This We Believe…
May 5, 2021 – When Rutgers President Robert Barchi announced in March 2020 that spring break would begin early and that Rutgers would transition to a remote working and learning environment for a few weeks, few foresaw that the tragic progress of the COVID-19 pandemic would keep us working and learning remotely for a full year and beyond; fewer still foresaw the social and political upheaval that would follow the murder of George Floyd and attend the election of 2020.
It has been a year of reckonings, forcing us all to face issues many of us have deferred when times were better: personal mortality; grief; social isolation; the persistence of racial inequity, manifested in vastly disproportionate deaths among underserved communities and in the murder of George Floyd; the near-collapse of our democracy in the storming of our Capitol on January 6.
There is no sugar-coating the challenges Rutgers and the Eagleton family have faced in that time. Many of our faculty, staff, and students felt the effects of the pandemic, becoming ill themselves, or caring for or losing family and friends to this heartless disease. Many marched in the social justice protests of last summer. All continued to press forward with our mission to improve democracy, even when it seemed the mission had become to save democracy. Because our mission is tied so closely to the progress of American democracy, Eagleton has been challenged in a remote environment to advance a mission which has never been more relevant, or more urgent.
Aware that so many in our community and among our friends have been engaged in reconsidering their lives and their values, and in the belief that we can all profit from those reckonings, I have invited Eagleton faculty, staff, Visiting Associates, and other partners to participate in the Institute’s This I Believe project. The project draws inspiration from Eagleton professors Kelly Dittmar and Elizabeth Matto, who in turn trace the project ultimately to journalist Edward R. Murrow. Murrow launched an NPR radio program, called “This I Believe,” during the Cold War when, under the threat of nuclear annihilation, many Americans were questioning their life choices and values.
The premise then, as it is today, was simply, as Murrow put it, to “present the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all walks of life. In this brief space, a banker or a butcher, a painter or a social worker, people of all kinds who need have nothing more in common than integrity, a real honesty, will write about the rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic values in their lives.”
Participants of Eagleton’s This I Believe project were asked to reflect on the lessons they’ve learned over the past year during the pandemic and the political upheaval that followed the killing of George Floyd and the 2020 election. The response has been overwhelming and remarkable. Read separately, the essays are by turns introspective and intensely personal, grief-stricken and hopeful, but also outward-facing and political, animated by a passion for social justice and progress, both despairing and optimistic; read together, they are an offering, almost a prayer, lifting up to the transcendent mysteries we all face our hopes for a brighter tomorrow. There is, in my view, no better gift to share with the class of 2021 than these collected notes from their year of reckonings.
John J. Farmer, Jr.
Eagleton Institute of Politics
Faculty Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Professor of Law and Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar at Rutgers University Law School.
Founding Director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights
Go with Courage and Imagination. Be the First.
I believe in the courage to be the first. To blaze a new path. The courage to imagine a more equitable world.
The path of least resistance is the status quo. Keeping things as they are keeps the winners happy; keeps the peace. The path most taken mutes the losers who eventually give up after their voices grow hoarse from asking, begging, shouting, demanding—change.
It would have been so easy, entailed so much less strife if my immigrant Arab Muslim father had kept his mouth shut when he was treated like a second-class citizen at work because his accent was so thick, his name was Mohamed, and he was more qualified than his colleagues. He could have gone along (with racism) to go along (with his career), if only he had not challenged their prejudices, refused to play the model minority who was supposed to be the ‘diversity’ candidate. Instead, he had the courage to refuse to consent to the status quo.
I believe in the courage of my mother to cross continents to start a new life in a new country with a new culture, and a new language—far away from home. She had the courage to imagine a different future for herself and for us. The first in her family to blaze a path whose end was unknown. Studying, raising children, working, under-paid, and mistakenly presumed to be an oppressed Muslim woman. I believe in my mother’s courage to be the role model that inspired me to imagine new paths despite being told I was out of place and out of line.
In my own life, I have accumulated a litany of naysayers as I forged new paths and bucked systems stubbornly pressing on my body to kneel, bend, turn back to the well-worn path of least resistance.
Your parents did not speak English at home, law school will be too difficult – become an engineer or a doctor. Your people are terrorists who blew up the Twin Towers – apologize and ask for forgiveness rather than join a social movement to combat anti-Muslim discrimination. Arabs are an irrational lot incapable of creating democracies – do not oppose America’s support of militaries brutalizing their people, your people, in the Middle East. Race has nothing to do with national security – do not create the first academic civil rights center that exposes the anti-democratic ways our government treats its Muslim citizens.
Had I followed the paths of least resistance, I would not be one of the first Arab, Muslim women law professors in America.
I believe in the courage to imagine a new world where women can rule, in confidence, and with conviction. I believe in a society where those at the bottom of the hierarchies do not consent to their own oppression.
In so many ways, I have not been the first because someone else before me blazed the path that is now well traveled. I believe in having the courage to admit that path now leads us to despair. It is time to change direction, turn around, go around; for us to believe in and imagine an equitable society, a great society, a new deal.
Adjunct Faculty and Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Executive Director and a Member of Christie 55 Solutions, LLC
I believe in compromise, common ground and consensus. In the current political environment, that can sound weak, unprincipled, even heretical. We live in an era of “I’m right, you’re wrong,” where politics and policy are too often played as a zero sum game, with the country sorting itself into opposing camps, parallel echo chambers reinforced by their own social media and cable news.
That is not what our nation’s Founders intended. They foresaw the risk of factionalism and the dangers inherent in the untrammeled power of a majority. That is why our Constitution is designed to promote political consensus with its separation of powers and checks and balances.
When consensus based on compromise is achieved, policies become broadly accepted, help unify our country and are politically sustainable. When policies are bipartisan, they are as a practical matter protected from repeal when political winds blow in the opposite direction following the next election.
Consensus is built on common ground, and common ground begins with listening, the most important skill in politics. Real listening means understanding not only others’ positions, but also the personal experiences and perspectives on which those positions are based. This kind of listening helps to identify areas of agreement — both in objectives and in the means of achieving them — and those things important to each other that are not mutually exclusive.
The key to forging consensus is to start by looking for areas of agreement and building from there, rather than by immediately seeking out and exploiting the fault lines of conflict.
Of course, there will always be sharp differences and pointed debate, as there should be. And compromise does not mean abandoning principles or standing for nothing. But it does mean going the extra mile to seek win-win policy solutions that earn widespread public support and will stand the test of time.
As a state legislator, I was the prime sponsor of approximately 130 laws. Most of those measures were bipartisan, as are most legislative enactments. To me, that is a sign our legislative bodies are doing their jobs well: staking out principled policy positions, listening to each other, finding where common ground exists, and fashioning consensus solutions that rely on compromise. Those attributes in the policymaking arena – compromise, common ground and consensus – are needed as much today as they ever have been.
Lance E. Bean
Eagleton Fellow, Class of 2021
This I Believe: Civility
Our nation’s capital is sometimes more than a forum, but a spectacle as well. I witnessed this,
first-hand, as a Reagan Fellow, while interning and attending courses through the Fund for
American Studies. More than once, I had witnessed people with opposing viewpoints on the
political stage have their interactions devolve into a shouting contest that became increasingly,
and uncomfortably, personal. The matter at hand was lost. Progress turned to regression.
As social creatures, we as human beings must actively navigate a world filled with others, each
of whom hold their own set of particular values, interests, needs, and idiosyncrasies. Too often,
we fail to recognize that these people are not just our neighbors but play an important role as
social collaborators to our mutual benefit.
I believe that civil discourse serves as the template that helps protect us from unintended and
undesired disputes and disagreements. Further, it is my belief that civility acts as the gears which
keep our Republic functioning smoothly.
Ultimately, I believe it should be our goal to live peacefully with one another. Thus, I believe that
civil discourse is equivalent to civitas, or the contract which binds each member of civil society
into one united community. Our democratic-republic presupposed that citizens be willfully and
actively engaged in the many policy debates that lie in the center of public life, and so, I agree
that each civis, or member of society, should do so.
It is my belief that citizens of the United States are entitled to the free formation and expression
of their opinions, desires, and needs. Yet we must recognize our incredibly diverse electorate and
take pride in our identity. It is my belief that the airing of all arguments on the stage of debate
(inclusion) may yield the best outcomes, under the presumption that the most sound and
persuasive argument will win over the hearts and minds of voters. But today, it is evident we
often fail to achieve what should be a standard.
Our country is at a critical juncture. Bipartisanship has become an obstacle to our progress, and
even the ideals and ideologies within our predominant parties seem to lack accord. We are faced
with growing domestic discord and what appears to be an increasingly fragmented electorate.
Disruption for the sake of disruption must be put behind us. Isolationism, nationalism, and
patriotism pit themselves against each other as we struggle with the deterioration of national
identity as migration, immigration, and globalization weigh heavy on our economy, our society,
and our politics. How, then, do we work to advance our nation? What are the best strategies we
can utilize work toward, at best, consensus or, at least, compromise? Diversity of thought and
honest investigation and introspection are necessary.
Thus, I believe that a return to decency is absolutely necessary. Each and every one of us must
look to one another with an open mind followed by a respectful approach to listening to varied
perspectives and opinions. To me, it is evident that both a new breed of politician and a new
breed of citizen are in demand. Never before has the need been so great for the next generation
of leadership to understand the issues at hand and navigate the evolving, and sometimes volatile, political landscape of our nation. I look to best prepare myself in an effort to help answer that
I believe that each and every person must play a role in forging something that works moving
forward. We must pave the way for meaningful civil discourse and lead a new wave of political
representation in this nation.
Chief of Staff, Eagleton Institute of Politics
I believe we the people have the ability to learn, grow, and help one another. On the most basic level, I have always wanted to help people and have viewed government as the most powerful vehicle to do good in the world—a tool for people to help people.
In recent years, it has become so easy to feel disconnected and to forget that our government and politicians are people. I admit that I sometimes have to catch myself to intentionally maintain empathy and perspective. Sometimes, I fail. Each time, I try to return my focus to see the people and to appreciate and support all the ways that democracy has the unique capacity to benefit from our learning and growth as individuals. Over time, we have seen this result in policy changes that gave me and millions of other women the right to vote, provided education as a public good, lifted millions out of poverty, and created a highway system that has connected people and commerce for decades.
I know that our politics and government will always be vulnerable to the same diseases that can fester across humanity—selfishness, hate, and violence—but I believe democracy also benefits from the same resiliencies that have helped humanity to survive—community, love, and learning.
I believe in Eagleton’s mission to study politics, improve democracy, and engage people in public service. I am incredibly grateful for work that I believe in.
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Professor of Public Policy, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
An Expanded Role for Government is Needed: This I Believe!
In the USA’s market-based economy, many believe that a limited role for (especially the federal) government is best. Indeed, former President Ronald Reagan often suggested that government is the enemy. Under the “wrong” leadership, I can readily see why some might agree with Reagan.
