Enraged Moderates Taking Stands
I was walking around town one evening, early in my first semester of college, getting the lay of the land, experiencing the city, and getting away from the sheltered chaos of the dorm. I came across a poster on a telephone pole: Black background, a triangle dominating the top (too washed out to have any color), and at the bottom an equation:"SILENCE=DEATH" I'd never seen the like before, never heard of ACT-UP or gay liberation or had an openly homosexual friend and knew nothing about the extermination of tens of thousands of suspected homosexuals in the Holocaust. I stopped and thought about it for a while. It was one of those moments, when you know you've learned something important, but you're not quite sure what. Silence is death; death is silence? Well, yes, in many, many important ways. And, after a while, I walked on, thinking about death and silence, feeling a little more alive, but also a little frightened by the truth I'd been given.
There was an anti-war faculty teach-in at my university today (it's still Thursday, Hawai'i Standard Time), and I slipped over for a few minutes in between lunch and a teaching demonstration by a job candidate. I went because I'd agreed, about a month ago, to join in. I spoke briefly at the equivalent demonstration a year ago, focusing on the importance of maintaining our standards and preserving our values and protecting our institutions even, especially, in the face of crisis (rather than bypassing valuable institutions and taking other nasty shortcuts), to build a better future. I really wasn't sure what I wanted to say today until this last week, when things began to come together. I didn't want to speak long (I didn't have a lot of time, for one thing) so I wanted it to be clear and focused.
One of the other speakers, a colleague from the philosophy department, had sent around a notice of demonstrations on Saturday protesting the war and calling for an immediate end to the US occupation. I wrote back to him:
I'm sorry, but I can't take quite that strong a position. Having done the dumb things we did, we now have an obligation, moral and legal, to assist in reconstruction and stabilization. For that to be meaningful and successful, the occupation of Iraq can't end precipitously or easily. Not that I think the Bush administration is doing a good job, but I can't help but think that it would be even worse if calls for withdrawal were to succeed.
When I got to the demonstration, my colleague was talking about about"people who say that we have a legal and moral obligation to assist in the reconstruction....." He went on to say (I'm pretty sure, but I missed some of it talking to the organizer and MC) that my position was not going far enough, that we have an obligation to acknowledge that the Iraq war was not just dumb, but criminal, and that America would never truly have faced up to its responsibilities until our war criminals (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc.) had been deposed and tried at the Hague.
I sympathize, but I'm trying to be realistic here. We don't really live in a world where the leaders of the truly powerful nations (or other institutions like companies) are held accountable in a meaningful fashion. It'd be nice, but we don't live in that world yet. A few other people got to speak next: a historian from our companion community college on the unmitigated environmental and health effects of the war on the Iraqi people, and a communications professor who talked about war as a failure of principles of good communication (she's right, but I can't think of anyone who ever said that war was a good form of communication). Then it was my turn. It's funny: I teach every day, half the time in front of groups larger than the one at the demonstration. But it's a different kind of public speaking and a new audience, and I was still quite nervous and excited.
Here, as best as I can remember, somewhat polished, and with things I maybe should have said in brackets, is what I did come up with:
About a week ago there was a bombing in Madrid, which has been pretty definitely connected to al-Qaeda. A few days later, the Spanish people had an election, and voted out the current government in favor of a Socialist government who has promised to get Spain out of the US-led occupation of Iraq [unless we turn the whole operation over to the UN by July]. Many commentators have been characterizing this as a victory for al-Qaeda, a retreat in the face of terror, appeasement.
This was not a victory for al-Qaeda; this was a victory for democracy. The Spanish people, ruled by a government which ignored the wishes of the vast majority to ally with the US in Iraq, chose to vote for someone else, to replace a grossly unresponsive government which got them into trouble with one that is promising to do what they actually want done. This is their right, their privilege as a democratic society.
We can't call an election anytime we want [this isn't California, after all. And we don't really have the option of pulling out of Iraq: that wouldn't be responsible or fair], but we too live in a democratic society. And we should not allow our legitimate righteous anger at the system which brought us to this point obscure the fact that we have a right, an opportunity, to express our will to those who have ignored it. We must take advantage of the opportunity we have [to follow the example of the Spanish people] and make our voices heard, make our will known and call our leaders to account. It is our right, it is our opportunity, our obligation, and our best hope.
OK, it could have been smoother, but I was working from scribbled notes and thoughts floating around in my head that hadn't really come together clearly until this morning. Afterwards, I got to thank my philosophy colleague for quoting me, even in disagreement, and agreed that we should sit down and chat sometime, and a reporter from our local newspaper [his story is here] got my name and asked me to clarify my position on the war (I mostly reiterated my earlier e-mail), then it was off to the teaching demonstration. Was it useful, my speaking out? Who knows. But silence is death.
In a completely different vein, a distinguished Asianist has rejected outright a University of Colorado honor in protest of the athletic program sexual assault scandal and the general domination of CU resources and priorities by the athletic programs. Joyce Chapman Lebra is a member of the second generation of post-war Asianists (and first generation of womens' studies scholars), with research and teaching interests that span from Japan to India, from political leaders and military campaigns to womens' studies. She's been emerita since 1991. Her protest was echoed by CU's Nobel Laureate (Physics) Carl Wieman, who called the university"an appendage of the football program." This is getting the school a fresh wave of deservedly bad publicity, and I think more (tenured and retired) scholars should consider public humiliation as a tool for twisting administrative arms. The only good news for CU at the moment is that the"Academic Bill of Rights" legislation before the Colorado legislature has been withdrawn from consideration.
comments powered by Disqus
Oscar Chamberlain - 3/19/2004
A fine statement at that demonstration.
The middle ground on Iraq is an extremely difficult place. You are absolutely right about the responsiblity to help them establish order before we leave. Yet it seems clearer every day that any good that is done by the people we sent there is accomplished despite poor planning and leadership. Because of that I have some sympathy for the "out now" position.
Still, I think it is the wrong one.
- Who wrote the new AP US History framework? Now we know.
- Pro-Israel groups going after federal support of Middle East Studies
- 100th Anniversary of Beard's 'An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution' commemorated
- University of Illinois Bigwig to Native American Studies scholar Jean O’Brien: Drop Dead
- 2 of 21 MacArthur Fellows for 2014 are historians