pluralism and the concept of being equal yet distinct. I saw you agree with Martin Gurri’s thesis that the public is revolting against the elites. You highlight this in a chapter in the book The Emergence of Illiberalism. Your chapter is titled “The Failing Technocratic Prejudice and the Challenge to Liberal Democracy.” You highlight that there are four prejudices that elites have about democracy. How do these prejudices contribute to our current problems?
BERKOWITZ: This was a piece I originally gave as a speech at one of our Arendt Center conferences called “The Crises of Democracy.” These prejudices and the four prejudices I think I talked about in that essay were that democracy is liberal. Of course, democracy is not liberal in any necessary way. The whole point of democracy is, it can be tyrannical, and it can be repressive, and it can be quite prejudiced. That’s why we don’t have a democracy. That’s why the founders of this country didn’t want a democracy.
They created a republican form of government, and it’s called a constitutional or a limited democracy with many aristocratic elements, by the way, including the Electoral College and others. The idea that we talk about liberal democracy today, it already shows one of the prejudices, which is that those people who don’t believe democracy should be liberal are thought to be wrong. Those people are not anti-democratic; they’re actually often quite democratic. They’re just not liberal. That’s one prejudice of liberal democracy.
Another is that it’s individualist. I mentioned before the idea of the value of cosmopolitanism, and yet most democracies have been quite nationalist. As my friend Chantal Mouffe would write, “The left has made a huge mistake in abandoning speaking about ‘we.’” People need identities, especially in a time in the world when the traditional markers of identity, many of them—religion, family, traditions—have really weakened. The idea that we can all live as cosmopolitan individuals is sort of a fantasy. I happen to agree with Chantal Mouffe on this, and others as well. People need to belong to something.
This liberal-democratic belief that we’re all these free-floating intellectuals or individuals and we’re part of a world community, but we shouldn’t think of ourselves as American or French or German or Chinese or Russian, I think really misunderstands deep human needs. And it’s a prejudice. We see those people who then are nationalist as prejudiced, whereas we have our own prejudice in favor of cosmopolitanism.
The third I talked about was moralizing our opponents as evil. I think that’s fairly obvious right now. We just increasingly see people that disagree with us not as people who disagree with us, but as wrong and even bad people.
That we prefer security over freedom, which is . . . Actually, my friend Uday Mehta has made this a thesis of his for 20 years in writing about Gandhi and Mill and Burke. He argues that the core of liberalism is that we privilege security over freedom. We are so afraid of “nasty, brutish and short” freedom that we give up freedom in the name of keeping order and security, and increasingly we put that responsibility on elites and experts to keep everything in order.
You asked how do we reflect on our society of pluralism? I think I reflect on it this way, depending on how you tell the story. We can start the story in the 1600s. We can start the story in the 1900s. We can start the story somewhere around 1950. Let me for now start it in 1950 so I don’t bore everyone and put them to sleep. After World War II, there was a deep desire to reaffirm, for want of a better word, liberal democratic values, and we saw the emergence of what you might call a technocratic government across the West.
John F. Kennedy giving a speech in, I think, 1961 or ’62 says that this is a new dawn of a new age. We no longer disagree about the big questions. Communism is done; inequality is done; all these things. Everything that we would do in our government is just a matter of technical, how to make it happen. We agree on where we’re going. As I said in the article, one of the worst-timed speeches of all time presages the ’60s, where people really start to disagree—let alone now. I think what you saw was suddenly all these intellectuals—college-educated and Ph.D.s—came into government.
Remember, Lyndon Johnson didn’t go to college. Imagine electing a president—no, forget it. Imagine electing a congressman today who doesn’t have a college degree. It’s almost unheard of. It’s almost unthinkable. We have this over 70 years, from the 1950s till now, the emergence of this idea that to govern you have to be college educated. You have to speak in a certain way. You have to think in a certain way. You have to know when to raise your hand and when to shut up, when not to tweet and when to tweet. And you got this prejudice of these elites.
I think people largely accepted it because the world got better. We didn’t have Nazism. We didn’t have Bolshevism. The economy grew, etc. Yet, when the economy starts to stagnate and when people start not earning more money and when there’s a sense that things aren’t getting better, we look at how these elites have governed for the last 70 years. Have schools gotten better? Hard to say they have for most people. Has healthcare gotten better? Hard to say it has for many people. Have race relations improved? An interesting question.