A “perfect storm” is an expression that describes a situation where three or more catastrophic events converge in time and place. The Covid-19 pandemic, the ensuing pandemic-induced economic slowdown, the wave of mass shootings, and the seemingly endless spate of police killings of Blacks around the country (and the resulting civil unrest), would seem to qualify as a “perfect storm” (on steroids!). The response by government to these circumstances has often been lethargic, inappropriate, or non-existent. Still, I believe that government must be a larger, more responsive, and more forceful factor in addressing such calamities.
I believe that government has a three-pronged role to play in addressing the current (and any future) perfect storm. First, government needs to provide goods/services that affect all residents of the country, while encouraging residents to behave in a manner consistent with the best interest of the collective public. Incentivizing the private production of the Covid-19 vaccines and encouraging public health best practices (e.g., wearing masks, social distancing) are appropriate government actions that were not always provided in a timely or forceful manner during the current crises.
A second role for government is to manage the macro-economy. Left to the unfettered actions of private-market players, the USA’s economy will not always operate at full employment with stable prices. Again, government was slow to recognize the need for an economic stimulus, and acted too timidly when making its initial response. Subsequent responses have been at a more appropriate scale, but delays and political wrangling have resulted in unnecessary economic disruptions and suffering.
The third role for government is to ensure an egalitarian (though not equal) distribution of income. This means (for example) that government should act to ensure that any economic suffering is shared among all groups within our society (and not disproportionately by the poor and people of color), and that the benefits of a) the public health response (i.e., the various Covid-19 vaccines), b) the economic recovery (i.e., recovered and new job opportunities), and c) the safety and protection of human life itself should be shared by all of the nation’s residents (citizens and non-citizens alike).
Rather than the often muted, slow, or non-existent response that we saw initially, we needed a stronger government response. Indeed, I believe that a stronger and more forceful government response is necessary to a) protect the health/safety of all residents of the country, b) ensure the “economic rights” of all residents to adequate nutrition, decent/affordable housing, and quality employment opportunities for those who can work, while ensuring a decent standard of living for those who cannot, and c) ensure, protect, and expand the voting rights of all citizens so that each will have the opportunity (if not the obligation) to help chart the future of the country. (I also believe that government should assume a larger role in protecting the public from the lies and distortions parading as information, much of which emanates from our own elected officials.)
This I believe!
Norman L. Eisen
Senior Fellow, Brookings Institute
Former Ambassador to the Czech Republic
My parents were both immigrants to the United States. In our little family business in south Los Angeles, a hamburger stand, we lived by three rules that have continued to shape my life ever since.
The first is always to do the right thing no matter the cost. My father at one point was pressured by organized crime to install gambling machines behind the hamburger stand. He steadfastly refused even after he twice suffered mysterious arsons that broke out in the middle of the night at the hamburger stand. I remember that whenever I am tempted to waver on or compromise what I know to be right. It made me an effective ethics czar for President Obama, even though I am sure that my unyielding positions (which also earned me the press nickname of “Mr. No”) were at times a vexation to my colleagues.
The second rule of the hamburger stand was to always be loyal. I remember my mom extending credit and even providing free food to some of our long-time customers who were down on their luck. The importance of loyalty made a profound impression on me and I have tried to follow it, including sticking to the people I’ve known at every different time of my life. I still talk almost every week to my five closest friends from high school even though we were last in a classroom together more than four decades ago.
The third and final rule: always serve the best hamburger you can. I no longer spend my days flipping burgers at the grill (although I do sometimes grill witnesses). But my parents’ example of attempting to achieve excellence in everything you do is still something I strive for in all my endeavors.
John J. Farmer, Jr.
Director, Eagleton Institute of Politics
“Cannon fodder.” My grandfather, who had grown up Catholic in Belfast, Northern Ireland and Birkenhead, England, described charging with hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the British Empire into German machine gun fire at the battle of the Somme, where he was shot but counted himself lucky. Hundreds of thousands were killed. “Our lives just didn’t matter.”
That epiphany – that my family’s fate had rested largely, generation after generation, on decisions made by people who cared little, if at all, for their welfare – brought my grandparents and great grandparents to this country. Like the vast majority of the world’s population, they had been subjects, not citizens.
In America, they believed, we have a chance to live lives unfettered to a greater extent than anywhere in the world by issues of where we fit into a stratified hierarchy. We can live lives whose success or failure will be determined more by the choices we make and the effort we put forth than by the decisions entitled elites make for us.
That belief has proven true for my family, and for millions of others. But the events of the past year have forced me to reassess those beliefs in the light of some harsh realities. As the pandemic’s grip tightened on our state and country, and millions of people ignored public health guidance, it became clear that America’s historically underserved populations — its African-American and Latinx populations in particular – were being ravaged by the virus in completely disproportionate numbers. The suffering among our most vulnerable populations was excruciating. Then, the life was choked out of George Floyd for all the world to see, as if his life, like my grandfather’s so many years ago, just didn’t matter. The racist undertones of the election of 2020, and the failed attempt to subvert the constitutional transfer of power, reinforced the sense that American democracy is at a critical inflection point.
We have lost sight of how fragile our democratic republic is among nations. The absence of an American religion, or ethnicity, or culture, means that our nation lacks elements that stifle individual initiative and choke off opportunity in other countries, to be sure, but those elements also provide cohesion and identity. What defines us as a nation – the only thing that defines us as a nation — is a shared commitment to political ideals that sometimes conflict – liberty and equality—and to the constitutional framework we the people have adopted to mediate those conflicts and, in doing so, to define what those ideals mean for each generation.
Over the course of my adult life, that fabric of shared understandings has become frayed. We have embraced what former President Carter called “a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path,” he foresaw, “would be one of constant conflict among narrow interests, ending in chaos and immobility.” In the process, we lost sight of our debt to history, to our unfulfilled commitment to equality, to the basic social justice imperative of ensuring that black and brown and Asian lives matter.
My hope is that our drift toward the “mistaken idea of freedom” has been laid bare by our deadly inability to respond as a unified community to the pandemic, by the disproportionate deaths in vulnerable communities, by the murder of George Floyd and the killings of others, and by the wave of “chaos and immobility” that crested in the United States Capitol on January 6.
Our commitment to the dignity and value of each individual life as the basis for legitimate government is relatively new to world history, and is openly scorned by authoritarian regimes that work every day to undermine it. It requires much of us: humility in accepting that even our deeply held convictions may be wrong; civility in understanding and working through our differences; equality in lifting up our most vulnerable communities.
But it is the right dream. The America that beckoned my ancestors should be available to all. This I believe.
Governor James J. Florio
Former Governor of New Jersey (1990-1994)
I now believe that Democracy is a much more fragile institution for governance than I previously thought. Accordingly, we all must make a greater commitment to civic education and involvement. When someone as flawed as the former president gains power and comes as close to retaining it for a full eight years, we risk changing our nation into an unrecognizable form.
We require a restored sense of collective responsibility as opposed to living in isolated separation “doing our own thing,” rather than forming deliberative national goals.
The vehicle for such a move starts with rejection of the view that “Government is not the answer, it is the problem.” Government is not inherently good or bad. It is a tool which in the hands of honest competent people of good faith is essential for an orderly society. We have not had that for a few years.
I believe that can change if we can get citizens engaged in and informed about public policy issues. The fact is that our democratic system does not work unless we all work at making it work. That’s the challenge.
Travis L. Francis
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Of Counsel, Riker Danzig
I believe in universal dignity and respect for all persons, and that you will be the recipient of that which you impart and demand.
I am the oldest of two children born to “middle class” parents who were raised in the segregated south who never let the constant associated indecencies compromise their self-respect and dignity nor deter them from staking their claims to what they believed to be a better future. We were consistently regaled with the trumpeting of education as the key to success along with the clarion cry of having to perform better than the next person based on what society would inevitably serve up for us to confront. “Always strive to be the best at whatever you do”. Responding to the siren song of opportunity when they migrated to the northeast with their respective college degrees in hand from a Historic Black College and University, Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina and Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte North Carolina. They staked their claims to the future and capitalized on their education and experiences. I was required by my mother an educator to go to the library every day after school and after completing my homework to read whatever I found of interest. On weekends in my father’s drycleaners I learned the business of business as well as the meaning of “hard work.”
My core beliefs are informed by this personal history. As a Superior Court Judge for 25 years I observed the good and the not so good in people who were served by the Courts. As well as those who provided those services at every level. I observed various forms of direct and implicit bias in the enforcement, application, and interpretation our of laws. It was necessary to address the effects of their systemic nature without draping a victims cloak involved being the best I could be and pursuing the hard work necessary to position myself whereby I could directly impact policy. I believe creativity and harmony are smothered by cultural homogeneity.
I believe that presuming the best in people is less burdensome and much more revealing. I believe in what I have deigned the presumption of individuality which ignores stereotypes and preconceived notions of character based on religion, nationality, “race” and other irrationalities. I believe that people act, learn and behave based on their early experiences and lessons. The best predictors of human behavior are determined by identifying those stimuli that influenced their early lives. I believe cultural similarities are based on similar learning patterns arising from a shared experience. I believe that professional and economic success are natural by products of doing the work. I believe that “genius” is more learned than innate, and the result of doing the “hard work.” Beethoven, Mozart and Tiger Woods all shaped their proficiencies at an early age. I believe that a stimulating, nurturing and equitable environment reveals the best of humanity.
Former New Jersey Superior Court Judge, Appellate Division
I was fortunate to be one of six born over twenty years to parents who were children of immigrants. My dad’s parents came from Ireland to Elizabeth, NJ and my mom’s parents from Germany to Canada. A trained nurse, she came to Elizabeth, alone and by rail, to work at St. Elizabeth’s hospital.
They shared a love for this country and lived by simple beliefs: 1) lying is wrong and destructive; 2) wealth is not a measure of worth; 3) everyone is born with unique abilities and a duty to use them to better community and country; and, 4) to understand others, put yourself in their shoes. By word and conduct, they passed their beliefs to their children.
When our largely self-educated dad left high school, he went to work for and eventually became Cranford Township’s civil engineer (a position he held for decades). As a child, I thought he worked too hard and too much. Free to question, I asked why he took phone calls during dinner. He explained, “I am a public servant and that means I serve the public.” Understanding, I decided to do the same.
All six of us served the public at some point. After teaching six years, I went to Rutgers Camden Law School and then worked for the State. Over the years, I had the opportunity to work with and learn from gifted, dedicated public servants in three branches of government, whose focus was good and just government. I loved the challenging work and did it to the best of my ability.
The events of 2020 and 2021 spotlighted cracks and divisions in American democracy the complexity of its problems. Knowing the collective efforts of our diverse citizenry met equally challenging problems in the past gives reason to believe we can do it again.
There are new obstacles to collective efforts. In my view, the biggest is the prevalence of disregard for truth. Untruths in public discourse are especially destructive because they confuse and derail reasonable inquiry and can engender chaos. Videos memorializing the behavior and rhetoric before, during and after January 6 events at the Capitol illustrate that point.
