Rarely, as Richard Falk writes in The Great Terror War, has an event exerted such leverage on the collective imagination of a society as did the terrorist attacks of September 11. In a few moments on that perfect late-summer morning, Americans' collective sense of security was shattered and geopolitical assumptions that had remained fixed for the better part of five decades were suddenly untethered from their Cold War moorings.
A day later, on September 12, President George W. Bush vowed to fight global terrorism, and nine days after that, before a joint session of Congress, he expanded the scope of the war to include governments that harbor and support terrorists. The opening campaign in that war, the military operation in Afghanistan to unseat the Taliban regime and deny safe haven to al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks, commenced in early October and, with startling swiftness, achieved its major objectives by early December, when Hamid Karzai was sworn in as the leader of an interim Afghan government.
At that moment, however, members of the Bush administration and Congress were already looking ahead to the next phase of the war — the elimination of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). On December 11, 2001, the House passed Joint Resolution 75, which declared Iraq's refusal to allow United Nations weapons inspectors "immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted access to facilities and documents covered by United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 a mounting threat to the United States, its friends and allies," and called for the Iraqi leader to disarm or face the consequences.
In an interview conducted in February, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with political scientist Benjamin Barber, author of the international best-seller Jihad vs. McWorld, about 9/11, the continuing threat from global terrorist organizations, the efficacy of military action against Iraq in response to that threat, and democracy as an antidote to the disintegrative forces that threaten the stability of the international order.
Barber is the Gershon and Carol Kekst Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland and a principal of the Democracy Collaborative, a nonprofit institute committed to strengthening democracy and civil society locally, nationally, and globally. His fifteen books include Strong Democracy (1984); Jihad vs. McWorld (1995); a collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy (1999); Marriage Voices (1981), a novel; and The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House (2001).
Barber's honors include Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Social Science Research fellowships; honorary doctorates from Grinnell and Connecticut College; the Berlin Prize of the American Academy of Berlin (2001); and the John Dewey Award from the John Dewey Society (2003). He writes frequently for Harper's Magazine, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, as well as other scholarly and popular publications in America and Europe, and was a founding editor and, for ten years, editor-in-chief of the international quarterly Political Theory.
For television, Barber co-wrote with Patrick Watson the prize-winning CBS/PBS series The Struggle for Democracy (1988; re-released in 2000), and also contributed to the Channel Four (U.K.) series Greek Fire and the American series The American Promise.
Barber holds a certificate from the London School of Economics and an M.A. and doctorate from Harvard University. He lives with his wife, the choreographer and performer Leah Kreutzer, and daughter in New York City.
Philanthropy News Digest: Your book, Jihad vs. McWorld, was published in 1995, long before most Americans had heard of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. What motivated you to write the book?
Benjamin Barber: The book originated in the puzzlement I felt in looking at two different genres of commentaries about the world at that time which seemed to me to be deeply contradictory. One genre was perhaps best reflected in a book like Robert Kaplan's The End of the Earth and, a few years later, by Sam Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations, a genre that suggested the world was falling apart. Tribalization, urban breakdown, the breakup of the nation-state, the Balkan crisis that had begun with the breakup of Yugoslavia, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Northern League in Italy, the ongoing Basque separatist movement in Spain — all of those things had created a sense, quite literally, that nation-states, which had defined the world for centuries, were breaking down into their constituent parts. Indeed, if you opened up the front page of any newspaper, that's the sense you got. On the other hand, there were books like Francis Fukiyama's The End of History which suggested that the nation-state was disintegrating because of the emergence of a global society, a society in which capitalist markets had triumphed and the old polar divisions among ideologies had disappeared. It was a world coalescing around communications, technology, trade interdependence, global markets, transnational corporations, and the like. And that world — a world that was, in effect, coming together — was perhaps best reflected in your newspaper's business pages.
So here you had these two portraits of the world, one showing the world falling to pieces and the other saying it was coming together, and both of them seemed to me to be true, however contradictory. So I set out to write a book to try to map and explain a world in which both those statements could be true at the same time, and indeed were true in ways that related to one another and actually had something to do with some of the same forces. Obviously, I used jihad as a general rubric under which I could examine the zealous, anti-modern, disintegrative forces that were helping break the world into pieces, and I invented the term McWorld to refer to the axis of global communication and pop culture, global technology, and global trade around which the world was coming together.
