Jon Stewart, Edward R. Murrow, and You
The Constitution is the backbone of our government, its laws, and by extension, our society at large. This document is amazing, when you stop to think about it. A single relatively straightforward code serves as a fount from which all law and governmental power emanates. Its provisions cannot be overturned except by supermajorities in states and Congress. For only a few pieces of paper, its power has been profound.
Brevity, however, can obscure complexity. Despite its short length, the document has been the subject of uncountable legal briefs, books, and discussions. Such debate is vital. It is the lifeblood of democracy: open discourse on the nature of self-government among a society of free-thinking people.
When we reflect upon the Constitution, we should all pause to think about how this discourse is being increasingly poisoned and dominated by ideology, misinformation, partisanship, and captured by organized interests with power beyond belief. Differing opinions are good. But polarized, unyielding, and uncompromising argument is not. Our own Constitution was the product of compromises between competing factions of self-interested states, groups, and individuals, and while some delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 refused to sign and stormed off, it was ultimately a collaborative effort.
This marrow of democracy is dying. I see it in classes all the time. Students who refuse to acknowledge the possibility that their deeply-ingrained beliefs might be wrong. Students who refuse to challenge their preconceived notions. Students who fall back on sound bites and genuinely hate those who do not share their beliefs, whether liberal or conservative. And when we look at where much of the popular political information comes from, we can see, in part, why.
Nobody has summed up this narrow-mindedness more eloquently than Jon Stewart during his appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, almost a decade ago; you can see the fatigue and exhaustion in his eyes as he argues against polarization and advocates reasoned discussion and compromise. You can see the anger, too. Take a few minutes to watch this clip, if you haven’t already:
It would be naïve to simply blame the media—and CNN is not the worst offender—as the singular corrupting influences in American political discourse. Deeper social forces have forced our discussion into the muck. Fear is a powerful force, and politicians wield it readily to reduce us to our base selves. This point is equally true of both parties. From affordable health care to guns and immigration to religion, each of these topics are technical, complex, nuanced, and worthy of serious deliberation. But by and large that isn’t the discussion we’re having at a national level. Not by the media and not by those who purport to represent us. Not by a longshot. But why not?
Recent studies indicate that many citizens do not trust our news sources (Pew Research Center, 2014b) and “partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any time in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life” (Pew Center, 2014a, Para. 1). The divisions are growing deeper; they not only affect our views of politics, but they also negatively affect how we interact with each other in our daily lives.
Is there a panacea to Stewart’s frustration? No. But political scientists—an odd lot though we are—can generally show that there is a correlation between education and tolerance, and that critical thinking can help lead to a more responsible debate in a world where the powerful seek to control the weak with sound bites and rhetoric ungrounded in substance, logic, or facts.
Some of this debate is in the hands of educators. In many ways, higher education must be the vanguard of sanity. Students should be armed with the skills they need to transcend the muck of low-minded debate. They must gain knowledge and abilities to seek out and critically analyze logical arguments and claims that are supported by credible, reliable, and valid facts, evidence, and data. Students must become critical thinkers tolerant of opposing views.
Almost fifty years before Jon Stewart took his shots at Crossfire, famed journalist Edward R. Murrow, responding to Joseph McCarthy—the paragon of ideological entrenchment wielded for personal gain—quoted William Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Frighteningly, it shows us how little has changed.
The truth is this: students in higher education should look to their universities to be responsible for keeping the lifeblood of the Constitution alive by providing a floor for reasonable, informed debate between citizens. Providing a high-quality education is the sacred duty of a university, not only for its students and their hopes and aspirations, but also for the country.
discomforting analogy exists between the state of public political discourse and television programming. Television can do a lot of things. It can comfort us with sitcoms filled with laugh tracks; it can summon the worst parts of our humanity as we watch, with fascinated horror, Honey-Boo-Boo suck down carbonated beverages that will surely kill her at an early age. It can even force some to celebrate these things as “‘Merica.” But television can, as Murrow later put it, “teach, it can illuminate; yes, it even it can inspire.” Just think of a past Ashford University graduation commencement speaker, Levar Burton, and his immense accomplishments in Roots and Reading Rainbow. And if television fails to do these positive things, it is little more than “lights and wires in a box” (Murrow, 1958). Read the full speech.
But we can’t control the media, or political discourse, or television. However, we, as an institution, can control the content that we create, the manner in which it is delivered, the factual information we share with our students, and how we support our students. Education must be part of the solution. We can facilitate, mentor, guide, challenge, teach, illuminate, and inspire. And if we succeed, we keep the spirit of inspiration found in the Constitution alive and well. If we fail, we essentially guarantee that the most important social questions discussed by the American citizenry is whether Bradley Cooper’s tie appropriately matches his belt.
It is our sacred duty to succeed in this endeavor in order to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” I hope that we can all reflect on that, on this Constitution Day. Because the work started in 1787—the construction of a Constitution that would set the stage through an enlightened constitutional, democratic process that forever changed the world— is not yet finished, and we all have very much work still to do.
This article was written for Constitution Day, 2015 by Dr. Alexander Cohen, Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts; Dr. Jean Gabriel Jolivet Chair, Political Science, College of Liberal Arts; and Dr. John Ackerman Assistant Professor, College of Liberal Arts at Ashford University.
Pew Research Center. (2014a, June 12). Political Polarization in the American Public. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center: U.S. Politics & Policy. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/
Pew Research Center. (2014b, October 30). Which news organization is the most trusted? The answer is complicated. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center: FactTank, News in the Numbers. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/10/30/which-news-organization-is-the-most-trusted-the-answer-is-complicated/
Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA). (2015). “Wires and lights in a box” speech by Edward R. Murrow. Washington, D.C.: The National Press Building. Retrieved from http://www.rtdna.org/content/edward_r_murrow_s_1958_wires_lights_in_a_box_speech