Since that date we have been given reason to believe that collective efforts to better community and country are not just dreams for the past.
The verdict returned in State v. Chauvin is one example. The State’s prosecutors, relied on the law and evidence as they should. The jurors had the facts and asked clarification of the law as they should, before completing deliberations and reaching a verdict.
The individual and collective efforts of our medical professionals and scientists, who did their best to care for the ill, develop and administer vaccines are another example.
The straightforward, informed, empathetic and civil words of our President explaining his efforts to address our challenges is another. Hopefully, other elected and appointed public servants will take that approach. It’s a bad time to derail and a good time to start reuniting through collective effort.
Senior Fellow, Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience
Retired Counterterrorism Coordinator, Europol
Its 6am. I’ve had my first coffee. I woke early, restless, thinking about the news I received about 8 hours ago. A friend died, suddenly. He was younger than me. We were both expats living and working in the Netherlands, him from France, me the UK. I still don’t know the circumstances of his death and my heart breaks for his partner. She is from Finland, and they moved to France to begin their new lives together. They met in the Netherlands – they were great together. We weren’t bosom buddies, and I hadn’t seen them since I left the Netherlands in 2016, just the occasional pithy comment on Facebook, but we were friends. I always said that the next time we were driving through France on vacation, we would hook up with them.
The lockdowns, the social distancing, the working from home, the isolation. I am a very tactile friend, I love hugs and kisses.
We can Zoom our time away, we can trade memes on Instagram and WhatsApp. We can like a post on Facebook. We can touch elbows at the end of a round of golf, but we can’t hug.
Social media has been a lifeline for some, but, at the same time, has also been an impersonal black hole of misinformation, mistrust and conspiracies. Social media is no substitute for real, face-to-face relationships. Relationships that one can trust.
Today I decided to reach out and reconnect to friends I haven’t seen or heard from for a while.
Friends will be our way back to normality.
I believe in the power of friendship
Gail Gordon, Esq.
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Of Counsel, Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader
Despite the rigors and challenges of the past 14 months, there has been a lot of opportunity for growth and learning. As with a lot of my Eagleton colleagues, many of us cannot imagine that life, as we knew it before, will ever return.
Is that all bad? Certainly for some industries — like business travel and the hospitality industries — the results have been dramatic and profound. And the group that I feel have been hurt the most are children trying to learn without one to one contact or interaction with classmates.
But I think we’ve all learned that there is value to a “stripped down” existence to focus on the matters that are the most valuable — family, community. I have seen (and hopefully) been a part of some remarkable experiences in the past year. The phenomenal commitment of our hospitals and healthcare workers, the diligence of industry in discovering and producing the vaccine.
From a perspective of government and leadership, a lot of questions still need to be answered — how do we integrate proper guidelines without impinging on basic human rights? Who makes the decisions about openings/closings, etc. and not ruin countless businesses? How do we justify a difference in attitudes and strict adherence from one state to another? What are the lessons we can learn from countries with better or worse outcomes than ours? And, finally, what kind of leaders best adapt to troubled times?
We may not have the answers now, but they certainly must be examined for the future.
President & University Professor, Rutgers
More than ever, we need colleges and universities to meet their fundamental duty if we are to have any hope of saving democracy.
There are very few institutions in our country that are charged with doing deeply contradictory things and finding a way to make them work. Colleges and universities must be the custodians of our national (and global) cultural heritage. We must be institutions that take very old ideas—ideas that have withstood the test of time and are seen as fundamental to human nature, to civil society, to democracy—and ensure that they are passed down to new generations of students. This is the work of canon formation and it is often seen as one of the bedrocks of a liberal arts education.
But what is the role of a canon in a deeply changing world, one that is getting smaller due to technological advances that simultaneously illuminate just how vast this planet is? What is the value of a canon that excludes people who speak other languages, come from different cultures, regions, and races…or lack a Y chromosome?
Again, this is where higher education has a special role to play. While we endeavor to protect our oldest and most valued ideas, we must also cultivate people who challenge that which we have considered sacred. We have an obligation to foster a research, teaching, and learning environment that is robust enough to welcome new ideas and perspectives, many of which will challenge the viability of the canon, and some of which will actually demonstrate that the canon needs to change.
Encouraging this kind of cognitive dissonance is the most powerful tool in our arsenal when it comes to preserving the democratic ideals that are supposed to be at the beating heart of our body politic. Throwing new ideas at the old is the best guarantee that we will develop citizens who have refined critical thinking skills and who have the capacity to be disruptive while also valuing deeply held beliefs that help a nation cohere in the face of challenges, whether they be generated from external antagonists or, in our present day, from internal sources of selfish disregard for the common good.
Faculty Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Executive Director, Rutgers Institute for Secure Communities
CNN Legal Analyst
We held it together. Or, I should say, we have held it together so far, because we are not quite through it all yet. But, in my view, the biggest takeaway from the past year, with Covid-19 influencing and infiltrating every aspect of American life, is simply this: we held.
Science held, and much more. Researchers around the globe — including here at Rutgers — pulled off a collective miracle in developing a series of remarkably effective vaccines with mind-boggling speed and precision. And now the vaccine has been rolled out with remarkable speed and efficiency; I got mine at the Meadowlands, an extremely Jersey moment that had me beaming with pride and hope.
Our laws held. Despite the most serious attempt in centuries to steal an election and attack the seat of democracy, the courts firmly rejected dozens of absurd legal challenges, Congress impeached the President for his role in the attacks, and power transferred at noon on January 20 — precisely as provided in the Constitution. Denialism persists, and conspiracy theories take hold in some quarters, but our legal system stands as a bulwark of truth.
Protesters took to the streets against police violence, and our criminal justice system — for the most part — held. A jury in Minnesota saw evidence as clear as the bystander cellphone video footage of a (now-former) police officer choking the life out of a rear-cuffed, defenseless man, and returned a swift verdict of guilty across the board. Our problems are far from solved, but progress takes one step at a time.
We all held. Essential workers — from medical professionals to mail carriers to food service workers — deservedly took on hero status. And all of us — including the non-heroes like me — had to adjust our schedules, work out home-schooling arrangements, get used to Zoom, and the rest. Those were mostly inconveniences, borne by the lucky among us; far too many lost jobs, loved ones, lives.
But as spring arrives, with it comes the first real hope in far too long for a return to normalcy. And all those mundane, routine events that we normally take for granted — little league opening day, a concert, a handshake — will seem brand new, and freshly remarkable.
Stuart M. Lederman
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Partner, Riker Danzig
What has shaped my beliefs? “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates.” Those words, a fragment from the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, written in the 2nd Century AD (between 101 and 200), are perhaps more profound today and provide insight into what I believe.
As I reflect on what events shaped my beliefs, I cannot escape, nor do I want to escape the fact that I am a child of Holocaust survivors. I cannot remember a time when I was not conscious of the events of the Holocaust, that my father escaped not too long after his father was able to leave a concentration camp, and that my mother, who was hidden with a family, had to pretend not to understand German. I have been forever conscious that my relatives, too many to count, were murdered in concentration camps or in woods fighting as partisans. I vividly recall looking at pictures of the bodies and always wondering, is one of them related to me?
Watergate and the events surrounding the imperialistic executive branch that led to that event also impacted my views. In middle and high school I had a poster that looked like the last supper hanging in my room expect that instead of Jesus and the apostles the characters were all individuals linked to Watergate. I can also remember where I was in August of 1974 when Nixon resigned. My school boy belief in the “good” in elected officials had only been somewhat restored by the attention to the rule of law by the Barbara Jordan’s and Sam Irvin’s among our elected representatives.
How did those events shape my views? Silence is not golden, it is not acceptable. If people had spoken-out and spoken “the truth to one another,” Jews would not have been almost entirely wiped out from Europe. It is that simple. Similarly, it is not acceptable for me….for us…. to stand silent as groups of people in our own country continue to be oppressed, mocked and belittled. When genocide occurs in other places in the world it is not tolerable for us, as a nation, to fail to act. Too many times recently, we have moved away as a people who speak out when we see injustice.
We currently live in an era where public figures routinely mock people who don’t look like them, think like them or love like them. Too often people are silent, perhaps they are afraid to speak out. Surely I am not the only one who has been reminded of the words of Pastor Niemoller who spoke his own failures and the failures of other Germans to speak out because those who were taken did not look like them, believe what they believed or had traits that were similar to their own, until there was no one left to speak out for him when he was taken. Niemoller reminds us, like that fragment from the Scrolls, that is it not sufficient to only speak out for ourselves but we are morally obligated to speak for those who are treated unjustly, prevented from speaking or are afraid to speak.
While it is important to speak, I believe we must also listen, learn and strive to understand each other. How do we individually achieve these goals? Perhaps we need to turn to basic things– our senses—seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting. We all have taste buds, both literally and figuratively. We should experience all that is around us, whether it is food, art, nature, ideas and perhaps most importantly the richness of our world and the diversity of people and their cultures. Actively listening to others will allow each of us to speak and challenge those who seek to close our minds and our borders. If we do not experience all that is around us, we fall into the trap of believing that our own way is the only way, that our views are the only right views, that our beliefs are the only correct beliefs. We become insular, myopic and intolerant.
Speaking out for justice, accountability and human dignity come with an obligation to engage and participate: to vote, to question, to protect the rule of law leads to question the concentration of power in the few and often to reject false narratives. We have all experienced the results of our collective failure to participate in our democracy. It is essential that we take steps to stay informed and that we not only hold on dearly to the right to vote but exercise that right.
If you believe in nothing else, consider believing in speaking the truth to one another and rendering true and perfect justice within your community.
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Most people in the United States regardless of religious or political beliefs or ethnicity have the same life goals: good health, safe communities, and sufficient funds to support a family comfortably. Over most of my lifetime, the country seemed to be moving, however slowly, toward a society in which all Americans had equal opportunity to achieve these life goals. We still had much to do, but I thought we were moving in the right direction.
Then, in the past decade or so, some politicians and many of their supporters, unfortunately, began to embrace alternative facts, excessive untruthfulness, and wild and outrageous conspiracy theories that stopped necessary progress toward equal opportunity. Excessive partisanship became common, intractable, and impervious to criticism. In the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world, causing the United States over 550,000 deaths, and even virus protective procedures became politicized.
These unfortunate tactics divided the country and overwhelmed the democratic belief that “we are all in this together.” We became two warring factions blaming each other for our current difficulties and making reform difficult, if not impossible.
I believe that our best hope for reform lies with our children.
We must restructure some of the educational curriculum for high, middle, and elementary schools. Besides the basics, we must also teach everyone, starting with our youngest students, how to be responsible citizens in a democracy. They must learn how to register and vote, think critically, recognize political and campaign exaggerations and lies, and obtain information from balanced and truthful sources. They should leave high school registered and ready to vote intelligently.
In this way they will be able in the future to protect and strengthen our democracy. They may even lead the way toward finally reaching our elusive goal of a more perfect union.
