Looking Back…..

Three years ago, I was asked to deliver what is billed at IUPUI as the “Last Lecture.” The series is so named because it is intended to be a reflection by an older faculty member, sort of a “summing up” of life lessons learned. (Obviously, it wasn’t my last opportunity to pontificate…) At any rate, I recently had occasion to re-read what I’d said, and was struck by fact that–three years down the road– we are even more deeply enmeshed in the world I described in the final few paragraphs.

I decided to share those unfortunately accurate concluding observations. Happy Sunday…..


There’s a credit card commercial that says “Membership has its privileges.” Membership in society should have its privileges as well. That’s not necessarily an argument for massive welfare programs or redistribution of wealth. It is an argument for fundamental fairness, an argument that recognizes that we all benefit when inclusive social structures operate in the interests of all of our members.

From time to time, greed and fear obscure the reality of human interdependence. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in one of those times–an era characterized by an intentional refusal to recognize that there is such a thing as the common good, and a willful ignorance of the importance of mutual social obligation.

Addressing that willful ignorance is what social justice requires, but that is easier said than done.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Structural barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

We may be approaching such a period of upheaval, not unlike the Sixties. When I look around, I see a depressing revival of tribalism, and widespread expressions of a racism I thought we’d moved beyond. The election of an African-American President was a sign of progress, but it clearly lifted a rock—and what crawled out is unbelievably ugly and destructive. The growth in inequality threatens to exceed the inequities of the gilded age, if it hasn’t already, and it is hard to argue with those who look around and see not a republic, not a democracy, but an oligarchy.

When I look at America’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people; I see crazy people. I know that isn’t politically correct, but how else would you characterize some of the voices dominating our public discourse? How else explain the “birthers” and conspiracy theorists, the “Faux News” pundits and the websites peddling nativism, paranoia and propaganda? In what universe is Sarah Palin a potential Vice-President, or Roy Moore a state Supreme Court Justice or James Inhofe Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment? On what planet do people pay attention to buffoons like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert?

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are confounded by new realities, and especially those who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives, evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” So the old racist and sexist and homophobic tropes get trotted out.

Unfortunately, the desire for a world where moral and policy choices are clear and simple is at odds with the messy reality of life in our global village, and the more these fearful folks are forced to confront that messy reality, the more frantically they cling to their ideological or theological touchstones.

It may be that this phenomenon is nothing new, that there aren’t really more crazy people than before. Maybe, thanks to the Internet and social media, we are just more aware of them. I hope that’s true, but I don’t know–I only know that a scroll through Facebook elevates my blood pressure.

At the end of the day, what will prevent us from fashioning a social order that promotes and enables human flourishing is continuation of this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We villagers only become fully human—we only flourish—through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

I do see some welcome signs that the fever is abating, at least in the United States and at least among younger Americans. I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat: they may not be the best-informed generation, but they are inclusive and intellectually curious, and they care deeply about the planet and about their communities. For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope they can salvage this “village” we call Earth from the mess my generation is leaving them—and despite the fact that this has been my “Last Lecture,” I hope I hang around long enough to see if they succeed.


I’m still hoping…..


  1. “There’s a credit card commercial that says “Membership has its privileges.”

    I had to jump on this comment first; it was more than three years ago that credit card companies began sending who-knows-how-many unsolicited credit cards in the mail to millions, with no other qualification than to sign and begin their”charge it!” rampage. But how many are still buried in debt due to the credit card habit becoming a way of life. That had and has an effect on today’s economy; but who was the craziest – credit card companies or those suckered-in credit card users?

    “It may be that this phenomenon is nothing new, that there aren’t really more crazy people than before. Maybe, thanks to the Internet and social media, we are just more aware of them. I hope that’s true, but I don’t know–I only know that a scroll through Facebook elevates my blood pressure.”

