Many sense that we are at dangerous moment in the political life of our country. Our nation is bogged down in a nasty war fought for purposes that our vague, fostered by ideological zeal and founded on lies — with no foreseeable end in sight. On the domestic front, the gap dividing the rich from the poor has never been greater, and continues to grow, while the middle class, the sustainer of American life and values, suffers the pain of steady anxiety-ridden, erosion. With an election looming less than two months away, political discourse has never been more polarized than now. When we have a need for deliberation and intelligent dialogue we are bombarded by strident sound bites and a slugfest of innuendo, character assaults, and tightly-staged, poll-driven campaigning as each candidate desperately attempts to woo that small sliver of the electorate that may still be undecided.
We are governed by a regime in Washington which is committed, without shame or second thoughts, to moving as much wealth as it can upward from the middle class and working poor to the richest Americans to make them, richer still. We have a government that is the most secretive in memory, the most repressive since at least the McCarthy era, and blatantly mediocre and incompetent in realizing even its own stated goals. Lying beneath these realities, generated from above, is the pessimistic fact that the American public remains poorly informed politically, with scarcely more than 50% of potential voters bothering to do so.
We are Ethical Culturists, and the questions I ask pertain to us and our mission. “Where do we position ourselves? What do our philosophy and tradition inspire us to do? What contribution can we make at this critical hour?”
I recall a statement made by the great African-American intellectual and activist W.E. B. Du Bois, himself a frequent guest on the platform of the New York Ethical Culture Society. Du Bois said of the black movement of his day, “What has been accomplished? This: we have kept a vision alive; we have held to a great ideal. We have established a continuity, and some day when unity and cooperation come, the importance of all these earlier steps will be recognized.”
I find Du Bois’ wisdom relevant to us because it suggests that our contribution is not solely for today. We, as Ethical Culturists, are visionaries; we are idealists, which means that our actions and commitments now may not bear visible fruit at this moment, and we may not know the joys of immediate gratification. As Felix Adler, our founder, often remarked, by our ethical deeds we are laying the groundwork for tomorrow, for the future. And it is our faith as a religious movement that the steps we take today will one day be realized and recognized.
Another way of saying this is that Ethical Culture, though it sometimes is difficult to see, is not the same as the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, nor are we primarily a political movement. Our mission is ulterior to that. It speaks to commitments that run deeper, and are more lasting than the vicissitudes of politics, which change with the daily newspaper. The purpose of Ethical Culture, for us and for society, is to nurture an abiding commitment to those values on which we can stake our lives, in which we can root ourselves, and give us a sense of enduing meaning. It is such commitment to sturdy values, values in which we can trust, that brings Ethical Culture closer to a religious sensibility than one that is purely mundane.
Commitment to such values and ideals does not lift Ethical Culturists into a transcendental realm untainted by the messiness of everyday life. The aim of Ethical Culture is not the attainment of some kind of antiseptically spiritualized personal salvation. Rather, it was the genius of Felix Adler, in criticizing the religions of his day, to make the bold proclamation that religion must not retreat from the world, but au contraire, religion needs to immerse itself in the world. It was his conviction that it is our duty as men and women to commit ourselves to the world, and work to transform it for the better by the light of the ideals that inspire us. Whatever spiritual rewards we reap, he concluded, come from the often difficult, frustrating effort of wrestling with our experience, however trying and messy that experience may be. In this sense, Ethical Culture is not primarily, but secondarily a political movement. Its purpose is to help to inform the political culture, but to do so out of an allegiance to overarching values and ideals toward which we seek to have society and politics aspire.
With that said, when we dig into Ethical Culture’s philosophy and history, what values can we find and apply to the current political crisis we confront?
I want to speak of two values, which are tightly related to each other. The first is that Ethical Culture is a democratic movement, which holds up the values of democracy as an ideal for society. Ethical Culture is committed to democracy, or it is nothing. The motto we often invoke that “we must bring the best in others in order to bring out the best in ourselves” is predicated on a social reality that is democratic. We live for the sake of enabling others to grow, to mature, to cultivate what is distinctive and best in themselves, and because we are organically tied to them, we thereby bring out the best in ourselves. In short, we do not grow into ourselves without actively committing ourselves to the community of others. For Ethical Culture, democracy is not merely the formal ritual of periodically going to a poll and casting a vote. It is rather a way of being, a personal habit, a character trait, which is psychological as well as political. For democratic theorists such as Felix Adler and Dewey, democratic participation is not merely a way to satisfy our material needs. It is a process of engagement with others that should edify the human spirit. Democracy implies active, engaged citizenship in which people take an inspired role in shaping the institutions in which they live, and which reciprocally work to shape who they are and become.
