Sixteen years ago this past Sept. 11, I recall leaving my 9:25 a.m. College Composition classroom in Pullen Hall on a clear blue morning and, as I made my way up to the Campus Center, hearing the first reports of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The weeks following were filled with fear, sorrow, anger and not a small amount of self-reflection. Not long after the events, in fact, I began writing a paper (which I later presented at a conference and published in “The Maine Scholar”) that opened with a quote from Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulations,” followed by this:
Perhaps after the events of September 11, 2001 it will be impossible to read such utopian postmodernist rhetoric with the same blend of cynicism and naiveté with which, until recently, it was so gleefully consumed by academics and cultural critics alike…. More importantly, perhaps, the terrorists’ acts, together with our government’s responses, both civil and military, re-emphasize our need to question many assumptions made by academics and politicians alike concerning globalization—most pertinently that this process somehow marks the end of history and ideology. Thus, we must attempt to deconstruct the cultural experience of globalization if we wish not only to comprehend the forces that made possible the events of September 11, but also to comprehend more fully our continuing role (as a Western power serving as the primary conduit of national and multinational capital within the global market) in the shaping of such events.
Sixteen years and three presidents later, we are still working to comprehend these forces.
“National Review,” a prominent conservative opinion journal, published an article this past September reflecting on how 9-11 ended a brief “golden age” of American utopian hopefulness. The article is implicitly critical of historian Francis Fukayama’s notion of the “end of history” (1992) that I referenced above, which claimed that the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union was not just the end of a historical conflict, but the end of history as such. Or, rather, that it represented the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government. “Review” concludes that our current “paranoid atmosphere” is a sad return to normal—if normal is the state of affairs that existed during the Cold War prior to 1991.
Writing from a liberal perspective, “Salon” asked the question: “How do we find a way out of a 100-year war?” This article takes aim at the Bush administration’s response, and the subsequent War on Terror, concluding that “it failed to look back at the preceding era — the era since 1947 — and assess the successes and failures, particularly the tragic failure of Vietnam, which was obviously connected to the national security framework developed under Truman.” Like “National Review,” “Salon” bemoans our failure to learn from history.
What is striking is not that, despite their political differences, both opinion pieces conclude that 9-11 was the result of a tragic failure of vision by government and social leaders alike. But, even moreso, that when we stop having, and making choices, we stop being free.
In a way, Jean-Paul Sartre foresaw this when he wrote about existentialism back in 1946, following France’s occupation by Germany and his role with the French Resistance. Sartre’s point was that men and women define their own “essence”—that there is nothing that dictates our character, our goals, our beliefs except ourselves. Hence his famous line: “man is condemned to be free.” But the rub is that with this freedom comes responsibility (I know—this sounds a bit like the advice of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben). And this just isn’t a simple, everyday sort of responsibility, such as doing your chores or getting to work on time or completing your homework. Rather, it is a responsibility to all humanity—because there is simply no one else but ourselves to be responsible.
Sartre always maintained that existentialism was a humanism—a philosophical and ethical system that maintains the value and agency of human beings. As a result, Sartre believed that his philosophy was ultimately a hopeful one—because he believed in the ability of human beings to make different choices and not simply repeat previous mistakes.
That starts with our own ability to listen and speak to one another with respect and civility. For this reason, UMPI has both an obligation to provide such an environment to all of its students and extended community members as well as educational experiences that encourage all of us to engage in civil and productive discourse. As I’ve noted before, maintaining civil discourse means ensuring that all can:
undertake a serious exchange of views;
focus on the issues rather than on the individual(s) espousing them;
defend their interpretations using verified information;
thoughtfully listen to what others say;
seek the sources of disagreements and points of common purpose;
embody open-mindedness and a willingness to change their minds;
assume they will need to compromise and are willing to do so;
treat the ideas of others with respect;
avoid violence (physical, emotional and verbal).
“Owl Stand By You” is our promise to work constantly toward making this environment a reality on our campus so that, together, we can learn about the past and make new plans for the future, regardless of our political inclinations or beliefs. Ultimately, that is the only way that we will make this a better world for us all, locally as well as globally.