Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

The Role of the University

It is interesting to note that, of the three examples given above, it is post 9/11 America which seems least inclined to succumb to the Amalek image. Acts of violence against Muslims or those thought to be Muslims were rare and immediately condemned, and the body politic went to great pains to explain that the war on terror is not a war on Islam. Though some actions of internal security agencies, especially at universities, seem to belie this statement, itPage  193 is a fact that mass hysteria has been successfully averted. To the contrary, it seems at times that some milieus in the United States, academe first of all, are willing to bend backward to try to understand the motives of America's new enemies. Though this is obviously the best way of avoiding the development of an Amalek image, it raises the thorny issue of the line separating understanding of from understanding for. And it also seems to point to a specific aspect of the American experience: its lack of exposure to radical evil, at least on American soil.

A certain Ukrainian professor of history, who had managed to flee to the West in the aftermath of World War II, eventually made his way to the United States. [10] After lecturing for barely a semester at an East Coast university, he decided to return to Europe, giving up American comfort and security for the harsh realities of exile in a war-torn continent. To his friends, flabbergasted by his decision, he explained: "I cannot teach history there. You see, they do not believe in the devil."

This particularly American trait is by no means contradicted by polls indicating that a surprising percentage of Americans actually believe in the existence of the Evil One. The devil Americans seem to believe in is a personal adversary, tempting them as individuals away from the straight and narrow. This is not what the Ukrainian professor had in mind. The devil he, and so many other Europeans, had encountered throughout the twentieth century, showed his face in the Great Famine and at Babi Yar, in the smoldering ruins of destroyed cities and the triumphant falsehoods of the Ministries of Truth. This devil—that in this text I call radical evil—had spared America, so Americans needed not believe in his existence. "It can't happen here," proclaimed in the 1930s the title of Sinclair Lewis' chilling novel describing his coming, for—as the book's last sentence memorably proclaimed—"a Doremus Jessup [the novel's simple but undefeated hero, a fighter for the truth] can never die." [11]

Shortly after 9/11, I received from the States an email containing a photo of the World Trade Center shrouded in smoke. In the billows someone had discerned—and computer-enhanced—the actual face of the Evil One, horns and all. I wondered what the reaction of the long-dead Ukrainian professor would have been, had he seen this photo. I imagined him throwing his arms up in despair and saying: "They still do not understand. They look at the smoke, not at Herostrates."

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Doremus Jessup can die. The probable product of a liberal American university, and certainly the incarnation of its proclaimed values of truth, fairness and tolerance, he is mortal both as a man, and as a concept. The dead of 9/11 prove that beyond a shadow of doubt. But for European witnesses of the unlamented past century—and indeed Asian and African ones as well—this is hardly news. They have seen, and continue to see their Jessups, and their families, die in the millions. For after all, the death toll of 9/11 is but half a Srebrenica—and Srebrenica we do know about and remember mainly because the cameras happened to be rolling. That which made 9/11 special was that it occurred in America. It can happen here.

It would have been facile to build a doctrine of European negative exceptionalism, an inverted mirror image of the positive one that had fed much of American collective imagination in the past century. There is, however, no great knowledge, or moral qualities, to be necessarily gleaned from the experience of suffering—especially as there seem to be no limitations to the scale of suffering. Anyone claming special rights because of this experience can have that claim used against him (or her) by another sufferer. Indeed, there is moral fraudulence in claiming such superiority over alleged or real American ignorance and naivete, and there is real evil in asserting—as some have—that the Americans "had it coming to them." And yet one should not, for all the Schadenfreude, dismiss voices from, say, the Balkans or the Middle East, saying that now the Americans "know how it is." For it is true that 9/11 has brought America the experience of suffering, fear and anger, which had so often been the basic staple of much of the rest of the planet. Nothing, after all, resembles one mass killing as much as another mass killing.

The experience, then, was hardly unique—nor has America's reaction to it been. The rallying to the flag, the condemnation of those accused of showing undue understanding for the enemy, the threat to liberal values—hitherto taken for granted—in the public sphere, the justice system, and indeed in academe, are an only too familiar response of a nation under attack. And yet America's reaction to 9/11 was marked by a lesser degree of closing ranks than might have been otherwise expected. From critical comments in the media, through the solidarity with the predicament of America's Muslims to debates such as this one, the strength of the country's commitment to its declared values was rather impressively displayed. Still, it would be foolish to say that there is nothing toPage  195 be discussed.

