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. Continue reading