National reflection is essential for renewal, says virtual ethics speaker

The university hosted Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter over Zoom


Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter spoke on the importance of renewal through national self-reflection and “radical honesty” in her Oct. 15 talk for Washington & Lee’s Mudd Center for Ethics.

“Do we, as a nation, have the courage to look in the mirror and see ourselves as honestly as possible, both in the past and in the present?” Slaughter asked. “[Do we have] the courage to hear and accept at least some of what others say about us, our fellow citizens and the people of other countries, who see us from the outside in?”

Slaughter is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. She is also the CEO of New America, a think tank dedicated to renewing America’s promise.

She was the former director of policy planning for the U.S. Department of State, where she served from 2009 to 2011. She has authored seven books and several acclaimed articles.

“Renewal signifies different things for different people,” said Slaughter, who first began pondering renewal because of a personal and professional crisis.

She believes the concept is vital, both personally and nationally, as individual evaluation can build to a larger political reckoning.

The value of renewal, said Slaughter, lies in its ability to encompass both the past and the future.

She said this concept allows us to take pride in “generation after generation of people who believed in something far better than they saw around them.”

It’s also important to recognize the way those generations “not only failed, but often betrayed, the very ideals they professed and fought for,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter said she believes history is the key to moving forward.

She used the example of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia. The plantation is a place that has worked to incorporate stories that encompass all aspects of the third president, including the enslaved people who worked on the plantation and made his lifestyle and career possible, she said.

“There are many different narratives, and there and many different cultures,” Slaughter said. “But I do think we can write a new grand narrative. It has to be written with much more participation, and that means hearing and really listening to what other people are saying.” Slaughter said she expects power to shift in our society, making it all the more important to recognize the perspectives of others.

She laid out a series of steps for America to follow for “renewal.”

One step was risk-taking, the entrepreneurial spirit woven through the American narrative, or what Slaughter calls “a culture of risk-taking that, paradoxically, requires much more security.”

Slaughter said security and the ability to take risks has been unequally distributed throughout American history.

She said all Americans should be allowed to fulfill this narrative of being innovative, risk-taking and brave. But to do so, we must first provide everyone with the same underlying security, so they do not fear for their lives, houses or property.

Specific steps to achieve this goal would include implementation of universal healthcare, lowering the cost of education and beginning to close the wealth gap.

As a graduate and former dean of Princeton University, Slaughter referenced the school’s decision to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs earlier this year.

“I understand that W&L is going through a similar self-examination,” said Slaughter, who admitted she was not originally in favor of changing her alma mater’s name.”

Instead, she initially supported a monument that included praise of Wilson along with contemporary criticism of his racist views.

While considering this monument, Slaughter had a change of heart.

“For me, it then became a question not so much of what I was giving up, but of the statement that we are prepared to change,” she said. “We can’t just keep doing the same thing hoping that somehow it’s going to fix the problem because it isn’t.”

“From that starting point, changing the name of the school is just the symbol, but it’s a very important symbol. We are not going to be about to get the talent we want, to educate the students we want, if we continue to insist they come to a school bearing the name of someone who re-segregated the federal service.”

Jeremy Weissman, Mudd Postdoctoral Ethics Fellow, said Slaughter presented a “cogent framework for a way out of the serious political and moral problems we currently face as a nation.”

He said Slaughter is correct – we must seek renewal at home if America is going to live up to its ambition of being a global role-model.

“There is much good in many traditional American values,” Weissman said. “But it’s clearly time for an update.”