A recent study by Shaylyn Romney Garrett and Robert Putnam just came out, and it argues, I think very convincingly, that, in fact, most of the actual material racial progress made in this country was pre-1970, and since the 1970s, it’s largely stagnated. Now, that’s a background for maybe how we understand the current movement for Black Lives and why it’s so important and why it’s gotten so much support. But it’s also a background for maybe why the way the elites have been solving these problems is not working. Maybe we need some new ideas.
Here’s where Martin Gurri and I see eye to eye, and I really like Martin and his work. I think we are in the midst of a massive loss of credibility and authority for elites across society. There’s a collision right now between various publics who feel like outsiders, be they the Trump voters or be they the Bernie Sanders voters or be they other people. I’m not saying there’s just two groups or one group; there’s a lot of outsiders. They’re really colliding with the elites, who cling to what they think they’ve earned.
There’s a kind of mutual incomprehension going on amongst those groups, with a dual idea that on the one hand, the elites have lost authority and they’re not listened to very much, and yet you don’t yet have anyone or public that has a sense of what to do or how to rule or how to govern. So what I see is a lot of chaos and a lot of anger and a lot of resentment. That’s where I think we’re at.
The Problem of Mass Loneliness
KLUTSEY: Interesting. You seem to diagnose two essential problems. On the one hand, an elite preference for a technocratic scientism to manage society and mass loneliness and isolation. Could you tell us more about how mass loneliness has affected individuals and how these two problems interact with each other? I know you’ve written about this a little bit yourself.
BERKOWITZ: Mass loneliness is a technical term. There’s always been loneliness. People have always been lonely. The argument is that loneliness used to be a fringe phenomenon in our society. When you were sick or when you were old or when you were in a bad state, you were lonely, but it wasn’t day to day. The argument of mass loneliness is that, increasingly, our daily experience is one of feeling adrift. Feeling out of place. Feeling alone. Feeling purposeless.
For many people, where do they get purpose in their lives? Through religion. Religion is on retreat. Where do they get purpose in their lives? Through being an American, and yet it’s not supposed to be good to be nationalist or be a German or whatever. God forbid, a good German nationalist. These collective identities, which had given us transcendental purposes, are increasingly devalued or seen as ideologies. I think the main thing that drives people, the main thing that mostly keeps people from going crazy, are two. One is entertainment and the other is consumption. So we’ve created a society based around entertainment and consumption.
That works up to a point. And yet when people are lonely and they’re drowning their loneliness, their purposelessness, in a kind of Netflix-driven entertainment and Amazon-driven consumption, at some point that doesn’t do everything for them. Someone comes along and says, ‘‘I can make you great again,” or “We’re going to restore our greatness,” or “We’re going to fight for something.’’ It provides a kind of hope that their lives are meaningful. I think one of the things that’s most underappreciated about Hannah Arendt’s work is that, for her, what really is the absolute center of what it means to be human is to be meaningful.
She says in her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, in a very famous phrase where she’s talking about human rights and she calls it “the right to have rights.” She says that the only real human right is not to live, not to eat. First of all, we’re all going to die, so you have no right to live. Our life is not really different from the life of a cow or an ant. Right? They’re biological creatures. That’s not what makes us human, is that we live. What makes us human is that we can act and speak in public in a way that people listen to us, and thus then our lives have meaning and significance.
There’s a deep, deep human need to be meaningful. The opposite of meaningfulness is loneliness, purposelessness. There’s no sense. It matters because, to the extent we live in a world without these markers of meaning and thus in a world of mass loneliness, people are very susceptible, A, to entertainment and consumption, but, B, to demagogic movements. Any kind of movement, whether it’s an environmental movement or the movement of Black Lives or the Trump movement. People want to join; they want to be joiners because it gives them a sense of purpose in their lives.
KLUTSEY: In the chapter that I mentioned earlier, “The Failing Technocratic Prejudice and the Challenge to Liberal Democracy,” you also say that we have to reimagine a pluralistic politics. What do you mean by that? Can we solve this issue without undermining the ideals that we care so much about?