Rebecca C. Lubot, Ph.D.
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
The Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, which spread rapidly due to the movement of troops after World War I, is often used as a reference point for COVID-19 policy planning. Indoor gatherings, and many outdoor ones, were discouraged in order to curtail the spread of the virus. During COVID-19, my CrossFit box began holding outdoor classes; a mile run was often meted out as a warmup. The mile around the box is a hilly route that turns back onto the main street at an Exxon station that has a huge planter on the corner. At this point in the run, a sprint for some like me, no one is watching; but I always make sure to go the long way around the planter to complete the full mile.
As a political and legal historian, I am reminded of the conclusion of World War I and President Woodrow Wilson’s marathon tour abroad, and then at home. Wilson was thefirst sitting president to venture beyond the territorial United States and, upon his return, used an unorthodox method to sell his Fourteen Points, which he linked to the peace treaty – the Treaty of Versailles. Of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, eight dealt with territorial issues among combatant nations, five dictated how peaceful nations should conduct diplomacy, and the last was a call to join the League of Nations. Wilson’s rival, Henry Cabot Lodge, who feared getting involved in Europe’s entangling alliances, was both Senate Majority Leader and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Thus, Wilson decided to go over the heads of Congress, bringing his cause directly to the American people by embarking on a nationwide tour to drum up support. Wilson’s advocacy tour culminated in his incapacitation due to stroke, the Treaty of Versailles became the first peace treaty in history to be rejected by Congress, and the United States never joined the League of Nations.
However, value can be found in revisiting Wilson’s moral imperatives, now, just over a century later. My favorite point – “open covenants, openly arrived at” – should govern all business deals. Remote work may be here to stay, which means no one is looking unless the Zoom cameras are on. Yet integrity is how we comport ourselves when no one is watching. Like the planter at the Exxon station, cutting corners on clients should never be an option. Not only do creative advocacy strategies need to be used to advance policies, integrity must play a critical role in brokering agreements. This I believe.
Dr. David Machlis
Vice Chairman, International March of the Living
History as we know is cyclical. We have seen and lived through terrible times nationally and on the world scene. In each case those living through these difficult times have both suffered and persevered. We are living through a period of history in which there is turmoil as well as the pandemic all over the globe. In the U.S. we are experiencing national trauma on many levels. Deaths are still rising due to Covid-19. There is an epidemic of hatred, intolerance, anti-Semitism, and racism throughout society, which has been further exacerbated with the hyper expansion of social media. The spread of this disease is compounded by those who feel it is their right not to wear a mask nor get vaccinated. Adding to this scenario is the political rift that is tearing this country apart, racial hatred and prejudice, and the deaths of so many innocents from assault weapons.
I believe that we will eventually emerge from this morass bloodied but whole. I have spent my career fighting the prejudice and hatred that emerged during the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not just a Jewish issue it is a universal issue. We must learn from the past, so that a more tolerant and just society evolves for the betterment of all humankind.
I believe that education is the key to solving many of these problems. I believe that animosities, prejudgments, and preconceptions can be overcome by educating those who hold these beliefs. It’s not easy. People need to be open to hearing inconvenient truths. There are still those who believe that the Second Amendment authorizes the average citizen to own machine guns and liberty means freedom to infect others.
I believe that some hatreds are so ingrained that it will be difficult to overcome. We no longer burn those accused of witchcraft but demonization of the “other” and those with whom we disagree still exists. A startlingly sizable number of individuals believe in a satanic cabal of child molesters running the Democratic party and that Donald Trump won the election. These same people vote! It is always frustrating when people do not agree with you but some beliefs are so bizarre that one wonders where it will lead.
It is incumbent upon all of us to stand up and be heard when confronted with any form of hatred or injustice. Each of us must do our part to create a world in which religious and ethnic differences are cause for celebration and not discrimination. As Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. “
I am by nature an optimist. I believe that with patience, unbounded tolerance and restraint, we will eventually emerge whole. Our fractured country will once again function in a civilized manner and the economy will recover and the pandemic will be a memory. As for the rest of the world…
Associate Director, Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience
Director, Center for Critical Intelligence Studies; Associate Director
Now that I’m a mother myself, mom, I understand the decisions you made to shield your children from hate.
You left Iran before 1979, and planted roots in New Jersey to build a more promising future. And when you realized in the midst of the Revolution that there was no turning back, you permanently unpacked your bags, and here we are. What an oversimplification. My brother and I owe you and Dad a great debt of gratitude. We owe it all to you—because but for your sacrifices, our successes simply would not be.
I didn’t understand then—why were you so cautious about sharing that you emigrated from Iran to the United States? Why were you so elusive when people asked about your accent? Surely the people you worked with for 25 years would accept you? Only years later would I realize that the assimilation of your children into American culture was your number one goal, and you were counting on my fair skin to allow me the choice to avoid detection. Is she Italian? Jewish? Greek? Who can say? Iranian was never on the list of guesses. You wanted to protect me from the reality that just because we check the “white” box on the U.S. Census, that doesn’t mean we are accepted. You made sure English was my first language. You made sure my Persian name had an easy American pronunciation. You asked questions like:
“Are you sure you want me to make khorest karafs (celery stew) for your first play date with the kid next door?”
“Why didn’t you just say we celebrate Christmas when the teacher asked?”
“Are you sure you don’t want to go by Ay-vuh instead of Ah-vuh?
You made every attempt to assure we were accepted as Americans—even though I know deep down that you and Dad probably wished—in so many ways—that we were “more Iranian.”
You did this because in post 9/11 America, people I once considered friends would say things like “we should just nuke the entire middle east.”
You did this because in post 9/11 America, Dad was “randomly selected” for a bag search in New York Penn Station more times than he could count.
You did this because in post-Trump America you can be an Indian man in a Kansas bar and be killed because the shooter thinks you’re Iranian.
You did this because in post-Trump America a senator in South Carolina will say that it would be, “like, terrible” if a DNA test found that he had Iranian DNA.
I now understand why. But I want you to understand that while hate still permeates American society, I still believe that tolerance, acceptance, and love will prevail. I see it in my diverse and talented students at Rutgers, many of whom are fierce advocates for inclusivity, and planning on careers within the federal intelligence community, or in state government, or in the non-profit or private sectors. They are sophisticated enough to realize that if you want to effectuate change, you need to have a seat at the table where decisions are made. They are sharp enough to realize that while we may not be able to permanently erase hate, you need to make sure it doesn’t have a seat at the table. This I believe.
Eagleton Fellow, Class of 2021
I grew up with the concept of Inafa’maolek, which literally means “to make good” and is a basic construct of Chamorro culture. This encompasses societal tenets of respect (especially respect for elders), reciprocity, humility, familial relationships, and conflict resolution. Growing up on Guam and immersed in the Chamorro culture, sometimes it felt like inafa’maolek was just seemingly endless attendance at wakes, rosaries, and funerals for deceased neighbors and extended family (often with a contribution of food). Another example was the reminder to always give proper respect and acknowledge elders. In times of community-wide disaster such as a typhoon or major earthquake there was usually a loss of water and power. During these disasters was when I witnessed the true beauty of inafa’maolek. This was demonstrated in helping a neighbor clear debris caused by destruction, sharing scant resources, and providing help in any form available regardless of personal hardships.
Although seemingly in conflict with the more individualized Western culture, inafa’maolek aligns with the concept of being a good neighbor. This past year has been filled with challenges, but it has also created opportunities for healing. These positive actions can be witnessed in the willingness to wear masks to help protect others, the swift response of the scientific community to develop vaccines and other treatments, the international vocal dissent to injustices, and the guilty verdict of the Chauvin trial. It is times like these where inafa’maolek is truly challenged, but also a chance to see communities coming together to share in the healing process through action.
Chief Investigative Reporter, ABC News
The supermarket lines stand out. I’d been on long lines before – in the days before hurricanes, blizzards – but never anything like this. I know news. I trust news. I listen to news constantly. And still I didn’t believe the nightmare was actually about to come.
How laughable it was, the notion that cities and subways and airports and buildings would empty. That the lights would really go out on Broadway. That we would all go home one day and then stay home to hide from a germ that would kill some with great efficiency but have zero impact on most others. How impossible. How un-American. Isn’t there a pill for this? Or a shot?
But the impossible became typical. It’s hard to fully take stock of what we’ve seen and what we’ve experienced. The death and devastation are obvious and so pronounced that – even as the numbers may numb – they cannot be overstated or forgotten.
And the changes. The crazy new words like “zoom” and “work from home.” George Orwell would have had a field day with this.
The ugliness. There were predictions about anger and despair, how they would build and what they would cause. And like the predictions about the virus itself, this parade of horribles also would become reality.
So after a year so full of work and dread and an utter monotony that hung over such an incredibly busy isolation, what is it I believe? I believe I’m lucky. The kids at home were healthy and stayed that way. There were far too many people who were not lucky in this past year and I don’t believe they are any less deserving than we are.
I worry about the ugliness and whether it will vanish once the plague has passed.
And I believe in tomorrow. I always have.
Elizabeth C. Matto
Associate Research Professor, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Director, Center for Youth Political Participation
I grew up in a politically engaged household rooted in my mother’s admiration for John F. Kennedy. She was a teenager when Kennedy was elected and watched every press conference, knew every member of his cabinet, and amassed enough JFK memorabilia to fill more than one scrapbook. Her love for Kennedy set the stage for an upbringing featuring religiously watching the political shows on Sunday and staying up late to watch election night returns. As I got older, such political socialization spurred my own political interest, highlighted by high school trips to Washington where I hoped to catch a glimpse of a member of Congress or a politico I’d seen on one of the Sunday shows. Much like my mother’s adoration for Kennedy’s Camelot, my political worldview saw political figures as celebrities and democracy as coated in a shiny veneer.
As often happens, I became less starry-eyed about American democracy once I went to college. It was in Professor Michele Dumont’s course applying philosophical principles to such contemporary problems as racial disparities in the justice system and food scarcity that I began to look at democracy more critically. I appreciated that she wasn’t trying to indoctrinate her students (although we definitely knew where she stood!) but to guide us in this inquiry and challenge us to investigate how and why the American dream most of us were raised on didn’t necessarily match reality. Further internships in the nation’s capital extended this process of inquisition for me. Although my awe of Washington and its history and heroes remained, real-life interactions with the world of American politics moved me further from fantasy to reality.
Now as a political scientist and an educator, demystifying our democracy has led to something deeper and more resonant . . . something similar to what Tocqueville characterized as “well-considered patriotism” . . . one that’s more rational than passionate and marked by an appreciation of the interconnection between the citizen and the body politic. Rather than idealizing high profile officeholders, it’s the people who fuel democracy who fill me with awe . . . the bystander who speaks up, the grassroots organizer who mobilizes voters, the local citizen who runs for mayor, the jury that renders justice. As the deep flaws of American democracy have been laid bare and its structural inequities made more and more clear, especially in recent years, it’s the promise embedded in the Constitution and its principles that spark my sustained commitment. In fact, I’ve come to understand that it’s only in stripping the shiny veneer off American democracy and its history that we can hope to move it closer from aspirational to authentic.
