The Undercurrent

Feb 04

Ubuntu: Or How I Stopped Trying to Teach and Learned to Learn

I chose to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa for the fall semester of my Junior year. I must confess that part of the reason I wanted to spend those formative months of my college experience in Africa was because I felt like I could go there and “help” people. Soon after my journey started, I realized that they didn’t want my assistance. They didn’t need an American coming to “save” them. Though crisis runs rampant all over the continent of Africa, this is largely because the White man (in the form of European colonialism) tore apart the continent on social, economic, and political levels. Ideals and morals on their own are not going to be able to fix it.

I took a sociology course at the University of Cape Town on social justice and inequality in South Africa. I was the only American in the class. The other students couldn’t understand what I thought I, or any other American, could do to help. On a practical level we did nothing to help them, and moreover don’t know enough about their culture to make impactful, sustainable change.  And on a political level they thought it was important for them, as citizens of independent nation, to figure out solutions. Furthermore, they wanted me to see what I could learn from Africa – a question we often forget to address when thinking about the “Dark Continent.” 

The following excerpt is from a paper my TA read us in the course: 

It is important to note that we must craft solutions that are relevant to our Southern African context, which has of course been shaped by the rest of the world. Mbigi (2007) describes four world-view paradigms and their applicability to our work. The European North, characterised by the scientific, rational “I am because I think I am” Cartesian world view, which helps plan ahead and vision the future. The Eastern Asian, characterised by the “I am because I improve” towards spiritual perfection, which pushes every individual towards consistently innovating better solutions.The Western American, characterised by “I am because I, the individual hero, dream and do”, which turns personal vision, dreams and courage into enterprise. The African, characterised by ubuntu - “I am because we are; I can only be a person through others”, which contributes a completely different way of doing business. Ubuntu philosophy and practice is about listening to, empathising with and persuading the other, all to serve the needs of the community. Individual goals become automatically achieved. In an age of interconnectedness, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ubuntu will be “the gift that Africa is going to give the world” (Mbigi, 2007: 297).

The notion of ubuntu is one that I’ve carried with me since returning from South Africa almost a year ago. If we choose to look at the world through the African lens “I am because we are,” we can understand that in order to create a more perfect world, it is necessary to work together, to strive to create a model in which we all bring our individual strengths for the collective good. The notion of the good life is different for all of us. I’m not sure that I agree with my peers from the University of Cape Town that there is nothing we can do to help, but I do think we must recognize that it is critical for us to release the hold of the White Man’s Burden and celebrate Africa, and the rest of the world, for each nation’s unique and distinct issues and strengths. We should keep these channels open, not that we can help Africa, but that we may learn from them as well. After all, African nations aren’t the only nations that have problems that could use solving.

Talia Klein 

Is Talia the only writer that truly “gets” the post-colonial insight that people in all countries are fundamentally equal? It’s hard to imagine a louder signal that you’ve internalized respect for another than the realization that they should be teaching you, not vice versa. While the naïve communitarianism that ubuntu points to is probably not the way to go (20th century deviations from liberal individualism didn’t work out so well), there’s something heartening about the idea of seeking wisdom in other areas of the world. Perhaps this is a response to Taylor’s assertion that we should analyze global capitalism before spreading it.Talia’s piece reminds us that opening the channels between Africa and America does not have to imply one-way relations, even if we can somehow clean these relations of problems of power and domination. Maybe it’s the simple mutual exposure that will bring the greatest benefits of 21st century American students going to Africa.

There are two more things we should notice from this discussion. The first is that, if you put three Columbians together to talk about sub-Saharan Africa, it’s not a guarantee that they will start talking about Jeffrey Sachs. Is this a deficiency in our thinking? Is it a strength?

The second is that the primary motivation for both Talia and Eric is simple curiosity, a desire to learn and to experience. We can talk about such curiosity as the privilege of those wealthy enough to travel or as being the first step back to the adventurism we saw before. But the combination of curiosity and potential benefit is what all academia is about, and it’s nice to see that reflected in our student body. 

Written in response to Taylor Thompson, “We Need a Better Context for Critique”

Columbians Going to Africa: We Need a Better Context for Critique

Eric was uneasy about his own story, which smacked a little of the type of thinking that drove 19th century imperialistic adventurism (and drove me to finally sit down and watch the Wild Thornberrys). But below, Taylor Thompson asks whether Eric was asking the right questions. Do our personal stories matter? Is the larger question what white Americans are bringing to Africa, rather than who is doing the bringing? To what extent does the discussion of what we as Columbians can and should do to help require another conversation first: what is the morality of the global system we would be helping to spread?

            Of all the misunderstood tropes of Western civilization, none has more power to mislead than the White Man’s Burden. A cursory reading of Kipling (to say nothing of a critical assessment of the history of empire) makes it clear that from the vantage point of Britain at the apogee of its power, material privilege was not an inducement to “fix everything”—that would be to put the cart in front of the horse. Instead, it was the very struggle to uplift the world that the West claimed as its privilege. Such an idea strikes the modern reader as hopelessly outdated at best, and at worst as a contrivance that existed solely to justify the domination of most of the world’s population, a sham which demands unending contrition from the West.

            Instead of imposing the bourgeois values of the present age onto the nineteenth century, we should be willing, as students of history, to take historical figures at their word—not uncritically, but in good faith nevertheless. And in that light, what do we discover about the Western age of empire and its attendant worldview? We find much that repulses us now—scientific racism, material exploitation, and wars of conquest. We find paternalism, with all the problems it poses for a civilization that prizes the individual. And are we so sure that the social relations of modern capitalism (harsh, transactional, and inescapably materialistic) are an unqualified improvement over a system that induced a sense of mutual obligation (coerced and conditional, yes, but organic nevertheless) between ruler and ruled?

           I think the question we should really be asking is not whether the imperial legacy is worthy of praise or shame—or both. We should be asking whether the institutions and technologies of the modern world are accountable to the people whose lives they now regularly upend. We should be asking whether “uniform Western standards” is even a meaningful category when it has become unfashionable to apply traditional Western values to Westerners. For those who believe that the present iteration of global capitalism is the best we can hope for, I suppose that it is enough to say that we should just follow our imagination to wherever it leads us and learn our lessons along the way. As I do not share that belief, I am skeptical of the idea that an open mind and a bit of moxie are enough to lead people to the right path. To truly live well, I think we require a sense of duty that our sacrifice-averse society is generally unwilling (or unable?) to impart.