The crisis we are in does not augur well for our democracy. Nor does it speak well for freedom, for democracy and freedom go hand in hand. In fact, one could argue, and I would maintain, that the United States of America is a democracy in name only. We retain the structures of democracy, and this is important. But substantively we are an oligarchy, ruled by a plutocratic elite, who buy and bend our politicians in support of their interests, who control the mass media which frame our political consciousness, and by politicians themselves whose narrow self- interests trump a statesman like commitment to the common good.
How did we get to this point? Assuredly the causes are complex. My view is that the problems of democracy are not merely widespread disaffection and disillusionment. In addition to these, democracy is made vacuous by the greatest forces on this planet. Since the Reagan administration, and then with the fall of the Soviet Union, we have been told that we have reached “the end of history.” The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of bi-lateralism in world affairs meant the end of ideological conflict that characterized the Cold War, and thus allowed the United States, as the world’s sole superpower to spread the dogma of the unfettered free market across the globe. The assumption was and is that economic globalization, would not only ensure economic progress at home and abroad, but that free markets were equatable with democracy and freedom.
The encouragement the American people received from George Bush after the horrors of 9/11 is highly symbolic of the assumptions that underlie this new world order. As you recall, we were told that the best way to stand up to terrorism was to go out and shop. No doubt Bush had in mind the notion that the freedom we express as consumers is identical to political freedom. It is as if to say that America is the freest country on earth because we can go into any major super market and exercise our freedom to choose from among 20 different brands of cereal or shampoo.
But the fallacy is that the reign of the free market is not identical to political freedom, nor to democracy. The ruthless dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile had a free market economy, as does in great measure China today, yet politically China is a centrally controlled and intensively repressive society with little individual political freedom.
The dangers of the unfettered market are not only that it disproportionately enriches those at its center while kills around the edges. We have made a fetish out of the free market and it has worked to trivialize our political culture. The idolization of the business culture, despite recent scandals, not only yields obscene levels of wealth inequality, but because of its tremendous power redefines the terms of what we should be striving for in life — glamorizing materialistic gain, narcissistic pleasure and the pursuit of narrow individualistic preoccupations – especially among young people, but not only among the young.
In the words of Cornel West, who was an esteemed teacher of mine, “the dangerous dogma of free market fundamentalism turns our attention away from schools to prisons, from workers’ conditions to profit margins, from health clinics to high tech facial surgeries, from civic associations to pornographic internet sites, and from children’s care to strip clubs.”
Being a consumer and being a citizen are not the same thing, though in our time in which consumption and market influences shape so much of our mental life, our values and our interests, one could hardly be faulted for the confusion.
Another way of considering this is through grasping the implications brought by the mania for privatization, and the commensurate decline of public space. Citizenship and civic culture go on in the public realm. It is where we devote ourselves to others, to the common good, and express our highest virtues. It is in the public realm that we bring forth from ourselves what is most noble in us and develop the most estimable parts of our characters.
If we are humanists and sensitive human beings, then we realize that the highest values in life are not those of getting and spending. Consuming more, owning more, being richer than the next guy is not what touches the core of our most human, most noble selves. Certainly, this is not as parents, what we teach to our children. No, for humanists the highest values are “non-market values”, the values that money cannot buy and a fetish with ownership can never bring us. They cannot bring us the values of love, of compassion, of service to other, or an uplifting commitment to justice. These are the values that we exercise and discover in our communal and social life, in the civic sphere and in what we refer to as public space.