PND: You've argued that the struggle between these two forces, jihad and McWorld, is not a clash of Islam versus the West, as suggested by Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations, but is in fact a war within a single civilization. Can you elaborate?
BB: Indeed, I suggested it is not only a war within a single civilization, but that it's a war within each society — and to some extent a war within each of our own heads. Let's start with the individual, because it's most clearly seen there. Most moderns who I know live in large, cosmopolitan cities and are drawn to the effortlessness of their technology-driven world and the ease with which they can communicate or travel, by jet or, indeed, instantaneously via the Internet, to any country on the planet. At the same time, many of them have a feeling of loss that stems from the absence of the tight-knit family and neighborhood ties that so many of us grew up with and that represented a kind of parochial but nourishing sense of community.
In other words, jihad vs. McWorld is a kind of clash between the values of a global, cosmopolitan, free-market society on the one hand, and the precious and intimate values of the family, neighborhood, and clan that all of us still feel some attachment to. Moreover, in writing about jihad, I wasn't referring only to Islam but, for example, to Protestant fundamentalists within the United States, two million of whom have opted out of the public school system and, because they are so appalled by what they regard as a public culture dominated by the corrupt values of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the mall, home-school their children instead. I mean, if you read Pat Buchanan or Bill Bennett or some of the other so-called cultural conservatives on the right, their critiques of American culture are not too much different than the critique you might hear from a mullah in a Wahabbi mosque who preaches against the corruption and aggressive secular materialism of the West.
PND: Were you surprised by what happened on the morning of September 11, 2001?
BB: Astonished, appalled, but not surprised — in the sense that while I used the terms jihad and McWorld in my book as metaphors to describe the dialectical opposition of the forces of secular materialism and cosmopolitanism on the one hand, and of tribalism and anti-modernism on the other, I did not predict a violent denouement of the kind represented by 9/11. That said, my analysis did suggest that as time progressed, the contest between these two sets of forces would grow more and more intense and was likely to erupt in various ways, some of which could involve material violence. So, as I say, as appalling and astonishing as the events of 9/11 were, they did strike me as the physical, albeit horrendous, manifestation of underlying tensions that were not being dealt with within the global system.
You know, infection is a manifestation of a systemic illness that has not been remediated, medically. If you don't do that, the infection can get worse and can even cause a fever that can kill you. In a sense, terrorism is a kind of fever associated with the growing tensions between jihad and McWorld. And, to extend the analogy, if those tensions are not remediated by forms of democratic medicine, they are increasingly likely to erupt in pathological ways. Now, who could have predicted that the pathology that erupted on September 11 would be quite so complete and devastating? I mean, even Osama bin Laden was surprised by the efficacy and success that his agents achieved. But the fact that a clash of this kind will erupt in violence, if not dealt with by other means, can hardly have come as a surprise to anyone who has thought about the collision of these forces.
[T]errorism is a kind of fever associated with the growing tensions between jihad and McWorld. And if those tensions are not remediated, they are increasingly likely to erupt in pathological ways....
PND: In the days immediately following September 11, many Americans were stunned by the images broadcast on network television of ordinary Arab women and children celebrating the success of the attacks and, by extension, the deaths of thousands of American civilians. What did those images say to you?
BB: Well, a couple of things. First of all, it's clear we have to differentiate between people who perpetrate the kind of dastardly acts that were perpetrated on 9/11 and those who take some comfort or even pleasure from them. I mean, there's a tendency to think somehow that there's no boundary at all between such people, but I don't think that's true.
The second thing we have to acknowledge is that if thousands, even tens of thousands, of people seem to be taking some pleasure in what was obviously, even to them, a horrendous event in which thousands of civilians — not just from the United States but from something like sixty other countries and including many Muslims — perished, then clearly a lot more is going on here that we need to be thinking about. And I think what it points to is the fact that an awful lot of people around the world — and, by the way, the celebrations weren't confined to Arab or Muslim countries — clearly see America as not the solution to the world's problems, as we like to think it is or want it to be, but as part of the problem. In particular, I think there are many people around the world who feel that the United States has been much too insulated from the pain that so many people around the world suffer on a daily basis. I mean, one person I know from a developing country said that while he didn't take pleasure in what happened on September 11, a part of him was glad that the United States got a taste of the suffering that his friends and their families experience as a matter of course. In one horrendous hour or two, he said, you experienced what our children, our mothers, and our fathers experience, slowly, over decades of starvation, impoverishment, injustice, and oppression. For some of us, he added, 9/11 was a wake-up call that said to America, "You now live in a world where if others suffer, you will suffer. You now live in a world whose interdependence means that if our children are not safe, maybe your children won't be safe anymore."
