"An Urgent Task"
December 9, 1996
JUDITH RODIN. Before we begin, I'd like to make one announcement. Unless we decide otherwise, our meetings will be generally closed to the press, but NBC has asked to record the very first moments of the commission as part of a related story that they're doing at Penn. We've given them permission to record only my opening statements and a couple of the questions afterwards before we begin our subsequent discussion, and I hope that that's agreeable to everyone. I might also add that we are making audio and videotapes of the entire proceedings, and that will be useful for us in documenting the commission's work. We won't distribute or release any of the comments or discussions or presentations, but I think we do clearly want a running dialogue and running representation of the work here.
We've been working on this project for almost two years, and I'm thrilled to have so many of you here with us today. Each of you has important contributions to make to the work of the commission, and I know many, many important contributions to our discussions. I hope that you'll find our process of working together to be provocative and challenging. And although I know that our discussions and our task is serious and consequential, I think we'll also have some fun. This will be very intellectually interesting and engaging, I hope. It's in that spirit that I welcome you and thank you again for your willingness to participate in this project.
Our goal in the first meeting is to establish a shared context for our discussion over the next three years and with your help and participation to chart the path ahead. I hope to begin that process this morning in my remarks by giving you a sense of some of the concerns that motivated us to organize this commission. As will be true with each of our meeting sessions over the next few days, my relatively formal remarks like those of all of the presenters who follow are really intended only to trigger your own reflections and discussions and insights. It is really in the conversation that I think we will learn.
Later in the commission's work, no doubt, we'll revisit many of the topics opened at this first meeting, examining some of them in different ways and, certainly, thinking about some of them in greater detail. But establishing a working framework for the remainder of our deliberations, I think, is our primary task for the next two days.
Now why are we here? Well, put simply, many of us believe that we're approaching a critical moment in our society, a moment that may determine the shape of our social and political future for many decades to come. Indeed, this is a moment of such potentially significant social consequence that it imposes special responsibilities on leaders in every field but particularly in politics, in the media, the entertainment industry and business and law and perhaps especially many of us in the academic community.
Across America and increasingly around the world, from campuses to the halls of Congress, to talk radio and network TV, social and political life seem dominated today by incivility, by ideological extremism, an unwillingness to compromise and an intolerance for opposition. This dominance is now widely evident in the harsh and uncompromising character of American political debate in the resurgence of fundamentalist, religious and social doctrines and in the deepening isolation and self-segregation of many racial and ethnic communities.
Overseas, it's expressed in the rise of virulent forms of nationalism and xenophobia, in Europe, Asia and Africa, with such tragic human consequences. Among some of its most dramatic symptoms are the murders of physicians for performing legal abortions, the bombings in New York City, Oklahoma City, the Middle East, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Yet, it's pervasive enough to be plainly visible in the products of Hollywood and the daily conversations of talk radio and daytime television.
Indeed, incivility has become a routine subject in our popular entertainments. Maybe that fact alone tells us that most Americans share this perception. According to a recent poll, 89 percent of Americans think incivility is a serious problem, and 78 percent think that the problem has gotten worse over the past decade. Of course, none of this is surprising. Incivility and polarization that's being perceived by most Americans are readily evident in our public culture.
But what first appeared to many of us as maybe minor skirmishes over a narrow spectrum of cultural and educational issues, what were called the so-called culture wars, have now become perhaps full-fledged nuclear conflict in which no prisoners are being taken. Pat Buchanan's 1992 speech to the Republican National Convention reflects this widening of the battlefronts.
(Excerpt from 1992 Republican National Convention)
PATRICK BUCHANAN: Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.
(End of excerpt)
RODIN: This kind of unrestrained warfare has now become the daily fabric of our politics on both ends of the spectrum. Take, for example, this typically shameless excerpt from CNN's "Crossfire" program.
(Excerpt from "Crossfire")
BOB BECKEL: Sir, let me just follow very quickly one question on Massachusetts, since you raised the issue. This, again, is out of the Republican governor's task force. Massachusetts welfare caseloads are down since the vaunted Weld welfare reform, but very few of these people found new jobs. What has increased are three things: prostitution, drug sales, and Catholic Charities in Boston report a 31 percent increase in requests for food that they cannot meet. Now if that's the result of welfare reform, take it and let Weld shove it!
