College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Liberal Arts Matters

Reality and Hope

By Dr. David Mason, Professor, Political Science

The dolphin pavilion is turning out to be a special place for me this year. My daughters Melanie and Dana made my 60 th birthday gift last November an opportunity to swim with the dolphins here, during which time I befriended Nova, who was flirting with me through the glass just a few minutes ago. And now I am delivering what really is my last lecture for Butler University, in this enchanted place. To tell you the truth, though, I already gave a "Last Chance Lecture" at BU almost 25 years ago, in a series organized by students. It is not often any of us are offered two last chances in this life!

When Michael first asked me to deliver this Lecture, I thought I could get off easy by simply presenting a lecture I had given to another audience a few weeks before-a powerpoint presentation outlining my new book on The End of the American Century. At that point, I was still not sure I was going to retire this year. Indeed, I think Michael's invitation was a subtle effort, perhaps, to get me to make up my feeble mind! It may have worked, because over the last few weeks, as I have worked on this lecture, I have increasingly come to see it as the last lecture, at least for me, rather than a last lecture, and if it really is the last one, I need to retire, right? So the preparation for the lecture itself has helped me move toward that very difficult decision. That, plus Craig Auchter's musing after finding out how long I had been teaching at Butler: "33 years is enough."

Thinking of this as my very last lecture, though, as also caused me to change somewhat my approach to my remarks. As you will see, my thoughts about "The End of the American Century" are pretty downbeat. I thought, first of all, that I didn't want to send you all home, from this celebratory evening, in a blue funk over the state of the world.. I also felt that a downbeat message at the end of my career did not really, truly reflect who I am, what I believe, or how I teach. And I am, first and foremost, a teacher. It is that aspect of my job that I will most miss, and the reason I procrastinated so long in deciding to retire.

For me my teaching is inseparable from both my research and writing, on the one hand, and from my passion for politics, peace and justice on the other. In all of these endeavors, what I have tried to do, through my entire adult life, is to help people to understand their own country, the world, and the relationship between those two. This is not easy, given the prevalence of "cant" in the political world. This word "cant" is a highly useful and germane one to explain what I mean; though it is hardly ever used, and I suspect many of you maybe even a little fuzzy on its meaning. My first real encounter with it was with a graduate course in international politics taught by Ed Buehrig, who believed that even today, the only textbook you would ever need for that topic was Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, written 2500 years ago. (Buehrig really was a devotee of the liberal arts!) The dictionary definitions of cant include hypocrisy, false piety, insincerity, and whining speech. You see why it is so useful for understanding politics? My task as a teacher of politics, then, is to circumvent or counteract political "cant." I did this when I taught about the communist world; when I teach about Islam in Change and Tradition, and most recently, when I have been teaching the subject of my book on The End of the American Century. One of the major themes of that book is that hypocrisy, false piety and hubris prevent Americans from seeing their country as it really is-how it has changed (mostly for the worse) in recent years; how it compares (mostly unfavorably) to other developed countries; and how it is perceived (mostly negatively) by people in other parts of the world.

Here though is a dilemma and a paradox for my role as a teacher. I want to teach my students things about their own country that are not at all flattering, and which fly in the face of their own pride, patriotism, and optimism. But I don't want them to become cynical, pessimistic and fatalistic (as I often am!). If you get too bombarded with bad news, there is a tendency to throw up your hands, ask "why bother?" and retreat into your own personal affairs.

But one of our jobs as teachers is to empower students, and to inspire a sense of hope and possibility in them. This, then, is the theme of my talk this evening: Reality and Hope. How does one teach the truth, yet keep alive hope? I don't have the answers, of course, but I can share with you some of my thoughts.

To illustrate this dilemma, I first want to depress you! Well, I don't mean to depress you, but I want to highlight some of the themes of my book, which will be published by Rowman and Littlefield this fall. This is what I have been teaching my students, so you will get a chance to see what I am wrestling with.

The United States was the dominant power in the world, in almost every sense, for the six decades after the end of World War II. For this reason, the 20th Century has aptly been characterized "The American Century," a phrase used as the title of an influential essay written in 1941 for Life Magazine by the magazine's publisher, Henry Luce. In the years since then, the U.S. economy propelled world trade and economic growth. Its science and technology provided the leading edge of innovation and discovery. America's democratic institutions and educational system served as beacons for peoples all over the world. Its popular culture, film industry and sports were envied and mimicked everywhere. American military prowess was admired and feared by governments and revolutionary movements alike.

