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November 7, 2001:
The Irrelevance of an Intellectual

By Michael Frazer GS

It was hard to read Hegel on September 11. Of course, it's always hard to read Hegel, particularly when one has less than 24 hours to slog through most of the Phenomenology of Spirit before a Wednesday afternoon seminar on the book. But on that particular Tuesday, academic work of any sort seemed woefully beside the point, and I instead spent my time glued to my computer, refreshing the CNN.com web page every few minutes.

The last time I had been similarly unable to tear myself away from the news was during the first few days last year's Florida recount debacle. After less than a week of chadmania, however, I found myself disgusted with the whole affair, and plunged myself into an essay I was writing on Abraham Lincoln. The statesman's wise and eloquent words contrasted sharply with the near-meaningless political brawl in Palm Beach, and I felt no qualms about focusing exclusively on my studies.

This time, however, things are different. It's been almost two months now, and while, as any grad student must, I now once again spend the vast majority of my time on purely academic concerns, there often seems to be something almost unethical in doing so. How can I sit by the fire reading Nietzsche, when my father's Manhattan office still smells of smoke from the smoldering ruins a few blocks away? How can I busy myself encountering Being with Heidegger when, as nearby as Hamilton, our fellow citizens are being struck down by anthrax? How, in short, can I justify my easy life of reading and writing in the Grad College, when my instincts are telling me I should be volunteering at Ground Zero, or perhaps even signing up at my local military recruitment office?

Many at Princeton this fall have shared my feelings, searching for some way to make their existence here immediately relevant to the fate of America and the world. This is almost certainly the primary impetus behind campus activism both for and against the war, as the Princeton Peace Network and Princeton Committee Against Terrorism stage demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, teach-ins and counter-teach-ins. Shortly after the bombing in Afghanistan began, for example, the PPN breathlessly advertised its next meeting as an "Emergency Rally," as if the destiny of Kabul and Khandahar was to be decided outside Firestone Library.

Other than keeping its students, staff and faculty informed as to how to avoid contacting anthrax from campus mail, however, Princeton can only respond to the current crisis by continuing to do what it does best: encouraging the free exchange of opinions and ideas. No single event better fulfilled this academic responsibility than the October 10 panel on the justice of the war organized by the University Center for Human Values, featuring university faculty, such as Richard Falk and Peter Singer as well as outside scholars, such as Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs magazine and Michael Walzer of the Institute for Advanced Study. Unfortunately, the panel proved so popular that many, including myself, were turned away at the door. Even then, the fire marshall insisted the room was overcrowded, and the whole event had to be moved to a larger lecture hall.

The next day, exactly a month after the destruction of the World Trade Center, Michael Walzer was scheduled to give a talk on a seemingly unrelated subject -- the relationship of concrete social criticism to abstract social theory -- to the biweekly Political Philosophy Colloquium. Sure enough, as the question-and-answer session began, some of my antiwar colleagues confronted Walzer over the support he voiced at the previous day's panel for recent American military actions. The expert on the philosophical idea of a just war responded with his characteristic insight and thoroughness, invaluably clarifying the moral foundations of my own support of the war.

The peace activists, of course, were not satisfied with Walzer's answers, and our debates on the subject have continued off and on ever since -- debates sprinkled with references to Lincoln and aphorisms from Nietzsche, debates informed even by our study of Hegel's Phenomenology. Now, whenever I feel a pang of guilt for studying in Small World coffee shop on Witherspoon Street rather than joining the war effort in the real world, I think of these endless conversations. Perhaps, in our own small and idiosyncratic way, academics are indeed making a contribution to the fight against terrorism.

Michael Frazer is a graduate student in the politics department and can be reached at mfrazer@Princeton.edu.