Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dear President-Elect Obama:

11.5.08

Dear President-Elect Obama,

This morning, November 5th, I am bone-tired and my speaking voice is worn-out from a long day volunteering at the polls. But even as I write this, I am weeping with elation at what might be the closest thing to a miracle I’ll ever see. Your election inspires hope for a more just, more equitable, and more compassionate America than I along with millions of others have seen in a long while. We believe in you and will continue to work for and with you as you undertake the daunting task of recreating our country around what are really its oldest and most precious ideals: opportunity for every citizen, individual and collective responsibility, the conservation of our environment, and the immense value of education. We will also hold your feet to the fire every step of the way—just as you tell us we must—because we aren’t invested merely in the rhetoric of justice and opportunity; we are committed to realizing, to living, this promise. We will expect no less from you than what we have expected these last weeks and days from ourselves, and I can assure you that has been a great, great deal.

Nowhere have I seen the hope symbolized by your presidency realized more authentically than in the tireless work of the Obama campaign team here in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. I can’t even express in words with what high esteem I hold each and every one of these volunteers. Were any one of these folks, especially the excellent young members of your grassroots organizing team, at your breakfast table this morning, you’d know just how this historic victory was won, with what hope we invest you, and how seriously we take our responsibility to build a better country. We are the citizens of a small college town in Pennsylvania—but we’re also a microcosm of the better world we hope to live in.

I also want you to know, Mr. President-Elect Obama, about the students of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. They’re magnificent. These students—like so many others all over the country—stood in line for hours to vote. Not all of them voted for you, but this is, of course, irrelevant. They VOTED, some for the first time, all with good humor, awaiting pizza and popsicles, listening to live music, telling “comfortable shoe” jokes. No atmosphere could have better personified the democratic process than this beautiful day. They came out in record numbers; they helped each other; they made new friends, they danced in the streets at word of your victory, and most of all, they participated in history.

This election has been about so many things, Mr. President-Elect. It’s been about the divisive and painful history of race and racism in America; it’s been about an immoral war; it’s been about 48 million people without health care; it’s been about an economy despoiled by greed. But mostly it’s been about whether we can continue to believe in the promise of democracy amidst such challenges. Yes we can. And as we have shown you, yes we will.

Wendy Lynne Lee
Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania
wlee@bloomu.edu (508 words)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Dumbing Down of the 2008 Elections

It’s as hard to imagine a more important presidential election as it is to envy its winner. “Winner” might, however, be more appropriate given the daunting reality with which either Barack Obama or John McCain will be confronted come November 5th. The question we must thus confront is which candidate is better prepared to deal with this reality. Few doubt that making this judgment is made all the more difficult by those pundits who substitute character assassination, innuendo, question-begging, and guilt by association for a careful analysis of Obama’s positions and worldviews. But we should be just as insulted by the pandering, distorted, and manipulated promotion of John McCain. AND VICE VERSA. Since when did we become so politically illiterate that we can no longer be presented with arguments, but are only capable of digesting the pabulum of “talking points”? This deterioration of the public square has, moreover, been made all the easier by a gradual but unmistakable turn over the last eight years towards the anti-intellectualism represented in the appeal to “six pack Joe” and now to “hockey moms.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that there aren’t plenty of “Joes” and “moms” who make thinking choices in the voting booth. I come from just these people, people who didn’t have the benefit of college educations but who strove to educate themselves and who took it to be a moral responsibility to understand their world. But while my childhood was pervaded by the idea that we could do better than our parents, that this “doing better” wasn’t just about making money but about contributing to our communities, our society, to the production of knowledge and to new ideas, it’s clear that in our current political culture the only “knowledge” that counts is that which conforms to a worldview dominated at once by religious exclusion and corporate greed. No comfortable bedfellows. Indeed, the irony of the far right is that for every deregulation of the so-called “free” market we can count on the further regulation of our constitutional liberties, especially first amendment rights. Hence it’s no surprise that some Democrats and many Republicans voted against the bailout—but for very different reasons. While Republicans cling to the absurd doctrine that the “free” market’s benefits trickle down from the few to the many, dissenting Democrats like Dennis Kucinich get that this ideological gruel guarantees precisely what we now have: a disparity of wealth wider than any other industrialized nation’s (rawstory.com/news/2008/Kucinich).

Our current president rose to power as the man with whom the “average Joe” could identify. Sadly, however, this never meant that the president need have any genuine interest in the lives, needs, or economic struggles of this citizen. It meant that so long as citizens share the right ideology—in this case one that replaces patriotism with “your either with us or against us,” the value of education with “elitism,” choice with the double-speak of “pro-life,” torture with “extraordinary rendition,” the theory of evolution with “creation science,” and now welfare for Wall Street with “economic recovery package”—the average Joe or Josephine is welcome to an America where voting out of fear and ignorance somehow makes you a patriot. No politician epitomizes the dumbing down of the electorate better than Sarah Palin whose cutey-pie winking, abominable grammar, and constitutional illiteracy evokes Bush’s own. “Six-pack Joe” and “Hockey mom” ought to be insulted to be so used. This election matters, and we must all vote our conscience. But conscience uninformed by knowledge and critical thinking is neither virtuous nor “cute.” It’s just ignorant. We must do better.

