The recent controversy over Richard Fausset’s New York Times article, “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” prompted me to brush off and lightly revise this apparently unrelated (but subtly relevant) piece I wrote for the 17th Annual Conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses, on teaching Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to the Americans.” By some strange quirk of fate, the conference at which I gave the paper took place April 14-17, 2011, about two weeks before U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in their raid on his compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan. Despite that, I’m inclined to think that the Letter is still as relevant as it ever was.
I have some thoughts on the Fausset article but don’t have time to comment on it right now. The short version is that I think it’s a piece of crap, and mostly sympathize with those who accuse Fausset of normalizing Nazism. Actually, I would go beyond that and say that if Fausset is The New York Times’s idea of “one of our smartest thinkers and best writers,” American journalism is a more desperately half-assed enterprise than I ever thought it was. That said, I don’t quite agree with the anti-Fausset-article arguments I’ve seen (some of them are worse than the article itself), and also (sort of) sympathize with those leery of the term “normalization.” But I don’t sympathize enough to agree: at the end of the day, “normalization” is a perfectly good concept, and perfectly apt here. But that’s a topic for another post. There’s only so much radical evil I can blog about at a time.
(The essay is 2,880 words long.)
DIALECTICAL EXCELLENCE AND SOPHISTICAL REFUTATION:
TEACHING OSAMA BIN LADEN’S “LETTER TO THE AMERICANS”
For against an objector who sticks at nothing, the defense should stick at nothing.
—Aristotle, Topics V.4 (134a1-3)
I use the phrase “dialectical excellence” to name a set of moral-intellectual capacities canonically associated with a “dialectical” tradition in philosophy that includes the Platonic dialogues, Aristotle’s treatises on dialectic and rhetoric, Cicero’s dialogues, Aquinas’s Summas, and Mill’s Autobiography and On Liberty. What makes these texts “dialectical” is their attention to philosophy as a conversational activity, with particular attention to the adversarial or polemical features of philosophical conversation. Philosophy in this tradition vindicates or refutes controversial claims in order publicly to demonstrate their truth or falsity to an educated but indifferent, skeptical, or even hostile audience. As conceived in this tradition, “dialectical excellence” names the capacity, in adversarial contexts, to refute a sophistical argument in a rhetorically effective way.
So understood, dialectical excellence demands three sets of skills of its practitioners. One set is intellectual: the capacity to identify sophistry and factual inaccuracy at the weakest and most fundamental junctures of an adversary’s arguments. A second set is rhetorical: a facility with language (ideally more than one) that enables one to put one’s case in its rhetorically most effective form, rousing the moral passions of one’s audience, without exploiting the ignorance or irrationality that so often accompanies such passions. A third set is psychological: the disposition to maintain confidence in one’s case without losing one’s composure, lapsing into dogmatism, or giving in to intimidation. Dialectical excellence, we might say, requires the integration of all three skills in a single person, along with the readiness and ability to use those skills in the right way at the right time for the right reasons.
Over the past several years, I’ve been having students read and engage with Osama bin Laden’s so-called “Letter to the Americans,” a manifesto posted on the Internet in Arabic about a year after the 9/11 terrorist attack, later translated into English, but ironically almost entirely unknown to its putative addressees. In brief overview: the “Letter” offers an extended justification for the 9/11 attack, blaming Americans for having brought the attack on themselves, promising further attacks if the U.S. government continues its present policies in the Near East, and enjoining Americans both to change those policies and to convert immediately to (bin Laden’s form of) Islam. In overarching form, the Letter is a not-very-subtle ultimatum threatening mass murder in the event of non-compliance, adding some gratuitous insults along the way.
Why promote such a document—raving in demeanor, murderous in prescription—to prominence within the undergraduate curriculum? The answer, I think, is that the Letter is an extraordinarily good counterfeit of dialectical excellence, and like all good counterfeits, offers the perfect opportunity for exercise in recognizing (and in this case, acquiring) the real thing. Its cleverness and rhetoric skillfully conceal its inaccuracy, incoherence, and immorality–a fact that takes some hard work to grasp.
