Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Some Reflections on Gun Control

The moment news began to trickle in about the tragic and senseless massacre at Virginia Tech my thoughts, like those of many, turned to my own children—also in college. I cannot imagine the despair and anger the parents of the murdered V-Tech students must be experiencing. Perhaps the magnificent novelist Alice Walker (The Color Purple) puts it best when, describing the equally senseless police and FBI sponsored bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia in 1985, she writes that grief is that “unasuaugeable sadness and rage that makes the heart feel naked to the elements clawed by talons of ice.” Beautiful and sobering words—though perhaps none can fully capture the sadness and rage we all feel at this utterly senseless loss of life.

How, then, can we avoid the questions the V-Tech massacre so obviously raises? How did someone so apparently deranged and desperate gain access to guns? A young man who’d been voluntarily committed in 2005? Who sent a rambling cry for help to NBC in the two hours between shootings? Here, of course, the answers are easier to come by. Hamstrung by the powerful, well-financed, influence-packing anti-gun control arm of the National Rifle Association, meaningful gun control in the United States is all but nonexistent. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any good coming of this tragedy, but if such is possible, let us all hope it comes in the form of stronger and more enforceable gun control laws. A renewed effort to legislate and pass such laws like the recent legislation in Pennsylvania could benefit us all by making access to guns more difficult. Let me be very clear: Perhaps nothing could have prevented this tragedy. I don’t know; no one does or ever will. But what’s inescapable is the fact that it could have been made very much harder to carry out—just maybe enough to be dissuasive—had more stringent gun control laws been in place.

Part of what’s so frustrating about securing enforceable gun control in the U.S. is that, although the arguments against it are just plain indefensible, the NRA manages yet to wield influence against gun-control legislation. Here are four examples:

1. While groups like the NRA and the Minutemen would have us believe that the Second Amendment applies to private gun ownership, nothing in that amendment explicit or implied suggests any such thing. The amendment clearly refers to the rights of militias, and unless we’re comfortable with the illogic of the fallacy of division it bears no relevance to private citizens. To insist that the amendment applies to private citizens is like claiming that because a whole art exhibit is a beautiful art exhibit, every work in it is a beautiful work; but of course this is obviously faulty logic—just like insisting that because an entire militia has a right to “bear arms,” every private citizen member of it does.

2. Though hard to believe, some folks persist in the argument that since we can use a car as a weapon that—if we regulate guns—we should similarly regulate cars. This “argument” omits the crucial fact that the purposes of these two things are quite different. Cars are for driving. Guns are for killing. Like the proverbial comparison of apples and oranges, this analogy only holds up if you deliberately ignore all of the dissimilarities in the comparison.

3. One commentator discussing the V-Tech tragedy on FOX news today suggested that the appropriate response was to arm professors. Resisting the temptation to simply dismiss this—given the discreditable source—I think we need merely note that the very idea of the presence of a gun in a classroom would have so chilling effect upon the project of learning that, well, what more is there to say here?

4. Some are persuaded by an argument that depends on a classic appeal to fear, namely, that if the good guys don’t have guns, only the bad ones will. But this argument fails on the evidence that clearly shows that in the course, for example, of a home burglary you are even more likely to be a victim of a shooting if there are weapons in the house. Given how generally unprepared most folks are to actually shoot a gun, they are as likely to be used against the burglary victims as are the victims likely to be in a position to defend themselves. Moreover, the remedy for this is not to be found in, say, mandatory shooting instruction since it’s simply false that those most vulnerable to home invasion—the elderly—are the same people in a position to access and use a gun with the haste necessitated by the situation. To say nothing of the potential for accidents. Far safer to have a good home alarm system and a big barky dog.

So why do such bad arguments, or arguments completely decimated by counter-evidence, manage to have such powerful influence? NRA fear-mongering (and not-so-tacitly racist) propaganda? Partly. Our John Wayne-style gun-ho (pun intended) romance with side arms? Maybe. Our irrational fear that our neighbors might be “different” from us? No doubt. Without bigotry, the NRA wouldn’t have…uh hmmmm…a shot. (Check out their use this week of anti-Semitic imagery to advertise themseves on a magazine cover).

We can be better than our history; reflection on this horrendous tragedy is an opportunity for critical reflection on the conditions that, while perhaps nothing could have prevented it, we surely have a responsibility to change. Our very creation of a democracy demonstrates that we can act in concert to make the next massacre much harder to execute. We must simply muster the collective will to “just say no” to the proliferation of more guns. A tall order, but one that our children will thank us for.

Wendy Lynne Lee

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Meaning of a Philosophical LIfe

