The Traveling Philosopher: A Discussion Prompt
At the United Nations in September, Barack Obama had Voltaire on his mind.Â â€śI accept that people are going to call me awful things every day,â€ť said the president. â€śAnd I will always defend their right to do so.â€ť Voltaire of course famously said, â€śI do not agree with what you have to say, but Iâ€™ll defend to the death your right to say it.â€ťÂ Obama’s comments were directed towards the heated debate over the video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which triggered violent reactions in numerous Muslim countries.
In America, Alexis de Tocqueville admired the strong defense of free speech, noting in the 1830s â€śAmong the twelve million people living in the territory of the United States, there is not one single man who has dared to suggest restricting freedom of the pressâ€ť (page 182).Â But unlike Obama, when Tocqueville explained in Democracy in America that the best way to prevent extreme views from becoming dangerous ideas was to legalize them, he was applying this thinking specifically to the US.Â Extreme liberty worked in America, thought the young Frenchman, because of the equality of social conditions and the mores of a people without an aristocracy.
In the democratization literature, there is a great debate over sequencing: If elections are held too soon does this give nationalists or radicals an upper hand? Is social mobilization without institutionalization destabilizing? The US invasion of Iraq reignited these debates.Â Based on Obamaâ€™s comments, it seems that he either believes that sequence does not matter (if you start from political freedom, tolerance will follow regardless), or that there are universal norms of free speech.Â Both views seem potentially dangerous, and assessing them requires great imagination.Â It is difficult to calculate consequences without a robust ability to imagine a future.Â How can we better prepare our students to do this?
Joshua Mitchell on “Tocqueville in Arabia”
Before his October 2012 talk at American University, I asked Georgetown University Professor of Political Theory Joshua Mitchell to think about democratic sequencing, and a series of other issues as part of his lecture on â€śTocqueville in Arabia.â€ť Â Students in the Middle East â€śoften long to see farther,â€ť he has written, yet they struggle to do so.
Tocqueville serves as a lens for reflecting upon his five years teaching in the Middle East (not as a tool for advocating American democracy promotion).Â In addition to the question of sequencing, what follows are some of the major themes and ideas I asked him to consider. You can watch a short three minute excerpt of his comments on iTunes University by clicking here.
The Family in Civil Society
The relationship between family obligations, and the broader construction of civil society, arises in various ways in his work. Â Religion calls Muslims to practice social responsibility to the broader community, for example through zakat.Â But do citizens learn democratic habits this way, I asked?Â And how is democratic sequencing different without secularism?
The young generation in Russia during the mid-1800s, who invented the philosophy of nihilism, hoped to advance social reforms by renouncing the social mores of their parents.Â Do the youths of Benghazi or Baghdad need to embed democratic rebellion within their family obligations, or do they need to escape them?
In an interview with David Souter on PBS, the retired Supreme Court Justice expressed desperation about the general state of ignorance in America about the Constitution, alluding to a possible solution: that we can somehow become better citizens through exposure to the right political knowledge. As numerous public scholars have pointed out though, the great paradox of the information age is that we have more access to information than ever dreamed possible a generation or two ago, but it is hard to argue that we have gotten any smarter. So maybe civics is not the solution after all, and exposure doesnâ€™t count for much. Right?
Allan Bloom thought we could remedy this not through civics but through Western philosophy, lamenting in The Closing of the American Mind the rise of MTV and other horrors of the 1980s.Â But where he feared that multi-culturalism was killing the cannon, Mitchellâ€™s concern is different: â€śstudent-centered learningâ€ť has replaced the cannon, as has a philosophy of sympathy, and this ultimately provides a poor guide for understanding the world. He also would like to see the â€śgreat ideasâ€ť resurrected, so that students would become armed with critical thinking not only through Plato and Plutarch, but through â€ścomparative canonical inquiry.â€ť
Martha Nussbaum makes a related argument in her recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, explaining that literature, philosophy and the arts are essential building blocks of creative and engaged citizens. With the School Reform Movement in America today, I donâ€™t think either Bloom or Nussbaum will be satisfied: education has failed because it is not practical enough.Â Of course this notion of practicality is also far removed from John Deweyâ€™s idea of practical education through pragmatism. Today Democrats and Republicans alike both want to see education vocationalized: students will be trained for their place in the economy, rather than their place in the polity.Â I too am very worried about the students churned out by such schools.
Alternatively, maybe it is not what we know, but how we know each other.Â And in this way, the â€śfriendingâ€ť debasement of friendship, the replacement of companionship with â€śconnectednessâ€ť (Mark Zukerbergâ€™s mantra during interviews), becomes what Mitchell describes as a â€śsoliloquyâ€ť for young people, a â€śreoccurring loop that can be halted by the one thing that many of them are most frightened to do, namely, involve themselves in actual face-to face relations â€“ not for a moment, but for an extended period.â€ťÂ Students today are more connected, and more alone. As many universities embark on massive, ambitious online degree programs that will link more and more students linked to the academy primarily through their computers, can pedagogy make good democrats of our pupils under such conditions?Â If not, will they become even lonelier?
Individuality and Collectivity
Another theme Mitchell explores is the dialogue between individuality and collectivity. Â I interpret individuality as a precondition for autonomous judgment. This means that the democratic person is on the one hand proud of her independence (self-sufficiency?) and on the other hand prone to loneliness. The CDCâ€™s National Center for Health Statistics recently offered grim evidence of the latterâ€™s rise: the suicide rate increased 15 percent over the last decade, and for the first time it now exceeds the fatality rate from car accidents. What does the college campus tell us about this balance between self-sufficiency and alienation?
Things have of course changed in Arabia since Tocqueville wrote. In Egypt he said the ruler believed his people â€śextremely ignorant and very nearly equalâ€ť in the early 1800s (page 677).Â At that time â€“ as under Hosni Mubarakâ€™s more recent rule â€“ the centralized state provided a stark contrast with America, where federalism is practically fetishized. Today, can we guess that Tocqueville would write that Egyptians are â€śextremely angry and very nearly democraticâ€ť?
As a post-script to the presentation, I can’t resist noting that the day after Obama’s re-election, the maker of the controversial and insensitive video maligning Islam was sentenced to a year in prison — on charges of violating his parole but not for making the offensive video.Â Tocqueville was an astute observer after all.
You can download the full length lecture by Professor Mitchell via iTunes University.