Wishing for a Squirrel
I was reviewing proposals for final papers. Although in reality I was staring at the tree outside my window praying that a squirrel that had been playing on it last week would come back and distract me again. I guess I was already distracted. Michelle wafted in, clear voice a half step ahead of her long skirt.
“Just look at what they’ve done, Andrea! Can you believe it?!” She shoved a sky blue blouse in my face.
It took me a moment to adjust to just what the hell she was talking about. My brain had just been marinading in British Empiricism, juxtaposed by the wish that one of Mother Nature’s whimsies would take me away from all of this and now there was a discolored sleeve held up before me in offense. I looked at Michelle, hoping for just a little more assistance in orienting myself to this new circumstance.
“The dry cleaner! Look what they did! Ugh!” Michelle ran her fingers over the discolored spot.
Reassurances that everything is going to be okay are not my specialty, especially when the person who seems to need reassuring is not done losing her shit.
“I should sue them, don’t you think?” Michelle slammed the blouse down on the desk, hard enough to make the flowers in a narrow vase next to my laptop shift and the water swish somewhat worryingly.
“Uhm…” was as far as I got before I heard a knocking on my door. A student. A student with something on his mind, if the agitated rhythm was anything to go by. Another faculty member would have knocked twice and called my name before coming in. Or like Michelle, simply made herself known upon entering my office.
The agitated knock repeated itself and then the knob was tried. When found unlocked the door was opened. It was a young man from Western Enlightenment. Anthony– Anthony, something.
“I’m sorry, Dr Falconer, I know you have your office hours right now and I don’t have an appointment but I was hoping I could talk with you for a little bit. It’s just that I have a proposal for my paper but I’m not sure how to review it. I mean, here it is,” his verbal cascade not slowing one bit as he thrust a stapled set of printed papers at me, “and I have a conclusion on it and everything, but I just think that I don’t know if I have everything summed up just right because I feel like I could keep on going deeper and I’m not sure how to stop, you know?”
Anthony took a moment to catch his breath and look between Michelle and me. He inclined his head to Michelle, “Dr. Klein.”
She smiled but Anthony took a deep breath and continued on before she could greet him. “So I’m just trying to figure out how to really give this paper some scope. I thought investigating natural rights versus human rights would be a good place to start but I keep thinking about the Declaration and how we can’t pin down ‘inalienable rights’ from the natural world when the natural world didn’t come with any language. And if that’s the case then it also carries forward that the concept of ‘American’ is invented, and if that’s so then isn’t it arbitrary when our laws would apply, and do they apply to someone who is in the country but not an American and/or should they apply to someone who is American but not in the country? For instance, if I travel to France and break into a store and rob them, theft is against the law, but why would it only apply if I rob an American or American holdings? And why wouldn’t America’s laws that benefit us, like Freedom of Speech, benefit people in America who aren’t citizens? And if I drill down into that idea I find that country borders are also invented. After all, isn’t a border only what is held by concensus and physical might? I mean, the Native Americans weren’t unified and thinking this is ‘their land’ but once it was taken away then they recognized that, and even we’ve recognized that we ‘took’ the land from them and that means that there was a sense of possession in there somehow, and if I drill down into that it means that the whole concept of possession is also invented. Like that computer on your desk is yours and if I took off with it that would be theft, but we only have that idea if we have the idea of possession, but isn’t annexing basically taking something away from someone else and claiming it for yourself and being able to hold onto it? It’s like jumping a claim in the Old West and then shooting anyone who comes to take back and then, therefore, it was just accepted that now it was yours. So how can we say that owning something means anything, or claiming identity is anything but assuming an invented label? Why can’t I say that I’m Irish, then, when I feel a lot of affinity for the Irish people but I have no genetic relationship to them and I’ve never even been to Ireland. I mean who can say that deep down inside I’m enough like an Irish person that forbidding me from claiming that identity doesn’t become a cruel limitation to my self-identity. What am I taking away from anyone else? What impact does it have on the world if I include this affinity in my self-identity?”
Through his speech Anthony had gripped the chair opposite my desk with a tighter and tighter fist, knuckles losing all color. The color evidently went to his face, as his words had come faster, more frantically, his nose and cheeks had become pink and then red and now a burnished rust was spreading to his chin and outward over his ears. Arms were stiff and shaking, and when Anthony paused to suck in another breath I could see his legs were about to buckle. My guess was the boy hadn’t slept in at least two days. It was anyone’s guess as to how long it had been since he had a proper conversation with anyone.
“It’s just that, that,” he sounded frustrated. “There isn’t a natural trend toward justice or morality, is there? We didn’t naturally come to human rights, to equal rights, we came to them from out of some human invention and recognition for their need. So how can it be that we were endowed with them? And even if we look at it through the assumption that there is no God then aren’t we in even more trouble when we try to justify the reality of a moral universe, a just world that requires equal regard for every man, woman and child? Even if we skip that part and just begin with the premise that everyone can grasp treating each other with dignity and therefore we understand the possibility of refusing to do so as a failure of character, whether or not we call it a sin or a crime, even if we do that, today we have expanding human rights in our country for gay people but narrowing of the same in other countries. And yet we can’t say we understand humanity better when we have corporate personhood, particularly when corporations are allowed the benefits of the Bill of Rights but suffer none of the limitations, the way an *actual* human would. So if we say that a corporation can be a person, but not a human, why is it that human American is limited but a corporate American is not? Is that Jefferson meant? And even if it wasn’t, does that matter? I mean, never mind jurisprudence, isn’t a corporation an invention, just like a country’s border? I was born, as any human was. Doesn’t that mean something for whatever is inalienable to me? I mean… I mean…”
And there Anthony’s left leg wavered and he fell to a knee. A hand on the carpet, he coughed and spit. His breath gone, his voice continued in a soft wheeze, “I’m not sure they get it out there, Dr Falconer, money is something that has value only because we say it does. It isn’t real. It’s the same for countries. It’s the same for laws. In the end might is the only thing that really makes any difference but I would hate to live in a world where that was true. Don’t you think so, Dr Falconer?” His voice shook terribly. “Dr…?”
Michelle tried to smile sympathetically and glanced at me.
I sighed and called over my shoulder, “Katie! Katie, could you come in here, please.”
After a moment the side door in my office opened and my assistant came in. At the sight of the distressed student she put a hand on her hip and clucked her tongue. “Not another one.”
She didn’t wait for instruction, she simply stepped forward and hauled the sophomore to his feet. “Come on, let’s go get some coffee and talk it out.” She practically dragged him out to her office where there was a coffeemaker and small refrigerator.
Door closed Michelle blinked at me. “Does that happen often?”
I drew in a breath and let it out slowly. From the clock on my computer screen I still had 45 minutes left to my office hour. “Every semester there’s at least one.”
Author’s note: This is what people who haven’t studied Kant or Hume sound like to me.