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Symbolic Capitalism & the Duty to Protect: A Tale of Two Teach-Ins

“This is the reason why men of arms behave with such harshness and folly. Their weapon sinks into an enemy disarmed at their knees; they triumph over a dying man, describing to him the outrages that his body will suffer…. They never guess as they exercise their power, that the consequences of their acts will turn back upon themselves…. War is easy then, and ignobly loved.”–Simone Weil

“They should have called it a teach-out.”–Unknown College Student

I recently attended a couple of so-called teach-ins on the war in Afghanistan at the public university where I received my Ph.D. in Literature and now lecture in Politics and American Studies. As different in some ways as night and day, these events–one put on by the Department of Politics and apparently designed to deflect questions that might otherwise eat up valuable class time, the other sponsored by Literature and intended to show what distinctive contribution cultural studies could make to “reading” the situation–were nonetheless profoundly similar. They were both out of touch with their audience and the world. On the whole, neither offered much guidance as to either the nature of current political realities or what it means for a person to take up a position regarding the actions of his or her government.

Mimicking long-standing splits in academic subculture between science and interpretation, and deeper cultural ones severing fact and value, the two programs were not only similar but complementary–two halves that did not add up to a whole. One was virtually devoid of any ethical posture at all, while the other was almost all posturing: The political scientists tried to appear rational and objective, counseling students to become experts in International Relations before making any judgments; while the literature faculty labored to appear hip and knowing, offering subjective interpretations of everything from Homer to French poetry and allusions to anal sex in popular culture. And what did this approach to popular culture show? Discussion of a work like Weil’s brilliant response to Nazi terror, “The Iliad, Poem of Might,” would certainly have demonstrated how to render the classics powerfully relevant. But the fashionable reference to “sodomy” in this context appeared to function merely to suggest that the panelist was comfortable speaking about a topic which some of the listeners might have been bewildered to make relevant to public discourse about bureaucratically administered killing. While recent applications of queer theory to early modern literature, for example, have done a lot to enrich understanding of that field (and with it our understanding of what it means to be human), discussion of the conflict in Afghanistan was not notably advanced by a silly talk that seemed to provoke only titters.

The panel was succeeding, in other words, at reflecting to itself an image of itself as superior to its audience–more sophisticated, politically progressive, au courant. Was this “self-parody,” as I overheard someone beside me sardonically wonder? Though I hated to admit it, he was right. The enormous power, past accomplishments and future promise of cultural studies was being travestied. Substantial portions of the presentations might have been lifted straight from Postmodern Pooh, Fredrick Crews’s dastardly parody of academic fads and cliques, with their destructive narcissism and dogmatism. However, in this case I was saddened rather than amused by these twin failures of our public academic culture to deliver an experience of public space when it had the chance, and disappointed, as were the attendees I spoke with–many of them undergraduates eager for a chance to gain ethical insight through collective participation in the civic life of their community.

Instead what they got was, in the case of the presentation by the literature faculty, an approximation of an MLA panel, complete with inside jokes, obscure topics, and jargon incomprehensible to the lay person. There is absolutely nothing wrong with technical vocabulary or difficult writing or challenging concepts; but in this case–in the very public context of discussion about present military aggression by the U.S. government–the fact that no effort was made to communicate meaningfully with large segments of the audience in the room seemed egregious. When the presenters were done there was hardly any time left for discussion and five brief comments were heard from the assembly of around three hundred. Three came from professors, one from a graduate student in science wondering generally about the nature of U.S. power in the world (she didn’t get an answer), and only one from an intrepid undergraduate who, representing the majority faction and apparently dazed by the flood of jargon, could only mumble something about “otherization.” The confused comment seemed painfully apropos as a barometer of what most of the audience had absorbed. Though the event had been billed as a participatory affair, with the standard rhetorical gestures toward inclusion of the audience in “dialogue,” students habituated to their own subordination by professorial expertise received the program numbly in much the same spirit of bad-faith in which it had been offered. Who can blame them?

