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Understanding, Patriotism, and Orchestrating Emotion

by Kim Curtis

On college campuses across the nation, efforts are being made to silence professors who encourage students to probe the history of U.S. foreign policy in the effort to understand the September 11th attacks.

Recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education report that students have complained to deans about professors critical of U.S. foreign policy, and boards of trustees, deans, and college presidents have drafted resolutions and issued public statements condemning their views. Professors have been shouted down, received volumes of hate mail and, on some campuses, death threats. In one case, a trustee publicly invited a professor "to take a hike."

Historically, such attacks on free speech have risen sharply in times of national crisis -- precisely when a full range of views is sorely needed. They are particularly disturbing on campuses of higher education that should be strongholds of people who defend independent thinking.

The nature of the arguments offered against these dissenting voices are very troubling; so too their political effects. The arguments fall into two groups. First, professors are charged with showing no concern for the feeling of others: they lack taste and judgment; they are insensitive, self-indulgent and offend others at a time when emotions are raw. In being so inattentive to their students' emotional sensitivities, dissenting faculty violate the trust students place in them. Now is not the time for critique, but for emotional nurturing, reassurance and national solidarity.

Second, professors are charged with offering excuses for the attacks. Their examination of the role the United States may have played in creating conditions that make terrorist acts more likely amounts to a justification of the acts themselves.

There is an emotional tyranny at play here, and its effect is to obstruct processes of understanding that alone will aid us in our ongoing debate over how to come to terms with terrorism. What do I mean by tyranny? In the first instance, we are being told that feelings alone are appropriate now. It is too early, indeed, it is tasteless, to begin to sort through our role in the complex factors that brought these people to their heinous acts.

But understanding is crucial to wise action, and action, as we see in each morning's news, is most certainly being undertaken in our name. While we are being asked just to feel, the administration and its congressional allies hurry to pass laws that threaten our civil liberties at home, and engage in a massive war effort likely to foster greater resentment abroad. To insist we attend to emotions alone is to insist we divest ourselves of our powers to think critically and to contribute to public deliberation. It is to ask that we deliver ourselves to our rulers. Tyranny thrives where there are no dissenting voices.

But it also thrives where the range of permissible feeling is narrow and firmly controlled. For emotion moves the intellect, and therefore tyranny is advanced by legitimating only those feelings that will move the minds of citizens on paths that serve ruling ends.

So let us notice that the argument to respect feelings is simultaneously defining what it is legitimate and illegitimate to feel right now. There are many citizens who feel shame, fear and anger over the violent suppression that the United States has undertaken in so many states across the globe in the near and the distant past. Are these feelings, which for many are very raw, especially after Sept. 11, permissible? No. We may feel only those feelings that will not move us to question ourselves, questioning that might indeed lead to critiques of U.S. foreign policy, U.S. domination and the current war-making. Free people rightly resist such orchestration of feeling done in the service of acquiescence and thoughtlessness.

There is, thankfully, a far wider range of emotions felt by people of all walks of life. They need to be expressed to help guide the republic in its quest for understanding. I myself, for example, feel and have many students who feel deep foreboding and anger at the Bush administration's unilateralism so wantonly demonstrated as they repudiated widely supported multilateral treaty frameworks, including the Kyoto Protocol, the ABM treaty and the Biological Weapons Convention. As it becomes evident that the United States' efforts to respond to the terrorist attacks in an international, collective framework have been largely window dressing for further unilateralism, these feelings and the critique of U.S. foreign policy they engender are vital to concerted, informed debate about the current crisis.

Taking another example, many feel distress over the long-time support by the U.S. of the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, whose oppression of women has been brutal. The distress this knowledge engenders is useful because it reveals the current administration's effort to position the U.S. as a defender of the rights of Afghani women for what it is: a cynical effort to orchestrate support for its war. This support depends upon controlling its citizens' knowledge of and feelings about this ugly history.

We violate our students' trust in not raising critical issues such as these, and by not teaching them to let these emotions move their intellect along paths other than those the authorities wish.

Efforts to silence dissenting voices indeed orchestrate feelings in the service of a docile and reactionary patriotism. In crippling the range of permissible feeling, these acts foster a citizenry incapable of the elementary responsibility of democratic citizenship: to think what "we" are doing and have done. We must embrace the task of learning a more complicated history of who we are by learning what we have done and understanding the effects of our deeds upon others. And for this, we must draw on the full range of our republic's feelings and thoughts. Let freedom ring.


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