Wendy Lynne Lee
wlee@bloomu.edu
596 words

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Monster for Idiots: The National Association of Scholars Argus Project

Thinly veiled indeed are the motives of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) whose recently launched Argus Project is precisely what Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Education and Chris Goff of Free Exchange on Campus say it is: a McCarthy-style recruitment of spies to go and “find” evidence of Leftist indoctrination on college campuses. That’s right, an association that claims to represent a community of scholars wants them to spy on each other and then report their findings to the NAS. To what ends? No doubt, more of what the NAS does best—attack the academy as a bastion of left-leaning radicals. Having, in other words, insufficient evidence with which to make that claim stick—even after years of dirt-digging effort and milking cases like Ward Churchill’s for all they’re worth—the NAS has launched an outreach campaign: They can’t smear the academy all by themselves, so they need the help of those right-thinking stewards of democracy at Townhall.com. NAS President Stephen Balch must be kidding. His insistence that “the Argus Project is a call for volunteers to examine publicly available sources to report and document what’s happening on college campuses” doesn’t explicitly call for spies (www.nas.org/polArticles.cfm?Doc_Id=288). Balch even claims that his “own notion of etiquette is that if you are going to go to someone’s classroom, you should get permission.” How polite. Nonetheless, when you consider just what it would take to accomplish the objectives of Argus, it becomes patently clear that surveying university policiy is not what the project’s about.

In the first place, policy investigation is a project that could be carried out by one or two NAS staff members on-line—it doesn’t need a thousand and one Argus-eyes to complete it (despite Balch’s protestation to the contrary). In the second place, and far more telling, that the NAS solicited Townhall.com volunteers makes it quite clear that examining university policy concerning student complaints is not what Balch has in mind, namely, “to look into whether that college conducts politicized teaching, requires ideological adherence, or sustains slights to conservative students” (www.nas.org/polPressReleases.cfm?Doc_Id=278). Nope, this goal demands folks who are willing to enter a classroom, and what better a place to find project-participants than a website whose axe to grind with the academy looks, well, just like his own?

Balch can’t possibly think that we academics are so daft that we don’t know that his “volunteers” are self-selected—in other words, biased, ready to do some “Leftist-hunting.” The Argus project specifically solicits professors, parents, and citizens who “have probably noticed university policies, programs, or events at odds with the responsible exercise of academic freedom or the decent treatment of students. You knew, “This is not right.” Perhaps you even told someone; but very likely nothing changed” (www.nas.org/polPressReleases.cfm?Doc_Id=278). This is hardly an example of an unbiased pitch for volunteers, and it’s not likely to produce any objective claims. No patient policy read is going to generate the kind of “information” Balch is after, and even if we supplement policy with syllabi or second hand accounts of professorial abuses alleged by presumed students like those routinely solicited by FrontPageMag/FOX contributor David Horowitz, there’s no replacing an on-site spy. Balch knows this, and just because he says it’s more polite to ask for permission to enter a class (as opposed to just invading it?), this doesn’t imply that “volunteers” are likely to inform professors that they’re there to gather damning information with which to smear a university and its professoriate . Indeed, any professor I know would, if they knew, likely throw the spy out—and Balch knows this too. In fact, he’s counting on our not knowing; he’s counting on the duplicity of the spy. Asking permission to sit in on a class is a far cry from a revelation of dubious motives.

However much he might try to spin it in FrontPageMag style as a tacit admission of guilt, Balch has to know that ejecting a spy has nothing to do with course content or instruction method—much less indoctrination—and everything to do with the oppressive atmosphere created by their revealed presence. And “revealed” it must be—if that’s what Balch means by “permission.” So either that’s what he means, or he’s wholly disingenuous. I think we know which it is. Perhaps Balch thinks he’s crafted a Queen’s fork: Either let the spy surveil your class or risk appearing to be hiding something. But what he’s really hobbled together is just a plain old self-fulfilling prophesy: Send out spies and they’re going to come back with dirt—created right out of their own ideologically saturated imaginations, and this won’t be because there is or isn’t dirt to find; it will be because they’re already convinced it’s out there—just like Balch says.

It’s not, however, the smug self-certainty of the Argus project that troubles me so much. After all, this just is what we’ve come to expect from the NAS and its sister organizations like Campus Watch, FIRE, and FrontPageMag. No, what’s troubling is that they can get any volunteers at all, that they’ve been able to manufacture sufficient fear and mistrust of intellectuals that they can recruit spies. It’s certainly no accident that they’d appeal to the disaffected and often very shrill Townhall.com folks; they’re the perfect pitchfork audience for the witch hunt the Argus project really is. Troubling too is that, denial notwithstanding, the project actually goes to very little effort to conceal its motives. To appeal to fellow professors is as McCarthyite as it gets: Balch wants his academic neighbors to spy on each other. Naomi Klein argues in The Shock Doctrine that the strategy of Milton Friedman’s “disaster capitalism” is to either take advantage of an existing catastrophe (like Hurricane Katrina and the corporatization of New Orleans’ public school system), or to create the appearance of one in order to justify some form of oppressive appropriation of resources (that “just happen” to offer a marketable opportunity). Isn’t that what the Argus Project’s really about? A thousand eyes all seeing the same thing—Leftist indoctrination—is just the catastrophe NAS needs to justify the substitution of their own conservative ideological agenda for, well, education. What Balch knows, very much like Friedman, is that you can’t control a citizenry without controlling what it thinks. What better a strategy than to undermine a nation’s centers of knowledge, research, and ideas—its universities—by converting their classrooms into opportunities for distrust.

