[Editor’s note: The following guest post comes from longtime friend of the blog and S-USIH member David Weinfeld. Beginning his fall, he will be the visiting assistant professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. David received his PhD in History and Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University and has taught at NYU, Temple University, Queens College, and the University of Toronto.]
During the United invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was a sophomore at Harvard University, living in a dorm called Mather House. Named after Increase Mather, former president of the university who had been involved in the Salem Witch Trials, the dorm has some pretty views of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Mather is an ugly pair of buildings, crafted in the 1970s Soviet style, or as former resident Conan O’Brien quipped, “designed by the same firm that built Hitler’s bunker.”
I didn’t feel like I was in Hitler’s bunker, though. I felt intellectually alive, bombarded with information. The September 11 attacks were fresh on everyone’s minds, as America contemplated going to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. I desperately tried to make sense of it all. A liberal Canadian, my gut told me to oppose it. I was never convinced Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and if he did, I didn’t think he’d use them. I did not believe he had any connection to Al Queda either. I hung up an anti-war sign in dorm room. But Mather House changed my mind.
More specifically, two academics affiliated with Mather House changed my mind. The first was professor and fellow Canadian Michael Ignatieff. A historian and journalist by training, Ignatieff taught at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He was also a resident scholar at Mather House. Though a liberal (and later, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada), Ignatieff had become enamored of American Empire. He had written a long New York Times Magazine article advocating United States’ military power to enforce Pax Americana. Taking out Saddam Hussein would be the next step of this new post-9/11 world order.
Though he talked tough, Ignatieff made a moral argument for attacking Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. He used chemical weapons on his own people, persecuted Kurds and Shi’ites and anyone who dissented. I heard Ignatieff make the case for war in a talk at the Kennedy School, and then again over tea, with a few other classmates, in the Mather House dining hall. I found this case compelling.
More compelling was the case presented by Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi dissident. A professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis, Makiya was married to the Senior Tutor at Mather House and lived in the dorm. Makiya’s case for war was more particular to Iraq. He had been a critic of Saddam Hussein for decades, and had a list of 397 Kurdish villages the Iraqi dictator had eliminated. I remember sitting in one of the small meeting rooms alongside the Mather dining hall, listening to Makiya explain that Saddam was evil, and needed to be taken out.
So I changed my mind. I took the sign down in my dorm room. I supported the invasion of Iraq. Not loudly, but proudly. I didn’t write about it, but when asked for my opinion, I endorsed it, and did my best to defend my position on moral grounds. It was the worst political blunder of my life, but it came out of a genuine desire to determine what was good and what was right.
Tracing my error led me down a familiar path. I was engaging in the same sort of micro-intellectual history I did in my dissertation about the two American philosophers who came up with term cultural pluralism, Horace Kallen and Alain Locke. Kallen was Locke’s teaching assistant at Harvard in 1906-1907, and the two became friends at Oxford the following year. They came up with cultural pluralism—the precursor to multiculturalism—in conversations at these elite institutions.
Culture pluralism was a good idea. The war on Iraq was not. Both were discussed in the intellectually open atmosphere of the Harvard campus. In listening to and learning from Ignatieff and Makiya, I was doing what I was supposed to do. I was taking advantage of the university as a place for the exchange of ideas. But while many of my friends and peers continued to oppose the war, I made the wrong call. Since others got it right, that’s on me. But still I’m left with a conundrum.
In 1907, Harvard philosopher William James said the purpose of a college education was to be able to “know a good man when you see him.” When I began at Harvard in 2001, Dean Jeremy Knowles addressed our class with these words: “Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in life – save only this – that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot. And that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.” But what do you when your teachers, though good, smart people, are the ones talking rot?