Biography in The Washington Post

The Washington Post, November 6, 2001

Global Thinker Benjamin Barber’s Ideas on Capitalism and Conflict No Longer Seem So Academic

Author: Megan Rosenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Edition: F
Section: Style
Page: C1

Benjamin R. Barber’s cell phone rings. Then the phone on his desk at the University of Maryland rings. “Hold on,” the professor says into the cell phone. He picks up the other phone. “Can you call me tomorrow at my New York office? No, I can’t Thursday, I’m in Canada.”

These are busier days for Barber, who is a chronically busy person. A book he wrote in 1995, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” is one of the tomes that readers are turning to post-September 11 to try to understand why and to ponder what’s next. It’s been on the New York Times paperback bestseller list recently, and a new printing of 40,000, with a fresh introduction, is coming from Ballantine shortly to meet the demand. Meanwhile, his new book, “The Truth of Power,” has just been released. It’s a memoir of his less-than-satisfying experience as a visiting intellectual in the court of President Clinton.

But it’s “Jihad vs. McWorld” that is prompting the interviews, talks and requests for op-ed pieces. In it, Barber describes how the cultural differences between tribalism — ethnic and religious fundamentalism — and global capitalism are (or were) headed inevitably for an explosion of violence. Both are threats to democracy, he argues, and thus intertwine to create the conditions and the motive for combustion.

By “McWorld” he means not just the multinational corporations for whom national boundaries are more or less obsolete but also the American values wrapped in such low-culture packaging as pop music, movies, fast food and video games. “Jihad” is those forces who fear and oppose that modernism, people who see themselves engaged in “a holy struggle against something that is seen as evil,” Barber says.
To a television company like Star TV, beaming shows like “Dynasty” or “The Simpsons” across Asia via satellite is just business. But to an official of the Iranian government, “these programs, prepared by international imperialism, are part of an extensive plot to wipe out our sacred and religious values,” in one of Barber’s examples. Particularly in countries where separation of church and state is a remote concept, he says, the bulldozer of aggressive, American-style marketing is as threatening as an invading army.

Barber, 62, is one of a small breed of scholars who strive to be “public intellectuals.” He is powered by ideas and discussion, by the rough-and-tumble of vigorous debate. He is fully capable of using incomprehensible phrases like “identitarian determinance” and talking so fast that even his graduate students have to scribble furiously to keep up, but he has an infectious zest for the life of the mind. Drawing on anecdotes he tears out of newspapers and magazines, a broad range of reading and his own experience as a widely traveled, progressively educated fellow, he has come up with theories and concepts that have filled 13 books, including three collaborations and a novel.

“Jihad vs. McWorld” was greeted with respectful reviews when it first appeared, but despite being translated into 10 languages, it did not achieve a readership that could be described as mass. The American Reporter called it “a groundbreaking work, an elegant and illuminating analysis of the central conflict of our times: consumerist capitalism versus religious and tribal fundamentalism.” A reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle said: “It’s too bad . . . Barber sometimes writes in unreadable academese (what he himself calls ‘futurological platitudes’), because he’s sure got it nailed.”

Having written a work of political theory rather than prescription, Barber drew some complaints that his ideas for remedy were “starry-eyed” or would require legislation unlikely to be enacted in other countries. One of his harshest critics was the conservative Michael Novak, writing in the Wall Street Journal, who said Barber “has little feel for the depths and complexities of religion, and is also surprisingly innocent, for a political scientist, of the many, many modalities of ethnicity that are compatible with a vibrant democratic life.” Novak also disdained Barber’s critique of global capitalism and said he “frightens himself half to death by giving credence to mammoth metaphors of his own making.”

For 32 years, Barber taught at and ran the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He left it this year to take an endowed professorship at Maryland, where he teaches a graduate seminar and will be working on a new venture called the Democracy Collaborative. He splits his week between College Park and Manhattan, where his wife, Leah Kreutzer, a choreographer, and 10-year-old daughter live.

“I never wanted to be an academic. I still don’t,” he says, laughing. “I wanted to be — I know this sounds pretentious — I wanted to be an intellectual. I wanted to be involved in the arts. I went into the academic world under the illusion that it was a place where people cared passionately about ideas, about teaching, about discourse and about reflecting critically. What I discovered was a world of small-minded, partisan professionals, many of whom were there because they couldn’t figure out what else to do. So I created a life inside the academy that reflected the life I wanted to lead.”

That life has included writing and directing plays, getting involved in collaborations between universities and their non-university neighbors, and developing software. He’s also working on another novel, a book of political theory, a new introduction to “Jihad vs. McWorld,” several op-ed articles related to current events, and various lectures. He’s the kind of person who can write on his laptop anytime he gets a couple of hours free, such as on his weekly train rides between Penn Station and New Carrollton. And no, he doesn’t get much sleep (although he has a rollaway stashed in his office just in case he can’t get to his local hotel room).

The underlying theme in all his work is democracy — how to strengthen it, export it, describe the variations found in different countries. Neither the extremists of “Jihad” nor the capitalists that make up “McWorld” are serving democracy, he argues, because both evade or ignore the process.

“I said precisely that the war of Jihad versus McWorld, if it was not alleviated by global democracy, an international civic infrastructure, was likely to explode. These two sets of forces could not avoid clashing and exploding; they were going to create nothing but death and explosion unless we did this third thing, and we didn’t.

