This is going to be an odd semester.
Once again we will be online – together apart for a few hours a week. Even those of you living in the dorms will only sort of be “at” GW while we are all sitting at kitchen tables, on sofas, or in childhood bedrooms you thought you’d left behind. For the next few months, we will be staring at each other through windows of our own design, creating a classroom that looks like a collage of GW orientation pictures.
And of course you are studying political communication and journalism as the nation faces its tensest transfer of power in more than a century. We all watched in horror as white nationalists, egged on by the President, storm the US Capitol while Congress engaged in the formal certification of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States. Their goal was to disrupt a democratic ritual, thwart the will of a majority of Americans, and overturn an election. This is not normal and it is not OK.
It is difficult to recall a more important time to be studying journalism and political communication.
You are in the School of Media and Public Affairs because you want to be advocates or journalists. You are at GW because you want to help shape the American story. Many of the people in the middle of this crisis walked the halls of SMPA before you. They took Intro to PoliComm, Research Methods, Strategic Political Communication, and Language and Politics. They all spent too much time at Gelbucks, crammed into MPA 308, and stood in line at Tasty Kabob and Chipotle.
SMPA alumni covered the attack on the US Capitol and continue to help the world make sense of what’s going on. They serve on the staffs of the Senators and Representatives whose lives were threatened and who are deciding what comes next. They worked on campaigns for and serve the outgoing president and the president-elect. They are advocates making the case for change.
Not all of our conversations this spring are going to be easy. We are going to ask hard questions about how we got here, where we go next, and how we get there. We will raise questions about our ethical obligations. We will talk about ways to hold ourselves and each other accountable.
We are going to disagree. That’s a good thing. Democracy is not about finding consensus (or pretending it’s there). Harvard scholar and public intellectual Danielle Allen argues that “wholeness” rather than “oneness” is the right metaphor for democracy. In Talking to Strangers she writes, “…the metaphor of wholeness can guide us into a conversation about how to develop habits of citizenship that can help a democracy bring trustful coherence out of division without erasing or suppressing difference.”
There’s a sign on my office door (or at least was last time I was there – it’s been a while, might have fallen off by now) quoting part of a conversation between Socrates and Protagoras in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras. When Socrates asked the sophist what a student would learn from him, Protagoras replied: “…he will learn that which he comes to learn. And this is prudence in affairs private as well as public; he will learn to order his own house in the best manner, and he will be able to speak and act for the best in the affairs of the state.” To which Socrates replied, “…is your meaning that you teach the art of politics, and that you promise to make men good citizens?” “That Socrates,” said Protagoras, “is exactly the profession which I make.” Socrates thought it couldn’t be done.
I side with Protagoras. Together, we will improve our ability to speak and act for the best in affairs of the state. We will “discover all of the available means of persuasion in a given situation” (Aristotle), and consider whether or not the aim of rhetoric should be to “perfect men by showing them better versions of themselves,” as Richard Weaver argued. We will work on the art of politics.
We will debate. We will end a lot of classes more confused than when class started. We will come to conclusions that we will later abandon, test hypotheticals, and push each other to be better thinkers and citizens.
We will do all of this with respect. We will respect each other, we will respect the honest debate of ideas, and we will respect facts. Democracy, wrote the late John Lewis, is an act. Over the course of the next several months, we will engage in that act. The act of democracy requires we respect the act itself. Democracy is a means, not an end. We will respect the means.
This week’s events in Washington and state capitols around the country is why you are here. Over the course of the semester you will prepare to shape, respond to, and report on whatever comes next. Together, we will rise to this moment.
America is better because of those who came before you in SMPA. And America will be better because you are here preparing to tackle what comes next.
See you next week.