Perhaps a better metaphor for Balche’s project than Argus, a monster covered in eyes, is a disease like Mad Cow that indiscriminately attacks its host from the inside out. It needn’t be able to see anything; it need only create conditions adequate to destroying and then reconstructing the academy in the image of a single vision of knowledge, intellectual exploration, and citizenship. But this is ideology, not education. Argus is not the projects of scholars, but of charlatans who wrap themselves in the flag.

Wendy Lynne Lee, Professor
Department of Philosophy
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
Bloomsburg, PA 17815
wlee@bloomu.edu

Monday, June 30, 2008

Why Drilling in ANWR and off the Coast of Florida is Misguided

Of all the absurd arguments I’ve heard this year, Tom Ciccarelli’s “environmentalism is the mother of socialism” takes the cake. Understanding neither environmentalism nor socialism, his evident aim is to fear monger through the use of language loaded in the direction he apparently knows his “evidence” won’t go (if he had the goods, he wouldn’t need the ballast). Using loaded phrasing like “the lefty plan” Ciccarelli substitutes ridicule for reasoning, accusation (“environmentalists are responsible for the ridiculous energy costs”) for evidence.

Ciccarelli’s only reference, Mineral Management Service (www.mms.gov) is not a source of objective evidence about the benefits or hazards of offshore drilling. MMS’s mission is to promote “energy independence” via drilling and natural gas production. The agency also disburses royalties from this production—evidence of its interested aims. That “copious amounts of oil and natural gas” will materialize is, moreover, fantasy at best. Much like the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), it amounts to fewer than 30 years of energy production at present rates of consumption. According to the U.S. Department of Energy “[i]f Congress were to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, crude oil prices would probably drop by an average of only 75 cents a barrel...The report, which was requested in December by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, found that oil production in the refuge "is not projected to have a large impact on world oil prices” (www.adn.com/anwr/story/414808.html). Ditto for oil-to-shale in Colorado and Wyoming.

Ciccarelli’s plan rewards the already bloated oil and natural gas industries with additional “huge tax breaks” at the direct expense of future Americans (not to mention the rest of the world). He doesn’t tell you that the dollars corporations like BP (Beyond Petroleum) spend on alternative energy research pales utterly in comparison to their PR campaign to defend their current practice, or that the environmental record of Big Oil is beyond deplorable. Instead he resorts to straw fallacy—distortion of an opponent’s position to make a weaker one look better—with admonitions like “hush up, Greenpeace, there isn’t a tree for 750 miles” ignoring the fact that ecosystems depend on the complex interactions of all their constituent members, especially their predator/prey relationships, and that ANWR’s caribou—and thus everything that depends on their migration—is at risk in drilling. Maybe we think that Alaska’s far away, so what happens there won’t affect the rest of us, but as the scientific evidence for global climate change shows, this thinking is naive in the extreme.

Contrary to Ciccarelli’s cynical effort to dismiss environmentalists as leftists, the future of energy production isn’t about party politics; it’s about how much we care about the future of our children. Without the development of environmentally sustainable alternatives, this future’s in jeopardy. The writing’s been on the wall since at least 1973—the first oil crisis—and our lack of innovation and action is not just Big Oil’s fault (although resistance to alternatives is well-documented for Exxon, Chevron, BP); it’s ours. We are the world’s energy gluttons, and more of the same a la Ciccarelli will only hasten the demise of our energy independence. He’s right that we do have smart people. Let’s put them to work asking smart questions like “Hey PPL, where DO you store those spent nuclear rods?” “What more could we do with solar, wind, a diversity of bio-fuels, hydrogen?” The environmentalists, of course, have been asking the hard questions for years. Their proposals for limiting meat production, producing gas efficient vehicles, reducing the production of plastics, controlling pollutants, etc., offer tough medicine—the kind that just might save us from soiling ourselves to extinction.


Wendy Lynne Lee
wlee@bloomu.edu
594 words

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Building a Firewall: The Unconstitutionality of SB 1250 (The PA Marriage Protection Amendment)

April 9, 2008

Testimony on Senate Bill 1250, a proposed marriage amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution

Wendy Lynne Lee, Professor, Department of Philosophy
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
Bloomsburg, PA USA 17815 (wlee@bloomu.edu)

First, please allow me to introduce myself: My name is Wendy Lynne Lee and I am a professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania where I have taught for nearly sixteen years. My primary interest here, however, is that of a citizen. In my view, the Pennsylvania Marriage Protection Amendment (SB 1250) is premised on faulty if not disingenuous reasoning, a distortion of the Pennsylvania Constitution, a paucity of substantial evidence, and an obvious violation of the separation of church and state. It is, in effect, an attempt to build a constitutionally enforceable firewall against an unconstitutional law (PA-DOMA).

As The Support Center for Child Advocates (Philadelphia) makes clear in its March 13th testimony, such an amendment may function to deny legal protection for partners and their children in cases of domestic violence (as has already occurred in Ohio), and could have direct and damaging effects on an already struggling Pennsylvania foster care system. Moreover, SB 1250 could restrict “[a] child’s access to health insurance, medical care, Social Security, and pensions.” “At a minimum,” they go on to argue, “domestic partner benefits—and thus the benefits available to the children of the domestic partner—would no longer be available to any state or local government employee, nor the employee of any contract agent, government agency, or recipient of government funds!”