Yet in the last decade, and particularly since September 11, every aspect of this American predominance has begun to wane. The U.S. economy is riddled with debt and unsustainable obligations-by both governments and households-presaging at least long-term economic decline, if not general collapse. The U.S. has higher rates of poverty, inequality and violence and the worst record on health care of any other industrialized democracy. The educational system, once considered the world's best, now ranks near the bottom among developed countries, and about one third of U.S. citizens are now functionally illiterate. U.S. corporations, once models of dynamism, innovation and efficiency, are hampered by bureaucracy, corruption, and bloated executive payrolls. Few American corporations are generating either innovation or growth. Even science is marginalized and beleaguered under the gun of politics and religion. And while American consumer goods and popular culture remain fashionable in much of the world, there is at the same time increasing resistance in many countries to the erosion of national culture and traditions in the face of U.S.-led globalization. The U. S. invasion of Iraq, in blatant disregard of both international law and the United Nations, extended that perception to America's military as well and intensified anti-Americanism all around the globe. Furthermore, the war has been a fiasco in every conceivable way, for both Iraqis and Americans. Global public opinion polls show that almost everywhere, including in most European countries, it is the United States that is now seen as the major threat to peace in the world.

America's decline is multifaceted: it is economic, social and political; domestic and international; both real and perceived; evident in both its hard power and soft power influence overseas; and manifested both in long term trends, and in comparison with other countries. All these elements of decline are also symbiotic: economic decline affects the political and social world; domestic decay fuels international decline; and the real decline feeds the perceptual.

So this is a complex and complicated story, but I think there are two key elements of America's decline upon which hinge most of the other problems: the first is the growing level of debt in the US, in its multiple dimensions. And the second is inequality-the rapidly growing chasm between the rich and the poor. So let's look briefly at these two issues.

First: debt. The U.S. is experiencing record high levels of all of the following: the federal debt, the annual federal deficits, the trade deficit, personal debt, consumer debt, and mortgage debt. Two decades ago, the Yale university historian Paul Kennedy published a book called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in which he traced historical empires, including Rome, Spain and Britain, and found that in each case, as they grew and became more ambitious and overconfident, they fell victim to "imperial overstretch" where they bankrupted the country by trying to extend themselves too broadly. Kennedy also trained his eye on the Soviet Union and the U.S, both of which he thought were vulnerable to these phenomena. At that time, in 1985, the U.S. federal debt was 44% of our GDP, which Kennedy said was unprecedented in world history for a major power. Twenty years later, that debt has ballooned to 68% of GDP, and is still growing. What is perhaps even more alarming is the ownership of that debt.. IN 1970, only 4% of US debt was held by foreigners. Now, almost 50% is. Furthermore, these debts do not even account for the unfathomably huge amounts of "unfunded liabilities" especially for Social Security and Medicare, which economists estimate to total some 27 trillion dollars. Some of us, on the verge of retirement, are particularly interested in this right now!

The ongoing federal budget deficits, and the accumulating federal debt, is one half of the "twin deficits" that also include the US trade deficit, which has now reached record levels in both absolute terms ($700 billion) and as a percent of GDP (6%). The U.S. imports almost everything that consumers buy, and we produce very little that anybody else wants. The trade imbalance is particularly large with China, which is home to almost 80% of the suppliers of products purchased by Wal-Mart.

While the federal government has been living on borrowed money, increasingly, so have most American citizens. The household savings rate in the U.S. which has always been low compared to other wealthy countries, has now dipped below zero for the first time ever. Credit card debt, mortgage debt, foreclosures and bankruptcies are all at or near record levels. Most baby boomers have retirement savings of only about $50,000-probably less than a tenth of what they would need to maintain their standard of living.

Average real wages in the United States have not grown since the mid-1970s. (And you thought it was just at Butler!) Wealth and income inequality have risen steadily and sharply since then. The U.S. has higher rates of poverty, and much higher inequality, than any other industrialized democracy. The inequality is particularly galling at the very top. In the 1950s, average CEO pay in the U.S. was about 50 times the salary of average workers, and even then, this ration-50 to 1-was much higher than in any other developed country. Now, that ratio is over 500 to 1.

High rates of poverty and inequality have translated into a whole host of other problems that lead us to compare poorly to other wealthy countries. Our educational system is failing, mostly because of poor public schools in the cities, and American students invariably score near the bottom of international competitions in math, science, history and geography. Our health care system, which leaves 40 million people without health insurance, is more expensive than any other wealthy country, but has the worst record among them in terms of infant mortality, maternal mortality, and many other measures. Americans are much more likely to kill each other than people in other developed countries. And we have more people in prison than any other country in the world, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population.

