Letter to the Editor: Dr. Ahmed Afzaal

On April 10, the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) hosted a speech by Rick Santorum, the two-term Republican Senator (1995–2007) from Pennsylvania. The event was widely perceived as controversial, and for good reasons. It would have been wonderful if President Craft had, during his introductory remarks, acknowledged and affirmed the concerns of the students who went to the parallel event in the King Intercultural Center.

Purely from an educator’s viewpoint, I thought Santorum’s appearance was a great opportunity for engaging students in conversation about topics of vital importance, but I am not sure if the college took full advantage of this opportunity. Ideally, I would have liked to see a campus-wide program on the following day in which members of the Concordia community had come together to process Santorum’s speech through honest and open discussions. While writing in The Concordian does not even come close to meeting the need for a campus-wide exchange of ideas on controversial issues, the student newspaper is nevertheless an important forum for engaging the wider community. In the following paragraphs, therefore, I will share some of my own reflections on Santorum’s speech.

  1. Santorum is absolutely right that technology, particularly internet-based media, has created closed bubbles of information, or silos, and that these are highly detrimental to the political process. I am not quite sure, however, if Santorum clearly distinguished between the realm of facts and the domain of opinions, since the word “information” can refer to both. In my view, the problem is not simply that Americans tend not to communicate across political differences, but also—and much more ominously—that there is partisan disagreement over facts. Santorum’s own party has played a major role in propagating the false idea that cutting taxes on corporations creates prosperity for everyone. The same party is also responsible for convincing a significant proportion of the population that climate change, which is probably the biggest challenge facing human civilization, is either not happening, not caused by humans, or not a big deal. The First Amendment does not say that you have the right to propagate “alternative facts.”
  2. I don’t agree with Santorum that technology has changed the American society in some fundamental way. I happen to think that the changes brought about by technological innovations over the last 30 years or so are relatively superficial. Thus, technology has not affected the fundamental rift between those who have more power and those who have less—a far more consequential division than the estrangement between liberals and conservatives. If anything, technology has contributed to the exacerbation of the existing imbalance of power in our society.
  3. While I appreciate Santorum’s point that we, the college-educated, should know our own power, I don’t think that this is quite enough. While it is important for the college-educated segment of the American population to become politically engaged, a far more important goal is to ensure the empowerment of all segments of society, i.e., to strengthen democracy across the board. The impression I got from Santorum’s speech, however, is that the Senator is rather skeptical about democracy being a positive good for society.
  4. On the topic of democracy, I agree with Santorum that neither the founding fathers nor the framers of the Constitution were fans of democracy, which is why they established the United States explicitly as a “Republic.” However, I disagree with Santorum when he uses this historical reality to imply that demands for more democracy are somehow illegitimate. What Santorum did not mention is that even though the Constitution was written to minimize the ability of the population to influence government, popular movements have been pushing the country in an increasingly democratic direction from the very beginning. Indeed, the entire political history of the United States can be read in terms of the struggle between the ruling elites, who prefer a limited and tightly regulated democracy, and the general population that craves a fairer—if not egalitarian—distribution of wealth and power. In his speech, Santorum clearly took the former position, but that was not unexpected. This position is consistent with the fundamental thesis of conservatism, according to which only a small group of wise and enlightened individuals ought to govern the country while the general population needs to listen and obey.
  5. I agree with Santorum’s view that there are certain moral absolutes that should not be left at the mercy of the free market. The question, however, is who gets to decide which moral postulates are to be privileged in this way? This is a question about power, but Santorum made it look like an issue of morality alone. Santorum believes that the sanctity of life is a moral absolute, which is why he is staunchly against abortion, including in the case of rape. Given that one of Santorum’s proudest accomplishments is the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” it would appear that he is against violence as such. If the sanctity of life is a moral absolute, and if violence constitutes an insult against that sanctity, would the Senator agree that safety from violence should also be viewed as a moral absolute? If I agree with him that life begins at conception, would he agree with me that it continues after birth? If the answer is yes, should not the sanctity of life as a moral absolute apply not only to the unborn but also to those of us who are no longer fetuses? Along the same lines, would the Senator agree that the government should regulate pharmaceutical industry because the affordability of life-saving medicines is a moral absolute that cannot be left at the mercy of the free market?
  6. Santorum is a vocal supporter of the Second Amendment and gun rights. In his speech, the Senator said that he is just as opposed to gun violence as anyone else, and the only reason he supports gun rights is because he doesn’t believe that regulating guns will have any quantitative effect on overall gun violence. He said there is no “objective evidence” for the belief that a tighter regime of gun regulation reduces the incidents of gun violence. Santorum’s claim has a teeny-tiny problem: it is objectively false. Since no one challenged him, let me ask a different question: If Santorum believes that legal restrictions on guns will not reduce the incidents of gun violence, why does he think that legal restrictions on drugs will reduce drug addiction and that legal restrictions on abortion will reduce the incidents of abortion?
  7. Santorum argued that more important than regulating guns is the need to identify at-risk youth and to offer them psychological help. These steps are definitely worth taking, but there is a major flaw in the argument. Essentially, Santorum took a social problem that has systemic causes and made it look like an individual problem with psychological causes. Santorum’s move was a textbook worthy example of the old conservative strategy of emphasizing individual responsibility and downplaying the role of political and economic factors. By arguing that a problem is caused by particular individuals behaving badly, the responsibility for fixing the problem is shifted away from the government and onto the shoulders of private citizens. First of all, gun violence is a social problem; it cannot be solved by individual initiatives. Secondly, the link between gun violence and mental illness is practically nonexistent. Finally, depression and other mental illnesses do not occur in a vacuum; the influence of social factors on the rate of suicide has been known since 1897, when Emile Durkheim published his famous study on this topic. Even the availability of psychological support depends on the distribution of resources, which, in turn, depends on government policies. Santorum’s response was not a good faith argument for reducing gun violence; it was a cynical attempt at changing the topic—and it worked.
  8. Santorum criticized the idea of “safe spaces” on the grounds that college students are adults who need to learn how to respectfully disagree with holders of alternative viewpoints. The problem, according to Santorum, is that there is a tendency to demonize the individuals with whom we disagree; instead, we should be trying to refute their arguments through rational debate. I agree with Santorum that an intellectual disagreement does not justify attacking the character or personality of the opponent. However, Santorum either misunderstands or deliberately misrepresents the issue at hand. The ideal of respectful disagreement is highly desirable, but it rests on the presumption that power is shared more or less equally among all participants. The need for “safe spaces” is not the result of students’ inability to deal with intellectual disagreements, but arises because certain disagreements are not purely “intellectual” in nature but are drenched in issues of power and privilege. Santorum is blind to these latter issues—either because of his own privilege or because he does not want to leave his comfort zone—which is why he only sees an intellectual disagreement where others may be experiencing deep emotional pain.

I can make a few more points about Santorum’s speech, but I think it’s time to wrap up. Before concluding this essay, however, let me share a few general comments. First, the above reflections are by no means intended as the final word; they are simply prompts for further discussion. Second, my criticisms of Santorum, the Republican Party, or the conservative ideology do not imply my support for the Democratic Party or political liberalism; I do not think these two camps represent our only options. Third, I would like to see Concordia inviting more politicians to speak on campus, but only if the college ensures that their claims will not go unchallenged, that we will not ask them softball questions, that we will have real-time fact checking, and that the community will have the opportunity to participate in open conversation after any such event.

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