Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

September 11

17-Cohen: There is of course at least one other significant "9/11," and this is 9/11/1973, the date that the Pinochet forces overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile, with the murder of Allende and large numbers of Allende supporters. Those who recognize the U.S. interest in Allende's overthrow have drawn attention to the elision of American memory of the Chilean events. Against the idea that 9/11/2001 has no peer, there is an opening to rumination on the uses and representations of U.S. power in the world, of who owns or controls the management of these histories.

18-Jelin: September 11, 2001, is seen here as a marker of a major historical turning point. I would like to see that date in two different levels, internally (within the United States) and in terms of the position of the United States in the world.

Regarding the first level, my comments come from a different location: aPage  72 region of the world where there were military dictatorships in the seventies and eighties, dictatorships that were initially sponsored by the United States. In that sense, September 11 is for us a significant marker of U.S. intervention: in 1973, airplanes bombed the Chilean presidential palace, ousting a constitutional president, and this military coup was instigated in part by the covert intervention of the U.S. government. A few years later, the Carter human rights policies saved many lives in the dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America. As academics, intellectuals and citizens, we lived through periods of censorship and lack of academic freedom, open state terrorism and repression. Buenos Aires was also the scene of two major acts of "international terrorism": the bombings of the Israeli embassy and of the Jewish community center. Thus, in a sense, September 11 marks the fact that the current U.S. population, which seemed to believe itself outside these threats and uncertainties, has to start dealing with them. Vulnerability as a way of life entered the United States. [14]

U.S. universities, as all institutions and actors in the country, undoubtedly are affected by it. National security considerations, new types of censorship and surveillance (especially but not only regarding foreign-born populations), restrictions of various sorts —a new McCarthyism, when the "original" has long been forgotten—come into being. There will be new pressures to engage in what is defined as priorities by the State (Department).

As in other periods of U.S. history, scholars and universities are faced with new and significant challenges. It is hard, in such times, to see oneself as in the "ivory tower" model of knowledge production. Open and explicit engagement is the call of the day. Yet the direction of engagement is not necessarily fixed and crystallized. My hunch is that the balance of power in the struggles about academic freedom and national security—and perhaps even the interpretive frameworks of this and other dilemmas—has shifted. This means that the political responsibilities of scholarship will be much more apparent, and scholars will have to face the challenge and act in the public sphere much more openly than before.

In fact, the issue of the meaning of the date should become a guiding idea to elaborate hypotheses about it, for different social and political groups in different locations—within the United States, U.S. universities, and abroad. But again, I see it as a subject for further research. Hopefully, the date will be understood by many not as a "unique event" subject to a literal reading but ratherPage  73 as an event that may have an exemplary role (to use Todorov's terminology). [15]

In fact, one could think that under the new conditions, critical intellectuals—those who bring their abilities, knowledge and expertise to bear upon issues of urgent political and social importance, and who do so actively participating in the sphere of public debate—will have to heighten their critical abilities. There will be attempts to lower, silence, or suppress their voices. Hopefully they will find allies in the more professionally and academically oriented scholars, who have come to value academic freedom and the "free" pursuit of knowledge, and may now (for the first time) feel these values at risk. If this is the case, then one can imagine that in the near future, more and more critical intellectuals will come to the fore and engage in the issues of the day. Nobody, however, can guarantee that the scholars that will engage in this activity will be open-minded and believers in pluralism, dialogue and debate. There is the danger that the various forms of fundamentalism that circulate in the United States today, admitting only one TRUTH and thinking that the only way to engage with "others" is to annihilate them, will gain adepts and invade the realms where freedom of thought was supposed to reign.

These new threats are not unique to the United States. Critical dialogues, alliances, and global networks and movements are actually a world phenomenon. The voices of opposition to unilateral decisions on the part of the U.S. government cover the globe, as the concerted protests against the war and for peace (on February 15, 2003, for instance) mobilize millions of people. In the same vein, the voices of concern for the increasing poverty and polarization in the world also grow. The three renderings of the Social Forum in Porto Alegre (in January of 2001, 2002 and 2003) show that there is human energy and initiative to bring together the voices that oppose the path that the world society is taking—led by the U.S. hegemony and its power within the multilateral world organizations.

19-Gebert: Even as they dreamt of America, they knew that their dreams are but dreams. America was rich—and yet one could die a beggar. America was free—and yet one could be lynched. America was ruled by law—and yet gangsters roamed its streets and institutions. In this, the difference between America and the Old Country they so longed to leave was one of quantity only. And yet that difference was so great that it alone was reason enough to go.

But one dream they dreamt without reservations. America was safe.Page  74 Separated from the rest of the world by two mighty oceans, blessed with weak if not meek neighbors in the North and South, America could not be invaded. Yes, one could die poor, lynched, murdered even. But never the feeling of helplessness when a war breaks out and houses are gutted just because they were in the way. Never the rage of seeing your family, your neighbors murdered en masse just because it could be done.