Rhetorically at least, bin Laden’s “Letter” exemplifies dialectical excellence to a higher degree than most American political or theological discourse intended for a comparably broad audience. As a purely formal matter, the Letter has the structural integrity of a Scholastic questio out of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. As Bruce Lawrence puts the point: “In a feature of the Arab fatwa tradition, opinions are here couched as detailed responses to specific questions, [and] broken down into sections and subsections in such a way as to emphasize the irrefutable logic of jihad” (Lawrence 160). The result is a document that, on its own terms at least, makes a clearer and more cogent case than almost any recent Supreme Court decision or State of the Union address.
Form aside, the Letter manages to say more than comparable recent American documents, and seems to presume a higher intellectual level on the part of its audience. Where, for instance, George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address focuses pointillistically and in amnesiac fashion on the 9/11 attacks and their immediate aftermath, bin Laden’s Letter puts the attacks in a wider and more informative historical context, marshaling a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that (on bin Laden’s terms) the U.S. has for decades been a systematic aggressor deserving of massive retaliatory response. Where the speeches of American pundits, clerics, and politicians circa 2001-2002 serve up an embarrassing hash of bravado and sentimentality, bin Laden offers his audience what one commentator calls a “magnificent,” “eloquent,” and “even at times poetic” expression of moral self-assurance (Lewis 14), and what another has described as “the authentic, compelling voice of a visionary,” expressing “what can only be called a powerful lyricism” (Lawrence xvii). Little in Vital Speeches of the Day from the last few decades survives rhetorical comparison with bin Laden’s Letter, and as far as I know, no comparable American document exists that rebuts his claims as thoroughly as he makes them.
Having appreciated the Letter’s narrowly rhetorical merits, however, the fact remains that morally and intellectually, its argument is an abject failure. Morally, much of what bin Laden says in it consists of platitudes insufficiently determinate to settle any dispute between bin Laden and his American adversaries. As bin Laden’s moral claims become determinate, they also become controversial, but the more controversial they become, the less he offers in the way of argument for them beyond question-begging citations of the Qur’an (question-begging even from an orthodox Islamic perspective). Moral claims aside, almost every historical or political claim in the Letter is either straightforwardly false or else ridiculously under-argued, a fact that bin Laden brazenly evades throughout the text. Finally, the Letter practically radiates illogic and bad faith: this is a document that on the one hand rationalizes mass murder on the grounds that “the Americans” have stolen “our” oil (whose oil?), and on the other hand rationalizes the same act on the grounds that the Americans show insufficient concern for the perils of anthropogenic global warming. Incoherence of this sort is par for the course throughout the Letter, and indeed, throughout the entire bin Ladenite Corpus.
I usually assign the Letter to undergraduates in courses on ethics where the topic of moral/cultural relativism comes up. The basic question at issue is whether an objective verdict on the Letter’s claims is possible, and if so, what that verdict ought to be. After a class or two of discussion, I ask students to write a short paper defending their own views on that question. Given the unfamiliarity to them of bin Laden’s historical and political assertions, I allow them to remain agnostic where they lack the knowledge to reach a verdict, but demand that they identify what further facts they would need to know in order to reach one. Since, I suggest, any thinking reader would have to reach a verdict of some kind on bin Laden’s claims, it is worth knowing whether such verdicts can be defended, and if so, how so. I insist, sincerely, that I am open to any verdict, positive or negative. Counterintuitive as it may seem, that insistence is central to the pedagogical value of the exercise.
The results are pretty disheartening: indeed, few assignments so starkly reveal students’ dialectical weakness as this one. The reactions I get fall into two rough categories, which I call fideistic resistance and thoughtful acquiescence. In some cases, these categories represent two distinctly different groups of students; in other cases, they represent the same student at different phases of engagement with the Letter. In both cases, they represent dialectical failure.
