Contradictions, Responsibilities and the Problem of Evil

by Chien Wen Kung | 5/1/03 5:00am

With the war in Iraq over Dartmouth's faculty may decide in the coming weeks to pass a resolution "condemning U.S. action in Iraq and any further occupation outside the jurisdiction of the United Nations while also acknowledging the horrors of Saddam Hussein's fallen regime" (The Dartmouth, April 30, 2003). Such is the campaign being mounted by Professor Shelby Grantham of the English Department, "a long-time veteran of the peace movement" who has even managed to find herself in the pages of the Dartmouth Review. One is led to believe, given what many faculty have said about the war, that the resolution will be passed, and that the sinister neoconservative cabal running the White House foreign policy team will have much to ponder.

Or maybe not. Criticizing a resolution that has not yet materialized, and whose details have been described in a second-hand fashion, is always a difficult task. Nonetheless, if The Dartmouth and Professor Grantham are to be believed, something is not quite right when a resolution can "condemn U.S. action in Iraq...while also acknowledging the horrors of Saddam Hussein's fallen regime" in the same breath. Here's hoping that the resolution will acknowledge -- if grudgingly -- the rather large role America played in ending the horrors of Saddam's regime. Perhaps it might also concede that, historically speaking, the war on Iraq was one of the swiftest and most incisive ever: Baghdad fell without the urban warfare many had predicted would ensnare coalition forces. To be sure, it didn't conform to the standards of leftist idealism. But then again, does anything?

My disagreement with Professor Grantham, however, goes beyond the war itself. She -- and probably many other Dartmouth faculty -- believes that "as educators of young minds, we as faculty have the responsibility to lead the way in speaking truth to power and standing publicly for our beliefs." Her statement of principle raises the question as to just what professors' responsibilities to their students are. Instead of "speaking truth to power," how about simply encouraging students to seek the truth, wherever it may be found (even if that means accepting the basic arguments of Donald Rumsfeld)? Or, on a more basic level, what about teaching students about the fundamentals of mathematics, economics, or philosophy? (In no way, of course, do I seek to undermine the integrity of Professor Grantham or like-minded faculty.)

"Speaking truth to power" is a much-abused catchphrase. The first time I heard it was from that well-known moderate, Edward Said, in his Representations of the Intellectual. Too often I find this slogan employed unreflectively and uncritically. If Michel Foucault, the French philosopher chiefly responsible for the concept of power in the contemporary academy, is to be believed then the professors themselves constitute a "power structure" (albeit of a different kind to the Bush administration). After all, they choose what books we read in their classes and they grade our papers and exams. And speaking of "power structures," what about that nasty regime in Baghdad that is, thankfully, no longer in power?

Dartmouth's own "hegemonic paradigm" strikes me as a little lopsided. Where are the pro-war faculty? Judging from their enthusiastic turnout at the teach-ins, rallies and lectures held during these past few months, we've learned that a great number of Dartmouth professors are against the war. But how many Dartmouth professors, apart from the government department's Allan Stam, have come out publicly in favor of the war? Either there are no other faculty members who support the war, or else those who do aren't speaking out. The former doesn't make sense, so I'm led to believe the latter. But why aren't faculty speaking out in favor of the war? An answer suggests itself: those faculty in favor of the war, a small handful of them, risk upsetting the cordiality of intra-faculty relations should they chose to dissent publicly from what their colleagues think. For many reasons, this conclusion is frightening to contemplate.

A final point has to do with Professor Grantham's "fervent belief in the the goodness of all peoples." I'm no moral philosopher, but this contention substitutes idealism with ideology. She implies, like Rousseau, that man is born good but is corrupted by society. Ergo, there is no need for violence to resolve our differences. If we just sit down and talk, man's inner goodness will surface and all will be well. Would that this were true. I'm no Christian either, but I admit that much human behavior lies outside the realm of rational human understanding. How do we account for the Holocaust? Or for the atrocities of Communism? Or for ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda? Try telling a survivor of Auschwitz that Hitler was basically a good guy corrupted by the uncaring Weimar state.