March 14, 2001

Journalist Urges Less U.S. Apathy

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“What kind of nation do we intend to become?” asked journalist William Greider during Tuesday’s lecture “The Decay of Democracy” in McGraw Hall.

Greider’s talk was the “inaugural lecture of a new series of what will be annual lectures in American political culture,” said Larry Moore, director of the American Studies Program, which sponsored the program.

Greider is a Washington-based, award-winning journalist who has worked for newspapers, magazines and television for more than 35 years.

Currently, he is the National Affairs Correspondent of The Nation , a political journal, but has also served as the assistant managing editor of national news for The Washington Post and as the national affairs editor at Rolling Stone magazine.

Prof. Theodore Lowi, government, placed Greider in a metaphorical “pantheon of intellectuals,” during his introduction of the speaker.

Greider, himself, spoke more modestly.

“I was flattered to be invited to inaugurate this series,” he said.

Living up to his reputation as a tough critic of American politics and economy, Greider drew on extensive journalistic experience as well as on material from his best-selling books to illustrate the condition of American democracy.

Although Greider was hesitant to answer his own rhetorical questions, he did provide his own definition of democracy.

“Democracy is a society that functions through mutual respect,” he said.

Greider’s own interpretation of democracy suggests to him that, “the idea [of democracy] itself is now in deep trouble.”.

Greider noted a resignation of interest with, and a distancing from, the democratic process coupled with a general lowering of expectations as some sources of the deepening decay within the American political system.

Greider stressed the importance of participation in democracy above all his ideas.

“The question I ask about the [American] people … is why no rebellion? Why the resignation?” Greider said.

He used the example of an overlooked 1994 Bangkok toy factory fire, where inadequate factory conditions resulted in a tremendous loss of life.

That incident, Greider noted, was reminiscent of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the United States and was equally horrific in terms of loss of life.

He drew on these examples to demonstrate the severity of American apathy toward events which should stir public response.

“There is no anger, there is no shame and … no mobilization,” he said.

Greider complimented this example by noting that American consumers were more likely to turn their backs on the atrocity based on their interests as consumers.

Mass consumption, or as he labeled it, “the solace of consumption,” substitutes for something else that people have lost in their lives. This tendency of American culture is yet another factor in the “decay of democracy.”

However, Greider was not entirely pessimistic about the human condition, noting the hope he sees in the tireless activism of many groups, most notably faith-based institutions.

“They are the closest thing I have seen … to a genuine democracy,” he said.

Additionally, Greider tied the decay of democracy to his criticisms of American capitalism, noting that another potential source of distance from democratic ideals stems from the tension created by the economy.

“Whose values rule? The marketplace or society’s?” Greider asked the audience.

He continued his economic line of logic on a more personal level.

He noted that Americans experience a severe amount of work-related stress that transcends socio-economic status. Greider implied that people’s level of contentment is inevitably reflected in their attitudes towards the source of their struggles.

“Maybe restoring democracy, or a faith in democracy, begins at work, not through mindless campaigning or even politics itself,” Greider said.

As Greider’s audience followed his series of questions, they found themselves asking a question of their own: What can be done to prevent the seemingly inevitable decay of democracy?

Joking that he had come across as “apocalyptic and grim,” Greider insisted that there is reason to remain positive in terms of potential for progress.

Major sources of hope, he mentioned, can be found in the promise of the younger generations.

“I envy the young. … I really do believe you’re on the brink of a powerful moment in history,” Greider said, telling students in the audience to “Organize, organize, organize … you do have to make a collective presence visible to yourselves first, never mind the politicians or broadcast companies.”

Audience members expressed their satisfaction with Greider’s take on the resurgent possibilities of American democracy.

“I admire the … idealism of Mr. Greider’s presentation, exactly the kind of thing that students need to hear, even if they don’t agree,” said Glenn Altschuler, dean of the School of Continuing Education.

“I’m really sad that he’s not as … widely appreciated as he should be,” said Lowi after the lecture.

The series was funded by Sanford Krieger ’65 and Mary Krieger who provided the donations to bring speakers to campus for the annual series.

Archived article by Jennifer Gardner