(End of excerpt)
RODIN: Ironically, this sort of treatment is so common today that even the politicians involved take it as a given that it's politically smart to oppose it. Hence, I think we've seen the sudden eruption of pledges since the 1996 election to seek compromise. We can only speculate about how long this new era of good feeling will last. But note that no one seems to question the premise that political debate has become too extreme, too confrontational, too coarse. Of course, the examples we've just seen may be relatively tame and self-limiting. For all of his extremism, Pat Buchanan was endorsing a mainstream candidate for president, George Bush. And if the polarized pundits on "Crossfire" really came to blows, no doubt cooler heads would intervene.
Yet, I don't think we can afford to be too sanguine, because there are other far more troubling examples to consider. Take the music of Tupac Shakur, the rap artist murdered in Las Vegas while under contract to Death Row Records. Did his death imitate art or were both merely reflections of the nightmarish reality from which he sprang? Can we hear some?
[Sounds of gunfire can be heard in background during parts of excerpt]
cause all I see is
my mind state
preoccupied with homicide
tryin to survive through this trial and rape
dead bodies at block parties
those unlucky bastards
gunfire now they require maybe closed casket
who can you blame ?
it's insane what we did do
witness an evil that these men do
bitches see it too
infact they be the reasons niggas get to bleeden
but i'll fucken fire when I leave'em
I shoulda seen'em
hostile ho's catch elbows and grows disposed of
and snitches get dealt with, with no love
body bags of adversaries that I had to bury
I broke tha law and their jaw
all in tha same flurry
but never worry
they'll remember me through history
causen motherfuckers to bleed
they'll label me an
Outlaw, Outlaw, Outlaw
they came into sin
Outlaw, Outlaw, Outlaw
Dear God, I wonder can you save me?
RODIN: He went on to tell the 11-year-old, `Got no time for the the courts. My only thought is open fire, hit the district attorney, but fuck that bitch, because she's a lie. Now it's time for her to expire.' Imagine the impact that such a popular artist has on thousands of fans. Every day the news is filled with new examples of differences of opinions taken to absurd lengths. Drivers in traffic jams are shot because they honked horns at someone in the next car. Members of a fraternity at the University of Rhode Island brutally assaulted by the football team because one of the football players was ejected from a fraternity party.
Yes, there's always been violence in our society, and probably there's always been incivility in our politics, but this excerpt from Don Imus' talk radio program goes light-years beyond the slogan, `Mama, where's my pa?' which was used against the bachelor candidate Grover Cleveland in the presidential campaign of 1884.
(Excerpt from "Imus in the Morning")
"BEAVIS": Hey, Bob Dole, this 15 percent tax cut of yours, how much am I going to end up getting?
"BOB DOLE": Well, about 15 percent, Beavis.
"BEAVIS": Cool. I was worried I was going to have to get a job first.
"DOLE": If that liberal Clinton gets in again, you may have to get two jobs, Beavis.
"BEAVIS": Not according to Bubba. He says he's building a bridge to the future.
"DOLE": Yeah, but what he's not saying is that it's a toll bridge. Your generation will be paying the toll to get over it years after that fat liar gets out of the White House.
"BEAVIS": I just wish he'd get over talking about it. Every time he opens his mouth, he mentions that stupid bridge. It's worse than listening to you say, `Just don't do it,' three times in a row every 15 minutes.
"DOLE": Yeah, well, good advice bears repeating.
"BEAVIS": Here's some good advice for you. Get out now! Get out now! Get out now!
"DOLE": Hey, Bob Dole's not going anywhere, you little (censored). Bob Dole's still got a chance to pull this one out, just like Christie Brinkley over there in New Jersey.
"BEAVIS": No, Whitman.
"DOLE": Yeah, and Walt Whitman, too.
"BEAVIS": No, no. It's Christie Whitman who pulled it out, not Christie Brinkley.
"DOLE": Yeah, well, whatever. It makes sense. I mean, who'd want to pull out of Christie Brinkley. Certainly not my opponent.
"BEAVIS": I bet he'd like to build a bridge to her.
"DOLE": Yeah. I'll tell you the bridge he really needs to build is one that'll get him over Whitewater.
"BEAVIS": And then get Ted Kennedy to drive Hillary across it.
"DOLE": That's a good one. I like that.
(End of excerpt)
RODIN: Even those who once felt some obligation to serve as role models no longer feel any compunction about engaging in the most extraordinary exhibitions of incivility and rudeness.
(Excerpt from CNN interview)
JOHN "ROCKY" ROE (American League Umpire): My sadness and confusion revolves around the original suspension of five days. I--I--I think it's totally inadequate.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What would you have done, Rocky?
REPORTER: How can you protect him?
ROE: ...I don't have all the magical answers.
ROE: But the--the week before when, I believe, Pedro--whoever it was in the National League that had a--a--a fight where the player...
