By Steven Cohn

As many Zephyr readers might know, Knox College recently held a "teach in" (officially called a "community conversation") on the Second Iraqi war, the Patriot Act, and a proposal that Knox College fly the UN flag along with the American flag in front of two College buildings. I authored the UN flag resolution and thought readers might want to know the thinking behind the proposal.

In essence, I believe the foreign policy of the Bush Administration will lead to endless wars and occupations abroad and the slashing of domestic programs and civil liberties at home. The recent cutbacks in the Galesburg schools and reductions in other Illinois social programs take place alongside massive increases in military budgets to pay for the last Iraqi war and new military projects separate from that war. This is only the beginning of the remaking of America.

I think it is crucial for people with doubts about these policies to speak out. We need to create space for other people with doubts to continue to think about these issues. Flying the UN flag was one mechanism for raising doubts; we need to find others. Below is a presentation I gave at the Knox teach-in in support of the flag proposal, which speaks to many of these concerns.


I) Introduction

I’d like to speak to the general issues posed by this session concerning the appropriate role of the College and its institutions in public life, and address a particular instance of this general question with respect to whether the College should fly the UN flag along with the US flag in front of Old Main and the Global Studies Center.

My arguments in favor of the College flying the UN flag rest on 4 key claims

1) First, that independent of recent events in Iraq it would be a good idea to fly the UN flag.

2) Second, that the country has embarked on a seriously misguided course abroad and at home.

3) Third, that it is appropriate and important for institutions like Colleges, college faculties, and student governments to participate in civil society’s reflection on the current direction of the country.

4)And fourth, that flying the UN flag is a good way to urge the country to move in a different direction.

Consistent with the focus of this session, I will spend most of my time discussing the third issue, which deals with the appropriateness of colleges and their component parts (such as their faculties and student governments) participating in public life. I’ll return briefly to the broader issues raised during the teach in about the second Iraq war, the Bush Doctrine, the Patriot Act, and so on at the end of my remarks.

II) The Role of Colleges in Public Discourse

The Implications of Free Inquiry. A number of people have wondered whether it would undermine academic integrity and compromise free inquiry if the College or the faculty as official bodies took positions on public issues. This is an important question and needs to be addressed at the very beginning of our discussion. Academic freedom and a commitment to the unfettered exploration of ideas are central to what we are as a college, as they are prerequisites for everything else we do and stand for. Without an openness to unfettered debate our other high ideals, such as the quest for social justice or efforts to find peaceful resolutions to global conflicts, can easily take wrong turns. We need open inquiry to correct mistakes and challenge hidden assumptions. We need open inquiry to learn.

A commitment to open inquiry, however, does not imply that institutions should not take principled positions on profound issues of the day. A commitment to open inquiry does imply that all ideas be discussable, regardless of the institution’s position. It was right and proper for Knox to oppose the extension and continuation of slavery. It would have been wrong, however, to prevent arguments in defense of slavery from being fully discussed on campus, as they were in the Lincoln Douglas debate outside of Old Main. It is important that newspapers strive to report the news objectively. At the same time it is appropriate and for them to have editorials where they make recommendations regarding pressing public issues.

The Need for Academic Voices in Public Debate. At present, it is especially important that academic voices, coming from individuals and from institutions, be heard in public debate. The forum for discussion of the war offered by the media has been troublingly jingoistic and successfully manipulated by the Bush Administration. It is an old saying that the first casualty of war is truth. And unfortunately it still seems correct, as suggested by the finding that more than half the public apparently believes Saddam Hussein was behind the events of Sept 11, despite enormous factual evidence to the contrary.

The increasing concentration and commercialization of the media has greatly weakened the independence, honor, and professionalism of journalism. The jingoistic bias and blurring of news, entertainment, and ideology in Fox TV is the most blatant, but other networks, like MSNBC have offered lite versions of the same stuff. Talk radio offers a similarly inhospitable environment for thoughtful discussion. The print media has been better, but here too, the analysis has been skewed. The typical debate is between the State Department and the Pentagon, an interesting debate, but hardly a wide-ranging one. There is just enough attention to modest criticism of the war in some of the media to insulate the public from searching for more serious debate.

The domination of the media by large financial interests is matched by the domination of the major political parties by the same interests. And the effect has been similar. As Senator Byrd has lamented, there was little political debate in the congress about the war (not even as much as in the media) because the Democrats simply didn’t show up. DESPITE many public opinion polls showing Americans strong reluctance to go to war without the support of the United Nations, the Democrats were silent. They refused to pursue their own doubts or represent those of their constituents out of political fears that the White House (with a compliant media) could manipulate the public.

