Hope and the Seeds of Democracy

Judith S. Goldstein delivered this speech at the 2016 Humanity in Action New York Conference at The New School on October 22, 2016. Goldstein is the Founder and Executive Director of Humanity in Action, an international educational organization. 

Humanity in Action is a non-profit and is non-partisan. That is our status, reaffirmed constantly by our board. However, we are meeting today at a time that I think transcends partisanship. I suspect that all of us here today and those in the large Humanity in Action network are thinking similar thoughts. We are saying similar words. We fear the outcome of the November 8th election.  There is consternation over aspects of the campaign—expressions characterized by the piercing (and sordid) pitch of vitriol and vulgarity. It feels to some of us as if we are living in a jungle of lies and distortions. The country is increasingly polarized over issues of race, diversity and misogyny, as well as other crucial aspects of our individual and collective lives. And not just on this side of the Atlantic. We also fear a turn in power in France, Germany and the Netherlands towards conservative, xenophobic political parties. For the very first time, Humanity in Action is operating in a country where the national political environment presents serious challenges for funding programs dedicated to diversity and human rights issues.

The New York Times recently reported on a conference that it sponsored in Athens on the state of democracy worldwide. The conference addressed 4 major topics: migration, authoritarianism, capitalism and religion. There was nothing positive to report:

Among the government officials, scholars, activists, journalists and others who gathered last week…. for the fourth-annual Athens Democracy Forum, the mood was glum, if not despairing. They agreed that democracy was in danger, and liberalism — civil rights, the rule of law, the protection of minorities — even more so.

'The crisis we find ourselves in today is one in which we have started to question the very fundamentals on which our democracies have been built — our moral values of openness and equality, our fundamental freedoms, our resilience and, most importantly, what unites us, what binds us,’ said Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Union’s commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship. (Sewell Chan, “A Future Haunted by Ghosts of the Past” 22 September 2016, The New York Times.)

By the end of this day, we will have discussed many of the same issues. Hopefully we will not be plunged into gloom. There is too much for us to do to allow for that frame of mind. In fact, these issues are at the center of what Humanity in Action is all about. For years our programs on diversity and integration appeared to be on the sidelines of political tensions and policies. Now they are at the center. We have an obligation to speak out forcefully about values and principles.

We intend to meet those challenges in many ways. The most imminent is what we will discuss today. Secondly, in preparation for next summer we have expanded our description of Humanity in Action’s focus. The set of goals reflects the ever-growing tensions in Europe and America over diversity, integration and migration. Our base remains the Holocaust and Europe’s post-war political and cultural developments. They established the template for the turn from war and genocide to human rights, decolonization, European welfare states and the European Union. 

In our expanded inquiry, we intend to examine the catastrophic impact of anti-Semitism in the 20th century. We will also address the exploitive and degrading mentality of colonial practices. Anti-Semitism has a deep history in European thought and actions through many centuries. Colonial practices exploited blacks and Native Americans, through slavery and persecution.  These practices go back centuries as well. Princeton historian Wendy Warren’s New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America is a major indictment of many New England settlers and communities. They not only engaged in the slave trade in the Caribbean, but placed blacks and Native Americans into slavery. 

Starting in the late 19th century, new conceptual foundations in Europe and America brought anti-Semitism and racist thinking together through classifications of groups. The eugenics movement and Social Darwinism defined and categorized superior and inferior peoples. The new thinking justified the punitive leadership of Northern European white populations against those in the Colonies, Eastern Europe and perpetuated anti-Semitism. Categorizing groups became the work of numerous scientists, scholars and government officials. In this thinking, some groups were designed to enjoy the riches of society, others as sub-human. Those in the latter category were deemed fit only for slavery or severe forms of discrimination in colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, South and Central America, Asia and North America (including Greenland owned by Denmark). 

Over several years of programs, Humanity in Action Fellows have urged that we give more attention to colonial and racist issues. Thus we now describe the programs in the following inclusive way:

The programs, when appropriate to national histories, address the destructive, common roots of prejudice, discrimination and dehumanization.  These practices were directed towards Jews and other minorities in Europe during the Nazi era and Holocaust. Those under colonial rule in Africa, Asia, South and Central America, North America and the Caribbean Islands were subject to racist policies and attitudes. Countries that experienced other totalitarian regimes after World War II also address the impact that socialism and its implosion had on their societies. 

Such a broad mandate is based on key assumptions that bring history and contemporary issues together. Diversity and democracy, inextricably related, are critical concepts for Humanity in Action. We can’t have stable societies, all of which embody some aspects of diversity, without a democratic consensus. That consensus in attitudes and behaviors must be predicated upon moral capital, as David Brooks has written, and ideals of justice for all. Another concept is that recognizing and understanding disastrous historical events will help to insulate us from repeating them and inform us about resisting injustice.

It is clear that the current American presidential campaign, fueled by tensions over diversity, is testing the nature and durability of our democracy (deficient as it is).  It is also clear to everyone in this group that our forms of democracy have deliberately and egregiously failed to protect and provide opportunities for all. Since the enlightened proclamations of the late 18th century, American justice has been a reality for many, but only aspirational for too many. The people who have aspired the most, blacks and Native Americans, have been denigrated and denied the most. 

There are many factors in the toxic mix of this campaign that I believe put American democracy at risk. I refer to that democracy in its most idealistic and pragmatic manifestations and possibilities. There is continuing racism and calls to violence. There are coded messages that motivate Tea Party advocates and their allies. There are xenophobes. There are Americans who have been displaced by deindustrialization, global trade and the punishing vicissitudes of a harsh capitalist system. There are misogynists. And there are those, especially many millennials, who are bereft of any knowledge or understanding of World War II, the Holocaust and the Cold War.

