Category: News

Cornel West delivers speech on self-examination

Dr. Cornel West delivered a wide-ranging and impassioned speech in Boe Chapel on Friday, Oct. 27, condemning America’s “spiritual blackout” and urging self-examination. Appearing as the Political Awareness Committee’s (PAC) fall speaker, West’s talk concerned personal character, education, politics and social justice. He is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University, and is known across the country as a provocative and distinguished intellectual. 

According to PAC Coordinator Abdul Wake ’19, PAC invited West in order to gain a fresh perspective on politics from a fiercely non-partisan polemicist and celebrated scholar. 

“He’s also very critical of the standing that this country takes, that of the reigning political ideology, that of neoliberalism, that of neofascism,” Wake said.

West’s speech was the first PAC event for which attendees were required to obtain tickets. Last spring, Angela Davis’ speech attracted far more attendees than Boe Chapel had room for, prompting PAC to create an attendance cap for West’s appearance. Wake explained that the Music Entertainment Committee’s (MEC) ticketing of concerts provided an example for PAC to follow.

West’s speech focused heavily on personal character, education, American moral decay and the power of love. Grounding his message was an exhortation to the audience to engage in critical self-reflection aimed at uncovering one’s moral and spiritual principles.

“You have to discover who you really are: not the spectacle, not the image,” West said. “What kind of litmus test will you meet in terms of the moral and spiritual criteria?”

West tied his overarching message to the concerns of PAC, arguing that personal character and unbreakable principles must come before political action. 

“What kind of human beings will we choose to be? Who’re you gonna be, what kind of legacy, what kind of witness? That’s the question when you talk about political awareness, you don’t start with public policy,” West said. “You don’t start with ideology, you don’t even start with analysis. You start with ‘what kind of person are you?’”

West bemoaned the role models and celebrities worshipped by younger generations, denouncing them as market-driven and superficial. 

“Where’s the morally latent exemplars who cut against the grain, who raise the most fundamental question, and, most importantly, [are] willing to take a risk for something bigger than their careers?” West said.

In West’s eyes, such a perspective marginalizes you in our current society, particularly in one uncomfortable redressing historical wrongs. 

“America has been in denial of the funk of its own stuff … Never believe the lie that slavery is the original sin of America,” West said. “Slavery was the second one, it was the treatment of our precious and our priceless indigenous brothers and sisters.”

To West, one of the crucial components to building character is interrogating beliefs through the Socratic method. West urged students to embrace this kind of self-scrutiny and analysis as they advance through college. 

“When you graduate from St. Olaf, it doesn’t necessarily mean that St. Olaf has been through you unless you have been Socratized. I’m talking about that deep education,” West said.

West argued that deep education, combined with personal cultivation of moral character, can counteract the nihilism and selfishness ailing society.  

“We’re living in a moment of spiritual blackout, which is a moment of the relative eclipse of integrity, of honesty, of decency, of courage,” West said. “These days, too many young folk are taught what? The end of life is to be the smartest in the room? How empty, how hollow, how shallow. Let the phones be smart, you’ve got to be wise.”

West traced Trump’s election to this “spiritual blackout”, and condemned what he perceives as a materialistic and rapacious societal ethos filling the spiritual vacuum. He ended his speech with a return to his central message of cultivating personal character and laid out some words of guidance. 

“Confront oppression. Integrity, intellectual integrity: tell the truth, no matter how popular. Spiritual integrity: stay on the love train … I’m talking about love of truth.”

West concluded his talk with 45 minutes of answering questions from the audience on a wide range of subjects. Audience members posed questions on race and Black Lives Matter, the Minneapolis mayoral campaign, political activism, West’s criticism of President Obama and many other topics.

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Asma Barlas on misinterpretations of Islam

On Thursday, Oct. 9 the Political Awareness Committee (PAC) hosted speaker Asma Barlas, Professor of Politics at Ithaca College. Barlas gave a speech entitled “Muslim Women’s Rights and Islamic Feminisms.” She used much of her speech to dispel common misconceptions of Muslims. Abdul Wake ’19, PAC coordinator, introduced Barlas.

“Today we are very, very excited to welcome Professor Asma Barlas,” Wake said. “She joined the Politics department [at Ithaca College] in 1991, and served as the founding director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity for twelve years.”

Barlas began her career when recruited to Pakistan’s Foreign Service in 1976, but she was fired only six years later for speaking out against General Zia-ul-Haq, who had seized power from Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a military coup. She then became an assistant editor of an opposition newspaper, the Muslim, before moving to the United States after receiving political asylum.

“I think you already know the title of my talk … and on the face of it, the title seems to suggest it’s going to be a pretty straightforward conversation about Muslim women’s rights,” Barlas said. “But actually nothing about this conversation is straightforward at all.”

Unlike many speakers that come to campus, Barlas wanted her speech to be more like a conversation and encouraged people to ask questions at any time.

“I have found it difficult as an observant Muslim in the United States to speak about Islam,” Barlas said. “And I think part of the reason, especially for people of your generation, is you only know my religion through the lenses of 9/11, 2001.”

Barlas explained that these beliefs were nothing new and have been around since medieval times.

“The earliest depiction of prophet amongst Christians was the antichrist,” Barlas said. “By the time Luther came on the scene, the real antichrist, he said, was the Catholic church, and the Pope. Mohammed is just an antichrist. So the prophet was downgraded to an antichrist.”

Nowadays, Barlas explained, the most common depiction of Mohammed is as a terrorist.

“These are very old, pervasive historical narratives about Islam that the West has chosen to tell itself over the course of a millennium and a half,” Barlas said.

Barlas then asked for students to provide common stereotypes of Islam that they have heard. The first mentioned was that it is oppressive to women. Another was that the Quran is the only scripture used by Muslims, when in reality there are other texts commonly interpreted as being part of the Quran. Barlas herself asked if anyone had heard that Muslims stone adulterers to death.

“Stoning is not mentioned in the Quran … actually it’s from the Hebrew Bible,” Barlas said.

This was a common theme of Barlas’s talk. Many of the things westerners associate with being part of Islam and written in the Quran are actually from texts that are not included in the actual Quran, but other texts that over the years have been interpreted as canonical. Jihad was mentioned as an example of this misinterpretation. As Barlas explained, within classical Islamic law, Jihad cannot be declared by just anyone, they must have the authority to do so. It cannot be declared against non-combatants or involve the killing of women and children.

“None of the stuff you see these days – often described as terrorism – actually fits into that model of Jihad,” Barlas said.

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Public Safety reports English department break-in

After discovering a suite door within the English department that appeared to have been tampered with on the morning of Oct. 18, Rolvaag Memorial Library staff called Public Safety to investigate the situation. After taking a closer look at the door, Public Safety concluded that someone may have entered the room without permission. Once inside the suite, it appeared someone had in fact tampered with the door and removed an item from the room.

“The cabinets were found open and the custodian stated he thought an iMac desktop computer was missing,” Director of Public Safety and Emergency Management Fred Behr said.

Public Safety examined other doors and offices in the English department nearby but found “no credible evidence” of tampering elsewhere.

“At this time, we believe the computer was last seen Friday Oct. 13 about 5 p.m. and discovered missing the morning of the 18 at 8:15. So far, the computer is the only item reported missing from the room,” Behr said.

After the theft was discovered, an email was sent to faculty and staff regarding the incident. While no other items are thought to have been stolen, Behr commented that “this remains an ongoing investigation.” Moving forward, Public Safety encouragesmembers of the community to keep valuable possessions out of plain view in offices and rooms, to lock doors to personal spaces when away and to report any suspicious behavior to Public Safety at (507) 786-3666. 

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Lecture sheds light on violence against indigenous people

On Wednesday, Oct. 11, Ramona Kitto Stately gave a lecture in Viking Theater on the violence perpetrated against Minnesota’s indigenous communities. Titled “Seeing Minnesota’s Indigenous Histories,” her lecture focused on forgotten stories of oppression against the Dakota people after the U.S.-Dakota War and how that persecution affected the surviving families and future generations.

Stately has special reason to be incensed over Minnesota’s treatment of the Dakota people. Not only is she a member of the Santee-Sioux Dakota Nation that lived in Minnesota for over 12,000 years, but her great-great-grandfather was also sentenced to death after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. While he survived due to a commutation of his sentence, the violence wrought against the Dakota people has a certain raw proximity for Stately.

After introducing herself and her Dakota background, Stately gave an overview of certain aspects of Dakota language and culture relevant to the government’s transgressions. Stately’s great-grandfather was born at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, known in the Dakota language as Bdote. Bdote and the Minnesota River Valley hold special significance for the Dakota people, who lived there for thousands of years and would bury their dead in the bluffs of the Mississippi. The site also holds immense spiritual significance: the Dakota believe it is the place where they were created, and refer to it as “the center of our universe.”

The U.S. army built Fort Snelling next to Bdote in order to protect encroaching settlers from Native-American raids. Despite the theft of Dakota lands and the spiritual significance of Bdote, little mention of either is given at the current, Minnesota Historical Society-run Fort Snelling.

“You can go on an education trip, you can have your birthday here,” Stately said. “You can have tea with Mrs. Snelling. And that invisible story remains.” 

Furthermore, according to Stately, the Fort was part of a larger pattern of provocation and punishment.

“The idea is, first you build a fort, you create relationships, you make a treaty, then you create something to cause a disturbance and then you can imprison the men,” Stately said.

Indeed, that sequence of events played out in the U.S.-Dakota War. After the six week conflict, 300 Dakota men were sentenced to death, though President Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38. On Dec. 26, 1862, a crowd of 3,000 in Mankato witnessed the public hanging of those 38 Dakota men, the largest mass execution in American history. 

“The Minnesota State Fair brought in about 500 people its first year. You can see what the pulse was of the community here.”

The Minnesota government’s ire towards the Dakota people extended far beyond the imprisoned men. 

“Governor Ramsey, governor of the state of Minnesota, said that ‘the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of this state,” Stately said. 

The Dakota women and children were thereafter rounded up and forced to march 150 miles across the state to be shipped downriver, a six day forced march through frigid November weather. Beyond the toll of the march itself, the women and children were led through all the settler towns that suffered from Dakota attacks, just as the settlers were burying their dead.

“Every one of these battle towns that our Dakota women and children and elders and elder men walked through, they were attacked, violently,” Stately said. “In the span of six days, hundreds were dead and just thrown off to the side of the road.”

The Dakota women and children who survived were slated to be shipped out of the state down the Mississippi River. However, the water was frozen, and the Dakota were instead interned on Pike Island by Fort Snelling until the waters became navigable. Not only was the site by Fort Snelling, but it was at Bdote. The Dakota’s lodgings were woefully inadequate for the Minnesota winter and an average of four people died each day.

According to Stately, only now is Minnesota beginning to reckon with its history and make amends. 

“At Bdote, our genesis became a place of genocide,” Stately said. “But down below, you can walk down into the river valley, and see a monument, a memorial to Dakota women … There’s a fee to pay at the front, but if you go to pray, and you’re Native, you don’t pay the fee. So it’s very different, there have been prayers there, we can have ceremony there, we don’t have to pull a permit.” 

Just this year, the Minnesota Historical Society published a book labeling the treatment of the Dakota a genocide for the first time and the internment at Pike Island a concentration camp.

Every other year since 2002, Stately and other Dakota women have walked the 150 mile trail first tread by the Dakota women and children in 1862. As they walk, they plant prayer flags and pray for the Dakota women that first walked that path. They also pass through the ‘battle-towns’ where the captive Dakota were originally attacked by furious settlers. The first few years were tumultuous, with some residents throwing rocks and hurling racial slurs at the women. However, relations between the towns and the marchers have gradually improved. Stately views the walk and engagement with the towns as part of a much needed healing process. 

“This is the way of creating healing, because we can’t hold it in, otherwise we continue the trauma to the next generation,” Stately said.

