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Monday, March 28, 2011


While I have been preparing for teaching and trying to catch up on my sleep, I seem to have provoked two streams of comments on my recent posts that deserve some sort of response by me. [Today I finish talking about Book Nine of the REPUBLIC, in which Plato completes his long connected argument for the proposition that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. What an extraordinary work the REPUBLIC is! But that is not exactly news to two and a half millennia of readers.] First, let me respond to Noumena's comments about FTEs and the pressure on Humanities Departments. I agree with pretty much everything he said, and I am sorry I did not make it clearer that my post was to be read in the context of my earlier remarks about the different ways in which the sciences and the humanities are treated in universities. [By the way, for our overseas participants who may not be au courant with American acronyms, "STEM" stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics."] One of the problems with running a blog is that I tend to make the mistake of assuming that everyone has read everything I have ever posted on it, and will construe each comment in the light of all the others. If I were Shakespeare, that would be a fair assumption, but we ordinary mortals have to make less heroic assumptions. So: I indicated in an earlier post [one of the Thoughts on Education series] that a central problem for the humanities is its relative inability to secure external funding., I plan to write a good deal more about that as the series develops. It is quite true that Humanities departments generate a great many FTEs. This is true principally because they tend to be large service departments teaching many undergraduates in required distribution courses. It is routinely the case that STEM departments have lower teaching loads, generate fewer FTEs, but are given a pass by the administration because they are bringing in large amounts of external funding that carries with it, as I explained, valuable overhead money. The case of the professional schools is somewhat different. Business schools tend to garner large alumni/ae donations and corporate funding, and also [for obvious reasons] to be in good odor with corporate-type trustees and administrators. They tend as well to have greater support from state legislators, many of whom are beholden to the business community. The counting of FTEs is used as a device by administrators to squeeze Humanities budgets in part because they do not see any use for the Humanities anyway and find the FTE device a useful excuse. Incidentally [although this was not what Noumena and I were discussing], in some state universities [such as UMass], where out of state tuition is very much higher than in-state tuition, universities will actively seek out of state students to pump up their budgets. This is especially noteworthy with regard to foreign students, who typically pay the full charge, and thus actually bring in more money than they cost to educate. I am not sure that this entirely sorts out the differences between Noumena and me, but it may go part of the way at least. Now to the difficult and contentious matter of America's military intervention in the Libyan affair. I have many times said on this blog, and in fact repeated as part of my initial response to Chris, that I believe the United States has for sixty years and more pursued an imperial foreign policy, under Democrats and Republicans alike, that has for the most part supported repressive and exploitative regimes and done its best to undermine the legitimate aspirations of peoples of almost every nation of the world. Using first the excuse of the existence of the Soviet Union and then the excuse of the imagined threat of China and the ever-present threat of terrorist attacks, the United States has built and maintained a military establishment that dwarfs the collected military of the rest of the world. I think that is a bad thing. I opposed it in 1960, and I have been opposing it ever since. I think there is about a zero chance that this will change in my [admittedly short] lifetime, or in the much longer lifetimes of my sons. That is no reason to stop opposing it, but it is a reason not to get one's hopes up. The contrast with domestic policy is instructive. I happen to be a socialist, but I have no problem distinguishing between all manner of good programs pushed by progressive Democrats and all manner of really bad programs pushed by right-wing Republicans. I do allow myself to hope that in my lifetime, some good things will happen domestically, and over the past sixty years I have vigorously supported the Democratic Party, even though it is in no way, shape, or form a socialist party, because I think its policies make life better for tens of millions of Americans than do the policies of the Republicans. By contrast, the basic shape of American foreign policy remains unaltered with every change in administration. To be sure, George W. Bush's version of that policy was especially egregious, but it was recognizably continuous with the foreign policies of all of his post-World War II predecessors. I based my support for the Libyan intervention [as did Juan Cole and, if I understand him, JT Christie] on the belief that in this case the use of our military power, which exists anyway and is ready to hand, would have consequences that I think are good. Just that, nothing more. I made no judgment about the motives of the Obama administration [or of the French and British governments, for that matter], nor did I imagine that taking action in this case, which I support, somehow would confer a sort of retrospective grace on the motives or previous actions of the administration. Chris is obviously very angry with America's foreign and military policy. I don't blame him. So am I, although I have been angry for so long that I have become somewhat numb by now. Unless you are constituted for it, long sustained gut-wrenching anger will do that to you. But he also makes one substantive point that I think deserves some serious consideration. If I may paraphrase what seems to me to be his central argument, he says that supporting a peremptory military intervention even when it is justified on the merits in this case risks strengthening and justifying the general polucy of which it is a particular instantiation, with the long-term consequence of making it easier for this and future administrations to continue and even to expand a fundamentally malign policy. Do I have that right, Chris? This is a serious argument, and I am not at all sure that I am giving it its proper weight in my thinking about Libya. On the one side are the lives of large numbers of men and women who are at risk of being murdered by Qadaffi's forces. On the other side is the possibility that if Obama pulls off this intervention swiftly, successfully, and with no loss of American lives [as I think he very well may], that will simply cement into place a fundamentally wrong military and foreign policy. Why, faced with the difficult task of balancing these two consideratuions, do I come down on the side of intervention? I think the simplest answer is that I believe America's imperial foreign and military policy to be so solidly and unshakeably entrenched in American public life that neither victories nor defeats will much alter its untouchable status. When I think back to the Viet Nam disaster -- so much greater a disaster in every way than our Iraq and Afghanistan forays -- I am struck [and depressed] by the fact that the basic shape of America's foreign policy survived it unaltered. The military completely reorganized itself in the aftermath of Viet Nam, so bad a disaster was it, and yet despite political upheavals that were truly remarkable, the shape of America's imperial policy survived unaltered. Am I sure that I am right? Good heavens, no. But I cannot watch tens of thousands of people being slaughtered simply out of the forlorn hope that something, anything, will cause America to rethink its foreign policy.


