Former President Jimmy Carter came to the northeast earlier this week for speaking engagements at a couple of highly prestigious Ivy League schools, during which he blasted their handling of sexual assault cases. He visited Yale University on Tuesday, and Princeton University on Wednesday, discussing the subject of his latest book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power, which he published earlier this year. It is a book that Carter was asked to write, and mostly addresses oppression and inequality that women are faced with around the world. He said that every country in the world was guilty of this oppression on some level. Carter specifically criticized both Yale and Princeton in their handling of recent cases of sexual assault, and suggested that these were specific examples of the wider problem of rampant sexual assault on American campuses, which has become highly visible in news headlines in recent years.
Jimmy Carter was elected Governor of Georgia in 1971, and surprised many by going ahead and winning the Presidential election in 1976, having been mostly unknown on a national level prior to that election. During his inauguration, he famously stepped out of the limousine, and walked along the parade route, which has since become a popular tradition for presidents during on Inauguration day. During his term in the White House, Carter had some notable achievements in foreign policy, particularly the Camp David Accord agreement in 1978 between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat, which was seen as a breakthrough. He also takes pride in his signing of the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977, which promised to give control of the canal to Panama by the year 2000. But his years in office were perhaps most defined by hostage crisis in Iran. Most Americans were highly critical of his handling of that situation, and it is often cites as one of the major factors in his not winning a second term.
His years in the Oval Office are also probably best known for two speeches that he made. The first occurred in 1977 when he addressed the nation on energy policy, urging Americans to sacrifice some comfort for the greater good of the country. The other speech came in 1979 and is often referred to as the “Malaise Speech”, during which Carter discussed what he felt was a crisis in confidence and a prevalence of greed across the United States, as he warned about the dire consequences if these were not kept in check. Many suggested that the speech cost him any chance at being re-elected, although polls suggested that the speech was actually popular at the time, increasing his popularity by 11 percent.
Still, Carter was defeated in the 1980 elections, and he returned to his home in Plains, Georgia after leaving the White House. He and his wife Rosalyn began work on The Carter Center, an organization dedicated to alleviating suffering the world over by trying to preserve peace through involvement in negotiations in troubled areas, monitoring elections for fairness, and combating poverty and disease in remote areas in Asia, Africa, and South America. He also got involved in Habitat for Humanity, which is an organization that builds affordable housing for people that otherwise could not afford them. For these efforts, Jimmy Carter received the distinction of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, becoming the first American president to receive the prize for the work that he did after leaving public office. He shared one notable distinction along with Martin Luther King, Jr., as the only two Georgians ever to win this prestigious prize. He also became a member of The Elders, an organization of distinguished figures around the world created in part by Nelson Mandela and which was formally established in 2007, designed to provide guidance and assistance in challenging situations and war-torn regions around the world.
Carter’s tireless work since leaving office also went a long way towards resurrecting his public image in the United States, which had been damaged by low approval ratings during his presidency. PBS suggests in their documentary about President Carter that being free from the controversies of American politics once he left the White House allowed Americans to return to appreciating the selflessness and idealism that they initially found so appealing about Carter in 1976, and which helped him win the presidency in the first place. Still, he has not shied away from controversial and divisive issues, and has proven the exception to the generally unspoken rule of former presidents not speaking out against the policies and practices of sitting presidents, remaining vocal on his thoughts.
Carter has also written many books on subjects as various as politics, activism, foreign affairs, religion, aging, relationships, and a love of the outdoors. He also wrote a children’s book, had a work of his poetry published, and even wrote a book about his mother. Carter also became the first president to write a work of fiction, The Hornet’s Nest, a story which takes place during the American Revolution.
The former president spoke at Woolsey Hall at Yale University on Tuesday to promote his most recent work, “A Call to Action.” During the discussion, he criticized the Ivy League institution’s handling of controversial cases involving sexual assault, pointing out that Yale is one of the universities that is currently under federal investigation. Carter mentioned that according to a report by The Huffington Post last year, six students at Yale either admitted guilt in sexual assault cases, or were found guilty of the charge, but the university failed to expel any of them. He feels that the most appropriate response would be to kick students that are found guilty of rape out of the institutions that they are enrolled in. After his talk at Yale, Carter went to the New Haven Lawn Club for a booksigning event.