“The question is: Will we now? Will we now acknowledge the interdependence that has been demonstrated? Will we make interdependence not just a matter of AIDS and global warming and weapons destruction and terrorism, but will we make it a matter of global civic and political institutions? I think there are inducements that were not there before.

“On September 10, when I talked about global democracy, people thought, ‘What a quaint, charming utopian that guy Barber is.’ On September 12, they were saying what a political realist that guy is.”

Barber talks about a new “declaration of interdependence,” which acknowledges that “no one nation can experience prosperity and plenty unless others do, too.” America is a reluctant power, he says, and in this reluctance it communicates indifference and arrogance to other nations.

“We want to be loved, to be understanding, to be sensitive, whereas what the world wants from us is to use our power to construct a global system that will let them take care of themselves. They don’t need our sympathy, they don’t want our sensitivity, they want a fair system that gives them a fair shake. Our sentimentalism sometimes gets in the way. We want to be liked, you see what I’m saying? We are a very big elephant that thinks it’s a large pussycat.”

Multinational corporations tend to prefer to operate in countries that impose few limits on their operations, Barber says. Those tend to be countries with anarchic, weak or corrupt governments, which also provide a fertile breeding ground for terrorists. Although in this country capitalism has thrived within the “container” of regulation and civil society, America has failed to export or promote similar restraints overseas. “If we export capitalism without democracy, we breed anarchy and terrorism,” he says.

“It’s now a matter of national security. Part of the war on terrorism has to be to address the conditions that produce terrorism, and that has become a matter of necessity and not some intellectual vision of what a good world is. The hidden silver lining in this hideous, desperate terrorist act is the sense of what wonderful punishment for the terrorists — if what they actually did was prompt us toward a more civic and democratic world. Imagine how upset they’d be!”

Barber sees hope in the fact that the United States paid $582 million in 10-years-overdue United Nations dues and that the administration has backed off its effort to abandon the ABM treaty. But he reserves particular scorn for the purveyors of the scuzziest popular culture. Americans should take more seriously the objections heard in this country to the debasing of the culture, let alone the reactions of fundamentalist Muslims in far-off lands, he argues.

“There are millions of people here who won’t send their children to public school because they’re so appalled by the culture they find there,” says Barber, whose daughter attends a charter public school. “A lot of people find that what we produce in the name of making a buck is deeply offensive and corrupting to their children’s values. We have to get a better fix on that. . . . I don’t think it’s the American state that offends people or makes them feel they are being colonized. They feel they are being colonized by Nike and McDonald’s and by the garbage. And the worst is that we say, ‘We’re not colonizing you, we’re just giving you what your people want.’

“I mean, we don’t even export the best of our own culture, as defined by serious music, by jazz, by poetry, by our extraordinary literature, our playwrights — we export the worst, the most childish, the most base, the most trivial of our culture. And we call that American.”

The rest of the world doesn’t know the United States is a nation of church- and temple-goers, he says, but thinks Americans are just “secular materialists.” U.S. parochialism, as evidenced by a lack of interest in learning foreign languages and a failure to see ourselves as global citizens, has helped create the climate in which Arab youths applaud our deaths.

Barber became an internationalist at the age of 12. He grew up in Greenwich Village, the younger son of two theater people. His father, Philip Barber, succeeded playwright Elmer Rice as the director of the Federal Theater Project in New York and helped develop the “Living Newspaper” concept of dramatizing current events. His mother, Doris Frankel, was a playwright who spent years writing radio soap operas like “Ma Perkins” and went on to craft many scripts for the TV series “All My Children” and “General Hospital.” After their divorce, Barber’s father (who went on to marry five more times) enrolled him in the Stockbridge School, a progressive coed boarding school started by Hans Maeder, a German socialist refugee.

“Four years before Brown versus the Board of Education, this school had 10 black children in the student body of 100,” Barber said. “They had Israelis and Arabs living together two years after the War of Independence; they flew the U.N. flag.” Each day started with all students and faculty listening to 20 minutes of classical music in contemplative silence; each student was required to help maintain and repair the facility. They went on field trips to study the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a democratic decision-making process (subject to Maeder’s veto) was employed. Barber, who graduated in 1956 and went on to become a trustee before the school folded in 1976, loved it. “For many of us, it was a home, and for some like me, it was a first home,” he said in a school publication.

He spent his first year of college in Switzerland at another now-defunct utopian institution: Albert Schweitzer College. Only 60 students, from a variety of countries, gathered to spend a year studying the theologian and doctor’s ethical philosophy. From there he went to Grinnell College in Iowa, his father’s home state, and spent a year at the London School of Economics before graduating from Grinnell. He got his PhD at Harvard University.

“If I had my druthers — like so many people I have a narcissistic, selfish side — I would have spent my life in the theater,” Barber says. “I love the theater. I love directing, and I love writing for the theater. But it pays lousy. But I guess the part of me that’s a Methodist is committed to trying to construct a better life for all of us. I guess to that extent, I’m a moralist, I’m a citizen, and that part of me always pushed towards democratic theory.”

But that theatrical side (he takes pains to point out he is also a second cousin of Meredith Willson, composer of “The Music Man”) is not so distant from the role of professor and lecturer. He clearly relishes all his activity and finds some consolation in being called on to explain a bit of the context of the events on September 11.

He has not gone to see the damage in Lower Manhattan. “I love New York. I grew up there,” he says. “I know it’s cowardly, but it would be like looking at the abused corpse of a dear loved one.”

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post

Record Number: 110601XC01Gl8803