The fideist resister is a priori convinced that the Letter’s claims must be wrong, that Americans everywhere are and have always been innocents, that the U.S. government could “never have done” what bin Laden accuses it of doing, and (paradoxically) that even if the U.S. were entirely guilty of bin Laden’s indictment, its guilt would have no bearing on the cogency of his case. According to the fideist resister, it is our duty categorically to condemn bin Laden, whether or not we have an explanation for why he attacked us, and whether or not we are capable of evaluating the reasons he gave for doing so. The vehemence of our repudiation of bin Laden is the measure of our virtue, and apparently there is no better guarantor of virtue so conceived than the steadfast refusal to deal with anything that might cast doubt on our moral beliefs.
I’ve stated the view in its extreme form, but commitment to it comes in degrees. In its more moderate forms, fideist resisters will engage with the Letter in a half-hearted way, taking issue with this or that claim, but ultimately expressing impatience or exasperation with bin Laden’s tendency to dwell on “ancient history.” Since the history in question is unfamiliar and temporally distant, such students infer that historical considerations must themselves be irrelevant to so recent an event as 9/11. Fideist resisters tend not to notice that their argument (such as it is) cuts both ways: if historical claims are irrelevant to the justice of bin Laden’s claims, they must equally be irrelevant to his victims’. Absurdly enough, on this view it becomes our duty to veto historical inquiry into bin Laden’s case even if we have to forswear the discovery that the facts are on our side.
The thoughtfully acquiescent reader rejects the dogmatic and self-defeating character of the fideist resister’s strategy, and resolves instead—in a prima facie courageous move—to give bin Laden a fair hearing. Having done so, however, this reader quickly runs into alien territory, and then gets bogged down in it. For the fact is, bin Laden’s accusations against the Americans are designed to strike this sort of reader as both maddeningly obscure and yet vaguely guilt-inducing. Within a few sentences, the fair-minded but dialectically inexpert reader encounters a barrage of obscure but overheated references to “your” atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as those in Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Somalia, Lebanon, Algeria, and the Philippines. The reader is held personally responsible for environmental degradation and the evils of globalization, and is treated to a detailed guilt-trip over “your” addiction to drugs, pornography, and lucre. The guilt-trip seems at once over the top and yet troublingly plausible. The acquiescent reader has no idea what to make of bin Laden’s invocation of obscure names, dates, and places, and (being acquiescent) is not inclined to seek clarification. But bin Laden’s attack on capitalism, hedonism, and consumerism doesn’t need clarification: the thoughtfully acquiescent student has heard all of that before, and is prepared—even eager—to allocute to the charges.
And so, this student concludes, bin Laden must surely “have a point” about all the ancient history he brings up. Since he does, it must be safe to take his version of historical events roughly at face value. The less dialectically expert the student, the greater the tendency to turn “roughly at face value” into “essentially at face value,” and eventually into fundamental acceptance of bin Laden’s version of twentieth century history. Having accepted bin Laden’s historical narrative without a fight, our thoughtful reader is now surprised to discover how “reasonable” bin Laden sounds. For what is he saying but that al Qaida attacked “us” because “we” attacked “them” first? And how wrong could he be if “we” were by all accounts occupying “his” lands with “our” tanks and “our” troops? In that case, bin Laden is probably right to suggest that things would go better if only we dealt with one another (in his words) “on the basis of mutual interests and benefits.” Doing so surely seems preferable to fighting bloody and interminable wars against “his” people. In my experience, students rarely if ever quarrel with bin Laden’s use of pronouns; they buy right into it, conceding most of his case right from the start.
