Monday, September 25, 2006

Campus buzzwords don't mean anything anymore

If you're in the habit of reading e-mails from Carol Christ [Smith College administrator], you may recall a certain one that she sent out last Thursday. Under the subject heading "Strategic Planning Round Table Discussions for Students," she listed a variety of topics which students were invited to discuss with administrators at scheduled times during the semester. These discussions will help complete "the strategic plan that will guide the college over the next decade," wrote Christ. But what exactly are they going to be about?

The titles of the round table meetings are, at best, vague. But what's worse is that they make perfect use of an aspect of liberal arts college life that we have come to despise: super-politically correct, overly-sensitive non-speak. In an attempt to neither provoke nor offend, we have adopted a specific vocabulary which has come to mean both everything and nothing.

Using words like "community," "diversity" and "conversation," members of our campus think they're being generally safe and explicit, when really they are failing to convey any information at all. Where once these words may have actually meant something, they have been overused and distorted so that the concepts that they originally signified no longer apply, and their current intent is thus achieved: perfect, inoffensive vagueness.

One round table discussion that Christ listed in her e-mail is "Strengthening Essential Student Capacities." What does that even mean? Maybe attendance at this meeting will illuminate its mysterious title. I would hope the same goes for the other round tables as well, which will be guided under the headings of "Deepening Students' Awareness and Appreciation of Other Cultures and Global Issues," "Promoting a Culture of Research, Inquiry, and Discovery" and "Encouraging Purposeful Engagement with Society's Challenges."

Sure, you can glean the general topic of these meetings from their titles, but take a good look at the words being used. What does "engagement" mean to you? Or what about "awareness," "cultures" and "capacities?" These are all words that get tossed around so often on campus that they fail to convey a specific meaning anymore. Why is it that we can no longer say what we mean? At these meetings, people will have "conversations" about "diversity" in their "community," but what will come of it? Have we become a campus of hollow talk and no action?

When we use this language, we are obscuring the point of what we are trying to convey. If we actually want to make progress with real issues that exist on this campus such as tensions about race and class, which we know are present but are too frightened to discuss, we're going to have to take our words out of the clouds and start saying what we mean. No amount of overly-sensitive language is going to solve our problems.



My family lived near Bristol when that city would have been living high on the hog from the profit of slave trafficking. Yet if we got our hands on any of that cash you have my solemn oath that none of it has trickled down the generations. So I was rather annoyed to learn last week that the government is planning to apologise on the nation's behalf for the slave trade.

A committee headed by John Prescott is considering something called "a statement of regret" to be issued solemnly on March 25 next year, the date that marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This is not technically an apology, but is something that parents will recognise as the next best thing. It is the government looking at its feet and mumbling a few words because it knows that otherwise it will be spending the next half an hour on the naughty step.

I don't know who will be making this apology, but I would be very grateful if they would make it clear that they have no authority to speak on behalf of the White family, late of Westbury-on-Trym in Gloucestershire. Because, like many other families throughout the land, we do not appear to have actually done anything. Not only did we play no part in slavery, but when we had a moment off from ploughing fields and building dry stone walls and sucking up to the Saxe-Coburgs we might even have been swept along in our modest way by the moral outrage that gripped the country in the late 18th century.

Far from being apologetic about slavery this country has much to be proud of. The abolition campaign had government support from an early stage. It was William Pitt, the dominant figure in the politics of the day, who urged his friend William Wilberforce to push the measure through the House of Commons.

Of course, we know that any apology is not really about slavery. It is about a much more modern issue: the uneasy relationship between black people and white people that can partly be blamed on the legacy of slavery in the West Indies and America. But slavery is not entirely what would be referred to these days as a white-on-black crime.

Years ago I watched a documentary about a group of black Americans who were on holiday in Africa, touring the slave sites. Many were in tears, having just discovered what went on at this end of the operation. They had just learnt the awful truth that the main suppliers of African slaves were themselves African. It was common practice for many years for the victors in battle to enslave their opponents. Suddenly, these victors discovered that they could also make a bit of money.

Jolly good business it was, too. King Tegbesu, who ruled what is now Benin, apparently made 250,000 pounds a year from selling slaves in 1750. According to my own rough calculations, this is the modern equivalent of 25 million pounds a year. And he is not the only African who grew fat on the profits of slave trading. The word "slave" is derived from the Slavs who were shipped from central Europe across the Mediterranean to Africa. From a book called The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas, I also learn that 30,000 Christian slaves were sent to Damascus when the Moors conquered Spain in the 8th century. According to the Domesday Book there were 25,000 slaves in England in the 11th century.

So let's all enjoy a good knees-up in March. Let's have street parties and debates on Start The Week and we might even sit quietly while Prescott makes a speech about Wilberforce and Hull. But let's not pretend that the British were wholly responsible for the plight of African slaves. Slavery was a long established and widespread evil: the difference is that the British were one of the first to recognise it as evil and to do something about it.



As Muslims rage across the globe killing people for publishing cartoons and threatening religious leaders for reading the words of an historical figure, some people paradoxically seem to imagine a greater threat looms over the world. Rabbi James Rudin is one of those people. He has even invented a word to describe them: "Christocrats".

