We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
—Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail“
In February of 1967, Noam Chomsky published “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in The New York Review of Books. It was a rallying cry for intellectuals to take a good, hard look at themselves and their unquestioned assumptions with respect to pressing social problems—especially the war in Vietnam. Twenty-five years later, in October of 1992, Eugene Rivers published “On the Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack” in Boston Review. Like Chomsky before him, Rivers was calling on intellectuals to squarely face the great moral crisis of their day—black poverty and nihilism. “As intellectuals, as humanists, are we not morally obligated to provide more than lecture circuit radicalism,” he asked.
Here at Harvard, there seems to be a certain unspoken courtesy we all provide to one another—especially within the humanities—not to bring skepticism to bear on the morality of our academic pursuits in the midst of largely preventable human suffering. Still, such ghostly silence only serves to underscore the urgency of the question, and the existential despair with which it so often fills us—a plural pronoun in which I very much include myself. The question hangs constantly, the elephant in the room: are we not morally obligated to provide more than lecture circuit radicalism?
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Estimates vary—from 22 percent, to 30 percent, to as high as 50 percent—but, the current economic crises has taken a toll on Harvard’s endowment. The term layoff has not yet been uttered—another little courtesy we provide to one another—but, it has certainly been alluded to. In her letter to the Harvard community on the economic crises dated 18 February 2009, Harvard University’s President Drew Faust pointed out that “compensation” accounts for nearly half of the university’s operating budget. The times call, she said, for “discipline and sacrifice.” Harvard Divinity School’s Dean William Graham was more forthright in his 28 January 2009 financial update: “As we reexamine priorities, …it has become clear that this will inevitably involve a review of staffing configurations.” Later he acknowledged that “the shifting of priorities” might “lead to staff reductions.” Note the passive voice. Meanwhile, Graham assured us, “events, travel, and catering budgets…will be cut in ways we can all live with.”
Let’s be clear: Harvard University is still obscenely wealthy and obscenely powerful. Still, times are, relatively, hard. The university has already resorted to layoffs to meet its tightening budget—most recently among subcontracted custodians at the medical school, as detailed in the 7 April 2009 Harvard Crimson, and while the economy appears to be showing tentative signs of recovery unemployment always lags behind other economic indicators. There is the possibility that the worst is still before us. Layoffs could touch the divinity school yet.
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So, are we morally obligated to provide more than lecture circuit radicalism? In Buddhacharita 4:60, the Buddha says
But when a man happens to see
someone who is old, sick, or dead,
And remains at ease, unperturbed,
He’s the same as a dead man.
Elsewhere, in the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha says that masters should share delicacies with their servants and care for them when they’re sick. Of course, old age, sickness, and death are more than just bodily realities. Job insecurity is old age, sickness, and death. Unemployment is old age, sickness, and death. Poverty is old age, sickness, and death. What Chomsky wrote 42 years ago and what Rivers wrote 17 years ago still matters for us today. It may, in fact, be more pertinent now than then. If we “remain at ease, unperturbed” in the midst of this, then we are truly the same as dead.
The Buddha did not content himself with simply cursing the darkness. Once he saw the old age, sickness, and death swirling around him he gave up his kingdom, with all it privileges, in order to find a solution. I am writing this on Easter Sunday, and like Christ, the Buddha understood that the success of the Bodhi Tree required the sacrifice of the Great Renunciation. Today we feast; Friday we fasted.
In the face of possible staff layoffs, how few events, and how little travel and catering, can we all live with? Us divinity school students go on endlessly about equality and rights and justice. We have a responsibility—not just to others, but to ourselves—to put our money where our collective mouth is. If worse comes to worse, we ought to say to the administration, as students, that we would rather lose all of our community teas and catered lectures, all of our organizational budgets and finals week green rooms, all of our Billings Prize money and orientation luncheons, than lose a single employee. President Faust called for “discipline and sacrifice.” It is up to us to ensure that such sacrifice never comes at the expense of people’s livelihoods—even if it means voluntarily taking it on ourselves. That is our responsibility as intellectuals, and it is no lecture circuit radicalism.
Note: A version of this article first appeared as Joshua Eaton, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in an Economic Crises: An Open Letter to the Harvard Divinity School Community,” The Wick (spring 2009): 66-68.