Like the fideist view, this one comes in degrees: sympathy for bin Laden’s case co-exists in guilty and inchoate fashion with vehement expressions of rejection, revulsion, and contempt, and with expressions of patriotism. But the essential feature of thoughtful acquiescence is the assumption that acquiescence in bin Laden’s case is more expedient than inquiry into it. We are, on the thoughtful acquiescer’s view, entitled or obliged to treat bin Laden’s assertions as a proxy for such an inquiry, and to offer a verdict not on the facts as such (which are regarded as inaccessible on principle) but on his assertions, taking their approximate truth essentially on faith.
The upshot of the exercise is that whether they are fideist resisters or thoughtful acquiescers, students have a predisposition to believe what bin Laden wants them to believe. The fideist resister resists inquiry into bin Laden’s case because he fears that bin Laden might well turn out to be right. The thoughtful acquiescer resists inquiry into that case because she sees no reason to think that bin Laden could be that wrong. What seems lost on these students is the possibility that moral and historical inquiry into bin Laden’s claims might yield a verdict that was objectively true, rationally justified, and yet thoroughly negative. Unfortunately, this is just another way of saying that what seems lost on them is the idea of moral inquiry about history as such.
In my view, the dialectical ineffectuality of our students points to serious weaknesses in American higher education. Powerful institutional biases militate against the inculcation of dialectical excellence there, all of which deserve challenge. Consider three problems from a much longer list.
For one thing, dialectical excellence demands high intellectual standards along with what Aristotle calls paideia, the general educatedness that makes a person an unqualifiedly good judge in every area of life that calls for judgment. Despite the wearisome talk of “assessment,” “rubrics,” “mission statements,” “Bloom’s taxonomy,” and so on foisted on us by bureaucrats, accreditation agencies, and administrators, we lack any serious way of assessing or rewarding success at paideia, and so, lack the thing itself. To be more specific, I would argue that what dialectical excellence requires is a more concerted emphasis on informal logic as conceived of in the Aristotelian tradition (a.k.a., “critical thinking”), and a more serious emphasis on the study of history, especially world history, conveyed less by textbooks than by real historiography. Unfortunately, allegiance to the usual disciplinary (and other) tribalisms make this an unlikely outcome, as does the loss of interest in non-STEM fields, along with the widespread skepticism and cynicism about the value of higher education now prevalent in the United States.
Second, dialectical excellence demands rhetorical facility and research skills that are nowadays almost entirely the responsibility of overburdened Departments of English, where the modus operandi is to cram everything into that old standby, English 101 (“English Composition,” “Writing the College Essay,” etc.). Despite the efforts of the faculty who teach such thankless courses, there is no way to wrest dialectical excellence from functional illiteracy in a single semester, and no way to retain whatever literacy is achieved if the gains of that single semester are forgotten or subverted for seven subsequent semesters. We need to rethink how things are done, intellectually, institutionally, and financially.
Third, dialectical excellence demands a certain psychological toughness from its practitioners that is incompatible with the “sensitivity” that is now routinely expected of both students and faculty in the classroom. We all like to be liked, but a good dialectician gives higher priority to the task of refuting sophistry and exposing falsehood, something guaranteed to hurt the feelings of those folk in the grips of such things. At a certain point, we simply have to admit (and get administrators to admit) that hurt feelings are an integral part of real intellectual life. Many dire fears are expressed, some of them justified, about the consequences of teaching students controversial subjects in a less-than-welcoming academic environment. Much less is said about the incoherence, ignorance, and lassitude that are the predictable result of a low-pressure classroom environment, where everyone is allowed to emote with impunity because the work of dialectical contestation would generate more discomfort than is currently thought tolerable. But as matters stand, I would suggest that the “sensitive” classroom has done at least as much damage to American higher education as has the “mean” one, not that those options exhaust the possibilities. In any case, the fact remains that the “sensitive” classroom is systematically insensitive to the psychological requirements of dialectical excellence.