BERKOWITZ: It’s a good question. I think we can, but I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. I don’t think the solution means that we get somewhere and we stop. I think there’s a few things that need to happen. One is, we need to talk to each other. This seems so simple. President-elect Biden has come out and said he wants to heal the country. Yet he has appointed to his Cabinet almost exclusively people who were part of either the Obama administration or even the Bill Clinton administration before that, who worked with him for 30 years and are almost all what we would call technocratic elites.
Now, I understand that. Part of what he’s doing is reacting to a kind of anti-competency of the Trump administration, and I think he’s right. He’s trying to restore normalcy, and I think that’s right too. But I don’t think you can just restore normalcy right now. I think normalcy means profound polarization and distrust. I don’t think that polarization and distrust is one-sided.
We have to remember that, just as disgusting as what’s going on right now with President Trump and hundreds of Republicans who refuse to recognize this election as legitimate, four years ago, many, many Democrats insisted that the election of Donald Trump was fraudulent, and that it was fraudulent because the Russians stole the election. This view that the Russians stole the election, which has never, ever had any factual basis, continues to be upheld by many on the left. Yes, true, the Democrats did not go as far, and thankfully, as Trump is going now and as Republicans are going now to challenge what they saw as an unfair and unjust election. But there’s no doubt that there is serious prejudice on both sides against accepting the other side as legitimate.
My friend and one of my favorite thinkers, David Bromwich, was speaking last night, actually, at a humanities forum, and he quoted a speech by William James. It’s a speech James gave dedicating a monument to Robert Gould Shaw in Boston in 1897. In that speech, James says there are two core principles of democracy and liberal democracy that need to be upheld if we’re going to hold onto our values and our world.
He says, “They can never be too often pointed out or praised. One of them is the habit of trained and disciplined good temper towards the opposite party when it fairly wins its innings.” That strikes me as an incredibly relevant and modern need. We need to understand good baseball, good sportsmanship. If the other party wins, let them win.
If you’re asking what can we do today, or what is it that can be done, we have to learn a little bit of humility. We have to learn that while I think women should have the right to abortion—and I think it should be a constitutional right, to be honest. I think it is and I think it should be. So I’ll take that one off the table. But people can disagree with me on it and still be good people. I believe in immigration. People can disagree with me on that and still be good people. The problem then is, when the country really does disagree on these questions, really does, what do we do?
Do we, every four years when we win, make abortion legal, and when they win, they make it illegal? When we win, we make immigration legal, and when they win, we make immigration illegal? Is that the way we’re going to govern? I think to some degree two things have to happen, two things. I’ll say what I think these two things are. One is, we need to be a little bit more humble and a little bit more pluralistic. We need to be willing to let different parts of the country live differently.
The United States was originally a country that was a federalist republic. The national government of the country at that time didn’t seek to impose its will on people very much. In fact, not at all. The whole premise of the country at that point was to be an overarching schema for freedom and let different parts of the country and different communities live differently. That kind of freedom led to some things we didn’t like, and rightfully so. We fought wars for them, and we passed laws for them and constitutional amendments for them, and we’ve changed it a lot. Yet increasingly we’ve argued that the country has to be a single, political, moral community.
It’s not clear to me that that view, that the country should be a single, moral, political community, is consistent with pluralism and freedom. Now, that doesn’t mean everything goes. You’re still a constitutional republic, and there are basic constitutional rights. We have to argue about what those constitutional rights are and have them. But at some point, we have to let more plurality and more difference emerge than many, at least on my side—the liberal cosmopolitan side—are currently willing to do. That’s one thing that needs to happen. We need to be a little bit more humble, a little bit more willing to tolerate plurality, even when it really doesn’t agree with us.
