Mississippi offers a clear example of Plato’s worry about disunity. One of the four virtues that he clarifies in The Republic is moderation, which is important for avoiding the extremes of behavior or of belief. What is most famous about Plato is his conclusion that the good city needs philosopher-kings, that leadership most fundamentally must be guided by wisdom. While that is true, it misses what Plato’s Socrates calls the greatest good for the city, the absence of which yields the greatest evil.
Plato’s Socrates asks “Is there any greater evil we can mention for the city than that which tears it apart and makes it many instead of one? Or any greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one?” Yes, wisdom is the most important virtue in one sense, for Plato, but when it comes to the public good, wisdom should be most concerned about division, and most fervently and wisely striving for unity. Without the latter, a state, divided against itself, only falls apart or fails at its aims.
I am looking forward to visiting the Clinton School for Public Service at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on October 19th (if you’re in the area, mark your calendar). For those interested, I believe you’ll be able to watch the talk I give there via live Web stream. I should also be able to link to the video of it afterwards. And, as I’ve noted, I’ll give an interview on the Little Rock affiliate of NPR program, the “Clinton School Presents.”
In preparation for that trip and while talking with students, I’ve wondered about Alabama’s quick removal of its Confederate Battle Flags from public spaces. On the one hand, it was no surprise, given how atrocious the Charleston murders were. On the other, places like Alabama and Mississippi have been home to some of the most stubborn unwillingness to change. As places in which land is cheap and taxes are low, Alabama and Mississippi nevertheless struggle with economic development in part because of our troubled histories and the continued division and dysfunction that come from disunity.
The same day in Alabama, however, the Governor announced the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag and the commitment from Google to build a $600 million facility in the state. According to the Alabama Media Group, “The decision to take the flags down had nothing to do with the Google announcement, but the governor said economic development was part of the reason to avoid a fight.” The denial of a relationship between the two announcements sounds about as plausible as Nixon’s declaration that he’s not a crook.
As one of my students asked me this week, “How much has Mississippi missed out on because of our stubbornness?” Good question. More importantly, however, is the meaning of Mississippi’s recalcitrance. It means that people have yet to feel the pangs that they should in their hearts. We remain a state divided against itself, and we continue to suffer the consequences of the evil that tears us apart.
I’m glad to say that civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams has joined the rally to change Mississippi’s flag, which features an emblem of the Confederate Battle Flag in its canton. There are those who have said that taking the flag down won’t change their hearts (1, 2, 3). To them, I say two things. First, it is alright for some people to be a lost cause, when so many other people are not. In a lovely garden, there are still unpleasant things living under a rock. That doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy the garden’s beauty, appreciating all that warrants sunlight. Second, Aristotle explained that one’s virtue, the state of one’s character, is a result of what we repeatedly do. Our habits matter. Public spaces are a visible place that inspires habits and maintains them. Changing those habits will only slowly bring about a change. It is also no guarantee. But, it is a wise step in the right direction towards healing, virtue, and unity.
As I finished my latest book, thinking about the possible titles for it, the most pressing challenge and opportunity for the state jumped out clearly. The difficulty for Mississippi, and, if resolved, the incredible opportunity for the state, would come from unity. No greater good could come to Mississippi than from that which will make it one, instead of many. There is therefore no greater cause I can see for the state than of Uniting Mississippi.
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