The Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 21, 1998
September 21, 1998
VOL. 28, NO. 4


Asking "Who Are We?"

1998 MSE Symposium examines paradox of our national identity

By Leslie Rice

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Politicos James Carville and Pat Buchanan will battle wits in Shriver Hall two days after election day. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will talk about freedom and the judicial system. And Jerry Springer will explain why he thinks his raucous talk show represents part of America.

One can always count on Hopkins' annual Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium to kick up a little dust as it rolls through campus.

This year's MSE Symposium, "Who Are We? A Question of National Identity," chaired and organized by Hopkins juniors Robbie Fisher and Omar Khan, boasts an exciting agenda of speakers, which at this date also includes Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, and Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. One more speaker will probably join the roster for an October engagement.

All lectures, which begin on Thursday, will take place on the Homewood campus and are free and open to the community.

Omar Khan, a junior from Jordan, and Robbie Fisher, a junior from Santa Monica, Calif., proposed the topic for the 1998 MSE Symposium and then booked the speakers, who will include Kweisi Mfume, Patricia Ireland, Antonin Scalia, James Carville, Pat Buchanan and Jerry Springer.

Each speaker will explore a common theme: the paradox of a national identity within a country made of millions of individuals.

"We're confronted so often through the media by this congressman or that interest group talking about the ideals and morals of the country, all taking on what they call the Śnation's issues'," Fisher says. "And the question we want to explore is, ŚWell, who are we?' So we picked speakers who each can offer a unique and important perspective to the question."

Including Jerry Springer's perspective. Springer, whose rowdy talk show is as derided as it is popular, says he believes that his show mirrors one side of American society.

"We really wanted to have someone that represents the media's contribution to this theme," says Fisher, who ruefully acknowledges that he often has to explain to people where Springer fits into the discussion. "I watched Springer once on The Larry King Show, and I was impressed by how intelligently he argued that his show represents a certain faction of America. It's a side of society that many Americans don't want to see."

Khan, who is from Jordan, and Fisher, from Santa Monica, Calif., say that being part of the Hopkins campus played a role in why they chose a theme centered around national identity. College is a time when many people are exploring their own identity and where they fit into the larger picture-- beyond families and home towns and into the different roles they may take in society as adults. What's more, they say, Hopkins is made of people from so many cultures studying and living in one place that many students find themselves redefining what it means to be an American.

National identity is a topic of particular resonance for Khan. Living in Jordan, he went to an American school, and today he has the accent and mannerisms of a person who has lived in the United States his whole life.

"The national identity issue is one I come across a lot, and the question of how I fit in relative to everyone else," he says. "In Jordan at school, my own culture was immersed into an American culture, and so I often felt like a stranger in my own country. Here in the U.S., I kind of feel that way again."

Since the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium was established in 1967 to honor the university's eighth president, it has been entirely organized and managed by undergraduates. Usually about six prominent figures are booked to address a current national issue. Covering topics like the nuclear arms race, human sexuality, freedom of the press and foreign policy and race, the symposium has drawn speakers such as Aaron Cropland, Kurt Vonnegut, Carl Bernstein, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, Pat Robinson and Isaac Asimov.

Once Khan and Fisher chose a topic, and then went through the Student Council's grueling application process to be chosen as chairs, they quickly learned that putting together the symposium is an enormous task.

The student chairs are responsible for securing the speakers, which means going through agents--and sometimes going around agents--and convincing national figures to speak at Hopkins for a fraction of their customary honorariums. The chairs receive some funding from Student Council and must raise the balance from corporations and foundations. They are also responsible for everything else, a daunting array of tasks that includes booking auditoriums; arranging for hotels, dinners and receptions for the guests; securing the sound system; and publicizing the series.

"We've been working on this since last November," says Khan. "During the summer, it became a full-time job. It's been hard in that we really had to learn how to do this sort of thing as we went along. But now that everything is coming together, it's exciting. It's going to be a great series."

"Who are we? A question of national identity"

All events are at 7 p.m. on the Homewood campus; see individual listings for locations. Lectures run an hour in length and are followed by a question-and-answer session. The speaker also attends a post-lecture reception open to the audience. Admission is free and open to the public.

One more speaker will probably be added to the roster. For more information, call 410-516-7683 or go to the Web site at

Thursday, Sept. 24
Kweisi Mfume Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, leads off the 1998 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium on the national identity with "Multiculturalism in America: A Melting Pot?" Shriver Hall.

Monday, Sept. 28
Patricia Ireland Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, focuses on "Great Social Movements." Garrett Room, MSE Library.

Thursday, Oct. 22
Jerry Springer Talk-show host and former mayor of Cincinnati Jerry Springer examines the topic "Media and Entertainment: Mirrors to American Society." Shriver Hall.

Thursday, Oct. 29
Honorable Antonin Scalia Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia addresses "Freedom and the Judicial System." Bloomberg Auditorium.

Thursday, Nov. 5
Patrick Buchanan (pictured at left) and James Carville (pictured at right) Patrick Buchanan, Republican presidential candidate and Crossfire co-host, and James Carville, Democratic campaign strategist, face off in the final symposium, "Forum: Government and Voice of the People." Shriver Hall.