Excellence in any field is easier discussed than achieved, and dialectical excellence is no exception. But if achieving it seems optional, consider the consequences of dialectical mediocrity. It may seem hyperbolic to suggest that we face a choice between excellence on the one hand and murderous insanity on the other, but it’s a hypothesis worth considering. As the last century ought to have taught us, a society’s discursive mediocrity leaves a vacuum easily filled by sophistry in the service of mass murder—think of Czarist Russia, Weimar Germany, or the colonial and post-colonial Near East. Bin Laden’s Letter teaches us that lesson once again. We owe it to our students to enable them to learn it.
* This essay was first presented on April 16, 2011, two weeks prior to Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of forces of the U.S. Special Operations Command. Given my focus on bin Laden’s message rather than his person, however, I refer to that message in the present tense throughout the essay.
 Cf. Aristotle, Ethics, p. 24 (II.6, 1106b20ff).
 Thanks to Amy Lynch for a helpful conversation on the expertise involved in recognizing counterfeit currency.
 Of course, as time passes, 9/11 becomes less and less recent an event, so that a fair number of students regard it as “ancient history,” and are reflexively bored by the mention of it.
 Contrary to an oft-repeated claim, bin Laden does not restrict his criticisms of the U.S. to the imperialist features of its foreign policy, but repeatedly and explicitly attacks the theory and practice of American freedom such.
 Cf. Aristotle, De Partibus, p. 3 (I.1, 639a1-12); Metaphysics, p. 1588 (IV.4, 1006a5-7); Ethics, pp. 2-3 (I.3, 1095a1-12).
 It should be a sobering thought that texts like Joseph’s Introduction to Logic and Carr’s What Is History? were once thought to be standard-issue undergraduate texts in informal logic and history, respectively. It’s an understatement to say that they no longer are. For an excellent discussion of the teaching of history (to which I owe the Carr reference), see Hitchens 2004. For further thoughts on teaching 9/11, see Khawaja 2010.
 As I revise this essay in late 2017, my university is phasing out its Department of History, replacing it on the one hand with a program in Social and Behavioral Sciences, and on the other with a major in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. With the retirement by year’s end of one of the two remaining full-time historians on our faculty, the university will be left without a single full-time specialist in American history. Basic courses in American history–“From Colonies to Nation,” “The Civil War to World Power,” and “The American Revolution”–will either be taught by adjuncts or be eliminated altogether. None is required for graduation.
 I dedicate this essay to Marilyn Bornstein, Benjamin Estilow (1930-2010), and Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), my first mentors in dialectical excellence. Thanks also to George Abaunza, Fahmi Abboushi, Kristen Abbey, David Banach, Joseph Biehl, Carrie-Ann Biondi, Jeff Buechner, Richard Burnor, Donald Casey, Michael DeFilippo, Gerald Graff, Amy Lynch, Charles Persky, Gail Persky, Hilary Persky, Yvonne Raley, Neil Robertson, and Joseph Spoerl for many helpful conversations on the issues discussed here.
Aristotle, Metaphysics. Trans. W. D. Ross. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1984. Print.
_______, Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis and Cambridge, UK: Hackett Publishing. 1999. Print.
_______, De Partibus Animalium I and De Generatione Animalium I. Trans. D.M. Balme. Oxford: Clarendon. 1992. Print.
Carr, E.H., What Is History? New York: Vintage Books. 1961. Print.
Hitchens, Christopher, “Why Americans Are Not Taught History.” 1998. Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays. New York: Nation Books. 2004. Print.
Joseph, H.W.B., An Introduction to Logic. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1906. Print.
Khawaja, Irfan. “Why They Hate Us: A Pedagogical Proposal.” Philosophy of Education in the Era of Globalization. Eds. Yvonne Raley and Gerhard Preyer. New York and London: Routledge. 2010. Print.
Lawrence, Bruce, Ed. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden. Trans. James Howarth. New York: Verso. 2005. Print.
Lewis, Bernard. “License to Kill: Usama bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad,” Foreign Affairs 77.6 (Nov./Dec. 1998): 14-19. Print.