Like so many who have made a living raising strawmen to knock down, Rudin cannot see the world in which we live, but the one he wants to exist . the one that might more easily keep him flush. Like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, men who still imagine we live in the era of Jim Crow, Rabbi Rudin, Director of the Interreligious Affairs Department of the ACJ (American Jewish Committee), imagines that we still live in an era of the Inquisition and that we are about to be overtaken by these "Christocrats". Sounds ominous. But, most strawmen do, don't they?

The last time Rabbi Rudin was making the rounds he was denouncing the Movie "Passion of the Christ" as a one made solely to disparage Jews. On CNN, Rudin denounced the movie saying, "I saw the film twice. I'm very disappointed. I'm very angry. I'm disappointed because Mel Gibson could have made a thoroughly Christian `Passion' play without beating up on Jews, vilifying my religion, my people, as he's done."

Now he is out hawking a book he entitled, "The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of Us". This screed is a rather insidious attempt to inflame Jews and secularists against Christians exactly in an era where we all face Islamofascism, the biggest threat to civilization since WWII, and in an era where we should be coming together to face this threat.

Yet, even as one reads Rabbi Rudin's book one finds little by way of substance and almost no real solutions other than to tell Christians to just shut up. Additionally, one cannot help but get the feeling that the good Rabbi is revealing his own hatreds for everything Christian. The whole tome feels like some personal vendetta.

In a recent interview, Rudin went out of his way to preface his words with the disclaimer that he didn't mean "all Evangelicals". On, Rudin said of the average Evangelical, "I've found that the overwhelming majority of Evangelical Christians are not committed to changing the basic relationship between church and state, and between government and religion."

He also warned that his boogymen were not very numerous, but were merely "a small, but very potent group, who are driven to say it's not just Christianity, but their form of Christianity that must be the legal, mandated, dominant form." Rudin even claims that the men he fears the most, Francis A. Schaeffer, and John Rushdoony (the Rushdoony who died in 2001), are "men who are pretty much unknown to the general American public".

This book, however, makes the fib to these disclaimers of a small, unnoticed cabal of Christian toughs because he ascribes all manner of outsized actions and successes to this "small, but very potent group" and inflates their power unduly. He sees Christian boogymen under his bed, in his closet, in his Courts and in Congress all controlled by people who most Americans have never heard of. Rudin imagines that these "Christocrats" want to change the Constitution to "define exactly the kind of Christianity that is legally the mandated version" and worries that "even other Christians would become second class" citizens as a result. Worse, Rudin feels that these "Christocrats" are just as vicious as any extremist Islamist might be.

Sadly, it seems Rudin views his enemy from afar and must not know very many of them. It would be interesting, for instance, to see Rudin address the fact that a great majority of his hated Evangelicals support Israel. But it is presumed he would explain that support away as a product of the "End Times" thinking that many anti-Christians so fear. In this theory, Christians only support Israel because a strong Israel will bring about the end of the world, a silly and ridiculous claim.

Rudin's rant against Christians seems rather reminiscent of the wacko conspiracies that too many deluded people blame on Jews, doesn't it? Can you say "Elders of Zion"? Apparently, Rudin does not see the irony in his own actions.

What Rudin rails against the most is the efforts by Christians to get politically involved - a trend that started in the late 70's and early 80's. Here Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority" comes in for special conspiracy theorizing. Rudin bemoans the lost days when Christians just shut up and voted without worrying about what really went on in Washington.

"Christian conservatives' concern always was, get right with Jesus, get right with Christ, get right with God on a personal level. Yes, they voted. And they participated in elections. But they did not see political parties or political movements as a means of carrying out God's will. God alone would determine that, and voting was a citizen's duty. But the Christian conservatives didn't look to the Democratic or Republican Party to deliver theological gifts or theological concerns or provide theological answers."

So, now we see Rudin's real problem. Christians are fine if they stay uninvolved in politics. He feels they should forget about that stuff and leave it to smarter men like himself, presumably. He cries foul at the "parallel media system of television, radio, magazines, newspapers, which reflect their point of view" that Christians have created, warns against the political action groups Christians have organized, moans about the money raised and gesticulates madly over the influence that this terrible religion has over Washington. Curiously, he doesn't see any parallel with the many Jewish groups that do the very same things for his own religion, some of which he works for. And one wonders why Rabbi Rudin thinks it is that Christians were called to a greater involvement in politics in the 1980's, in the first place? It wasn't a sudden movement lead by crazed but charismatic leaders who simply misled the public into involvement, but a response to decades of an American political scene that had drifted further and further from the conservative and religious precepts that had been the mainstay of American political discourse for nearly two hundred years. It was a result of a large group of regular Americans that had had enough of the warping and tearing down of traditional Americanism. If this disgust with the extreme left in America had not existed no Jerry Falwell could have become the powerhouse he became for a short time. Falwell or no, American Christians have every right to try and stop the march to leftism that was invading their schools and their politics.

Amazingly, Rudin claims that Christians are un-American just as they became involved in the most American endeavor; political activity. He doesn't accept that Christians have the very same right to advocate for their ideas and political needs as any other group and are not doing anything differently than the very organizations that Rudin works for.

All in all, it seems more like Rudin is engaging in wishful thinking and propagating the kind of anti-Christian rhetoric he has become famous for and not truthfully reading America's Christian community. His book is a mere screed against Christians masquerading as cogent cultural and political analysis. Rudin's message is that he just wants Christians to shut up and go away and wants them to know that he feels they are not real Americans.


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