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Stout: Refusing to defer to others is most powerful tool

The horrifying images from a devastated New Orleans did more than reintroduce the country to the harsh realities of poverty in America, said Jeffrey Stout, professor of religion at Princeton. They also provided the impetus for ordinary citizens to organize and confront the corporate structure that looms large in their lives, and which stands in the way of a truly democratic government that exists to help all.

Stout, who is president of the American Academy of Religion, shared his views in an early Thursday afternoon Academic Symposium talk titled “Mending the Fire: Reflections on Democracy in America.” In it, he shared “stories of darkness and hope” from his travels around the country to meet with community organizers, and to chronicle their successes.

Telling the story of a recent trip to New Orleans through the eyes of some of the residents he met, Stout detailed the challenges many faced in rebuilding their homes and remaining connected to the area after being scattered all over the country through governmental relocation efforts. Even being able to vote in the city’s mayoral election was a struggle.

“The need to fight is as discouraging as the will to fight is encouraging,” Stout said.

Stout told of how one local citizen organized jazz bands to get out the vote on Election Day, and provided an iconic image of a democracy in action as voters marched down the middle of the street behind the musicians.

The future, Stout said, will provide unlimited challenges that include warming oceans, increasing disparity between rich and poor, threats from terrorism and a disengaged citizenry that is slowly ceding control to the ruling elite.

“The consequences are clear,” he said. “We see a massive windfall for the top 1 percent, a declining share of property for the middle class, the increase in numbers of those below the poverty line, a foolish war started on false pretenses, thousands of soldiers dead, the erosion of our civil liberties and the failure to confront the perils of warming.”

The responsibility of this outcome must be borne equally by the elites who engineered it, and the disengaged Americans who have acquiesced to it, Stout said.

Ultimately, he added, “organizing ourselves and refusing to defer to others is the most powerful weapon we have.”

If citizen organizers can draw hope and inspiration from their efforts in the most bleak, devastated and crime-ridden communities in the country, he asked, “What’s our excuse?”

Stout was introduced by Ziad Munson, assistant professor of sociology and author of the forthcoming book, Becoming an Activist. In the discussion that followed Stout’s talk, he addressed the role of activism in the local community with John Pettegrew, associate professor of history and director of Lehigh’s American Studies program. Pettegrew is also the author of the soon-to-be-published Brutes in Suits: Male Sensibility in America.

During that discussion, Stout drew the distinction between a lack of optimism for democracy in America, and the virtue of hope.

“Hope,” he said, “is the virtue you need when facts as they are might tempt you to despair and just give up.”

To read about the other Academic Symposium sessions, please see Academic Symposium explores global impact of research.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, April 12, 2007

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