Wabash Voices: Contributing to Hope

  September 29, 2004

John Agresto, a former research fellow at the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts who also taught at Wabash, spent the past 10 months in Iraq as senior advisor overseeing the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education. He returned to the  U.S. in May to deliver a commencement address to students at Samford University. An excerpt:

John AgrestoThe vast majority of Iraqis are very happy that we deposed Saddam. This alone to them, and to me as well, was worth the war. But we liberated them, we did not join them in their liberation of their own country. Unlike Afghanistan, there was no Northern Alliance we helped support; unlike Eastern Europe, there was no Solidarity for us to aid. No, we did it for them. They did not fight for their own liberation. More importantly—they did not fight for the liberation of their neighbors. And I do not know how you build democracy where there is not only no democratic history but no civic association, no Rotary Clubs helping out others, and no neighborliness.

We are now over there desperately trying to build “civil society” in an Iraq where there is none. Maybe we will succeed. And, if we do, then democracy has a future in Iraq. But if we fail, then I’m back to considering how hard it is to make a democracy where there is no democratic constitution, no sense of shared purpose, and no civic friendship.

There’s so much more to talk about—how Saddam turned a whole nation into people afraid to take any initiative whatever. How no matter how free we tell them they now are, they still seek permission before they try anything. How, more than tyranny, socialism taught them that they should expect to be fed and housed, and that work was irrelevant to success. How a culture of dependency and a culture of entitlement can and does break the human spirit.

I have now spent just under a year seeing what tyranny does to people, what kind of people Iraqis are, and, above all, what kind of people Americans are and how generous we are; how naive we are, especially when it comes to things we hold dear, like education and democracy. Above all, how blest we are. We inherited what we didn’t work for; and what little we achieve is only because others gave us the tools.

I think you graduates should go forth in gratitude, in humility, and in pride in your country, actively contributing to hope in this world.
—John Agresto

Contact Professor Agresto at: agrestoj@wabash.edu