    What is your view today regarding the number of crazy people? But you are on target yet today about the part the Internet and social media plays in being aware; but being aware brings them from under their rocks and out of the woodwork and, to me, has vastly increased their numbers making them far more dangerous world-wide.

    By the way; I was NOT one of those who signed the unsolicited credit cards and began a “charge it” rampage.

  2. Yes, we are more aware of the ugliness in our society due to the media and the ability of the crazies to go public and get instant feedback and support. I think it just appears that there are more such people among us. The good part of this is that the ugliness is out there for all to see and to react to it or not.

    Now for the hard part… how do we get the courage and maintain it to take on the ugliness in our midst and drive it from our society?

  3. For those looking for some HOPE in this crazy world,
    PLEASE go see the new movie about Mr Rogers (Fred Rogers).
    “Won’t you be my neighbor”
    In Indy it is at the Keystone Art Movie Theater
    Mr Rogers may be the key to our survival in some way.

    Take off your adult armor
    Sit in the dark
    And see what kindness and love looks like
    Time well spent

  4. I think the big question of our time, when historians begin to look back (if they can), is how the Greatest Generation could have given us the generations that gave us the vulgarian and his cult.

  5. Entertainment media encouraged deplorables to speak up and take a stand because that would lead to political power. They assumed the political power would be for themselves, a sort of deplorables revolution, but it turns out it would be for oligarchs, the return of American aristocracy.

  6. Sheila, your projections were very accurate. And I’m sure today, you can project out another 3-5 years.

    Love conquers fear but fear serves the Oligarchy.

    The media has always been used to communicate with the people. Chomsky’s study shows in detail how the role of media has changed to “manufacturing consent.”

    Generally, in times like this, we’d be led by spiritual leaders who see that unity is the only proper response to our times. The Poor People’s Movement just kicked off around the country. They’ve picked up where Martin Luther King, Jr. left off before he was assassinated after continued harassment by the FBI (a lever for the oppressors)

    Today, the power structure is protected by the government, the military, and a surveillance state which wasn’t even dreamed of in the 60’s. The FBI and CIA ran the show.

    Don’t forget the CIA operates off the grid. They don’t answer to anybody. Congress and the POTUS want “plausible deniability.”

    Arrests were planned for the Poor People’s Movement to raise awareness of their cause and the local police were ready to oblige. In one case, they arrested a journalist filming the sit-in and arrests. The protestors willing to be arrested were wearing yellow armbands. The journalist was not wearing an armband. He also wasn’t part of a local affiliated syndicated news channel.

    Those indicted with the Trump campaign all got nailed for lying under oath about phone conversations and emails sent/received. How did Mueller know they were lying? He had their actual scripts of the conversation.

    Edward Snowden sent out a tweet to this effect. He also reminded people of the treasure trove of documents he handed over to Glenn Greenwald proving James Clapper lied under oath to Congress about mass surveillance of the American people. Why didn’t Clapper get indicted for perjury?

    My point is those in power have access to advanced technology and an obedient media. In the last Gilded Age, the people had unions which produced their own publications informing the people. Something like 80% of workers was part of a union in the 1930’s. Today, only 12% and their power has been neutered.

    I believe all the recent teacher walkouts were wildcat strikes because the unions weren’t permitted to organize such protests in those states.

    The oppressors have all the power in their corner. Our Fourth Estate and both political parties are owned by those in power and used against the people. Why in the world would the Democratic Party join the GOP in making it so difficult for third parties to emerge?

    Sorry, but your vote is meaningless. Someone asked yesterday, “Are you prepared for the consequences if you don’t vote for democrats?”


    As Sheila points out, the young people are getting quite an education outside the classroom. A strong authoritarian fascist government is precisely what is needed at this moment in history to expedite the impending upheaval. The kids from Florida have been very inspirational, so as long as these people’s movements don’t become co-opted by the corporate wing of the democratic party, we’ll be in good hands.

    Let the fascists bring about our sense of social responsibility which means a change in our evil economic system driven by greed.

