Comments of Harold Furchtgott-Roth
Federal Communications Commission
Before the Federal Asian Pacific American Council
May 10, 2001
Thank you for inviting me to speak to the Federal Asian Pacific American Council. I am honored to be here.
My oldest child's first words were "B'yao" as he pushed away food on his high chair. He, like all of my children, grew up hearing and speaking Chinese. On Sunday afternoon, my children attend Potomac Chinese School where they learn Chinese characters.
My children are not of Chinese ancestry, but they are American. In America, one can choose any aspiration; one can learn anything one sets one's mind to learn. My children are learning Chinese.
I have come to speak not about connections to the Asian American community but about our collective role as public service, and our great responsibility as public servants.
America is a great land. It is rich in natural resources, blessed with great natural beauty. Our nation has the largest economy in the world and the strongest military.
By any measure we are a great nation.
But our greatest attributes are neither physical resources nor economic achievements. Our greatest achievements are abstract ideas: principles of justice, equality, liberty, and limited government.
These ideas were ventilated in a young nation. Lincoln perhaps summed it up best when he described us as a "nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
The history of America is not as pure as its founding principles.
Despite great aspirations, our nation, like all nations, has had episodes of falling short of its greatness and principles, particularly the principle of equality. Lincoln wondered whether "any nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure." He might just as well have wondered whether the principles of dedication could long endure.
The history of Asian Americans is one of both promise and despair, of both success and failure. Our government has both succeeded and failed.
For Asian Americans, there were prolonged periods of discriminatory laws. There were internment camps during World War II. And there are many other problems as well.
We have a government based on great principles that it has all too often failed to live up to. What should we do?
We should be grateful to have a government based on great principles, rather than a government based on lesser principles, or no principles at all.
Principles do not fail governments; governments fail their principles.
And governments are not abstractions that passively fail principles; it is the individuals in government who fail principles.
Our job as public servants is to serve the public and the government.
And it is our job to live up to the principles of government. If we don't, who will?
And how can we as public servants live up to the high principles of American government?
In the following ways: follow the law; be efficient; and be ethical. Moreover, we can do all of these better if we accept an anonymous role between government and the governed.
As government employees, we have both private identities and public anonymity. It is a complex balance. Anonymity for employees, whether public or private, is the norm rather than the exception.
Think of the public employees you meet in your daily private life: police officers, fire fighters, teachers, librarians, toll booth collectors, postal employees. They are people whom you do not know; and they do not know you. They do their job, or at least they should, regardless of the identity of the person before them. And the public's behavior towards these public servants should be the same regardless of the personal identity of the public servant.
Our role as public servants is not about our personal identity. It is about following the law, about being efficient, and about being ethical. Anyone else in our public servant role should do exactly the same.
In America, as private individuals, we can be whatever we want to be. But as public servants, we are what the law tells us we are. As individuals, we can associate with whom we wish to associate, have special friends. As public servants, we treat everyone the same.
The greatest public servants are in fact anonymous. My favorite example are the clerks at the Motor Vehicle Administration. There are long lines. Efficiency may not be great. But standing in line, I can see that everyone gets treated the same. People from all walks of life get treated exactly the same. No one better, no one worse. No one is pulled out of line for better treatment. No one is pulled out of line for worse.
Governmental equality can only come with anonymity of treatment. The statue of justice is blind for a reason.
Other governments have tried for equality. Many have failed. Many did not even try.
Each of us--or our parents, or earlier ancestors--came to America for different reasons. My father came to America from Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. It was go or likely die. There was no where else to go. Many died.
Czechoslovakia was not a backward country in the 1930s. There was a constitution. There were laws. There were courts. There was a government. People did not look identifiably different. Life and anonymity would seem to be easy.
And yet in Czechoslovakia, and in much of Europe in the 1930s, anonymity did not exist. These European nations must have had some great principles. But they failed those principles miserably. Government employees were not anonymous. Government treated people different based on their identity. Very differently.
While at times in Europe before World War II, there may have been an illusion that people could be whatever they wanted to be, it was just an illusion. One could only be what the government allowed one to be, if anything at all.
Our job as public servants in America is to serve the public. And it is a very important job. We can make America as great as her principles. No one else can.
There are billions and billions of people in the world. Each one, in his or her own way, is potentially an American. When they think of America, they must think not only that there is a nation of great material accomplishment. They must also have reason to believe that there is a nation of great principles, and a nation that lives up to those principles.