With depressing cynicism, former President Clinton warned the Democratic party to stick to domestic issues- on which they could win elections, and to and avoid foreign policy issues, not because of a principled agreement with Bush’s foreign policy or because of a lack of concern within the country about Bush’s policy, but because of fear of any president’s ability to drum up support for war- and to label those who would demand full discussion of the reasons for war as unpatriotic, weak, unfit to lead, and unfit to rule.

The war’s supporters are currently trying to complete the short circuiting of critical reflection about the war and the course of the country. To win over skeptics, the rhetoric is sometimes couched in terms of supporting the troops, sometimes in terms of putting the past behind us, sometimes in terms of not raising divisive issues, sometimes in terms of non sequiturs, such as, "we won the war, so it doesn’t matter what the reasons were for waging it." The goal is to create a false sense of consensus, legitimizing, really normalizing, the war and the current course of the country.

The goal is to silence doubts, which despite everything seem to persist.

Since the doubts can’t be erased substantively through reasoned discourse, the administration’s rhetorical strategy is to silence them through social conformity. It is therefore essential for critics of the war and proponents of reasoned discussion (regardless of their position on the war) to protect people’s right to doubt, to protect people’s right to think for themselves, and to prevent popular deference to the notion "that since everyone else agrees it was a good idea, there is no reason for me to think about it."

If people in academia have doubts, they need to express them and need to legitimize such doubts in others. That is part of our job. We are supposed to protect the public against state efforts to enforce intellectual conformity.

If people in academia think that the current course of the country, which among other things legitimizes preemptive wars and denigrates the United Nations, is on the wrong track, it is appropriate to express our sense of this -- if we feel that we are citizens of the globe as well citizens of America, it is right and proper for us to fly the UN flag-

If this conflicts with the program of the Bush Administration, then it is even more imperative to fly the flag, to protect others’ right to think similar thoughts.

To draw a troubling analogy, the current situation in America may be akin to the political-cultural environment that accompanied Europe’s colonial empires. I suspect that the strategy of the French colonizers in Algeria and Indochina, or the Dutch colonizers in Indonesia, or the British everywhere was to identify "being English" (or Dutch, or French) with being part of the colonial project. The same strategy may be happening here. The psychological groundwork is being laid for the emotional identification of being an American with supporting hundreds of thousands of troops spread out across the globe in various stages of pacification, invasion, occupation, reconstruction, reoccupation, etc. The rhetorical goal of the promoters of what one of the speakers last night termed "democratic imperialism" and/or "assertive nationalism" is to foreclose discussion.

Several mainstream Democrats, such as Senators Daschle and Kerry, were just about called traitors by leaders of the Republican party for very modest criticism of the 2nd Iraqi war. After some newspaper accounts of the Knox county peace group I am involved with were printed in the local paper, I also received an anonymous phone call at home, calling me a traitor. The NBC reporter, Ashleigh Banfield, who, in a recent commencement address, carefully and rather eloquently, suggested that the media’s war coverage was incomplete, was publicly rebuked by the network for demeaning the work of her colleagues.

Given this environment, it is imperative that major institutions of civil society, (i.e. those independent of the government) such as colleges and universities, religious institutions, labor unions, women’s groups, civil rights groups, etc. participate in the country’s reflection about its current course.

III) How Should Academia Participate in this Reflection

Some people who oppose the war and think it is important for academic voices to try and inform public debate argue that it is best for academics to do this as individuals rather than as members of an institution. They ask, what if the majority position is not held unanimously by the institution or collective body taking action (be it a college, a faculty, a student government, an academic discipline, etc.). Is it fair to declare a public position not held by everyone? They also ask, won’t debate cause unnecessary acrimony?

These are reasonable questions. Let me try to briefly address them.

It is useful to note that academic institutions implicitly take positions all the time and explicitly do so as well. Many schools, including Knox, have adopted explicit commitments to affirmative action and some have contributed "friends of the court" briefs to legal cases involving affirmative action. If it is OK for companies like General Motors and former military leaders to submit briefs in support of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program on the grounds that similar programs are necessary to preserve the vitality of American business and the American officer corns, it is certainly legitimate for academic institutions to submit similar briefs on behalf of the need to maintain diversity in educational institutions.

