Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Dark Side

The institution of higher learning at which I spent almost ten years of my young, adult life has apparently gone over to the Dark Side. (Not for the first time, of course. Like most universities, it behaved shamefully during the McCarthy Era.) An article at Inside Higher Ed, Beware the Button Police, takes note of the University of Illinois' new policy on political expression: viz., banning political expression on campus, be it pins or buttons, bumper stickers on cars, attending rallies on campus, much less expressing an opinion on the election in class. (Link thanks to Bitch Ph.D.) I checked out the University of Illinois' "ethics" page myself and saw that it also requires every employee of the university to report all "communications" with elected officials. Does that mean that staff and faculty are now required to keep & submit a log of all their phone calls and letters and visits to their federal, state, county, and municipal representatives? The article quotes from a draft statement by Cary Nelson (who happens to be the president of the American Association of University Professors) and other faculty, now circulating:

“Although these rules are not at present being enforced, the AAUP deplores their chilling effect on speech, their interference with the educational process, and their implicit castigation of normal practice during political campaigns,” the draft says.

It adds: “The Ethics Office has failed to recognize and accurately define both the special context of a university and the role of its faculty members. Campus education requires that faculty and students have comparable freedom of expression on political subjects. This applies not only to obvious contexts like courses on politics and public policy in a variety of departments but also to the less formal settings in which faculty and students interact.... As the rules stand, students can exercise their constitutional rights and attend rallies and wear buttons advocating candidates, but faculty cannot.... [S]tudents might attend campus rallies and later analyze them in a classroom. Are faculty members to have no experience of the rallies themselves? Finally, it is inappropriate to suggest that faculty members function as employees whenever they are on campus. Faculty often move back and forth between employee responsibilities and personal acts within the same time frame.”

I wish he had also included staff in that last sentence. University staff often belong to activist groups, often attend rallies, often help organize rallies (after hours, during their lunch breaks-- but apparently all political activity during breaks from work is now forbidden to staff when they are inhabiting University property).

My reference to "the Dark Side," of course, was a joke. A peculiar kind of joke I seem to need to make because this controlling and surveilling of political expression at a place so important in my personal history pains me. But after writing those words, I suddenly recalled Steven Shaviro's recent posts on The Pinocchio Theory on applying the characterization "Evil" to John McCain.

[W]e should make it clear that even the most minimal sense of human dignity requires us to throw the Republicans out of power. It is not stupid to vote for McCain/Palin; rather, it is evil. Republicans are intrinsically, and necessarily, morally depraved. Anyone who votes for McCain/Palin, or supports them, by that very fact demonstrates that he or she is a person utterly devoid of basic morality, and lacking in any respect for others. To vote for McCain is to shit on human civilization, and show utter contempt for human values and human hopes. And not in spite of the Democrats’ hypocrisy, but rather precisely because of this — because their hypocrisy is, as it were, the compliment that vice pays to virtue — the moral thing to do in this election is to vote for Obama.

In a follow-up post, he defends his use of the word "evil" against the uneasiness of anti-essentialists like me who are deeply suspicious of the use of the word wherever they encounter it. His argument about McCain is very interesting and likely to startle a lot of people (and has in fact provoked 50 comments so far):

In other words, no matter how hypocritical the Democrats are (and they are, if you think — for instance — about how Biden pours forth all this rhetoric about helping the less well-to-do citizens of this country, while at the same time he has spent his entire political career working hand-in-glove with the credit card industry to screw over working- and middle-class Americans just so Visa and MasterCard can increase their already obscene profit margins even further) — nonetheless, the fact that they pay lip service to human rights, human dignity, and freedom from unnecessary suffering makes them morally superior to the Republicans, who are so crassly cynical that they overtly and positively revel in the prospects of torture, bigotry, destroying the environment for quick corporate profits, and enriching the already-rich at the expense of everyone else.

Thus, the Democrats’ hypocrisy is to be preferred to the Republicans’ cynicism, for good Kantian reasons (though Zizek would probably give Hegelian ones instead). As Kant famously said about the French Revolution, no matter how much this uprising might have “miscarried” or been “filled with misery and atrocities,” nonetheless any decent human being, observing the events of the Revolution from afar, would have to be caught up in “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm”; the sheer fact of this “sympathy,” despite everything that goes wrong in actuality, itself testifies to “a moral predisposition in the human race.” In other words, the sheer fact that something like the French Revolution could occur, no matter how badly it went wrong subsequently, gives us a legitimate ground for hoping that human beings are not forever subject to the Hobbesian alternative of either continual war of all against all, or severe and violent repression.

In the present circumstances, this means that Obama’s rhetoric of hope, no matter how vapid and empty it may actually be, still matters. Anyone who thinks that Obama will actually change things is in for severe disappointment if he wins. It’s pretty clear that Obama will do no more than restore Clintonian neoliberalism, in place of the revanchist militarism and rampant looting and pillaging that characterizes the current Bush-Cheney regime (and that McCain, for all his promises of “change”, will do nothing to alter). In other words, Obama may well rescue us somewhat from the nightmare of the last eight years, but only to the extent of restoring the status quo ante, with its foreign bombings and domestic “rationalizations” of the economy, that we rightly objected to in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the fact that Obama, Biden, and company pay lip service to humane values that they will not actually uphold is in itself a cause for hope, for maintaining a “hope we can believe in,” or (to quote a past Presidential candidate whom it is now taboo to mention) for “keep[ing] hope alive.”

Do check out the posts and ensuing discussion here and here.

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