Taylor Thompson

Written in response to: “How the Wild Thornberrys Sent me to Africa by Eric Kutscher”

How the Wild Thornberrys Sent Me To Africa

Columbians are often torn between pride in our achievements and discomfort at our own privileges. Nowhere does this tension show more strongly than when we discuss how we relate to the third world—specifically, how we relate to sub-Saharan Africa. The distinct subset of us that study the region or travel there are subject to mixed feelings: on the one hand we know that helping those in need is unambiguously moral. On the other hand, we’re all aware of the disastrous legacy of European imperialism in much of the world. Deconstructive criticism has seeped into our consciousness enough to make us question our own motives in helping others. But does the issue of 21stcentury Columbians and international study and service really have that much to do with the elites of generations ago? Or has nothing really changed? -ed. 

        On a late fall day of my sophomore year, I walked into John Jay dining hall for dinner with my friends. As I sat down at the table, I decided I would break the news: next year, I was going to study abroad in Kenya.

       My friends’ reactions were quite similar to my parents’. Why? Isn’t it dangerous? What are you going to do there? Wouldn’t you prefer to go to Europe? How did this white, Jewish boy from Westchester become interested in African studies? The answers to those questions were not clear. I just knew I had to go. Ever since early childhood, I had wanted to travel to Africa. 

        Growing up, certain stereotypical aspects of Africa had always intrigued me. In 2001, the Wild Thornberrys movie “The Origin of Donnie” aired on primetime Nickelodeon television. I was intrigued by the animated version of Africa on the screen. The jungles were enormous, and everything seemed overgrown and wild. It was an exotic world, almost unimaginable from New York City suburbs. It inspired me to want to live like the “tribal people” the film portrayed, opening acorns and collecting berries with friends in my backyard. Looking back, it’s embarrassing to admit the lack of knowledge and inappropriate stereotypes that I had about a continent so rich in culture and history. Most amazing was my geographical ignorance: Wild Thornberrys did not take place in Africa—it was Borneo. 

        Perhaps it was this naïve fascination that got me interested in being president of the Student World Awareness Program in high school. I organized t-shirt sales for Save Darfur, ran a “malaria bites” campaign to buy mosquito nets for children in Uganda, and collected school supplies for students in Rwanda. Despite being Jewish, a certain missionary quality seemed to call me to “help the African people.” It was almost like I had been endowed with the White Man’s Burden—coming from privilege, I had the obligation to fix things. Without even knowing what problems “they” had “over there,” I thought I had the answers. I didn’t realize then that my position as an outsider should instead learn about and help individual communities face unique challenges, not impose uniform Western solutions on diverse peoples.

         During my first semester of college, my academic coursework in Africa started to develop. I also had discovered my love for public health, and knew it would be well paired with a semester in Africa. I discovered that the School of International Training in Kenya had a Community Health and Development program—a perfect match for me. Though I only lived there for four months, I’ve come a long way in terms of my understanding of Kenya. My fascinations are still alive and well, but my appreciation for the complexities of Kenyan society have been greatly developed. But it was only after I followed my misguided childhood imagination that I was on the right path.

 Eric Kutscher

I Can Only Be a Rebel in a Safe Space

To what extent are the pragmatic and moralistic styles of politics mutually exclusive? If they are, which should we choose to embody in our campus political organizations?

By now it has become somewhat of a ritual. First, my Facebook newsfeed explodes: crisis in Israel! Then I begin to receive email messages: emergency meeting in Hillel to discuss our reaction to Students for Justice in Palestine’s reaction to the crisis.  The meeting is community-wide—the Jewish political geeks and activists gather in sweatpants and sweatshirts to discuss real-time events and make decisions. The atmosphere is informal and electric. There is pizza. The next morning we are off to college walk, Israeli and Palestinian flags in hand. Lines entrench: like in the Holy Land itself, the Palestinian side occupies the high ground, the Israeli side the flat plain. Pretentions to discourse rapidly dissipate as the yelling begins.  

Also part of the ritual: the obvious futility of the demonstrations on college walk. It begs the question of what exactly we mean to accomplish, a question we hear repeatedly and smugly asked by the skeptics, the independents and the outliers of the community. But in the eyes of many Jews at Columbia, it is not Lionpac’s presence on college walk that matters but the meeting the night before. We are desperate for community building, especially on college campuses. By ritualistically reminding ourselves of the righteousness of our cause, by reaching out to the unaffiliated to write letters to soldiers, to donate to Israeli charities, to participate in some way, we are laying the foundations for a stronger American Jewish community. Alisa is right to point out that political groups on campus deserve to be something more than community building. At Columbia University it is certainly plausible that any individual student will become influential in her community’s politics, perhaps even on a national level. If the Jewish community needs the repetition of political slogans by its members in order to survive—and all political communities do—then that is something that should occur on other campuses. We are academics, intellectuals, aspiring politicians, and we should rise above the level of mere community building.

Maybe. But I am inclined to think that the cohesiveness of a political community has a much more far-reaching effect than Alisa gave it credit for, and this effect is connected to her final point. Alisa claims that the extreme partisanship of campus political groups precludes intellectual development. There may be some surface truth to such a claim, but I think that it is ultimately not only incorrect, but in many ways the opposite of what actually occurs.

Politics is often not about policy but about identity and self-image. “I am an educated, urbane individual. I am cultured, cut from a better cloth than those boors that cling to their God and their bullet points. I vote Democratic.” Or “ I am a true American, mid-Western and middle class. My success was fought for with honest toil and my own skill. My values should remain America’s values. I am a Republican.” Much more than the arcane details of legislation, it is this reasoning that drives voting patterns. We recognize this to be true. It is what made the Saturday Night Live sketch skewering independent voters so funny—how can one claim to have a developed self-image and be an independent voter?

Under these circumstances, however, ideological development can be stunted. When arguing with someone from a wildly different political viewpoint, it is not one’s politics but one’s identity that comes under attack. If I believe that the Jewish state is the most moral in the world and I am called to my face a supporter of apartheid, it shakes the foundations of my self-image as a good person and my image of the Jewish community as basically good. That is, if I take the criticism seriously. If I dismiss it completely, the problem goes away. For all my sincerity I consider myself to be an intellectually skeptical person, a critic whose job it is to deconstruct my community’s talking points and ask whether they are true. But I would never dream of crossing the line in front of Low Library during a crisis in Israel. It would be a betrayal of my belief in the fundamental good intentions of my community and the moral possibilities of Zionism and Israel. 

Within these communities, however, the discourse has a different dynamic. It may not seem like there are a variety of different views within each political community from the outside, and the differences between members may seem insignificant, scholastic and too subtle to count. I assure you that there is diversity there. When I am arguing with someone who endorses my basic identity, my guard is down and my intellect roams. It is much easier to change one’s mind when one hears a good point from a friend then when one hears it from an opponent. My thinking on Israel has changed in very important ways over the years, almost always in response to internal “pro-Israel” conversations. My rebellion can only really take place in Hillel.