What I’ve come to realize and this I believe . . . that we need not mythologize American democracy to cherish it. Its core ideals of equality, freedom, and justice offer a promise worthy of high esteem, but these ideals are no more than fantasy if we choose not to look at them honestly. In fact, it is only by confronting the unvarnished truths of democracy that we will not only advance it but keep it from slipping away entirely.
Eagleton Fellow, Class of 2021
Cuban-French-American writer Anais Nin famously opined, “You cannot save people. You can only love them.”
I first read this quote when I was 16, and even at that age, whatever the reason, Anais’ words stuck to my bones and shifted my world-view. I carried them with me for years, reminding myself every time I started to feel the inclination to swoop in with a savior complex that rescuing someone wasn’t actually something I could do. All I could do was love them.
“All”. “Only”. Descriptors that make love seem like the lesser choice, when in fact it’s anything but.
In the last year, the world has seemed full of a hate that wraps around folks and suffocates them, dragging them through the dirt towards the gaping maw of injustice. This has been a very hard year of violence at the hands of our government, our police, and even our neighbours. But we also bore witness to sacrifice for one another. We saw young people staying home and masking up so they didn’t pass on a deadly virus to susceptible strangers. We saw the rise of mutual aid as people received stimulus checks and used that money, not to indulge their own superfluous desires, but to give much-needed financial support to their most vulnerable community members. We saw millions of people in countries around the world marching alongside one another to support the black lives being cut short in our own country. We saw scads of volunteers at polls nationwide trying to ensure that our democratic rights were upheld. We read countless think pieces and endlessly discussed how change is going to come through us, about how the systems and structures can and must be transformed in radical ways by passionate people who dedicate themselves to making lives better.
And throughout a year of witnessing it all unfold, I found myself dwelling over and over again on those words written by Anais Nin… and I’ve come to realise that I don’t agree anymore that we “cannot save people”, because we “can ONLY love them”.
I’ve come to realise that, in fact, we save people BY loving them. Because love is not a passive emotion or some obscure feeling like we’ve been lead to believe our whole lives. Love is a choice. It is a conscious act, or rather a series of conscious acts that we undertake out of a desire to give grace and alleviate pain and mitigate harm to our fellow man.
“Saving” isn’t a raging tsunami washing a person to safety. “Saving” is gusts of breeze in a sail, blowing a person away from everything that could hurt them one puff at a time. And each one of those acts we undertake, each puff of wind in the sails, IS an act of salvation, so long as it’s coming from a place of love.
If we are to successfully use politics to “save” the world we live in, we need to make politics a space full of people filled with love.
Founding Donor, Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience
This I believe, unless all of us do whatever we can, even though we may think our contribution is too small to matter, to confront the forces tearing our Nation , and I suggest ,the World, apart, what we all fear will overtake us all. We face in America today systemic racism despite the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation almost 159 years ago; Anti-semitism is dramatically on the rise globally, including in the United States, despite our having lived through the horror of the Holocaust which was to have ended 75 years ago when the World uttered the words “Never Again” at the end of World War II; domestically and globaly there are increasing roadblocks being put up against immigration of people seeking escape from hunger and persecution; and the disparity between wealthy and poor people and wealthy and poor nations is increasing exponentially. It is up to all of us, young and old, to become involved in whatever way we can to combat these blights upon our global society. We all see student marches and the causes they are marching in support of must be understood and supported. It is far too late for those of us who have retired and are living behind the gates of retirement communities and homes to say “We did our share, its up to the next generation”. We must financially support efforts which are confronting these global tragedies and wherever we can we all must actively participate in those efforts. All of us have in one form or another life experiences which are vital to combating these attacks on the core of our Nation and the World and they cannot remain wrapped in retirement paper. Who better than those of us who have a lifetime of experience can help the World understand the true meaning of Santanyana’s prophecy: “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Editorial Page Editor and Columnist — The Star-Ledger
As a boy, I believed what I was taught about America, that it was the best hope for humankind. But as I reached adolescence, that faith was shattered by race riots at home, and by our carpet bombing of villages in Vietnam. My own high school was shut down twice by race riots, while my two older brothers entered the lottery to determine whether they’d be shipped to Saigon to fight.
That’s when I began to read about history and politics, to talk to people who knew more than I did, to open my eyes. I learned that we were the aggressors in Vietnam, propping up a dictatorship that broke its promise to hold free elections, that we had blood on our hands. I learned that America tolerated much more poverty than other free countries, concentrated among Black families who were regarded as something less. I learned we were on a path to wreck our environment, mostly for profit. All that, I still believe.
But I kept reading, and kept talking, and gradually saw things differently. With age comes an appreciation for nuance, and a distrust of absolutes. I began to see the good mixed with the bad.
Yes, we supported tyrants in the Cold War, but President Carter pressed the cause of human rights and helped midwife the birth of several democracies, especially across Latin America. Our economy remained cruel to those without skills, but colleges began admitting poor and minority students, and racial barriers in business and politics began to topple. The Hudson River, choked with sewage when I swam there as a kid, was transformed by tough environmental laws that brought the fish back. I began to see that this country was not captive to forces of darkness – it was up for grabs, with the potential to someday live up to its ideals. More than ever, I was jazzed to join that fight, especially as I began to build a family. And for me, journalism provided the means.
But I had another shock ahead of me, another change of perspective. It came with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. It showed me how naïve I had been about racism in America and caused me to lose faith in the core decency of the American people. I started reading more about race, and talking to people who knew more than I did.
I learned that Ulysses Grant felt that the North effectively lost the Civil War by handing power back to the white supremacists and withdrawing federal troops in the decade after Abraham Lincoln was killed. I learned that Black veterans of World War II were beaten when they came home and denied many of the benefits that went to white veterans. I learned that the government programs that created the white middle class by subsidizing home ownership explicitly excluded Blacks, a key reason why the average white family today has eight times the wealth of the average Black family. And, like everyone else who has seen the videos, I learned that the furious complaints by Black victims about police brutality were entirely true. It’s radicalized me, just as I reached age 60.
He’s gone now, and there is hope. It’s gratifying to see how many others have walked this same path I have, and found a new determination to fix what’s wrong with this country.
I no longer believe what I was taught as a kid. But I do still believe this country is up for grabs. And against all reason, perhaps, I do love it still.
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Managing Partner, Impact NJ
Our nation suffered two tragic challenges over the last 12 months, one occurred in nature and the other arose in the political theatre.
In early March 2020 the world was taken by surprise with the advent of a global pandemic, the likes of which we as a species had not seen since the “Spanish Influenza of 1918” during which over 50 million people lost their lives. Despite the fact that the federal administration downplayed the severity of the pestilence, American scientists, physicians and pharmaceutical companies rose to the challenge and in less than a year vaccines were created, developed and produced, saving countless lives.
The silver lining in this ominous cloud is found in the genius, resiliency and creativity of the country’s healthcare apparatus. A seemingly intractable crisis is now in the process of being brought under control.
The second crisis culminated in the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th of this year. Had this treasonous insurrection been the product of spontaneity I might take some comfort in that belief. Tragically, in my estimation, the demonstrative assault that day was seeded by falsehoods, conspiracy theories and baseless fears promoted by people who care not for a continuation of the American Experiment but to consolidate power in a neo fascist state.
The latter crisis is far more troubling than the former. Our institutions and constitutional framework are under attack. People of conscience are obligated to rise to this challenge with the same focus and vision as the scientific community did in addressing the pandemic.
I am reminded of the advice freely and thoughtfully given to me by my late Father, former Governor and Chief Justice Richard J Hughes, “Michael, always do the next right thing. Your conscience will be clear and you will be proud of the results.”
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Adjunct Professor, Rutgers Law School – Newark
American democracy was built on the fair and equal administration of justice. Indeed, justice is the first ideal expressed in the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice . . .” As an attorney, I believe in searching for truth and striving for justice in every case.
The maxim that justice must be dispensed in an even-handed manner has guided me throughout my three-decade public service career as a public defender, prosecutor and judge. Here is what I can tell you.
While my roles in the criminal justice system changed, the overarching goal in each job did not. My north star in handling every matter was serving the ends of justice. That was true whether the job involved representing defendants facing the death penalty or prosecuting prison guards for assaulting inmates and detainees. In keeping my focus on justice, I ensured that each case – regardless of the stakes or notoriety – had a positive impact on the system.
For me, truth was the key to achieving justice. In essence, justice – whether holding someone accountable through imposing sanctions, awarding damages, or making reparations – is truth in action. Truth and justice are that inter-related. And that is why facts matter!
Our nation’s rule of law system is strengthened every time justice is done, and weakened when it isn’t. The George Floyd verdict is evidence of the former, while the conduct that provoked the insurrectionist acts at the nation’s capital on January 6, 2021 is an example of the latter. Ensuring justice on a case-by-case basis can be a daunting challenge even in normal times, which these are not.
The divisive events during the past year, in which extreme positions masqueraded as commonplace, have made that challenge seem insurmountable. If you are considering a career in a justice-related field, however, do not be deterred. Embrace the challenge. Our nation needs you now more than ever. This I believe.
People – who commit themselves to serving justice, protecting it, and even sacrificing their lives for it – sustain and invigorate our nation. Without justice, we know, there will never be peace. We know this from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the chants of protest we hear on the streets.
It is important to remember the lessons from Dr. King’s historic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In particular, his observation that truth is an “antidote” for injustice. Dr. King showed us that one person can have a profound influence on society and propel it toward a more perfect union.
You too can make a profound difference in today’s world by committing yourself to finding the truth and achieving justice in your work. Truth and justice are the perfect antidotes for the baseless claims and fraudulent narratives that threaten our country, and the notion that anyone is above the law.
Truth and justice will help the country heal. This I believe.
Assistant Director, Bloustein Local Government Research Center
This I believe…
I am an optimist who believes that people are basically good; our native instincts are to cooperate. However, life events and conditions cause people to turn inward and put their own interests first, often driven by fear and uncertainty.
I believe that modern societies are constantly evolving and swing pendulum like, over time, between narrowing extremes. The pendulum is slow but steady. Regrettably our social, political, economic, and civil systems often fail to respond in ways that meet people’s needs. But over time we move toward a thriving, just society. Over the last two years we have seen this, as historical wrongs have become clear and we responded in unanticipated, but overdue ways.
Reactions to single events focus our attention on problems and the need to fix them. People often fear change because of perceived shifts in power or a loss of influence. But we are seeing how increased awareness can make people more responsible and move society in a positive direction.
The challenges of the last few years have required that people of different cultures and life experiences work together, view perspectives of others, and find common ground for a common good. I have been heartened to see the ways in which people have found opportunities to support one another locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.