So, I think a lot of what we saw in those images of celebrating women and children was not so much a vulgar or evil pleasure in our pain as it was a kind of satisfaction that maybe, finally, America would begin to appreciate how insecure so many people around the world feel and would begin to understand that it had to do more than it was doing to address the problems that affect other people, in other countries. In fact, I would say that that's the central meaning of the term "interdependence," which is a term I didn't speak much about in Jihad vs. McWorld but have been writing about more recently. It's the sense that we're all passengers on a single vessel, and if steerage is flooding and the people in fourth and fifth class are going to drown, so are the people up in first class.
PND: In a new introduction to Jihad vs. McWorld you wrote after 9/11, you suggested that the attacks had changed the dynamic in the ongoing struggle between the forces of jihad and McWorld. Is that still your view?
[The attacks on] 9/11 demonstrated that a relatively small group of angry people, using the power of their enemies, jiu-jitsu style, can actually do a lot to thwart and obstruct change and progress....
BB: Well, actually what I'd said in the original book was that although the two forces were manifestations of common, central developments in our civilization and to some extent would always co-exist, I believed that in the long term McWorld and modernity would overcome the forces of anti-modernity represented by jihad. Ultimately, in other words, we wouldn't go backward; we would go forward. But I also said there might be some mighty dangerous curves along the road. And I would still argue that while in the long term cosmopolitanism, globalism, and modernity are likely to prevail, what 9/11 shows is that those who are in rebellion against those forces, those whose interests and ends aren't incorporated into the goals of these larger forces, and those who suffer injustice and inequality as a consequence of McWorld's dynamism are in a position, because of that same interdependence I mentioned a moment ago, to actually obstruct growth, progress, and modernization in ways that are deeply dangerous. While the chances are pretty good that, in the long term, we will continue to see positive change and progress, the fact is that 9/11 demonstrated that a relatively small group of angry people, using the power of their enemies, jiu-jitsu style, can actually do a lot to thwart and obstruct change and progress. And that suggests that, if we continue on the course we're on without altering some of our strategies and taking more into account the just claims and needs of people around the world, we are likely to be in for a very, very bumpy ride.
PND: Is it your belief that a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq will lead to further radicalization of the Arab and Muslim worlds?
BB: I've just completed a book on what I call the profound mistake of the new preventive-war doctrine unveiled by the Bush administration as its chief instrument against terrorism. And in that vein I would certainly make the argument that a war on Iraq, though I believe it is being pursued for better motives than just those of oil or vengeance, is nonetheless a catastrophe for the long-term interests of democracy and justice around the world — not least because the war is, in effect, directed against the wrong enemy. Terrorists are not states. As Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld himself said, "Terrorists are stateless individuals without fixed interests or addresses." That's what makes them so dangerous. However, because they are stateless, and because they are without fixed interests and addresses, it's very hard to find them, let alone take them out, as we learned in Afghanistan, where most of the Qaeda cadres, including Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, got away. And to now move on to the next state, Iraq, and think that by knocking out the regime of Saddam Hussein we're going to get al Qaeda is simply a deep and disastrous mistake. Whom do we go after next? Iran? Yemen? Sudan? Maybe Egypt, or Indonesia followed by the Philippines? I mean, if we're really going to try to take out every state that harbors terrorists, we're going to have to take out New Jersey and Florida as well.
Let me be clear. You cannot make war on an invisible enemy that inhabits the interstices of the international system by attacking states, even if you can prove a link between those states and terrorism. Terrorists are like parasites; they move into a host body, where they are harbored and maybe even nourished, but when the host dies or, as often happens, the parasite kills the host, the parasite just move onto the next body. That's why it's the wrong war against the wrong target.
