What should we do about Gaddafi , and why ideas matter (less) in this country.

Feb 24, 2011 by

What should we do about Gaddafi , and why ideas matter (less) in this country.

Ideas matter. In universities, in America – country of BIG conceptual thinking. But this is only part of the story. “What happens if we take this idea seriously?” is a common question among the professors here. It’s a code, you need to know it, the question means: “How do we apply it in practice, what does this idea mean for our world?” And, if you wait for a few more minutes while the discussion evolves, it inevitably leads to the next question: “What should America do about it?”

This week the opening question of any course, be it history, chemistry, music, is: “What should we do about Gaddafi?” Last week it was: “What should we do about Mubarak?”

“We should not do anything,” says a tall, blond, muscular undergrad. A typical Yalie – an ancient sculpture carved in the eight storey gym and fed on carbohydrates. Incredibly smart, and incorrigibly practical. With a Yale cap on his head. “We should not do anything in the open” he corrects himself “but behind the scenes we should support Mubarak.” This produces a bit of a stir. “We should do what is best of America, Mubarak was friendly to America, there was stability whoever comes after might not be.”

Policy of caution enjoys a great popularity on American campuses. The old question “what should we do” is replaced by a more practical “What could we do?” A sign of a falling empire, some might say, or on the contrary, of an empire founded  both on ideals and on compromises – on practical thinking. Everyone here reads works of political philosophy – from Plato through Marx, to John Rawls, but being well-read in philosophy does not makes American undergrdas any less practical – on the contrary – ideals need to be known both to be applied and to be broken.

“What is the role of morality and ideals in politics?” – the professor sets the level of the discussion up, after the Mubarak question. Are they just a cover-up or a legitimating factor for the hard Realpolitik? Gadaffi is a hard case – the morale is too straightforward – even so, the UN waited for five days with the resolution, Obama is cautious, and so are undergrads on the Yale campus.

After Bush, democracy promotion has lost its credibility in this country. The World Bank President, who came to speak to Yale Law School yesterday, mentioned the conflation of two things: democracy promotion and military invasion. “But there are other ways of pressure”, he argued “and the need to take a clear stand”. “People are saying XXth century was a century of America, this one will be of China. I disagree. I think XXth century will pass on to history as the bloody century, and the XXI – hopefully as a century of democracy. For it to be so, America still needs to lead others.” He spoke with thought, conviction and sincerity. But he had also been the most vociferous advocate of the Iraq war so the Yalies are skeptical.

I am not sure what it all means, but what I do feel is that the Middle East is in the middle of this campus, and this country. Question as these, no matter if starting with ‘should’ or ‘could’, can only be posed in the contemporary empire, a place that has  economic, political and military power to DO the things the questions ponder. At the core of the curiosity, interest and the discussions here is both a feeling of pride and responsibility for the outside world that Americans in Ivy Leage campuses share. The phrase “take this idea seriously” might in the current world of shifting empires be just a rhetorical figure – but it is one deeply rooted in a century of American leadership. Is passivity a correct current agenda and doing nothing a correct policy?  Is all we can agree on that oil prices go up and we need to do something about it? Much as I understand caution, seeing the passivity and scepticism in people who have both the abilities and resources to speak out for democracy, Obama included, is dissapointing. Empires fall not just because others take over them (see:china) but because the ideals that the country is set upon do not matter any more.

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1 Comment

  1. Jacek

    So – what YOU will do with Gaddafi,Jola?

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