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What Is at Stake?

Convocation Address
Friday, August 24, 2007

By Shampa Biswas, Associate Professor of Politics

“At a time of national crisis, I think it is particularly apparent that we need to encourage the study of our past. Our children and grandchildren – indeed, all of us – need to know the ideas and ideals on which our nation has been built. We need to understand how fortunate we are to live in freedom. We need to understand that living in liberty is such a precious thing that generations of men and women have been willing to sacrifice everything for it. We need to know, in a war, exactly what is at stake.” Lynn V. Cheney, October 5, 2001

Students of the class of 2011 – you come here, to this place of learning, six years after the horrific events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent inauguration of the war on terror, four years and counting after the invasion of Iraq and no good end in sight; so much death, so much destruction, the threat of terror still looming large…what is at stake, at a time of war, in this awesome journey we convoke today?

The words from Lynn Cheney that I began this talk with became the epigraph to a roughly 50 page report issued in November 2001 by a group called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, founded by Lynn Cheney and Joe Lieberman – Lynn Cheney who we now know as the wife of vice president Dick Cheney but has been a serious thinker, writer and speaker in her own right, and Joe Lieberman, then democratic, now independent senator from Connecticut, former democratic vice-presidential candidate. The bipartisan report was titled “Defending Civilization: How our Universities are Failing America and What can be done about it?” The report, whose ostensible goal was the restoration of “the legacy of freedom and democracy” in U.S. higher education institutions, lists 115 specific instances of dissent to the war on terror from around 50 campuses across the country, and condemns U.S. academics for both their own lack of patriotism and the failure to cultivate the same in young students.

A couple more events from recent years. In the name of restoring “an academic bill of rights”, former Marxist turned right wing commentator, David Horowitz has launched a campaign against what has been described as “the stranglehold of progressive politics on university campuses” (Larkin, 2004), a campaign that has involved identifying “the 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America” (an appellation I regret to inform no member of this distinguished faculty has earned, but not for lack of trying). A founder and director of the Middle East Forum and a former member of the board of the very influential U.S. Institute of Peace, Daniel Pipes has founded the organization Campus Watch, whose explicit purpose is to compile dossiers and publicly malign on their website “unpatriotic” academics who oppose U.S. or Israeli foreign policy, especially with regard to the Middle East. More recently, a conservative alum at the University of California at Los Angeles started a nonprofit group to combat “U.C.L.A.’s continued slide into political partisanship and indoctrination” by enumerating a “Dirty Thirty” list of professors whose leftist leanings he found particularly troubling. This alum offered to pay students for taping and documenting what those professors said in their classrooms – an event which generated national news media attention and put many academics around the country on guard.

Here we are, you – eager, bright, highly accomplished students ready to embark on your college careers with passion and energy and us, educators – scholars, thinkers, dedicated teachers ready to engage you in a life of the mind. What could be at stake in this intellectual enterprise that is deemed so risky, so threatening to engage the energies of all these highly connected, well-funded, groups and people with substantial political influence in today’s world?What are the stakes of reading, writing, thinking and reflecting in a place such as this which might some day perhaps earn you too the disfavor of some powerful group, some set of vested interests? As we convoke today this journey into knowledge, it may be worth asking, what are the stakes of becoming an intellectual?

I ask this question no doubt with a certain utopian vision of the academy in mind, a vision that celebrated Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri describes as “a place for self-perfection…for the highest education in life”, a place that “engages endless generations in profound and perpetual discovery…The purpose…to deepen the spirit, to make more profound the sensitivities of the individual to the universe, and to become more creative” (Okri, 1995). And I speak with some concern as I see this utopian vision under onslaught not just from the political witch-hunting I mentioned above or the intrusions into academic freedom by a heavy-handed Patriot Act, but also the increasing corporatization of academia, as universities and colleges become what Stanley Aronowitz (2000) has called “knowledge factories” and David Noble (2001) “diploma mills”, places where educators are simply service providers, students consumers and education a commodity whose content and value is to determined by the imperatives of the market. As students at elite institutions such as this, students at whose service enormous resources are being deployed by parents, the college, donors, the government and always, always (remember this because this is the easiest to forget) the invisible subsidy provided by the undervalued labor of those feeding, clothing and materially sustaining you from all over the world; if privileged students such as you think of this education entirely in monetary terms, as a private entitlement, you, we degrade that utopian spirit Okri so lyrically describes.And it is precisely that utopian spirit that raises the stakes of what you are getting ready to embark on here. If the academy is marketized, the stakes can be bought; the question then is, not what is at stake, but at what price that stake.