Of course many Americans and, I think, many Europeans feel that instinctively. They keep saying, "Yes, Saddam Hussein is not a nice guy, but what about Osama bin Laden? What about al Qaeda? Isn't this just going to encourage the terrorists?" And our own government would appear, to some degree, to accept that logic and has seen fit, as it gets ready to go to war in Iraq, to raise the terrorist threat level from yellow to orange.
So in many different ways, the Bush administration's current policy vis-a-vis Saddam Hussein and Iraq seems to be disastrous. Don't get me wrong — I'm not a pacifist. I'm not arguing that America doesn't have a right to strike back at terrorists and terrorism. The problem, simply put, is that Iraq is not a terrorist state, and even if it harbors and supports terrorists, states are not surrogates for the terrorist enemy we're after.
PND: If, as you've suggested, an exclusively military response to the phenomenon of global terrorism is as bad as the disease itself, what should the West's response to the terrorist threat focus on?
BB: Well, there's a saying that goes, "If you want to kill the mosquitos, drain the swamp," and I think that's a pretty useful way to look at the problem. You're never going to get anywhere swatting one mosquito after another, because even if you swat a whole bunch of them, they'll continue to breed as long as the swamp is still there. The swamp in this case is — to mix my own metaphors — the so-called "axis of evil." I think President Bush is right: there is an axis of evil. But to some degree it's the brutal reflection of what I would call an axis of inequality, an axis of impoverishment. There's no question that unstable, undemocratic, impoverished states are the best breeding ground for terrorism, particularly states that feel threatened by secular, materialist, global markets — in other words, by McWorld. And if we're serious about getting rid of the conditions that breed terrorism, then we need to begin to address the questions of global inequality, of predatory capitalist speculators around the world, of the deep inequalities between rich and poor.
It's not just an economic issue, although that's an important piece of it. There's also an important cultural component — and this comes back to our Protestant fundamentalist, to Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, to Hindi fundamentalists in India, as well as Islamic fundamentalists, all of whom see in our aggressively secular, aggressively materialist, entertainment-saturated culture a violent, sexualized, corrupt society bent on undermining the values they hold most dear. Most of us completely ignore the fact that, in many ways, our culture is corrupt, even though we know it had something to do with what happened in Columbine, we know it has something to do with the persistent violence in our society, we know it has something to do with the corruption of ethics in religion, we know that predatory capitalism, unrestrained by regulation, can lead to Enron-style greed and lying. But we continue, heedlessly, to export this same culture via the global marketplace to countries where there is no regulation, where there is no SEC, where there is no democratic oversight and then are amazed that people in those countries fail to welcome it as something that liberates and enriches them — even though it can, in fact, do that — but instead see it as an aggressive assault on the values they hold dear and wish to pass on to their children.
Do we really need a Starbucks on every corner of every city in the world? That's not economic competition; that's cultural monopoly....
So until we begin to operate on the world stage with some self-restraint and moderation and understand that the secular materialism we export so aggressively is viewed elsewhere as a corrupting influence, I think we're going to have a lot of trouble. We need to begin to understand that rather than simply relying on a single-minded military response to the phenomenon of terrorism, we need to respond to it economically, diplomatically, and culturally. I mean, it's fine for McDonald's to open a couple of franchises in Beijing and maybe even a hundred in China as a whole. But do we really need to have nine hundred McDonald's franchises in Beijing? Is that really good for the Chinese and Chinese culture? Do we really need a Starbucks on every corner of every city in the world? That's not economic competition; that's cultural monopoly, and it ends up destroying local cultures. Again, it requires self-restraint on our part, but it absolutely has to be part of a package of strategies that tries to address the problems of the world in a way that drains the swamp that breeds terrorists.
PND: In a number of books you've written since Jihad vs. McWorld was published, you've suggested that we already possess the tools to address these inequities, and one of the most important is democracy. How can democracy be used as tool to combat terrorism?