Perhaps I am biased. I’ve been a member of the College Republicans since my freshman year, and CUCR is remarkably ideologically diverse group. We all share a common language—we talk about freedom a lot—but we all come from very different traditions. In our discussions we are forced to confront exactly these issues. I do not have to worry that I am embarking on a slow apathetic acceptance of the social democratic state system when I am arguing with my fellow Republicans. We will always give liberty its due respect. This knowledge gives me freedom to explore the intellectual traditions of my peers, to mine them for insights and new ideas. Personally, I was slow to accept the crucial nature of religious and social conservatism to Republican ideology as a whole. My friendships with certain members of the CUCR board caused a major shift in my view of my own party—with repercussions for the way I think about dozens of practical policies. 

A strong sense of community is crucial to open-mindedness, because whatever intellectual curiosity we feel on this campus is only felt behind the strong protection of community identity. Is this the way political thinking should ideally occur? Of course not. But such are the facts of human nature. There is a simplified Hegelian argument that claims that ideas can only change through the clashing of opposites. Glancing at a newspaper, I would say that conflict does nothing but harden opinions. It is intellectual security that breeds creativity. 

Jesse Eiseman

Do we need to analyze Columbia’s political activism as a college community separate from national politics? Should the emphasis be on dialogue and finding common ground or on building community? One of the important themes in the last two pieces is that we may not need to choose: college politics has provides a unique training ground for national politics, if only we let it. 

Written in response to Jack Berg, “Abe Lincoln and Idealism”

Abe Lincoln and Idealism

Alisa’s post “Degradation of Dialogue,” serves as a reminder that students here may one day ascend to the heights of power not only frames this issue as being of overwhelming importance, but reminds us that we should uphold the values we ask our politicians to support. Her disillusionment with campus discourse developed at the same moment that she became disappointed with American politics nationally. Her driving frustration—politics are so important and yet politicians so often insist on getting in its way—is something that everyone can empathize with, but that she then attributes to campus culture. Does our status as an Ivy League school require us to draw the same connections between Columbia and Washington?

Jesse and Jack both disagree.  Jack reminds us that there are valuable skills to learn in college that are not available in Washington, D.C. Below we are asked to consider whether youthful idealism is a good thing to inject into politics. While a persuasive case is made, this merely begs the question of whether Alisa would agree. Surely this youthful idealism is the driving force behind the gridlock, the nastiness, of contemporary politics as well as the shouting matches on campus. Righteous crusaders cannot compromise.   -ed.

        There are certain beliefs about how American politics ought to work that we all seem to share. One of those beliefs is that our politics ought to be about pragmatism, about working with the other side to “get something accomplished.” The virtues of the politician—and of the student that aspires to be one—are reasonableness and a hard-nosed realism as much as the possession of an agile mind and sincere opinions. Our image of politics is of Congress and the Executive: wheeling and dealing, debating first but compromising in backrooms later. Even our most righteous President, Republican Abraham Lincoln, is experiencing a surge back into the spotlight—precisely as a great politico. The movie Lincoln, they tell me, is about vote-counting in Congress to pass the 13th amendment. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s popular book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln on which it is partly based focuses on the complex interactions within Old Abe’s cabinet. Professor Foner’s most recent Pulitzer winner (as well as the Civil War classes he has taught hundreds of undergraduates) focuses on Lincoln’s relationship to slavery, portraying him as a moderate anti-slavery man whose views developed partly as a result of developing political and military expediency during the Civil War. All of which is historically true, but it is interesting that we frame our greatest moral politician as possessing the same values that we fault Barack Obama (if you’re a Republican) and John Boehner (if you’re a Columbia student) for lacking today. And it is the same value that Alisa faults members of partisan groups on this campus for undermining.

        I can understand why pragmatic moderation is a crucial virtue in national politics: it ended slavery, gave us healthcare reform, and will save us from the fiscal cliff. But there are other political virtues more applicable to the student experience. Chief among them is a sense of passion, a burning belief in certain values that catalyzes and justifies the extreme indignities of a political career (from “Hi, ma’am, I’m with the President’s campaign and I’d like to talk to you about…” *door slams* to “I did not have sex with that woman). Idealism is important for obvious reasons: no one with a Columbia degree in political science would choose the paycheck of politics to the riches of corporate law without a sense of idealism. Obsession with the moral content of legislation acts as a check on a political system that can sometimes degenerate into the apportioning of pork, kickbacks and tit-for-tat bargaining. Moreover, if we were to have stripped down dialogues about common ground instead of shouting-match debates, all we would gain is knowledge of a few rapidly outdated statistics and an issue whose contours will have changed before we can do anything about it. On the other hand, by thinking about our underlying beliefs with friends that share them, we can explore and make more rigorous the moral content of our political ideologies that is too often left unstated when we are “working” with the other side. We are young; passion is a trait of the young. If we do not develop idealism here, we never will. We will learn to compromise our deepest beliefs in the best American fashion when we finally get to Congress. We should not complain about partisanship on campus. We should cultivate it so that it can be the most moral partisanship it can be. 

 Jack Berg

Written in reply to:

Degradation of Dialogue, by Alisa Lu

It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment I became completely and utterly disillusioned with politics, both national and campus.

Perhaps it was when I spent three weeks volunteering on a highly disorganized and ultimately futile political campaign.  Perhaps it was when my former party, the Republican Party, went off the “right end” as my friend eloquently states.  Or perhaps it was when I realized that the partisan campus political groups, much like their national counterparts, were more interested in political stunts and attracting people of similar beliefs than discussion, debate, and compromise.

My sophomore year, I was a board member of a non-partisan political group on campus dedicated to promoting dialogue amongst the various partisan groups on campus.  While to this day I still wholeheartedly believe in the mission of the organization, I quickly lost any idealism and frankly, motivation, halfway through my term once I realized that the groups on campus were not as interested in participating in dialogue as we were in promoting it. 

Debates between the political groups on campus became shouting matches that often deviated from the stated resolution.  Events that were intended to gather different political groups together and encourage discussion were sparsely attended.  One of the political groups, which I had previous been involved with, was even more interested in creating controversy and pulling political gimmicks than attracting other, more moderate students, of the same political affiliation.

That is not to say people from different political groups absolutely loathed each other.  In fact, I saw that many students from the opposite sides of the spectrum became friends and would work together in other organizations.  But overall, groups were much more interested in promoting themselves and showing how partisan they were than collaborating. 

Arguably, that is the mission of a partisan political group.  These organizations are somewhat intended to gather like-minded individuals together to perform political activism, to discuss ideas and form a community.  Yet, while they do encourage and become involved in political activism, the second part is also a very relevant part of the experience. 

Columbia is a school that encourages discussion and examining an idea from different viewpoints.  This is an incredibly important aspect of our education considering the state of Washington, D.C., today. Many of those involved in campus politics today could one day become the next Harry Reid or John Roberts.  Thus, dialogue and meaningful debate are absolutely essential to our education and the development of our political beliefs.  If we encourage extreme partisanship and political segregation in campus organizations, why should we expect anything different in our national government?