In the case of the political scientists, students were treated to a typical reduction of the political and existential to a tallying of facts and pseudo-facts shorn of judgment combined with the sort of clichés about representative government one hears in most “Intro to Government” courses. There was, however, more ample time for discussion in this case. Although the moderator saw to it that the liberal format of “question and answer” was not allowed to “devolve” into anything like democratic dialogue (despite fledgling attempts by the multitude to erupt into lines-of-flight), the students, who in this case could at least be expected to understand what they were hearing (even if they couldn’t believe it), offered by far the most hopeful sign witnessed at either occasion. Many of them asked the right sorts of questions.

“What should I do?” asked one student of the political scientists bluntly. “Write your congressman,” came the surreal reply. The ingenuous student insisted, “But I’m not sure if I’m for or against the war.” “Then tell your congressman that,” came the confident teacher’s reply, “I’m not sure myself.” Sometimes you’ve got to throw yourself upon the gears and levers of the machine (as they used to say), and sometimes, apparently, you’ve got to write your elected representative to announce, “I’m vaguely concerned.” Another student asked the obvious question (one that would have seemed hopelessly naive in the cultural studies context, and so could never have been asked there), “Is what the U.S. is doing right or wrong?” The panel wouldn’t say. First of all, such questions are “subjective”; second it depended on whether you meant “pragmatically” or “morally.” “Are we killing innocent civilians,” came the next question, “and is that right either morally or pragmatically if the aim is to stop rather than create more terrorism?” The consistent response from the panel: “Yes, we are killing civilians; but someone else would have killed them if we hadn’t. They’ve been getting caught in the crossfire for years over there.” What about the causes of the current crisis? In echoes of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, the assembly heard that “reason hasn’t worked for them”–did the speaker mean terrorists, Muslims, pr poor people in general?  It was far from clear–“and so they turn to blind faith.” But what exactly is so rational about the Western faith in free-markets and technological solutions to every problem, embodied in a reckless vendetta launched by the U.S. government against “evil” and “terrorism,” wherever it may lead? What about the fact that it is state terrorism, the murder of populations by their own governments, not to mention the death toll exacted by governments massacring “enemy” populations, that claimed the lives of 180 million (by conservative estimates) last century? What about the cost in lives of America’s previous interventions in Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Vietnam…?

Taken together, this pair of events, labeled “teach-ins,” was symptomatic of one of the central weaknesses in the academic Left today: the incapacity for engaged public discourse. The scientists proffer facts but no values, eschewing debate over how to best decide matters of common concern; while the specialists in interpretation weave exotic “readings” that leave the same void. Neither group of professors–with the exception of one panelist–had anything much to say to their audiences about why the U.S. attack was wrong or why and how one ought to oppose it. Unlike teach-ins of yore–meant to at once demonstrate public opposition to government policy (on the model of the activist’s sit-in) and simultaneously empower participants with the kind of information and frameworks for understanding that could make a difference in the conduct of their lives as citizens–these enervating occasions served neither as protest nor as political education. Nor did they give students much chance to respond or engage in opinion-formation. As I overheard one dissatisfied customer declare on her way out, “They should have called it a teach-out.”

Thankfully, one of the panelists had something important to say, bringing together fact and value, conjoining social scientific knowledge with humanistic interpretation. It came from a political theorist who, in the spirit of interdisciplinarity, had joined the literature panel. While reminding the audience of the statistic quoted above about mass-murder by governments, he asked a suddenly attentive group to consider that in nearly every case the state carrying out the killing saw itself as a victim of those it lashed out against. What might it mean for this new century, asked the speaker, if the United States enters a new phase of aggressive interventionism bearing the “mantle of victimhood”? To begin to talk publicly, with students and fellow citizens, about such simultaneously moral, psychological, and political questions–questions that implicate all of us and can therefore be discussed fruitfully in genuine spaces of egalitarian dialogue–we have got to move beyond the narcissism of a self-parodying Left and the irresponsibility of a technocratic liberal elitism. In times of open violent conflict like these, what is true anyway becomes even more painfully obvious–that in response to our students’ and fellow citizens’ questions about what is actually going on in the world and how to think about it, it is neither enough to counsel them to “watch C-SPAN,” as the panel of political scientists actually did, nor is it enough to instruct them to “view [the very same] mainstream media critically,” with a sharp eye for tropes, as suggested by the panel of literature professors. For all their differences, both panels positioned their audience as passive witnesses to a spectacle, in more ways than one.

Gabriel Noah Brahm is a member of the Santa Cruz Editorial Collective of P&C.

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