Putting People in a Room
The second thing I think we need to do is, we need to realize that a representative democracy has largely atrophied most of our facilities and skills at self-government. Most of us have very little experience being in a room and having to argue with people we disagree with, A, and not only argue with them, come to some sort of consensus or some sort of agreement on what we’re going to do. It’s hard. What Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi have to do right now is not easy. Yet they’re being forced to do it even though they don’t want to, it seems.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, January 15, 2020. Image Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
That being put in a room and being forced to hammer out an agreement, even when you don’t want to, is at the very root of what it means to be a democrat—small “d” democrat, a participant in self-government. We used to have that experience through town hall meetings or local government meetings, and that’s gone. To me, one of the things that’s most exciting in the political universe right now is the rise of what’s called citizen assemblies. I hosted a big webinar on this about a month ago, which is online. We’re having a conference at the Arendt Center at Bard on this at the end of April in 2021.
The idea of citizen assemblies is that you bring a randomly chosen group of citizens together. For example, a few months ago in France, they brought 150 randomly selected French citizens together for six weeks, I think, to talk and discuss about how to deal with climate change. These randomly selected citizens could bring in experts, could talk to people, but in the end, it was up to the citizens. They’ve now put out an agenda on how to deal with climate change that looks like it may end up being embraced by the French government.
We need to bring nonelected, nonexpert, randomly selected voices into government. And I don’t think just into Congress. We should have these citizens assemblies all over the place. So if we’re going to put a sewer system in my town in Red Hook, New York, bring in 30 people and let them get together and talk to people, and let them make decisions.
We need to stop outsourcing our political life to elected political hacks or experts. If we do so, not only will we actually make better decisions, but we will start to bring people throughout our society who don’t talk to each other into the same room, where they have to make a decision. [Alexis de] Tocqueville, one of my favorite thinkers, says that the moral center of the American form of democracy was the jury.
Why? Because the jury, he said, is where 12 randomly selected people came in and had to make a decision on life and death and justice, and they had to talk to each other. And it’s that process of talking to each other where Americans developed their sense of what we share and what we hold in common, and what is right and wrong.
These citizen assemblies that I’m suggesting we engage are like juries for politics. Bring in random people and let them talk for a couple months. Have a trial, but instead of a trial, let them bring in experts. Let them bring in witnesses. Let them bring in people, and let them come to an agreement. It’s that process that not only will make better decisions, but it will make us aware of what we share and what we don’t share, and thus allow us to have a rich, pluralistic, hopefully somewhat liberal democracy.
KLUTSEY: That’s really interesting. It seems as though what I’m hearing is that pluralism is incredibly difficult to do because you have to accommodate people with different perspectives and ideas and philosophies than your own. You’re suggesting that there are two ways to do this. First, to exercise a lot of humility. Secondly, to develop these citizen assemblies and see if we can incorporate more diverse perspectives and ideas on how we move the country forward.
BERKOWITZ: Yeah. Let me just say, the citizen assemblies is one idea. I’m not trying to say it’s the only idea. But it’s not just about incorporating diverse perspective. It’s about practicing self-government, practicing how to talk and make decisions with people you disagree with, and encountering them as human beings.
Politics and the Humanities
KLUTSEY: In your acceptance speech, when you were awarded the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, you also suggested that one way to address our current pluralism challenges is to look to the humanities. You note that there is a tradition of “reinterpreting old texts that are part of a broken tradition in new ways, and in talking to each other about them, we find new meanings and new stories that preserve and make anew our shared world.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
BERKOWITZ: Yeah, I’d be happy to. If politics, as you were just saying and I’ve been trying to say, is the task of finding what unites us as different people—I think it was Aristotle who says that the polis is a unity of a multitude. E pluribus unum is actually a translation of Aristotle, although I don’t know if it’s direct, but fine.
The politician is the person who stands in the middle and speaks and gathers the multitude around them so that they realize what they share without giving up what is different. That’s how I understand politics. Why is the humanities absolutely essential to politics? And I think it is. It’s because the humanities is the study of what we share. It’s the study of what we as human beings share amidst our many differences.
At the end of her essay “Crisis in Culture,” Arendt quotes Cicero, who says, “I prefer before heaven to go astray with Plato rather than hold true views with his opponents.” She says that this quotation, this line, this insight of Cicero’s is at the core of the humanities. Why? Because it says that the humanities are about what I share with my friends, those I recognize as my friends. Plato. And I’d rather recognize and be with my friends than go hold true views with opponents.
