Disrupting Polarization: The Work of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute

Disrupting Polarization: The Work of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute
at Johns Hopkins University
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Athens, Greece

On the evening of April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, then a candidate for the United States Presidency, was flying to the city of Indianapolis to deliver a speech. It was to be a regular campaign stop. But when the plane landed, an aide rushed up to tell him that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated. In that pre-Twitter era, the crowd he was about to face had absolutely no idea that Dr. King had been shot and killed.

The previous summer, cities like the one Kennedy found himself in had erupted in race riots, and the potential for the situation to deteriorate quickly was extremely high.

Immediately, Kennedy’s team and local authorities advised him in the strongest of possible terms to cancel the speech.

Kennedy refused. But he knew he couldn’t use his prepared remarks – he would have to improvise a speech on the spur of the moment.

And he did. First, he sympathized with the crowd’s rage and grief. He lamented the widening rifts in the social order that had given rise to such incomprehensible acts of violence – violence, of course, that had touched his own family.

Then, as if unbidden, he paused to recite a quotation from his favorite poet. Not an American poet. Not a British poet. But a Greek. A tragedian, in fact … Aeschylus.

He intoned, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Then he urged his audience not to deny their pain but to strive toward justice and compassion for those who suffer.

That Kennedy felt compelled – in this ominous moment of national disruption and national pain and grief – to channel Aeschylus is striking. But it turns out that Aeschylus was the right poet for that moment not only because his lyrics address individual agony so poignantly, but also because they speak more expansively to the forces that threaten to subvert, to taint, to disrupt democratic societies. For Aeschylus was a writer who knew the complexity of humanity, the threats of tyranny, and the difficulties – the hard work – of sustaining robust democracy.

A writer who could be as urgent and vital in 1968 as he had been in 480 BCE.

In the 50 years since its delivery, Kennedy’s speech has taken on the proportions itself of a Greek myth – a transcendent moment of unification in the midst of painful national unraveling. There is even, indeed, a statue in Indianapolis dedicated to marking that speech, that moment.

Now, the speech may not have been, as some have tried to claim, the sole reason that no one rioted in Indianapolis that night. But in summoning the right words penned some 2000 years prior in Athens, Kennedy helped open up, briefly, a space for collective reflection, evaluation, and, indeed, hope and optimism – the possibility of repair.

One that offered a path toward dialogue rather than devastation.

Today, the imperative of creating such a space is as strong if not stronger than it was half a century ago. In fact, as well know, we live in a world where distress and division – along partisan, racial, ethnic, and religious lines – are rampant and, along with mounting populism, pose a unique and serious threat to the vigor of liberal democracies that trace their lineage to the Athenian agora. Institutions of all kinds, including the media, government, and even the research university, once considered a bastion of opportunity and discovery, have lost or squandered public trust. And digital technologies that in their infancy held forth the promise of being virtual democracies – of strengthening our democratic norms, our democratic discourse – have been repurposed as engines of disinformation, insulating us from the necessary discomfort of disagreement in some instances and in others instilling fear and fomenting bigotry.

Such developments are troubling, but even more disturbing are what may grow in their wake.

According to political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa, older generations are far more likely to believe it is not legitimate for the military to take over in a democracy than their younger counterparts.

And more people than at any time since World War II are amenable to authoritarianism – a statistic that is especially disconcerting.

So, we are not, it would seem, at the end of history that Francis Fukuyama predicted in 1989 when he concluded confidently that liberal democracy would establish itself as the only viable form of political governance.

This stark recognition lies at the heart of the project that brings us together here today – the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins.

When we first began discussing the possibility of creating this institute, it was Andreas Dracopolous who very poignantly and succinctly put the question to our group: What are we going to do? What can we do tangibly to reverse this trajectory? And then, as he does so well, he began to answer the question and said, with great insight, “Remember, it all begins with the agora. It all comes back to the agora.”

As this audience knows well, the Athenian agora sits just a few miles from where we stand today, a site that continues to attract thousands of tourists every year eager to see the place where the idea of democracy took form and shape. It is not, of course, this structure alone that draws so many. However, it is the idea, the hope, that it symbolizes – the thrill and possibility of a vigorous, robust, and inclusive exchange of ideas between and among citizens in a democracy.

The SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University is our shared attempt to reimagine this ancient concept for the present. Comprised of three pillars, the Institute will be a hub for multi-disciplinary academic research grappling with the crisis in current democratic discourse, a lab where innovative and practical reforms to these problems will be developed and tested, and importantly a forum for scholars and students to engage with policy makers and the public in the spirit of open and productive deliberation – what we are calling the Agora Conversation. We hope that this work, far from being an academic or insular exercise, will be a bridge that creates opportunities to bring the best of the academy to the world to create real, meaningful change.

Even though it is born of a specific moment when liberal democracies across the globe are experiencing forms of stress unique to our age, the SNF Agora has not been created for our time alone. It is intended to be a mutable and enduring institution that can rise to meet the pressing crises of the era and adapt to meet the existential challenges sure to face democracies in the future.

And indeed, there is no time like the present to test our ideas on the crucible of practice and in conversation with today’s panelists and, of course, with all of you in the audience.

As we go forward here today, let us hope that whatever wisdom we produce will come not through pain or despair, as Aeschylus suggested, but through thoughtful and respectful debate and dialogue – the keystones of democratic participation and, truly, the beating heart of the agora.

Thank you so much.