The situations facing the United States and democracy in the world arena may seem bleak now, but it's not entirely hopeless. That was the consensus reached by a panel of experts particpating in a Comm Week event, "The Future of Democracy," sponsored by Phi Beta Delta, the Honor Society for International Scholars.
Particpants painted a stark picture of the world's opinion on American foreign policy and its attempts to export democracy overseas. Speaking to a nearly-full conference room in the Pollak Library, they addressed a variety of topics, from the slow progress of nation-building in Thailand to the future of Europe. Suprisingly, the panelists largely agreed on the positions offered by their fellow speakers.
Professor Jochen Burgtorf moderated the discussion that included professors Chad Briggs, Kristine Dennehy, Nancy Snow and students Brandon Reilly and Sylvie Widjaja. Tackling a complex and multi-faceted issue, the speakers attempted to shed some light on the role of the U.S. in promoting democratic ideals abroad.
Widjaja, a senior political science major, spoke about terrorism's relationship with democracy. She highlighted the dangers of assuming that countries like Indonesia are ready for a democratic government and the potential violence and unrest that can result when a country is pushed too quickly into transition.
Widjaja called it "over-simplistic and somewhat arrogant" to assume that the answer to terrorism is simply to institute a free, representative government which is how she characterized the Bush administration's current foreign policy.
Briggs, a political science professor, cited his experiences living abroad as a backdrop for his presentation on the future of the European democracies.
He said there was little possibility of the European Union adopting a common foreign policy and said it was important that both the U.S. amd E.U. recognize the mutual incentive that each has to remain allies, not adversaries.
Briggs said violence tends to occur on the margins of Europe, in transition areas, reinforcing the idea that change produces friction and conflict.
A common theme among the speakers was that America today is home to some troubling trends in regards to its own freedoms, especially free speech.
Reilly, a senior history major, gave a case for an anti-democratic shift occurring in America under the current administration. In a scathing critique of Campuswatch.org, a Web site committed to "reviewing and improving" Middle Eastern studies in America, he accussed the site and its creator Daniel Pipes of a new "McCarthyism" for the site's "blacklisting" of professors thought to be sympathetic to Palestinan causes.
"Campuswatch seeks utlimately to achieve the Orwellian ideal of mind-control," he said.
Snow, a communications professor, commended Reilly for his analysis and said she agreed these are dark days for free expression in an age of Ashcroft's Patriot Acts.
"When it comes to American democracy it's not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got," she said, paraphrasing Sheryl Crow's "Soak up the Sun" to point out that we have the freedoms but may slowly be giving them up out of fear.
Still, Snow was ultimately optimistic when she said, "The future of democracy must not rely strictly on presidential promises and results, but results themselves. That's where we come in; the challenge is for us to remain vigilant."
Reflecting a similar tone, Briggs encouraged students to take action against trends they find unsatisfactory.
"Don't be overly cynical or think that we live in a broken system, we know that [we don't] by the mere fact that we can still talk about it," he said.
Students remained engaged throughout and seemed sympathetic to Burgtorf when he confessed that he was "worried and concerned" about the fact that, as a German national, he could be deported at any time for any reason.
Burgtorf said he was going to send an encouraging e-mail to Micheal Moore but thought twice because his correspondance is probably being monitored.