The NS Interview: Susan Neiman

“Progressives never know what to do in power” - Susan Neiman, moral philosopher

Click here to see an extended version of this interview.


Where is home, as an American living in Berlin?
I think everybody who has lived and worked in more than one country is going to wind up feeling permanently torn, feeling no place is entirely home. It's both a gain and a loss.

Twenty years ago you wrote about Jewish life in Germany. How have things changed?
It's complicated. There is much less racism than when I first came. The red-green government, which is no longer in power, took major steps to change things. But the Christian Democrats . . . They're not going to do anything overtly racist or anti-Semitic, but you still have enormous
resentment. So I'm concerned. The politics of memory has a very different shape now, but there are still major issues.

In your new book, Moral Clarity, you say you are driven more by hope than by anger. What makes you angry and what gives you hope?
Well, Moral Clarity combines two projects. One is rage at Enlightenment-bashing and the way "hero" has become a suspect word. The second part began after George W Bush was re-elected in 2004. I was enraged that the most immoral regime in US history was claiming moral clarity, when everything it did was a travesty of both words: neither moral nor clear. The hope is simply to reclaim moral concepts for progressive forces. I think President Obama, given an almost insoluble set of problems, has been doing a reasonable job.

If there is one Enlightenment value that we should adopt today, what is it?
In my book I talk about four - happiness, reason, reverence and hope - all of which are needed for a robust Enlightenment, committed to more than just tolerance and fairness. If I get only one, I'd say hope. Which is not the belief that pro­gress is necessary, only that it's possible.

Who are your own heroes?
Several people I know personally count as heroes. Sarah Chayes, who works in Afghanistan. David Schulman, who works in an Israeli-Palestinian peace group. Bob Moses, a civil rights hero who was a model for Obama's community organising. And Daniel Ellsberg [who leaked the Pentagon Papers, about US conduct of the Vietnam war] is the most famous of them. But my hope is for people to think about their own heroes. There are more of them around than we tend to think.

Do you vote?
Oh yes. And I volunteered extensively on the Obama campaign. There are forms of political engagement besides voting. It's the minimum.

And you're not disappointed by Obama?
People complain that he hasn't done as much as he should have in foreign policy. What exactly is he supposed to do? On one hand, Israel has the most right-wing government in its history and says, you know: "Stopping the settlements? No way!" And on the other side you have Ahmadinejad saying, "Up yours." Given the incredible constraints, I think Obama is doing all right.

What can the US public do to advance progress?
I'd like American progressives to unite in the way we did for the campaign. Progressives always have a hard time in power - we don't really know what to do. I'd also like to see Europe offer more than gestures like the Nobel Peace Prize, which didn't help Obama very much.

Instead of Nobel prizes, what should it offer?
By picking the least charismatic or forceful people it could for the EU posts, I think Europe was saying, "We don't want a role on the global stage, we want to protect our comforts." They are great comforts, but it'd be good if Europe used its strength to support a progressive line.

You've written about reclaiming language from the right. "Progressive" is a hotly contested word in the UK now.
It's a difficult issue. Many people on the left don't actually believe in progress; they argue that every instance of progress turns out to be a form of oppression. Many progressives have turned cynical about any notion of intervening for human rights, for example. But we need to look carefully at what's hiding behind the right. There are parties in Norway, and US institutes, that are committed to neoliberal economy, and call that progress. It's a hidden way of saying the only possible progress is rampant global capitalism. There's nothing progressive about that.

Was there a plan?
There were several, but most of them got overthrown. One consistent thing is that I really did always want to be a writer.

What did you dream of writing? Poetry, plays?
I've written a play. I'm working on a television project and a novel. Poetry's not my strength.

What would you like to forget?
Oh, lord. I'd actually like to remember more than I now remember.

Are we all doomed?
Absolutely not. Only if we doom ourselves. Only if we believe it.


Defining moments

1955 Born in Atlanta, Georgia
1977 Begins her first degree at Harvard, later graduating with a PhD in philosophy
1989 Becomes a professor at Yale
1992 Slow Fire, her memoir of life in 1980s Berlin as a Jewish woman, is published
1996 Takes up a post at Tel Aviv University
2000 Appointed director of the Einstein Forum, a Berlin-based think tank
2009 Moral Clarity: a Guide for Grown-Up Idealists is published in Britain

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven