Chestnuts & Philosophy

After Kent State University Dept. of Philosophy began advertising a guest lecture by Arizona State's Peter French, On Being Morally Challenged by Collective Memories, A Serbian news outlet's subsequent report fueled complaints. (French is Lincoln Chair in Ethics, and Director, Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University)

The event poster included this description:

During the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Serbian men described themselves as compelled to rape and murder Kosovar women and children. This felt necessity was provoked and sustained by collective memories nurtured in Serbs for seven centuries. The basic question I hope to answer is whether group members caught in the throes of collective memories should be held responsible for their actions when they "can do no other."

A subsequent FAX from the Consulate General of the Republic of Serbia erroneously suggested such alleged "hate speech" might be illegal and might warrant an investigation.

Volokh Conspiracy has a different take from those who took the description to mean French holds a collectivist/racist view of Serbs.

(By way of background and to fully understand Serb reaction, it should be noted that there have been ample contemporary examples of individuals who have absorbed a racist view of Serbs as collectively untrustworthy and immoral. This is seen in knee-jerk responses of those who doubt the veracity of anything a Serb says regarding the Kosovo war, while swallowing whole anything NATO said, or the American Enterprise Institute, or Bosniaks, Croats or Slovenes, or some other talking idol. In committing this fallacy they willfully forget that evidence is independent of its source. Likewise, the same persons are often completely ignorant of new evidence that has appeared indicating the numerous mistakes made by media, policy analysts and NATO. It's obvious that not too few Serbs, upon hearing the Serbianna account and reading the poster, believe the lecturer falls into this overall category of collectivists/racists who are ignorant of Balkan affairs.)

French has cancelled the lecture. Unfortunately, one does not have now either the speech or the paper to review for oneself. I would indeed like to read the paper.

Professor John Peter Maher has now emailed this prickly chestnut off to Mr. French. (See email below) In it he references a French email that referred to certain of Milosevic's speeches. (Another abysmal aspect of the "knee-jerk" pro-Clinton, pro-neocon, Balkans lemmings and their faith-based foreign policy beliefs, is that most turn out to have never read these particular speeches of Milosevic's, or they would know their characterization of the speeches in question was complete poppycock and straight from PR firms in DC. And it is astonishing how many supposedly intelligent persons, proud of their grasp of Balkans affairs, got most of that grasp from tabloid headlines generated from the PR blitzes, and from "hand-me-downs": articles by think tanks or influential people, who got their information from the aforementioned. And again, it's clear that recent complainants believe Mr. French falls into this category.)

Here's the French excerpt: "One of the examples I use is that of the speeches of Slobodan Milosevic that recalled the 1389 battle on the Field of Blackbirds as a way of motivating Serbs against Kosovo/Albanian Muslims."

And here's Maher's email:

March 8, 2007
to pfrench@asu.edu

Mr French:

You are right to say that we must read your speech before we comment on it. Why do you therefore comment on the speeches of Slobodan Milosevic?

I'ts clear that you have read none of them. Where does he mention "Albanians"? His concluding remark at Gazimestan was the usual communist internationalist slogan "Long live the Peoples of Yugoslavia!

What we have from your pen is recitation of PR blurbs, paid pieces by "Open Society" flacks and Foggy Bottom's post-Orwellianisms. A scholar uses primary sources, not tabloid headlines.

It's a pity your speech is cancelled. Please invite me to attend future appearances. I'd like to debate you. Will you send me a copy of your speech or will you post it on the internet? I'd like to read it first.

Not everyone who opposes you is a Serb. I'm no Serb, not Orthodox, have no Serbian marital or extra-marital relations. I am 100% Irish American; my first graduate degree is an MA from The Catholic University of America (Greek and Latin).

In the Cold War I translated, from Croatian, German and Italian into English, reports of a CIC asset (US ArmyCounter-Intelligence Corps). Our source was director of the Vatican Ratlines, Monsignor Krunoslav Draganovic, who used to reside in the Croatian Seminar (Institute of St Jerome).

After you have actually read the Milosevic speeches, I'd be happy to discuss Balkan basics with you. Meanwhile, enoy your pogrom.

Sincerely yours,

J. P. Maher
Professor Emeritus

A couple helpful links, not from a Serb, but an American Jew:


VOLOKH CONSPIRACY published this from French:

"Kent State wanted me to go on with the lecture and promised security at the event, but my family insisted that it was not worth it," and also passed along the following (some paragraph breaks added):

"I was scheduled to give a lecture at Kent State University of March 7, 2007, as a part of the Veroni Memorial Lecture Series. The title of my lecture was to be "On Being Morally Challenged by Collective Memories." I intended to discuss how collective memories (what some have called heritage stories) can be seen as a potential source of a type of moral impairment that I call "being morally challenged."

The paper that I would have read has three parts. In the first part of the paper I distinguish between being morally incompetent and being morally challenged in terms of an account of moderate moral reasons responsiveness combined with the Frankfurt conception of volitional necessity. In the second part, I provide a sketch of different types of memory and offer an account of what collective memories are.

I conclude in the third section with an attempt to provide a convincing account of how collective memories can cause volitional necessity leading to moral challenges for some individuals in group situations. The primary point I make at the conclusion of the paper is that though collective memories may engender what Harry Frankfurt called volitional necessity in some group members and render those individuals morally challenged in certain circumstances with regard to doing the right thing, they do not convert those group members into moral incompetents with respect to whom moral responsibility assessment is inappropriate.

This all undoubtedly sounds highly philosophical and probably rather dull to most people. However, in the third section I offer a few examples of how I believe certain individuals may have been morally challenged when elements of their heritage or collective memories were used by their leaders to incite untoward actions. One of the examples I use is that of the speeches of Slobodan Milosevic that recalled the 1389 battle on the Field of Blackbirds as a way of motivating Serbs against Kosovo/Albanian Muslims. This example is discussed in two brief paragraphs of a paper that is about 20 pages long. It is in no way the focus of the paper.

Nowhere in my examples, nor anywhere else in my paper, do I make any claims about the morality of the Serbian people. However, after event organizers generated a poster with a blurb citing the Serbian/Kosovo example to announce the lecture and displayed it on the Kent State University campus and website, there arose an outcry of complaints and accusations regarding my supposed views about Serbs.

This escalated into an outrageously false (and I believe libelous) article posted on a website (www.serbianna.com) in which my views are grossly mischaracterized. This website wrongly attributes to me the claim that "Serbian people are rapist and killers because they are delusional about their history during the time they lived under the Islamic Law in Kosovo." I make no such claim. Nor do I make any of the other wild claims now attributed to me in emails and elsewhere. I do not think the Serbian people are or were delusional and I was not going to say so in the lecture. Nor do I think the Serbian people are rapists and killers (although individual Serbs have raped and murdered, as have members of every ethnic group on Earth).

I have written extensively on the complex issues of individual and collective responsibility, and I am the last person to make unsophisticated, sweeping statements about the morality of any ethnic group or to make assumptions about the morality of an individual based solely on his or her ethnicity. The website article goes on to quote Susan Ilievski, a person I have never met. She says, "This man is out of his mind. Whatever French says is a fiction or was he paid to say that, who knows." This is, of course, utter nonsense.

Ms. Ilievski has no idea what I say in the paper because I have not given it and I have not provided a copy of it to anyone at Kent State. It is most irresponsible for anyone to make incendiary claims about someone's views based solely on an advertising blurb created to excite audience interest.

Unfortunately, the audience interest that was incited was poisonous and most unsettling. I have received a large number of harassing emails from within the U.S. and from abroad, accusing me of racism, being a closet Islamist, collaborating with those who would destroy Western Civilization, and much more. I was told to expect a very unpleasant experience at Kent State should I dare to give the paper. After consultation with my family and my attorney I decided that traveling to Kent to give this somewhat technical philosophical paper in such a hostile climate (and at my age) was unwise.

Philosophical discourse is all that interests me. The utter irrationality and vituperative rhetoric of the attacks I have endured is astounding and depressing. Hearing from so many hate-filled people who have no idea of the actual philosophical points that are in my paper and clearly have no desire to engage intellectually with me made it clear that this visit would not be a worthwhile philosophical experience.

With reluctance, I decided to cancel my talk. I had hoped that my talk would provide an opportunity to engage the Kent community in an interesting discussion of a complex philosophical concept. It is astounding and tragic that a simple academic exchange could spiral into such a controversy."

Hopefully, the French paper will become available in the near future so interested parties can read and judge for themselves.