Benjamin Barber

On Teaching Civics and Civic Virtues

VTR Date: January 20, 2006

Dr. Benjamin Barber discusses teaching civics to the youth.


GUEST: Dr. Benjamin Barber
VTR: 01/20/06

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was here a few weeks ago, I was particularly pleased that in a sense he took some very real steps toward using the media to teach important civics lessons, lessons relating really to the structure and the functioning of our American Democracy.

These were lessons, Mr. Justice Breyer pointed out, that were much more likely to be taught in our schools decades ago than they are now.

For we really used to teach civics to our children in school — and, as a consequence, at least I believe, civic virtue as well. More and more, I’m convinced that we must do so once again.

Which is why I’ve invited political scientist Benjamin Barber to join me on The Open Mind again today. The last time was in 1990, when we were colleagues at Rutgers University, he as Director of our Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy.

Then, Professor Barber and I talked about community service as a requirement for college students … which, if Americans really insisted upon it all, could be the thoroughly appropriate culmination of a long-term involvement in civics and civic pursuits on the part of all of our schools — from K through college.

Well, today, Ben Barber is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and a Director of the Democracy Collaborative.

And I would ask him first just what has happened to those challenging twin notions of always teaching civics to younger students and requiring community service of older ones. Now, Ben, you may not like the idea of requiring … but when you were here last time, we were talking about setting it up so that our older students did become involved in community project.

BARBER: Richard, a lot has changed in those fifteen, sixteen now years, since we talked back then when Rutgers was doing community service across the board in many of its courses and departments. When the Federal government was deeply involved in planning for coming out of the Bush Administration and into the Clinton Administration; a national community service program under the Corporation for National Service.

Clinton, remember came to Rutgers to actually announce that program and the nineties in a sense were a time when we really all thought, I think, that community service, education based community service; students involved in civics at the high school and college level would really be the future of a new civic education. Hasn’t happened.

And I think some of the reasons why are obvious, some are not so obvious. I won’t talk about the obvious one … change in Administration; change in the place of corporations in our live. But underlying that are changes that I think are even more dangerous and that really make not just the question of civic education, but whether we’re ever going to have a civil public … a democratic citizenship again. Bring those questions to the fore.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean by that.

BARBER: Well, what I want to suggest to you … back in the 1930s Dewey wrote a book in which he predicted the eclipse of the public … what he called “the great public”. And that was probably a little premature, but in the nineties and in the last five or six years, in fact, we have seen increasingly, as a result of privatization policies, neo-Liberalism, the belief, as Reagan put it, the government is part of the problem … is … part of the …

HEFFNER: Is the problem.

BARBER: … the problems we face … is the problem and not part of the solution. That has led to a gradual disempowerment of citizen. A gradual sense that our role as public citizens doesn’t count. And increasingly the belief that we express ourselves best as citizens when we act as consumers in the private realm.

So the very notion of civic education, preparing people for citizenship, makes little sense to those who think the real challenge is how to exercise our citizenship in the form of private consumership. What we buy … what we purchase … what we boycott. How we buy a President or don’t buy a President, that becomes the central question.

So that I think the tenor of public life has changed in way that make the very question of whether or not we have civic education to some degree moot because for us to take civic education seriously, we have to take civic, civil society and the idea of the public seriously and it’s not clear to me that we do that anymore.

HEFFNER: But then where are we heading … are we going to dismiss it all as bowling alone?

BARBER: Well, that’s the danger. I mean I think fortunately, as always happens history is dialectical, which means its full of contradictions that end up turning it around. Already I think you can see among those consumers who are sold this bill of goods that by expressing yourself through your dollars or your yen, or your Euros, you’re expressing your preferences and choices in the world. People are beginning to see the limits of that. But here’s where education really does become an issue.

Because when you and I talked 15 years ago, I think we both still believed that to some considerable degree, the school the college, the university … maybe we could say the church and the synagogue and the mosque, were the places where young people learned what it meant to be a citizen. Learned what it meant to be part of a community.

