Op-Ed: Where is the urgency?

Tuesday, October 29, 2019 - 2:03pm

On Oct. 4, I was fortunate to see former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speak at a “Master Class” given to a select group of University of Michigan undergraduate and graduate students. Guided by her vast experience, Rice spoke clearly and compellingly on issues like democracy, identity and international affairs. As the Master Class came to a close, however, my admiration gave way to dissatisfaction. 

The class was structured so that some participants had to watch her on a projector in a separate room, leaving half of us unable to ask her questions. Walking out of those adjacent classrooms, the air felt like that of opera-goers having exited an excellent show.

Let me be clear that Rice is brilliant and she fought in her official capacity with sincerity in her beliefs. I am guided in my writing by gratitude at the opportunity to learn, rather than bitterness — though I am mad I didn’t get out of my seat, walk for about 20 seconds to the next class over, and try to ask a question myself.

As she spoke about complicated realities overseas, I was left to ponder the crisis our own country is wrestling with at home. Speaking with poise and grace that seemed impossible to faze, she made it feel as if we had won something, that our troubles as a country were distant either in time or in proximity. In our discussion, many countries who had succeeded or failed at democracy were put under the microscope as if they were cute or flawed little experiments that the United States could study in a sanitized, removed manner. 

How can we talk about the failed revolutions of the Arab Spring as if our government is not currently engulfed in flames? As an Egyptian-American, I sat and watched as she discussed the “Middle Eastern exception,” the question of why democracy hasn’t taken to this region as it has around the world. We poked and prodded at all the particularities, and she adorned the conversation with anecdotes of her shining moments as Secretary of State. She spoke at length about instances in which she coached other democracies and helped navigate the chaotic world that we, as a great power, have helped steep further into chaos.

Meanwhile, I see my American president describing the investigation against him as a coup, dispelling criticism as a “witch hunt” and “bullshit,” raging against every element of the world that is not obsequious and adulating toward him and calling for the arrest of key actors in the opposition party and the impeachment inquiry. Our decrepit executive wields extraordinary power in military capabilities and legislative authority, but even “good” presidents have mobilized the equal or lesser power of the office to catastrophic ends.

Am I supposed to laugh him off as impotent after Rice extolled the values of strong institutions? Am I supposed to ignore the damage he can do after she warned of the growing divide between those affected by policy realities and those protected through education and affluence?

Where is the urgency?

I’m careful not to mistake her composure for complacency. When it comes to the answers of her students, she said in an earlier talk that morning that she dislikes a response that starts with, “I feel like,” because more likely than not, she doesn’t care about that student’s feelings in an academic context. 

I internalized her wisdom that feelings can easily get in the way of an effective argument. But when it comes to my country’s fate and the outcomes of my neighbors around the world, I’d rather risk the passion that comes with urgency than the resignation risked by indifference. 

Warned by Rice not to weaponize our identities lest others do the same against us, I couldn’t help but think of those whose identities have been weaponized against themselves: immigrants, refugees and women whose autonomy is robbed by a government non-representative of their identity, let alone their interests.

As Rice largely criticized democracies abroad, she celebrated the strength of our civil society here in America. Conflict in this country, she reassured, is settled in court, not by shooting each other. 

For her to choose gun violence as an analogy was emblematic of the divide I felt between her ease and my unrest. Our indifference loses precious American lives every day. The suffering to which I am a bystander is beyond calculation and comprehension.  

A classmate finally asked her a question about the state of our country’s pluralistic democracy. Rice chose to focus on how far we’ve come and the progress we’ve achieved. Certainly, giving history too much power can disempower us in the present, but I wonder if Rice is too far removed in experience and success to feel the danger that I feel.

In her answer, she argued that voting shouldn’t be easy. Maybe so, if it was equally hard for everyone, but arguments like those have allowed those with power to construct mazes of varying difficulty on the path to the ballot box. She mobilized the example of Roy Moore’s narrow defeat in an Alabama Senate race as an example of our democracy’s strength when it matters. For a man accused by nine women of sexual misconduct — several of whom were teenagers at the time of incident — to lose by only 1.7 percentage points is a sign of fatal structural weakness to me. In his new election bid this upcoming year, every vote will matter. It is a moral travesty that so many Americans, including in the state of Alabama, continue to see their right to vote threatened and even removed.

Whether by erecting new hurdles or declaring arbitrary qualifications, some bureaucrats love to define what a “God-given right” should look like, and who God has given it to. 

Rice can argue that voting shouldn’t be easy, but arguing that it should be difficult to varying degrees is untenable. I don’t think we can measure our progress on how far we’ve come. To ensure that voting access is equally easy for all members of this democracy, we have to measure it by how far we have yet to go by setting goals.

Secretary Rice: For fear of failing others and failing this moment, I cannot take solace in the ways our democracy is doing well. Our shaking democracy bears grave consequences for others, and before we can hope to stabilize it, we can expect more chaos.

Andrew Mekhail is a senior studying Public Policy and can be reached at mekhail@umich.edu.