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Listen to the Benjamin Barber

LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Renowned political theorist Benjamin Barber on Monday pondered the health of American democracy, saying its survival means facing a host of unprecedented challenges.

Barber, speaking in the third event of the national speakers series, "The Bucknell Forum: The Citizens and Politics in America," called those challenges "unprecedented" and said they should make Americans rethink their liberty and citizenship and the role media play in educating its citizens.

"Even where they teach it, even where people understand the role of a free media and citizens, we are faced by challenges that we have yet to take the measure of," he told the near-standing-room-only Trout Auditorium audience.

Defects of democracy
He outlined several challenges that have "transformed, or, perhaps it's better to say, deformed what our democracy is doing. ... I want to suggest that many of the reasons for the underlying defects of our democracy can be traced back to our unwillingness or inability to confront and deal with these new challenges."

Among those challenges, said Barber, a professor of civil society at the University of Maryland, was the course of privatization in the last 30 or so years. That, he said, has resulted in the notion that the "government can't do anything and that the market can do everything" to solve the challenges of the late 20th century.

"It took the form of democratizing our institutions, of disempowering us as citizens," he said. "Citizenship was no longer a requirement of solving the problems of our social lives."

Privatization of military
He said privatization continues in U.S. prisons as well as the U.S. military.

"There are nearly as many private security contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq today as there are American soldiers," he said. "They operate outside of the proper and legitimate monopoly of violence enjoyed by the democratic state. They have the power of that monopoly of violence with none of the accountability, none of the transparency, none of the democratic features."

Barber noted a recent incident in which private military drew weapons on American troops.

Outsourced national security
"Private military contractors disarmed the sovereign face of America -- our soldiers, your soldiers," said Barber. "I don't even understand that our government isn't furious. … We have outsourced national security, which means we have outsourced our sovereignty."  

Privatization, the author of 17 books said, turns everything over to the economy.

"It turns everything into something commercial," he said. "The result of privatization in America has been a radical commercialization of our society. Everything is commodified. Everything is for sale. Everything has a price. Nothing that doesn't have a price can have any importance in the society."

Blurring of news and entertainment
That commodification includes media, which, he said, has resulted in the blurring of entertainment, sports, and news and placed the primary focus on bottom lines and reporting to shareholders.

"The media at one and the same time cannot be about education, citizen training, the fourth estate and making democracy work and at the same time be about making money," he said. "Goodbye free media, goodbye news as the fourth estate and, so, goodbye democracy as well."

Saying that the United States will elect a new president in a year, Barber said that "elections, at best, are a final marker of a successful democracy, but in no way the same thing as democracy. If we think about democracy as nothing more than having an election then we miss its essential spirit."

Role of media in preparing citizens
His contention was that "American democracy is in fact in crisis right now, that our system as we divert our own attentions to create democracies elsewhere in the world by force of arms, we have allowed our own to slip away from us. There are many things that are troubling about the current crisis of American democracy," pointing to the new role of media in preparing citizens for elections.

Barber said that democracy and media share a parallel history.

"You can trace the health of the one by looking at the health of the other," he said. "When democracy goes wrong, as I think it has, that's in part about what's gone wrong with the media and the role the media play as the fourth estate of our democratic system … the branch of a free thinking media that provide the informational and knowledge foundation that allows us to function as citizens in a free nation."

Founding Fathers
He said that the nation's Founding Fathers understood that declaring independence and writing a constitution was the least of what it took to establish a democracy.

"The lifeblood of a democracy, what made a constitution function was capable, competent citizens. Without citizens, a constitution, a bill of rights, were nothing but a piece of paper," he said.

And, referring to Iraq, Barber said, "Nowadays, I think, too many Americans, and sometimes their presidents, too, think all it takes to democratize a nation is to write it a good constitution."

'Citizens are not born'
"Sometimes, I fear, the American Bill of Rights is turning into a pretty piece of paper, the substance of which can no longer be justified by the way in which we are conducting our politics, by the way in which American citizens have withdrawn from civic and political life. Democracy depends on citizenship, but citizens are not born, they are made."

Media monopolies cannot serve civic education, he said. "We get our truth not from one particular paper or radio station that knows the truth but through the availability, the accessibility of many different media."

To measure a country's freedom, Barber said, don't look at the quality of the best newspaper or radio station, "look at the diversity of what is available. Likewise, even the best newspaper, the best radio station, if it is a monopoly, cannot serve civic education however high its standards, however authoritative, intelligent, and, quote, 'objective,' its editors."

The Bucknell Forum
"The Bucknell Forum: The Citizen & Politics in America"  is a national speakers series exploring major issues in the 2008 presidential election, notably those at the forefront of today's national discourse. The series will feature nationally renowned leaders, scholars, and commentators exploring these issues from multi-disciplinary perspectives and offer opportunities for campus and community conversations.

In October, a panel of national political correspondents from some of the country's most influential print, broadcast, and online news sources discussed the role that media play in shaping the presidential election and the issues affecting the race. NBC newsman Tim Russert kicked off the series as the inaugural speaker in September.

Contact: Office of Communications

Posted Nov. 6, 2007