opening remarks at Frontiers of Democracy 2016

We meet at a sobering moment. This conference is a descendent of a meeting organized in 2008 called No Better Time. Today does not seem like “no better time.”

The most thoughtful predictions give a man who has been called a fascist by senior members of his own party a 30% chance of becoming president. If the doctor gave you a 30% chance of succumbing to a deadly disease within the next five months, you wouldn’t draw a lot of comfort from the thought that you’re more likely to survive. Like that patient, our republic is in danger.

Meanwhile, fascist candidate Marianne Le Pen leads French polls for president, drawing twice as much support as the incumbent. Strongly paternalistic and antidemocratic nationalist leaders—all strong men—already dominate most of the nations in an arc from China and Russia to Hungry. Venezuelans are fighting in supermarkets for loaves of bread for their children because of a crisis of governance. The Arab Spring has turned into five consecutive years of repression in the whole region and slaughter in Syria, where 400,000 have died with no end in sight. And here in the United States, a man can murder 49 human beings because they are gay. Some are inspired by the sit-in in Congress, but hardly anyone really expects the government to make changes that will reduce the chances of the same thing happening again.

Bertold Brecht wrote a poem in 1939 entitled “To Future Generations”:

Truly I live in dark times!
A sincere word is folly. A smooth forehead
Indicates insensitivity. If you’re laughing,
You haven’t heard
The bad news yet.
What are these times, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many misdeeds,
When, if you’re calmly crossing the street,
It means your friends can’t reach you
Who are in need?

This we knew:
Even hatred of humiliation
Distorts the features.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be kind.
But you, when
one can help another,
Think of us

This is the context in which we gather for Frontiers. Indeed, it could be said that there is no better time to meet

We are hardly alone, of course. We have many allies around the world. In fact, right at this minute, by sheer coincidence, a conference has begun at the Central European University in Budapest entitled “Frontiers of Democracy.” Seeing a photo of their sign, texted by a friend, I thought of another poem written in 1939.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages …

Perhaps we can send some light in the direction of Budapest and many other places around the world.

I have given a dark picture, albeit with some ironic lights. None of that implies that we can’t have fun. Working together to build a better world is a source of satisfaction, even joy. We can exemplify the pleasure and humor that comes from civic life at its best. I hope you will enjoy every aspect of Frontiers, especially your interactions with one another. If we let civic life turn dreary, few will chose to participate, and politics will be left to the ruthless.

At the same time, we must be profoundly serious. The stakes couldn’t be much higher. We must squarely face unresolved problems, such as how to expand civic values and practices to the scale of nations and the globe, how to tap the power of social movements, and how to define and confront evil.

We must do more and better, and we must change fast. We have a lot to accomplish in the next 48 hours. Let’s get to work.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.