What does it say when our public space is co-opted by private interest and corrupted for private gain? What effect does it have on our civic culture and to what extent does it fuel our cynicism, when public schools are turned over to private entrepreneurs; when commercial interests hawk their products to children on news programs in the class room, programs that are supposed to fulfill an educational purpose? What does it mean when more and more people sent prison can expect that their incarceration, beyond punishment or even rehabilitation, will be a vehicle toward the profits of private corporations that increasingly run our prisons? What does it mean that our magisterial national parks, the true gems of America are increasingly sold off to private concessionaires? What does it mean that more and more people who can afford to do so abandon public neighborhoods to live in gated communities, which in some cases have taken over the functions of government itself? What does it mean when social security may indeed be privatized? What does it say about our communal responsibility to the disadvantaged when public welfare programs are handed over to private groups called churches, while government, our government, by and for the people, divests itself of its social obligations. What does it say when large swaths the armed forces fighting this thankless war in Iraq, and supposedly doing their patriotic duty, are in fact, mercenaries in the employ of private corporations? Do they respond to us the citizens, whose interests they are putatively defending, or to their corporate bosses, whose interest in the bottom line may exceed their duty to country? And what happens to these disgruntled warriors when they return home? Don’t be surprised if they become the new backbone of renegade, lunatic anti-government militia movements.
Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, and an extraordinarily eloquent critic of the status quo, in his recently published book, Gag Rule, makes the following observation:
Forty years ago in the United States the word “public” served as a synonym for selfless dedication to the common good (public servant, public health, public interest) and the word “private” carried with it the suggestion of selfish greed (private interest, private bank, private railroad car.) Two generations of sustained economic prosperity have reversed the political usages of the words. “Public” connotes waste, poverty, incompetence, and fraud; “private” connotes honesty, intelligence, efficiency and noble purpose…
The privatization of the nation’s public resources has enriched the investors fortunate enough to profit from the changes in venue, but at what cost to the state of our general well-being? By discounting what the brokers classify as “non-market values,” we downgrade our faith in the republic from the strength of a conviction to the weakness of a sentiment, and we’re left with a body politic defined not as the union of collective energies and hopes but as an aggregate of loosely affiliated interests (ethnic, regional, commercial, sexual) each armed with its own manifesto, loyal to its own agenda, secure in the compound of its own jargon – democracy understood as a fancy Greek name for the American Express card, the government seen as Florida resort hotel, its assortment of goods and services deserving of respect in the exact degree to which it satisfies the whims of its patrons and meets the expectations of comfort and style at both the discount and holiday rates.
In other words, the privatization of the public sphere has turned our politics parochial and small, with isolated interest groups struggling for their piece of the governmental pie. The privatization of previous public space has rebounded in Lapham’s view, to transform our appreciation of government itself into something that is little more than a dispenser of goodies, to satisfy narrow interests. The notion of government as an expression of our collective values, values, energies and hopes, has essentially faded. No doubt, this is one reason why government service, public service, which used to be seen as a good and noble thing fails to attract the best and brightest, ensuring that our political leadership is milquetoast and mediocre. The ennobling dimension of engagement with a civic culture, and public life has faded. Privatization is the watchword of the day, while citizenship and democracy have grown pale and weak.
The second concern I raise is tightly related to democracy, and is one of the pillars on which democracy stands. So far, I have spoken of the communal, public side of democracy and have related it to the social assumptions of Ethical Culture. For Ethical Culture, the self is social, but the self is also individual at the same time. We are committed to social reform, to civic action, to responsibility to others and to community as one expression of our democratic ethos in Ethical Culture. But we are no less committed to the defense of the rights of the individual.. Democracy cannot exist without a vibrant civic and public life. But it also cannot stand if the rights of individuals to speak their minds and add to public debate are stifled and suppressed.
Under the cover of terrorism and national security, and in fulfillment of a reactionary political agenda, we are living in politically the most repressive times since the McCarthy era of the early 1950s.
What concerns me most are not only the repressive measures of the Patriot Act or the president’s arrogant denial of even minimal to due process to those he chose to label “enemy combatants.” What deepens these concerns is the derogation and muffling of the right dissent, which is so much a part of American tradition, as it necessary for the preservation of freedom and democracy. Democracy dies with government secrets and behind closed doors. Yet, we have the most secretive administration in memory, and a campaign overt and covert to define criticism of this one administration as tantamount to treason.
Let me be very clear here. I believe that three years ago yesterday America was brutally attacked by morally reprobate thugs, and there is no excuse ever and anywhere for the wanton murder of more than 3,000 defenseless people. I also believe that this country has enemies who want to do us harm, and we have a right to protect and defend ourselves, and that we are justified in turning to our government to do so. I believe there is a place for intelligent police work, and for identification and interrogation in the service of rooting out those miscreants who have destructive designs. Nor do I believe John Ashcroft is a greater threat to the American people than Osama bin Laden. But Osama bin Laden is not my Attorney General, nor does bin Laden claim to be committed to a secular democracy, nor has he taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. John Ashcroft and fellow members the Bush administration, have. And if we the citizens of the United States are not the watchdogs and caretakers of American democracy, who will be? In fact, it our duty as American citizens — which is my point.