Stately concluded her talk by emphasizing the economic vitality casinos and other Indigenous businesses have brought to Minnesota, and how these developments remain largely invisible to many. 

“If we talked about this in the classroom for Native kids, how proud would they be? Wow, there’s 11 reservations in the state of Minnesota, 13 casinos, every single one of them is the largest employer in their county.”

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Vote Yes works to increase operating levy, renovate schools

On Nov. 7, Northfield residents will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on two issues pertaining to the Northfield public school system. First, increasing the operating levy. At the most basic level, the operating levy is the amount of money spent on operating costs in the Northfield public school system. The referendum proposes that the levy be increased by $470.15 per student per year for the next ten years. The second item on the ballot – which is contingent on the passage of the first – would introduce the implementation of the Master Facilities Plan, a $109 million project that would provide necessary capital upgrades throughout the district.

In an effort to sway voters to pass the referendum, Pasha Quaas and Amy McBroom are co-chairing the Vote Yes campaign. Quaas highlighted the long process of preparing the Master Facilities Plan to present to the public.

“The school district started [the process] about three years ago with an effort that they have called the Master Facilities Plan,” Quaas said. “And so they really took a deep look at all the district facilities and … figured out, what’s our short term goal, our medium term goal and what’s our long term goal? Are we meeting the needs … and what are the needs of the district that are outstanding?” 

Based on this analysis of the school district, it was decided that $30.5 million of this bond would go towards a new elementary school, the renovation of the old elementary school into a center for early childhood programming, the creation of a new media center and a new, secure main office entrance, all of which would be completed for the 2019 school year. $78.5 million of this bond would be used to build a new high school, to be completed by 2020.

“We are desperate for space in our early childhood area. That’s really the only place in the district that we have a sort of building wide space constraint,” Quaas said.

One of the current elementary school buildings, Greenvale Park, has breezeways and is not practical for Minnesota winters.

“The district has done what they can with creating temporary walls, and trying to put things up above the walls, but it’s still hard to learn and to teach in a building where there’s so much noise,” Quaas said.

Northfield High School is also deemed an unsuitable learning environment for students. Over the years it has undergone four major additions, but with little regard for design or functionality.

“[The new high school] is creating the most questions around town, because of the dollar amount,” Quaas said. “But our current high school is just not meeting the needs of students. There are very limited flexible learning spaces … our labs are incredibly outdated … it’s really difficult to keep temperate, so students start bringing their winter coats to school in September.”

While the bond is going towards long term projects, the operating levy, which is set to expire in 2022, is essential to the daily operations of the district. Minnesota’s Legislature has failed to keep up with inflation rates in funding public schools. An increase in the levy would allow the district to attract better teachers and provide more services to students.

There has been some concern over the financial impact this referendum would have on Northfield residents because the levy and bond would be funded through an increase in property taxes, which for the average property owner in Northfield would lead to a yearly propery tax increase of $532. 

“We have an opportunity right now, with interest rates at historic lows and construction costs going up 5 to 7 percent a year, and that means that if we wait even one year the total for these bond projects goes up $8 million.”

Considering that this is one of the biggest bond or levy proposals made in Northfield, the Vote Yes campaign has been working hard to ensure its passing by doing presentations at community organizations and retirement homes.

“I think there’s a perception in Northfield that we value education so much in this community that of course it will pass … but in reviewing past levy or bond referendums, they’ve always been close … they’ve been 52 to 48 percent … so there are thousands of people who vote no,” Quaas said.

Laura Schlotterback ’17, a volunteer for Citizens for Quality Education, highlighted the importance of this referendum passing for St. Olaf students.

“We’re here on the Hill to learn and grow, and education is so important for that. It’s really important to engage with the referendum as an important issue,” Schlotterback said. “Part of the reason [St. Olaf] can attract good professors is because of the good schools, and there are professors with young families who want to live here.”

Same day registration is available in Minnesota if students are interested in participating in this election, and students can vote in Buntrock Commons on Nov. 7.

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