by Jack Kerwick
Historical ignorance, ideological obsession -- and the deception of the American public
When famous and affluent Hollywood celebrities were exposed recently for bribing their children’s way into some of America’s most prestigious academic institutions, far too many observers seemed to have missed the fact that this episode is but a symptom of a cancer that has metastasized throughout the entire academic world.
To put it in its simplest terms, “the College Admissions Scandal” revealed that colleges and universities are guilty of false advertising insofar as they would have Americans believe that applicants are admitted as students on the basis of their qualifications—not the size of their parents’ bank accounts.
But these same colleges and universities have been engaged in false advertising for decades insofar as they have been deceiving the American public into thinking that they are educational institutions that, as such, provide an open market place of ideas.
They are no such thing, sadly.
A recent illustration from my home state of New Jersey is representative of both the ideological fervor and historical illiteracy that pervades the academy. Brittany Cooper, Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, has discovered a new villain in her campaign against “racism.” This academic who once characterized Jesus as “potentially queer,” blasted black politicians with whom she had disagreements as “white supremacists in Blackface,” and launched a profanity-ridden tirade after the Supreme Court recognized religious-based exemptions to the Obamacare mandate, now declares as racist none other than…time.
During an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Cooper insisted that “time has a race” in that “the way that we position ourselves in relationship to time comes out of histories of European and Western thought.”
To be exact, it isn’t time per se to which Cooper takes exception but the linear conception of time that has informed European civilization for millennia. “And so if you’re white in the U.S. context, typically you’re taught that time is linear, that every day is a progression beyond the past [and] that we are not today where we were 50 years ago.”
However, “if you are African-American in this country, time doesn’t exactly work that way.” After all, black Americans “are, you know, living often with the residue of past historical trauma” and “in a present-day system that is filled with racial animus, which often is overlooked by many white Americans.”
This in turn means that black Americans are “living with a sort of notion of a precarious future [.]”
Professor Cooper’s commentary on the prevailing Western understanding of time invites several responses.
First, she is indeed correct to note the link between the dominant Western conception of time as linear and the equally Western idea of progress.
She doesn’t mention, though, that this view of time, like the idea of progress that it entails, are the legacy of monotheism, by far and away the Jews’ single greatest contribution to the world and, in the estimation of a not insignificant number of observers, the single greatest contribution to the human race for which any group of people can take credit.
That the Jewish idea of God was radical is gotten from the complex of ways in which it revolutionized the world. Unlike their contemporaries, including those of their contemporaries who, at the time of the emergence of Judaism, constituted the most sophisticated of civilizations and powerful of empires, the Jews envisioned the divine in terms of one, single, Supreme Being. Yahweh wasn’t a god that belonged to nature. He was the God Who created nature.
For other ancient peoples, the universe was treated as a brute fact that had always existed. As such, time was thought to be cyclical. This being so, it shouldn’t be hard to see how this frame of reference precluded a place for progress. Indeed, the cyclical view of time bred fatalism.
Given the conceptual resources of the Jews, however, belief in moral progress—and, with it, the ability for self-criticism—became inescapable.
Christianity, being the offspring of Judaism that it is, not only didn’t abandon the metaphysical suppositions of its progenitor; through its unique doctrine of the Incarnation of God and its anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ, Christianity underscored these suppositions and used them to create over the millennia a civilization that would become distinguished on account of its unprecedented technological, scientific, intellectual, cultural, and, yes, moral achievements.
Second, whether it is inadvertent or willful, Professor Cooper’s ignorance of this cultural inheritance isn’t just obvious, but painfully so: The very conception of time that she cavalierly dismisses as a racially oppressive construct is intrinsic to a Euro-Christian worldview that, given her condemnation of racial oppression, Cooper must endorse.
Only within a worldview in which the notion of moral progress is intelligible, a worldview spawned by Judaism and adopted and revised by Christianity and that is unique in conceiving of time in linear terms, could the insight that racial oppression is immoral and the hope that it can be overcome ever arise.
This is true both philosophically and historically. Hinduism, the world’s oldest set of religious traditions, regards the world of human experience as maya, illusion. Ultimately, there is but one thing, one substance: Brahman, or God. But Brahman is not a personal creator, for there is no creation. All things are but manifestations of this one trans-personal being. Buddhism, which spun out of Hinduism, also treats the world as something from which to escape by way of Nirvanna, the extinguishing of the illusion of the self. Taoism affirms nature, but views it as something to be accepted, whatever the circumstances; nature, or the world, is not a thing to be changed, for it is what it is.
Within each of these traditions, time is resolutely non-linear.
Neither did the ancient Romans and Greeks—the two other groups in the absence of whose contributions the European civilization that we’ve known would be unimaginable—envision time in a linear way.
This is why Brittany Cooper’s twofold belief that racial oppression is a moral evil and that it can be defeated could have originated only within the worldview spearheaded by Judaism and adopted, revised, and promulgated by Christianity.
In other words, Cooper implicitly affirms—she vitally needs—the very linear conception of time that she explicitly rejects.
From the union of historical ignorance and ideological obsession springs a litter of self-contradictions.
Yet parents shouldn’t expect to learn this from the colleges and universities to which they are planning upon sending their children.
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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