Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker (ret.)

Lecture 2004-11-15

This was a joint meeting with International House, and was probably the last opportunity to use the large downstairs hall for some time to come, as their main building will be closed for refurbishment next April. Our speaker was Mrs. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, and she was accompanied by her husband, American Ambassador Howard Baker, whose birthday it was that day, as she told us. Other diplomatic representatives were Luxembourg Ambassador Michele Pranchere-Tomassini, who has been a faithful attender at meetings, former Indian Ambassador Aftab Seth, and the wife of the Bolivian Ambassador, Mrs. Lilibeth Dabdoub. International House was represented by Mr. Hiroshi Matsumoto, son of the founder and an adviser/director, and Dr. Adair Linn Nagata of Rikkyo University, who is on the programme committee and gave the welcome address on behalf of International House.

Before introducing the speaker, our President called for a moment of silence in memory of Fr. Neal Lawrence, who, to our great regret, had passed away on November 5th, and announced that a memorial service was to be held on November 17th.

Mrs. Baker said that she had chosen to speak on balance and moderation in political life, and, by extension, its importance in our private lives as well. She had taken this theme after rereading a favourite book "Reflections from the North Country" by Sigurd Olson, in which he mentions Sophocles' great tragedy "Antigone". The play is about balance and order, and the necessity to compromise; it is about the misjudgements, the tragedies, that flow from an unwillingness to constantly see the world through new eyes. At the end of the play, King Creon has destroyed the opposition and, in the process, his family and himself, and utters what must be the most tormented words of Western civilisation, "Oh, how impoverished my deliberations were!" Antigone, on the other hand, has to choose between the conflicting demands of the private person and the public citizen, a choice that resonates today in deliberations over issues such as the termination of life or measures to enhance security; or, on another level, whether there should be required prayers in school, as in the United States, or the singing of the national anthem at graduation, as in Japan.

Mrs. Baker then gave a brief summary of the plot of the play, to refresh the audience's memories. The two sons of Oedipus have fought for control of Thebes. True to their banished father's curse, they kill each other in battle. Their uncle, Creon, then decrees, as ruler of Thebes, that one, Eteocles, shall receive the city's full honours in burial as a defender of the city, while the other, Polyneices, shall be left unburied on the battlefield, and anyone attempting to bury him shall be put to death. His sister, Antigone, defies the decree and performs the burial rites for her brother. When she is caught, Creon orders her to be immured alive in a cave, and rejects all appeals, including that of his own son, Haemon, who is engaged to Antigone. Though Creon finally relents, it is too late. Antigone has hanged herself, and Haemon, finding her, falls on his sword. Hearing of this, Creon's wife, Eurydice, also commits suicide, and Creon is left in utter desolation.

Two fascinating considerations emerged from this, said Mrs. Baker. First, the issue of power. Creon's decree was based on his judgement that Polyneices had acted treasonously against the state, and must be punished if the safety of its citizens was to be preserved. His tragic error was in carrying this reasoning one step too far; he was seeking to deny Polyneices not only the honours of the state but also the love of his family, and, more importantly, he was disobeying the dictum of the gods. Antigone, by contrast, represented the idealism, courage and purity embodied in her sense of duty, and everything was altered by it. We could all recall similar acts of courage, in ways great and small; one of these must surely be that of the student who stood in front of the tanks in Tienanmen Square.

How, then, might Thebes have avoided this tragic conflict? She felt that what was missing was any effective force of moderation that could balance the competing beliefs of Creon and Antigone. The citizens of Thebes represented what should have been that moderating force, but this they failed to be. What had struck her was the passivity of the chorus, though they were admittedly not the whole body of citizens except by extension. Creon would speak, and the chorus would nod and murmur agreement. Antigone would speak, and again they would nod and murmur agreement. At no time were the elders and the citizenry required to seek a resolution to a conflict in which they held the highest stakes.

