Letters Archive
Fall 1994, Vol. 3, No. 1
  • Science & Society
  • The National Conversation
  • The National Conversation

    Remarks by Sheklon Hackney
    Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

    On March 30, 1994, the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities hosted a visit by Sheldon Hackney, Chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities and Vanderbilt University Alumnus, Class of 1955. Dr. Hackney participated in a seminar at the Center for the Humanities. He also gave a public address regarding his new initiative at the N.E.H., the "National Conversation." Following are the remarks he delivered to members of the Vanderbilt community.

    Why does it matter who we think we are, either indlvidually or collectively? What difference does it make what image of America is shared by its citizens? The idea of America, though always more rooted in aspiration than reality, has pulled this experiment on democracy forward from the first toward its dream of "liberty and justice for all." That dream, the same one Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so eloquently about at the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington in 1963, has powered one of the noble stories of America, the story of the expansion of the promise of American life to embrace increasesing proportions of its citizens. The idea is tutor to the act.

    Archibald MacLeish, in an essay published in 1949 as a warning against the mounting hysteria of anti-Communism, wrote, "the soul of a people is the image it cherishes of itself; the aspect in which it sees itself against its past; the attributes to which its future conduct must respond. To destroy that image is to destroy, in a very real sense, the identity of the nation, for to destroy the image is to destroy the means by which the nation recognizes what it is and what it has to do. But the image a people holds of itself is created not by words alone or myths but by its actions. Unless the actions are appropriate to the image, the image is blurred. If the actions deny the image, the image is destroyed.... A people who have been real to themselves because they were for something cannot continue to be real to themselves when they find they are merely against something."

    The question I raise today is not so much about actions that are inconsistent with our image of ourselves as about what we are going to be for now that we don't have the "evil empire" to be against? Do we have a clear and an adequate image of ourselves in the post-cold war world, given all the threats to political stability and human welfare both foreign and domestic, given the dangerous fragmentation of a world in which the closeness imposed by modern communications and the global economy has reemphasized the differences within the human family? What is the United States going to be for in the 21st century? What picture of an ideal America is going to inform our struggles with current problems? What notion of shared commitments, mutual obligations, civic virtues, will help us come together to solve common problems?

    Writing in the New York Times (March 27, 1994), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University put the challenge of Minister Louis Farrakhan and his hate mongering disciple, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, in perspective by quoting Rabbi Yaacov Perrin's eulogy for Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the man who massacred worshipping Palestinian Muslims in Hebron: "One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail."

    But we have heard this voice before, Gates writes. "It is the voice of messianic hatred. We hear it from the Balkans to the Bantustans; we hear it from Hezbollah and from Kach. We hear it in the streets of Benson hurst. And of course, we hear it from some who profess to be addressing the misery of black America. "

    Professor Gates goes on to connect these and other examples of murderous utopianism to the weaknesses of liberalism and less lethal forms of what he calls identity politics.

    "There has been much talk about the politics of identity," Gates writes, "a politics that has a collective identity at its core. One is to assert oneself in the political arena as a woman, a homosexual, a Jew, a person of color.... The politics of identity starts with the assertion of a collective allegiance. It says: this is who we are, make room for us, accommodate our special needs, recognition upon what is distinctive about us. It is about the priority of difference, and while it is not, by itself, undesirable, it is—by itself—dangerously inadequate."

    Glancing around our nation now does not give one much reassurance. Not only does Khalid Abdul Muhammad of the Nation of Islam travel from campus to campus spewing bigotry and leaving divisive squabbles in his wake, but a few weeks ago the National Conference of Christians and Jews released the results of a survey of race relations commissioned by them and done by Lou Harris. The results revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that among Anglo-Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, disturbingly high percentages of each group held negative stereotypes of each of the other groups. So much for the myth of "the new majority," the idea that people of color are united against Euro-Americans. No wonder the village square these days is full of sound and fury.

