Monday, May 14, 2007

A speech worth reading

I don't know if I'm going to start writing on this blog again, but I've been thinking about it lately. And then just now I got a hold of a magnificently eloquent speech to Honors Students at Texas Christian University given by a political science professor, Mike Dodson. I've had the privilege of counting Mike among my friends for nearly 30 years now, and although I've learned much from my regular dialogues with him, I also envy his students.


Over the past year I’ve discovered one thing with stunning clarity! If you’re going to win the Honors Recognition Award, you’d better have a stout ego. Otherwise, you’re toast because you’re going to agonize for 364 days over what you’ll say at the Honors Banquet!

For my part, I hoped for sudden inspiration. I hoped to be like Rousseau. On his way to visit Diderot in prison, his mind was suddenly “dazzled by a thousand lights, by a crowd of ideas”. With what clarity would [I then] have then pointed out all of the contradictions of our social system!”

But, I didn’t have Rousseau’s luck (actually, that might be a good thing considering how his life turned out!). No such epiphany occurred. In the end I decided to use this occasion simply to discuss something I care a lot about. That’s why my subject, like Dr. Benjamin Barber’s this morning, is American democracy. My thesis is that we should be concerned for its well being. My aim is to persuade the students present that they can and should do something about it.

I took my first interest in politics in January, 1961—the day we inaugurated a charismatic young politician to be our president. I listened to that inauguration on the radio, relying on my imagination to picture John Kennedy and the great occasion of installing a president. I was 17 years old.

Listening to President Kennedy speaking of his passion for America’s ideals and his vision of our future was an electrifying moment. I hope this doesn’t sound corny, or seem like a cliché. His speech inspired my first interest in politics. It led me for the first time to think beyond the concerns of my private life. Kennedy’s call to public service set me on the path that became my vocation and avocation. To this day I can feel the exhilaration of being asked, along with other young Americans, to redeem democracy by engaging in political life.

I was so inspired, actually, that the day after graduating from high school I tried to join the Peace Corps! I can still see the bemused look on the face of the fellow who interviewed me. He politely suggested that before rushing off to serve my country I might first want to learn something that would be useful to it! He suggested I give college a try.

As it turned out, I didn’t enter the Peace Corps or the Foreign Service, as I had intended. By my junior year in college the Vietnam War had brought teach-ins and sit-ins to the staid, conservative campus of the University of South Dakota. Patriotism runs deep in South Dakota (believe me when I say that South Dakotans can give Texans a run for their money on that subject!). But even there serious challenges were being raised as to the morality of the war and the truthfulness of our leaders. These disturbances caused me a lot of anguish and sent me searching for answers—especially, I might add, during the two years I spent in the army! Eventually, I saw that in politics the answers are often contentious and ambiguous, but the key to enlightenment is asking the right questions.

This is how I ended up studying and later teaching political theory—a discipline that specializes more in formulating good questions than in giving definitive answers. Many students think of political theory as “old masters and musty texts”, but it’s actually a dynamic, evolving tradition that’s equally useful to each succeeding generation. My own study of those “musty texts” taught me that the moral ambiguities haunting the United States in Vietnam were hardly new and that the need to control even democratic leaders is age old. Consider Athens, history’s most fabled democracy. The ambition of Alcibiades and the timidity of Nicias certainly demonstrated (in the disaster at Syracuse) the need for a democratic citizenry to ask the right questions! Thucydides, our first political theorist, taught us just how fraught the exercise of power is—both with the possibility of doing “good” and the danger of doing harm—and how easy it is to fall prey to hubris. In my youth the United States committed this error in Vietnam and did great harm to itself and others.

Recalling these memories leads me to contemplate the present generation. You, too, are coming of age in the shadow of an unsettling war. And I wonder: did President Bush’s call to defeat terrorism after the September 11 attacks inspire you to think of public service? Did his later call to promote democratic freedom across the globe inspire you in the way that President Kennedy’s call to “bear any burden” for liberty inspired an earlier generation? Were you persuaded that America has a great moral mission in the world? Have you been disillusioned by the cruel contradictions that the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq have forced upon us?

I ask these questions because I’m concerned about the quality of citizenship in our country today. At TCU we declare that our mission is to train ethical leaders for a global society. Political science plays an important role in this mission by informing us about the institutions and behaviors that direct national and international life. However, since its origins in ancient Athens, political science has also sought the knowledge and skills that are needed to make good judgments in exercising power. Two implications follow from these statements: first, political science should foster the skills needed for active citizenship; and second, the first principle of citizenship is informed skepticism toward the exercise of power.

The problem, of course, from Aristotle’s day to ours, is that this sort of thing is often viewed with suspicion—and never more so than in times of crisis—which is precisely when it is needed most! We would do well to remember how ready Athenians were to cast doubt on Socrates’ loyalty 2500 years ago. The “swift boating” of those who question power or policy today is only the contemporary iteration of this tendency. Far from being unpatriotic, approaching leadership and power skeptically is both necessary and patriotic. Political theorists make excellent guides in this regard. Even Machiavelli, who we tend to regard as the most cynical of men, pursued political theory because he was passionately engaged with the concerns of public life. “I love my country more than my own soul” Machiavelli once said. But this devotion did not prevent him from making radical criticisms of his country’s politics—indeed, it was the very source of those criticisms.