 Personally, I have changed many of my political beliefs in the span of my undergraduate career, not through my campus involvement, but through late-night discussions with friends and classroom debates.  It’s a scary thought to think that if I had stayed in campus politics, perhaps I never would have.

Columbians and the Homeless: Common Sense, Compassion, and Humanity

It is difficult to walk past any of the poor and homeless individuals that occupy the sidewalks of Morningside Heights without any sort of feeling.  It may be empathy, schadenfreude, disgust or any wide range of emotion, but it is not possible to truly feel nothing.  Most of these individuals find themselves with, seemingly, no other option, other than to beg for money.  This is not a decision any of them make lightly in my view.  To remove your last shred of dignity, so as to ensure that you can make enough money to buy some food, is the sign of a truly destitute person.

It’s easy to close your eyes, look the other way and walk past a person looking for handouts.  We are all guilty of it from time to time, even the most generous of us.  However, the spare change weighing down your wallet, or being collected in a jar, barely makes any difference to most people.  It can, on the other hand, make a difference between a meal and going to “bed” hungry.  One cannot help every homeless person he, or she, meets, and I do not give my change to every homeless person I meet.  However, if you stop and talk to some of the “regulars,” and begin to view them as another person, you may find yourself giving them that quarter that you may have lost and thought nothing about.  These are real people with real stories.  Every story is unique; each one has their own reason for being homeless.

Some people may respond by saying, “I can’t in good faith reward failure.”  I suppose that is true to an extent, but is a gross exaggeration of reality.  Others may claim that it is laziness.  Some say that the person is merely down on their luck.  The reality is not so clear cut, and it is impossible for us to truly determine the reasons.  So why give?  If you feel for the plight of the homeless, why not donate to a charity, such as a shelter or soup kitchen?  These are good options to be sure, but whenever one includes a middle-man, there is bound to be money lost through administrative costs.  The only way to ensure that 100% of your money goes towards the poor is to hand it to them directly.  Well, what if they spend it on drugs or alcohol?  It is a concern of mine, to be sure, but it is often outweighed by the reality that these people often just need some food.  In the end, you have to use your judgment.  Just because one person on the corner is perpetually inebriated doesn’t mean that every homeless person is.  Listen to their stories, treat them as a person, and you may find yourself questioning your views on giving.

Ben Tischler

 

Written in response to Jamie Boothe: Republican Reflects on Charity and the Homeless

A Republican Reflects on Charity and the Homeless

Self-consciousness is a Columbian virtue, and anxiety over our position at the top of American undergraduate education is a normal expression of this self-consciousness. But it’s never more apparent than when we pass the homeless on the streets of this great city.

Below, we’re asked to consider our response to the homeless. Jamie tackles the technical problems of charitable giving and answers the excuses that people often give. But more importantly, he comes from a deep understanding that our orientation to charity is a function of personal identity. His identity as a Republican and as a Christian is intimately bound up with the policy he chooses. -ed.

We as Americans are lucky to live in a country where, at the very least, no one is at a genuine risk of starvation. Even if an individual were to rely entirely on the generosity of others, and whether the method of charity is a soup kitchen or a food pantry, they would be able to feed themselves. The situation is likewise similar with shelters for the homeless, as American citizens are not victims of the elements; a homeless individual in an American city can always find a place to spend the night indoors. And yet, we here in New York City still see many individuals who beg passersby for money for food, and there are people who spend the nights in public parks.

            Perhaps the most significant reason for this is that the people we see begging are neglecting to take advantage of the social safety net programs run by both the government (municipal, state, and federal) and private charity organizations. This results in a unique dilemma for many Republicans, specifically those of us who are Christians. The Gospel and the teachings of Jesus Christ make it exceedingly clear that the poor, including beggars, are not to be stigmatized and that they should be given charity. This impetus to be charitable permeates the values of the Republican Party, so such a commitment to charity is not tied to a party member’s faith (or lack thereof).

            However, when I go out about my business in the city, I never give money to beggars. This may seem harsh, but there is a compassionate reasoning behind my policy. The Republican Party champions the values of private charity, but it also is the party of individual responsibility. When I see a beggar on the street, I see an individual who has clearly fallen upon hard times, and whether it was through their own fault or through uncontrollable circumstances does not affect my view that they are in need of help. If a person has gotten to a point in their life where they are compelled to beg from pedestrians then they must truly be at rock bottom, likely struggling to feed and shelter themselves (or their families, for that matter). Unfortunately, when some individuals see beggars, they thoughtlessly assume that they are simply trying to get money to buy drugs or alcohol. To make such an unfounded assumption is incredibly harsh; however, the possibility that a given beggar would spend any given money on illicit (or in the case of alcohol, unnecessary to their well-being) substances is not one that can be ignored. In other words, if you give money to a beggar, they could spend it on food and therefore your act of charity would be retrospectively appropriate, or they could spend it on unnecessary or illegal substances and therefore your charity would therefore have been for naught.

             Luckily, there is a solution to this dilemma: rather than giving money to individual beggars and therefore running the risk that it will be poorly spent, instead make charitable donations to public soup kitchens, food pantries, and homeless shelters. Giving to such organizations ensures that people who need assistance will be benefiting from your generosity because the nature of such operations ensures that funds are spent on providing needy individuals with things that are necessary to survive: food, clean water, and shelter. Now of course you should always investigate charitable organizations before donating to them because unfortunately some may spend low proportions of a given dollar on non-charitable activities (like executive compensation).

Jamie Boothe 

Jan 30

Columbians Going to Africa: We Need a Better Context for Critique

Eric was uneasy about his own story, which smacked a little of the type of thinking that drove 19th century imperialistic adventurism (and drove me to finally sit down and watch the Wild Thornberrys). But below, Taylor Thompson asks whether Eric was asking the right questions. Do our personal stories matter? Is the larger question what white Americans are bringing to Africa, rather than who is doing the bringing? To what extent does the discussion of what we as Columbians can and should do to help require another conversation first: what is the morality of the global system we would be helping to spread?

            Of all the misunderstood tropes of Western civilization, none has more power to mislead than the White Man’s Burden. A cursory reading of Kipling (to say nothing of a critical assessment of the history of empire) makes it clear that from the vantage point of Britain at the apogee of its power, material privilege was not an inducement to “fix everything”—that would be to put the cart in front of the horse. Instead, it was the very struggle to uplift the world that the West claimed as its privilege. Such an idea strikes the modern reader as hopelessly outdated at best, and at worst as a contrivance that existed solely to justify the domination of most of the world’s population, a sham which demands unending contrition from the West.

