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Power to the Powerless at Princeton

Posted by on Nov 27, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

It used to be that Wilsonianism was associated with Woodrow Wilson’s vaulted views on foreign affairs. Because of this association Princeton University – of which Wilson once was president – named in his honor its School of Public and International Affairs.

It used to be.

But, because of the recent actions of a small number of Princeton undergraduates, this legacy is now threatened. More likely it has already suffered a serious, if not near fatal blow.

Wilson is remembered primarily for his contributions to American foreign policy. While his proposal for a League of Nations suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of the U.S. Senate, the idealism that inspired it has lived on, perpetuating his vision of an ideology and institution that would promote and perpetuate world peace.

Wilson’s status as one of America’s most esteemed presidents – earlier this year he ranked 10th among our 44 chief executives – has essentially remained unchallenged, until now. Now it has been challenged so powerfully and persuasively that the New York Times ran an editorial this week that said first that Wilson was “an unrepentant racist,” and second that in consequence Princeton should revoke the honor of naming after him one of its most prestigious schools.

How did this sea change come about? Credit a year-old student group, the Black Justice League, which a few months ago began exposing Wilson’s racist views. To start there were posters exposing some of Wilson’s more offensive quotes, such as his comment to an African-American leader that “segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you.” Next there were certain complaints, such as that only about 2 percent of Princeton’s faculty is black. Then there were various demands, for example, mandatory courses on “the history of marginalized peoples,” and also a joining of forces. These included not only other undergraduates but also faculty, some 54 of whom eventually signed a Black Justice League petition. Finally there was a sit-in in the president’s office. It dragged on 32 hours, and when it was over Princeton’s President, Christopher Eisgruber, had agreed to many of the students’ demands, including considering wiping Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Princeton protest, it’s a striking example of how a powerless few, here a knot of undergraduates, can win out over the powerful many, here not only the Princeton establishment, but an American president who historians have judged near great.

Woodrow Wilson will never be discredited entirely. Nor should he be. He was in some ways a progressive, and in all ways an internationalist. His contribution to American foreign policy thought will endure. Moreover his racism ought to be placed in context – he was, after all, a man of the South, born in 1856. Still, because of a handful of activists at Princeton, it is now widely known that he was not only a racist, but an avowedly interventionist one, who employed public policy to further white supremacy. It is why his estimable reputation should never and will never be fully restored.  And it is why American history textbooks will have now to be reviewed and revised.




Leader in a Time of Crisis – Francois Hollande

Posted by on Nov 25, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

Francois Hollande has spent most of his time as president of France mired in the depths of public opinion. Put precisely, he has been the most unpopular president in modern French history.

This will now change. Whatever the French people thought of their president before the attacks in Paris, in their immediate aftermath their opinion of him will go up. It’s a typical pattern, which in the US is called the “rally ‘round the flag effect.” The phrase refers to increased popular support for a president in a time of national crisis – especially war. By promptly declaring that “France is at war,” Hollande virtually assured that in the short term at least his level of support among the French would rise.

Who can say the right thing to do when terror strikes an iconic city – which happens also to be the capital of the country over which you preside? There is no handbook for such a circumstance, no handy-dandy leadership guide. Rather, as history attests, in such situations  leaders fly by the seat of their pants. At least to an extent, they improvise.

This is not to say that someone in Hollande’s position – president of a country that recently suffered a serious terrorist attack (in January of this year, the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo) – would not have given serious thought to what to do if terror struck again. But it is to say that the specifics of such situations remain unknown – until they are known. And so while leaders obviously do prepare for terrorist attacks, how exactly to respond remains unclear until after at least the initial attack has passed. How could Hollande have prepared for this particular complication – Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane just as he undertakes his major diplomatic initiative?

In the wake of the most recent terror in Paris, Hollande went into overdrive. His rhetoric has been strong and unyielding. His domestic policy has been fierce and persuasive. (He sought and secured parliamentary approval for declaration of a three month state of emergency.*) And in foreign policy he has played his level best, while holding a hand that’s quite weak.

France is a country widely perceived in decline. In the last decade it was Germany that surged to the forefront of Europe, while France lagged. Hollande understood then that if he was to declare that France was at war, far smarter not to have France stand alone. So he has been making the rounds – trying his damnedest to forge an international coalition against ISIS. On Monday of this week he met with Britain’s David Cameron. On Tuesday he flew to the US to meet with Barack Obama. On Wednesday back to Paris to meet with Germany’s Angela Merkel and, later, with Italy’s Matteo Renzi. On Thursday he’s off to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin. And on the weekend he’ll conclude his diplomatic marathon by hosting a dinner in Paris for China’s Xi Jinping.

Impossible to know now whether this abundance of activity at home and abroad will pay off. But if it does not, it will not be because Francois Hollande had a dearth of determination or imagination – or, for that matter, stamina.


*Some have objected to this concentration of power in the hands of the French executive. But, then, during the American Civil War Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus.





The Hunting Ground

Posted by on Nov 23, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

The Hunting Ground is the title of a documentary film about sexual assault on American college campuses. Since its release earlier this year, it has been considered a critical, if controversial, contribution to a national conversation that only recently gained ground.

Its airing last night on CNN is certain further to inflame both sides. The one side argues that the film is an essential chronicle of trauma effecting some 20 to 25 percent of female undergraduates. The other side argues that the film is a distortion of life on campus, that it places advocacy ahead of accuracy and even impugns the reputation of some who don’t deserve it.