First to the amendment’s logic: Pennsylvania already has DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) statutes. But, as is made clear on the amendment’s promotional website (www.pa4marriage.org), the proponents of the current law do not regard it as immune to law suit. In fact, they specifically claim that “[i]t's true that Pennsylvania, like 37 other states, already has a law which limits marriage to one man and one woman. Legal experts agree, however, that in the event of a lawsuit, the DOMA is likely to be overturned or struck down. It is also possible that court rulings at the national level could render such laws "unconstitutional"; an amendment to the state constitution is much more likely to withstand such challenges.” In other words, the aim of the amendment is to build a firewall in case of a lawsuit that would challenge the constitutionality of PA-DOMA. The sponsors of the amendment know that the current law is unconstitutional, and that this is why it’s unlikely to withstand challenge. So, the only way to insure that marriage remain an exclusively heterosexual institution is to amend the constitution itself. That the amendment’s proponents place the term “unconstitutional” in scare quotes only serves to underscore their view that the Pennsylvania constitution is bound to recognize only heterosexuals as full citizens and only heterosexual unions as meriting the privileges and responsibilities of specific social contracts, namely, marriages. Such manipulation is clearly inconsistent with the very concept of a constitution, leaving it open to the further erosion of its guarantees.

Second to its paucity of substantial evidence: Contrary to the religiously motivated rhetoric of the Pennsylvania for Marriage website, no evidence supports the claim either that gay unions endanger heterosexual unions or that children raised by gay parents are likely to suffer trauma on that count. That some children of gay parents are stigmatized or even bullied in a society that continues to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation shows only the extent to which bills like SB1250 are likely to harm children and their families by reinforcing—indeed legitimating by constitutional amendment—second class citizenry. The bill’s proponents know that this is why the current law will not withstand constitutional challenge, but are effectively willing to allow, if not actively encourage, discrimination and its attendant harmful consequences for families and their children in the interest of enforcing a narrow and religiously proscribed definition of marriage on Pennsylvanians. The very title of the website offers a telling clue—Pennsylvanians for Marriage—implying that there is only one configuration of marriage that counts, and that whomever would oppose such an amendment opposes marriage per se. That the bill includes an addition to outlaw civil unions (SB 2381) further attests to this intent.

Third, to its violation of the separation of church and state: That the Protect Marriage Amendment’s motives are religious—despite the careful choreographing of the website to avoid overt religious references—could not be clearer. It’s no accident that many of its endorsements come from churches and other religious organizations. Its proponents claim that “if same-sex relationships are legally recognized, schools will be forced to change curricula to reflect homosexual role models and same-sex parenting as normal and acceptable. Parents will lose control of their children's moral education.” This passage, one of many like it, assumes without evidence or argument that homosexual role models are immoral and that same-sex parenting is abnormal and unacceptable. Its aim is to fear monger on the unsupported assumption that gays and gay marriage endanger the “traditional” family.

This reasoning is without justification: Sexual orientation is irrelevant to parenting skill, and as even the most cursory tour of family composition in the United States and elsewhere amply demonstrates, the nuclear, male-headed household does not have a monopoly on successful family structure. Moreover, the burden of proof to demonstrate that gays and lesbians are not adequate parents falls on the bill’s proponents, not on gay and lesbian parents.

That the amendment’s proponents site no fault divorce as an unqualified failure should send a very cold chill up the backs of women whose only escape from violent marriages are no-fault divorce laws. As, moreover, University of Pennsylvania law School Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff makes clear in his March 17th 2008 testimony,

SB 1250 threatens to write into the PA Constitution a license for deadbeat spouses to flee to Pennsylvania in order to avoid their alimony obligations; for disgruntled parents to disrupt the results of child custody resolutions; and for reckless individuals to use Pennsylvania as a safe haven to escape paying their judgments when their actions cause the wrongful death of a same-sex partner. I cannot imagine that any member of this body intends these results, but the amendment invites these bad public policies and even more.

The real motives behind the amendment are in fact to define a civil contract in terms of a religious institution; why else ban civil unions in addition to gay marriage? What makes the proponent’s arguments particularly onerous, however, is that the arguments in support of the so-called unnaturalness of homosexuality have been so thoroughly discredited, and for so long, that it demands nothing less than willful blindness to ignore them. This amendment erects a second-class citizenry in Pennsylvania; it overtly discriminates against citizens, their families, and their children. Professor Wolff makes the point clear in its constitutional context: “[DOMA] takes one class of citizens and (gay men and lesbians) and deprives their relationships, and only their relationships, of equal treatment under the full faith and credit clause [of the federal constitution].” SB1250 is rightly compared to laws that denied marriage across color. Yet, when I queried one legislator directly as to why he has sponsored this bill, his response was that it was the will of his constituents. Would he find this answer acceptable were the amendment to deny marriage across color? I doubt it.

Moreover, the additional amendment to outlaw civil unions clearly endangers current domestic partnership provisions in our and other union contracts. Domestic partnerships are civil unions; to outlaw one is to deny the enforceability of the other. As ACLU representatives make clear in their response to SB1250:

There is significant confusion and disagreement over the interpretation of constitutional amendments that go further than a simple, clear, and concise prohibition on same-sex marriage. The Michigan constitution was amended in 2004 to include this language: “To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.” Michigan Constitution, Article 1, Section 25. The Michigan Court of Appeals has held that this amendment bars state entities from providing health care benefits to domestic partners of state employees. National Pride at Work v. Governor, 274 Mich. App 147, 372 N.W. 2d 139 (Mich. App. 2007). The court found that “the operative language of the amendment plainly precludes the extension of benefits related to an employment contract, if the benefits are conditioned on or provided because of an agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union.” (From the ACLU Senate Judiciary Committee Testimony)

Kentucky has also followed the Michigan precedent: “The Attorney General said that the state cannot provide domestic partner healthcare benefits without violating that state’s marriage amendment” (ACLU testimony). A similar case can be found in Idaho. As the ACLU representatives go on to make clear, the Philadelphia domestic Partnership law is in no way immune from being overturned:

Opponents of the Philadelphia Domestic Partnership Law have already tried to have it overturned once in the court. (They were largely unsuccessful as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against them in 2004 in Devlin v. City of Philadelphia, 862, A 2d 1234). Were this proposed amendment to become part of Pennsylvania Constitution, we would expect another challenge to the Philadelphia law as well as other local laws and that we would see arguments based on this amendment.