Although how we communicate has evolved during this time, our ability to understand each other is a work in progress. If we communicate without developing understanding, we solve little and there is a lot to solve. Having a willingness to listen can lead to agreement on realities. That can lead to respect for each other’s views. Then, understanding and its benefits can take root and bloom.
One person or group moving toward opportunity and fairness does not mean others lose. Change can be hard, but societies are not zero-sum games. Today’s circumstances present our civic, economic, and cultural leadership the opportunity to move us forward. Fear and uncertainty can be overcome. The potential for fair, just, and equitable opportunities for everyone is within reach.
Ingrid W. Reed
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
These past four years including our COVID time have reinforced my long-held belief that every person has human rights that ideally we resolve to respect – and that includes the right and responsibility to have a say in how we live together.
I have struggled with whether it is enough to focus on the individual – maybe as the first value, but what is the value of the group, or individuals with shared values, acting together for what I vaguely say is our common good.
For many, many years, I have carried something around in my head that makes me ask that question. My parents each immigrated to this country from Germany in the 1920’s. Each was the only person from his or her family to do so, adventuresome, impatient with post World War I life. They met here, married and started a family in 1935 while each of their families remained to face the horrors of Hitler and another war.
At some point as I listened in, discussions arose among my parents’ friends about how awful it was that Hitler was in power. I remember several times hearing that Hitler would never have been elected if the parties on the left – or the opposing groups – had been able to agree … if the splinters had not occurred, if they had found a way to work together. I don’t know the history of the Weiner Republic and that time to place blame, but I can ask how we should think about the importance of committed individuals to recognize a mission greater than their own beliefs. What does it take to wisely put not personal values but personal strategies aside for a larger goal?
Skip ahead to our recent history, as Trump became more frequently seen as a possible Hitler, the fear that he might be re-elected was fueled by the specter of a splintering Democratic party as candidate after candidate came forward, some with strong believes and followers. I kept thinking of Germany and the conversations of my elders placing blame. But, in known and unknown ways, as the presidential election drew closer, the committed and certainly qualified candidates moved in ways that solidified instead of splintered the movement needed to forestall a future that had great potential to undermine the rights and responsibilities of each individual guaranteed in our country.
I realize that the faith in Individuals means that there is the potential for groups to form to address the challenges to our democracy. And, we see that even as we fight disease that remains among us.
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Director, Planning Department, retired, Port Authority of NY & NJ
In a 121-page volume entitled, The Cause of Freedom, Jonathan S. Holloway, the 21st President of Rutgers University, explores what it means to be an American as he delves concisely into the history of African Americans. Holloway himself is a contributor to that history since he is the first African American selected to serve as the university’s president in its 254-year history. How can that be, you ask, since an African American was elected President of the United States is 2008 and helped celebrate the university’s quarter millennial year in 2016?
While Holloway struggles in his quest to unearth a logical explanation for the exclusion of African Americans from American citizenship he has less difficulty providing information that explains why it has taken so long for people of color, and particularly, African Americans, to assume leadership roles in but a few major American institutions. And so, we confront the foundational absurdity of the American experiment: all men are created equal, except non-whites.
I believe White supremacy is at the core of life in America. It is inescapable. It has impacted my life and the lives of members of my family. Rutgers Political Science Professor Saladin Ambar suggests that it is like the pandemic of 2020; it is in the air we breathe. We are all affected by it, both its perpetrators and its victims, and unfortunately, there is no vaccine with which to combat it.
I want to believe the struggle to contain the scourge of White supremacy is slowly beginning to take root in some sectors of national life; but we have been led to believe in years past that change is on the way. The challenge is a monumental one given the extent to which the scourge has shaped the America identity. The events of January 6, 2021 at the nation’s capitol should force us to conclude that the work before us demands constant attention. Even so, there are disparate signs that suggest momentum may be developing that might begin to move the needle a bit in a direction that embraces diversity and promotes a more inclusive and equitable American society. But then, I am a chronic optimist.
Faculty Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Professor of Public Policy; Associate Dean of Faculty, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
To “celebrate” the one year anniversary of this blog, I thought it would be a good idea to go back and restate why from the first time I took Trump seriously (late February 2016), the idea of him as President terrified and appalled me. Basically it comes down to three beliefs that have always informed my political thinking. Trump is the first person to come down on the wrong side of all three.
The first is my belief that one of the primary functions of government is to pursue fairness and justice. Much of our success depends on where we are born. If you are born white, you have a better chance of success in this country than if you are born Black. If you identify as male, you will likely make more money than if you identify as female. Government can’t rectify all of this unfairness but it can ensure that the worst consequences of them, less access to health care, education, jobs, and a clean environment are reduced. And government should do that and strive to eliminate the conscious and unconscious discrimination that exacerbates them.
Donald Trump was born white, male, and with a fortune to his name. Being born to these categories does not ensure that you will lack recognition of the fundamental unfairness described above. FDR famously was a “traitor to his class” and did more to help the poor than any president before or since. But Trump not only doesn’t recognize that a lack of success is often due to factors beyond people’s control, he actively wants to reinforce those factors. His racist behavior goes back decades and should no longer shock anyone. He has given white supremacy the ability to feel welcome in the public square.
Despite the above sentiment about the good that government can do, I also have an inherent concern about the growth of government. When governments grow powerful, they have always turned eventually to abusing that power. The power to restrict freedom and imprison people is inherent in government. Therefore, we must create government systems where accumulation of such power is limited by the rule of law and elect people who will respect those limits.
Trump is clearly not such a person. His open admiration of the most authoritarian leaders on the planet has always been there, and has only been augmented by his time in office. He wants to be a dictator and these desires have always been destined to erode our standing in the world. While it may be fashionable to be down on America, we have always stood for something to people around the world. There is a reason that despite everything so many people want to come here. That is our greatest asset and Trump’s tin pot tendencies are quickly eroding it.
Finally, I have spent my past twenty-five years studying or working in government. Governing is a skill. It is also a calling. The people who do it, disparagingly referred to as bureaucrats, do so because they want to make the world a better place. Their bosses, disparagingly referred to as politicians, are mostly the same. They all do so knowing that their reward will be public scorn. But to do their jobs well takes years of training and practice. The jobs at the top of the hierarchy are not to be taken lightly.
Trump could not have taken them more lightly. His lack of experience has been a saving grace in some ways but a disaster in others. Departments like HUD, Education and most importantly State are led by people with no experience and stories out of those agencies are frightening. The idea that anyone could be president, while a nice fiction, is a dangerous. Trump is not qualified for the job and that has been clear every day of the past year.
The combination of racism/entitlement, disrespect for the rule of law, and incompetence was there for everyone to see from the moment Trump descended his escalator to announce his candidacy. He’s an awful man and he’s been the worst president in the country’s history. And that’s why I write and will keep writing until he’s gone or the greatest country in the world is.
This I Believe.
Carly Rothman Siditsky
Eagleton Fellow, Class of 2021
My husband and I bought our house nearly five years ago, in a semi-rural town in Central New Jersey. Almost from the minute we got the keys, I second-guessed our choice. We moved here to be closer to family, closer to work, closer to nature, closer to our budget. But we quickly realized this town felt very far from our values. It was the Whitest, most conservative place I had ever lived. What would my three children learn from living in such a segregated community? What were we teaching them by living here?
During this year of COVID, our house became our world. Our town, our universe. Amid the isolation and strange chaos and stillness of our locked-down life, we came to know our town more deeply than ever before. We sat in our children’s remote “classroom” every day, building strong relationships with their teachers, administrators, and classmates’ families. We attended council meetings and school district meetings that, in the past, we would have missed while commuting from work and school. With hundreds of our neighbors, we filled our small main street in protest after George Floyd’s murder. Black Lives Matter signs proliferated in lawns and windows.
I found something in our town this year: a sense of purpose. I am a White woman raising White children in a segregated town, in a segregated state – a sobering responsibility. This year I began to study the history of enslavement in my town and teach it to my children. I joined with other parents and educators to form an Equity Council to support a more inclusive culture and curriculum in our schools. I created a racial equity task force at my synagogue, working with my rabbi and lay leadership to confront implicit and explicit racism within our community and developing programming to support antiracist education, reflection, and action. I was recently elected to the congregation’s board, and am now convening an interfaith antiracist coalition of congregations in the greater Mercer/Hunterdon County area. Recently, I was asked to consider running for office. Someday, maybe I will.
Our town still bears the traces of our nation’s history of slavery, and the shame of segregation. But I believe this is what I can teach my children: To see our community for what it is and what it could and should be. To see their privilege, to name it, and to cede it. To find their power, share their power, and use it in the service of justice.
Elizabeth Sloan-Power, PhD
Faculty Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Social Work Rutgers-Newark
Years ago I read a book entitled “Looking Backwards” by Edward Bellamy. This text was written in 1898 about what life would be like living in 1998 including all the wondrous possibilities of what could happen to life given that time passed and moved forward.
Interestingly, the first few pages of the text starting in the year of 1998, 100 years into the future. Every subsequent page I turned moving forward, I actually went backwards in time until I (and everyone else reading the book) arrived in the present year of 1898 where they/we started. Even though Edward Bellamy addressed the moral, ethical and material concerns of late nineteenth century America through this idealistic narrative and fictionalized society in which war, poverty, and malice did not exist, I must say that for the past 365 days, I feel like I have been doing the same. For example, in my efforts to deal with the daily threat of this worldwide pandemic, I would often dream of a time when Covid-19 no longer existed. Certainly, as spring moved into summer of 2020 after and especially because of the George Floyd tragedy, I would continually dream of a time when racism no longer existed and Black Lives indeed mattered. Moving summer to fall, I dreamed of a time when political discourse would calm, bullying would cease and that humans would better understand how humanity was suffering and how every individual was hurting singularly and collectively. Looking backwards myself, I even remember believing that persons living with AIDS virus might be completely cured by the end of a particular decade and that particular decade happened to be the 1980s.
On and on, topic after topic, I find and have found I look to see a brighter future to clear some sort of path to get there. Seeing the forest through the trees or the trees through the forest is not always easy but the choice to do otherwise is unacceptable to me. For example, paving some sort of road towards well-being so that hunger, homelessness, violence and the deleterious effects of poverty, war, hate and despair are eradicated are not just dreams to me. However, they are my living reality. Equally so, joining others as we take the necessary steps together to attempt to reach these realities are some of my greatest joys. Similarly, Edward Bellamy’s novel painted a utopian vision of a future set in the year 2000 in which the economy and government had advanced to a new stage of development that had left poverty and social conflict behind. Bellamy’s character indeed also saw how life could be better given the strategies and improvements that were realized. Believing that realities can change for the better is the cornerstone to what I believe is the genesis in creating positive social change in the first place.
When our individual and collective dreams, visions, and hopes for a better day actually become the blueprints for our present realities to focus on today and diligently work on tomorrow…then perhaps we too may look back in the future and smile knowing this to be true.