Chris said...

Thank you for the commentary.
Yes you seemed to of summed up my position, and Vietnam is actually a telling example.

In Vietnam, Johnson required the gulf of Tonkin as his justification for serious intervention (We'll ignore the fact Eisenhower had the CIA already there, and Kennedy 10,000 military "advisers").

Between the charade of the gulf of tonkin, and the subsequent war powers act, military say-so began to drastically shift away from the consent of congress, as it was constitutionally intended, into the hands of the executive.

Now the war powers act is only supposed to allow for the president to intervene if there is a direct threat to US security. Then, within 48 hours he must notify congress for consent.

Now it's pretty clear given the history of Grenada, the gulf wars, and Bush's Iraq war, hell even the invasion of Afghanistan, that the executive is already quite cunning at tricking the population, and congress, into believing there is a threat to national security that is almost always untenable in hindsight. And it's not hard to do so, as the executive is surrounded by intelligence branches that give the executive the right to say he/she has access to information he/she can't reveal, but trust he/she, it requires intervention.

Obama has done something new. Something that greatly disturbs me given our history of atrocities; And no, I'm not referring to indenfinate detention or Bradley Manning! A history that makes the body count in Libya quaint by comparison. He has authorized invasion in a country where there is NO THREAT to US security (of course there is a threat to him, in an economic since, oil,...but this is where we who philosophize differ than those who economically and mendaciously strategise)! Additionally he sought no approval from congress within 48 hours. Hence, congressman Kucinich briefly brought up the issue of impeachment. He recognized what was going on here, as did I.

So the serious problem is this. No matter how well this Libyan affair turns out, and I of course hope it turns out well now that we are already committed, is this a power that we want an individual, surrounded by Hawks - think heads of NSA, DoD, CIA, JSOC, etc - wielding?

On first glance it's easy to reach your conclusion Professor Wolff: In a utilitarian sense the good outweighs the bad of this intervention. If we define good in utilitarian terms. Obviously in a Kantian sense, the moral ethic I thought you usually flirted with, it's not. As it's most probably that the sense of duty here is economic, and not a duty of treating these uprisings as ends in themselves (or else we'd have different results in Bahrain and Yemen from Obama and co). There sense of duty is immoral, therefore their means and ends are wrong as well.

Okay. So first glance, utilitarianism will most likely win. Even if Obama's duty is perverted. But let's look wider and remember all of those millions dead from those 60 years of intervention that have turned you numb, and me vicious. Now let's think, how much worse will it be, in the future, when the President - and we are bound to get plenty of Hawks - has the power Obama just set precedent in office, and in our/populations psyche. The power to sit passively as the executive acts on its own whims without consent of congress or the governed. Not even no consent, not even a chirp one way or the other.

In the long run, will utilitarianism win out? God I HOPE so. But, I don't for a second trust my hope.

M said...

Professor Wolff, your comments have led me to look back at Plato's Republic. Multiple friends who study classical languages have told me that Plato is the supreme ancient Greek prose author. (Homer receives the crown for poetry, it seems.) I can see why; the man was a genius.

Chris said...

Hmm...and so it gets worse.