So they came—and they saw this dream is real. As the Old Country burned in war after war, as letters stopped coming and hope was lost, they remained safe in the fortress beyond the ocean. They felt guilt and relief, and massively enrolled in the armies of their new country, as they left to liberate the Old Country, or what was left of it. They would return to tell tales of horror, comforted by their knowledge that it can't happen here.

It did.

On 9/11 the Old Country caught back with them, trapping the descendants of those who had fled its horror in the awareness that this time there will be nowhere left to flee.

20-Patterson: Reducing alternative understandings or attempts to contextualize the events of September 11 as "moral relativism" dismisses too much too quickly and on false grounds. In many ways, the debate about moral relativism sparked by Giuliani's comment reproduces a central strategy of members of the right in a much longer-standing debate about political correctness. Like the derogation "politically correct," calling someone a "moral relativist" is an attempt to take away his or her legitimacy to speak rather than engaging with the content of what is being said. It is an inflammatory accusation used to dismiss, delegitimate, and silence speakers by undermining their right to be taken seriously. This strategy is intellectually dishonest and unfair.

In their article "Earth to Ivory Tower: Get Real!," authors Kay Hymowitz and Harry Stein draw a straight line between the old demons advocating political correctness to the more recent "moral blindness" of "academic apologists" opposed to the war in Iraq. [16] They deplore the "moral lethargy, rising out of affluence and security, out of New Age religious longings combined with all-you-need-is-love pacifism, out of therapeutic nonjudgmentalism, multiculturalism, and a virtually total historical amnesia. All these trends have generated an almost willful inability to imagine evil—except, of course, the evils of American racism, sexism, and homophobia." [17]

Page  75

Although the targets tend to be the same (mainly academics and leftist critics), there are some striking differences in these two debates as well. The term "correct" suggests that there is one right answer, term to use, or set of positions to hold. But the intent behind the considerations that have brought us to think more critically about the political implications of our language and views, particularly in regard to members of historically disadvantaged groups, is more about an orientation or a commitment to engagement rather than merely learning the accepted phrases and terms, or reading an appropriate smattering of "diverse" sources in classrooms. In contrast, "moral relativism" suggests that its adherents take no stands, draw no lines, and pass no judgments. As Hymowitz and Stein describe,

The two main stripes of critic seem stuck in the ideas of the sixties...the blame-America-firsters...but possibly more insidious...the moral lethargists. Offspring of the therapeutic culture, New Age spiritualism, and an entrenched multiculturalism suspicious of Western values, these so resist passing judgment that they shrink from seeing even murderous Islamic fundamentalism as the evil it is and shy away from the tough steps needed to crush it. Though relatively small, these two groups cluster in the powerful opinion-forming institutions: the academy, the liberal churches, the press, and the entertainment media.

The post-September 11 atmosphere, dominated by demands for a narrowly defined patriotism, allowed little space for critical thought or questioning. Leaders like Bush and Giuliani exerted significant control over public speech and debate by suggesting that anyone who did not unquestioningly support and strictly adhere to the decisions being made in the Pentagon and White House was a moral relativist and terrorist sympathizer. Patriotism was constructed as blind allegiance to the highest authority in the land (President Bush), rather than a commitment to holding our nation and its leaders to higher standards, or trying to participate in the democratic process through discussion, examination, critique, and debate.

While those who attempted to contextualize and better understand the events leading up to September 11 were accused of moral relativism, PresidentPage  76 Bush and Mayor Giuliani created the impression that we were following a very rigid, predetermined, and obvious script, excluding such possibilities of treating the attacks as a crime rather than an act of war. Choices about the options, possible responses, and consequences of particular actions were being made all the time, but presented as foregone conclusions to the great frustration of many Americans, members of the UN, and citizens and leaders across the globe.

21-Gebert: "De omnium dubitandi," Karl Marx's famous motto, could well be inscribed on the walls of every modern Western university. Indeed, university education and scholarly inquiry is based on two premises: that everything is open to question, and that reason is sufficient to find the answers. These two Enlightenment principles have been accepted by society at large, without enough attention being paid to their consequences.

For of course no society exists which does not hold some principles sacred beyond question, nor can any religion agree that reason alone is sufficient. Thus the principles taught by the university are fundamentally at odds with those endorsed by society. This conflict, usually, is glossed over thanks to the fact that the members of academe are at the same time members of society and, even if they do not endorse all its principles, they see no reason to drag the conflict out in the open.

Things change, however, when the university, as it unavoidably will, develops a culture of its own. If dispassionate criticism is indeed the guiding principle, then society at large is ideally suited to become the object of that criticism. For the university, ultimately, is not value-free: it strives to improve society. To do that, it necessarily needs to unmask its contradictions and evils.

Doing this the university necessarily starts being seen by society as not only a source of strength, but as the enemy within. Especially as the university, after declaring that all value systems are relative—for reason cannot perceive an absolute foundation for any of them—then go on to criticize especially the value systems of its own society, which it knows best and ultimately cares most about. This latter approach has in the American university produced "political correctness," a linguistic and conceptual code which prohibits the utterance of ideas or concepts considered insulting, unfair or painful to those the majority society had harmed in the past, or is still harming today. Combined with the relativism of its approach to the values of that selfsame majority, this creates the impression that the only values the university is willing to stand for are thosePage  77 which are alien to a majority of the citizens of the society it is part of. People have been burned at the stake for less.