Obviously, this is a significant union issue given the recent inclusion of domestic partnership benefits within my current APSCUF contract.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Race-Baiting and the Far Right: The Obscene Assault on Barack Obama

It’s both astonishing and telling that among the questions far-right pundits like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Don Feder, David Horowitz, and Ann Coulter fail to ask about Barack Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright is whether Wright isn’t in fact right with respect to some of his claims about race relations in America.

So preoccupied with the opportunity to reign in Obama’s popularity through guilt by association, so stupified with indignance at the suggestion that African Americans still face racism in “our” America, so thrilled at the possibility that McCain could beat Clinton if she’s the democratic nominee, these self-appointed profits of righteousness are tripping over each other to trash Obama.

It doesn’t matter to the pundits whether Wright’s claims are true; all they needed to be was critical of the government, or of five years in Iraq, or of the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poor—all they needed to be was about the racial divide that still exists in America—and it was as if they’d been handed a noose. Ugly image? You bet; as ugly as it’s true.

More than merely reprehensible, the glee with which the far right has participated in this political lynching reveals just how opportunistic the conservative-controlled media like FOX “news” really is. And worse: their remarks exemplify the very bigotry which accrues to the willful forgetting of history in the interest of insisting that the playing field has been leveled. They know it’s not, and they know we needn’t return to slavery to substantiate it—the Bush Administration’s tardy and inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina’s quite convincing. Perhaps the pundits need to think that they’re victims of “reverse discrimination” to preserve the myth of their own entitlement. What’s certain is that when Sean Hannity implies that an Obama presidency is tantamount to having the Black Panther Party in the White House, he’s race-baiting.

No doubt, some of Wright’s claims are false; the Reagan administration, for example, surely lacked the competence to have created the AIDS virus to commit genocide. But the falsity of some of Wright’s claims is not the discrediting of them all, and we need look little further than our own local paper’s 30 Seconds to discover, for example, the ease with which a middle name can be deployed as a weapon when the candidate’s a black man.

It’s no accident that the firestorm over Wright comes on the brink of the Pennsylvania primary, but it’s hypocrisy at its most loathsome. John McCain accepts the endorsement of John Hagee who claims, among other absurdities, that Katrina was God’s punishment for sexual sin in New Orleans and that it’s a mandate of Islam to kill Christians (www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/02/28/hagee/index). Why aren’t the pundits condemning McCain? Is Hagee’s hateful god their god? Is it irrelevant whether Wright speaks truth to justice so long as the party of war, government corporatism, and religious fascism remains in power?

Whoever your candidate come April 22nd, Obama’s eloquent response to this calculated assault on his character exemplifies not what a Hagee or Coulter would do, but rather what a Jesus would do, namely, decency. Rising above the race-baiting, Obama spoke of his church’s ministry to the poor; he spoke as if we cared about justice; he spoke of his family, his pastor, his country. Obama knows as well as do his critics that what he represents is an America whose face isn’t one color, one religion, one language, one sex, and this must scare the “begeebers” out of those who think they’re discriminated against when they don’t get to have it all.

Wendy Lynne Lee
wlee@bloomu.edu

Friday, March 7, 2008

How to Avoid Educating Your Children--By Dennis Prager

Perhaps the most striking thing about Dennis Prager’s “Questions to Ask Before You Send Your Child to College” (FrontPageMag) is how little it has to do with education and how much it has to do with the ideological control of curricula, scholarship, academic freedom, and ultimately the sort of citizen the academy can produce. There are, of course, the obvious howlers of Prager’s distorted logic. For example, electing not to allow military recruitment on a campus in no way implies “hostility” to the armed services; rather, it recognizes that policies like “don’t ask, don’t tell” are inconsistent with the academy’s commitment to human equality.

The comparison between university professors and soldiers is, moreover, odious in that (a) the contribution to knowledge made by scholars does contribute to the preservation and advance of liberty, and (b) such a comparison presupposes that only war—or at least the threat of war—can accomplish this objective. This latter is, of course, manifestly false, and merely betrays the contempt with which Prager obviously holds the professoriate. In fact, it’s pretty hard to come away from Prager’s “Questions” without wondering when the last time it was that he spent any time on a college campus.

Prager asks (question seven): “[w]ould a typical graduate of your university be able to say anything intelligent about Josef Stalin, Louis Armstrong, Pope John XXIII or Pope John Paul II, differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, Cain and Abel, the Gulag Archipelago, Franz Josef Haydn, Pol Pot, Martin Luther, Darfur, how interest rates affect the dollar, dark matter, and "Crime and Punishment"; explain what the Korean War was about and when it was fought; identify India on a map; and know the difference between the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council?”