The humanities, she says, is not about truth. In the humanities, we don’t talk about truth and we shouldn’t. Some people do, but we shouldn’t. Why not? Because what we talk about in the humanities is the beautiful. You can’t argue to somebody, this painting is beautiful. You can’t. There’s no true beauty.
Like art, which is about judgments of tastes, and here’s one of the most insightful arguments Arendt will make. Like art, which is about judgments of taste, politics is about judgments of taste. Politics is about deciding who are our friends in the broadest way we can, and then figuring out how to live with our friends so that we respect them and they respect us.
How do we unite with our friends who we are, whether we’re Americans or New Yorkers or academics or whatever? How do we create a community of our friends that allows us all to be part of that community? That is a judgment of taste. It’s about, how do we determine that this painting of the trial of Socrates is different from a piece of poop on a podium? That’s a matter of taste. There’s no argument we can make for it. How do we determine that the Gettysburg Address is different from tweets telling us that someone is a jerk or this? That’s a matter of taste. How do we determine that an argument is different from canceling somebody? How do we determine that while lies may be part of politics, repeatedly lying and denying reality is not?
These are matters of taste, and what they require is that all of us, despite our differences, share some common sense, share some common standards. And that’s what the humanities teaches. The humanities teaches that you can love the Aeneid and you can love Derek Walcott’s Omeros. You can love Sappho, and you can love Virginia Woolf, and you can love Plato.
The point is, the beauty of the humanities is that the texts are lovable because they’re good. I can’t argue to it; I can only teach you. I can only, through conversation and teaching with you, point to you and show you why certain things have a quality to them and other things don’t. That determination of quality, which is a matter of taste, is at the heart of art and culture and is at the heart of politics. That’s why I think the humanities is central to politics.
Pluralism and the Rise of STEM
KLUTSEY: Now as we’ve moved more towards STEM, does that pose a challenge in solving some of these problems with pluralism through doing more humanities? Are we making some tradeoffs here that will create a lot of challenges for us in the future?
BERKOWITZ: I don’t think STEM is the problem. I think STEM is great. I’m not a Luddite. I’m talking to you on Zoom. I think people should be aware of how algorithms work, and how Facebook and Twitter and YouTube guide you to what you’re going to watch and read and hear and see. They should be able to fight back against it.
I was on a committee a number of years ago, and I suggested and argued for new courses in digital literacy, that we shouldn’t just imagine schools teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, but that literacy now included understanding how algorithms work and how digital literacy works because if you don’t understand how codes and algorithms direct your life today, through Amazon and Facebook and Twitter, you can’t possibly be free. You can’t resist.
You have to know how that works. I don’t claim I do, but I think young people have to learn that today. I would like to see people learn that digital literacy so they can fight back. The problem is not STEM. The problem is the humanities. I fundamentally believe that the reason the humanities are in retreat is not because people are taking STEM. It’s because people don’t find value in the humanities.
Everyone is going to get mad at me, so here it is. Punching bag is being wound up. Most humanities teachers and professors are doing a bad job. They’re not teaching the humanities as something that is relevant and beautiful and important to people’s lives. They’re teaching hyper-specialized, often very technical interpretations of texts, or they’re teaching texts that are supposed to have political purpose and bring in alternative views and things like that.
That’s not bad in the sense that I think the humanities should be decolonized, in the sense that it should be opened up to all sorts of views. But I don’t think it should be decolonized in the sense that only humanities texts that support a liberal, cosmopolitan, elitist view should be taught. There’s a huge debate amongst the “decolonization of the curriculum” debates, which all of us now have to be involved in.
Again, I’m not against it. But to me, decolonizing the curriculum means bringing in texts from people who aren’t usually heard. That can include conservatives or Black conservatives, and it could include Orthodox Jews and religious Muslims. These are not people usually heard in the academy. But no one in the decolonization debates wants to bring those people in. They want to bring in one ideologically kind of sanctioned text.
That to me is why the humanities is failing. First of all, it’s not exciting. Who wants to read stuff we all agree with? Students are young and rebellious. They want to read stuff they don’t like. They want to read stuff that pisses them off. I did when I was a kid, and my students do too today. This idea that students are snowflakes is a joke, and it comes from the fact, not that students are snowflakes, but they’re being taught to be snowflakes by certain faculty members and administrators.