This passivity had continued into our own time in many ways. Too often in modern elections in the United States people had become a modern "Greek chorus" that sat before the television to receive a 60-second sound bite from the campaign and nodded and murmured, reducing democracy to a spectator sport. (Though Mrs. Baker felt that this had been less true in the case of the recent presidential election, where many people had campaigned and voted, and more young people had been involved.) It was fortunate that America's Founding Fathers had required that people must eventually choose a side by casting their ballots; this had been a strong shield against the tyranny of either a Creon or an Antigone. And we were all obligated not merely to listen and decide, but to speak and so shape the final decision. Thomas Jefferson had said, "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion."

For this, education was important. This meant not just rote learning, but acquiring an understanding of histories and of various religions, without which history would repeat itself. We must also understand the forces at work in the present century - technology, cyberspace, climate change, micro-chip implants, nuclear terrorism. We needed to be willing to be involved, whether that meant being engaged in debates within our family or our community, or being engaged in following the overarching issues affecting the world. We should make it our concern to become responsible; every one person could make a difference. The dangers of speaking without hearing, and hearing without speaking, remained with us today; each generation must learn again the wisdom spoken by Haemon to his father:

Do not have one mind, and one alone, that only your opinion can be right. Whoever thinks that he alone is wise, above the rest, shows his emptiness. A man, though wise, should never be ashamed of learning more, and must unbend his mind.

A question and answer time followed. To the question whether their tour of duty would continue now that President Bush had been re-elected, Mrs. Baker said that there had always been an understanding that Mr. Baker would serve one term and that they would therefore shortly be finishing.

To a question on whether in talking about Creon, Mrs Baker had the person of President Bush himself in mind, Mrs. Baker, to much amusement, replied that she had not. She added that there had been a debate about Iraq during the presidential campaign but now that that was behind us, no matter what the rights or wrongs of the invasion, there was a general feeling in the United States that we must make a success of Iraq and must help restore stability and confidence. Mrs. Baker also talked of the need to develop a constructive policy over the Israel-Palestine conflict.

To a question on the consequences of the division between the "red" and the "blue" states and the relative importance of each in gaining votes within the electoral college, Mrs. Baker said that she felt that the country had changed to quite a great degree since the electoral college was set up and that it would be worthwhile considering a more proportionate system of attributing the votes of individual citizens in electing the President.

To a question on how, as a Bush Republican, one could communicate to one's Japanese friends and acquaintances that America was not a warlike country, Mrs. Baker said that it was important to remember that there was a great debate on this subject and also much disagreement not only in Japan and other countries but also within the United States itself and even within individual families inside the USA; her own and Mr. Baker's families were no exception. Mrs. Baker further stated that the parties in the United States had never had a single undivided mind; recalling the days of the campaign for women's suffrage, she said that newspapers in "blue" states such as New Hampshire had opposed the extension of the ballot in this way, arguing that if a woman were to vote a different way from her husband this would lead to conflicts within the family and increase the divorce rate! Mrs. Baker went on to say that she was herself a Bush supporter, but she felt that we had to try and "get it right"; she sensed that there would be constructive forces at work in the second administration. She noted that there was much talk of "conservatives" and "liberals" but she considered herself to be a "moderate", which some might regard as "wimpish" but which she regarded as having a proud tradition. Being moderate did not entail any less conviction or fewer principles than being either "conservative" or "liberal". This being said, Mrs. Baker disliked the use of labels because it stopped people thinking or properly listening to other people's points of view. She felt that television had contributed to the poverty in actually reflecting carefully about issues, through its constant search for "instant news" which in turn contributed to its audience developing a very short attention span. Mrs. Baker felt that the failure of Senator Kerry to create a favourable television image for himself had been extremely disadvantageous to him in his campaign because it had meant that television audiences did not feel comfortable with him.

Finally, on being asked whether she believed there would ever be a female US President, Mrs. Baker said that yes, it would come one day!

The vote of thanks was proposed by Mrs. Eileen Kato, whose late husband had also been an ambassador. She picked up the Antigone theme, and said she had been especially struck by Jean Anouilh's version of the play. It was a problem of two conflicting wills with right on both sides. If there had been just a little compromise the result might have been less than tragedy. She was pleased that Senator Kerry had been willing to concede defeat in a statesmanlike manner, unlike some others in his party, so that the country could now go to work on the problems that needed to be addressed.