This summer was a tough one – or at least
should have been a tough one – for people who like to characterize
themselves as politically opinionated.

Janna Hutz

Last April, when I left Ann Arbor, who walked which side of the
line was clear: there were pro-war-in-Iraq and anti-war-in-Iraq
booths on the Diag. The “pro-Israel” contingent rallied on the
Michigan Union side of State Street, while the “pro-Palestinian”
crowd opposed them from the art museum corner. For such nuanced
issues, there was a remarkable amount of black and white.

Last April, I also thought that I knew on which side of the
street I stood with respect to these two fundamental elements of
the Ann Arbor-University political (and too often, social) scene.
But after all that happened this summer, from the presidential
quasi-acknowledgement of our rather un-intelligent Iraqi
intelligence, to the escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle
– which, for a few hopeful months, had looked like more like a
straight road than an unbreakable cycle of violence, I find myself
in the Socratic tent of Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld’s
in-vogue Platonic camp. After the last few months, I feel like the
only thing I know is that I know, well, nothing.

The question that I found myself asked a lot this summer
(usually by people who are not American) was, “So what do you think
about the situation in Iraq?” Lately I’ve taken to giving in, and
conceding without apology: “I don’t know.” People often esteem
sharp opinions as the mark of someone who is politically and
intellectually engaged. But it seems that the more I read about
Iraq or Israel or Afghanistan or Liberia, the more difficult it
becomes to process my point of view. “I don’t know” stands in as
the answer that is easier to give than would be the half-hour,
irresolute and probably inconsistent explanation of my

I’ve learned, only too recently, that a firm opinion is not
necessarily the mark of knowledge. This summer, I took an Italian
class at the University of California at Berkeley. When we hit
chapter 16, “Per chi voti?” (Who are you voting for?), of our
textbook, we talked about American politics using our new Italian
political vocabulary. The consensus of the class seemed to be one
of general, and fairly aggressive, pessimism – about the economy,
about President Bush, about the United States’ international
involvement. But when our instructor got down to the question – per
chi voti? – no one in the class could name a single presidential
candidate, except George W. Bush, running in the 2004 election.

Opinions are important things to have, but I think that in the
student activism world of this university, there is often more
pressure to have a strong opinion than a smart one. Outside the
classroom, there is a strange temptation to look at a complex
situation and react with a one-word evaluation: “good,” or, “bad.”
We polarize each other for the sake of opposition. Last year, I
went to a club to practice a foreign language every Wednesday. A
friend of mine speaks this language very well, and every Wednesday
I asked her to come. By the end of the year, it had become a joke –
whenever I saw her on Wednesday afternoons, I would say, with
extreme gusto: “Shira, you know what day it is … let’s go!” at
which she would groan exactly proportionally to my own feigned

I didn’t want her to come as much as I pretended, and she didn’t
want not to come as much as she pretended. The same thing happens
at Michigan, and really everywhere: groups who consider themselves
in opposition to each other also drive each other to the extreme
ends of the spectrum: They effectively shoot themselves in the
proverbial foot with their own rhetoric, which, if they took a step
back and a deep breath, they might not even agree with themselves.
Student groups that have formed around controversial opinions too
often define themselves by conflict: the conversation stops, the
yelling begins and political disagreements – a very positive staple
of University and intellectual life – become very, very

This has got to be something that we watch out for more this
year. Last year there were too many personal attacks, and too many
people driving each other to absurd extremes. Like Socrates says in
the Euthyphro, knowing that you know nothing reflects more
knowledge than does believing in something that is wrong. For us,
this means recognizing that the things we argue about are not easy
and obvious, and that the people we attack and go out of our way to
hassle because of their opinions are students trying to pass
classes at the same time they’re organizing vigils and rallies and
protests. Starting at zero this year with campus politics will be
easier than starting with a negative number – and would make
student activism a lot friendlier pastime.

Hanink can be reached at










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