REPORTER: Pedro Martinez. Mm-hmm.
ROE: ...threw the--threw the helmet at...
ROE: ...the pitcher, he got eight days. And in my judgment, spitting in an umpire's face is just as bad, if not worse, and--and--and in my judgment is much worse.
ROE: Now you've set a tremendous precedent that anybody from now on that wants to spit in an umpire's face, I guess, the--the worst that can happen is you get five days. So it sent--sent a terrible message to the youth of America.
(End of excerpt)
RODIN: And then there is the largely invisible development of a culture of unrestrained rage, sadism and insult on the Internet. One journalistic observer recently reported, and I quote, "An outsider peering into the wired life would probably take one look at the sheer bile that passes over the wires and come away with the impression that the Net community consists of 30 million virtual Visigoths pounding bloody knuckles on the keyboard and zooming around cyberspace in a testosterone jacked homicidal rage." I will leave the details to your imagination.
My point is really not to bemoan the coarsening and brutalizing of American culture, because I'm not convinced that it was really all that pretty ever. In fact, another of our tasks will be to place all of this in historical perspective. Indeed, one generation's shameful breach of good manners can easily become an exemplar of respectful civil protest in the next. Take, for example, this historical footnote from a recent documentary on the history of the White House.
(Excerpt from "Inside the White House" by the National Geographic Society which aired on PBS)
Narrator: Today, the White House is an obvious and irresistible target for protesters, but early in the century, the idea of protesting at someone's home would have been considered a terrible breach of manners. On January 10th, 1917, the nation was shocked when women suffragists began to demonstrate. It was the first time a picket had ever been conducted at the White House. The New York Times described it as petty and monstrous. Others called the picketing a piece of impudence, delude and dangerous. `The nation,' one editor wrote, `is shamed.' For their brazen gesture, 97 suffragists were jailed for six months without a trial. Their arrest was eventually declared illegal, and the right to protest in front of the White House confirmed.
Unidentified Woman #1: Our book of peace is a book of 38,000 authors, each one of which states ...(unintelligible) `We demand that profit be taken out of war making.'
Group: (Chanting) This guy has got to go, hey, hey, ho, ho.
(End of excerpt)
RODIN: Thank you. But if something has changed, there's reason to think we must look more deeply into it than the surface manifestations of incivility and coarseness. It's my hope that through this kind of understanding, we really may find some clues to effecting serious change. Because even if the level of incivility and polarization is not new, it does seem that its consequences are more dangerous and more widespread. It seems as though there is some large and fundamental process at work at home, abroad and on campus. The incivility and extremism affecting our politics and our culture now polarizes the discussion of almost every public issue and drives successful leaders and office holders to appease the most extreme of their political supporters or to retreat from political life altogether.
In concert with the spread of wonderful new forms of democratic government around the world, we also see an apparent rise in the virulence of nationalist movements and fundamentalist doctrines. And as our campuses strive to prepare students for the global society of the 21st century, we see increases in self-segregation and increases in intolerant behavior. I suspect that these are not isolated phenomena but surface manifestations of some common, deeper dynamic. But, unfortunately, in the face of such a world, the temptation to withdraw, to shut out the madness, to isolate ourselves, is understandably growing.
Last January, The Washington Post reported that we are becoming a nation of suspicious strangers. Not only have we lost confidence in our government and our institutions, but more and more we mistrust each other. In every generation since the 1950s, this mistrust has grown. Today nearly two out of three Americans believe that most people cannot be trusted. Thirty years ago, a majority believed the opposite.
Along with mistrust has come a decline in the role of mediating social institutions, the institutions that once bound us together in multiple communities and provided forums for education, for debate, for communal interaction. This leads, in turn, to greater social fragmentation and individual isolation. No wonder the evocative title of Robert Putnam's article "Bowling Alone" has, in fact, become a metaphor for our age. US News put incivility on its cover and asks: What ever happened to good manners? The right calls for a return to civic virtues; and the left tells us that it takes a village. Of course, both have elements of truth on their side, but neither has a realistic roadmap for getting from here to there.
Prescriptive solutions based on a long departed and probably mythic past are not efficacious. Self-righteous sermonizing about moral decline or the values of good citizenship are really quite unlikely to change powerful patterns of behavior. Incivility and rigid political extremism are only the symptoms.
We cannot moderate their influence unless we have adequately diagnosed and understood the underlying disease.
