Reading this Friday’s Wespeak by Kathy Stavis (“Wesleyan needs to get out of the carnage market of ’moral war,’” Feb. 22, vol. CXLIII, no. 31), I was reminded of nothing so much as a review of “Atlas Shrugged” by Whittaker Chambers (“Big sister is watching you,” Dec. 28, 1957 issue of National Review), in which the author lamented that, from every page of Ayn Rand’s book, “a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ’to a gas chamber—go!’” The painful urgency, Stalinist rhetoric and utter lack of depth exhibited by Stavis’ piece seem to send a similar message to those of us who would dare to question her group’s methods or motives. Stavis might fancy herself capable of shoving all dissent under the showerhead of scorn, but not all of us will inhale her rhetorical Zyklon B without a fight.
To begin with, Stavis tells us that the quest for a definition of “social responsibility” is a wasted one, as we should let the Oxford English Dictionary suffice. Therefore, anything that is “dangerous to society” should be considered “socially irresponsible.” Stavis then zeroes in on cluster bombs as an example of such a “socially irresponsible” object. By extension, Stavis’ logic runs, because Raytheon and General Dynamics produce and sell cluster bombs, they are socially irresponsible. To believe anything else is to be “ruthless, disgusting and dangerous.” After all, just because a murderer volunteers in a soup kitchen, that doesn’t mean he’s not a murderer, right?
There is an obvious flaw in the logic of Stavis’ soup-kitchen murderer example. That is that Raytheon and General Dynamics do not shoot off the cluster bombs themselves. They sell them to people who retain those weapons in case they need to use them. Therefore, Raytheon and General Dynamics are not murderers, but merely salesmen, and while a murderer who volunteers at a soup kitchen may not be less of a murderer, if a gun salesman volunteers at a soup kitchen, we are allowed to take that into account when judging his worth as a human being and as a businessman to invest in.
Stavis then tells us that, because we cannot deduce the consequences of supplying weapons, weapons must be considered socially irresponsible. She goes on to say that, because weapons can be stolen, the consequences become even more difficult to divine, which makes weapons doubly irresponsible. However, by this logic, selling anything that could possibly be used for violence can be considered socially irresponsible. No producer can ever be completely sure of what his product might be used for, or if it will be stolen, yet somehow we still allow producers to sell dangerous items without perfect security or perfect knowledge. Furthermore, if Stavis wants to stop unnecessary violence, then stopping the supply of weapons will not do it. War and weapons existed prior to the existence of Raytheon and General Dynamics, and people will always find some way to hurt and kill each other. Raytheon and General Dynamics simply developed as a reaction to the demand for weapons—they didn’t create that demand. Therefore, to stop unnecessary violence, Students for Ending the War in Iraq (SEWI) ought to look at making the demand for weapons go away. Of course, that would involve ending the causes of war, which might be slightly more difficult than battering the Board of Trustees into submission.
Stavis’ final argument is that, because members of the U.S. government hold stock in Raytheon and General Dynamics, some level of corruption must be present. However, this is pure paranoia. If one found Disney stock in Colin Powell’s portfolio, I doubt that you’d hear SEWI arguing that the War in Iraq was an insidious plot to bring the Magic Kingdom into being. However, perhaps that is because their simplistic and Manichean worldview would fit better into a Disney film than into the complexities of reality.
The complex and morally ambiguous truth, of course, is that Raytheon and General Dynamics are profitable investments selected by touchy and in-demand money managers whom we cannot risk offending. They are by no means the cold-blooded killers that SEWI wants to paint them as, and no college with a comparable endowment or religious heritage to ours has accepted SEWI’s extreme perspective on weapons contractors, either. The only example of a college that has divested from weapons contractors of which I am aware is Haverford, and as they are a Quaker school with a religious prohibition against violence, their case is totally non-applicable. Columbia considered it, but as was noted in the meeting with the Board, Columbia did not actually end up divesting because, among other reasons, there was not sufficient consensus about the subject among the students. No such consensus exists here, either, and the only thing that is “ruthless, disgusting and dangerous” is Stavis’ attempt to silence dissent that proves that inconvenient truth. I, for one, refuse to let SEWI play God with our endowment.