Students themselves have an innate desire for controversy. Anyone who doesn’t know that and who’s taught, I think, is just fooling themselves. I think students would love a humanities program that brought in really challenging texts that made them think and made them rethink what it means to be human and what’s right and what’s wrong.
Creating Events That Foster Discourse
KLUTSEY: Now, speaking of students, you run a set of initiatives at Bard to foster discourse and conversation and pluralism. You have the Plurality Forum. You have the Tough Talks Lecture Series. You have the Race and Revolution Lecture Series. You have the Dorm Room Conversations. Can you tell us about your thinking behind these initiatives that help people learn how to live?
BERKOWITZ: Yeah. We were approached a while ago to have an institute at Bard on anti-Semitism. We were having lunch with the person who proposed it, and we said, “Great. Hannah Arendt wrote a whole book on anti-Semitism. The Hannah Arendt Center would love to work with and oversee an institute on anti-Semitism.” I said, about to sign on the dotted line, “But there’s one thing you have to understand. There’s going to be people at Bard who bring in people whom you’re not going to like. We may bring in people you’re not going to like. We expect that if they are talking about anti-Semitism or related issues, this center would cosponsor them.”
They said, “Oh, no, our funders won’t do that.” And I said, “Well, no deal,” because Hannah Arendt wrote a book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, on anti-Semitism, and if you read the footnotes, it’s filled with Nazis. What she said is, you can’t study anti-Semitism and not read anti-Semites. How are you possibly going to know what anti-Semitism is if you don’t read and talk to anti-Semites? You’re going to bring a center to study anti-Semitism and not talk to and not listen to anti-Semites? No go.
At the Hannah Arendt Center, we have conferences every year, big public conferences, and we always bring in dissenting views. It’s just part of who we are. I don’t like to think of it as left, right, because I think dissenting views are much more complicated than left, right. But we bring in people who are going to dissent from what I consider to be the consensus, whatever the consensus is going to be on that issue.
We got into some trouble for it over time. But what I found is that the students were not the people who were mad at us. It was faculty members, and especially faculty members of other colleges who were mad at us. I wrote a fair bit about it, and some students came to me and said, “We want to do something.” The first thing we started was something called Tough Talks, where we bring in speakers from all different political perspectives. We have radical anti-police anarchists, and we have conservatives, and we have people who believe that men are all rapists.
We bring in people who have opinions that are outside the mainstream of the campus. Now, we had to, over time, set some criteria. We want to bring in people who we think are intellectual and willing to have a debate and willing to talk. They have to be willing to answer questions and have a certain amount of credibility in their field.
So we have the Tough Talks program. It’s a student-run program. The students pick the speakers, they invite the speakers, they introduce the speakers, and they’ve embraced it. They love it. Again, students love this kind of stuff. They love being controversial. Anyone who tells you students are snowflakes certainly has not met the students I meet.
We started something called a Living Room Conversation series and then a Dorm Room Conversation series. Living Room Conversations is not my idea. There’s a group called Living Room Conversations and they’re national. I don’t know if they’re still around, but they were a couple years ago. The idea was that you would bring six people together—three from one side of an issue and three from another side of an issue—and you’d have a discussion.
Let’s say the discussion was gun control or President Trump, two that we’ve done. Instead of asking them to go straight at it, you ask them each a series of questions. We modified it a little bit. The questions we ask are, “Who are you and what are your main values?” Everyone goes through and answers, “Who am I and what are my main values?”
Then, “What do you think should be done about gun control?” Or, “What do you think should be done about Trump?” Everyone goes through and answers that. Then third is, “What is one thing that someone whom you disagreed with said that surprised you and made you think?” The six people each answer those three questions, and then we open it up to audience questions, and we have these living room conversations.
We then modified that for dorm rooms, and students could pick a topic. We would provide pizza and food, and they would have these conversations in their dorm rooms. We’ve created surveys to find people who disagreed about issues and mix-matched people up on these ideas.
The Plurality Forum is an attempt to model disagreement and how to have a disagreeable conversation. We bring in experts—let’s say, one really strong expert who knows a lot about Israel-Palestine on one side, who’s pro-Israel, and one on the other side. Then we bring 20 students together. These two experts, over the course of a day and a half, have a series of curated discussions where they talk about what they agree on and what they disagree on.