The next day, Carter came to Princeton University to discuss his book at Princeton’s University Chapel. He had visited the campus before, back in 1981, just a few months after leaving the White House. Princeton University’s Whig-Cliosophic Society, which happens to be the oldest college political, literary and debate society in the world, honored Jimmy Carter before his talk by presenting him with the James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service. Some past recipients of the award include Bill Clinton, Adlai Stevenson, and Earl Warren, among others. The president of the society, Adam Tcharni, said that Carter had revolutionized what it meant to be a former president.
Carter spoke from the pulpit of Princeton’s University Chapel, and opened his speech by recalling a funny episode that occurred not long after he was President. He was visiting Japan, and mentioned that the Japanese all seemed nervous around him, since he had only recently left the White House. He was a at a speaking engagement at Osaka and told a humorous story, and the audience collapsed with laughter. He had never gotten such an enthusiastic response before. The reaction was so strong that he asked the translator how he had told the joke, hoping to take notes for future tellings of the joke. The translator then admitted that he had literally told the audience that President Carter had told a funny story, and that they needed to laugh.
He also mentioned that Princeton University had always been his favorite Ivy League institution. He had urged his daughter, Amy, to attend there. Instead, however, she had chosen Brown University, before eventually switching to Tulane. But Princeton has remained his personal favorite of the Ivy League schools.
After these pleasantries, Carter grew more serious, and discussed the challenge that all of us face in trying to put our ethical values into practice. He mentioned that only once in history did the entire world attempt to put such ethical values into practice, after World War II, with the founding of the United Nations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the idea being that the entire world would live in peace from now on, having just endured the hardships and horrors of the war. Member nations would send troops in cooperation with other member nations to troubled Carter suggested that the 23 articles of the Declaration had spelled out in almost perfect terms the proper relationship among human beings, and urged the audience to study it when they get a chance. Women and girls, he said, face horrible prospects in most countries of the world.
During his talk, Carter discussed some of the main themes in the books, and said that while he and his wife Rosalyn had visited 140 countries around the world, they had not failed to notice the dire condition and discrimination that women face all over the world. Although women have it rougher in some places than in others, the president argues that each country is guilty of it to some degree. He likened the oppression of girls and women to the Jim Crow segregation that he grew up under in the South, and suggested that this deprivation of equal opportunity for girls and women around the world was the greatest human rights violation in existence today.
Much of his talk was essentially reiterating the serious, and sometimes gruesome, subject matter of his book, and said that he hoped most of the audience would be deeply disturbed by it. He discussed genital mutilation, or female circumcision, an act where a woman, usually a mother or an older woman, will take a knife or razor blade and cut off the exterior portions of female genitalia of young girls. Carter said that 90 percent of women in Egypt, and 97 percent of women in Somalia, had been forced to endure this genital cutting, despite this practice being officially banned in almost every country in the world. He mentioned this as being just one example of many that exist that remains largely concealed from public view, and thus has not truly been addressed.
Carter also mentioned the practice of honor killings, where a girl that is raped by a stranger will be seen as an embarrassment for her family, and will often then be killed by her mother, father, or even her younger brother. He mentioned a sobering statistic, that since World War II, 160 million women have disappeared from the face of the earth, many surely from this practice of honor killings, as well as by families that would have preferred boys.
Slavery was another major topic of discussion. Carter said that now, a century and half since the Civil War and the end of slavery in the United States, the number of slaves today actually exceeds the number that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries. He said that more people are sold into slavery today than back then, and that 80 percent of sexual slaves are girls. Atlanta, where his Carter Center is headquartered and where he teaches at Emory University, is the foremost trading post for this slavery in the United States, where 60,000 people in the nation live in human bondage.
