Danbury Women's Club, January 24, 2006

What I’d like to talk about today is what I believe is a distressing trend in our national political and cultural life — and what public universities like WestConn are doing, and can do, with your help, to address it.

That trend is the increasing polarization of opinion and lack of civility that characterizes, and I believe debases, public dialogue on most important issues today. Sloganeering and name-calling replace reasoned debate. Polarization is the name of the game. I think we all recognize this — just turn on any of the cable news channels any night. The extremes (or as political consultants call them, the “bases”) appear to rule on both sides. And those few politicians, like John McCain, who occasionally deviate from the party line, stand out dramatically because they are so few in number. The same thing goes for commentators on cultural issues as well.

Certainly partisan, scurrilous, even slanderous, political rhetoric has been around as long as the Republic. I’d recall how President John Adams was repeatedly attacked by journalist Benjamin Bache:

The president’s wife, Abigail, complained bitterly about journalistic “abuse, deception and falsehood.” Particularly galling to her were the characterizations of her husband in editor Benjamin Bache’s Aurora. In April 1798 Bache called the president “old, querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams.” Bache, she argued, was a “lying wretch” given to the “most insolent and abusive” language. He wrote with the “malice” of Satan. The First Lady repeatedly demanded that something be done to stop this “wicked and base, violent and calumniating abuse” being “leveled against the Government.” She argued that if journalists like Bache weren’t stopped, the nation would be plunged into a “civil war.”

Or, what about President Grover Cleveland? When a woman named Maria Halpin charged that he had fathered her son, the forces of his opponent James G. Blaine repeated: “Ma, Ma, where’s Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!” Cleveland paid financial support but eventually had Ms. Halpin confined to an insane asylum and Oscar Folsom Cleveland shipped off to an orphanage. And he counterattacked with jibes at “Blaine, biggest crook in the State of Maine.”

Is this trend worse or more prevalent today than in past epochs of history? I think it is. Several larger trends in 21st-century society and, especially, the impact of technology, make it so.

  1. Expansion of cable TV means you have more program time to fill. More opportunities for self-appointed experts to pontificate their points of view.
  2. A contest of insults between Ann Coulter and James Carville costs a lot less than setting up news bureaus, and since both are always hawking books, they have an incentive to be entertaining.
  3. The Internet accelerates the process — resulting in a more immediate response noted by Gail Collins of The New York Times.
  4. Rise of the “Blogosphere” — everyone has a platform to express their own viewpoints, and most media experts agree that this phenomenon tends to lead to a search for reinforcement of one’s preconceived opinions, not a broader consideration of complex problems.
  5. Newspaper readership is down; younger people actually turn to the Daily Show, Jay Leno and David Letterman for the news. And we know about surveys of lack of literacy in most areas — history, geography, government, etc. A 2005 Knight Foundation study on “The Future of the First Amendment” revealed a shocking level of ignorance about the U.S. Constitution among high school students. Half of the students in the study felt that newspapers should publish only “with government approval.” In another study, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia demonstrated that half of Americans don’t know the number of U.S. senators.

Certainly, people have always had opinions. You have yours, and I have mine — about George Bush, Hillary Clinton or Martha Stewart. But if you’re only really listening to those who agree with you, it makes challenging, complex issues in the public interest more difficult to address successfully. And I believe we see that today at all levels of government.

I’m talking about issues such as:

  • Determining when life begins, the appropriate role of stem cell research and the possible implications of cloning;
  • Global climate change, dependence on fossil fuels for energy, and what this all means for a globalizing economy;
  • How to improve a health system which is producing dramatically adverse economic, and perhaps medical, results;
  • War and peace in the Middle East with all the cultural and historical baggage surrounding the interaction between the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions;
  • And, locally here in Danbury, what to do with a swelling population of immigrants, both documented and not, who are brought here by our economic opportunities.

These are tough issues about which people of good will can differ, but need, for the sake of future generations, to find at least some common ground for debate. And I’d submit that if we want to make progress in addressing them, much of our current public dialogue often just isn’t getting it done.

So what can a public university like Western Connecticut State University do to address this problem?

