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Responding as Faculty to Baltimore unrest and injustice

More on responding as a faculty member

Situating Ourselves: The Baltimore Uprising of 2015

How to Read Heidegger for the Sake of Peace and Justice

Catriona Hanley

Opening Remarks at the 49th Annual Meeting of the Heidegger Circle

Loyola University Maryland: Baltimore May 8th 2015

Welcome all of you to this, our fine city of Baltimore. We are very glad that you all made the brave decision and journeyed to meet us here for the 49th Annual Meeting of the Heidegger Circle.

We are very grateful to Loyola’s Center for the Humanities for a substantial grant that made it possible for us to not only host this conference, but to do so with some good Maryland hospitality, which we hope you will enjoy over the next days. The nascent Peace and Justice Studies Program launched this year with a generous donation from Baltimore philanthropist and humanitarian Mary Catherine Bunting, has also provided ample underwriting. Thank you. And thanks also to the Heidegger Circle folk—Richard Polt, John Rose, Charlie Guignon, Andrew Mitchell for your support.

A word of gratitude goes out to all our wonderful student assistants, and particularly Tessa Tulane and Kaitlyn Smith. Then there is one person who deserves mighty thanks, one who has given extraordinary amounts of time, effort, creative thought and keen attention to the complex logistics of organizing a major academic conference. From tiny details like fixing nametags to the wrong size casings, to large obstacles, like-- oh, street riots and National Guard enforced curfews, Ms. Lisa Flaherty, our philosophy department’s administrative assistant extraordinaire, has handled it all, and this with admirable humour and optimism. Without her hard work and dedication, we would not all be here together now.

Well, welcome to Baltimore, an old city by the standards of the European New World, envisaged in 1608, founded in 1729 on principles of freedom of religion (for certain Christian religions) and on equality of all men (where “men” is gendered, and racially qualified). This is a Southern city, where the great cannons on downtown Federal Hill are pointed not out to sea to attack the British in that war, but towards the city center to quell the confederate riots as union soldiers moved in. This is the city of Frederick Douglass, born into slavery on a plantation south of here, sent as a child slave to dock work in Baltimore (near where we will convene on Saturday evening), who learned just enough from his “owners” to know that education was the way to freedom, and who, self-taught, escaped slavery and became a major voice in the abolitionist movement.

We think of Baltimore on the Chesapeake as idiosyncratic, funky, quirky: Edgar Allen Poe, H.L. Mencken, Billy Holliday, Frank Zappa, John Waters, a city with a thing for crabs, beer and an underground music scene. Baltimore, they say, is a city of neighborhoods. But as the country, and the world has learned recently, this is a city with deep structural problems, whose neighborhoods have fixed borders that are not easily traversed. Baltimore’s problems are repeated in many other cities, and on a larger scale in the global divide between the wealthy and the poor. But let’s focus on where we are, and situate our meeting and discussions about peace and justice here. In short, let’s do some Da Sein, or Hier Sein. Just two weeks ago, Baltimore was number two on the world news, just after the devastating earthquake in Kathmandu—why?

Maryland is the richest US state in terms of income, but in its largest urban center, Baltimore, more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, drawn in 2015 at: $24,250 for a for a family of four (to be clear, that is $2020 a month for four people). [1] In a city that is 65% African American, 82.7% of Public School students are African American, 8% white, 7% Latino; 84% of public school kids are low income, qualifying for free and reduced lunch benefits. [2] The public school system is $65 million dollars short in its budget this year, and our new Governor is promising white taxpayers to make greater cuts. [3] About a third of Baltimore city children live in food insecurity, that is, not sure that they will have a next meal.  There is also massive wealth here, as you may have noticed passing all those mansions on your way up to Loyola.  Guess the skin colour of these property holders! And the price of the private schools to which they send their kids!

There is a large population of impoverished white people here, abandoned by the outsourcing of blue-collar jobs in the textile and then the steel industry, and offered no compensatory training.

But black poverty is different: it has a deep history that correlates directly to white supremacist policies put in place at the foundation of this country, and which led to its great economic success (after all, better than paying a wage below a living wage is paying no wage at all). Racist policies stretch back, as Ta-Nehisi Coates, a son of Baltimore, has written, through “250 years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal, and 35 years of racist housing policy”. (If you haven’t read his article, “The Case for Reparations” published in Atlantic magazine last June, do so. See this footnote for the reference. [4]) Far from escaping the legacy of slavery, this country—this city—has not even come to terms with it. Continuing to blame a historically victimized population for social problems that stem from generations of systematic and calculated oppression is perverse. Police brutality, the war on drugs, zero-tolerance sweeps, mass incarceration, devastated families… these are all symptoms of a much larger disease, which is racism, and the presumption of white power.

Baltimore did not have riots last week. It had an uprising. We had 10 days of peaceful protests over the murder of Freddie Gray. Then we had two nights of explosive anger, in the midst of the peaceful protest. And then we had five days and nights of military rule, with the National Guard (with fancy weaponry, tanks and Humvees) lining the downtown streets, constant police helicopter oversight and—we have now learned-- three FBI surveillance planes monitoring the situation from spyware on high. At the demonstrations downtown and on our campus here, the call was for peace… and justice, and we debated which needs to come first.

So, welcome to Baltimore. Let’s situate ourselves again. Here, in this lovely expensive private University in the most white and wealthy part of town, here, in a period of organized civil uprising in support of the historically impoverished black majority population, we-- this almost entirely white group of scholars, which is also heavily male--will meet to discuss the thought of Heidegger, with a particular concern for his narrow, and errant, political affiliations. Is there an irony here, or at least a lesson to be learned?

Where was Heidegger situated in Germany in the thirties, a time of deep racial tension, driven by factors stretching long into the past? Anti-Semitism did not spring whole from Hitler’s breast, but had been burning for centuries before becoming Official Policy. Was the water Heidegger swam in, the familiar aqua of anti-Semitism, as comfortable for him as the American sea of white supremacy we navigate today?

Baltimore is not burning, but it might be.


[1] US Department of Health and Human Services website: http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/15poverty.cfm#thresholds

[2] Baltimore city Schools Website, “Baltimore by the Numbers”: http://www.baltimorecityschools.org/about/by_the_numbers

[3] Baltimore Sun, Feb 17th 2015