  7. Patrick,

    We continue to discuss, over and over, WHAT has happened at the expense of “….HOW the Greatest Generation could have given us the generations that gave us the vulgarian and his cult.”

    WHERE it all started goes along with the HOW. And one important thing is for certain, this mess didn’t start in INDIANA.

  8. Today’s essay underscores exactly the thesis for Rebecca Costa’s book, “The Watchman’s Rattle”. The fear that is being discussed here is the 200,000 year-old psyche of the most primitive societies of humans on Earth. Socially, we’ve (literally) gone to the moon, but biologically, we’re still the frightened, cowering, fantasy-making, hoarding and vicious prey animal we became to survive the attacks by our environment and other tribes coming after our resources, women and children.

    Todd’s continued attack on the media, the Democrats and anybody/anything else he can find on the computer serves no purpose but his own. Almost everyone on this blog has put forth solutions and suggestions that would alleviate many of our social problems and maybe get us to stick one more eye outside the cave to see what kind of world we can make for ourselves. Constant, virulent negativity is how that second generation got to be the creatures that crawled out from under the rock.

  9. Todd,

    “A strong authoritarian fascist government is precisely what is needed at this moment in history to expedite the impending upheaval. ”

    “Let the fascists bring about our sense of social responsibility which means a change in our evil economic system driven by greed.”

    I agree with much that you post. But, those two above statements are “very disappointing.” Have you checked with all those young people to see if they are ready to face death in front of those FASCIST FORCES if and when they obtain complete control.

    Your position makes no sense at all. As I remember, even before the Nazis obtained power, the Communists didn’t fight back against them, they joined them. If Trump pulls off a COUP, no one will raise a hand (except maybe you). That’s why the November elections amount to a DO OR DIE REFERENDUM. That’s assuming we haven’t lost our right to vote by then.

  10. While it appears that half of the population has recently crawled out from under a rock let us keep in mind that we are all part of the species that gave us Shakespeare, Beethoven, Lincoln, Churchill, Salk, MLK, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Einstein, Douglas, Pauling, Oppenheimer, Hemingway, Merton, and on and on.

  11. I was there to hear this lecture, one of the best in the series. It has all come true in a nightmare we all wish we could wake up from.

  12. It was with remarkable swiftness how quickly the Birther Issue took wing. The silence of the Republican Establishment in the face of these unfounded attacks was a statement in itself of approval. The Birther attacks achieved their intended purpose of validating the Rabid Right Wing Reactionaries as reliable voters. Even when proof of Obama’s birth was produced, the fall back was the circular “logic” of a conspiracy. This “logic” fit in with the other Rabid Right Wing Republican Reactionary view points such denying humans have anything to do with climate change, Obama will take away your guns, implementation of Sharia Law or force evolution to be taught in churches.

    The Rabid Right Wing Republican Reactionaries not only attacked Obama personally (he was liar since he denied his birth in Kenya or where ever) but also his policies.

    I totally despise Rabid Right Wing Republican Reactionaries, but I do respect their dogged dangerous determination to achieve their goals.

    My wish would be is that the Democrats would show the same determination in implementing a Progressive Platform. However, as long the DNC, and the apparatus of the Establishment Wall Street oligarchy controls the levers of power in the Democratic Party, I know a Progressive Platform is a mirage.

  13. “A strong authoritarian fascist government is precisely what is needed at this moment in history to expedite the impending upheaval.”

    “Let the fascists bring about our sense of social responsibility which means a change in our evil economic system driven by greed.”

    With all due respect, what you have keyed is the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen or read in regard to facilitating any changes in our governmental structure as it currently exists. Being Father’s Day I’m reminded of how 74 years ago my Dad stormed ashore on Utah Beach in the very first wave of American troops coming ashore on D-Day with their goal being to defeat the German army and fascist tyranny from the face of the earth. For any American to openly advocate for such a governmental system for their own country is way beyond me and very likely the vast majority of Americans regardless of why such comments were made public. It is political blasphemy and the last possible alternative any one would ever want to take root here.