Quite a lot, I believe. As a matter of fact, one of the important functions of our mission as a public university is to provide a forum for dialogue and intellectual interchange that sometimes challenges preconceived notions. Our mission includes educating, stimulating and complicating the thinking of not only our students, but members of the larger community as well. And we’ve been doing that through a broad array of public programs and lectures that are always open to the Danbury public. Let me give you some examples from last fall of what I mean.

  1. Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times told us in November about what it was like to be a reporter in Baghdad. Those expecting stories that affirmed the Bush administration’s take on the war or that of the critics who see nothing in Iraq but chaos both were disappointed. Ms. Tavernise talked about how boring much of the action for our troops was, and about how most Iraqis simply want to return to some degree of normalcy — and how many actually risk their lives every day to find it. In short, she presented a more complex, nuanced view than we receive from Fox News or Maureen Dowd. And I think everyone learned greatly from her talk.
  2. Keith Taylor, a distinguished professor of Asian history from Cornell, gave the keynote at our “Vietnam and the West” conference in December. He demonstrated that the common interpretation of the war taught nearly everywhere now in the United States is exactly the same one that was promulgated in the propaganda of the North Vietnamese. And he demonstrated, with very persuasive evidence from centuries of Vietnamese history, the many errors in this interpretation. (For example, Ho Chi Min — the ultimate nationalist, the role of the French, Vietnam’s military conflicts with China.)

    Taylor’s message: We can’t come to grips with this painful experience in our past if we don’t really understand what happened. For me, his talk was interpretive history at its best, and left everyone with more questions than answers. And also, I think, an urge to learn more.
  3. Paul Finkelman, a law professor and historian from the University of Tulsa, gave a very detailed presentation about the federal courts’ interpretation of the legality of exhibiting the Ten Commandments in public buildings. His audience learned that what the Ten Commandments really say depends on your faith, on accuracy of translation, and which text you’re reading. He also noted the role that Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston played in this issue. Again, those looking for easy answers were disappointed.
  4. And I wish you had heard the student members of WCSU’s Roger Sherman Debate Society put on a debate during International Education Week in November on the topic of placing economic sanctions on China for human rights violations. There was crowd reaction, even applause, on both sides, but things got tricky, because the students, skilled debaters, applied arguments (on both sides) that did not fall along usual Right-Left lines. What was a fairly liberal, anti-business audience became confused. Many started applauding individual arguments from both sides. Again — very few simple answers.

These are good examples of how we provide forums to confront serious issues with appropriate seriousness — not with an eye toward quick fixes or simplistic, ideological answers. That’s the difference between education and propaganda or ideology.

And I think that education also includes another characteristic that’s different from propaganda or ideology. It demands more work. I personally think that one of the reasons that pundits, authors and rabble-rousers of all extremes have followings is because we’re lazy. It’s comfortable and easy to find viewpoints that agree with your own. It’s harder to take into account and weigh all sides of an argument and try to reach your own decision. As a course well-taught also demonstrates, it takes more effort to develop one’s own opinions than it does to follow those of others.

But that effort is, I hope, one of the most visible characteristics of what we do in higher education. I was thinking of this attending a WCSU concert last fall — how many hours total had the student performers spent preparing for the hour-and-a-half or so of performance? How many hours of practice do our athletic teams spend before games? How many hours go into an “A” paper or group presentation?

Learning isn’t always easy or comfortable, but neither, practiced well, is citizenship.

So that’s what I think we at WestConn are doing to respond to current trends of ideological simplification and debasement of public dialogue. How can you help us?

  1. Attend events on campus that interest you. Every week we have numerous of these, and they are regularly publicized in the media and on our Web site: www.wcsu.edu.
  2. When you come, participate. Ask those tough questions.
  3. Suggest topics or even speakers. We don’t have an unlimited budget, but often interesting programs can be organized at an affordable price.

And maybe if you feel passionately about the topic, you might consider helping us in material ways make the talk possible.

Finally, as you see us offer such programs, and as you participate in them, I hope that you’ll agree that Danbury is a better place because of WCSU’s presence and activities.
Together, I believe that we all can work together to build a better informed, more engaged citizenry. Our times demand it.

Because, as the great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once observed: “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.”

Thank you!

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