Margaret Thatcher once quipped: “There is no such thing as society, only individuals pursuing their interests”. Political theory originates in a different viewpoint—from the Aristotelian observation that we are by our nature “social and political beings”. Political theory appreciates our shared, public life, but treats it critically from a moral point of view. The need for this is constant in a democratic society.

Even though I believe that today’s university offers rich opportunities to develop a critical, humane cast of mind, I’m still worried. I’m troubled by the shift that has taken place in broader American attitudes over the course of my lifetime. The appeal of disinterested public service that seemed so palpable to me in 1961 has been allowed—even encouraged—to wither. A mindset that treats government as the problem not the solution to our shared concerns has taken hold. No less a figure than Milton Friedman has ridiculed President Kennedy’s call to “to ask what you can do for your country”. The present mindset so privileges the private sphere of our lives that it marginalizes cultivation of the public sphere. Perhaps, I lack the stature to disagree publicly with a Nobel laureate, but I will anyway, because to me, this way of thinking contradicts the democratic ethos.

Its fruits are readily apparent. We have experienced steep declines in political participation. One hundred million Americans sat out the fateful national election of 2000. One recent study of participation rates in 37 countries shows the U.S. in third from last place. Each of the last two presidents won re-election with the support of less than 25% of the eligible electorate. At the same time, the democratic process is a direct reflection of our national sensibilities. So, what does it say about us that we cannot summon the will to rebuild a great American city that’s been destroyed by a hurricane? How comforting can it be that a Spaniard or a Bulgarian is three times more likely than an American to say that the political community has a collective responsibility to care for those who are too poor to care for themselves?

This growing neglect of our public business has its perverse complement in a second tendency. Even as leaders disparage public solutions to domestic problems, they seem to regard concentrated political power as the only possible solution to political challenges emanating from abroad. So, we refrain from using our collective energies to address political problems at home, but we avidly embrace the use of American power to remake the world beyond our shores. The irony of this cannot be lost on any of us!

These divergent trends threaten the quality of American democracy. The first de-politicizes Americans and discourages pursuit of a “common good”. The second alienates us from the political power we’re supposed to control. When that power is uncontrolled, it gravitates to national security agencies that operate in secrecy. The combined effect is to hollow out political life and drain it of democratic substance. In these conditions we are taken to war without the sustained deliberations that should be the hallmark of a democratic society.

In light of these reflections, I’d like to comment briefly on our present war. The terrorist attacks on the United States left Americans stunned and disbelieving. We lacked a frame of reference for making sense of what happened. Most Americans wanted a decisive response, and we certainly got one—a declaration of war on global terrorism. The war was framed as a Manichean conflict between good and evil and it was launched as a crusade. In a context of weakened citizenship, September 11th brought out the severest consequences of a peculiar American disposition to behave as though we have a special dispensation to right the wrongs of the world.

We opted to act unilaterally, to wage preventive war against other countries at our sole discretion—in defiance, even, of the international community. In George Packer’s words, we “admitted no daylight between American interests and democratic ideals.” We demanded that all countries take sides—to be with us or know that we considered them to be on the side of the terrorists.

We should ask ourselves: is America, acting as an unrestrained superpower, proof of the vitality of our democracy, or of something else? My concern is this. The expansion of the imperial state brings with it the steady growth of executive power. The troubling corollary seems to be an “imperial citizen”, an individual whose powers and responsibilities steadily shrink! Notice that in this war on terrorism, including the terrifyingly costly war in Iraq, we citizens have not been asked to make any sacrifices or to engage in any way directly in the war effort. Instead, we’ve been urged to live “normally”—to simply go shopping or to the movies. Am I being too critical to suggest that this amounts to replacing the democratic citizen with a mere subject absorbed in self-gratification? Tocqueville warned against this very thing. When a democracy fails to engage its citizens, he wrote, popular politics will be displaced by a cultural populism of sameness, resentment, and mindless patriotism.

The Iraq war was the logical consequence of power too concentrated, an excess of righteousness about our imperial role, and too little public debate about why we needed to go to war. We conflated two distinct enemies. Saddam Hussein, a nasty tyrant who was no direct threat to the United States was confused with Al Qaeda, a stateless enemy that almost certainly cannot be defeated by conventional military means.

A presidential directive of August 2002 set out the goals that guided the invasion of Iraq. It’s very sobering to consider them now, four years later. We would find and eliminate weapons of mass destruction, end Iraq’s threat to its neighbors, cut its links to international terrorism, maintain the unity of the country, and assist them in creating a moderate, democratic society. Tragically, today these goals are in tatters. There were no WMD. Iraqis escaped the tyranny of Saddam only to be subjected to the tyranny of anarchy and uncontrolled violence. U.S. intelligence agencies now report that “the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives.” These terrorists were a consequence, not a cause of the U.S. invasion. The so-called “unity” government in Iraq is so riven by political and sectarian disputes that it simply mirrors the civil war that rages throughout the country. In Iraq the rule of the tyrant has been replaced by the rule of the gunmen.

