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Realign your compass 

George Cotkin's Muddy Waters offer moral uncertainty

Cal Poly History professor and author George Cotkin is familiar with Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote to the effect that the danger of looking into an abyss is that it looks back. But that hasn’t stopped him from researching and writing a book—Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America—that dances within inches of the great and dark chasm commonly known as evil. He at least approaches the undertaking with judicious calm, and an appeal to his fellow Americans to embrace “moral muddiness and the belief that history and moral philosophy can benefit from explicit dialogue with one another.”

The inspiration for the book came on a weekday in 2005, when Cotkin was already waist-deep in another book about American cultural criticism after World War II. He’d already received an advance from Columbia University Press. But after watching Hotel Rwanda with his wife Marta Peluso—Executive Director for ARTS Obispo—the scholar and author decided to scrap his current project and begin work on a book with more direct ties to the issues proposed by the film. Cotkin started with such scholar activists as Erich Fromm, Iris Chang, and Hannah Arendt, all people who had explored the nature and problem of evil. Then the book shifted into something else altogether.

“I wanted to deal with questions of morality,” explained Cotkin. “The book was written under the shadow of George Bush. I felt that all too often he made his decisions on abstract principles or religious absolutes or feelings from his gut. What I wanted to explore are these notions of complexity, and that there’s value in debating these issues. You may still make plenty of mistakes but at least you’ve gone forward with mature consideration.”

Cotkin divided the book into three segments titled “In Times of War,” “In Times of Peace,” and “Present Problems.” Under these broad umbrellas Cotkin discusses the moral puzzles and atrocities posed during World War II, used the Nazi extermination of Jews as a starting point for a discussion on the nature of evil, detailed the brutal massacre of villagers in My Lai at the hands of American GIs, explored racism in the deep South, and finally piloted the discussion to more recent events including the Iraq war and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

And though he criticizes Bush’s approach to decision-making, the book is a far cry from a left-wing assault on Republicans. Despite being an opponent of the death penalty, Cotkin’s ultimate conclusion after presenting arguments from both camps, is that there is no winning argument. Debate is healthy, and necessary. He advocates that people arm themselves with as much knowledge as possible before coming to a decision, but doesn’t condemn the debaters. Equally important, he doesn’t criticize the uncertain, but champions complexity which precludes simplistic right or wrong conclusions.

Cotkin delivers his harshest condemnation of Bush in a three-page passage called “Bush and Death in Texas.” While governor of Texas, Bush’s policy of reviewing death penalty cases consisted of meeting with Alberto Gonzales for a period of half an hour or less. During the briefing, any details that might complicate the issue, such as the fact that a criminal was suspected of being mentally retarded or a defense attorney was incompetent, were glossed over or ignored altogether. “Rather than accepting the moral responsibility to examine death penalty cases carefully for problems that might warrant either mercy or reconsideration, Bush…studiously avoided such complexities,” wrote Cotkin, who calls Bush’s policy “inherently dishonest.”

- WADE IN:  Morality’s Muddy Waters is available through and The book costs $29.95. -
  • WADE IN: Morality’s Muddy Waters is available through and The book costs $29.95.
The issue that kicked off the book—Rwandan genocide—received only one mention in a three-page passage titled “Era of Human Intervention.” Cotkin refrained from writing more on the subject on the grounds that Samantha Power had already written a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the subject, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. His interest was issues that remain relevant today, if only because they propose questions that no one has yet been able to answer.

   Morality’s Muddy Waters reveals, and should appeal to those who harbor, a deep love of questions, and the patience to pose queries where there might not be any answers. When is it appropriate to bomb civilian targets in a war? Can such action ever be justified? Is it ever morally acceptable to drop an atomic bomb on a city? Does America have a moral imperative to intervene in situations of genocide? Does humanitarian intervention lead to bigger problems? These questions strike at the very heart of widespread values like empathy. Cotkin proposes that, in some cases, merely experiencing empathy makes a person feel better about a situation, without any further action or remedy. Sometimes, too, empathy can undermine complexity, drive people to forge black and white conclusions about conflict and justice.

“I like this notion that there are times that we are without moral certitude,” admitted Cotkin. “We know we’re doing something wrong. It’s something you did with a heavy heart and dirty hands. That’s the phrase Sartre came up with. Don’t simplify it. Don’t turn it into the ends were justified by the means.”

For all Cotkin’s enthusiasm about the book he published a mere two months ago, the author has already landed another subject—Moby Dick, explored in 138 short chapters rife with cultural tidbits. In fact Dive Deep: Journeys with Moby Dick is already written, and Cotkin is eagerly awaiting news that his agent has found a publisher. Muddy Waters and the oceans traversed by the revenge-seeking Ahab are two very different bodies of work, but Cotkin makes a point of engaging subjects that spark his interest.

The idea originally sparked two years ago when Cotkin selected Moby Dick as the book that would accompany him on an Alaskan cruise. Cotkin references Bob Dylan’s song “115th Dream” which features a character named Captain Ahab. Another chapter is dedicated to Led Zeppelin’s drum solo titled “Moby Dick,” which might last anywhere from five to 30 minutes, and during which the other band members would leave the stage to have sex with groupies. And if all that wasn’t enough, Cotkin is working on still another project, called Outrageous and Oustanding: The Lives and Times of Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Andy Warhol.

While many Americans might prefer pristine waters and clear sailing, Cotkin’s muddied waters might prove a better access point for that bipartisan collaboration that has proved so elusive in the past. It’s not easy to face the long history of atrocities and massacres, but equal parts empathy and restraint should go a long way. 

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach distills ideas into hard cider. Send pears to


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