BB: In the book I mentioned earlier, the term I actually use is preventive democracy, to contrast it with preventive war, the new doctrine of the Bush administration. What I mean by that is instead of using war to preempt and prevent further terrorist attacks, we need to use democracy as a prophylactic, as a preemptive strategy, and I think the logic behind that statement is fairly straightforward. It's another truism or cliche of our culture — one that Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, has done a lot to popularize — that on the whole democracies don't make war on each other. Historically, that's true. There are a few exceptions, but on the whole truly democratic countries do not make war on one another. Most wars are fought between tyranny and tyranny or between tyranny and democracy, but it's very hard to find in the historical record a true democracy that has gone to war against another democracy. In fact, I would take it a step further and say that true democracies are incapable of breeding international terrorism. That kind of terrorism is an expression of powerlessness, frustration, desperation, zealousness, and extremism of a kind that simply doesn't evolve inside democratic societies, where people are able to participate in civil society and the economy in legitimate ways. To put it very simply, only in states governed by illegitimate authority are illegitimate forms of dissent and rebellion necessary. Where you have a legitimate democratic government, people are empowered rather than powerless, and as a consequence terrorists tend not to be a problem.
Now, I won't deny that from time to time within Western regimes — Germany in the seventies with the Bader-Meinhoff gang, for example, or Spain today with the Basque nationalists — terror is used as a device by groups that have interests related to self-determination or a radical critique of society. But international terrorism, of the kind represented by Hamas or al Qaeda or Qaddaffi ten or fifteen years ago, tends to be fermented and nourished by undemocratic states, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. And that's because democracy, as theory and practice, pulls the rug out from under terrorism, which is all about people who are dis-empowered. In a sense, the argument that democracy is a prophylactic that prevents the spread and, indeed, even the engendering of terrorism, is simply an argument that says democracy is about empowerment, while terrorism is about dis-empowerment. When you empower people, terrorism loses its traction; it's no longer necessary. And, in that sense, democratization is a far more powerful response to terrorism than war, and preventive democracy is a far more appealing and effective strategy than preventive war. I don't condemn preventive war on moral grounds; I condemn it because it's unrealistic and will fail to contain and eliminate terrorism.
PND: At the same time, you've also argued that democracy is in danger of becoming a victim of the struggle between jihad and McWorld. How so?
BB: The problem is that if we believe, as we tend to have done recently in the West, that democratization is nothing more than marketization, that if we think that by simply giving people capitalism, we're giving them democracy, then we're making a deep categorical mistake. Capitalism is not the same thing as democracy, and the fact is that free markets can be perfectly compatible with tyranny. We saw that in Chile in the 1970s, we saw it in South Korea and parts of Asia in the 1980s, and, of course, we're seeing it with a vengeance today in communist China, which boasts the most oppressive one-party state in the world and probably the most robust market economy in the world, an economy that has been growing between ten and eighteen percent per annum for the last eight years or so.
Furthermore, this myth that marketization and democratization are the same thing, when in fact they're not, can be quite harmful. We saw that in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union. At the time, a lot of very smart people thought an economic cold shower of privatization and marketization would lead to the democratization of Russia, but of course just the opposite has happened. The thugs who used to control the economy through the apparatus of the Communist party now control the economy through the private market, and while you do have a certain amount of competition and capitalism in Russia today, you've got nothing like democracy. We see the same sort of dynamic at work in places like Poland and Hungary and East Germany, where people were promised democracy but instead got shopping and markets, and they're disappointed and disillusioned as a result, and that has led to a revival of the fortunes of the Communist party, or its successor, in some of those countries.
In other words, when we pit the forces of reactionary jihad against the forces of aggressive global capitalism, democracy often is the first casualty. But without democracy, we're actually giving fuel to the jihadic enemies of modernity and the West and making it much more difficult to contain terrorism. And without a conscious effort to deploy democratization as a weapon for social justice and against terrorism, we're going to see a continuing struggle between the secular, materialist marketplace and the forces of religious fanaticism, and the longer that struggle goes on, the greater the chances that democracy itself will be the ultimate loser.
PND: Is it realistic, on the other hand, to expect democracy to take root in regions of the world — say, the Middle East or Central Asia — that lack democratic traditions?
There are many roads to democracy, and many styles of democracy. Generic democracy is simply the recognition that all human beings would like to participate in the institutions of power by which they are governed....
