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Questioning Motives

By David J. Barron

TWENTY years ago today, Senator Robert F. Kennedy '48 was shot. In 1968, Kennedy was fast on his way to becoming a politician of a different sort--one who believed in transcendent issues, such as morality, integrity and justice, more than topical policy matters.

On the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, Kennedy, ignoring the advice of his political advisers, went into Harlem and gave an impromptu news conference.

He began by saying that he had some bad news to deliver, that one of the truly great figures in American history had been gunned down. He told the nearly all-Black crowd that he understood they would be angry at white America, since a white man had pulled the trigger. But then he added that his brother had been shot, and that a white man had pulled the trigger that time, too. They listened to him, and applauded.

Bobby Kennedy, more than any presidential candidate before Jesse Jackson, gave hope to Black America. He was fond of chiding white college audiences for the noticeable absence of people of color in their midst. When challenged on the war issue by an angry white undergraduate, he shot back that one of the biggest tragedies of the war was the fact that it was whites, almost exclusively, who had the opportunity to question the war; Blacks were denied the privilege because they were more than likely dying on far away battlefields.

But Kennedy's earlier record shows that he had been cautious, perhaps even antagonistic, to the civil rights movement. And so on the rememberance of his death, questions have been raised about his change of heart. Was he just trying to win votes?

IT is a mistake to focus on these questions. Dismissing Kennedy's idealism as a vote-getting ploy has given people false confidence in dismissing his message. And so we choose an easy out--taking refuge in our own sophisticated pessimism. But if we follow this path, we condemn ourselves to a world without ideals.

This is a trend which seems only to be growing. When Joe Biden shows passion, we prove our political acumen by pointing out that he is playing to the cameras. If a protest happens to take place during Commencement week, we prove our intelligence by terming it a publicity tactic. Each action, we all know and repeat knowingly to one another, is merely a crass effort at self-advancement.

In the realm of politics, this tendency towards cynicism is accentuated, what with people running around the country obviously attempting to achieve a position of power and trying to convince others they deserve it. But the trend extends to realms where it can be less easily forgiven, such as scholarly discussions of philosophy.

IN an odd piece in a recent issue of The New Republic, this kind of reductionism reaches new depths.

Professor of philosophy Alexander Nehamas, in a review of a new publication by the German theorist Jurgen Habermas, makes the supposedly devastating critique that Habermas wants to be a great philosopher.

Ego, and not truth, the professor argues, is the guiding principle behind Habermas' theory of rationality. And thus Habermas' critiques of the philosphers of modernity that preceeded him are all part of a grand strategy for establishing himself as a legend, rather like Hegel did in an earlier century.

As rhetoric, the piece is successful, making Habermas out to be a man obsessed by obtaining a place in history and using philosophy as a tool to achieve fame. But as for engaging a fellow thinker's ideas and trying to come to grips with them, it fails--largely for lack of trying.

If a philosopher, such as Habermas, submits a critique of Weber, and all we concern ourselves with is why this individual, called Habermas, wants to show flaws in the work of another individual called Weber, then scholarly discourse is rendered irrelevant.

Scholarship is seen as a competition; what should be a discussion is transformed into a petty rivalry. The purpose of scholarship should be discovery of knowledge or truth, but this new way of thinking reduces that goal into personal gain.

Such confidence in the self-interestedness of others may ultimately reflect an interest of our own. A world in which people are not thought capable of honestly pursuing ideals is a world without expectations or demands--which takes a load off of all of us. But we are no better for being relieved of the burden.

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