As I mentioned earlier, in the international arena, the U.S. is increasingly viewed in other countries as a major threat to world peace, even among our allies. Well before September 11 or the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. had begun moving out of step with the rest of the world, and alienating much of it, by its cavalier dismissal of international conventions and treaties. The US is one of the few countries that has not ratified the Kyoto Treaty on climate change, and the treaty creating an International Criminal Court to bring to justice those who have committed war crimes or genocide. We have not signed the international treaty on rights of women, and we are one of only two countries not to ratify the international convention on the rights of children. The only other country not to sign is Somalia, which has no government. Since September 11, the trampling of international conventions on torture and the treatment of prisoners of war has further tarnished our image, as have the sickening images of Abu Ghraib.

It is perhaps not so surprising, then, that the U.S. is no longer considered a model for other countries. It is not that foreigners "hate our freedom" as President Bush has said, but that they don't see our accomplishments as that much to crow about, or to mimic. It used to be that people in other countries may have disliked the American government or its policies, but still liked Americans, and their culture. But even this has begun to change, with international public opinion polls showing foreigners increasingly blaming American citizens for the problems the U.S. is causing, and increasingly wary of the spread of U.S. customs and ideas.

What's more-the world itself has changed in ways that makes US unilateralism and hard power increasingly ineffectual. Global warming, climate change, air and water pollution, energy and resource shortages, global poverty and hunger, epidemic diseases, nuclear proliferation, terrorism-none of these originate in any one country, and none of them can be solved by even the most wealthy and powerful nation-states. They require international, cooperative, and multilateral solutions. The U.S. has not been particularly inclined to pursue such strategies, but even if it were, other countries are less willing to accept U.S. leadership. Other countries and regions have matured or emerged, in the European Union, China, India, and elsewhere, and most of them are more amenable to cooperative and multilateral approaches to international relations. They are in a better position than the United States to assume regional or global leadership, and to take up the slack of the 20th Century superpowers.

A reduced role for the US in the world is not necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, a smaller economy and reduced consumption will make the US less of a burden on global resources, and on global warming. Even so, the standard of living for Americans is almost certain to decline, at least in the short run. Accepting this and adjusting to it will not be easy for either citizens or leaders. Hope

So, you see what a doomsayer I am! And this brings me back to the issue of how to convey this bad news without leading everyone to the Kool-Aid bin! How I interact with students in addressing these downbeat issues both raises a paradox and allows me to see some hope in all of this. Our role as teachers is to educate and enlighten our students, but also to activate and empower them. The themes of my book, however, can lead people to a sense of despair. One of the publisher's outside readers for my manuscript, wrote that "this is a manuscript that makes you want to jump off a cliff." (And this was one of the positive reviews!) And almost every week in the class I teach on this topic, students despair over the conclusions we reach. But I don't want them to feel this way, even though I often do! So how does one reconcile teaching about reality, and providing hope? Part of the answer, I think, depends on how we define hope and hopefulness.

The Nigerian writer Chris Abani, who writes dark and depressing fiction about life in both his native country and his adopted one, spoke to this when he was on campus a few weeks ago. He said that in America, happiness is achieved through the erasure of trauma and the history of trauma; whereas for most of the rest of the world, happiness comes from living with the damaged self, but a self that is not inflicting damage on others. Hope, therefore, does not spring from the denial of trauma and suffering, but in the willingness to recognize problems and address them. Hope, he said, is the "resistance of erasure." Cataloging problems, which he does in his fiction, and I do in my book, is the beginning of hope. So, we can give our students hope without allowing them, like most other Americans to continue in their self-delusions. Hope resides, in part, in education, and in our efforts to teach students about the rest of the world and about other ways of seeing, being, and knowing. Michael would like me to point out, I'm sure, that this is what the Liberal Arts are about!

There are other ways in which we can take hope in the face of this despairing reality. The trappist monk Thomas Merton suggests that we should "not depend on the hope of results." He was writing this to a young political activist, but I think us old ones can also take counsel in his wisdom: "you may have to face the fact, " he wrote, "that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself." Let me repeat: "As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself." Gradually, he continued, "you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. . . .In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything."

This sort of advice is obviously easier to give, and accept, if you are a person of religious faith. I know that it is one of the things that keeps my wife Sharon going. As a deeply religious Roman Catholic and a hospital chaplain, she confronts trauma and tragedy every day at work. Yet her faith sustains her; she betters the world one person and family at a time; and she always remains cheerful and hopeful. It is a little trickier for me. As a self-professed "Christian atheist," I am not sure where I fit in on the faith side of things, but I do find inspiration, and an example, in her.