BB: Democracy doesn't have to mean Americanization or democracy American-style. The great tribal council of Afghanistan, the loya jirga, is a traditional, participatory body that embodies representatives from all the tribes of Afghanistan and from time to time was used to assuage and ameliorate the tensions among them. In Africa, the tribe itself, which has a paternal structure and is quasi-democratic, could play a useful role in establishing democracy. Gandhi maintained that the Indian village ought to play that role and attempted to make it the building block of Indian democracy. So, again, there are many, many different approaches to democracy that allow and accommodate participation, empowerment, and some sense of self-governance by the people. Seen that way, there is no culture, there is no society, that is not capable of being self-governing and democratic. That's why I prefer to talk about democracies instead of democracy. And that's why I think we need to approach the question with great respect, looking for ways in which, on a country-by-country basis, we can cultivate historical traditions and internal cultural features that are compatible with the concept of government by the people. If we do that, then I think we'll have a much better chance of making democracy work in different cultures and different societies around the world.
I have a chapter in the new book called "You Can't Export Democracy." Yes, it's a mistake to think that American-style democracy, with its two-party system, independent judiciary, and separation of powers, is going to take root in every undemocratic country in the world. But I prefer to talk not about democracy but about democracies, in the plural. There are many roads to democracy, and many styles of democracy. Generic democracy is simply the recognition that all human beings would like to participate in the institutions of power by which they are governed. I know of no people, anywhere, who don't want some control over the political decisions that impact their lives. That's a universal aspiration. But there are many, many different ways to realize that aspiration, and there are many, many different cultures that have to be accommodated on the way to realizing that aspiration. Of all people, we should know that. Even within the thirteen colonies, there were many different approaches to self-government, from the New Jersey freehold, to the New England town meeting, to the proprietary charters of Maryland and Pennsylvania. And, of course, within the Western tradition there is the Anglo-American common-law tradition, with its emphasis on individual rights, and the continental Roman-law tradition, with its emphasis on communal or group rights.
PND: You're the director of something called the Democracy Collaborative. What is the collaborative, and what is it working to achieve?
BB: The Democracy Collaborative is a remarkable coalition led by the University of Maryland and eight or nine principals there that include William Galston, Linda Williams, Gar Alperovitz, and leading members of the faculty and administration whose goal is to make American higher education an asset for local communities, the national community, and the global community. We believe in the engaged university, a university that takes responsibility for the welfare of the community of which it finds itself a part. We want to see public and private universities emphasize their role in teaching civic responsibility and in the training of civic leaders and practitioners. We want universities — and we have over two dozen participating universities and colleges in America, Europe, and South Africa — to come together to develop common strategies and make common cause in dealing with the pressing problem of the democratic deficit around the world. We want to break down the walls between theory and practice.
The collaborative is also our way of trying to bridge the gap between one of the great strengths of America, our remarkable system of higher education, and one of our great embarrassments, namely, the often sorry state of the communities in which those colleges and universities are located. We need only remember that Yale University, one of the world's great universities, sits inside of New Haven, which has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation. We need only remember that Stanford University, one of the great private universities of the West, sits at the edge of East Palo Alto, a town that has the highest gang mortality rate in the nation. And yet there is almost no connection between those universities and the communities in which they find themselves.
Our philanthropic foundations need to recognize the vital role they play and do more to demonstrate that they understand the urgency of the crises confronting us....
PND: Is there a role for private philanthropy in this endeavor?
BB: I think our philanthropic institutions need to think a bit more like America's corporations think and America's military is trying to think. They need to have faster reaction times. They need to identify new problems quickly and to act in response to those problems before they become entrenched. And that means that they need to become more flexible and, on occasion at least, to take risks that they've avoided in the past in order to make themselves more effective.
We believe that one of the great strengths of America has been the powerful role of what I would call civic philanthropy in the affairs of the country. There is no sector of society as robust and strong, I think, as the philanthropic sector in America. In fact, I know of no society in the world that has as powerful and influential a philanthropic sector. But, as is true of our universities, there is perhaps a little bit of self-indulgence, a little bit of insularity, a little bit of remoteness within the philanthropic sector from what I believe are the impending dangers and urgent problems we face. And I think our philanthropic foundations need to recognize the vital role they play and do more to demonstrate that they understand the urgency of the crises confronting us. They need, as a consequence, to streamline their procedures to facilitate grantmaking in areas that really count and maybe take a few more risks than they've been used to taking. American philanthropies are appropriately insulated from politics in order to maintain their tax status. But sometimes insulation from politics becomes insulation from anything that is even remotely political, and since everything of importance is in some sense political, that can result in a de-fanging of our philanthropic institutions and a distancing from the real issues that have to be faced. Whether the problem is homelessness or AIDS or the civic deficit of our young people or the decline of social capital that Robert Putnam and his colleagues have charted, sometimes it's not enough to say let's hold a conference next year and publish the proceedings the year after and, based on those proceedings, initiate a small pilot project three years hence. Because in many cases, by the time three or four years have passed, the cost exacted by the problems we're trying to address is already horrendous. We've maybe lost another generation of children in the schools, or Head Start has gone down the drain, or maybe a new epidemic has gotten a foothold in a particular community.
