I am spearheading a new series in the CUNY Advocate this fall. The introductory essay that I penned was sent out to an extensive list of the nation's brightest academics, public intellectuals, teachers, social activists and writers, along with a short list of questions to be answered. The response thus far has been extraordinary. For our inaugural forum, I am proud to announce that The Advocate published essays by three of the world’s leading authorities on American politics and culture. In her opening essay, France Fox Piven offers the exciting prospect of a significant realignment of American electoral politics in the wake of our November election, a realignment that could render future regimes vulnerable to progressive social movements. But movements for meaningful change, as Peter Hitchcock usefully reminds us in his essay, will undoubtedly crash into the walls of inertia that have come to characterize our country’s economic and political life. If these walls are successfully torn down, credit will certainly be due in large part to our country’s youth, a segment of our population Henry Giroux forcefully argues are increasingly reared on punishment and fear. Together, the three authors combine to deftly illustrate an America at the crossroads of crisis and possibility, a country suffering derailed democracy, and ripe for reconstruction. The Piven, Hitchcok and Giroux essays can be viewed here. Any feedback, contributions or suggestions for improvement are welcomed and greatly appreciated. There'll be plenty more to come...
There is reason to believe that the United States is plumbing the depths of moral and political crisis. The easy response to this claim pins the blame squarely on George W. Bush, and his crooked cronies in the White House. And yet, upon further reflection, the Bush administration seems more a symptom than a cause of the crisis.
Put plainly, our national life has been swept up in its own failures and weaknesses. Our menu of problems should cause concern. To begin with, the rhetoric through which issues of national import should be debated has been whittled to its most base elements, then distorted through the phony prisms of patriotism and national security. Hopes for the resurrection of a meaningful civil rights movement have been likewise suffocated, as the country resists gay marriage, and continues its tradition of segregation behind the mask of public education. Meanwhile, our economy slouches ever-closer to recession while at the same moment millions rush out with their stimulus package buy-offs to purchase iPhones and other momentary satisfactions. And in the international realm, the country’s foreign policy has abdicated any responsibility to future generations, and opted instead to become an adjunct of corporate interests.
Of course, there are millions of citizens who do not consider the present moment worrisome, who are comfortable with the fruits of their American experience, who view the United States as the defender of opportunity, democracy and the exercise of freedom, who regard the idea of moral-political crisis as alarmist, extremist. Many more regard our current condition as the concluding chapter in the nightmare that has been the Bush presidency. They see the last eight years as a bump in an otherwise acceptable historical trajectory. For these observers, the American system–our political methods and institutions–will correct any errors that may have been committed at the ballot box in years past.
Yet throughout the country, the sense that people are frustrated and fed-up has grown palpable. The call for urgent change has been sounded, and people — young and old — have responded. Barack Obama’s groundbreaking presidential run is evidence enough. And still, the demand for change rippling through our nation somehow rings hollow. The question of “change who?” is clear enough. But equally important, and perhaps more challenging, questions have received less attention. Change what? Change where? How?
The Advocate seeks to initiate an intelligent, considered, and provocative debate on these issues. In this, we are not without precedent. Concerned about the direction of national life, and understanding that they stood at a pivotal moment in the country’s history, the editors of The Partisan Review queried prominent intellectuals in ‘67, encouraging responses to a series of questions seeking to understand “What’s Happening to America?” The responses received in 1967 offer a brilliant, often disturbing, glimpse into an America about to be hurled into chaos the following year. That America looks awfully similar to the one we have now.
The turbulence of 1968 marked a proud moment for the American left, but set the country on a course that produced the politics of today. In the words of Michael Walzer, writing in a recent issue of Dissent, 1968 “changed American culture for the better in many ways. But it did not produce a sustainable politics; its institutional legacy is virtually nil. In fact, it contributed to forty years of rightward momentum…Next time, we have to do better.”
With all due respect to Professor Walzer, “next time” is now.
With a reverent nod to the past, and a hopeful eye on the future, we issued a call-to-arms for provocative, informed debate to many of the nation’s brightest, most exciting minds. Needless to say, this call was broadcast across the political spectrum, and we have received a tremendous response. Over the course of this coming semester, if not longer, The Advocate will publish the thoughts of public intellectuals, academics, social activists, and of course, students motivated by the following agenda of suggested questions to focus productive discussion.
1. Does it matter who is in the White House? Or is there something in our system which would force any president to act as any other?
2. What role, if any, do public intellectuals play in American life?
3. Must the American intellectual or artist adapt him or herself to mass culture? If s/he must, what forms can this adaptation take? Or, do you believe that a democratic society necessarily leads to a leveling of culture, to a mass culture which will overrun intellectual and aesthetic values traditionally embraced by American intellectuals and artists?
4. Where in American life can artists and intellectuals find the basis of strength, renewal, and recognition as our new century progresses?
5. What is the biggest open secret in American life?
6. Where do you think our foreign policies are likely to lead us?
7. What, if any, issues do you feel deserve more attention from Barack Obama and/or John McCain in their bids for the presidency?
8. What, in general, do you think is likely to happen in the United States during the next presidential administration?