The U.S. higher education system, and in particular the liberal arts college, is one of the greatest gifts of America to the world, and it is up to you to stake a claim to this place as one of the few remaining spaces in a rapidly commodified world that offers some semblance of a public arena for dialogue, engagement, disagreement, dissension, even controversy (Mohanty, 2004); a space where difficult questions can be raised even if not fully answered; a space where visions and ideals can be imagined even if not fully realized. The creative potential of the market is enormous, but even an expensive, private education such as this yields a public good, the value of which is not measurable with any standardized conventions – not yet, here, a fancy slogan that tells us “no youth left behind”. So if you can learn to look beyond glib marketing, glitzy packaging and formulaic fixes, then you may yet instigate some fear, some necessary rattling and shaking of the kind of hubris that goes by the name of democracy these days.It is you who will raise the stakes of this place you come to today. So what are the stakes?

Something remarkable has happened in the last few years. A whole host of public voices, from all across the political spectrum, have called upon the United States to take on the imperial role bestowed upon it by history. This is remarkable if you recall how recently it was that it was considered impolite, at least in respectable company, to speak so glowingly and approvingly of empire, how discredited in public rhetoric the long and tortured history of colonial subjugation had become. No longer whispered, indeed even fashionable, a whole series of texts and commentaries have emerged to draw new and welcome lessons from European colonial history. You would be mistaken to dismiss such articulations as marginal or even as the ambitious rantings of deluded neoconservatives. Self-identified “liberals”, with substantial public reach, such as Michael Ignatieff, then Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (and commencement speaker at Whitman a couple of years ago), have taken it upon themselves to draw lessons from British colonial strategy to instruct American policy makers on how to build empire (Ignatieff, 2002). Writing about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Ignatieff argues ”(I)mperialism used to be the white man’s burden. This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it is politically incorrect” (Ignatieff, 2002). “The White Man’s Burden.” “Take up the White Man’s burden” – famous words written in 1899 by Nobel Prize winning English author and poet Rudyard Kipling,urging the US conquest of the Philippines. Hear carefully Kipling’s poetic genius as it resonates in our own times:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;…

Take up the White Man’s burden—
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;…

Take up the White Man’s burden—
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard—

Empire today too is “a burden”, says Michael Ignatieff over a century later, an unfair but necessary and liberal burden imposed on the only superpower in the world, arguing that ”(t)he case for empire is that it has become in a place like Iraq, the last hope of democracy and stability”. Thus Ignatieff calls upon Americans to overcome their inhibition on using what he calls the “E-word” (Ignatieff, 2003).

To understand the much posed puzzle of the profound shift in George Bush’s policies – from “an assertive nationalist” in the presidential debates of 2000 to the oxymoronic “democratic imperialist” described by the British magazine The Economist (2003) eager to initiate regime change in Iraq – to understand this policy shift and the relatively widespread acceptance of it by the U.S. public at least before the war in Iraq turned this sour – requires understanding not just the changed political circumstances after September 11, but also the enormous ideological work that has been done by scholars such as Ignatieff, journalists such as Judith Miller, think-tank “experts” such as William Kristol and various other kinds of opinion-makers writing in the reputable pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, well-read journals such as Foreign Affairs, holding forth on CNN and Fox News and circulating through the fertile circuits of talk radio; intellectual-ideological work that has produced and sustained the imagination of a benign and necessary U.S. imperial power with global reach.

Think. If empire had not been so effectively vindicated from the “bad reputation” that it had been given, would we have been as shocked by that pyramid of naked brown bodies that we now know as Abu Ghraib – no shock to those who are conversant at all with the “bad reputation” of the Belgians in Congo, the British in India or the French in Algeria? What is at stake in the kind of historical amnesia that has been resurrected by the recent vanguards of the “E-word”, so that our public discourse has been degraded enough to make it possible to pose such a thing as “the torture question”?

“We need to know, in a war” says Lynn Cheney, “exactly what is at stake”. What is at stake in the middle of this increasingly unpopular war, in a world so integrated and yet so tragically divided, in the midst of growing anti-immigrant sentiments and rising xenophobia around the world, is our ability to think;to think historically, analytically, critically; to free our minds from accepting, unquestioningly, thoughtlessly, carelessly the imperial hubris that has so cunningly invented itself as “patriotic wisdom”. Patriotism – a fraught word these days. “You are with us or against us” – declared the powers that be. Patriotism, that once served to liberate the subjugated from empire, has now become simply a test of allegiance to one vision of the nation, a sentiment to engage our sympathies entirely for those we think are like us and against those who are our “others”. But what and when does patriotism inhibit us from seeing, feeling and knowing? Reflecting on how one mourns in the aftermath of global tragedies such as September 11th, political philosopher Judith Butler asks: “Who counts as human?” “Whose lives count as lives?” “What makes for grievable life”(Butler, 2004)? If we are torn by the stories of enormous violence that emerge from Iraq every day, are we able to grieve, if not unpatriotically, at least non-patriotically? What if we were to see those dying every single day in Iraq, not patriotically as American soldiers or unpatriotically as Iraqi victims, but human, simply human; full, complete human subjects, so many of them young and beautiful and full of tremendous potential like you? What if we could articulate our opposition to the war, for those so opposed, not just in the vocabulary of the damage it does to the “self”, to “us” – our troops, our economy, our moral compass – but in a language that can accommodate the common humanity of all those damaged by this war, on all sides of national borders? When does patriotic pride constrain the limits of our sensibilities, our imagination, our sympathies to those we have determined, by whatever arbitrary criteria of race, ethnicity, language, religion, nationality as “worthy lives”?