Quincy is a Workforce Development Coordinator for Telesis Corporation in Washington, DC. As a young person, he was wrongly convicted and served 25 years in prison.
I believe that life is short and often unpredictable, and for this reason, I believe in living in a way that respects the sanctity of both time and uncertainty. I believe that time should be treasured and never wasted. Time is an un-recyclable commodity — 25 years of wrongful imprisonment has taught me this. I believe that how we spend our time should be aligned with our dreams and aspirations, while at the same time, allowing space and preparation for life’s inevitable curveball. I believe that we must stay peacefully alert in 2021, for we are living during a time of change and great potential.
I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic reflects the unpredictability of life. I believe that we can expect the unexpected — the slow, torturous murder of George Floyd in broad daylight and the November 6th raid on the US Capitol is evidence of this fact. As citizens, I believe that we have an obligation to make a contribution — not matter how big or small — to the advancement of democracy and racial justice in this country. I strongly believe that we must stand ready, armed with the principles of fairness and truth, to fight for what is right and oppose what is wrong. This has nothing to do with ideology, party, or race. We must allow the principles of fairness and truth to guide our interactions, and as we have learned from the COVID pandemic, we must be prepared to makes changes and sacrifices for the greater good.
Faculty Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics; Senior Policy Fellow, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
A year of suffering, loss and isolation concluded with a national election and a collective sigh of relief, revisited several times over as vaccine trials ended in success, a new president took firm hold, and protests across the nation brought people—old, young, Black, brown and white–together to fight injustice, inequality, and to work to make our country better.
Our nation continues to be tested on several fronts.
We need to acknowledge that while our democracy survived, it did not thrive. The diverse impact of the presidential election, the poor management of the virus, the visceral images of Black deaths at the hands of white police officers constituting visible evidence of our continuing struggle with racism, and the unrelenting and polarizing assault of Cable News and social media along with the intense politicization of virtually everything, combined to present serious challenges. They are with us still.
Tasks ahead include rebuilding public trust in our medical and scientific communities–so we feel confident in relying on the findings of science and the policy recommendations that flow–and in our government–so we feel comfortable relying on public authorities to achieve a more just, humane and productive nation.
We need to summon the resolve–and find the means–to marshal resources to solve problems not only at home but, with partners, globally.
How do we do this? Start with what we know, with what has worked and what hasn’t.
Our judiciary functioned effectively, upholding the results of the election, for example, and applying, evenly, the rule of law and avoiding the pressures exerted on courts at all levels.
As for the other branches of government, serious work lies ahead. It’s not for the faint-hearted. We need to create a more resilient infrastructure of governance, not least protecting, indeed, enhancing the right to vote and easy access to exercise that right.
Without a renewed commitment to serious bipartisanship in state and federal contexts, moreover, and a regard for the common good, the nation will founder. Dysfunction and disruption do not sustain democracy.
Indeed, cooperation is essential for the healthy functioning of society—and for global comity as well. There is no other way in a democracy to achieve the common goals that produce benefits to society. When cooperation is absent we get the gridlock that characterizes our polarized nation.
So, we need to construct forums for supporting collaboration because existing political frameworks simply cannot yield the solutions society needs to address its problems. Concerns relating to climate change, and to clean air, safe water, and even national security, rarely align with existing political paradigms; they cross borders and disciplinary perspectives and, to be sure, political party affiliations.
As the federal government largely abdicated its role in managing the COVID crisis, for example, states came together in formal collaborations to contain the spread of the virus, to manage the response and, subsequently, to set common policies for planning the re-opening of their regional economies.
So, why not broaden the scope–and duration–of cooperation?
Along with the private sector, we can engage in joint efforts to enhance global trade, manage energy needs more efficiently, invest in workforce development — tech, science and professional workers — and collaborate in developing regional capacity in research and development.
Pandemics have shaped civilizations, prompting unprecedented levels of cooperation to meet pressing public needs. We should seize the opportunities that current challenges present.
We are an optimistic nation, and an innovative and creative one, and, if we see needs as governance opportunities for collaboration, I believe we can meet those needs in ways that strengthen our nation and secure our future.
Political Columnist, North Jersey Media Group
I have long believed in America’s resilience, its ability to adapt with imagination and guile in the wake of a cataclysm or when it’s faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges.
I almost never express that kind of can-do sentiment in public. I’ve spent most of career as a correspondent and columnist in the New Jersey State House scrutinizing the grind of politics through jaundiced eyes.
Yet this I-Hear-America-Singing optimism has always been central to my world view and it has remained steadfast despite the ravages of the pandemic and the trauma of Trump and the damage he inflicted on our Democracy.
I was reminded of that deeply embedded faith last Jan. 2 during a day-long tour of Washington’s daring Delaware River crossing and his attack on the Hessian troops in Trenton on Dec. 26, 1776. Our guide was the redoubtable Ralph Siegel, a former press row colleague, who is now a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg National Park and who is also steeped in the lore of the Trenton conflict.
At the end of the detailed swing through the hard-luck capital city that Washington once briefly captured, Ralph brought us to banks of a brackish tributary churning through Mill Hill Park not far from the Trenton Train Station.
It was here, 244 years ago (on that very day, in fact) where of the “Second Battle of Trenton’’ took place. Also known as the “Battle of Assunpink Creek,’’ it was the overshadowed, but crucially important, sequel to Washington’s storied victory seven days earlier.
The battle was chaotic and bloody, and it flipped the glory-filled narrative – the once brash conqueror on the morning after Christmas was now on the brink of a humiliating defeat the second day of the New Year. That might explain why the battle is ignored or why there is not a marker or small monument designated the site as hallowed ground.
As Ralph retold the story with the slow-build crescendo, the British sent a force of 8,000 troops into Trenton to finally crush the pesky rebellion.
After a day of furious fighting, the British Commander, Lieutenant Charles Cornwallis called off the fight as nightfall approached, confident that the “old fox” Washington and his battered army were trapped on the south side of the creek. “We’ll go over and bag him in the morning,’’ Cornwallis reportedly boasted.
The next morning, the British found that their prey had escaped under the cover of darkness.
Informed by a top scout of some uncharted country lanes heading out of town, Washington and his army literally tip toed out of town, muffling the sound of the creaking wagons by wrapping the wheels in blankets. He kept behind a small contingent to stoke campfires and make noise with picks and axes, creating the illusion that the army was digging in for another day of fighting. Eventually, those soldiers also escaped.
Later that day, the rag-tag Continentals arrived just south of Princeton, where they stunned a reserve of British troops in a short, but decisive victory. The wily fox lived to fight another day.
It later struck me as our chilly group of masked Jersey suburbanites tailgated near the Princeton Battle Monument at day’s end that Washington forged the qualities of guile, risk-taking and determination into the DNA of our national character on the banks of the Assunpink.
It also reinforced my confidence that we will prevail, despite the once noble Republican Party’s embrace of toxic conspiracy theories and nativism, despite the simmering tensions over race, and despite the anti-science ignorance that led millions to flout mask-wearing in the face of a plague.
That faith also sustained me 10 days later when I returned to Trenton with a helmet, goggles and a gas mask, to see if domestic terrorists, inspired by the ransacking of the U.S. capital, would carry out a copy-cat attack on the State House. The feared assault – a perversion of Washington’s brave raid 244 years earlier – turned out to be a false alarm. Only police and reporters milled around the barricaded streets.
Our new commander in chief who is now tasked with this challenge. President Biden has confronted it so far with grand ambition in his first 100 days, a vision to remake of our society. I suspect he will also need cunning, imagination and guile in the months ahead.
Biden has summoned the memory of FDR. But I expect he’ll expect he’ll also rely on the skills and savvy of Washington. I also suspect it’s integral to Biden’s character. It’s a part of all us.
Candace L. Straight
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Private Investor and Independent Director
That it is time to heal our country. At the local, state and federal levels we need leaders that will listen to folks in the other party. I believe that the 10% of republicans and 10% of the democrats that are out on the fringe should not control the media which they do. The remaining 80% should work together for the good of the country.
I believe if we want to save our wonderful democratic institutions, each of us need to become involved and demand higher standards from our politicians and demand reforms to make sure all can vote and do away with things like gerrymandering. I believe we need to test other reforms like rank voting, open primaries vs. closed caucuses.
I believe we can do better, but only if we demand higher standards from our political leaders.
Camelia M. Valdes
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Passaic County Prosecutor
On June 30, 2021, I will celebrate my 12 year anniversary as the Passaic County Prosecutor. For more than a decade, I have witnessed the bravery and resiliency of every day champions who are seldom lauded for the sacrifices they make for the greater good. As we emerge from a global pandemic that changed our lives as we knew it, we are left with the inescapable work that we still have left to do to heal our communities and our nation. Now more than ever, we must confront the realities of social justice and economic disparities, the impact to our collective psyche and the future, whatever it may bring. Let us pause to take inventory, recalibrate and reenergize knowing that we have a voice, a responsibility and an opportunity to make it better for others and for ourselves. While we have breath, we have a chance to do something better than what we have done. It will take honesty, integrity and work, lots of work. No one is coming to rescue us from ourselves, only we can decide to take up the servant mantle to fix with empathy, to heal without judgment and to move forward in love toward better spaces for everyone. Onward towards the light.
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Chief Impact Officer, Shatterproof
Do we no longer share a common understanding of what is the truth? Have we moved so far beyond that which should be celebrated in a healthy, civil society: robust debate of ideas, perspectives and differences of opinion – that we literally no longer share a common reality? You say flat; I say round. You say black; I say white. You say false; I say truth. And on and on – until we no longer recognize each other as sharing a common world – even when we live right next door to each other. We have begun to feel disdain for and threatened by the “other.”
Peter G. Verniero
Former justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and state attorney general;
Chair of the Sills Cummis & Gross Corporate Internal Investigations and Appellate Practice Groups
I believe in the power of the written and spoken word. Words should inform but not mislead. They should be candid, even blunt when necessary, but are best when constructive. They should lift us up whenever possible, not weigh us down. My words usually are serious. Humorous, entertaining or lighthearted words have purpose, too. Words help us organize our life and society. They do so in small ways, like when we write notes to family and friends. And in big ways, like when elected officials or judges write laws or decrees. Words allow us to express our compassion, tolerance and faith. And to resolve disputes peacefully, under the rule of law.
Words are essential to my profession, the legal profession. Used effectively, words can advance a client’s worthy cause. Used justly, they can convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. Words in a judicial opinion are especially important. Conscientious judges will pause over every word, sentence and paragraph to ensure that opinions are clear, concise and consistent with the judiciary’s high standards. A judicial opinion, of course, must be more than simply well written. It also must reflect the court’s best judgment after applying the law to the facts. And it must embody a sense of fairness and justice, all via its words.
Those are examples of the honorable uses of words. Sadly, what has struck me in recent years is the dishonorable use of words. Namely, manipulating or demagoguing words for corrupt or unseemly purposes. Lawyers are trained to think about cause and effect. Is there any reasonable doubt that hateful words will breed more hate? Or that more hate will breed more inequality and racism? Or that words designed to divide us will accomplish that aim?