But one would have to say today, I believe, that the primary tutors of young people are not “profs” like you and me or high school teachers or pastors, or Imams, or Rabbis … but rather are the Internet, Hollywood, video games … I mean young people get you and me in college three, six hours a week; high school maybe they get their teachers 20, 30 hours a week … 30, 35 weeks a year. They get a steady diet of tutorials from this new video Hollywood industry … these big screens, the multiplexes … the median screens in our home, the little tiny computer screens and now, of course, our cell phone screens, as well, that are beginning to scream information. Those have become tutors to the young.

And the messages that come across those screens, that come across on all those pixels, is exactly the opposite of what you or I or pastors and preachers are likely to be teaching young people. It’s “make it on your own”. It’s “spend your dollars and influence the market that way.” It’s “do your own thing”. It’s “buy, buy, buy, shop, shop, shop”; even the President of the United States, after 9/11, the first thing he said to Americans was (laughter) “Go back to the mall, go back to shopping, show the world that we know how to be good Americans”, which … to him mean to go shopping.

So there’s a sea change, really in how I think Americans and others around the world see themselves in the world. Not first of all as members of a community, not first of all as citizens of New York or Californai or the United States or Mexico or Guatemala, but first of all as consumers, as purchasers.

HEFFNER: But, Ben, are you saying that in McLuhan-ish fashion, that it the medium that is the message. Could not different messages be delivered through these new media?

BARBER: In theory, yes. It’s a really good point, Richard. Of course, we could, and indeed, when the Internet first appeared many of us, including me, in my book, “Strong Democracy” suggested that the Internet was a new, horizontal point to point, interactive, democratic medium that would be a true instrument of a new digital democracy.

But the problem is that new technology, the telecommunications technologies, the digital technologies, the Internet, Google, all of those, have developed under the influence of a hierarchical, monopolistic corporate society, where who owns it, determines what happens on it. So the fact is that those these technologies have many potential uses, including civic uses, including educational and cultural uses, the reality is … baring perhaps this show and this channel … most of what we see on television, almost all of what comes out of Hollywood … and certainly a lot of what is on video games and on the Internet is dominated by market commerce. We have, above all, a digital mall.

And it’s not a surprise. Technologies tend to reflect the cultures in which they emerge. So that gun powder, for example which could be used for peaceful purposes, was used in early Renaissance Europe for the warfare they were conducting. The first thing they did is, you know, figure out how to kill each other with gunpowder.

The first thing we figured out how to do with the Internet was sell pornography, sell commodities and sell goods. The last thing we did is to exploit what the architecture of the technology actually permits, which is interaction among people … the sort of thing Howard Dean did last year, finding ways to get people in touch with each other. To enhance community. To enhance citizenship. But we haven’t done that because the owners of the platforms … the owners of the hardware have a very different and simpler goal in mind … profits for shareholders; good for consumers. And that’s primarily the ends to which these new technologies have been put.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you whether you believe that to have developed those technologies we would have had to have stuck to and be stuck with that buy-buy-buy psychology, philosophy … call it what you will.

BARBER: Well that is … I think you’ve asked the 64 dollar question to use another market metaphor of, of our time because the real question we ask is, do we need the market to develop and exploit new technologies, new goods and so forth?

What’s interesting about the Internet of course, is that it started as a government, indeed, a military …


BARBER: … operation that was part of a state sponsored new technology and only later on was it taken over privately. And by the way, there I’d … one maybe could challenge the notion that we have to have markets. Very often it operates the other way. R&D, research, the difficult and expensive part is done by taxpayers through their government. And then, the private market, when it becomes profitable jumps in and says, “Okay, we’ll take it from here, guys”.

HEFFNER: The exploitation.


HEFFNER: But that’s what your concern is … the exploitation.

BARBER: Well, it is and the vicious circle is that the exploitation that I’m concerned with is not identified as such because those doing the exploiting, the ones who are controlling the media, controlling its uses, sending its messages to young people … so the last thing they’re going to do is see themselves in that form.