PND: A final question: What can ordinary Americans, who have not been asked to make sacrifices in the war on terror, do in this time of danger and profound uncertainty to make themselves safer and the world a safer place?
BB: Well, I think President Bush made a terrible mistake, although I believe he made it out of good intentions. After 9/11, the president was anxious to say to Americans, "It's okay to get back to normal; it's okay to lead your normal lives. We have to show the terrorists that they haven't succeeded in terrorizing us and disrupting the life of the country." As a consequence, he told us that what we all should do to fight terrorism is to get back into the stores and shop. Shopping, in his formulation, became a kind of civic imperative. Again, I understand why he said that, but I think it was a terrible mistake, because, in fact, after 9/11, Americans felt deeply that they wanted to respond in a meaningful way, they wanted to make a difference, they wanted to play a role in the great historical moment that had been unleashed by the attacks. And I think that would've been the ideal moment to call on them to engage civically, to encourage them to become more deeply engaged in philanthropic activities, and church and synagogue and mosque activities, to become more engaged in their municipalities, to take more responsibility for the well-being of their fellow citizens, to maybe even pay some extra taxes to help New York deal with the fallout of the huge hit it took for the rest of the country and to pay for some of the homeland security measures that will need to be paid for.
But instead, as you said, we've been asked to sacrifice nothing. Because we don't have a conscript army and because the administration seems hellbent on reducing taxes even as it responds with massive military force to the threat of terrorism, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan on al Qaeda and the Taliban appear to be enterprises with little or no cost attached to them. At the same time, the president is basically saying, "Don't worry. Just go about your business." But I think that's a mistake, because there's nothing more helpful to those who would terrorize America than to create a nation of spectators. Spectatorship and anxiety go hand in hand. To witness a car accident is to feel fear. To get involved and try to save the people inside the wreck is to put aside fear. I mean, probably the best place to be after the tragedy of 9/11 was to be working at ground zero, because at least you could feel that you were doing something and making a difference. And despite the fact that it was perilous work, I suspect the men and women at the World Trade Center site felt less afraid than a lot of people elsewhere who could do nothing except watch on television.
America has become too much a nation of spectators....We will watch the war in Iraq, as we watched the war in Afghanistan, not as citizens but as spectators....
So I think it's imperative, now more than ever, and even though the administration is not calling on Americans to participate or be part of not just the war on terrorism but the struggle for global justice and democracy, that we volunteer and find ways on our own to engage with the world around us. That doesn't necessarily mean joining the Peace Corps and going overseas. What it does mean is being part of a community service program in your church or synagogue. It means participating in philanthropic activities and making sure you take responsibility for your political citizenship at the local and national and global levels, not just by voting, but by being informed. Citizenship is not just a remedy for terrorism, it's a remedy for fear and anxiety. It gives us a role to play and empowers us. And if we're empowered, then neither terrorists nor cynics can make us feel fearful or dis-empowered.I'll close with this thought: America has become too much a nation of spectators. We watched the horror of 9/11 on TV over and over again. We watch politics on television instead of getting involved in politics. We will watch the war in Iraq, as we watched the war in Afghanistan, not as citizens but as spectators. The two are at the opposite ends of the civic spectrum. Citizens are active, engaged, responsible partners in changing the world for the better. Spectators merely watch the world happen to them. And, as a result, invariably they are fearful and anxious. Citizens, by contrast, are always fearless, not because they are without fear, but because in their activities and actions they have found a way to overcome fear.
PND: Well, thank you, for taking the time to speak with us.
BB: Thank you.
Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Benjamin Barber in February. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at email@example.com.