As an immediate consequence, the university loses much of its moral credibility among much of that majority society; ultimately it might lose the trust in its judgment and reason which makes parents want to send their children there. If this happens, the university will have deprived itself, in the name of social values, of the capacity of effecting social change.

To an overseas observer such as myself, relativism that does not stop at the collection of values enshrined in the collective human accomplishment of human rights documents is suicidal. Political correctness smacks of hypocritical self-censorship. Both are indications of the inherent limitations of the university's founding principles: the principle of doubting in everything cannot be exempt from scrutiny in its own light, nor can reason investigate itself and its follies.

21a-Patterson: Admittedly, for some people being "PC" is merely a disingenuous performance of saying the "right thing" or using the most recently coined term for groups of people who have been historically underrepresented or disadvantaged. But it is important to consider the approach and intent of those to whom this phenomenon has been attributed on their own terms rather than accepting a caricatured version of a complicated and varied group of people promoting a range of ideas. Those who have tried to expand the traditionally white male canon on university campuses, and who urge us to consider the power in language to hurt, anger, and oppress people do not conceive of their efforts in terms of a learned code but rather a continued engagement with issues of power and identity that makes one sensitive to and aware of experiences beyond one's own (regardless of identity). This engagement benefits everyone, and should acknowledge and address the enduring inequality of our society, particularly as reflected in the words we use. More often than not, the charge of "political correctness" serves to stifle debate rather than to engage it. This is a disservice to those of us who think seriously about language and its powers to harm, and the many ways in which inequity is deeply imbricated in not only the words and concepts we use but the things we assume and the way that we speak.

22-Das: The issue as I see it is not of relativism versus some kind of absolute values but rather that, increasingly, it is not only absolutist states but also democratic states in which the right to declare something as "war"Page  78 or "a state of exception" has come to be accepted as the "normal" condition of functioning of modern states in relation to threats variously defined as those of terrorism, militancy, etc. Thus unfettered power to declare that something is an act of war rather than crime as the attack on the World Trade Center was performatively declared to be, does require us to rethink the balance between the legitimate claims of the state and that of the unfettered pursuit of truth on which the idea of the university is based. As more and more states define themselves primarily as security states, we will be forced to rethink the meaning of the state of exception in clearer terms.

23-Sanneh: The University as a national institution must normally be self-conscious about its American identity: the language, ideas, values, ideals, programs, priorities, goals, and limitations bind it so intimately with the country's life that separation is as inconceivable as it is undesirable. The challenges of national life cannot except be reflected in the agenda of the University. The pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952) on that basis criticized higher education in America for its "narrowly disciplinary and cultural character," and for its "tendency to isolate intellectual matters till knowledge is scholastic, academic, and professionally technical, and for the widespread conviction that liberal education is opposed to the requirements of an education which shall count in the vocations of life." [18]

24-Patterson: One of the greatest challenges for the multiple and overlapping scholarly communities within U.S. universities after September 11 was to determine and negotiate their relationship with a changing U.S. state and to respond to its increasing demands. As some departments, schools and experts jockeyed for authority status, others sought to extricate themselves from certain types of involvement or to reconfigure and reframe the very questions being asked. For instance, what role would and should university administration play in responding to the U.S. government's call to investigate and report the increasing number of suspicious persons in the new war on terrorism? Questions of responsibility, capability, legality, resources and ethics continue to be debated within a larger consideration of the meaning and limitations of academic freedom within this period of crisis.

According to the American Studies Association in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on March 14, 2003, "The climate for academic freedom has worsened severely since September 11 because of new governmentPage  79 policies, as well as decisions by university administrators." Citing "restrictions on scholarly research" and the intimidation of students protesting the war in Iraq, the report argues that free speech has been considerably restricted on U.S. campuses. [19]

For an account of the impact of responses to the September 11 terrorists attacks on the availability of information on the Internet and those who provide it, see the Electronic Frontier Foundation's "Chilling Effects of Anti-Terrorism: 'National Security' Toll on Freedom of Expression" at <>. See also the American Civil Liberty Union's well-documented chronology of "the toll taken on civil liberties by the Bush administration since September 11" ("Civil Liberties in the Post 9/11 World" at <>).

25-Madjid: If the massive Jewish and Catholic immigration of the nineteenth century threatened the American experience, is it now the turn of the Muslim immigration to present the obstruction? The calamity of 9/11 may suggest that the answer to such a question will be "yes!", were it not that most Muslims, out of the genuine religious consciousness or of fear that such a calamity would sooner or later fall upon them themselves, condemn such irresponsible action as against the fundamental principles of Islam. The supporting arguments for the condemnation are abundant, and they are all available for Muslims who are not religiously illiterate. But it is both ironic and logical that the sacred spaces of the Western academic world are still the best positioned modern source of authority to provide the supporting arguments easily at the concerned Muslims' disposal. [20]