Now what’s bizarre about this list is not that students where I teach—Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania—wouldn’t be able to hold forth on many of these topics; they would. No, what’s bizarre is that (a) Cain and Abel are treated as historical figures as opposed to literary ones—as if they’re real people like Louis Armstrong—thus betraying Prager’s not-so-thinly-concealed religious agenda, (b) there are no women on the list—a stunning omission in 2008, and a clear indication of what and whose histories, ideas, discoveries, and scholarship count for him, and (c) what governs who should teach these topics (and no doubt how) is already answered in question three where Prager implies that political party affiliation determines course content.

It’s not just insulting that Prager paints professors as so dumb and blinded by our so-called left-leaning preoccupations that we can’t tell the difference between our professional responsibilities and our private lives—its false. In other words, he can’t be so daft as to really think this; hence the only reason I can fathom that he trots out the “your kids are in danger of indoctrination because there’s more Democrats than Republicans in the social sciences and the humanities” line is because he thinks parents are so dumb that they’ll be suckered by this fear-mongering. Were I a parent of college age children (and I am), I’d be doubly insulted. But it gets worse. Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States is certainly a classic of historical literature. Be that as it may, Zinn’s is not the only text that even the casual student of history would read. Does Prager just not get it that one of our primary missions in the academy is to expose our students to a wide variety of possible views, interpretations, and arguments? Does he really think that there’s only one way of understanding the history of the United States? Does he really think that any interpretation that does not support his “manifest destiny” view is one that amounts to “hating America”?

Now, of course, there are views that aren’t taught because they’re either incoherent, false on the evidence, or both. Bending spoons with your thoughts is not a good use of instructional time in a psychology course; creationism is an equal waste of time and resources in biology. Let me offer an example. I teach a course in philosophy of mind where we read classics like Descartes’ Meditations and a variety of criticisms—many of which implicitly or explicitly challenge the very possibility of the existence of the soul implied by cogito ergo sum. We read a dizzying array of arguments purporting to explain the phenomena of consciousness—some consistent with a Cartesian view of the world—others not. We don’t read tracks purporting the existence of ghosts; we don’t read material devoted to reading the thoughts of the dead. The notion, moreover, that there’s a “left-wing” interpretation of mentality and a “right-wing” interpretation is silly—yet, on Prager’s logic, my party affiliation as a democrat makes my course content suspect. Such courses do challenge students’ assumptions about what they think consciousness, perception, cognition, imagination, and emotion is. But this is what a good course is supposed to do—and if students are made productively uncomfortable by this, so be it.

I also teach feminist philosophy, and indeed it involves an invigorating critique of the Western tradition along with probing questions about the nature and beneficiaries of institutions like the family, marriage, government, and capitalism—from a wide variety of feminist points of view. The course title’s a clue to its content; if you’re uninterested, afraid, or unwilling to be exposed to the critique of these institutions, take something else. But surely the college experience is intended to accomplish more than the reaffirmation of the ideas one comes in with. Thinking is the objective of my courses. Such, however, is apparently too risky for Prager whose insistence on the parental role of colleges is clearly intended to insure against any such opportunity. Being able to recite Shakespeare, I would hasten to point out, is not the same thing as understanding the fraught, sexually charged, politically volatile, and morally messy meaning of his prose.

Taking a page from FOX “news” Bill O’Reilly, Prager insists that what he’s arguing for is a “fair and balanced” college curricula, speakers list, and professoriate. Unfortunately, his obviously religious agenda, his glaring omission of women, his distorted depiction of academics, and his woefully dated notion that men and women cannot share dorm space respectfully, betray his real objectives, namely, that education should be devoted to the creation of the next generation’s loyal and unquestioning subjects—the ones who can spout off the location of India, but who have no idea of its history under British colonialism, the ones who can name Pol Pot, but have no idea of the many and competing views one might take towards the United State’s role in Cambodia, the ones who can name Louis Armstrong, but who have no idea the obstacles he had to confront in American-style racism and its relevance to the present.

Fortunately, few parents would be suckered by Prager’s fear mongering—and perhaps even fewer students. Prager’s isn’t a college; it’s an ideological training station. The parent who really wants the best for her or his child, however, that is, an education, will see right through this.

Wendy Lynne Lee

Friday, February 15, 2008

David Horowitz is not my Savior

While it may not seem directly relevant to his relentless assault on academia, David Horowitz’ latest attempt at hysterical fear-mongering should make anyone committed to the free exchange of ideas shiver in their boots. Purportedly launched across a hundred college campuses on—no kidding—Valentine’s Day, it’s no accident that his campaign to “stop the genocide that Islamic radicals are planning” aims at college students—and, of course, at their professors (http://www.frontpagemag.com/blog/Default.aspx).

Don’t get me wrong; I and countless others take senseless loss of life, wherever it occurs, very seriously. In fact, many of us take it so seriously that we seek to educate ourselves about the histories, the contexts, the religions, the cultures, the politics, and the economics of each distinctive nation because we know—as Horowitz utterly ignores—that facts matter. No matter how many times he denies that he’s referring to all Muslims, when Horowitz refers to Islamofascism he knows he’s smothering the relevance of historical fact in the perverse service of creating a monster with which he can fear-monger his way to realizing his real aims.