    We’re dealing with a calamity right now that is of our own making, with a little additional help from the Russians, having someone that is totally unfit to occupy the position of Chief Executive of this country along with the completely sycophantic governing political party that apparently supports him unquestioningly. What you are proposing, which I hope very much is in jest, would be a complete disaster for this country, it’s standing in the world, and a betrayal of everything that it’s supposedly stands for. While it’s obvious we have a flawed political and economic system in this country, to adopt fascist methodology ease as a solution to this situation is not any sort of credible answer or alternative. Again, with all due respect, please think a little longer and a little harder in terms of a solution than you obviously have.

  14. Enough people are getting fed up with the DNC. Few candidates running for lower offices are even bothering with it.

    The women and young people are leading the attack against Republicanism. Too bad about those old, white guys who still think the GOP is the Republican party.

  15. Rightly or wrongly we are effectively limited to only two political parties in the US. To imply they are equal ignores almost all US history of the last few years, I’m thinking the last few decades.

    There is a range of political philosophies contained in both parties but I see very little evidence of much overlap.

    We have different tasks to attend to this election year and the next one and it’s way too early to guess at the details of the next one. Much will unfold before that decision process can gel.

    As for this one it strikes me as no choice for those trying to restore governmental order here and that is minimize Republican influence in the US Congress, among governorships, and in state legislatures.

    In the absence of that Donald Dystopia and his hoard of incompetent inexperienced immoral and out of touch pillagers will continue their quest for global domination and the destruction of what’s been built over 250 years following our Constitution here.

    The more we can render them impotent this year the less time consuming the task of rebuilding will be after 2020.

  16. Tom; did you read the article in the Star today, “Democrats target Republican stance”? Their convention gives us a clue as to the what the local Democratic party foundation is, or will be for the November election. “Every Democratic delegate approved the language in the party’s platform by voice vote on Saturday.” It seems they recognize the infighting in the DNC isn’t working and that people are aware of that. They “took aim at language in the GOP platform, which emphasizes that strong families are based on marriage between a man and a woman…” The issues they are addressing are the correct issues for Americans; the 8 or 9 Democratic City Councilors who formed a committee to protest the IPL 2nd rate increase in 18 months helped stop that from happening. I am feeling more hopeful for the party here; the DNC could still be another matter.

    I must take issue with one paragraph in the article, the quote not attributed to anyone so must be the reporter’s view. “Sen. Joe Donnelly, who holds the party’s only statewide seat, has had to tip-toe around the Democrat label during his time in Congress, as he represents a red state where Trump won by 20 percentage points in 2016.” All the more reason to tromp through the Republicans. WHY did he have to tip-toe around the Democratic label other than his weakness at a time when he needed to be strong? That could be the crux of the problem with the death-grasp the Republican party has on this country.

  17. CRAZY:
    Crazy is defined by the state, always has been. Psychiatric professionals play a role in that, but they do not decide what is legally crazy; the state does that.

    Don’t be surprised if Trump’s “people” latch on to that particular power of the state and re-define crazy to mean the state of mind that depends on facts and reason and community norms and rejects falsehoods, blind faith, superstition, old wives tales, alley legends, false prophets and delusions.

  18. Larry; if Trump’s people latch onto that power of the state they will define “crazy” to be based on political party.

  19. Sheila, I second your hope for the future through your students. I spent time in the Young Democrats caucus at the Indiana Democratic Convention yesterday. They give me hope. They are articulate, involved and every bit as progressive as I would wish for Democratic youth. They see the need to fight for our democracy and seem eager to do it.

