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reactions almost never go all the way back; gains made in one era may be compromised in the next, but they’re rarely rescinded altogether.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.