The students are able to then ask them questions. The idea is to model for them how knowledgeable people who disagree can actually talk to each other, and maybe not agree at the end, but at least agree on certain facts. We find where they agree and disagree, but teach them that process.
We have a new collaboration with a group called Future Worlds in the European Union. We’re going to bring them in to moderate what they call structured democratic dialogues, where we have 20 students from around the world. Bard is part of the Open Society University Network, or OSUN, and we’re going to be picking people. The first one will be on decolonization of the curriculum, what I was just talking about.
Twenty people brought together, where they’re going to have to talk to each other and try and figure out what they want to do about decolonization of the curriculum through structured dialogues that help them figure out what they think, and where they agree and disagree with others, and how they can come to some sort of consensus. These are the kind of programs we’re doing. We’re doing them now, not only at Bard but at Bard campuses around the world, these OSUN campuses.
I think it’s very exciting and important. Everyone talks about free speech and diversity and that, and these are great ideas, but to me, what really matters is the practice. The practice of learning how to talk to people you disagree with, with the aim of not convincing them or being convinced, but of coming to some sort of at least a minimal consensus on what we can agree to disagree on. That’s the practice that’s missing, and that’s what we’re really aiming to foster and nurture.
KLUTSEY: If we poll your students, I’m sure they’ll be pleased with it, but what would they say is the thing that they’ve gotten out of this, the biggest value out of going through these experiences?
BERKOWITZ: It’s a good question. We have tons of interviews with our students on our website that people can watch and hear what they say. I think a lot of them do feel that there’s a kind of bubble and that certain ideas are off the table—there’s a cancel culture. I don’t think it’s as bad as a lot of commentators make it out to be on campuses. I think there’s a lot more disagreement and dissent than a lot of people on the right want to say, but it’s there and I think the students feel it.
What I think they feel most is not that they’re being shut up, although some of them do feel that, but I think what most of them feel is that they’re not allowed to ask the questions that they want to ask, and that they’re not able to ask, and they don’t know how to ask, and they don’t know where to go to ask. They find these events hard, but they find them freeing, and they find them empowering. I think that’s a very powerful feeling for young people.
Practicing Disagreement in Civil Society
KLUTSEY: Now, can we take some of these tools and things that you’re learning on campus and apply them in society more broadly? Can there be some transferable skills there?
BERKOWITZ: Well, I think so. Obviously, Bard is a small campus, and if you limit it to 20 people, it’s not going to change the world. I mentioned earlier this idea of citizen assemblies. Citizen assemblies are happening all over the world. In Canada, they’re happening a lot; in Europe they’re happening more and more. Certain parliaments in Europe are starting to embrace the idea.
I’ll tell you that the main argument for them has been that they make good decisions. In Ireland, they had a citizen assembly for two issues, gay rights and abortion. On both issues, this randomly selected selection of Irish, often very religious citizens came out in favor of gay marriage and abortion rights. A lot of the argument is, “Oh, they make the right decisions.”
That’s fine, but to me, what’s important is that in the process of making the right decisions, or the wrong decisions, people have to talk, and they have to talk to people whom they have to then make decisions with. That is an incredibly powerful requirement. One of the things I hear a lot is, when I invite speakers people don’t want to hear on campus, they say to me, “Why do you have to invite them? We can just read them.”
I say, “No, it’s not the same. When you read someone you disagree with, then you put it down and you say, ‘Hah, they’re wrong and here’s why.’ Then you go on as if you’ve proved your point. But when you invite them to speak, and then you have to ask questions and you say, ‘You’re wrong,’ they say, ‘Well, here’s why I’m not.’ You have to actually realize that they have arguments too, that they can come back.”
So it’s the same. It’s one thing to talk to people you disagree with, and read people’s opinions or hear people’s opinions you disagree with on Fox News or one of the other ones, OAN. If you actually have to have a discussion with them, and the point of the discussion is not just to yell or scream or argue but to actually have to come to a consensus, that changes the whole rubric.
