You have arrived at Notre Dame at a critical juncture in modern history. I don’t make this statement lightly. Nor am I simply referring to the Corona virus. I mean that you and I are living at a time in which many of the defining features of our existence–our institutions, values, global ideals, relationship with our earthly home, and even our acceptance of scientific truth–are in flux.
You are also lucky!
In normal times, it’s hard to see the world as it really is. But, in times of abrupt change and psychological stress, we are literally forced to ask hard questions about what matters most in our lives and what the future holds for us.
For anyone who is concerned about the state of American politics today, as I am, this is also an excellent, if painful, time to ask difficult questions about who we are as a people, how we relate to each other and to billions of other human beings beyond our national borders, and where all of us humans are going. For example, read the links on the right side of this page under “America’s Problem with Race.”
In this course, I will provide you with one way of responding to these questions by encouraging you to “think big” about politics and society. Where we are today is not the result of some virtuous action or rational choice. Rather, it is the result of countless, converging forces–decisions, ideas, movements, accidents, natural and self-inflicted disasters–that have come before us. It would be impossible for me to talk about all of these factors. Instead, I will introduce you to a single theme that illuminates much of our current plight: the ongoing and necessarily conflictual evolution of a novel form of political organization known as the Modern Nation-state.
By Modernity, I mean a revolution in epistemology, human identity, organization, and political reality that has come to fruition over (roughly) the past four centuries. By Nation-state, I mean a “symbolic community to which people voluntarily devote their primary political loyalties despite the many particularistic loyalties–religious, cultural, ethnic, political, social, economic, gender, and athletic–that otherwise divide them.” Modernity and the Nation-state are abstract terms. But they are useful tools. Like the best tools, they help us make sense of our particular juncture in the long history of humanity. They also alert us to the fragility of our world and the possibility that we may be the cause of its ruin.
My story is divided into five interlocking chapters. First, in the segment called Modern Politics, I introduce you to some basic concepts about modernity and the Modern nation-state. Second, we travel down the road the West has taken toward a particular form of the nation-state: Liberalism. Third, we consider an initially credible but ultimately failed path: Leninism. Fourth, we confront the pathos and anger of people living in the fractured Postcolonial world of weak nation-states. Finally, we return to our starting point to examine the ecstasy and agony of the nation-state in an age of Global vulnerability.
Throughout our course, I shall also refer to several themes that I consider particularly troubling. Among them, I include:
1) the politicization of facts–and fact-seeking–in democratic politics. If we can’t agree on facts, there can be no democracy. There is no such thing as an “alternative fact”!
2) the threat to Liberal democracy represented by populist politics. Populism is not another form of politics. It is anti-politics. In an extreme form, it can kill democracy.
My pedagogical goals extend far beyond introducing you to the field we call “political science.” I aspire to:
- Cultivate your “deep knowing” of politics, rather than “much knowing” (a distinction drawn by the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus)
- Hone your analytical abilities
- Increase your capacity to defend arguments and persuade others that you are right
- Encourage you to develop a critical perspective on everything you think you know, especially a perspective that is consonant with your choice to attend Notre Dame. This is no normal university. And it’s a good thing, too.
The basic requirements for our course are HERE You are responsible for knowing all of this information. I will change the syllabus and its assignments and readings throughout the semester. Thus, you will need to consult it on a regular basis.
I will have a modest personal objective throughout our political travels. If I can fundamentally change the way you think about world politics, I shall be pleased.
Please leave your laptops, cellphones, and other digital devices at home!. Psychologists have demonstrated that you learn more by listening and taking notes the old-fashioned way.
All of the photos in the headers of this syllabus were taken by my friend, Fr. Slawomir Nowosad, a professor of theology at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland