Content-free political labels

Here’s a quiz. Who said the following:

“In his inaugural address, Mr. Bush calls 9/11 the day “when freedom came under attack.� This is sophomoric. Osama did not send fanatics to ram planes into the World Trade Center because he hates the Bill of Rights. He sent the terrorists here because he hates our presence and policies in the Middle East.

…

The 9/11 killers were over here because we are over there. We were not attacked because of who we are but because of what we do. It is not our principles they hate. It is our policies. U.S. intervention in the Middle East was the cause of the 9/11 terror. Bush believes it is the cure. Has he learned nothing from Iraq?

In 2003, we invaded a nation that had not attacked us, did not threaten us, and did not want war with us to disarm it of weapons it did not have. Now, after plunging $200 billion and the lives of 1,400 of our best and bravest into this war and killing tens of thousands of Iraqis, we have reaped a harvest of hatred in the Arab world and, according to officials in our own government, have created a new nesting place and training ground for terrorists to replace the one we lately eradicated in Afghanistan.”

Was this said by some radical leftist? Some long-haired peacenik? Ward Churchill? Actually, it was Pat Buchanan, a staffer for Richard Nixon and long-time Republican stalwart writing in a recent issue of the magazine The American Conservative.

Ok, here’s another writer:

“The US economy is headed toward crisis, and the political leadership of the country–if it can be called leadership–is preoccupied with nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

…

Oblivious to reality, the Bush administration has proposed a Social Security privatization that will cost $4.5 trillion in borrowing over the next 10 years alone! America has no domestic savings to absorb this debt, and foreigners will not lend such enormous sums to a country with a collapsing currency–especially a country mired in a Middle East war running up hundreds of billions of dollars in war debt.

A venal and self-important Washington establishment combined with a globalized corporate mentality have brought an end to America’s rising living standards. America’s days as a superpower are rapidly coming to an end. Isolated by the nationalistic unilateralism of the neoconservatives who control the Bush administration, the US can expect no sympathy or help from former allies and rising new powers.â€?

Who is this Bush-hater? Michael Moore? No, it was none other than Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration and former Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review.

The point of my using these quotes is to illustrate my view that the labels ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ ‘Democratic’ or ‘Republican’ have ceased to be meaningful in identifying people’s political positions on many issues. They may have at one time identified particular unifying political philosophies, but now have ceased to have content in that there are no longer any clear markers that one can point to that identify those positions.

Not all political labels have ceased to have content but those four broad-brush categories in particular are used more as terms of political abuse than for any clarifying purpose. Their only purpose is to set up fake debates on television’s political yell shows. If you advertise that you have a liberal and conservative on your panel (or a Democrat and Republican), you can claim that your program is ‘fair and balanced’ even though both people pretty much say the same thing on major policy issues, differing only on minor tactical points or on style.

It makes more sense, rather than identifying and aligning with people on the basis of these meaningless labels, to form alliances on specific issues based on where they stand with respect to those issues. And when one does that, one finds that many of the old divisions melt away.

The greater danger of labels (whether they be of religion, nationality, or politics) is that they are used to divide us and herd us into boxes and make us think in terms of what we should believe and who are allies should be than what we really want them to be. They are being used as weapons to divide people into ineffective warring factions and thus prevent them from finding commonalities that might lead to concerted action.

I do not agree with Buchanan or Roberts on everything they say. On some things I strongly disagree. But unlike the members of the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ brigade who should be ignored, they are serious people who often have useful information or perspectives to share and I read them regularly.

Dismissing the ideas of some people simply because of the label attached to them makes as little sense as supporting other people for the same reason.

Putting thought police in the classroom

Most of you would have heard by now about the bill pending in the Ohio legislature (Senate Bill 24) to “establish the academic bill of rights for higher education.�
The bill is both silly and misguided. It mixes motherhood and apple pie language (“The institution shall provide its students with a learning environment in which the students have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subjects they study.�) with language that is practically begging students with even minor grievances to complain to higher authorities.

In a previous posting, I spoke about how lack of trust leads to poor learning conditions and that we need to recreate the conditions under which trust can flourish. This bill goes in the wrong direction because it effectively creates a kind of ‘thought police’ mentality, where any controversial word or idea in class can end up causing a legal battle.

Let me give you an example. The bill says “curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social studies shall respect all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.�

As an instructor, how would I respect “all� the knowledge in the area? What do we even mean by the word “knowledge.� How do we even separate knowledge in the humanities and social sciences from those in the sciences? What constitutes “dissenting viewpoints?� And how far should “dissenting� be taken? If a particular point of view is not mentioned by the instructor, is that grounds for complaint?

Take another example.

“Students shall be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study and shall not be discriminated against on the basis of their political, ideological, or religious beliefs.�

Grading is an art not a science. It is, at some level, a holistic judgment made by an instructor. To be sure the instructor has a deep ethical obligation to the profession to assign the grade with as much competence and impartiality as he or she can muster. But even granting that, a letter grade or a point allocation for an assignment is not something that can be completely objectified. Give the same essay or problem to two different teachers and they will likely arrive at different grades even if it were “graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge.� And this can occur irrespective of how agreeable or disagreeable the student’s views might be perceived by the instructor. So if a student complains about a grade, how can this be adjudicated?

As I said in a previous posting, the reason we currently have so many rules in our classrooms is that we seem to have forgotten the purpose of courses, and have lost that sense of trust that is so vital to creating a proper learning atmosphere.

This bill, rather than increasing trust in the classroom, will decrease it. Because as soon as there is legislation prescribing what can and cannot be done in the classroom, it will inevitably lead to teaching and grading issues ending up in the courtroom. And in order to avoid that tedious and expensive process, universities will start instituting detailed lists of rules about what can and cannot be done in the classroom, and teachers will start teaching and assessing defensively, simply to avoid the chance of litigation.

Is this what we want or need?

POST SCRIPT

Tomorrow (Thursday, March 3) from 7:00-9:00 pm in Thwing Ballroom, Case’s Hindu Students Association is hosting an inter-religious dialogue on how to reconcile a belief in God in light of major disasters like the recent tsunami.

There will be a panel of religious scholars representing all the major religious traditions (drawn from the faculty of the Religion department at Case and elsewhere) and plenty of time for discussions. I will be the moderator of the discussion.

The event is free and open to the public and donations will be accepted for tsunami relief efforts.

Living in a reality-free world

Here is some news to curl your hair.

The Harris Poll® #14 of February 18, 2005 reports that:

- 47 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001;
- 44 percent believe that several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis; and
- 36 percent believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded that country.

Virtually no one who has followed these stories believes any of the above to be true. And this poll was released just last week, long after the David Kay and Charles Duelfer reports were made public, putting to rest all the overblown claims that were used to justify the attack on Iraq.

Also something that experts do believe to be true, that Saddam Hussein was prevented from developing weapons of mass destruction by the U.N. weapons inspectors, is supported by only 46 percent.

How is it that so many Americans seem to be living in a reality-free world?

The reason is that such falsehood as the ones listed above are strongly implied by influential people and uncritically reported in the media, or influential people stay silent when such falsehoods are propagated.

Take for example a speech made just last week (on February 17, 2005) by California congressman Christopher Cox at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Michelle Goldberg of Salon was at the conference and reports his exact words: “We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and the facilities to make them inside of Iraq, and even more about their intended use, including that a plan to distribute sarin, and the lethal poison ricin — in the United States and Europe — was actively being pursued as late as March 2003.â€?

And who were the members of the audience who did not contradict Cox as this nonsense was being spouted? Michelle Goldberg reports that among those “seated at the long presidential table at the head of the room were Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, Missouri Senator Norm Coleman, Dore Gold, foreign policy advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and NRA president Kayne Robinson.� Cox’s comments were made while introducing Vice President Dick Cheney, who gave the keynote address.

Now it is possible to carefully deconstruct the congressman’s words so that some semblance of truth can be salvaged. But that would involve re-defining words like ‘discovered’ and ‘weapons’ and ‘facilities’ and ‘plan’ in ways that would make Clinton’s parsing of the word ‘is’ seem like a model of transparency.

So what are we to make of political leaders who can say such deliberately misleading things? What are we to make of other politicians who know the facts but choose to remain silent while the public is led astray? And what are we to make of the national media who spend enormous amounts of time and space on issues like Michael Jackson’s trial but do not provide the kind of scrutiny, factual information, and context that would make politicians more cautious about what they say?

Politicians who mislead the public may be just cynical in that they know the truth and are just saying things for the sake of political expediency. But the danger with allowing this kind of talk to go unchallenged is that it creates an echo-chamber in which people hear the same false things from different directions and start to think it must be true. When people start believing their own propaganda, then they have entered a reality-free zone and this can lead to disastrous consequences.

George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946) wrote “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.� The sad truth is that Cox’s speech is by no means the only, or even the worst, example of this kind of linguistic chicanery. One has only to go back to the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq to see even more egregious examples of deception by the highest ranking members of the government, and timidity and silence from the supposed watch-dogs in the Congress and media.

Is it any wonder that so many people live in a world that does not exist?