Let me start with our leadership. Three days after 9/11, Congress handed over to George Bush the power to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks.” The enabling legislation passed unanimously in the Senate, and sustained only one dissenting vote in the House of Representative from congresswomen Barbara Lee of California, who summarily received several thousand death threats by e-mail from Americans ostensibly more patriotic than she. The president is the commander in chief, but he is not a monarch, and the rapid transfer of war making power from the Congress to the executive does not speak well of our leaders’ commitment to a healthy balance powers, which is intrinsic to the way our democracy is supposed to work. During October and November, 2001 every White House request for money was met by Congress without debate and with an obedient show of hands, including for a $60 billion missile defense system that most experts agreed couldn’t hit its celestial targets and provided no defense against terrorists delivering their payloads by speedboat, suitcases or stolen trucks. Three weeks later the House voted to hand over $101 billion to the wealthiest corporate interests, as part of an economic “stimulus package.” The minimum of debate was justified by Dick Armey, the House majority leader, on the grounds that we were in the middle of the war and it was not the time to engage in spending confrontations with the Commander-in-Chief.
On October 26th, President Bush signed the US Patriot Act, 342 pages of small print which few in Congress bothered to read, but nevertheless permitted John Ashcroft to expand telephone and Internet surveillance, extend the reach of wiretaps, obtain warrants to review what you borrow from the public library, allow for “sneak and peak” searches of your private property, and open financial and medical records to searches for suspicious behavior and criminal intent. The US Patriot Act was concocted in secret by a handful of people, and passed with no public hearing and no public debate. It passed in the Senate 98 to 1, with Russell Feingold from Wisconsin the only dissenter. In his dissent, Feingold said, “The new law goes into a lot of areas that have nothing to do with terrorism and a lot to do with the government and the FBI having a list of things they want to do.” Good for him. But it should send a chill down our spines when we ask why was he the sole senator to feel this way, or to have the courage of his convictions?
On December 6th Ashcroft appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and with the arrogance of an omniscient potentate declared, “ To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolves. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends.” In other words, you dare to open your mouth and question the wisdom of your leaders and you are no better than a traitor.” If Ashcroft were a God, then his arrogance would make sense. But he is not a God, he is not all knowing, the Patriot Act did not devolve from Sinai, and that is not how our system is supposed to work.
One could on and on with facts that have become publicly well known. At the end of June, I spent about three hours with former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, whose wife, in violation of all convention and her safety, was outed by someone in the administration as a CIA agent, in revenge for Wilson exposing as a lie Bush’s much vaunted claim the Iraq had purchased uranium from the African nation of Niger. Wilson validated what we have greatly suspected: that the war in Iraq was contrived by 15 identifiable ideologues in the Defense Department. Indeed this hapless and stupid war has been brought to us through a thicket of lies, politically doctored intelligence reports, with a reckless lack of concern for the aftermath of the initial victory, and endless blunders – one of which is the assumption that we could seed democracy in a country with no history of it, in a culture we barely understand, and when we are so cynical if not apathetic about democracy in our own country.
It is more than sad that it took a former KU Klux Klansman and southern racist as Senator Robert Byrd to be the standard bearer of basic constitutional and moral values. In refusing to grant the administration a second $87 billion, Byrd said on October 17, 2003, “Taking the nation to war based on misleading rhetoric and hyped intelligence is a travesty and tragedy. It is the most cynical of all cynical acts. It is dangerous to manipulate the truth…I cannot support the politics of zeal and “might makes right” that created the new American arrogance in unilateralism that passes for foreign policy in this administration.”
I am glad he said it. But it is much too little, much too late. I ask, where are the other voices. Why do our Congressmen and Senators acted like obedient sheep? Where has the noble and freedom-saving tradition of dissent gone it America?
Of equal concern is the softness of dissent among grass roots Americans. Clearly broad sectors of the American public have protested against the war and the excesses of this administration, but frighteningly large swaths have not. Of course, many for reflective and articulated support this administration. But I wonder how many of the silent ones cherish the importance of dissent in the American tradition, and how many, because of characterological authoritarianism and misguided patriotism, will follow the leader simply because he is the leader, and so equate criticism of a specific person or regime with disloyalty to country.