In fact, in the new book I’m working on called “Consumed” what I’m seeing is that increasingly those who sell the consumerist message, not just to adults, to teens, tweens, young people, toddlers, kids down to 1 year old are using the language of empowerment. If you read the marketing books to kids, what they say is … “we empower children” our job is to empower them, that’s what we’re doing”. So the language of power and empowerment, which used to be the language of citizenship, now is attached to consumption when three year olds are spending their parents’ money.

HEFFNER: Sure, on becoming little Einsteins, to use the, the title of one of these very, very devices that you’re talking about. Okay, you’re right. Where do we go from here?

BARBER: Well, the question is can we break the vicious circle in which those who control the information, the knowledge, the tutorials that come to the young are themselves the producers of a message that consumption, that children buying things, that the empowerment to consumers is the only way to go. How do we break that? And that, in a way, is the most challenging question. Part of it comes from the natural reaction of consumers themselves.

I have a 15 year old daughter and I’ve got a couple of younger grandchildren from older kids. And I must say I suspect they … targets of marketers. Toddlers, under … in the gun sights, if you like … of the corporations are going to have a better chance at figuring out how to resist it than maybe you and I do. Because they have spent their whole lives in this media. They are aware of what’s been done to them, and they, I think, are in a position to begin to think about strategies to resist it.

HEFFNER: So they have not been, if you forgive me, “consumed”.

BARBER: They have been half consumed. But we do know sometimes certain animals regurgitate what they eat and, I hate to … that maybe an unfortunate …

HEFFNER: Feel free.

BARBER: … metaphor for my own children, but there … in a way my daughter has been consumed. No question about it. In a way she is the prime target and a bloody good one, too. Because she is lovely, she loves clothes, she likes to dress … so in a way, you know, she’s the perfect target for them. But she understands exactly what they’re doing. Part of her is receptive and another part of her is deeply skeptical, even cynical about it. And there are times in which she, herself, is in rebellion.

For example, she … increasingly, as she’s gotten older has begun to take scraps of clothe and design her own clothes … cut out very attractive things and, in effect, do it herself. Say, “I don’t need to buy the stuff that I wear, I can actually make the stuff that I wear.” Now that doesn’t mean she’s retiring to a farm the way the kids in the sixties did to live a reclusive life. But it does mean she’s beginning to see that. There are other groups around, there’s a group called “the culture jammers”; they have the notion that you can turn advertising and marketing against itself.

They have, for example, a smudge, a black spot that peels off that you can stick on any logo or any ad that you find in a magazine or on a wall, in order to, in effect, create your own no-logo, you own non-logo … Naomi Klein has written about no-logo. There are a lot of people and they’re of another … they’re not of our generation, they’re at least one, maybe one and a half generations down. Who are beginning to think about how do you take on this marketing machine that modern consumerism has produced. Now it is a difficult question because here’s the dilemma.

Consumerism is not an accidental by-product of modern capitalism, it is a survival strategy for modern capitalism. Because here’s the reality of capitalism. It produces far more goods than the prosperous parts of the world needs. Over-production is its central issue. Bill Greider a couple of years ago …


BARBER: …”One World Ready or Not” in which he talked about this over production. We produce far more goods than anyone needs, which means the primary goal today is to manufacture not goods, but to manufacture needs so people will buy all this stuff that’s being produced.

On the other hand, in much of the world, there are still genuine needs that need to be met and that capitalism is a terrific system to meet them with. But, the people with the needs don’t have the wherewithal to be consumers.

So, oddly, we have this strange paradox in which those with all the money don’t really have any needs and so have to be convinced to buy, have to be given a constant diet of built in obsolescence, new gadgets, new toys, new formats for entertainment so they keep reproducing their libraries … in a different format. Their music libraries in a different format.

