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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ten Years of Peter Singer

Thanks go to the Daily Princetonian and No Dead Yet for reminding me that Peter Singer, the self proclaimed "most important philosopher of our time" has been at Princeton University for ten years. Singer is one of the very few scholars that leaves me speechless, unable to express myself because I find his writing distasteful and grossly misleading. I do not respect Singer as a scholar though I understand his importance as it relates to issues such as animal rights. But outside of animal rights Singer has extreme views with regard to infanticide, abortion, assisted suicide, and the treatment of people with a disability. In the past I have refrained from engaging Singer as others have; here I refer to Harriet McBryde Johnson and her well-read New York Times article "Unspeakable Conversations" circa 2003. I simply do not want to dignify his work with a cogent reply that would give his views the credibility they do not deserve. Afterall, if it were up to Singer I along with many other people with a disability would be dead.

As expected from a school newspaper, the article in the Daily Princetonian, "Peter Singer Reflects on a Decade at Princeton" by Jason Jung is laudatory. I can accept this. Princeton has spent the last decade promoting Singer and I can hardly expect the university to question its hiring practices after the fact. Regradless, Stephen Drake, research analyst at Not Dead Yet has good reason to be outraged. The Daily Princetonian original article contained a terrible error that was quickly, though inadequately, corrected . Although corrected by an editorial note, this does not change the fact the original article stated Not Dead Yet protests were "violent" and further implied they were responsible for death threats that were levied when Singer was hired. I strongly suggest you read Drake's entry about Singer and the mischaracterization of Not Dead Yet at their blog. I need not repeat what Drake wrote for his words are powerful on their own. What I want to know is to what degree was Singer involved in this misdirection? Did Singer characterize Not Dead Yet Protests to the author as violent? Does he think Not Dead Yet was responsible for the deathe threats he received when he was hired in 1999? Perhaps the author simply made a mistake. I doubt these questions will ever be answered and they highlight a penchant Singer has--when he is criticized he falls back on the same response. Poor Singer is quickly and harshly judged because his views are taken out of context. Critics rely on short summaries of his work and do not understand or take the time to read the corpus of his writings on a particular subject. This approach has been wildly successful and derailed many harsh analyses. This is why I consider him to be an ill tempered polemicist rather than a scholar willing to exchange opposing ideas. Singer effectively diverts attention from the real issues at hand. For instance, when he was hired by Princeton the controversy surrounding his appointment overshadowed the fact he was to be the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values. Singer was not a bioethicist in 1996. He is not a bioethicist in 2009. Singer's area of specialization is ethics, particularly applied ethics. His work is certainly is within the realm of bioethics as are most of his controversial and extreme views. This is not the place or time to delve into this aspect of his career. Instead, I will focus on the article in the Daily Princetonian and how it conflicts with other statements made by Singer. I am doing this so I am not accused of taking his words out of context.

In the Daily Princetonian Singer noted that when he "joined Princeton's faculty in the fall of 1999, he expected good students and good seminars, but he never anticipated the backlash: a large-scale protest against his appointment that included the arrest of 14 activists outside Nassau Hall on Sept. 21, 1999". Let me contrast this statement with the following from the text Peter Singer Under Fire published earlier this year. "I had an inkling my appointment at Princeton was not going to pass unnoticed when someone forwarded me a message that Margaret Tighe, a leader of the Australian anti-abortion movement, had sent to anti-abortion groups in the U.S. Tighe told her U.S. friends about my views, and suggested that they might like to give me a warm welcome. They did". Given the fact Singer had drawn protests in the past, particularly in Germany, he must have been aware that the "warm welcome" referred to was surely meant to be hostile if not vitriolic. And here I am not referring to Not Dead Yet but rather pro-life groups who Singer wrote believed were most likely responsible for the death threats he received. Singer noted that after Not Dead Yet protests made headlines in the New York Times he was inundated with media requests. In recalling this episode he wrote "The worst aspect of the publicity was that both Shapiro and I received death threats. Since American pro-life activists have murdered doctors who carried out abortions, the threats had to be taken seriously". There can be no question here: Singer believes pro-life groups were responsible for the death threats and Not Dead Yet responsible for headlines. He further argues that the Not Dead Yet protests had no support on campus. That may or may not be true but he drew the wrath of many others among them Steve Forbes, alumni of Princeton and trustee who withdrew all financial support as a result of Singer's appointment. The New York Times considered Singer's appointment controversial and compared it to Bertrand Russell's appointment to the City College of New York in 1940.