            Instead of imposing the bourgeois values of the present age onto the nineteenth century, we should be willing, as students of history, to take historical figures at their word—not uncritically, but in good faith nevertheless. And in that light, what do we discover about the Western age of empire and its attendant worldview? We find much that repulses us now—scientific racism, material exploitation, and wars of conquest. We find paternalism, with all the problems it poses for a civilization that prizes the individual. And are we so sure that the social relations of modern capitalism (harsh, transactional, and inescapably materialistic) are an unqualified improvement over a system that induced a sense of mutual obligation (coerced and conditional, yes, but organic nevertheless) between ruler and ruled?

           I think the question we should really be asking is not whether the imperial legacy is worthy of praise or shame—or both. We should be asking whether the institutions and technologies of the modern world are accountable to the people whose lives they now regularly upend. We should be asking whether “uniform Western standards” is even a meaningful category when it has become unfashionable to apply traditional Western values to Westerners. For those who believe that the present iteration of global capitalism is the best we can hope for, I suppose that it is enough to say that we should just follow our imagination to wherever it leads us and learn our lessons along the way. As I do not share that belief, I am skeptical of the idea that an open mind and a bit of moxie are enough to lead people to the right path. To truly live well, I think we require a sense of duty that our sacrifice-averse society is generally unwilling (or unable?) to impart.

 

Taylor Thompson

Written in response to: How the Wild Thornberrys Sent me to Africa by Eric Kutscher

Jan 27

How the Wild Thornberrys Sent Me To Africa

Columbians are often torn between pride in our achievements and discomfort at our own privileges. Nowhere does this tension show more strongly than when we discuss how we relate to the third world—specifically, how we relate to sub-Saharan Africa. The distinct subset of us that study the region or travel there are subject to mixed feelings: on the one hand we know that helping those in need is unambiguously moral. On the other hand, we’re all aware of the disastrous legacy of European imperialism in much of the world. Deconstructive criticism has seeped into our consciousness enough to make us question our own motives in helping others. But does the issue of 21st century Columbians and international study and service really have that much to do with the elites of generations ago? Or has nothing really changed? -ed. 

        On a late fall day of my sophomore year, I walked into John Jay dining hall for dinner with my friends. As I sat down at the table, I decided I would break the news: next year, I was going to study abroad in Kenya.

       My friends’ reactions were quite similar to my parents’. Why? Isn’t it dangerous? What are you going to do there? Wouldn’t you prefer to go to Europe? How did this white, Jewish boy from Westchester become interested in African studies? The answers to those questions were not clear. I just knew I had to go. Ever since early childhood, I had wanted to travel to Africa. 

        Growing up, certain stereotypical aspects of Africa had always intrigued me. In 2001, the Wild Thornberrys movie “The Origin of Donnie” aired on primetime Nickelodeon television. I was intrigued by the animated version of Africa on the screen. The jungles were enormous, and everything seemed overgrown and wild. It was an exotic world, almost unimaginable from New York City suburbs. It inspired me to want to live like the “tribal people” the film portrayed, opening acorns and collecting berries with friends in my backyard. Looking back, it’s embarrassing to admit the lack of knowledge and inappropriate stereotypes that I had about a continent so rich in culture and history. Most amazing was my geographical ignorance: Wild Thornberrys did not take place in Africa—it was Borneo. 

        Perhaps it was this naïve fascination that got me interested in being president of the Student World Awareness Program in high school. I organized t-shirt sales for Save Darfur, ran a “malaria bites” campaign to buy mosquito nets for children in Uganda, and collected school supplies for students in Rwanda. Despite being Jewish, a certain missionary quality seemed to call me to “help the African people.” It was almost like I had been endowed with the White Man’s Burden—coming from privilege, I had the obligation to fix things. Without even knowing what problems “they” had “over there,” I thought I had the answers. I didn’t realize then that my position as an outsider should instead learn about and help individual communities face unique challenges, not impose uniform Western solutions on diverse peoples.

         During my first semester of college, my academic coursework in Africa started to develop. I also had discovered my love for public health, and knew it would be well paired with a semester in Africa. I discovered that the School of International Training in Kenya had a Community Health and Development program—a perfect match for me. Though I only lived there for four months, I’ve come a long way in terms of my understanding of Kenya. My fascinations are still alive and well, but my appreciation for the complexities of Kenyan society have been greatly developed. But it was only after I followed my misguided childhood imagination that I was on the right path.

 Eric Kutscher

Abe Lincoln and Idealism

Alisa’s post “Degradation of Dialogue,” serves as a reminder that students here may one day ascend to the heights of power not only frames this issue as being of overwhelming importance, but reminds us that we should uphold the values we ask our politicians to support. Her disillusionment with campus discourse developed at the same moment that she became disappointed with American politics nationally. Her driving frustration—politics are so important and yet politicians so often insist on getting in its way—is something that everyone can empathize with, but that she then attributes to campus culture. Does our status as an Ivy League school require us to draw the same connections between Columbia and Washington?

Jack disagrees, and reminds us that there are valuable skills to learn in college that are not available in Washington, D.C. Below we are asked to consider whether youthful idealism is a good thing to inject into politics. While a persuasive case is made, this merely begs the question of whether Alisa would agree. Surely this youthful idealism is the driving force behind the gridlock, the nastiness, of contemporary politics as well as the shouting matches on campus. Righteous crusaders cannot compromise.   -ed.

        There are certain beliefs about how American politics ought to work that we all seem to share. One of those beliefs is that our politics ought to be about pragmatism, about working with the other side to “get something accomplished.” The virtues of the politician—and of the student that aspires to be one—are reasonableness and a hard-nosed realism as much as the possession of an agile mind and sincere opinions. Our image of politics is of Congress and the Executive: wheeling and dealing, debating first but compromising in backrooms later. Even our most righteous President, Republican Abraham Lincoln, is experiencing a surge back into the spotlight—precisely as a great politico. The movie Lincoln, they tell me, is about vote-counting in Congress to pass the 13th amendment. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s popular book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln on which it is partly based focuses on the complex interactions within Old Abe’s cabinet. Professor Foner’s most recent Pulitzer winner (as well as the Civil War classes he has taught hundreds of undergraduates) focuses on Lincoln’s relationship to slavery, portraying him as a moderate anti-slavery man whose views developed partly as a result of developing political and military expediency during the Civil War. All of which is historically true, but it is interesting that we frame our greatest moral politician as possessing the same values that we fault Barack Obama (if you’re a Republican) and John Boehner (if you’re a Columbia student) for lacking today. And it is the same value that Alisa faults members of partisan groups on this campus for undermining.