And these are not far to find. The Declaration Against Genocide is, first and foremost, a thinly veiled attempt to salvage what little momentum there was for “Islamofascism Awareness Week.” Despite Horowitz’ proclamations on Fox that it was the largest student uprising against Islamic radicals, the week was in fact orchestrated, executed, and spun by Horowitz. Not one wit of it involved any spontaneous student “uprising,” and not one event’s focus was students. Many students, I think, even got it that they were just pawns in his latest photo-op. That Horowitz was booed was a given; that some protesters played into his hands unfortunate.

But for the love of Pete, wouldn’t it be great if students could be rallied to care about real issues? Part of what’s so disturbing and warped about the Horowitz’ campaign is that there are real issues, real genocides, real wars about which students should care (and many—but not enough—do). The Middle East is a tinder-box—but as any real academic knows, simple answers aren’t captured by a hate campaign, and the United States is certainly no innocent player.

Nonetheless, the same Horowitz who insists that these poor “kids” are unwitting dolts manipulated by evil Leftist college professors is the Horowitz who’d cast them in the role of patriots ready to resist the Islamofascists. What stunning hypocrisy. What Horowitz does not want students to get, of course, is that their own government behaves in ways rightly characterized as fascist, that it has engaged in the greatest assault on civil liberty we’ve seen since McCarthy, that it sanctions torture, that it spies on citizens, and that it actively suppresses science not in favor of its corporate-military policies. He calls folks who have the guts to expose this corrupt administration “America haters,” branding those who are in fact the real patriots—the ones willing to stand up against fear-mongering—as traitors.

And this brings me to the second real aim of the Declaration Against Genocide, namely, that, given everything we know about his past strategies and actions, campaigns and interviews, its clear that the Declaration isn’t really about genocide at all; it’s about Horowitz’ latest attempt to attack academics. Consider: He drafts a declaration purporting a genocidal “plan.” He claims that this “plan” has been inexplicably ignored by academics—implying that we have failed to take terrorism seriously. He then postures himself as a savior—offering us a chance at redemption, and all we need do is sign the thing and we can avoid being, well, traitors. No doubt, the declaration is aimed particularly at feminists and other assorted “leftists,” the sinners most in need of the salvation only Horowitz can offer.

How utterly manipulative and opportunistic. The declaration is nothing other than the attempt to (a) turn students against professors on the wholly unwarranted supposition that we have failed to take terrorism seriously, (b) turn public sentiment against the academy on these same grounds, and (c) chill the free exchange of ideas; signing the declaration is signing onto an entire ideology about the good and the evil—and Horowitz knows it.

Lastly, the declaration is about Horowitz and his apparent savior complex. I don’t need to be an expert in neurosis to see that he’s awaiting his next interview on O’Reilly to propagandize for the fascism he favors. But as I have said along with many others many times: among the greatest dangers of our time is the religious extremism that undergirds the profoundly bigoted rhetoric of “us against them.”

David Horowitz is a poster child for bigotry, and it’s our responsibility not only to see through the spin to his motives, but to actively resist propaganda that can lead us nowhere but to world war. The academy must remain a safe haven for the free exchange of ideas and the unencumbered liberty to express them. The Declaration Against Genocide is, in fact, a hate-mongering loyalty oath, and David Horowitz its mercenary salesman.

Wendy Lynne Lee

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Response to Berwick Realist: It's Our Freedom that's at Stake

Although I wonder if he’s kidding, “Berwick Realist” (BR) repeats himself often enough that—although only anonymously—(s)he apparently wants to be taken seriously. The upshot of BR’s remarks is that, whatever the critic’s nay-saying, we’ve suffered no loss of civil liberty under the Bush administration, and that those who think so stand among the deluded “liberals,” “socialists,” and “America-haters.”

It’s easy to show that this is drivel. As writer Naomi Wolf documents in painful detail in The End of America, our Constitutional liberties have never in our history seen so systematic and brutal an assault as they have under the authoritarian “security-industrial complex” of the Bush regime. For those unconvinced, I recommend her discussions of the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the harassment of journalists, the control of the media through monopolizing conglomerates like FOX, unwarranted spying on private citizens, the explicit flouting of the Geneva Conventions, not-so-secret foreign prisons—and torture (p. 52-68).

The erosion of our first amendment rights is clear: the actual torture of anyone is the threat to torture—anyone, and if we think we’re safe because we’re good citizens, we’re simply being na├»ve. As Wolf shows, “enemy combatant” knows no national boundaries; freedom of speech critical of the government died with the Patriot Act.

But perhaps BR is a victim of the spin to which our language has been subjected in recent years in the interest of concealing the truth, creating an inhuman enemy, or diluting the facts so thoroughly that we just don’t get, for example, that phrases like “axis of evil,” “Islamofascism,”and “war on terror” are intended to keep us paralyzed by the fear of some coming Armageddon.

Don’t we get it that the spin-masters who create bigger-than-life-evil-super-power nemeses for us are making whopping big bucks off the manufacture of a culture of war-mongering—all at our expense? Are we so occupied with American Idol that we just don’t care that our kids are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for nothing but the profits spun out of “Rumfeld-stiltskin” hype? THINK: is the reporting of facts unfavorable to the government treason? Rupert Murdock thinks so. Are critics “enemies of the people”? Ask Sean Hannity. Does “war-footing” justify the complete suspension of the rights of people deemed “enemy combatants”? Ask Bill O’Reilly. Are professors who challenge their students to critically evaluate their government’s actions a danger to civil order? Ask David Horowitz.