After confessing my weakness of faith, I should probably not be quoting yet another theologian. But for some reason, holy men and women always seem to have the best quotes! Several times in my book, I quote the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who I read in college but did not finally understand until this year! He wrote that "nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope." This sentiment is similar to that of Thomas Merton, but adds the notion of time and legacy. All the problems I assemble in my book will probably still be with us by the time I shuffle off this mortal coil. But there are our students, and our children and grandchildren who will still have a chance to fix them. We have to introduce them to the reality, and supply them with some tools, but there is much to be hopeful in them.

At the very end of my book, I quote a passage from the writer Alice Walker, which captures in more elegant fashion what I am trying to say here.

When it is all too much, when the news is so bad meditation itself feels useless, and a single life feels too small a stone to offer on the altar of peace, find a human sunrise. Find those people who are committed to changing our scary reality. Human sunrises are happening all over the earth, at every moment. [and] they are working to bring peace, light, compassion to the infinitely frightening downhill side of human life

I have many "human sunrises" in my life, have had many in my classes, and they continue to brighten my days. It is one of the reasons I have been dragging my feet on committing fully to this retirement business. Let me mention just a few of those that have inspired me and give me hope. Portia Parsell, a student from my early years of teaching (in the 1970s) and the very first International Studies Major, left Butler to work, first in Europe, then Africa, and later in Latin America, for "L'Arche" (the Ark), which are communities for people with disabilities. Portia married a Frenchman who did similar work, they adopted four multiracial children, and continue to work for the poor and marginalized.

Katie Shaughnessy was another human sunrise. She was also an international studies major, the daughter of English professor Ed Shaughnessy, and our daughters' favorite babysitter. Katie nicknamed Melanie "sunshine" and Dana "moonbeam." She also cheekily referred to me as "Comrade." Katie always argued that the best way to improve the world was to help individual people rather than the "collective activism" which she saw me as promoting. After Butler, she went to work for a shelter for abused and homeless children, where they loved her as much as Dana and Melanie did. It was a huge loss to her family, to us, and to humanity when Katie and her husband Mark both died in a mountain hiking accident.

Portia and Katie are just two of many many students I have had over the years who have absorbed the lessons of reality, skirted the cant, kept alive their hope, optimism and sense of possibility, and worked to make the world more humane. My students, of course, are not just mine, because much of what they learned also came from my colleagues in political science, and from the rest of you. In our department, Dale Hathaway, Margaret Brabant, Craig Auchter, Terri Jett and Siobhan McEvoy-Levy, have all had to wrestle with this dilemma of reality and hope, yet all of them have inspired students to stay engaged with the world, and to help others. It sometimes seems to me that this problem of reality and hope affects political science and international relations more than other disciplines, though I know that our colleagues in sociology face similar issues, and Steve Perrill in Biology has told me that he also wonders how to avoid infecting his students with fatalism and despair when he teaches about the environment.

What it comes down to, I think, is individual human relationships, as Merton observed. Our students, our children and our friends are influenced by what we say, and how we live. They see us trying to make sense of the world, and trying to be honest. When we do our jobs as teachers in the liberal arts, they come to understand the importance of evidence, critical thought, and openness to other ways of being and knowing. Partly because they are younger, they may not have so much difficulty in reconciling the harsh truth with optimism and hope.

Almost nothing is more satisfying for a teacher than to receive a letter, note or email from a former student, expressing thanks (and sometimes a belated understanding) of what we taught them. I received such an email as I was preparing this lecture, from Charli Lehman, who had taken two semesters of C&T from me. She was sure that I would not remember her-though I did-and reminded me that she and I had played a duet-Heart and Soul-on the piano in Jordan 141 just before the C&T final exam in that room. Charli is now working for Americorps/VISTA in North Carolina. It was a touching correspondence, but I was also struck by the tag quotation at the end of her message. It was a quote from Pericles: "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others."

I have talked about keeping alive hope in students, even when we don't feel it ourselves. If we are to keep going, though we also need to keep hope alive on ourselves. For me, my hope has been sustained both by the human sunrises among my students, but even more by the moonbeam and sunshine that are my daughters, Dana and Melanie. Dana, one of the most cheerful and optimistic people I know, has been working in Washington (though not for the government!) on using mediation to solve environmental problems. Her friends are from all over the world, and she is to be married this summer to a young man from Zimbabwe, of all places! Melanie and her husband Ned are both finishing law school, remain firmly convinced that law and politics can be instruments of change and social justice, and find time to practice poverty law and campaign for progressive political candidates. All four of them support Barack Obama, author of The Audacity of Hope. In the midst of all their activities, Melanie and Ned have also produced a beautiful and happy daughter, our first grandchild, named in part after Katie Shaughnessey. When I am with that bright, bubbly, happy, active little Katie, even I can't help but have hope.