Thursday, March 3, 2005

Don't Ask Why

In a post a few days ago titled Skewering Academic Feminists we had written that it is distressing that so many students, particularly females, take umbrage when their views are challenged or when they're asked to support them with reasons. We noted that:

"It is not the tone or the demeanor that puts them off, mind you. It is the insistence that they be able to state the reasons behind their opinions, the premises supporting their conclusions, that makes them uncomfortable. In their view, all opinions should be respected and accepted, and to question their claims is to make them feel almost like they have been personally assaulted. It would be amusing were it not so sad."

A reader e-mailed to share his thoughts on this phenomenon. Adam C. writes:

I think there is in many cases another explanation for which their feeling that all opinions should be respected is a symptom. That is they have no awareness of their premises or of the origins and connections of their thoughts with a larger, historical, body of ideas.

In short, they say all opinions should be equally respected because they are ignorant of the history of ideas.

They feel assaulted because they feel, but do not comprehend, the shame and humiliation of not being masters of their own thoughts. If they understood, they could, and would, do something about it. As it is, they feel assaulted and strike back.

There's a lot to what Adam says. Ignorance of intellectual history deprives us of an awareness of the best that has been thought and written so we are oblivious to how banal, or insightful, our opinions are relative to the conclusions of those who have thought most deeply about things. Students who lack this intellectual reference point have no way to judge the worth of their opinions nor do they understand that good opinions are often the product of a kind of Darwinian selection that involves testing and challenge.

This lack of understanding leaves us susceptible to the attitude that as long as I feel strongly about an idea it is valuable in its own right. My idea is respectable simply by virtue of its being mine. For a teacher to challenge my opinions on politics or morality or whatever, is like challenging my opinion of my boyfriend or girlfriend - it's somehow impolite, disrespectful, and offensive.

No doubt this is partly a by-product of the relativization or subjectivization of truth. When truth is seen as a matter of personal affinity, when it's regarded as solely a matter of one's personal perspective, then challenging or questioning it is an odd thing for an instructor to do. It's like questioning someone's taste in ice cream flavors or the color they chose for their new car.

So it is unfortunate but unsurprising that students get a little miffed and flustered when they're asked to explain why they believe what they believe. Their opinions are based less upon reasons and more upon feelings that they can't easily articulate or explain. To ask them for reasons why they believe what they do is like asking them why they like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla. There's no satisfying way for them to answer other than to say that they just do.

The Damascus Road on 9/11

Little Green Footballs tips us to this outstanding essay by a Bay Area writer named Cinnamon Stillwell who eloquently describes her political conversion from Left/liberal Naderite to conservative Republican. Her story is captivating and we copy it here in its entirety:

As one of a handful of Bay Area conservative columnists, I'm no stranger to pushing buttons. Indeed, I welcome feedback from readers, whether positive or negative. I find the interplay stimulating, but I am often bemused by the stereotypical assumptions made by my critics on the left. It's not enough to simply disagree with my views; I have to be twisted into a conservative caricature that apparently makes opponents feel superior. They seem not to have considered that it's possible to put forward different approaches to various societal problems and not be the devil incarnate.

But in some ways I understand where this perspective comes from, because I once shared it. I was raised in liberal Marin County, and my first name (which garners more comments than anything else) is a direct product of the hippie generation. Growing up, I bought into the prevailing liberal wisdom of my surroundings because I didn't know anything else. I wrote off all Republicans as ignorant, intolerant yahoos. It didn't matter that I knew none personally; it was simply de rigueur to look down on such people. The fact that I was being a bigot never occurred to me, because I was certain that I inhabited the moral high ground.

Having been indoctrinated in the post-colonialist, self-loathing school of multiculturalism, I thought America was the root of all evil in the world. Its democratic form of government and capitalist economic system was nothing more than a machine in which citizens were forced to be cogs. I put aside the nagging question of why so many people all over the world risk their lives to come to the United States. Freedom of speech, religious freedom, women's rights, gay rights (yes, even without same-sex marriage), social and economic mobility, relative racial harmony and democracy itself were all taken for granted in my narrow, insulated world view.

So, what happened to change all that? In a nutshell, 9/11. The terrorist attacks on this country were not only an act of war but also a crime against humanity. It seemed glaringly obvious to me at the time, and it still does today. But the reaction of my former comrades on the left bespoke a different perspective. The day after the attacks, I dragged myself into work, still in a state of shock, and the first thing I heard was one of my co-workers bellowing triumphantly, "Bush got his war!" There was little sympathy for the victims of this horrific attack, only an irrational hatred for their own country.

As I spent months grieving the losses, others around me wrapped themselves in the comfortable shell of cynicism and acted as if nothing had changed. I soon began to recognize in them an inability to view America or its people as victims, born of years of indoctrination in which we were always presented as the bad guys.

Never mind that every country in the world acts in its own self-interest, forms alliances with unsavory countries -- some of which change later -- and are forced to act militarily at times. America was singled out as the sole guilty party on the globe. I, on the other hand, for the first time in my life, had come to truly appreciate my country and all that it encompassed, as well as the bravery and sacrifices of those who fight to protect it.

