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Back Talk

Readers reflect on "undemocratic democracies," free speech on campus, and more


"Undemocratic Democracies"

“The United States is not exceptional.” So begins “Undemocratic Democracies” in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Weinberg.

Why not? Because the United States, “like all democracies ... routinely violate[s] the sacred norm of ‘one person, one vote.’”

It is strange to assert as a “sacred norm” something that no one does. Regardless, a good follow-up question is, “Who defines American exceptionalism as ‘one person, one vote?’”

No one.

The term “American exceptionalism” originates with Joseph Stalin, who, when informed that the American proletariat wasn’t interested in Communist revolution, demanded an end to the “heresy of American exceptionalism.”

The notion that America is somehow different from other nations is even older. Its form of government, its frontier, to which Frederick Jackson Turner argued “American intellect owes its striking characteristics,” its civic culture, documented in de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America — all have made America exceptional.

In the essay “Federalist #10,” James Madison wrote, “Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” The idea that justice and minority rights are not to be decided by “one person, one vote” is indeed undemocratic. It’s also vital.

It's our founding ideals, painfully and slowly made manifest, that Martin Luther King called the “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

What is exceptional about America has changed. Thinking through which of those changes should be celebrated and which should be mourned is the task of every American in deciding our future.

WILSON SHIRLEY ’15 Washington, D.C.

"What Does ‘Free Speech’ Mean on a College Campus?"

I read with interest, and some nostalgia, your article on the meaning of "free speech" on campus ("What Does ‘Free Speech’ Mean on a College Campus?"). I was impressed that you included views in favor of unlimited free speech, which (based upon news reports I have read) is becoming increasingly rare on college campuses. When I was a student in the late 1960s, speech was free, loud and sometimes confrontational. There would have been no support among that era’s students, regardless of political persuasion, for a university committee to decide what was "permissible" and what was "hateful" or "forbidden." Indeed, the courts have noted that the First Amendment was designed to protect unpopular speech — because popular speech does not need protection.

The students in the 1960s understood that the best disinfectant for hateful speech is the sunlight of open and persuasive reasoning based upon facts. However, if speech is suppressed, the suppressed ideas will continue to be expressed in private among like-thinking people living in echo chambers. The result is a divided society, where nobody on one side of an issue cares what those on the other side think. Moreover, there is no opportunity to persuade people holding the "wrong" view to come over to your side.

Hopefully, Northwestern will join our sister school to the south [the University of Chicago] in declaring that open and free speech on a college campus provides the type of environment that best prepares students for the real world.


This ’Cat Is Still Learning

For years, I struggled to see how my political science major led anywhere beyond a simple path: preparation for law school. But having spent 30 years in the business world (without a law degree), I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for my liberal arts education. Northwestern gave me the confidence to think critically and creatively. It continues to help me absorb and manage new business concepts, issues and practices. The knowledge that I have studied with some of the smartest minds and been thoroughly tested always boosts my confidence. This ’Cat is still learning! Today, I’d encourage students to take full advantage of the liberal arts curriculum. I’d also suggest they participate in internships, pursue study-abroad programs and take computer, economics and language classes as well. This package is a gift for life!

EDNA TRIPLETT ’83 Henrico, Va.

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