    As effective as the politics of difference have been in bringing previously excluded groups into the mainstream of American life (one might, in fact, say because the politics of difference have been so effective in giving formerly silent groups access to the national public address system), rancorous debates are Increasmgly occupying our attention. Take for example the angry debates in state legislatures around bills to make English the official language of the state, an act that is primarily symbolic and is emotionally resisted for the very same reason (nineteen states have such laws; Maryland just turned down an "official English" bill). The growing debate over immigration policy will be no less clamorous. From South Central Los Angeles to Crown Heights, from Libertyville to the recent assassination on the Brooklyn Bridge, tensions among racial and ethnic groups in the United States are in volatile condition.

    That this is more than academic is clear if one recalls the hand-to-hand combat within school boards involving such issues as bilingual education and Afrocentric curricula, the dispute over the literary canon at the college level, or the court decisions seeking to remedy past patterns of discrimination in voting rights cases by requiring redistricting or changes in the form of local government so as to guarantee the minority community representation in the legislative body. In most of these cases, and others you can probably think of, public authorities are being asked to confer some sort of official status on a particular cultural group. Large parts of the public sense that this form of particularism is a problem in a system based on universal values of individual rights. Simply saying that every one must respect everyone else's ethnic identity therefore does not solve the problem.

    Furthermore, how is one to embrace cultural equality when one is aware of so many practices one does not admire: polygamy, genital mutilation, the subordination of women in various other ways, the rejection of life-saving science, authoritarian social structures, ethnocentric and racist beliefs, etc. On what occasions and in what circumstances should the practices of cultural minorities give way to the general society's rules, regulations, and expectations? At the same time, how can an inclusive American identity be defined so as not to obliterate the particular cultural identities that make America's diversity so enriching? These are complex matters that require careful thought.

    America, of course, has always been diverse and its diversity has always been problematic, which is the reason for our motto, "E Pluribus Unum."We take pride in the fact that our nation rests upon a commitment to individual equality and democracy rather than upon ethnicity, but we worry about cohesion, and we bounce back and forth along the continuum between the assimilation implied by the "melting pot" myth and the persistence of pre-American cultural identities assumed by the metaphor of the national quilt or the mosaic.

    What is our image of the America of the 21st century? What kind of American do we wish to be? Is America to become, as Arjun Appadurai worries (Public Culture, Spring, 1993), a collection of exiled groups whose members have loyalties only to their own group or perhaps to their homeland rather than to the United States? Are we to be a nation of exiles rather than a nation of immigrants? Should our image be of an undifferentiated America of "melting pot" individuals without any hy phenated identity? Can it be an America of shared values and commitments that nonetheless retains the modulation of cultural differences, an America in which we are all American and something else? Can we define what Henry Louis Gates calls "humanism," which starts not with a particular identity "but with the capacity to identify with. It asks what we have in common with others, while acknowledging the diversity among ourselves. It is about the promise of shared humanity. "

    Can we identify those values and commitments we need to share if we are to be a successful society? Is a belief in the Constitution and our political system enough to hold us together with out violent friction between members of different groups? To what extent can any incluslve national identity enlist our loyalties if it does not squarely face the issue of social justice? If equal opportunity is to be part of the American ideal, shouldn't we talk about the extent to which it does not exist and how to bridge the gap between ideal and reality?

    There is not one of our considerable number of social ills that would not be considerably im proved if each of us felt a sense of responsibility for the whole. I was in Savannah, Georgia not long ago visiting some N.E.H. funded projects and I learned about an oral history projecr that is reclaiming the past of a residential community called Cuyler Brownsville. One of the people interviewed remembered his childhood in that neighborhood. His memory was that it was the kind of place where "everybody's momma could whip everybody's kid." I can't think of a better definition of community or of civic virtue than that. Everybody looks out for everyone else, feels responsible for everyone else. It would be utopian to aspire to the same level of community spirit on a national level, of course, but some analogous sense of identification with the whole is needed.

    Two things are required if each of us is to be willing to subordinate our individual self-interests on occasion to the good of the whole: we must feel a part of the whole, and we must see in that whole some moral purpose that is greater than the individual. Our problem is our inadequate awareness of what might be called the sacred order that underlies the social order and is the source of legitimate authority in the social order.

