I love idealism. I have marched in anti-war demonstrations. When Howard Dean roared his infamous “Yeearrrrgh!” I roared right along with him. I still secretly really like Ralph Nader, even after the 2000 presidential elections; in fact, I’ve seen him speak more times than I can count on one hand. And I know how to throw around terms like “democratic reawakening” and “grassroots movements” like a high school AP government teacher.
Imagine my excitement, then, when last Thursday, Princeton’s Progressive Review and The Nation sponsored a workshop and panel discussion entitled “The State of the Nation: A conversation about the media, politics, the war and the Bush administration.” The event was intended, according to Progressive Review editor Asheesh Siddique ’07, to give on-campus publications the “opportunity to sit down with some of Princeton’s leading progressive alumni…and compare notes on the state of campus politics during their eras and now.”
The moderator herself, Juliet Eilperin ’92, has a profile as impressive as the panelists. She currently writes for the Washington Post and serves as a visiting professor of journalism at Princeton. The three individuals she introduced were an all-star cast: Katrina vanden Heuvel ’82 is the only female editor of a position publication in the United States, and she looks the part; her crisply-tailored white shirt and black, flat-front trousers accentuate her striking features. William Greider ’58 is a witty older gentleman who commented that his career, which finds him as the current national affairs correspondent for the Nation, “has been dedicated to proving that English majors are not useless.” Sean Wilentz is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and director of American studies at Princeton. Although he does not work for the Nation, he frequently contributes articles to this journal and many others.
As a whole, I found the panelists not only crushingly well-qualified, but also endearingly bookish and attractive. In fact, the only problem with all of these idealists was their idealism. They all echoed Greider’s sentiment that the United States is currently approaching a “reckoning point” at which the “false triumphalism” of the right will give way to a “rebirth of the Left and democratic values.” Katrina urged that “this country needs radical democratic reform…Let us lay out what democracy means…from civil society,” rather than through waging wars.
Every sentence sounded compelling. When Heuvel declared that “the delusional is no longer marginal” in the faith-based Bush administration, I was right there with her, completely persuaded by the easy slant-rhyme of her sentence and the soft, but authoritative hush of her voice.
But wait! Much as my liberal, poster-waving and bra-burning sentiments didn’t want to admit it, there was something disturbingly dogmatic, upsettingly religious and even faith-based about the Nation panel. Phrases like “cradle of liberty” and “the cooperative cure,” while harmless if slightly saccharine in their own right, are ultimately empty phrases unless they rest on a hard and fast program for action. Blind faith in democratic-themed metaphors is just as reprehensible as blind faith in FOX news reports. Appealing as Greider’s sentiment is that “democracy begins in human conversations,” I couldn’t help wondering what exactly this meant or how this adage offered the Left any concrete solutions to regaining control in the United States. I agree with the idea that students need to be informed, active citizens, yet I doubt that discussion alone can bring the glory days back to the Democrats.
Heuvel was the only panelist who commented on the grandeur of her own dialogue, but any tendency toward objective self-awareness was compromised by her almost dogmatic point of view. I wanted to hear hard facts and numbers. I wanted to be awed by the panelists’ ability to rattle off statistics about voter percentages and income distribution or quote various little-known but well-spoken Congressmen.
Sadly, the broad strokes approach was embraced by the students in the audience as well as the panelists. Students either ask questions just for the sake of asking tired questions or, even worse, ask questions just for the sake of demonstrating their familiarity with “elevated language.” For example, “In every generation, there is some spirit or zeitgeist. For example…As Erasmus and/or Hegel and/or Matthew Arnold once said…And finally, I want to know: what do you think the spirit of our generation is? Where do you think we’re headed?” If I was disappointed with the responses of the three experts, I was even more disappointed with the questions posed by my peers.
Maybe it’s the Cornel West seminar I’m taking this semester, but I feel compelled to close with a reference to Greece, Rome, paideia and telos and a passage from Edward Said. In The World, the Text and the Critic, he wrote, “criticism has therefore refused to see its affiliations with the political world it serves, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not. Once an intellectual, the modern critic has become a cleric in the worst sense of the word.” Heuvel, Greider, and Wilentz have good intentions and daunting lexical recall, but their idealism must rest on realistic programs in order to be more than simply another form of faith-based – albeit secular – discourse.