Thoroughly disgusted by the behavior of those on the left, I began to look elsewhere for support. To my astonishment, I found that the only voices that seemed to me to be intellectually and morally honest were on the right. Suddenly, I was listening to conservative talk-show hosts on the radio and reading conservative columnists, and they were making sense. When I actually met conservatives, I discovered that they did not at all embody the stereotypes with which I'd been inculcated as a liberal.

Although my initial agreement with voices on the right centered on the war on terrorism, I began to find myself in concurrence with other aspects of conservative political philosophy as well. Smaller government, traditional societal structures, respect and reverence for life, the importance of family, personal responsibility, national unity over identity politics and the benefits of living in a meritocracy all became important to me. In truth, it turns out I was already conservative on many of these subjects but had never been willing to admit as much.

In my search for like-minded individuals, I also gravitated toward the religiously observant. This was somewhat revolutionary, considering my former liberal discomfort with religious folk, but I found myself in agreement on a number of issues. When it came to support for Israel, Orthodox Jews and Christian Zionists were natural allies. As the left rained down vicious attacks on Israel, commentators on the right (with the exception of Pat Buchanan and his ilk) became staunch supporters of the nation. The fact that I'm not a particularly religious person myself had little bearing on this political relationship, for it's entirely possible to be secular and not be antireligious. Unlike the secular fundamentalists who make it their mission in life to destroy all vestiges of America's Judeo-Christian heritage, I have come to value this legacy.

So I became what's now commonly known as a "9/11 Republican." Living in a time of war, disenchanted with the left and disappointed with the obstructionism and lack of vision of the Democratic Party, I threw in my hat with the only party that seemed to be offering solutions, rather than simply tearing away at our country. I went from voting for Ralph Nader in 2000 to proudly casting my ballot for George W. Bush in 2004. This doesn't necessarily mean that I agree with Bush on every issue, but there is enough common ground to support his party overall. In the wake of this political transformation, I discovered that I was not alone. It turned out that there are other 9/11 Republicans out there, both in the Bay Area and beyond, and they have been coming out of the woodwork.

Like many a political convert, I took it on myself to openly oppose the politics of those with which I once shared world views. Beyond writing, I put myself on the front lines of this ideological battle by taking part in counterprotests at the antiwar rallies leading up to the war in Iraq. This turned out to be a further wake-up call, because it was there that I encountered more intolerance than ever before in my life. Holding pro-Iraq-liberation signs and American flags, I was spat on, called names, intimidated, threatened, attacked, cursed and, on a good day, simply argued with. It was clear that any deviation from the prevailing leftist groupthink of the Bay Area was considered a threat to be eliminated as quickly as possible.

It was at such protests that I also had my first real brushes with anti-Semitism. The anti-Israel sentiment on the left -- inexorably linked to anti-Americanism -- ran high at these events and boiled over into Jew hatred on more than one occasion. The pro-Palestinian sympathies of the left had led to a bizarre commingling of pacifism, Communism and Arab nationalism. So it was not uncommon to see kaffiyeh-clad college students chanting Hamas slogans, graying hippies wearing "Intifada" T-shirts, Che Guevera backpacks, and signs equating Zionism with Nazism, all against a backdrop of peace, patchouli and tie-dye.

Being unapologetically pro-Israel, I was called every name in the book, from "Zionist pig" to "Zionist scum," and was once told that those with European origins such as myself couldn't really be Jewish. In the end, the blatant anti-Semitism on the left, even among Jews, only strengthened my political transformation. I was, in effect, radicalized by the radicals.

But more than anything, it was the left's hypocrisy when it came to the war on terrorism that made me turn rightward after 9/11. I remember, back in my liberal days, being fiercely opposed to the Taliban and its brutal treatment of women. Even then, I felt that Afghanistan should immediately be liberated, as Malcolm X once said in another context, by any means necessary. But when it came time, it turned out that the left was mostly opposed to such liberation, whether of the Afghan people or of the Iraqis (especially if America and a Republican president were at the helm).

Indeed, liberals had become strangely conservative in their fierce attachment to the status quo. In contrast, the much-maligned neoconservatives (among whose ranks I count myself) and Bush had become the "radicals," bringing freedom and democracy to the despotic Middle East. Is it any wonder that in such a topsy-turvy world, I found myself in agreement with those I'd formerly denounced?

The war on terrorism is nothing more than the great struggle of our time, and, like the earlier ones against fascism and totalitarianism, we ignore it at our peril. Whether or not one accepts that we are engaged in a war, our enemies have declared it so. It took the horrors of 9/11 to awaken me to this reality, but for others, such lessons remain unlearned. For me, it was self-evident that in Islamic terrorism, America had found a nihilistic threat that sought to wipe out not only Western civilization but also civilization itself.

The Islamists have been clear all along about their plans to form an Islamic caliphate and inhabit the entire world with burqas, stonings, amputations, honor killings and a lack of religious and political freedom. Whether or not to oppose such a movement should have been a no-brainer, especially for self-proclaimed "progressives." Instead, they have extended their misguided sympathies to tyrants and terrorists.

In the end, history will be the judge, and each of us will have to think about what legacy we wish to leave to future generations. If there's one thing I've learned since 9/11, it's that it's never too late to alter one's place in the great scheme of things.

The only question we have is what is it that motivates those who have treated her so shabbily? What kind of people are they?