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.