My point in this piece is not to take sides. Rather it is to argue that even if the film is, as legal expert Stewart Taylor charged “propaganda,” it is propaganda with a purpose. I do not claim that truth should be sacrificed on the altar of political persuasion. But to exaggerate to make a point, to bring in some facts and leave out others, to ostensibly elevate the powerless while simultaneously denigrating the powerful – all these are typical of propaganda at its most persuasive.

I do not take the film’s deficits lightly. Nevertheless the producer and director of The Hunting Ground have managed to do what no one did before.

  • They gave widespread credence to the idea that sexual assault on college campuses is a major moral as well as legal issue that we must take seriously.
  • They gave widespread credence to a large group of women on college campuses who previously had no voice – none.
  • They gave widespread credence to the virtues of campus activism, to the band of sisters who, by banding together, made a difference.
  • They gave widespread credence to the charge that campus authorities – including college and university presidents – have been derelict in their duty to a large fraction of their student populations.
  • They gave widespread credence to the proposition that money and power play out-sized roles on college campuses – even when it comes to crime.
  • They gave widespread credence to the accusation that there is a yawning gap between what American higher education is supposed to do – provide a safe and secure learning environment for every single student – and what it actually does.

These are no mean accomplishments for filmmakers turned leaders. These are no mean accomplishments for Kirby Dick (director) and Amy Ziering (producer), who are also responsible for an earlier film on sexual assault, The Invisible War, in this case in the military. Dick and Ziering came, in effect, out of nowhere, determined to shine a light on rape –  and did. Whatever the errors of their ways, I defy you to watch either one of these films and deny or even discredit their main message.


Brussels is Closed

Posted by on Nov 21, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

Our attention has been focused on Paris. But Brussels is the bigger story. Brussels exemplifies more than does Paris how a very small, generally weak minority is able to bring a very large, generally strong majority to its knees.

Brussels is not just another European city. It is large – the greater Brussels area has some 1.8 million inhabitants. It is the political, economic, and cultural hub of Belgium. It is headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). And, perhaps most importantly, certainly symbolically, the city is home to several of the European Union’s (EU) most important institutions. Brussels is considered the capital of the EU.

The fact that the authorities thought it prudent to shut down the entire city – metro, museums, malls, cafes, cinemas, every single space and place where people naturally congregate – is a stunning, even stupefying sign of the times. What happened in Bamako was obviously a tragedy. What did not happen in Brussels was less obviously a calamity.



Terror in Paris – Three Prisms

Posted by on Nov 15, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

Whenever an event seems impossible easily to explain, the event is impossible easily to explain. We search for facile answers. We reduce complex events to a single cause. We ache to fix what’s badly broke. But the real world precludes it. The real world is hostile to our desire to control whatever our situation – and to right whatever is wrong.

The terror in Paris falls into this category. The terror in Paris is not amenable either to a simple explanation, or to a quick fix.

To make my case I provide three prisms through which to view the recent events in the City of Lights. None should be considered more powerful a prism than the other two. But, together, they provide a way of grappling with the world in which, willy-nilly, we now live.

The Clash of Civilizations. The phrase is the late Samuel Huntington’s, an esteemed if also criticized political scientist, who for many years was on the faculty at Harvard. In 1993 he published an article in Foreign Affairs titled “The Clash of Civilizations,” that while controversial even now, has come to be regarded by many as prescient. Huntington wrote: It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic….The dominating source of conflict will be cultural…. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

The Wretched of the Earth. The phrase is the title of a book by Franz Fanon. Fanon was a psychiatrist and philosopher who died in 1961 at the age of 36, but not before having written The Wretched of the Earth, a classic of the leadership literature. Fanon’s view of the world was simple. He divided everyone into either master or slave, colonizer or colonized, bourgeoisie or worker, white or black, the former always free, the latter always in chains, if not physically then psychologically. Fanon’s mission in life was to end the inequity, once and for all, if necessary by force. He wrote: For the last can be first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists….This determination to have the last move up to the front…can only succeed by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence.      

The End of Leadership/The End of Power. The first phrase, The End of Leadership, is the title of a book that I published in 2012, which argued that leaders were in decline, and that followers, ordinary people, were on the rise. Times had changed in ways that made it increasingly possible for people without obvious sources of power, authority, or influence to be preemptive or proactive, while those with obvious sources of power, authority, and influence were increasingly obliged to be reactive. This is not to say that in the past the powerless, even single individuals, never effected change – the young Serbian nationalist who assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 lit the fire that ignited World War I. But it is to say that in the 21st century governments, such as, yes, the French government,  have less power (and authority and influence) than they used to; that power has become more widely distributed; and that warfare, which typically was symmetrical, is likely as not now to be asymmetrical. I wrote: In the last one hundred years, relations between leaders and followers reached a turning point, if not a tipping point. Leader power and follower power became the more equivalent.  The second phrase, The End of Power, is the title of a book by Moises Naim that came out a year later, in 2013. His argument is essentially the same – that power is undergoing a “historic and world-changing transformation.”  Naim writes: The growing ability of small, nimble combatants to advance their interests while inflicting significant damage on much larger, well-established military foes is one way in which the exercise of power through force has changed.