James Kirchick has written about this in the Daily Beast: “One of the most disturbing poll results I have ever read is the recent World Values Survey finding that only 31 percent of Americans born in the 1980s say it is ‘essential’ to ‘live in a country that is governed democratically.’”  That figure compares to about 44 percent in Europe, where the memory of totalitarianism is both physically and temporally closer. “We American millennials take our freedom and prosperity for granted. My generation has so little experience of authoritarianism and illiberalism that over two-thirds of us basically say we wouldn’t mind living in a non-democratic society. Because we have no historical reference points, when we see Trump, we think only of a silly reality television show star, not a nascent dictator.” (James Kirchick, "Blame Millennials for President Trump," 9 September 2016, The Daily Beast.)

And this indictment leads to an even darker set of thoughts prompted by reading Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil. In 1993 the sociologist Fred E. Katz probed aspects of evil in a behavioral way—evil ways that are “destructive” to persons or groups.  His major examples are individual perpetrators of evil—so called ordinary people—during the Holocaust and the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam. Katz identifies multiple factors: an authoritarian personality can lead people to evil. People can slide, little by little, into the infectious negative behavior of their peers. People can go along with evil behavior to secure a job and function in a bureaucratized system of managed destruction. People can participate in the “creation of a separate and distinct culture of cruelty: where evildoing becomes enjoyable and rewarding to a group of people.”  (Fred E. Katz, Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil, State University of New York Press 1993, 5-7.)

Let us be clear. Slavery and Jim Crow were the major weapons of America’s culture of cruelty and denigration. That culture was first aimed at Native Americans and continues to this day. Today, profiling and mass incarceration of blacks perpetuates the system. Distrust of immigrants, especially from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America and Africa flows through the American experiment with diversity and integration.  

Yet, despite—or in some perverse ways dependent on this despicable history of discrimination and distrust—America has succeeded in making a grand experiment in pluralism. “The advent of liberal democracy,” according to Colin Woodward, “is one of humanity’s most remarkable achievements. Far from representing a ‘natural’ state of being, it is a complex and delicate work of art, the creation of which took our species eons of preparation and four centuries of awkward experimentation. Its gift is the erection of a framework that allows…the possibility of individual freedom on a nearly universal basis. Maintaining this situation…requires maintaining the balance between the freedom of the government (or the state), the powerful (the oligarchies-in-waiting), and the people.” (Colin Woodward, American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle between Individual Liberty and the Common Good, Viking 2016, 18-19)

America has been a stunning success in its dedication to fulfilling the promise of liberal democracy. It has been the Promised Land for so many but sadly as the expense of so many others. America has fueled our sense of greatness and democratic promise. President Obama, in his magnificent speech at the funeral of Shimon Peres, spoke of the precious seeds of American democracy that contain hope. For centuries it has seduced so many to come to this country, including my grandparents. 

Consumed with this success, America has lauded its traditions of tolerance and diversity.  But that success, ever real and impressive, is clearly a confusing mix of realities and myths. We have made significant advances in regard to race, women’s rights, gay rights, rights for the disabled, rights to health and education and economic security. But we are learning from this campaign that the surface of decency can be or is fragile. Declared boundaries of principles of equity and political discourse can be breached within regional borders and on a national scale. We see that civil behavior can be switched into modes of verbal destructiveness (and coded languages of violent threats). One set of values, such as tolerance, can be displaced by another. “Hatreds, fears and prejudices,” referring back to Katz, which had been dormant, are activated and become ascendant under destabilizing economic and social circumstances. Latent religious antagonisms can ignite again: Christianity versus Islam and Christianity versus Judaism. National tensions can reemerge. Racial conflicts can intensify.

We may be victims of naiveté in thinking that the demons of hatred can be kept under control in this modern age. Some of us are stunned, even mystified by the scale and intensity of anger and outright racism and misogyny. This is happening in our City on the Hill—in this splendid, vast land protected by the Statute of Liberty, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and America’s liberating vision for the rest of the world. Well, reading about Syria should make that impossible. We should know better with knowledge of slavery, Jim Crow and the Trail of Tears. That is an appropriate description for the entire history of Native Americans. Remembering the violence of the 20th Century and the plague of anti-Semitism should keep us aware. 

We may think that the cruelty of injustice can wait for others to do the work of expiation and restorative justice. We may think that we don’t have much to lose despite the false promises and spinelessness of politicians and business people. We may think that we can put up barriers against those who have much less than we. We may think that decency will somehow triumph despite our passivity. 

We may also think that we can wait this out. For centuries America has subject itself to conflicting views. These views derive from diverse regions as well as different ideas about individual rights and the role of government. The tensions are nothing new. The compromises have been both worthwhile and deficient. But the risks today are nonetheless great.  In a metaphorical sense we are riding a set of steep escalators that are set in close proximity to each other. One is going up, another going down. Americans are watching each other as we move in opposite directions. For hundreds of years too many American white men have claimed the right to ride up the escalator by themselves. It was their way to make money and hold power over their families, and communities and country. Now many of them are riding down. Riding away from the prosperity that they thought belonged only to them. And right across from them—in their face so to speak—are the rest of us blacks, women and immigrants. We are riding up and watching, making our way, following behind a black President and female candidate for President.

The ride is precarious for all. I think that everyone in this room understands that this is the time of real and desperate challenges to this fragile democracy. In fact, we are living on the edge of a volcano of irresponsibility, ignorance, authoritarianism and racism. Too many are willing to “breathe out violence,” to use the words of the Psalmist.  It doesn’t have to be. The venom and danger can be contained but only if we face what could happen to us. This country has achieved so much. It has the capacity to deliver so much more for those who must be part of its blessings. Humanity in Action—what a name for the moment! We must work harder than ever. 

Judith S. Goldstein

October 22, 2016

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