This isn’t to say, of course, that we don’t have enemies or that there aren’t real issues to confront. Indeed, I can think of nothing more threatening to global stability than religious extremism. The theocrats within our borders who’d dictate what our children can read, what counts as science, whom we can love, what women ought to aspire to, and who can represent God are the ideological soul mates of the Jihadists.

Wouldn’t it be ironic—and tragic—were we to forfeit our democracy in the very course of defending it from those enemies? This is what we’re doing, whether BR gets it or not. While we reel between the “Renew America” evangelicals and the corporate pirates of the Bush administration, our infrastructure erodes, millions go without health care, our environment deteriorates, and our civil liberties languish; yet we dump trillions into a war for a fuel that’s literally going the way of the dinosaur. We can’t afford BR’s blinders. If we give up the liberty for which our country stands, we will have nothing left at the end of this misbegotten war but spin—and it can’t possibly pay the debt on the lives lost to it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why I teach philosophy

Why do I teach? Why do I teach philosophy? I can imagine a hundred worthwhile answers to this question. Teaching offers the opportunity to communicate great ideas to a new generation; teaching in the humanities contributes to the mission of a true university; it helps students to hone their critical thinking skills, hopefully to become better citizens and more self-reflective human beings.

For me, however, the first question isn’t “Why do I teach?” but, “Why philosophy?” Not, that is, “Why did I make philosophy my profession?” or even “Why do I teach philosophy and not something else?” but rather “Where does teaching have its place in my own philosophically driven life?” This is my question because while philosophy is my profession—and a fabulous one at that—it’s no “day job.” I don’t go to class “thinking philosophically,” then head home to think in some other way. No. Philosophy’s a way of life, and there’s no conveying its content in a classroom without exemplifying its value as a way of life—not, at least, for me.

Moreover, I want to persuade my students not only that philosophy is such a way, but that it offers an excellent life. That anyone should call this manipulation or indoctrination is absurd; I can only be persuasive to those whose critical thinking skills equip them to understand the arguments that make philosophy so valuable.

For me, the question must be posed this way because, as peculiar as it may sound, I teach for largely the same reasons I am home to a motley selection of rescue animals, am a committed vegetarian, a long distance runner, a feminist, an environmentalist, and most important of all—a writer. I teach philosophy, in other words, because I really believe its questions are the stuff of the most significant decisions any of us ever make. Questions like “Whom ought I to love?” “What ought I to consume/use?” “What activities contribute to the good life? “What ought I to try to communicate?” are all questions that each of us confronts eventually.

What philosophy offers is a cornucopia of possible responses—but more than this, it offers an example of thousands of year’s worth of people who gave over their lives to struggle with them. It can show us that, no matter how sophisticated we think we are, no matter how shrewd or savvy, questions about why there’s something rather than nothing—and why we’re among the somethings—matter.

Such questions, moreover, are not merely the stuff of our moral quandaries; they inform the content of our creative praxis as well. Fall of 2008, for example, I’ll be teaching both Contemporary Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy and Aesthetic Experience—and I’ll go out of my way to talk my most interested students into taking both courses. Why? Because questions about the nature of consciousness bear on questions about how certain kinds of experience are possible. Taking both courses will enrich my students experience in a fashion that’s not just about the content, not just about my expertise, and not even just about their academic erudition. It will make them think about the connections among our fields, our ideas, our anxieties. Of what must a creature be able to be conscious in order for experience to be aesthetic? What does it mean to say this? Are there creatures other than human beings capable of aesthetic experience?

Perhaps such questions don’t seem to have anything of the “radical” about them. But they do. In fact, they lead right to some of the assumptions we hold precious—even inviolable. Does aesthetic experience require a soul? Is that why it’s unavailable to nonhuman animals? Is it unavailable? What in human experience counts as having aesthetically appreciable qualities? Can violence? Pornography? We’ll read the likes of Plato, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer right along with contemporary theorists—including feminist critics of classic conceptions of rationality, and theater pieces like The Vagina Monologues.

Bravely journeying where an argument leads—and being able to take folks with you—is, methinks, part of the job description of a good teacher. This is not merely a matter of exercising command over one’s subject matter. No doubt, command’s important, but if I cannot exemplify for my students why I care so much about philosophy, why on earth should I expect them to? As an undergraduate at University of Colorado, I had the immense fortune of having a professor who made ideas simply live in his classroom. He thought on his feet; he said things with which I agreed—and lots of things with which I didn’t. He was loud. He was animated. He trashed a tradition I have come to appreciate. But what he didn’t do, didn’t think he was doing, and would have been mortally offended if anyone had suggested it to him, was indoctrinate me. I came away thinking, and I’ve been grateful to him ever since.

This is the sort of teacher I want to be.

I want to ignite my students imaginations, get them to consider possibilities they may never have considered before, and make them think long and hard about what they take for granted. I want them to see that there’s absolutely nothing worth believing if it cannot hold up under scrutiny, the demand for evidence, and an investigation of its logical coherence. Some call this “no sacred cows” approach “the corruption of youth.” Fine. Philosophy’s no comfy reiteration of what our parents taught us. Others call it “liberal.” Of course it is. “Liberal”: Unafraid to consider ideas that are unfamiliar, and willing to consider the possibility that traditions do not justify themselves merely on the backs of their duration.

Some might even call such an approach “leftist,” you know the “boogy-word.” Also fine by me. I know why folks like David Horowitz and his army of anti-academics fire off this word: to shut thinking down. Why do I teach? Because the value of truth is not found in the smug security of those who think they have it, but in the ongoing inquiry into why our lives are improved by the search.