Of course, here, too, in terms of looking for root causes, everyone has their favorite suspects. Many people blame the advent of electronic mass media. They surmise that the numbing isolation of television, the anonymity of talk radio have fostered a generation of thoughtless, inattentive, violence-prone video junkies. This argument asserts that it should come as no surprise to any of us if our world has begun to look like MTV, because our children are conditioned like Pavlov's dogs to experience the world in two-minute sound bites and rapped, rhythmed patterns. Add to that the apparently unlimited debasement of entertainment and journalism on television, in film and in print, the endless search for commercial profits and higher ratings.
Others blame the schools for failing to educate a more discerning populace. If a high school graduate can no longer write a serious essay or cannot locate Europe on a map, why should we be surprised when civic virtues are ignored and the ideals of civil society confused with the right to offend, to defame or to infuriate?
Given the low voter turnout last month, it appears that many of us also blame our political leaders. We seem to believe that they're only interested in re-election and too often in the art of the deal. Others believe that we're just reaping the just desserts of the greed and aggrandizement--self-aggrandizement of the 1980s. They question: How can anyone respect our society when the few, the rich and the powerful control everything and leave the masses to suffer in decaying cities?
We'll certainly hear many other possible explanations over the next two days, and I'm sure that each of us has an important hypothesis. Whatever the real causes of our current rash of incivility and fragmentation, it certainly is the lack of new and creative thinking that bars the way towards change for the better. As a society, it seems to me that we have for the moment simply run out of good ideas. Perhaps we're so busy trying to shout one another down because we lack any real sense of who we are, of what we believe, of what reasons can be legitimately given to support our beliefs and what arguments really are available to convince our opponents.
Along with the very loudness of our public discourse has come a very real shallowness, a thoughtlessness, an oversimplification in which reasons and complexity and precision no longer seem to have any place. Yet, the situations of social and political conflict with which we are faced today are fundamentally deeply complex. Issues like affirmative action, abortion, immigration, nationalism, even health care--they are difficult. Their solution cannot come from a system of communication and decision-making that rewards the simple, that rewards the absolute or the extreme.
The irony is that our human abilities to communicate and cooperate effectively have seemed to falter, just as our technological power to share information and ideas is opening extraordinary new vistas. Even more important, our knowledge of human behavior is burgeoning. Our understanding of the complexities and contradictions of culture and tradition is vastly deeper than it was 100 years ago, even 20 years ago.
Many would argue that intellectually, scientifically, technologically, we are better prepared to confront the hard questions of the 21st century than we were just a few decades ago. And yet we have failed to mobilize this knowledge in ways that create useful ideas and insightful understandings into the political and social problems that we face. We have failed to place contemporary issues in their historical and social context, not merely to affirm past perspectives, but to generate new alternatives and new approaches. This is a critical role for each of our professions and for the institutions through which we practice them.
Thus, it falls to academic and professional leaders like us to take on this task with urgency. We must find new ways of using and communicating and applying our burgeoning knowledge and technological capabilities. We must begin to envisage new forms of intellectual engagement and public communication that are equal to the tasks of social leadership in the 21st century, not to impose simplistic solutions, but to open new possibilities, to change the dynamics of the polarized simplistic, in-your-face public discourse. We must create and inject something new into it--new ideas, new interpretations, new visions and perhaps new alternatives. Otherwise, we will remain trapped in the unproductive polarization of the present.
If today's crisis is fundamentally cultural and intellectual, this effort must, first of all, be cultural and intellectual and focused. It must start from the premise that our culture is too important to fight wars over. Rather, it is the great resource from which we must draw forth new answers to persistent and perplexing problems.
As I see it, this is an area in which each of us much assume the responsibilities of leadership. Individually and through our institutions, we must mobilize our best intellectual resources from the scholarly disciplines, from the learned professions, from the worlds of politics and journalism, philanthropy, entertainment, business and the media. Only such a broadly conceived effort will be adequate to the task at hand.
First, to identify and understand the true origins of our contemporary social crisis. Second, to generate new insights, new interpretations, new ideas that will help us all to rethink the familiar and simplistic approaches that we hear rehearsed every day in the media. Only from such a process can the new ideas and approaches we so desperately need be created. Only with new ideas and perspectives will we be able to make the best possible use of these new instruments of communication and information that are now appearing.
I think that is our responsibility. It is our responsibility to teach this by example to our students and our colleagues and to the broader society. Let them see us engage in the hard intellectual task of thinking anew about important social issues, to help all of us to learn to think differently and then to act differently about issues that matter to our society and in our individual lives. That is the task that we have chosen to undertake together through the formation of this National Commission on Society, Culture and Community. I am greatly looking forward to working will all of you, and I thank you so very much for joining this exciting endeavor with us. Thank you.