        I can understand why pragmatic moderation is a crucial virtue in national politics: it ended slavery, gave us healthcare reform, and will save us from the fiscal cliff. But there are other political virtues more applicable to the student experience. Chief among them is a sense of passion, a burning belief in certain values that catalyzes and justifies the extreme indignities of a political career (from “Hi, ma’am, I’m with the President’s campaign and I’d like to talk to you about…” *door slams* to “I did not have sex with that woman). Idealism is important for obvious reasons: no one with a Columbia degree in political science would choose the paycheck of politics to the riches of corporate law without a sense of idealism. Obsession with the moral content of legislation acts as a check on a political system that can sometimes degenerate into the apportioning of pork, kickbacks and tit-for-tat bargaining. Moreover, if we were to have stripped down dialogues about common ground instead of shouting-match debates, all we would gain is knowledge of a few rapidly outdated statistics and an issue whose contours will have changed before we can do anything about it. On the other hand, by thinking about our underlying beliefs with friends that share them, we can explore and make more rigorous the moral content of our political ideologies that is too often left unstated when we are “working” with the other side. We are young; passion is a trait of the young. If we do not develop idealism here, we never will. We will learn to compromise our deepest beliefs in the best American fashion when we finally get to Congress. We should not complain about partisanship on campus. We should cultivate it so that it can be the most moral partisanship it can be. 

 Jack Berg

Written in reply to:

Degradation of Dialogue, by Alisa Lu

It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment I became completely and utterly disillusioned with politics, both national and campus.

Perhaps it was when I spent three weeks volunteering on a highly disorganized and ultimately futile political campaign.  Perhaps it was when my former party, the Republican Party, went off the “right end” as my friend eloquently states.  Or perhaps it was when I realized that the partisan campus political groups, much like their national counterparts, were more interested in political stunts and attracting people of similar beliefs than discussion, debate, and compromise.

My sophomore year, I was a board member of a non-partisan political group on campus dedicated to promoting dialogue amongst the various partisan groups on campus.  While to this day I still wholeheartedly believe in the mission of the organization, I quickly lost any idealism and frankly, motivation, halfway through my term once I realized that the groups on campus were not as interested in participating in dialogue as we were in promoting it. 

Debates between the political groups on campus became shouting matches that often deviated from the stated resolution.  Events that were intended to gather different political groups together and encourage discussion were sparsely attended.  One of the political groups, which I had previous been involved with, was even more interested in creating controversy and pulling political gimmicks than attracting other, more moderate students, of the same political affiliation.

That is not to say people from different political groups absolutely loathed each other.  In fact, I saw that many students from the opposite sides of the spectrum became friends and would work together in other organizations.  But overall, groups were much more interested in promoting themselves and showing how partisan they were than collaborating. 

Arguably, that is the mission of a partisan political group.  These organizations are somewhat intended to gather like-minded individuals together to perform political activism, to discuss ideas and form a community.  Yet, while they do encourage and become involved in political activism, the second part is also a very relevant part of the experience. 

Columbia is a school that encourages discussion and examining an idea from different viewpoints.  This is an incredibly important aspect of our education considering the state of Washington, D.C., today. Many of those involved in campus politics today could one day become the next Harry Reid or John Roberts.  Thus, dialogue and meaningful debate are absolutely essential to our education and the development of our political beliefs.  If we encourage extreme partisanship and political segregation in campus organizations, why should we expect anything different in our national government?

 Personally, I have changed many of my political beliefs in the span of my undergraduate career, not through my campus involvement, but through late-night discussions with friends and classroom debates.  It’s a scary thought to think that if I had stayed in campus politics, perhaps I never would have.

Degradation of Dialogue

“How many Columbia students does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

“Seventy-six. One to screw in the lightbulb, twenty-five to protest the imposition of “screwed-in” values on the lightbulb, and fifty to counterprotest on behalf of the lightbulb’s right to be screwed in.”

Since the days of de Tocqueville, Americans have loved, worshipped and hated politics. As a campus we are notoriously attuned to their global importance. Socially, student political groups are one of the key institutions for Columbia’s undergraduate community. In the following discussion about the health and purpose of student political activism, both themes come to the fore: the American love-hate relationship with politics as well as the student anxiety over the structure of a campus community. Both questions are asked in terms of their relationship to our own identities as scholars and potential future politicians. 

It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment I became completely and utterly disillusioned with politics, both national and campus.

Perhaps it was when I spent three weeks volunteering on a highly disorganized and ultimately futile political campaign.  Perhaps it was when my former party, the Republican Party, went off the “right end” as my friend eloquently states.  Or perhaps it was when I realized that the partisan campus political groups, much like their national counterparts, were more interested in political stunts and attracting people of similar beliefs than discussion, debate, and compromise.

My sophomore year, I was a board member of a non-partisan political group on campus dedicated to promoting dialogue amongst the various partisan groups on campus.  While to this day I still wholeheartedly believe in the mission of the organization, I quickly lost any idealism and frankly, motivation, halfway through my term once I realized that the groups on campus were not as interested in participating in dialogue as we were in promoting it.  

Debates between the political groups on campus became shouting matches that often deviated from the stated resolution.  Events that were intended to gather different political groups together and encourage discussion were sparsely attended.  One of the political groups, which I had previous been involved with, was even more interested in creating controversy and pulling political gimmicks than attracting other, more moderate students, of the same political affiliation.

That is not to say people from different political groups absolutely loathed each other.  In fact, I saw that many students from the opposite sides of the spectrum became friends and would work together in other organizations.  But overall, groups were much more interested in promoting themselves and showing how partisan they were than collaborating.

Arguably, that is the mission of a partisan political group.  These organizations are somewhat intended to gather like-minded individuals together to perform political activism, to discuss ideas and form a community.  Yet, while they do encourage and become involved in political activism, the second part is also a very relevant part of the experience.

Columbia is a school that encourages discussion and examining an idea from different viewpoints.  This is an incredibly important aspect of our education considering the state of Washington, D.C., today. Many of those involved in campus politics today could one day become the next Harry Reid or John Roberts.  Thus, dialogue and meaningful debate are absolutely essential to our education and the development of our political beliefs.  If we encourage extreme partisanship and political segregation in campus organizations, why should we expect anything different in our national government?

Personally, I have changed many of my political beliefs in the span of my undergraduate career, not through my campus involvement, but through late-night discussions with friends and classroom debates.  It’s a scary thought to think that if I had stayed in campus politics, perhaps I never would have. 

Alisa Lu

A Republican Reflects on Charity and the Homeless

Self-consciousness is a Columbian virtue, and anxiety over our position at the top of American undergraduate education is a normal expression of this self-consciousness. But it’s never more apparent than when we pass the homeless on the streets of this great city.

Below, we’re asked to consider our response to the homeless. Jamie tackles the technical problems of charitable giving and answers the excuses that people often give. But more importantly, he comes from a deep understanding that our orientation to charity is a function of personal identity. His identity as a Republican and as a Christian is intimately bound up with the policy he chooses. -ed.