Think of the world we live in today. “There has never been a period in the history of the world when its peoples were so jumbled up,” writes novelist Salman Rushdie: “We are so thoroughly shuffled together, clubs among diamonds, hearts among spades, jokers everywhere” (Rushdie, 2002). The question is, how are we going to live with it? Empire is one way to reach out to the world, but there are others. The challenge for your generation is to develop an ethic and a sensibility for living responsibly in a world so deeply and profoundly connected by trade, technology and migration. If the everyday realities of our very existence – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, even the air we breathe – are made by the labor of those who live so far away from us, what sense does it make to let our affections, concern, our frameworks of law and justice, be limited by the reach of national borders, our sense of community narrowly circumscribed for us by those who demand our loyalty?

Shocked by the images of poor blacks in New Orleans made dispensable and desperate by the indifference of the powerful after the 2005 hurricane Katrina, U.S. media analysts asked – “how can there be a third world within the United States?” “Third World” – that global signifier of abject and precarious life, and indeed, that third world is everywhere. Bangladeshi men have a better chance of living to ages beyond forty years than African American men from Harlem in New York city, points out Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen (1999), yet that poor, starving flood-stricken Bangladeshi child that momentarily grabbed our Paris Hilton-obsessed media’s attention this month must surely break our hearts too. What hospitality of spirit, then, would allow us to expand the reach of what Edward Said (1978) calls our “imaginative geographies”, allow us to rage for the third world in the world, wherever that third world may be – Harlem, New Orleans, Darfur, Palestine, the U.S.-Mexico border, Baghdad? Resisting the urge to turn insular, how can we develop an ethic that puts the humanity of all those made most vulnerable by the workings of our interconnected world at the center of our public deliberations and moral universe?

What is at stake in the asking of these questions is our ability to shake all those presuppositions, those taken-for-granted, commonsensical notions of “us” and “them”, all those borders and boundaries that have kept us divided. Asking these questions troubles the conceit that allows us to imagine a history of “Western civilization” apart from its astounding connections, some dialogic, some imperial, but always intimate connections with Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East; asking these questions disturbs the deadly arrogance that keeps alive the fictions of biological race; asking these questions confounds the shallow pride that would make America a global empire or isolate it from the currents and conversations of the rest of the world. There are risks, make no mistake, in the asking of these questions – risks to our sense of who we are, sometimes at the most personal levels, and risks to those served by our loyalty to the boundaries that keep us divided. So while others at Whitman will expend considerable efforts to keep you safe and well-tended, the task of this remarkable faculty, that has been my teacher as much as they will be yours and of which I am proud to count myself a member; our task is to make college intellectually unsettling for you. The intellectual journey is on a bumpy road; our work together is to push, stretch, challenge, complicate, to think carefully, deeply, thoroughly, to argue, debate, disagree – here no idea is too radical, here there is no limit to your imagination.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” – urged political philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1971). Class of 2011, if we bequeath to you a world made bleak by the follies of my generation, we are hungry for your youthful, bristling impatience to make it better; this too may be an unfair burden, but it is yours, that banal burden of “changing the world”. The best change comes from knowledge, understanding and wisdom, and so I welcome you today to the risky work of thinking. In a war, that is exactly what is at stake.



Aronowitz Stanley. The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Butler Judith. “Violence, Mourning, Politics” in Precarious Lives: The Power of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004.

Editors, America and Empire: Manifest Destiny Warmed Up? The Economist, 368, 19-21, August 16, 2003.

Gramsci Antonio. Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Martin Jerry and Neal Anne, “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It?”, Defense of Civilization Fund, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, February 2002.

Ignatieff Michael, “Nation-Building Lite”. New York Times Magazine, July 28, 2002.

Ignatieff Michael, “The Burden”. The New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003.

Kipling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden: The United States & The Philippine Islands, 1899.” Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: The Definitive Edition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1929.

Larkin, Graham, “What’s Not to Like About the Academic Bill of Rights”, California Conference of the American Association of University Professors, September 22, 2004.

Mohanty Chandra, Privatized Citizenship, Corporate Academies, and Feminist Project,” in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Noble David. The Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001.

Ben Okri. Astonishing the Gods. London: Phoenix, 1995.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Salman Rushdie, “Step Across this Line”, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Yale University, February 25 & 26, 2002.

Amartya Sen. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.

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