While those with real needs are ignored by capitalism because they haven’t got the income, the revenue to buy their way out of their poverty. That’s the dilemma of modern capitalism and maybe a simple way to put the direction in which we have to move is … how can we get capitalism, in order to survive, to stop producing needs to sell goods to people who don’t need it. And instead produce real goods for the people who do need it.

And that, of course, is a political problem. That’s something that only be done through democratic governments, through democratic cooperation, through changes in the international monetary fund, in the World Bank, in the WTO, turning them into instruments that help capitalism address real needs, instead of helping capitalism address the needs of the financial capitalists who control it.

HEFFNER: But I have to assume then, that you are as pessimistic or negative about our ability to do that as about the political society, the virtuous political society because you’ve dismissed that. You’ve basically said at the very beginning of the program when I said, “Where have all those good intentions gone?” And you said, “They’re gone, forget them.” Why are you … how could you be sanguine …

BARBER: What we’ve been through …

HEFFNER: … now?

BARBER: … we’ve been through a “bad patch” as the little old lady is quoted …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

BARBER: … to have said during the Depression. The Depression wouldn’t have been so bad it hadn’t come along at such in bad times, (laughter), she said. And we, you know, can say, “Gee, Bush wouldn’t be so bad, the Administration wouldn’t be so bad, if it hadn’t come in such bad times.”

Well, the bad times are partly the result of that. But I do believe in the natural cycles of society. The natural cycles of history. We have been through, actually, starting in 1980, with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and their good willed, honest belief that government was the problem and the market was the solution, we’ve been through now, really, a quarter of a century of neo-Liberalism, of war on government, on a war on our own power, our own collective power, a war on democracy, if you like. And I think that time is coming to an end. And I think we see …

HEFFNER: What signs do you have Ben, come on?

BARBER: Well, I mean, I’m a political scientist, I’ll just, I’ll just take polls. We find for example that, you know, we know this now, 60, 65% of the American people are disturbed not only about the war in Iraq, but about the possibilities of a lying President and more importantly about the possibility of an over-weaning executive power that’s abusing the separation of powers.

I’ve actually been heartened to see that in the Congress, even Republicans, even conservative Republicans are beginning to be dubious about the President because, in fact, the separation of powers works. That is to say, Congress though it’s of the same party as this President is not an automatic vote for him. There are a lot of features of our culture, our Constitution and our society that I think you will see push in the opposite direction.

Look, Democratic reform, democratic change always looks hard. Imagine is you had lived in 1935, in … our age, in Europe … in Germany or France and somebody had said, “Yeah, there is probably going to be a … a big war here in Europe. And these Nazis are probably going to commit genocide on an awful lot of people. It’s going to be bad. But don’t worry because 30, 40 years from now the Germans and the French are going to live without borders, share a common army, pool their sovereignty, have a common currency. You know we would have looked and said, “You’re a madman, where do you get this wild optimism from?”

I mean the fact is we are capable of doing as much good as we are capable of doing bad, and very often the bad that we do becomes the inspiration for the change. And so, yes, I remain an optimist, there’s no question about it because I’ve seen over and over again, in my short lifetime a series of changes that seemed unfathomable at a certain period of time.

I mean I came up as you did in the 1950s when it looked like, you know, the man in the gray flannel suit was going to dominate America forever and we were going to live in a kind of conservative era forever.

And lo and behold, we had the Civil Rights revolution, we had the anti-war movement, we had urban breakdown, we had a series of calamities and a series of aspirations all of which changed the face of America in ways in 1954, one couldn’t possibly have imagined. So I don’t think one ought to be pulled into thinking that because we live in tough times, because, at least for those of us who are progressive and think there is a democratic way to solve problems, things aren’t going our way, that they won’t go our way.

Remember this President was elected, you know, not by a very great majority … the first time not by a majority at all and the second time only by a very slender majority and he is now, and the people he was represented by I think are … have been largely rejected by the American people. So, yes, I see room for real hope. Not for Panglossian hope, but for real hope.