In the years I have been at Knox, the College has taken a position on several issues, including investment in South Africa and the need for non-discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. In the past Knox has apparently stood for free speech in the face of McCarthyism. I would expect it to oppose government limitations on free speech in the future, such as hypothetical proposals to report students and faculty making statements critical of the war to the FBI, or attempts to limit the College’s ability to show Al-Jazeera reporting on its cable network. One can legitimately debate whether a new McCarthyism is in the air, but if it is, I unabashedly expect Knox to oppose it as an institution.

When a college faculty passes a resolution or a college adopts an institutional policy, I think the public is sophisticated enough to understand that not everyone at the institution necessarily agrees with the policy. It is true, however, that institutional voices are louder than individual voices. If I read that 67 Harvard professors support this or that proposal, I don’t know what to make of it. But if I read that the Harvard faculty voted for something, I have a sense that it is supported by at least a majority of that body. In the current environment, these louder voices are needed. The vitality of civil society depends, to some extent, on the presence of countervailing voices to the megaphones of the Bush Administration and the frequent inability or unwillingness of the media to promote thoughtful discussion.

Critics of academic participation in public issues sometimes charge that these actions will mire colleges and universities in endless political debates and divisive controversies. There is some risk in this, but I think we are capable of distinguishing critical moments from business as usual. And there can be greater risks in inaction. As one of our colleagues wrote in a recent e-mail to the faculty on this subject,

"Perhaps equally important are the examples of faculties who have not acted, or that have bent to the winds of powerful political force to acquiesce in morally reprehensible decisions. I think, of course, of the faculties of German universities – among the world’s most distinguished – who did not protest at decisions that expelled their Jewish colleagues from their midst during the 1 930s."

I think the problem of divisiveness is real, but we send our students the wrong message if we tell them they should not stand up for what they believe, if discussion will be heated. We all need to learn how to deal with heartfelt differences of opinion, but this need is not a reason for inaction.

Finally, it has also been suggested that potential donors to Knox may "vote with their checkbooks" against the College if it takes any action even implicitly critical of the country’s current course. I do not know if this prediction is true, but if we decide what flag to fly on the basis of who is giving us money, we might as well fly a picture of the American dollar.

These arguments return us to the basic issues posed by the teach-in- what do we think about the course the country is on? Only if we are deeply troubled by our new course does it make sense to take a public stand against it. Thus it is sensible to end these remarks with a brief review of why we need a change of course.

IV) Come home America

As several speakers pointed out last night, the current direction of American policy was foreshadowed in several planning documents long before 9/11 and this direction has less to do with the particulars in Iraq and Al Queda than with the emergence of the United States as the sole superpower in the world. As boldly declared in the Bush Doctrine of preemptive wars and the nation’s new national security posture, we are on a course to oversee the world, to be, in Colin Powel’s terms "the bully on the block."

This policy is a blueprint for permanent war, for massive military spending and for a shift in priorities from domestic to military projects. The latter is nicely illustrated by the accidental equivalence of the first down payment for the 2nd Iraqi war of $70 to $80 billion with that sum total of all of the state budget deficits currently contributing to large cutbacks in state and local school spending, state and local environmental programs, and social programs in general. On the drawing board are massive increases in military spending-despite the fall of the Soviet Union (or perhaps because of it).

The Bush plan for the new world order is built around a strategy of bankrupting all countries in a global arms race that America is best prepared to run. It is a reckless strategy that will waste an enormous amount treasure in the name of empire. The major beneficiaries will be the arms industries, and the major losers will be the worlds’ citizens, especially the poor. It was President Eisenhower who coined the term "military industrial complex" when he warned that every gun was a theft from a child – And The magnitude of planned thefts is now far greater than was conceivable in Eisenhower’s day.

As with all empires, this strategy may indeed work in the short run, but it will surely, in the long run, create strong rivals. As with most empires, the strategy will also probably constrict civil liberties at home, elevate the executive branch over the legislature branch of government, centralize power in the executive branch, and debase public discourse. The Patriot Act is the domestic cost of foreign occupations.

V) In Conclusion

Flying the UN flag is a modest act – an act that asserts our global as well as our American citizenship. It holds out the hope of a world that resolves international conflicts peaceably and that gives priority to fighting our common enemies of hunger, disease, environmental degradation, etc. rather than fighting each other. It is an act consistent with the international character of Knox College.

Flying the UN flag does not suggest that the world body is perfect, but it does hold out the hope that it can evolve into an effective institution.

Flying the UN flag offers an alternative to our current course. It is often said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Looking at the history of nation state violence, and the rise and fall of empires – this prediction is sobering, and the contemporary corollary, may be even more chilling – that those who ignore history may be doomed to end it.