Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Democracy, Liberty, and Orwell

The following is a guest post written by Jack Sigel, faculty member from 1982-2000 and supporter of the Shimer Student Alliance. My deepest gratitude goes towards Jack for contributing this excellent piece.

“What’s the big deal?” asked trustee Frank Buckley. He was addressing the students gathered outside the meeting room where the Board of Trustees had just voted 18-16 to approve Tom Lindsay’s mission statement. The question at once indicated a profound failure to understand or appreciate Shimer.

In responding to Frank Buckley’s question as well as commenting on Tom Lindsay’s mission statement, I first want to acknowledge the many insightful analyses already brought forth by members of the Shimer Community. I seek in what follows to add some thoughts and ideas to that corpus.

George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is an essay we included in the past in the IS1 core texts, and it has also been utilized for the writing placement exam. In the section “Meaningless words,” Orwell writes:

    The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

Orwell’s commentary illuminates Lindsay’s mission statement. The word “democracy” is intended to evoke the same kind of universal praise Orwell describes happening with political regimes. Let me add that I believe the word “liberty” can also be included in Orwell’s list.

So once we catch ourselves and avoid a knee-jerk acquiescence to these key terms in Lindsay’s mission statement, we might then look to the actions of the statement’s proponents to see what if any correspondence there is between their words and their actions. Frank Buckley together with the other trustees entered the board meeting with the knowledge that the faculty had unanimously supported Shimer’s current Mission Statement and that the students similarly supported it—and I would add many of the administrative staff also support it. For 18 of the trustees to then reject the current Mission Statement in favor of Tom Lindsay’s made manifest that their commitment to the word “democracy” was merely to use it “in a consciously dishonest way.” The members of the Shimer community may have had the “liberty” to dissent, but the 18 trustee’s allegiance to “liberty” is akin to Thrasymachus’ view of justice in Plato’s Republic as the advantage of the stronger.

In Orwell’s 1984, the Ministry of Truth regularly promulgates three slogans in order to colonize minds and limit thinking:




Based upon the actions of the Lindsay 18, I would add the following slogans:



For those seeking to understand Tom Lindsay’s mission statement and the motivations behind it, this is where I would begin. To those who might object that I am prejudging the Lindsay 18 and associating them with the far right that has acted so destructively both here and abroad, my response is: By their actions ye shall know them.

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