‘Civic Engagement’ means to stop shouting. . . at least for a little while

Peter Gillette

Civic Engagement Week begins Monday on the Lawrence campus. Rest assured, if you choose to participate in it you will emerge wiser, with a deeper understanding of the irresolvable questions that comprise politics. Civic Engagement, I believe, ought to be about joining a national (and international) conversation on what the world ought to resemble, and applying what you hear to what is in your immediate sphere of influence. Civically Engaged individuals resist succumbing to orthodoxy unless that orthodoxy makes sense. Civically Engaged individuals, I believe, understand the limitations of political viewpoints, and the need for value judgments.

But has anti-orthodoxy become its own credo? Has “Civic Engagement” morphed into a reactive value system founded on negative virtues? Speaking of virtues…

Former Secretary of State William J. Bennett (conservative) began his own sort of Civic Engagement education this week. Under the “patriotic” auspices of Americans for Victory over Terrorism, he held a “teach-in” at Columbia University Wednesday to share his pro-war views with students he thought would not have received them.

Bennett could easily be outtalked by dozens of Lawrentians. And indeed, I believe many Lawrentians would talk him down. However, would we listen first, when Bennett argues that if America wanted oil from Iraq it would buy it from Iraq like France did?

I use the war with Iraq as my example precisely because that’s what much current rhetoric is about. For the record, I am deeply troubled by the Bush administration’s failure to provide an ultimatum: under what circumstances would Iraq be “off the hook?” But to pacifists out there, under what circumstances should the U.S. go to war? With what guarantees? With what guidelines? And–here’s the big question–why in the world would anyone actually support such a war? I mean, do they actually have reasons to support it?

I’m not here to provide you those answers, but if you are to become Civically Engaged, I believe those are questions you ought to have considered.

Too often I feel that some leftists take their positions because of an enmity for Bush, rather than taking an enmity for Bush from his positions. There’s quite a difference. Bush worked with Ted Kennedy on an education plan, or at least didn’t oppose it. Shouldn’t that be a plus?

Perhaps you’re thinking now that I vote Republican. Not so fast. How can the same party that claims to represent personal freedom and smaller government create a new, invasive “Security” division? And how can the “Christian” party reconcile its tax record with, oh, say, two thirds of Jesus Christ’s teachings about money? Don’t get me started on energy policy.

My point is that “Civic Engagement” can all too often lapse into a comfortable orthodoxy. But I believe that all college graduates ought to be able to express, without cynicism in their voices, five to ten beliefs of the political persuasion opposite of them.

Then, you’re armed for action. I don’t support relativism. I support value judgments–which implies a choice, and responsibility. It’s your responsibility to understand the tensions in your own opinions and the sense in your opponents’, and then discern why yours is better.

Attempt to define what you believe, not what you don’t believe. I’m not asking for equal time of speakers or professors; I’m asking that you expose untested virtue to a point of view that may–and perhaps for good reasons–scare you. If it’s a good idea, it will win out over the scary one.

For the past year, these editorial pages have been filled with rants on irresolvable disputes: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, cloning, abortion protests, and rape education. All of this is part of that “national conversation.”

But until we endeavor to understand what motivates that conversation–and have enough faith in your own ideas to listen to opposing ones–all we’re doing is screaming.

And if you aren’t listening, it doesn’t matter how many street corners you stand on and shout from. You aren’t Civically Engaged.