Every year before the first day of classes we have “Convocation,” where faculty who wish to participate dress in full academic regalia, and a faculty member gives a welcoming address to the incoming students, this time the class of 2014.   It was hot — we’re having 90 degree weather and wearing those robes was uncomfortable to say the least (the students, of course, had shorts and t-shirts).   But it’s worth it, it starts the new year by bringing together faculty and new students and talking about what a liberal arts education is all about.   Liberal education isn’t about politics, but about education to liberate oneself to be able to think and act without being controlled or manipulated by custom, propaganda, or misinformation.

The speaker today was Dr. Jonathan Cohen talking about community — what a college community is all abut, as well as how his field of philosophy investigates the meaning of concepts like community.   The students read a piece about building community by Martin Buber, a German Jew who was born in Vienna in 1878, fled Germany in 1938, and died in Israel in 1965, still working for the peaceful reconciliation of Jews and Arabs.

Dr. Cohen talked about how Buber defined community as a group connected by a “living center,” and commented about how relationships are central to life.   After the talk we divided into discussion groups with some questions Jonathan put together to facilitate discussion.   We had a great session, though we never got beyond the first question.

We talked about the context of the piece we read — a 1930 speech by Buber to a German Jewish youth group.   Before the Third Reich, German Jews were a group that often stressed the “German” part of their identity more than their Jewish background.    Ever since King Frederick II of Prussia, a believer in enlightenment values, banned discrimination against Jews, they were able to rise higher in Prussia and then Germany than in most other European states.  The German Kaiser made a friendly visit to early Jewish settlements in Palestine, and many German intellectuals convinced themselves that Antisemitism was weakening as Europe modernized.

By 1930, that was changing.  Hitler and other German nationalists responded to the economic turmoil facing Germany by starting a movement urging “true” Germans to take back the country from the socialists, pacifists, internationalists and liberals who deep down hated what Germany stood far and were stabbing the country in the back.    For Hitler the Jews were parasites, weakening Germany from within.   The truth, of course, is that German culture was enriched and shaped by German Jewish contributions, but spouting a nationalist message made that easy to ignore and reject.   Whether it was Einstein or Schoenberg, German Jews were corrupting rather than advancing the culture.

Yet this worked to build community.   When the Nazis took power, they created a strong sense of German solidarity, with efforts to foster a sense of shared values amongst Germans.   Even flying hero Charles Lindbergh returned from a visit to Germany saying “we can learn from the Nazis,” seeing them united and proud of their country, while the US wallowed in depression.

In fact, if history stopped on November 8, 1938 (the day before Kristallnacht initiated official violence against Jews) and we were to judge Nazi rule from 1933 to 1938 we’d no doubt criticize Antisemitism and racism, but also be impressed by the positive role fascism played in building an emotional sense of community.

Yet note how this community was defined and shaped:  the good Germans vs. bad “others” who were set to destroy Germany from within, internal traitors who needed to be defeated.   The Communists, Socialists, Liberals, pacifists, internationalists and Jews were all espousing ideas that undercut true  German values.   Germans had to reclaim their core values and identity by defeating and silencing these traitorous voices.     And though it seemed to work for the short term, the very nature of that sense of community assured war.   The fundamental logic of the Nazi sense of community was to secure “true” German values by defeating evil and treasonous enemies who caused the  depression and the defeat of Germany in WWI.    The need to eliminate “the other” was foundational for the Nazi sense of national identity.

Buber’s idea of community, however, was different in that it is positive.  A community comes together around a living center.   It is relational, we build connections with others, find common ground, and develop a sense of shared identity.  There are “others” outside the community, but difference does not mean division.   A positive community is not defined in opposition to others, or by demonizing and dehumanizing others, but rather on relational dynamics within the community.   Such positive communities can also be part of larger communities; other-ness is not a barrier to building new relationships.

We as a country are in difficult times right now.    We need and yearn for community — that is another of Buber’s points.   For all our talk about individualism and self-reliance, humans are communal by nature, we need to work together and have meaningful relationships.    Yet politicians and demagogues can twist that yearning for community into something ugly.   If they focus on demonizing the “other” — Muslims, Liberals, right-wingers, illegal immigrants, socialists or capitalists — we risk creating communities built on a necessary need to defeat and even destroy those who are outside that community.   Even if it doesn’t go as far as Germany in the 30s, it would inevitably weaken our country and endanger our values.