Surely any person with an ounce of common sense would conclude protests from a host of groups Singer had alienated would mount a significant protest. Simply put, Not Dead Yet did the best job of protesting. Singer recalled in Peter Singer Fires Back that "On my first day of classes, hundreds of protesters, some of whom came from as far away as Chicago descended on Nassau Hall, the center of the university's administration. Several members of Not Dead Yet chained their wheelchairs to the doors of the building, blocking the entrances for two hours before they were removed by police. (My own class was undisturbed, thanks to a security cordon around the building in which it was held.) The protest made good television and was widely covered." This is called civil disobedience, a particularly effective means of protesting. But in this case the protests backfired. The New York Times asked SInger to write an article and restated his well entrenched views in magazine section entitled "The Singer Solution to World Poverty". This caught the attention of the editors at Harper Collins who published Singer's Writings on an Ethical Life. This text cemented his reputation on American soil and he has been working at Princeton ever since.

I find Singer as frustrating as Christopher Reeve was in terms of disability rights. Singer is a gifted writer, well schooled at crafting convincing arguments that are often wrong in my opinion. Likewise, Reeve quest for cure, a laudable goal, obscured if not damaged the fight for disability rights. Thus I find statements by Harold Shapiro, university president when Singer was hired frustrating in the extreme. For example, in the Daily Princetonian Shapiro stated "A university is a place that is at all times questioning the values we have, not just committing to the views we have. One of the roles of a university is to question existing arrangements and maybe suggest better ways of going about things, thinking about things." Well said. And how about starting with questioning the equality of people with a disability, the same people Singer is willing to kill at birth. How about questioning why 19 years after the ADA was passed universities and colleges across the country remain hostile to the inclusion of students with disabilities. How about questioning why more disability studies programs do not exist at top flight schools like Princeton. How about including disability related texts into the curriculum. How about making Princeton the most accessible and open campus to students and faculty members with a disability. These are questions Princeton and other universities should be questioning. Instead we have a polemicist such as Singer pontificating about ten years at a university that should not have hired him in the first place. No wonder academic life frustrates me to no end.


lilacsigil said...

Considering the reception he (and other successful expat Australians) get when they return to Australia, no wonder he thinks he's the most important philosopher of our time! I am saddened and scared to have him representing my country.

william Peace said...

I don't think Singer represents anyone aside from himself. Yes, he is Australian by birth but has held academics posts all over the world. He also generates controversy where ever he goes. To write he did not expect a hostile reception at Princeton was grossly misleading. I suspect he has harsh views about Not Dead Yet given their successful and peaceful demonstration.

erika said...

Mr. Singer holds some dangerous views and unfortunately he is in the position where he can spread them.

Your posts are excellent and your voice is so important.

william Peace said...

Erika, Singer is in some ways the most dangerous man in America. He has quite the following at Princeton and beyond. He commands attention where ever he goes and is often sought out for comments and articles by prestigious journals and newspapers. I appreciate your kind words. There are days I truly struggle to go out the door as I do not want to face the world that is hostile to my presence. But go out I do for if I did not I would risk all that I seek to accomplish.

erika said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Mr. Singer is way more dangerous than the h1n1 virus and childhood obesity combined. Knowing that you are "out there" makes me a happier person, because your mere presence and existance undermine the twisted views of Singer and his sidekicks. Not to mention that your accomplishments eloquently and loudly say "screw you, Singer", which I like :)

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Earth is a place of devouring. Scratch it anywhere and smell the blood. When we talk of what happens here we must never get lofty, kind or tasteful. We must meet it face to face. Or things fuse.

Being reasonable or patient will not move the Singers of this world by our example. That's just some "Christian BS." All we do is confirm he has primal advantage over us because we show we get nowhere. Predators rule here.

It is we who must evolve to be like him, or shut up and literally stop being born.

Singer is part of the organ procuring machine. He is into ethic-ks: that style of belief that says if you want to do it, just do it. (Whatever your instinct tells you is the Earth Mother talking...)

What we really need are hospitals that represent the non-Singer ethicks of convenience. He only calls himself an ethicist as a favour to the rest of us anyway. Earth and its humus humans don't worry about such things.

Anyway, I suggest a new approach. Come down to his level and don't try to bring him up to ours. It will NEVER happen. Why would he go backwards?

On this compost pile which Singer clearly calls home (as opposed to heaven if we, too, get philosophical about our source of values...) the only "back" is for us.

Read all the posts put out by this wonderful organization, NDY and you see superior people, minds and philosophies.

The problem is that on Earth, philistine, (oops i mean philosopher) Singer is right. Earth is the problem not Singer. It really sucks because we are trapped here and it's getting a lot more apparent. Earthites are getting really confident now. They have us checkmated because we are waiting for their next move. But they are done!