Carter argued that the system of de facto female inferiority continues to exist because men in powerful positions benefit from their superior position. He mentioned that in the Jim Crow South, segregation and white supremacy also existed because powerful men benefited from it. It was mandated by the Supreme Court and by Congress, and few ever questioned it. Some even justified it with Biblical verses, and he said that the same thing happens today with presumptions of male superiority, with some religious figures around the world using their holy books to justify notions that women should be subservient. Numerous passages are interpreted erroneously to mean that women are inferior in the eyes of God. Carter declared that there is no passage in the Bible that suggests that Jesus did not treat women equally to men.
He also discussed the subject of prostitution, and argued that in Sweden, a law had been passed that targeted brothel owners, pimps, and male customers, rather than prostitutes themselves. Canada, France, and Ireland are considered their own versions of such a law, but mentioned that in the United States, by contrast, 25 women are arrested for each man arrested involving prostitution. Police in many countries continue to allow these things either because they are bribed, or they receive sexual favors, Carter suggested.
Carter then cited specific examples of bits from recent news stories about rape on American college campuses. He blasted the recent handling by colleges across the country in cases of sexual assault, including the very same two Ivy League schools that he gave the lectures at. Victims are offered counseling, but the majority of cases remain out of the public view, and are too often not reported to the authorities. He mentioned that while 35 percent of overall rape cases are reported nationally, less than 5 percent of rape cases on college campuses specifically are reported. Colleges simply do not want to admit that any sexual assault cases occurred on their campus. Princeton was not immune to that, he said, and 41 percent of colleges across the country had not reported a single case of rape in the past five years. Carter mentioned that 90 percent of rapes on college campuses are the results of the actions of just a few men, around 4 percent. But he was perplexed why colleges did not crack down on these individuals more. He also more briefly discussed similar problems that exist in the military, where male commanding officers are trusted with sweeping powers in cases of sexual assault, and too often use these powers to sweep these issues under the rug.
A plethora of unaddressed crimes are perpetrated against girls and women the world over, Carter argued. The result, he said, was a terribly high loss of life, disfigurement of little girls, and the bondage of millions of girls the world over to brothels. These, he said, constituted the most serious human rights violation on Earth. In the final chapter of his recent book, he proposes 23 things that could be done to alleviate this level of suffering. But he also urged the audience to assume a level of personal responsibility to stop these crimes by writing articles and speaking on these matters, and doing everything possible to get the word out about it, reminding everyone that these crimes are being perpetrated against mothers, sisters, and daughters. He hoped that everyone would join him to bring these issues to light, and force leaders to do something about it.
During the question and answer session following his talk, Carter was asked how sexual assault on college campuses could be reduced. He answered that women should be as free as possible from having to worry about rape, and even though colleges are reluctant to admit to cases of sexual assault on their campuses because it could be detrimental to their public image, far stiffer penalties should be instituted for colleges that do not comply with the law or otherwise do not address the issue of sexual assault fairly. An organization should be formed that girls can feel comfortable reporting to. Also, the perpetrators should be held responsible for these actions, particularly those who are reported more than once and should be defined as serial rapists. These men should be evicted from the colleges and face jail time. More generally, he also feels that there should be a reform in public thinking on this subject.
He was also asked generally what advice he had for President Obama, and admitted that he does not have close personal relations with Obama. But if there was one thing that he would advise the president, it would be to get more involved in issues that matter to him, particularly that he should be more involved in the situation in the Middle East and Israel. However, Carter was quick to point out that he was not being critical of President Obama.
Carter blasted the very same Ivy League institutions that he had speaking engagements with on what he felt was their poor handling of the sexual assault cases that the schools had in the past. Moving forward, however, he hoped that the community on each campus would raise awareness and force the administrations of each school to handle any future incidents in a manner that would crack down harder on the men responsible, and overall be more caring towards women, assuring that they remain as safe as possible from rape and other violence while on campus.
By Charles Bordeau
– Carter at Princeton – Universities reluctant to admit sexual assault cases
– Carter to speak at Princeton
Photo by David Hume Kennerly – Flickr License