With barely 50% of the American public bothering to vote — which is the minimal expression of democratic participation — I can only wonder how deep is the understanding of constitutional and democratic principles. In the final analysis, the ultimate safeguard of democracy and freedom is vested in the people as a whole. If our leaders default and abuse their power, which, in a democracy is only provisional, I am fearful that this last bulwark of freedom will not sustain us. In my view, American public culture has been bought off and rendered shallow by the consumerist values, I spoke of about before. Our civic commitments have been replaced by a preoccupation with shopping, among the most individualistic of almost all behavior. In addition, too many Americans are too overworked, too stressed out, too desirous of escape into relaxation and idleness to be able to care sufficiently about the demands that they be fully informed and engaged citizens.
Recognizing that psycho-social reality, our news media, which we rely on to give us information necessary to be democratic decision makers, are increasingly monopolized and dumbed down, for they, too are arms of the corporate culture that must survive on their profits. The news, like so much in our lives, has been transmuted into a form of entertainment, as if we were all children unable to tolerate 30 minutes of hard facts unless they come candy-coated. And so we have complex issues reduced to slogans and sound bites and news programs in the form of verbal gladiatorial combats. Not truth, but market share is the dynamic that governs what most Americans know about the political environment that shapes their lives. And so we live in an information age in which celebrity trumps legitimate authority, and image trumps facts and truth.
In this regard, Frank Rich had a brilliant article in the New York Time last Sunday in which he documented the assault on John Kerry’s Vietnam experience by John Kerry’s by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”. Rich begins his article by noting “Only in an election year ruled by fiction could a sissy who used Daddy’s connections to escape Vietnam turn an actual war hero into a girlie man.” Images of swagger and tough talk influence the public, Rich notes, far more than facts. I would agree. Without saying that Kerry is at all clean in this mud-slinging campaign, Rich reminds us that Kerry was a hero twice—once in the macho sense of volunteering to serve in Vietnam in one of its most dangerous assignments, and then a second time when he had the courage to oppose the war, a stance which history has vindicated. But again, to the contemporary American mind, image counts more than substance or the historical record. We live in a telvisual culture. And that, to my mind, is very dangerous.
In closing, let me say that argument, debate, criticism and dissent is the life blood of democracy. Without them, we shrivel into authoritarianism, and freedom, is lost. Dissent, as John Stuart Mill reminds us is also the best way for us mortals, who are always error-prone to avoid mistakes. It is the wellspring of an open society and social progress.
In the final analysis, America’s greatest gift to itself and to the world is freedom, and a love of this country, patriotism, is you will, follows from a love of its freedoms, and not from its military or its war planning.
A crucial part of the American tradition, perhaps its most glorious part, is its tradition of dissent. We were founded by dissenters, and that tradition is threaded through the heroic lives of Thomas Paine, the abolitionists, William Garrison, Theodore Parker, Frederick Douglass, the imaginative individualism of Emerson, the courage of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, creative vision of Whitman, the iconoclasm of Robert Ingersoll, the egalitarianism of the socialist Eugene B. Debs, the courage of Martin Luther King, and the grandiloquence of my colleague in the Ethical Movement, Algernon Black, who uncompromisingly, denounced fascism in Spain and Germany, and then used the platform of the New York Society, and the airwaves, to expose the evils of McCarthyism, almost before anyone else dared to. These people did not weaken our democracy– they are among its greatest exponents. The spirit of dissent is crucial to freedom and democracy, and this is true even, if not especially, in wartime. Off all people, Theodore Roosevelt said of Wilson’s justification for World War I “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but it morally treasonable to the American public.” Where are those voices of patriotic dissent today?
When I look around me, I see that almost all of the churches have taken an inward turn and have committed themselves to almost exclusively parochial interests. In this sense they have mimicked the privatization that so characterizes our times. To its credit, Ethical Culture has not done this. We have retained, despite temptations, our commitments to democracy and dissent, to civic culture and the common good. The work of democracy is not easy. It is not glitzy or sexy, and it doesn’t carry with it the promise of personal salvation or the ecstatic spiritual moment.
But it is our tradition, and it is a worthy one. Let us not forsake it, but in this critical time in the American experience, let us defend with confidence and militancy, and continue to give voice to those values and ideals on which a free and decent life is predicated.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
12 September 2004