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Saturday, January 2, 2016


Herewith responses to two thoughtful questions posted by readers:

1.   Professor Rossi asks  --  or re-asks -- this:

"Your view on identity politics seems refreshingly similar to that of critical race theorist Adolph Reed Jr. What do you make of the recent developments at Yale, Mizzou, Oberlin, etc, if I may ask? I reckon the problems are very different from one campus to the next, but the lists of demands are quite similar."

I have hesitated to respond for two reasons:  First, because there seem to me to be two very different issues confused in these protests, and second because I have literally no first-hand experience and very little knowledge of one of them. 

The first issue, with which I am very familiar indeed and with which I have been engaged for most of my career, is the systematic under-representation of, misrepresentation of, covert discrimination against, and outright repression of African-Americans and other non-White populations on college campuses.  I have told stories about some of my experiences in my memoir of my sixteen years in an Afro-American Studies Department, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.  Seeing first-hand, from the perspective of my new colleagues, the behavior of faculty and administrators on one of the supposedly most politically progressive campuses in America was an education for me, one that I took to heart.

The second issue, with which I have no experience at all, is the rather recent demand by students for "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces."  I have an immediate negative visceral reaction to these demands, but that reaction is based on nothing more than headlines, as it were, and I do not trust such reactions in myself any more than I trust them in others.  Until I am actually confronted in a classroom with such a demand and can engage in an extended colloquy with the student making it, I do not think I will understand it well enough to have a reasoned opinion.

2.  MusingMarxist asks:

"I have a question that's very personal because it reflects what I struggle with. You say you felt liberated by your conclusion that one's moral and political commitments are not rationally required but are instead matters of immanent choice. That makes sense, but do you ever also feel that the absence of a rational foundation for politics and morality makes one's choice of comrades arbitrary, taking politics and morality seriously a little absurd, and the use of any degree of force in pursuit of (arbitrary, a bit absurd) political and moral commitments grotesque?
I think your answer to these questions is a hearty and possibly indignant "no." How, then, do you resist the turn to enervating irony as the reaction to your conclusion that morality and politics is a matter of immanent, non-rational choice? Do you pay attention to the particulars --- this person hungry for something to eat juxtaposed against that person's gala in the Hamptons --- and let the connection of those particulars with your connative set motivate you? But then how, in your more reflective moments, do you not feel that that kind of particularism is disreputable.
And another, related question: how do you escape from deeply sympathizing with those of your opponents in the moral and political struggle who have likewise realized that politics and morality are matters of immanent choice? How do you resist feeling communal affinities for those who repudiate the cloying, over-earnest project of rationalist morality, no matter what substantive political banner they contingently happen to rally around?"

These are extremely thoughtful and interesting questions.    Although I would never describe myself as "hearty" and tend to be angry rather than indignant, My response to the questions in the first paragraph is indeed "no."  As for the question in the second paragraph, I simply never find myself seduced by "enervating irony."  Having made a life choice of comrades, as I put it, I feel no temptation to retreat into ironic inaction.  I more or less constantly feel frustration at the direction the world seems to be taking, but Lord knows I am hardly a whirling dervish of activist engagement.  As I have often times observed, I would far rather write a book than go on a protest march -- soothing my feelings of guilt with the thought that someone needs to write books, and I seem to be pretty good at it.

I do indeed pay attention to the particulars, as MusingMarxist puts it, but I cannot for the life of me imagine why that kind of particularism would be disreputable.  Quite to the contrary, what I find disreputable is the ascent to generalities as an excuse for ignoring the suffering and injustice in front of one's face.  When I organized a small group of senior Philosophy professors to sign a letter I had written calling for the creation of a standing committee of the American Philosophical Association on the Status of Women in the Profession, I was responding to the blatant discrimination my then wife had suffered in her search for a teaching position in English.  I did not think the specificity of my motivation was any grounds for hesitation.  It was Jack Rawls' refusal to sign the letter at a time when he was engaged in the articulation of a grand global theory of social justice that I considered disreputable.

As for my opponents, I am quite capable, on a good day, of recognizing in them some affinity to myself, but that does not stop me from pounding them into the ground when I get the chance!

It may just be that I like to think of myself as a happy warrior.


Chris said...

Uh what the hell were Rawls's reasons?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I don't recall, actually. When I asked him to co-sign a fundraising appeal for my USSAS South African program, he declined because the letter said we were going to support students who had been active in the struggle against apartheid, and that was apparently too politically one-sided for him.

Chris said...

On the one hand I'm shocked, and on the other not surprised.

enzo rossi said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. It's increasingly difficult to find commentators who can see both the importance of academic freedom and the gravity of the discrimination faced by (e.g.) African Americans.

David Auerbach said...

The brouhaha about trigger warnings etc. is largely reactionary smokescreen designed to obscure the real issues that students are bringing up. There have been a number of good articles pointing out the paucity of actual (rather than distorted or non-existent) examples and how well all the talk of coddling serves to trivialize issues of institutional racism.

Chris said...

If you're still taking questions I have one. It's one that has really been troubling me for two years, to the point I may switch gears and write my dissertation on it.

You acknowledge that who you are as a person is very much shaped by, in the traditional Marxist sense, the socio-economic and historical location of your birth. That you would not be RPW if you born in a middle age monastery, and the development of your psych-dynamic processes would take on new forms and directions in different historical moments. But, it seems to me that Kant is making an alternative argument that no matter where you were born you would have the same forms of intuition, categories of thought, and in general the same mental apparatus with the same 'understanding' as someone in the past, present, and future. How do you philosophically walk the line, so to speak, between Kantian transcendental subjectivity, and Marxist socio-subjectivity, i.e., it is not the consciousness of men that determines their social life, but their social life that determines their consciousness.

Chris said...

By the way, even if you have no answer to the question but know someone who does, or an article or book on the subject, it would be a huge help!

Musing Marxist said...

Thanks very much for the response. The only reason I worry that attention to the particulars is potentially disreputable is that --- assuming that the choice of comrades is non-rational --- it seems like a ploy to ensure your continued allegiance to the group with whom you've cast your lot.

Assuming politics is a matter of immanent choice I don't think there are grounds from which to criticize using ploys to stay engaged, but I still worry that the lack of a rational foundation for one's politics raises the specter that one's politics --- the most important sphere of one's life --- is arbitrary.

Kevin said...

Non-rational doesn't mean without justification. It just means it isn't going to be legislated by an axiom in advance; it is a commitment, cultivated over time and with experience, and which draws on a range of emotional and intellectual resources. Why in the world would that be disreputable or arbitrary?