 

We as Americans are lucky to live in a country where, at the very least, no one is at a genuine risk of starvation. Even if an individual were to rely entirely on the generosity of others, and whether the method of charity is a soup kitchen or a food pantry, they would be able to feed themselves. The situation is likewise similar with shelters for the homeless, as American citizens are not victims of the elements; a homeless individual in an American city can always find a place to spend the night indoors. And yet, we here in New York City still see many individuals who beg passersby for money for food, and there are people who spend the nights in public parks.

 

            Perhaps the most significant reason for this is that the people we see begging are neglecting to take advantage of the social safety net programs run by both the government (municipal, state, and federal) and private charity organizations. This results in a unique dilemma for many Republicans, specifically those of us who are Christians. The Gospel and the teachings of Jesus Christ make it exceedingly clear that the poor, including beggars, are not to be stigmatized and that they should be given charity. This impetus to be charitable permeates the values of the Republican Party, so such a commitment to charity is not tied to a party member’s faith (or lack thereof).

 

            However, when I go out about my business in the city, I never give money to beggars. This may seem harsh, but there is a compassionate reasoning behind my policy. The Republican Party champions the values of private charity, but it also is the party of individual responsibility. When I see a beggar on the street, I see an individual who has clearly fallen upon hard times, and whether it was through their own fault or through uncontrollable circumstances does not affect my view that they are in need of help. If a person has gotten to a point in their life where they are compelled to beg from pedestrians then they must truly be at rock bottom, likely struggling to feed and shelter themselves (or their families, for that matter). Unfortunately, when some individuals see beggars, they thoughtlessly assume that they are simply trying to get money to buy drugs or alcohol. To make such an unfounded assumption is incredibly harsh; however, the possibility that a given beggar would spend any given money on illicit (or in the case of alcohol, unnecessary to their well-being) substances is not one that can be ignored. In other words, if you give money to a beggar, they could spend it on food and therefore your act of charity would be retrospectively appropriate, or they could spend it on unnecessary or illegal substances and therefore your charity would therefore have been for naught.

 

            Luckily, there is a solution to this dilemma: rather than giving money to individual beggars and therefore running the risk that it will be poorly spent, instead make charitable donations to public soup kitchens, food pantries, and homeless shelters. Giving to such organizations ensures that people who need assistance will be benefiting from your generosity because the nature of such operations ensures that funds are spent on providing needy individuals with things that are necessary to survive: food, clean water, and shelter. Now of course you should always investigate charitable organizations before donating to them because unfortunately some may spend low proportions of a given dollar on non-charitable activities (like executive compensation).

 

Jamie Boothe

An Odd Couple: Learning Yiddish as a Zionist

 

             This past summer, I participated in a 7-week intensive Yiddish language and culture program at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was one of the most personally and academically satisfying experiences I’ve ever had, and it exposed me to a culture and literature that unfortunately is not always given its due in contemporary Jewish life. I grew to love Yiddish in all its forms, and wholeheartedly endorse the Center’s goal to provide an engaging resource of Yiddish culture and literature. The existence of the Center, and of centers like it, is incredible news for the continual relevance of Yiddish culture that I think is important for a richer understanding of Jewish life.

             As far as I can tell, the world of academia is brimming with an implicit awareness of contemporary politics. Scholarship, like anything else, involves choices of approach. Especially for Jewish-related disciplines, these choices are controversial. Those who study Bible vary in their textual approaches, Talmudists argue about the authority of Jewish law, and historians bicker about immigration and emancipation. Scholars possess a wide variety of opinions, methodologies, and approaches – something that contributes to the value of an academic field and keeps it interesting and relevant. It’s clear that argument, disagreement, and continuous discussion are what make any field compelling, attractive, and alive.

             Yiddishism, Yiddish culture, and contemporary Yiddish scholarship often embody an implicit attitude of being anti-establishment and non-Zionist. Historically, the secular Yiddish world and its pioneering Yiddishists have been, for the most part, distant from and often antagonistic towards the contemporaneous Zionist and religious trends among their co-religionists. Yiddish-speaking immigrants in early 20th century New York spoke out and led strikes against oppressive labor conditions supplemented by the abundance of socialist, communist, and anarchist Yiddish-language newspapers.

             My impression of my time at the Center, which drew on many of these values and historical memories, portrayed Yiddish as the average Ashkenazi Jew’s language of choice, the mame-loshn of the oppressed immigrant, as the language of anti-authoritarianism. A line was drawn from these and other elements of Yiddish cultural history to the non-establishment, non-religious, and non-Zionist threads that are often associated with Yiddish cultural organizations and Yiddish studies today.

This chosen approach to Yiddish contributes significantly in attracting scholars, students, and others of this political mindset. It allows Yiddish to provide many Jews and others a source in the realm of Jewish experience from which to identify their own political and cultural attitudes, including many leftist circles, which many cannot find or are dissatisfied with the present offerings in the dominant religious and Zionist approaches in contemporary Jewish life, including myself.  Given these facts, it should not be surprising that Yiddish studies and its image are still generally associated with these anti-authoritarian and populist values, but I am nevertheless disappointed that it is so often approached exclusively in this context.

After the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, Yiddish culture exploded and was soon becoming a staple of expression for a new wave of secular Jews, but it also remained (and still functions) as the language for a large, and growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Yiddish scholarship and culture today usually refer to secular Yiddish culture, but the overwhelming majority of the world’s growing number of Yiddish speakers is in these Orthodox communities. Up until the late 19th century, Yiddish-speakers were almost exclusively religiously observant - rural “shtetl” Jews. An exclusively non-religious approach to Yiddish studies is not only ignorant of most of Yiddish history, but also blind to the possibility of Yiddish being a uniting force for the often-strained relationship between the ultra-Orthodox community and the non-ultra-Orthodox community. If Yiddish studies today are intent on encompassing everything Yiddish (which they should), and not just the Yiddish of the Lower East Side or of labor unions and Klezmer music, more attention should be paid to this community and its relation to the Yiddish language.

           Even beyond the disconnect with the ultra-Orthodox, which is occasionally addressed within Yiddish studies, I’ve witnessed an even more significant and glaring disjunction between Yiddish studies and Zionism to the point where they become exclusive of one another – where one ideology stops, the other begins. The standard narrative goes that Zionists aim to forge a “new Jew,” one who speaks a dignified Hebrew, lives off the land, and has no trace of Yiddish or any other compromising traits that “reek” of diaspora. On the other hand, the Yiddishists claim that the Zionists are destroying the legacy and heritage of one thousand years of a rich and continuing (though often problematic) diaspora culture that should not be rejected in favor of the harmful militaristic or political visions they perceive in Zionist ideology.