    At an earlier defining moment in the nation's history, on the eve of the outbreak of the Civil War, Abraham L.incoln, speaking between his electlon and his inauguration, in Philadelphia in Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been drafted, found the meaning of America in itS mlssion of being the exemplar for the world of the ideals of human freedom and equality set forth in those great documents. On that occasion, Lincoln said, "I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this [Union] so long together. It was not the mere matter of rhe separation of the colonies from the motherland; but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." It was not only about slavery but about slavery as a violation of the principles of democracy and the sanctity of the Union because with the Union rested the world's hope for democracy.

    The Civil War thus became a test of whether democracy, with its promise of liberty and equality, could survive, whether the last best hope on earth could endure. Returning to this theme two and a half brutal years later at the dedication of the military cemetery in Gettysburg, Lincoln declared that defending the Union was worth the sacrifices exacted by that terrible struggle because the sacrifices made possible "a new birth of freedom." The challenge of our time is to revitalize our civic life in order to realize a new birth of freedom. All of our people—left, right and center—have a responsibility to examine and discuss what unites us as a country, about what we share as common American values in a nation comprised of so many divergent groups and beliefs. For too long, we have let what divides us capture the headlines and sound bites, polarizing us rather than bringing us together.

    The conversation that I envision will not be easy. Cornel West, for instance, writes that "confused citizens now oscillate between tragic resignation and vigorous attempts to hold at bay their feelings of impotence and powerlessness. Public life seems barren and vacuous. And gallant efforts to reconstruct public mindedness in a Balkanized society of proliferating identities and constituencies seem farfetched, if not futile. Even the very art of public conversation—the precious activity of communicating with fellow citizens in a spirit of mutual respect and civility—appears to fade amid the backdrop of name-calling and finger-point ing in flat sound-bites."

    Despite the difficulties, the conversation must proceed. The objectives are too important to abandon. What I envision is a national conversation open to all Americans, a conversation in which all voices need to be heard and in which we must struggle seriously to define the meaning of American pluralism. It is a conversation that is desperately needed, and the National Endowment for the Humanities is in the process of encouraging that conversation through a special program of grants, through a film intended for national broadcast on television but which will also be repackaged for use in the nation's classrooms, through the ongoing activities of the state humanities councils, and through creative partnerships with organizations throughout the country that can help to stimulate and facilitate the discussion among citizens from all walks of life.

    This will be a risky enterprise, because the N.E.H. comes only with questions, not answers. The outcome is therefore unpredictable, contingent as it is on the course of the discussion and on what we learn from each other as we talk.

    However large the challenge, I believe we must reconstruct pub like-mindedness in America. Without a sense of shared values, individuals are not willing to subordinate personal self-interest to the common good. Our first step out of the moral nihilism of our public and private lives is to define our common identity and to find in it a moral purpose that is worthy of our loyalty.

    Fortunately, there is some evidence of the continuing power of the idea of America that has moved generations of our people to sacrifice in order to build a better life not just for themselves and people like themselves but for others, that has called forth the best in Americans in national crises, that has enlarged our sense of ourselves so that we more nearly approximate the universal ideals set forth in our founding documents. When the American Jewish Committee wanted to rally public support against the sort of intolerance preached by the Nation of Islam, it called upon familiar rhetoric that reveals a particular conception of America and its civic values.

    "We are Americans, whose diversity of faith, ethnicity and race unites us in a common campalgn against bigotry," (read the copy of the advertisement that ran in the New York Times [February 28, 1994] over an impressive and diverse array of signed leaders).

    "We are Americans, who know the rights and dignity of all of us are jeopardized when those of any of us are challenged.

    "We are Americans, who reject the ugly slanders of the hatemongers seeking to lift up some Americans by reviling others.

    "We are Americans, born or drawn to this land, children of immigrants, refugees, natives, and slaves, whose work together honors the history of the civil rights struggle and makes it live, for all Americans.

    "In recent weeks, leaders of the Nation of Islam have gained wide attention for their verbal attacks on whites, women, Jews, Catholics, Arabs, gays, and African Americans who criticize their persistently divisive message.

    "We, the undersigned, believe the best response we can give to those who teach hate is to join our voices, as we have so often joined forces, in a better message—of faith in each other, of shared devotion to America's highest ideals of freedom and equality.

    "We must learn to live to gether as brothers,' the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, 'or we will all perish together as fools. That is the challenge of the hour.

    "Together we strive to meet that challenge. For with all our differences, we are indeed united, as Americans."

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