If you want to better understand the values of a person or institution, consider the words they use. If you want to lead by positive example, start with your own words.
In this sensitive time in the life of our country, here’s a possible rule to live by: Let’s be careful with our words. We should speak our minds independently and freely. But let’s do so thoughtfully and respectfully as well. We should insist that governmental officials do the same, irrespective of their political party or role in the system. And let’s hope that journalists, opinion leaders and news outlets will use the awesome power of their words to advance our public discourse in fair, inclusive and honest ways. Words have never been more powerful and in need of more integrity.
Visiting Associate, Eagleton Institute of Politics
Emeritus Professor of Professional Practice, Rutgers School of Social Work
Our nation is besieged by the convergence and confluence of a significant number of what are truly existential issues. These include the vast inequality of our citizens in income, wealth, housing, health care, education, and criminal and civil justice all by race and class. We are still struggling with a deadly pandemic that has taken the lives of 600,000 of our fellow citizens and still is not yet controlled. The threat of even more virulent and evolving future viruses will undoubtedly deeply challenge our public health infrastructure. The pollution of our land, air and sea continues unabated.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is our inability to unite and respond to the challenges that face us or even agree on what the problems are. Social media has unleashed a virtual storm of disinformation and conspiracy theories that undercut our national unity and our ability to respond to crises in a timely and effective manner. Our politics are gridlocked, and bipartisanship is only a fond memory. We have all but devolved into a tribal society.
My great faith in our nation to move forward with policies laden with decency, compassion and good sense has not abandoned me but I remain deeply concerned. Our last President took this nation to the brink of becoming an autocracy and regularly engendered resentment and even hate of others. It is truly frightening that despite a clear victory by our current President, his opponent registered a very significant number of votes.
I am a second generation American. My Father immigrated here from eastern Europe along with some extended family to escape the Holocaust. Many of his extended family were not so lucky and perished. He loved America and always expressed his profound appreciation for the democracy of America and the extraordinary opportunities that are afforded to its citizens. Despite these sentiments, he did warn me to be vigilant of national events His view was that it was foolish to believe that what happened in Nazi Germany could never happen here given the possibility of the emergence of a set of economic, social, military, and racial issues that could also drive us in that same direction.
I believe that President Biden has qualities similar to FDR who led us out of a deep depression, through a cataclysmic war and built a social safety net for all. Yet I am certain he cannot face these challenges alone. Biden needs our help. We must stand up to protect and refresh our democracy, the truth, and equal opportunity and treatment of all Americans. We cannot take the spirit and promise of America for granted any longer and we must work together to overcome the existential issues that face us, overcome the effects of our original sin of slavery, and remain that shining house on the hill that we all aspire our Nation to be.
Associate Director, Director of Education Programs, and Director of the Center on the American Governor, Eagleton Institute of Politics
One of lessons of the past year is that in times of widespread crisis we turn to government and that government has done a pretty good job of rising to the occasion. In place of derogatory references to bureaucrats and bureaucracy, we have over the past 15 months consistently looked to those individuals and agencies for expertise to help grapple with unprecedented sickness, uncertainty and fear. We may question or criticize the substance of some decisions or the ways in which they have been communicated but there have been few calls for government to get out of the way and, for example, let the private sector handle the essential policy- and decision-making.
Yet too often, government is thought of as “them” as opposed to “us.” Why don’t they do this better or faster or differently? Why don’t they exercise common sense? What were they thinking? Etc.
My suggestion is that as we have come to appreciate, support and encourage front-line workers, we do the same for people who work in all parts of the government. We should encourage more students to consider careers in the public sector and help their families and friends understand that government – even when called bureaucracy – is a noble calling, and that we all benefit when smart, talented and caring people are drawn to it.
Much advice offered by older people falls within a framework of “Do what I did,” and after being part of New Jersey state government for more than 20 years, that certainly is true of mine. Finding a job where the bottom line is to advocate and to do what you think is right is an enormous, often unacknowledged perk. True, addressing problems – often created or ignored by the private sector – and being provided only a fraction of the resources and authority the situation seems to demand is often frustrating and even exasperating. Yet, if you can find potential colleagues and supervisors who generally share your vision of the questions that should be raised to identify the options that should be on the table and the best processes for choosing among them, that can be – at least when you look back on it – extremely fulfilling.
Two related observations come to mind. First, I have known many people who have gone to law school. The result of my non-scientific survey is that almost all of those who have gone on to private practice, while they may have enjoyed their salaries, felt much less positively about their jobs than those who have devoted at least part of their career to working in government.
The second observation comes from talking with many graduate and professional school students as they complete internships within a government office or agency. When asked what most surprised them, the near-universal response is that the civil servants they encountered worked harder and were more skilled and dedicated to the public good than they had expected.
Governor Christine Todd Whitman
Former Governor of New Jersey
Former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency
I believe that every person has within them a moral compass and that each of us knows, deep down, right from wrong. The problem comes when individuals allow themselves to be so influenced by outside forces that they go against those basic instincts. I also believe that, while we all have prejudices, be they large or small, we can recognize them and overcome them in order to live in the multi-cultural society we enjoy in the United States. We can appreciate better the richness of the diversity that gives us strength if we choose to become conscious of those unconscious biases and work to change them.
We are in perilous times today and too few Americans recognize the importance of their responsibilities in a republican form of democracy. When we leave the choice of our elected leaders to others by refusing to vote, especially in primaries, it becomes easier to deny the outcomes. When we lose trust in our institutions of government and refuse to believe what we hear from them, conspiracy theories become rampant and are accepted as truth.
With all the challenges we face, however, I deeply believe that the vast majority of the American people find themselves in the sensible center and are willing to fight back against the attacks on our democracy. What they need is to hear not just from government, but also from respected members of their communities who can articulate a way forward, respecting their concerns while re-emphasizing facts. It is vital that we return to a shared sense of facts and truth, which is the foundation for vigorous and honest debates about what policies are best for our nation. That is the beauty of democracy.
Director Digital Opinion, NJ Advance Media
Sometimes, you can go for decades without misfortune. Life just ambles on. And then, tragedy strikes, with a pain that rattles your soul and bruises you for decades. But, sometimes, even tragedy can lead to something beneficial; even from the worst day of your life something inherently good, and a miracle, can happen.
A few months before our eighth wedding anniversary, our twins were born. First came Aaron and 34 minutes later Miles emerged. Unlike our daughter Mary, who apparently never wanted to leave the womb and had to be evacuated during a C-section, these two guys arrived 16 weeks early. My mother told relatives they were stillborn. Nurses placed their tiny bodies, in an isolette, a special crib in the neonatal intensive care unit.
We spent endless hours in the hospital with them. Then, we returned to our daughter and to work. The nurses updated us every morning on their weight and their oxygen levels and we visited every night.
When they were just several days old, one of the nurses dressed Mary, a zestful 6-year-old with pinchable cheeks, in an isolation gown, hat, mask, gloves and booties and led her to see her brothers. Worry floated across her face, but she mostly seemed filled with wonder as she pointed to the tiny toes and the tiny fingers on the sleeping babies.
Then, things took a turn. Miles had heart surgery. His weight dropped to just 585 grams and we thought we’d lose him. But he hung on.
Thus began a cycle. Over the next five months, their hearts would stop, their breathing would stop. One brother would get sick and cry. Then, the other would do the same. Then one would heal, and the other would follow. Then, Aaron had surgery and the sadistic see-saw suddenly stopped.
We knew the call was coming. It finally arrived at 3:15 in the morning. “Come to the hospital. Aaron is in trouble.” They unhooked him from the bundle of wires, turned off all the screaming machines and we held him in our arms for the first time in weeks.
As we all cried, our 6-year-old wiped our tears and held Aaron’s hand. It was unremarkable to us then. We asked the nurse to take her to the playroom.
The next two decades zipped by, and we’re empty nesters now. If you live in Baltimore and have had a six-foot-tall stranger greet you with a smile, hold the door for you, call you sir or ma’am, it might have been Miles. Even though he was raised up north in New Jersey, he has this Southern charm about him — and the biggest smile.
As for our daughter, she spends plenty of her days and nights as a nurse, in an intensive care unit. Her days are pretty long and hectic, especially last year when her unit had a never-ending stream of COVID-19 patients. There were 40-something mothers and 20-something men who should have been out starting their careers and flirting with girls at night. Many never went home.
For them, the dozens of sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers who took their last breath — alone — she was there. She held their hands and wiped their tears. As for the families, she was there for them, too, talking them through the crisis. You see, she understood their pain. In a way, she was Aaron’s gift to them.
Paul H. Zoubek
Partner, Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, LLP
This I Believe:
- Try to make the day better for everyone you encounter through kindness.
- Treat everyone with respect.
- Appreciate the sacrifices of those before you for the opportunities you enjoy.
This year was difficult for us all. In February of 2020, our family lost my 98-year-old father-in-law, my 94-year-old mother-in-law moved in with us in March, my office relocated to our house and then, late in October, my father passed away from COVID. He was 3,000 miles away in San Francisco, surrounded by medical personnel in protective suits, as I had end of life discussions with him over FaceTime.
A difficult year for sure, but I often thought about all my parents and in-laws had been through before me. My father-in-law Peter Cartmell (Rutgers ‘43) emigrated from Scotland through Ellis Island as a child with his parents in 1923. His father died shortly thereafter, his mother got employment as a live-in nanny and he was farmed out to relatives. As a junior at Elizabeth High School, Mr. Cartmell was asked to move in with the family so he could be the man in the house when his mother’s employers divorced. He finished as valedictorian of Rumson High School, got a scholarship to attend Rutgers and joined ROTC. He completed officer training in 1943 and shipped to England as part of the heavy equipment battalion in the 9th Infantry. He spent D-Day in the English Channel and landed on Omaha Beach on the third day of the invasion – June 9th, 1944. After being wounded July 18th, he was evacuated on the hood of a Jeep, eventually made it back to the US and was awarded a Purple Heart. His professional career began as a cashier for Fidelity Union in Newark where he eventually became CEO. While he served on numerous board and civic organizations, his primary love was to serve on the Rutgers Board of Trustees for 25 years before being appointed to the Board of Governors.
Rutgers gave the son of an immigrant an opportunity to succeed. It was especially important to him to pay Rutgers back and give future generations of students the opportunity to succeed. Students like my former colleague, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis Rutgers ’02, Rutgers Law ’06 who is the daughter of immigrants who came to this country to seek a better life. One of the brightest moments in this dark year was watching Governor Murphy announce that he was appointing Fabiana to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
This last year was tough for my family, but when I think of my father-in-law landing on the shores of France and being carted off on the hood of a Jeep after he was wounded, it gives me a little perspective. The pandemic has been a significant challenge- for some desperately so, but others before us have gone through difficult times to enable us to enjoy freedoms often taken for granted.