Open Letter to David Horowitz, February 24th 2007

David Horowitz’s assault on academic freedom is, among other things, about as well documented as anyone could hope. Spanning websites like The Network, FrontPageMag, and the ridiculously misleading Students for Academic Freedom, Horowitz continues his all-but-honorable pursuit of names to add to his list of “Dangerous Professors.” Indeed, perhaps this essay will be my ticket; I could only be so lucky. I can even make it easy for him: Google me, David. I published a book entitled On Marx, and I’m a feminist environmentalist vegetarian who fiercely opposes the war. Oh, and I’m queer. Think you’ve got something? It gets even better: I have never had a single student complaint about anything—including indoctrination—in nearly fifteen years, tenure, and two promotions. I’ll bet I represent practically everything you’ve rejected from your Rampart days, but the truth is that what I really represent is a crucial distinction you need to learn to make: An academic’s political life outside her or his classroom, no matter what commitments inform it, has nothing necessarily to do with in-class pedagogy. Indeed, scrounging about for desiderata like party affiliation shows even less. What your “logic” assumes is that we in the professoriate can’t tell the difference between our lives outside the classroom and inside it. How insulting. I assure you that the number of years it takes to earn a Ph.D. makes the meaning of excellent pedagogy quite clear to us. This is not to say, of course, that the academy doesn’t include some errant ideologues—much like the ones I feel sure you’d substitute for good professors. Thank goodness, then, that virtually every university, college, and junior college has policies to effectively deal with such folks, policies that don’t require self-appointed crusaders to point them out.
A case of “Horowitz-think” might be in order here: A successful graduate of the Karl Rove school of spin, Horowitz offers a supremely distorted view of the Pennsylvania Hearings on Academic Freedom topped with stories about indoctrination and student abuse at Bloomsburg University—my institution—that, if they contained a shred of truth would horrify every decent academic I know. The trouble is that he’s lying—and not just your average run-of-the-mill stretching-the-truth lying. Nope. Horowitz is more than willing to resort to total fabrication in order to advance his claim that the academy is writhing with “leftists” whose sole aim is to convert na├»ve students into minions of the revolution. Such is the upshot of his allegation against a Bloomsburg professor concerning an exam question about the Iraq War—except that there was no such exam question; there wasn’t even one a little bit like it. Perhaps it’s beside the point that there is no well-organized Left in the United States (again, I could only be so lucky), but isn’t it just obvious that Horowitz is making all this up in order to convince us (a) that “leftists” form a well-organized danger to democracy, and (b) that their aim is to dominate the academy, our crucibles of the future? Note that I’m not suggesting that professors don’t tend to the “left,” but let’s get real here: what good professors exemplify is that ennobling inherently liberal idea of open and progressive inquiry to whatever ends a sincere desire for the truth leads. This aspiration characterizes my entire career. In this sense, every academic whose first concern is with truth—and not just the preservation of any particular view of the world—is at least a “liberal.” And thank goodness again, for without this commitment, there’s no such thing as scholarship, inquiry, or education.
One wonders in reading his rants whether Horowitz has any real grasp of what academia is about. He talks as if education is simply the communication of static information—as if good internet skills could replace the lot of us. But what he misses—or deliberately ignores—is that university education is so much more. His motto, “teach students how to think, not what to think,” is precisely what we in fact do—without self-anointed zealots to remind us. And of course we teach our students what to think. Why? Because not only do we know more than they do, but because classrooms are not chat rooms. It is no conceit on my part to expect my students to regard me as a legitimate authority on my subject—philosophy. In fact, to doubt this without good grounds serves nothing but to disrupt their opportunity to learn. I am also not interested in making my students comfortable; indeed, discomfort with our assumptions and convictions is the very stuff of critical thinking. In fully Socratic fashion, I routinely challenge my students to examine what they believe. There are no claims that are worth our allegiance that don’t hold up under scrutiny. I don’t, moreover, waste my precious in-class time having my students cut their critical thinking teeth on claims that stand no chance of being true. Indeed, in my particular fields of expertise—philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of ecology, and feminist theory—I know what counts as a poorly structured argument and what counts as a good one; I know what credible evidence looks like. What additional assurances do you need, David? I publish in my fields, prepare students successfully for graduate school, and am respected by my peers. You bet I’m dangerous—just as are all genuine invitations to think. This, however, deserves to be applauded, not vilified.
The truth, however, is that critical thinking isn’t what Horowitz’s crusade is about at all. As his demand for the hire of “conservative” professors makes abundantly clear, his goal is to teach students a “what to think” which includes precisely the content that adorns his websites, for example, that global climate change is a myth, that women’s and gender studies programs are nothing but feminist recruitment centers, that the war in Iraq is about the spread of democracy—talk about indoctrination! The point, of course, is that maybe all of these claims are true, but at Horowitz University students wouldn’t have anything like the opportunity to critically consider whether they were true. The only critical thinking skills likely to be taught at HU are the political combat skills Horowitz himself employs, neoconservative ideological spin, propaganda, ad hominem, slippery slope, and fear-mongering. The Horowitz vision for higher education does make for an okay game of “hunt for the fallacy.” Anything else, say, the HU vision becoming a reality, should make our skin crawl.
Only one thing actually frightens me more than Horowitz’s war on higher education, and that’s faculty apathy. Horowitz has made it abundantly clear that he’s not going away. In fact, he’s counting on us to just keep taking the polite path of the intellectual who doesn’t want to get dirty trying to defend something that shouldn’t need defending. Ironic, isn’t it? Horowitz has fabricated a problem—“leftist indoctrination”—in search of a solution, and thinks that if he repeats this mantra, “the lefties are out to get you!” that after a while even we stalwart and taciturn academics will start to believe it. Surely we have better things to do than take on such idiocy. I know I do. Be that as it may, nothing less is at stake here in this made up “culture war” than the future of genuinely free and open inquiry uncompromised by the threat of McCarthy-style repression. Let’s not mince words: Horowitz is on a witch-hunt, and what’s going on is chilling. We may have won in Montana—but the vote was way too close. We certainly won in Pennsylvania, but not until after thousands of tax dollars were wasted on hearings that should never have seen the light of day. The very idea that any one of us could stand in “need” of monitoring, or that our syllabi should be subject to inspection, or that our party affiliations should make us suspicious, or that Boards of Trustees should have a say in what courses we teach or which professors deserve tenure, or that a student looking to execute a vendetta for a wholly earned failing grade is a credible witness to indoctrination, is enough to make us start surveiling ourselves. And that’s all Horowitz really needs—just enough intimidation to get us to second guess ourselves about whether to assign that text, watch that film, discuss that topic, consider that argument. At the end of this road is the death of education. Hence it’s high time we take a stand for the principle that we have earned the right to represent, academic freedom, without which there are no professors, no students, and no universities.

Wendy Lynne Lee, Professor
Department of Philosophy
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
Bloomsburg, PA, USA 17815
1,140 words.