President Bush has come in for his share of blame over this catastrophe. My question is: “how much of the blame do we ourselves deserve”? If we were an engaged citizenry we could act as a countervailing power, a potentially strong check against such blunders. Also in 2002 Donald Rumsfeld, said to a visiting Iraqi delegation: “Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if Iraq were similar to Afghanistan, if a bad regime was thrown out, people were liberated . . . repression could stop, prisons could be opened? I mean, it would be fabulous.” Indeed it would have. But did we have clear ideas about the forms that effective democracy could take in Iraq? This was such a vital question and it seems hardly to have been asked. Certainly, it was not seriously discussed and debated by the American people. Apparently, we were in no mood to reflect critically on President Woodrow Wilson’s claim made 90 years ago that America has the moral authority “to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” Iraq today mocks that moral authority and there is cause for concern about the erosion of democracy here at home.

I’d like to give one example of this erosion, and then close with an appeal to the students. My example is the ever expanding claims of executive power. It is now being said that the war powers of the commander-in-chief displace civilian law. This interpretation would allow the president to make the law on his or her own authority so long as the president says we are at war. (Bear in mind that the war on terror is open-ended!) Such an interpretation would seem to take us back to the age of Charles I! It would erase three centuries of struggle to bring the executive under the law. Restraining executive power and affirming the rights of citizens—these are crowning achievements of modern democracy.

What warrant can there be for turning back the clock to an unlamented age of authoritarianism? Even Alexander Hamilton, one of the most ardent defenders of executive power, warned against the danger of a Caesar or a Cromwell. Do we really want the executive branch to tap our phones without a warrant, deny the fundamental right of habeas corpus to “enemy combatants, create its own “Devil’s Island” at Guantanamo Bay? Are we prepared to accept that we have fostered the conditions in which the very prisons that Secretary Rumsfeld envisioned emptying out in Iraq have instead filled up—mostly with innocent Iraqis who are once again being subjected to arbitrary, punitive treatment by the people in charge.

We have known since the war for independence that concentrated executive power is a threat to the values and rights we cherish. What do we gain by waging a war on terrorism, or by invading other countries to bring them democracy, if we ourselves forsake democratic practices? Let’s remember Rousseau’s warning that “the greater the strength possessed by the government for the restraint of the people, the greater should be the strength that is possessed by the people . . . in order to restrain the government.”

So, what then is the challenge for your generation? Americans revere democracy because of its touted respect for individual freedom. There is a strong current of thought today that takes this only to mean that government should leave us alone—except, of course, when it comes to national security. I suggest that young Americans think about democracy another way—as both the best method for controlling power and the best means of bringing considered judgment to bear on the exercise of power. If you thought of it that way, you would cherish democracy because you saw that it was superior at controlling ambition, arrogance, hubris, and other follies to which human beings are prone. You might well side with James Madison on the need to “oblige government to control itself”, but you would also stand with the Athenians in your conviction that an educated, engaged citizenry is a means superior even to the separation of powers for accomplishing this task.

Prometheus gave fire and techne to human kind, a share, so to speak, of the divine attributes. But Protagoras tells us that something was missing because human beings lacked “the art of government”. Fearing disaster, Zeus sent Hermes to impart justice to mankind. And who, asked Hermes, should receive it—some select few? Believers in democracy, from Protagoras to the present, have celebrated the god’s answer: No, Zeus replied, “to all; I should like them all to have a share for cities cannot exist if only a few share in this virtue”. This has been the democratic faith of American leaders from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey—that all men and women, when properly educated, can contribute their judgment to the deliberations that lead to justice.

The seminal article of democratic faith is that good judgment is most likely to prevail in settings of wide participation and vigorous debate, in which the wisdom of an engaged citizenry can be expressed. This supposition powerfully complements the great republican principle that freedom is best defended by keeping everyone, even the most exalted leaders, under the control of law. In its history the United States has been as devoted to these two propositions as any large state ever has. But I perceive that we have drifted a long way from the America that once avidly encouraged civic education (the America that men like Benjamin Barber are trying to restore): the America of the lyceum movement, for instance, and the Chautauqua circuit, an America that sought to make every public place a locale for cultivating critical citizenship. That America gave us citizens like Emerson and Greeley, Lincoln and Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

My hope for our country is that the next generation may rededicate us to these principles and practices. A patriotic America does not have to be punitive, single-minded and self-righteous. Your generation can rebuild our moral capital among the nations of the world in two ways—by building a more robust democracy at home and by having the courage to show more restraint abroad. If America is to lead in the world of the 21st century as a democracy, neither its citizens nor its leaders can be shy of self-criticism or indifferent to accountability. I don’t think it’s too grand to ask that you take Socrates as your model: he believed that you strengthen your political community by questioning the exercise of power and that the truest citizens always challenge the state to live up to the ideals it proclaims.

Michael Dodson

April 19, 2007


At 6:08 PM, Anonymous JohnS said...

Good to see a new post...

At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Randy Paul said...

Yes, please come back!


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