It’s very easy for Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell to scream at each other in the press, but when they actually have to sit down with each other and come to a decision, they actually have to listen to each other and figure out what they’re willing to accept and what not. That’s what I think is missing. These citizen assemblies or citizen juries, or whatever you want to call them, are to me a way that this . . .
By the way, you can televise them. In France, these things were televised and recorded. People can see it happening. That’s a way of building new common senses. In a couple of essays and speeches Arendt gives in the ’60s, she repeats a phrase. It’s a phrase that obviously she likes. She used it in four or five different things she wrote. She says, “Talking about justice and piety will make the world more just and more pious.”
A lot of people would say, “Why? That makes no sense. Why talking about justice and piety makes the world more just and pious?” Her answer is that if you actually have to really talk—and we’re talking about talking about it in the way I’m talking about—where you actually have to talk to people you disagree with and come to some sort of consensus, what it will do is it will start to lay down new tracks, new common paths that we share, new stories, new tales or myths that come to be shared.
When I’m just talking to my friends, and the Trump people are talking to their friends, and other people are talking to their friends, we all create our own stories. They’re great but they’re not common. But if I have to talk to all these people, and we begin to say, “Okay, we disagree about immigration. We disagree about abortion. We disagree about religious freedom. But what can we agree on?”
Well, those things we agree on become a new foundation—and maybe a minimal, humble foundation, but at least it’s that beginning. Once we have that beginning, we can then start talking about the higher stuff. Hopefully, over time we’ll get to a more rich, common world. I do think the act of talking about justice and piety, and about politics, in these citizen assemblies or things like them would be an incredibly powerful public tool for plurality and democracy.
KLUTSEY: It reminds me of Danielle Allen’s Talking to Strangers. In that, she says, “There’s a habit that we have in society where we say to kids, ‘Don’t talk to strangers.’” Obviously, that’s a metaphor for the experiences we’re having, but we should train ourselves to do the opposite, to learn to talk to strangers and talk to one another. Seems like that’s similar to what you’re saying.
Is Roger Berkowitz Optimistic?
As we close here, I wanted you to— It’s a question I ask all the guests we’ve had here, to reflect on optimism. Are you optimistic or not about the future of pluralism in our society right now?
BERKOWITZ: Wow. Optimism or pessimism?
KLUTSEY: You could do short-term and long-term as well.
BERKOWITZ: I used to say I’m not an optimist or a pessimist. I alternate between hope and despair. I have to say, there’s a lot I’m optimistic about. The last 20 years a number of things have happened: the Tea Party movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the rise of Trump, the rise of, for want of a better word, the “resistance.” To me, all of these—I’m going to say all of them, although I’m going to get in trouble for that, I know—are positive events. They are the begrudging, halting, slow beginnings of a new political engagement.
After 50 or so years of, “Let me buy whatever I want to buy, and let me watch as much Netflix as I want to watch”—or wasn’t Netflix at that time, it was just walk down the street with my Walkman on my ears and tune out, and whatever it is, drop acid, tune out—young people are back in it. That gives me a lot of hope. I’m a big fan of young people. I teach them every day. It’s what I love to do.
I often fundamentally disagree with my students, trust me, but I love that they care. I haven’t seen students care this much in a long time. To me, that is an optimistic aspect of what’s going on. The pessimist in me worries that too often they care in a kind of ideological way and it’s their way or the highway. That’s totally, in my view, natural for youthful exuberance. I think it would be shocking if that weren’t the case.
What they need to do is go into politics. When they go into politics, they’re going to be in the room with Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. They’re going to be in the room with AOC, but they’re also going to figure out where the lowest common denominator is and where the highest common denominator is that we can get to.
The fact is, they’re going into politics. That’s my optimism. I’ve had more students choose to go into politics in the last five years than in the last 20 years teaching combined before that.
BERKOWITZ: That to me is optimistic. I think they need to learn some more. They’re often a little ideological. Over time, them going into politics will mean a rebirth of politics in this country in a way that I can’t predict how it will come out but is exciting, and in the end, hopeful.
KLUTSEY: All right. On that note, thank you very, very much, Professor Berkowitz, for taking the time to speak with us. We really appreciate it.
BERKOWITZ: It’s my pleasure, Ben, thanks very much.
KLUTSEY: Thank you.