    I am mildly hopeful that our “Dear Leader” has finally overstepped with his treatment of families crossing the border. Pictures are powerful. We learned that in Birmingham, Selma and Vietnam. I have seen more pushing back by the press when they try to blame the Democrats and I have seen religious leaders pushing back on Jeff Sessions’ attempt to use the bible as justification. Of course, using that “obey gods appointed rulers” implies that we disobeyed god when we disobeyed King George — but I guess consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

  20. Yes, Jo Anne, I did see the article in today’s Indianapolis Star. The Democrats act like they’re afraid of their own shadows and by behaving that way they are consistently outgunned media wise by the Trump constant run at the mouth machine that basically drowns everything out and that is driven further by Trump’s egregious behavior on a daily basis. How many times do you hear any real response to whatever Trump does other than by a mere handful of Democrats at the national level particularly in the Congress? Next to nil and it’s a very sad thing to see.

    The only way this Trump induced catastrophe is going to be corralled at some point is by people, both private citizens but also their elected representatives, speaking out against the utter foolishness that we’re dealing with if which is dangerous not only to our political processes that traditionally govern this country but are also basically ripping the social fabric of this country a part as they do it. Obviously the answer is not fascism, as mentioned elsewhere, but we have to have some sense of a return to normalcy at some point for this country to be able to function in anywhere close to a workable fashion.

    Instead, it’s just getting worse and worse every day on all sorts of fronts. There is little or no stability in anything and while the Democrats constitute the majority party numerically they have shown their continual ineptitude at running and winning national elections for President and for the Congress which has put the party in what could be a permanent minority position because they are so conflicted themselves over what they want to do and as a consequence of that they end up saying and doing virtually nothing. Given all the daily gaffs by the current Administration Democrats should have a lot to talk about but they continue to fail in doing that any organized and consistent way. I think it points out the poor leadership of the national party that has continued under Tom Perez with the party’s only real hopes lying in local candidates such as those running in this state with a good proportion of them being women which is great.

    I think all this talk about changing our political system into something else, even turning toward fascism – which I still hope was a joke, is going to greatly add to the level of chaos that we are already facing and not better our situation at all in the process. We have to confront gerrymandering, voter suppression and all the other dirty tricks that are being done mostly by the Trump/Republican Party and realign this entire process so it is more responsive to the needs of the country and its people not the billionaire donor class or the Russians or anyone else that feels they have the right to ride roughshod over popular suffrage in this country.
    If you think we have chaos now wait till we try to reengineer our own entire political process on the fly and run the risk of descending into anarchy which could potentially happen given how polarized we already are and how many entities of all stripes are trying to game the system so that we do not reestablish any sort of normalcy or rational continuity to our political process anytime soon.

    The election in the fall is going to be a huge bellwether for which way we end up going and I hope that between now and then people read and listen and educate themselves on all the various threats that are arrayed against us right here at home and begin the process of turning this country back around.

  21. Fox News. You can’t tell me that we don’t have the capacity to change and grow in this country when we elect an African American president. When the majority of citizens are now accepting gay marriage. Thing is the lies and distortions from Fox News and their Ilk including the GOP have made the crazies get crazier and perhaps pulled other people over into crazy town.

  22. Todd Smekens, there is always a kernel of truth in some of the things you say, but what I ask you is this: let’s just say that : in the this happens: (as per your words)
    “A strong authoritarian fascist government is precisely what is needed at this moment in history to expedite the impending upheaval.”

    “Let the fascists bring about our sense of social responsibility which means a change in our evil economic system driven by greed.”
    How far ahead have you thought about the outcome of the above? How will this effect you and those you care about? What will it take to implement this so called ‘strong’ authoritarian fascist government’ in a country that for it’s whole life has always (albeit sometimes grudgingly) fought for social and individual rights?
    Let’s just say none of that matters to you but when you added that this change would ‘bring about our sense of social responsibility which means a change in our evil economic system driven by greed.’ ARE you serious?
    Remember, the people who will govern/rule/ are the ones who will have control over the (even worse to become) ‘evil economic system of greed.’ Not well thought out.

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