We still yearn for community.  We build it in a positive sense in a college community through our shared desire to learn and advance a true communication (not just facts being handed down for students to learn).  As a country we have to find a way too come together to listen to each other — deeply and respectfully listen.   Even as work through disagreements, we must avoid the temptation to demonize the other or paint others as traitors, evil, or somehow inferior.   That path can give one a feeling of self-righteousness and even purpose, but it’s a delusion.

I think we as a country are up to the challenge.  As a faculty member working with students my goal is to do what I can to play a small role in helping our larger community cope with the difficulties we face.    I believe students with a strong, liberating liberal arts education can learn to not only think for themselves, but not be deluded by emotional appeals to fear and loathing of others.

  1. #1 by renaissanceguy on September 1, 2010 - 10:23

    Scott, there is much good in what you wrote, and you wrote it very well. I applaud this post.

    However, I want to say that one of the subtle implicaitons really bothers me. Let me know if I am misunderstanding you.

    You seem to be implying that those who oppose things like the Islamic community center in Manhattan, like illegal immigration from south of the border, and like same-sex marriage are acting on “fear and loathing of others” and are like the Nazis. Please say it isn’t so.

    I am pretty sure that most of the people who hold those positions have no fear or loathing of anybody. I am also pretty sure that most of them are disgusted by Nazism and would never treat people the way that the Nazis treated Jews, Gypsies, communists, etc.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on September 1, 2010 - 11:12

    On issues like same sex marriage and illegal immigration it certainly is possible to hold different opinions without succumbing to demonization of the other. I’m concerned about the rhetoric some public officials and pundits use. I think most people actually oppose illegal immigration and can disagree on how to deal with the issue. I can respect a tradition-based opposition to same sex marriage as long as it doesn’t demonize gays (e.g., talk of some ‘gay agenda’ that is being pushed on normal Americans.)

    I don’t see any rational reason to oppose building of an Islamic community center in NYC, especially since mosques and the like are already in the area. That seems to link the entire Islamic faith with 9-11, rather than recognizing that the terrorists were a tiny political minority. I see opposition to that, and to other mosques in the country as being on the edge of irrational demonization/collective guilt by association of the “other.” TIME magazine had a good article, though, about how a church that opposed a mosque in Wisconsin later came to support it because it did the Christian thing and helped a Muslim family in trouble, reaching out to those who were proposing that mosque. I like to think the sense of community trumps abstract politics, and most Americans who oppose the mosque aren’t demonizing Muslims, but just don’t understand that Islam as a whole is not the problem, and reaching out to average Muslims and respecting their faith is the best way to fight terrorism. (I also think atheists and agnostics in the US should respect Christians and their faith, as well as Muslims). I guess I share some of Buber’s utoptianism –we can get along and build a diverse set of communities!

  3. #3 by renaissanceguy on September 1, 2010 - 21:04

    Once again, you and I are almost on the same page. I agree with you that accepting diversity and building communities is a noble and righteous goal. Absolutely.

    I think where you and I differ is that you see intolerance on only one segment of the political matrix. I see it all over the place. There is a lot of demonization of “the rich” and of “big business.” There is a lot of demonization of Chrstian fundamentalists and evangelicals. There is a lot of demonization of mainstream America–with characterizations that they are backward, prone to violence, inherently racist, etc.

    Will you agree with me that there is too much demonization from all sorts of directions–and not just by those who are to the right?

    • #4 by Scott Erb on September 1, 2010 - 23:48

      Oh definitely, there is too much from all sides. The rhetoric against Obama now is savage from the right, but I recall what the left was saying about Bush after 2005. Back then I made a concerted effort to treat President Bush with respect, and try to avoid the rhetoric that often compared him to a Hitler. Now we have people on the far right saying Obama hates America, Glenn Beck says that though Obama is not Muslim his faith is a “perversion of Christianity,” and ‘liberals’ are said to be destroying America. (I have a good friend who is a traditional liberal, and a very devout Christian, quite active in his church — he said he can take the heated political rhetoric, but Beck’s comment about Obama’s faith was sickening). Conservatives called the wild anti-Bush rhetoric “BDS,” but now they have “ODS.” So yeah, both sides do it.

      And that means we as a country aren’t listening to each other. There’s nothing wrong with debate and intense disagreement (that’s in fact required in a democracy — disagreement is good, I’d be scared if everyone agreed!) But too many people on both sides treat difference of opinion as a kind of moral sickness and even treason. That’s a bit scary — but we do tend to get over those bouts. As we say at this university: we should be able to disagree without being disagreeable, and argue without being argumentative.

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