Saturday, December 28, 2002

Nothing to No One

In 1986, Allen Bloom wrote in his book “The Closing of the American Mind“ - ”There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”

Sixteen years later it appears professors can have this same certainty, if what was witnessed on CSPAN last night is evident of the general state of America’s college students. The program was called “Dialog on Freedom” and consisted of NYU freshmen in a group discussion, lead in Socratic fashion by Harvard law professor Arthur Miller and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

I tuned in late, but at the point I picked it up the discussion centered around a theoretical country ruled by a dictatorship and engaged in egregious human rights abuses and the topic at hand was whether the United States (and Americans, as moral individuals) had any responsibility to intervene to prevent these abuses and to attempt to improve the life conditions of the citizens of this theoretical country.

The choice to use an imaginary country in an interesting one, since there are no shortage of real world case studies to draw from who fit this description (take your pick from the roster of the Arab League). But I guess that’s a practical concession to avoid the degenerating of what was intended to be a philosophic discussion into, “it’s a war for oil!” or “Bush is the real terrorist!”

In short, most of the students thought the human rights abuses were “bad” (and the abuses included the institutional and cultural subjugation of women and the enslavement and occasional mass slaughter of ethnic minorities) and they confirmed they personally wouldn’t participate in such activities. But, almost without exception, each student also had the opinion that they didn’t believe they had the right to tell other people in the world how to conduct their affairs. Furthermore, they didn’t believe their own values were in any way “superior” to those in other countries whose beliefs differ in this regard. Rather, they acknowledged, with regret, that their beliefs as Americans were the product of a Western ethnocentric world view. And since these other perspectives grew out of another culture, by definition they could be no better or worse than a perspective borne from Western civilization. It’s just another way of thinking, no better or worse than any other.

And remember we’re talking about brutal gender discrimination, slavery, and genocide here. I think the key statement was made by a young woman, regarding her personal beliefs that these things were indeed bad, yet still couldn’t compel her to make a broader judgment on them: “Sure I can feel that way, but I can’t think it.”

To be clear, I’m not attempting to condemn the intellects of 18 year olds, as one would expect some degree of immature thinking at this age. And to their credit, these individuals were undeniably bright and they were fearless in presenting their beliefs, even under the sometimes withering questioning and piercing glare of Justice Kennedy. Plus, they were steadfast in their beliefs, and even after ninety minutes of persuasion via the expertly guided discussion by Miller and Kennedy, I’m not sure any of them were prepared to alter their preexisting opinions.

But hearing these firmly held beliefs by the youth of America, which I presume are merely reflections of the faiths of their boomer parents and/or teachers, perhaps we can get some insight as to why most Americans seem opposed to intervention in Iraq without prior approval of the UN. (The Star Tribune today reports fully 76% of Minnesota adults think the US and its allies should get UN approval before taking military action in Iraq).

Likely it’s not an entirely conscious thought process, but somewhere in the cerebral mix I wonder if they believe that acting in our own self interest, based on the presumably ethnocentric Western notion that we should not allow other nations to slaughter our citizens by the thousands with bacteria or nukes, is simply cultural imperialism. In other words, remaining vulnerable and even suffering such an attack is preferable to preventing it, if that prevention isn’t properly respectful of the beliefs of other cultures, even if those beliefs themselves are repugnant to us personally. Which is why we must wait to protect ourselves, until we receive the proper approvals from the likes of Syria, China, Mauritius, and France.

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