For there are values, which are not relative, but absolute, such as the right to life, and in freedom and dignity at that. Criticism of these values does not just introduce another, equally worthy perspective into the debate. It contains the threat of liquidating the entire debate, concepts, discussants and all. This was very well phrased by a Nazi activist, on trial for political violence in the waning days of the Weimar republic. The defendant complained that his political rights were being trampled upon. When challenged by the judge that his reference to political rights was inconsistent with the policies he himself advocated, the Nazi replied: "I claim these rights in the name of the values you stand for and, once the tables are turned, I will deny you them in the name of the values I stand for." It would be irresponsible to ignore the historical record that followed.

In journalism, my chosen profession, giving up neutrality is warranted, I believe, when reporting radical evil. I would not trust a journalist who would proclaim himself neutral when covering World War II, for instance, or the Bosnian conflict. But giving up neutrality does not mean one is free to give up objectivity also. Investigating possible misdeeds of the side one empathizes with remains a professional obligation. I believe this model might be useful in considering the obligations of academe when its nation is in conflict.

But should academe at all recognize, let alone endorse, "its" nation? Is that not a breach of trust in the obligations of clerks who, as Julien Benda [12] would have put it, are duty-bound to remain loyal to the "invisible university," and not serve any other master? Benda had a point, amply supported by the obscene support given, say, by Martin Heidegger to the Nazis, or by the Soviet Academy of Sciences to the denunciation of Andrei Sakharov. More pertinent to our immediate area of concern is the endorsement of Islamic terrorism by many academic bodies in the Arab world.

And yet these examples are strongly offset by others, illustrating the consequences of not taking a stand, in the name of protecting science from politicization. In Poland in the 1930s, most academic institutions did not react to the rise of the extreme right on campuses. This led to their approval of "bench ghettoes" and numerus clauses for Jews. The reason mostly given for that was not support for the right wing agenda, but the desire to remain impartial in a conflict between the right and the left, which affirmed equal rights for Jews.Page  196 Finally, it is possible to both endorse Benda's ideal and at the same time support "one's own," as in the case of the guilty silence of the Israeli Academy of Sciences when the building of its Palestinian counterpart was recently vandalized by Israeli troops.

There are clearly then conflicts in which it is impossible for academe not to take sides. This obviously leaves open for discussion the question of what the criteria are, and whether the situation in which America finds itself after 9/11 is one of those conflicts. But this discussion, of course, reflects a much deeper controversy, one that is inherently rooted in the very nature of the university.

Young people go to study, and their parents and societies send them there, in order to fulfill two fundamentally contradictory goals. On the one hand, they need to be taught critical reflection, directed first of all at themselves and the society they live in. Without this criticism, they will not fulfill their basic social function as searchers for the truth—and criticism which fears to become heresy if need be is, by definition, emasculated and useless. The implication obviously is that the university should teach heresy as a matter of course—in both senses of the word. One that would refuse to do so, or allow itself to be intimidated into refraining, would fail the basic trust of the people it teaches and the society it serves.

In the same time, however, the university needs to ensure that the ideals and values it strains to achieve are still recognizably those of that selfsame society. Otherwise, it would not be legitimate to expect society to support it—both in terms of the material burden and, more importantly, of entrusting it with its young. A university essentially at odds with that society would have no rights over it and, more practically and more fundamentally, would lose its appeal to most of those it wishes to educate. And what worth would heresy have, if it were to remain locked in an ivory tower?

As long as the value of free debate is shared both by the university and by society at large, this contradiction is being lived through it, ever reformulated and modified to address the issues at hand. If free debate is dead, as in unfree societies, so obviously is the university, and the issue becomes one of resistance. But the real test comes when a free society is involved in a conflict, for this unavoidably leads to the reduction of the sphere of free debate. It is then necessary to decide just how much heresy still to endorse, in the name of serving its first goal, and how much of it to give up, in the name of the secondPage  197 one. The decision is for the university to make, and it will have to live with the consequences.