Wednesday, December 07, 2016

 

Shared Purpose and Common Enemies


It’s not often that an accreditation conference triggers flashbacks to research on American pragmatism and World War One, but reader, you got lucky.

I’m at the annual conference of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, in Philadelphia.  It’s the regional accreditor for the mid-Atlantic states.  The opening plenary by Mary Kennard, of American University, glanced at a point that deserved much more thought.

Kennard gave an overview of the progress of legal inclusion of historically excluded populations in the United States.  Her primary focus was race, though she mentioned other forms of inclusion as well.  By her admission, it wasn’t the speech she intended to give, but the surprise results of the election forced a quick rewrite.  

Some people think by reading, some by listening, some by talking.  It won’t shock you to know that I think by writing.  And I think Kennard does, too, because at the end of her talk, she gestured towards a broader theory of history that I’m not sure she had fully fleshed out yet.  And that’s a missed opportunity, because it’s a hell of a theory.

She noted that the cycle of inclusion and reaction has two salient traits.  The first is that the reactions almost never go all the way back; gains made in one era may be compromised in the next, but they’re rarely rescinded altogether.  The process of two steps forward and one step back adds up to uneven but real progress over the long sweep of history.  For folks dreading the return of the redeemers, the thought offers solace.

But the second trait is the whopper.  Though she didn’t cite the early 20th century radical Randolph Bourne, she echoed his famous claim that “war is the health of the state.”  She suggested that moments of great progress in civic equality tend to coincide with wars, and moments of regress happen between wars.  As she put it, in wartime, “we need everybody,” so we’re on our best behavior; in subsequent peacetime, we retreat to our respective corners.

There’s something to that.  In the early 1900’s, William James coined the term “moral equivalent of war” in an effort to find a common national purpose around peaceful endeavors, rather than military conquest.  (President Carter later built a speech around that phrase; it didn’t go over well.)  When John Dewey equivocated over American entry into World War One, Randolph Bourne attacked him with the line that “war is the health of the state.”  Bourne meant that in a bad way -- governments use wars to consolidate their power -- but it can also be used in a positive way.  Wars offer a sense of shared purpose, and that purpose can be constructive.  Postwar American liberals drew on that line of thought to propose a “war on poverty.”  Later we got the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror.”   

Actual wars led to a shared sense of civic purpose because their presence was inescapable in daily life.  World War Two was the paradigmatic case.  The shared purpose was clear -- defeat the Axis powers -- and the draft ensured that sacrifice was shared.  When everyone was in it together, arguments for inclusion resonated more.  

I’m not sure that’s still true, though.  We have smaller wars now, and an all-volunteer military that tends to draw mostly from the working class.  If you’re so inclined, and living in the US, current wars are mostly escapable.  They don’t generate shared sacrifice or a shared purpose.  And that bodes ill for campaigns of inclusion.  When we don’t look outward, we can turn inward.

The holy grail, of course, is a shared sense of purpose that doesn’t require bloodshed.  That sort of idealism, when it flourishes, tends to lead to America’s best moments.  Some of us thrill to inclusion for its own sake; we’re the ones who celebrated the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, and who think that open-admissions policies at community colleges are features, not bugs.  But for many people, a shared purpose requires a common enemy.  When the enemy doesn’t exist, it needs to be manufactured or invoked.  And once enemies start getting manufactured, it’s easy to keep making more.


Those of us -- and I include myself in this -- who believe in inclusion for its own sake are worried at some of what has happened in the last few months.  Our challenge, and it’s no small one, is to find ways to restore heroism to the progressive expansion of inclusion.  Kennard’s diagnosis is largely correct, but tough to swallow.  The idea of the moral equivalent of war may have been ahead of its time, but it wasn’t wrong.  It still isn’t.

Comments:
Maybe you are a bit too young to have heard the stories from your parents, but the shared sacrifice during World War 2 went far beyond the draft. It included not being able to buy tires or shoes for years, and having to save ration coupons to buy enough gasoline to take a trip to another city. Money could only buy meat on the black market if you didn't have the ration stamps. In addition, the savings rate (in war bonds and stamps) was insane because there was nothing to buy. Cars? Refrigerators? Nope. Just tanks and airplanes. Every movie had war bond ads, promoting the idea that it wasn't a loan, it was an investment in America.

You didn't see any of this in the so-called Global War on Terror. Not even a tax increase to pay for the invasion of Iraq. If you didn't teach at a community college or state university, you didn't even see the warriors.

Interesting theory about progress in American society. I definitely need to send you a note about a couple of things I can't blog about. I'll limit my observation here to say that I can't envision any mechanism that ensures the kind of progress she notes. Civilizations have collapsed before, and democracies have been the most vulnerable. France was torn apart by right- and left-wing divisions that left no middle, and defeat and Vichy followed.
 
I would be interested to see how she handles the forced Anglicization of US citizens who spoke German under Wilson, or the internment camps under Roosevelt! Or the way that New England almost broke away in the unpleasantness after 1812. Canada has its own shames in that area, but I would not call the world wars a time of progress for =égalite= and =fraternite=.
 
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Another aspect to consider is that wars don't just create a "we're all in it together" situation -- it's helped to generate group identity. When you draw men from all over the United States and force them to live and work together, commonalities become clear. Bringing together African-American men helped forge a sense of common cause. Gay men scattered throughout the country discovered that they weren't unique. With group identity comes greater political power.

That process doesn't require warfare. We've got the internet for that now. For good and ill.
 
Wars -- real, existential wars -- force our elites to remember that they depend on us, the hoi polloi.

Right now they think they don't, so they engage in brinksmanship. By the time they are forced to live in guarded compounds for fear of their children being kidnapped, it's too late.

"No one could have predicted" is the shared credo of the W Administration, the Obama Administration, and the corrupt elite both existed to serve.
 
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