The primary division lies in their perceived roles of the Jewish diaspora and homeland – Zionists have often mentioned their intention to “negate” the diaspora through an autonomous Jewish state, and the Yiddishists prize the diaspora dearly for its culture and heritage, but often believe that a Jewish state is dangerous and unwise, and have produced such movements as Diaspora Nationalism. It goes without saying that this is a gross overgeneralization and there are many exceptions – but at first glance this divide seems natural, and it makes sense that these two approaches to Jewish communal identity (among many others) should oppose one another so strongly. Yet I believe that on a basic level Yiddish culture and Zionism are very compatible, given the benefit of historical remove and restrained emotion. If there is good reason to include the realm of ultra-Orthodox Jews in a Yiddish scholarship leaning towards secularism, it is not too far a leap to discuss Zionism with Yiddishism.

In my own personal experience with these two ideologies, immersion in one (usually in an educational program) often implied the negation of the other, and whatever angle I was exposed to most recently got the upper hand. Just as trips to Israel made me a (temporarily) fervent Zionist, learning Yiddish intensively made me (briefly) an unapologetic Yiddishist. Trying to reconcile these two ideologies, which were presented as antithetical to one another, was not a matter of resolving an identity crisis but one of uncovering why they were both attractive.           

Both Yiddishism and Zionism are committed to uniting Jews under a common element of a shared heritage and establishing a type of autonomy (cultural, political) through a common language. Both ideologies prize the value of its unique social products, such as a newspapers, art, political structures, and educational institutions. Both are committed to greater Jewish unity and to maintaining a Jewish presence among a Gentile environment – either within the culture of Europe or America, or among the international community. In short, they are both nationalistic enterprises—focused on forging a cultural unity out of a mass of often disaffected and disconnected Jews. These are broad, simple, and yet essential foundations of both ideologies, and should not be totally eclipsed by matters of detail.

           While it would be unrealistic to expect the president of AIPAC to take a Yiddish class or the head of the Workmen’s Circle to lead a lobbying mission on behalf of Israel, Yiddishist and Zionist ideology still have much in common. The sooner Yiddish/diaspora ideology can be reconciled with Zionist ideology, the sooner global Jewish unity will be achieved, which is the underlying interest of both Yiddishism and Hebrew.

 Max Daniel

The first half of last century saw an epic debate over the appropriate form of Jewish national identity. The clash between Zionism, assimilationism, cultural nationalism, socialism and the myriad other isms of the Jewish enlightenment has largely been eclipsed by the new situation the Jews found themselves in after the war: six million fewer with Europe in ruins, but in possession of a sovereign state in the Holy Land.

Do the same issues matter? The situation of emancipated European Jews caught between national cultures, progressive academics and traditional backgrounds, bears a striking parallel to contemporary American Jewish life. Has the new situation surpassed the old, or have the arguments simply been postponed? What does the new synthesis mean for Jewish culture in the exile? Are contemporary Jews inheritors of the full range of 19th century opinions, or are some increasingly irrelevant? -ed.

Jun 22

How do we whine about Zionism 101? Yea, how Phil?

Philip Weiss, the pugilistic anti-Zionist reactionary, is well known as one of the co-editors of the Internet echo-chamber Mondoweiss.net. Judging by his post about my most recent editorial for The Current, he’s also a poor rhetorician. For those of you who haven’t read my editorial, the basic gist of it is that Zionists on campus need to return from tactics to ideology:

Zionism must again be taught as a vision, viable long before the Holocaust came around. It must be understood that Israel is not an apology for six million Jewish deaths. It must be understood that Israel is the result of a dream for democratic self-determination. It must be understood that Zionism can exist separate from militant millennialism or revanchism. The central question of why the Jews deserve a democratic nation of their own must be discussed—and answered. Essentially, we need a return to Zionism 101.

The core of Phil’s “criticism”:

What if you don’t believe this? What if you don’t believe that Jewish national self-determination is any more meaningful than Marcus Garvey talking about the black nation? And if you’re a young person, isn’t this yesterday’s papers?

My editorial was one of those pieces targeted specifically at the crowd at Columbia and elsewhere who identify as Zionists. I intentionally chose not to engage the issues surrounding Zionism in the wider community: I didn’t expect a member of Students for Justice in Palestine to read it, and, in the off-chance that they did, to particularly like it. That’s because it leapfrogs the debates that SJP brings up with their delegitimization efforts. In fact, the major point of the piece, to put it bluntly, is that every once and a while we all need to leapfrog those debates. If us Zionists don’t tend to our own intellectual scaffolding, we’ll fail to inculcate ideology into the next generation. And if we only write essays directed towards those who reject the very premise of our beliefs, we cannot properly maintain our ideology’s underpinnings.

Expecting Zionists to address anti-Zionism every time they put their pen to the page is silly. Imagine if every time Ezra Klein wrote something about American politics he had to go through the paces of why an American republic exists: why the Constitution is a legitimate governing document, why representative democracy is the best form of government for America, why the government has the right to legislate and execute laws, and on and on. If he were beholden to such a standard, he’d be unable to write anything. That’s not to say that writers can’t or shouldn’t address such bedrock issues of American republicanism. It just means that they don’t always have to do so.

Phil ends his post with these questions so I assume that they’re rhetorical, but I don’t think he’ll mind if I answer them:

  1. What if you don’t believe this? Well, don’t read it. Or, if you do read it, and don’t like it, write something about it. Phil seems to have grasped this notion—barely. For about a 1,500 word editorial, Phil was angry enough to write a blog post about it, but not angry enough to write more than 100 words of his own about it. Maybe that’s because the most he could muster was the Internet equivalent of crying out, “ME NO LIKEY!” Even his title—”How do we make Zionism 101 an everyday reality? Yeah, how?”—is whiny. Grow up, Phil.
  2. What if you don’t believe that Jewish national self-determination is any more meaningful than Marcus Garvey talking about the black nation? See answer one. But, as long as we’re on the topic of Marcus Garvey, I have an important counter-question: does being compared to him give me license to start dressing like him? He’s the guy sporting the feathers below:
  3. And if you’re a young person, isn’t this yesterday’s papers? Ah, and here we find the crux of Phil’s irritation. That Zionism is a persistent enough ideology to still capture youthful minds: that’s what bothers Phil most. If he came to Columbia and counted the number of Zionist students here, I think Phil would be surprised to find a sizable amount. His myopic anti-Zionism proves to be less intellectually persuasive to many than Zionism itself, and that disappoints him. If he really thought we were irrelevant—”yesterday’s papers”—then he wouldn’t bother reading The Current or writing about it. Why don’t they just disappear? is the question that he really wants to ask. He just seems embittered that young Zionists still exist at Columbia.

So, I’m sorry to disappoint Phil, but we’re not going to disappear and we’ll continue to publish on a quarterly cycle like we’ve been doing for the past eight years. It’s comforting when someone whose views you roundly disagree with takes his time to call you out: it shows that you’re doing something right. Thanks, Phil!

Also, didn’t anyone ever tell Phil that rhetorical questions make poor argumentation?

—David Fine

Reach David at daf2122 [at] columbia.edu or @davidfine