HEFFNER: Not so fast, Ben, not so fast. Yes, the first time around in 2000, one could say that the President was not elected … he was chosen. But the second time around, I find it passing strange that my friends all want to minimize the margin, the popular margin by which George W. Bush was elected. We selected him. That wasn’t a Supreme Court accidental “chosen” Chief Executive.

BARBER: Indeed we did. And here I agree with you, I’m tired of the Democrats and the Liberals the Progressives who want to say that somehow his second election, you know, was a mistake or an error. The American people voted him in the second time. No question about it. I agree with you on that.

But we have to analyze why and how that happened. And I’m not even going to get into John Kerry’s campaign and what was right and what was wrong by it. I was a … I was foreign policy Advisory to Howard Dean and I thought he would have made a stronger, more clearly alternative candidate, but who knows. You know that speculative game we can’t play.

But let me say the underlying thing. Democracy is always about the politics of hope up against the politics of fear. And what this Administration now, for two terms, has done brilliantly is to play on the politics of fear. And we’re seeing it in France, too, and in Holland. It defeated the New European Constitution in France. It defeated the New European Constitution in Holland.

The politics of fear says “We have enemies. There are terrorists out there.” It used to be “There are Communists out there.” Now it’s “There are terrorists out there. We’ve got to clamp down on our civil liberties, we’ve got to contain our Constitution, we’ve got to close our borders, we’ve got to be suspicious of people who skin color is darker than those who first settled this country.”

That’s the politics of fear and make no mistake, it is a powerful, enticing, seductive politics. And they have played it very, very well. I think they won in the year 2004 by playing that card. In the end, the national security card, the fear card, the Osama-bin-Laden-is-still-out-there-waiting-to-get-us card. Even though we may have lied, who knows how we got into Iraq, but it’s good for the war on terrorism because minimally it means we’re fighting the terrorists there, not here. Which was the bottom line. That appealed to a lot of Americans. And the real challenge we face, those of us who believe in the politics of hope is to find a way to put to Americans, to Europeans, to our allies a new politics of hope that is realistic and that people can understand that answers the argument of those who sell fear.

Because fear is the enemy of democracy. We saw it in Franklin Roosevelt, who said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself”. In Germany in 1933, it was fear that destroyed the Weimar Republic. Fear is always the greatest enemy.

But the way that’s the thing that terrorists know and we seem not to. The terrorists have now power. They’re literally powerless. The one thing they have is our fear. Horrible as it was, and let me say this carefully and clearly … I don’t want to offend anyone …but horrible as it was on September 11, 2001 … it was if an ocean liner went down. It was a horrible event and for families involved it was tragic and terrible event. But with respect to the power and the glory and the force and the hegemony of America over 200 years, it was a mosquito bite on a grizzly bear.

But we’ve turned it into some powerful threat to our future and allowed it to undo the things that make America strong. Fear has been our enemy and to the extent we play the fear card, we lose to the extent Bush is able to get away with it, we lose … our job, I think, is not as Liberals or Progressives, but as advocates of the politics of hope to take on fear.

HEFFNER: With a minute or so left. Ben, why don’t you think it will work again? If you are so involved in the strength of the politics of fear, if you recognize that strength so, why do you assume it will not work again?

BARBER: I think it can work. But it can only work if we let it work. The great thing about fear is that it, it is lodged in our minds and if we can find ways to dislodge it, we win. If we don’t, we lose. If the Administration continues to sell fear, we lose. If Osama bin Laden continues to sell fear, we will continue to shrink our liberties, close our borders. So really the upcoming contest, the contest between democracy and the private market … the contest between democracy and privatization is a contest between fear and hope.

And I believe our greatest challenge is to find a politics of hope that Americans can understand and pursue. That is possible, it’s been done again and again. Winston Churchill did it in World War II. We need a Winston Churchill of the age of terror who finds a way not to make fear the issue, but to overcome fear.

HEFFNER: Ben Barber, thank you for joining me again on The Open Mind … with all of that hope that I find so hard to share. Thanks.

BARBER: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.