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Monday, June 19, 2006

Freedom’s just another word

Late last week I came across some trenchant criticism of the “flaws” in my essay on academic freedom, courtesy of Scott Talkington blogging at Winds of Change.  I responded briefly in that blog’s comments, as I am sometimes wont to do, but I kept thinking about one passage in particular:

Michael then addresses the testimony of National Association of Scholars President, Stephen Balch, to the Select Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (Nov. 9, 2005):

More seriously, Balch is drawing on the history of affirmative action and employment discrimination law in order to argue that universities should make good faith efforts to hire people more to his ideological liking. This is a common theme in right-wing attacks on universities, especially among those critics who have become alarmed that affirmative action has gone too far, insofar as fully five percent of all doctorates are now awarded to black people.

The implication that racism is attributable exclusively to the conservative opposition is a meme so dear to the left that it inevitably proves irresistible. So perhaps we can excuse Michael for being “in the tank.” But I think Dr. Balch was employing irony to make the point that there are distinctly credible arguments against such notions as “multiculturalism” that have been effectively silenced within the academy due to the dominance of a contrived ideological formulation, insisting on the “inherent racism” of privileged cultures.

Now, I don’t quite know what Talkington means by “multiculturalism,” because he seems to have some very strange ideas about it: “Most people,” he writes earlier in the post, “believe ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ are simply synonyms for ‘variety,’ rather than products of the cultural remapping of Marxist ideology produced by the Frankfurt School.” And damn, I looked all through my copy of The Dialectic of Enlightenment for Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on diversity and multiculturalism, but I must be missing something.  (He’s right, though, that every professor who has ever criticized multiculturalism has been silenced.  Effectively!  Sometimes with actual silencers.)

But I do know what Talkington means when he says “the implication that racism is attributable exclusively to the conservative opposition is a meme so dear to the left that it inevitably proves irresistible.” I have a clue about what he means when he says “perhaps we can excuse Michael for being ‘in the tank.’” And I can smell what’s cooking when he follows these remarks with this tidbit:

S. M. Lipset, who with Everett Ladd produced one of the seminal studies of academic bias, The Divided Academy, once said that in the 1960s and ‘70s, when he and Ladd conducted their analysis, the ends of the competence spectrum were relatively immune to social pressure in hiring, tenure and promotion. That is, people of extremely high ability were hired and promoted irrespective of their ideological views or race, while those of manifestly low ability simply didn’t make the grade no matter how ideologically servile or white they were. But for the vast majority in the middle their “ability to fit in” was the primary determinant of hiring, tenure, and promotion.

In response, I wrote:

Well, thanks for excusing me. It’s awfully generous of you, if a bit smug and high-handed. But you really should acquaint yourself with more of Balch’s work before you attribute “irony” to his testimony. He and the NAS have been fulminating about so-called “racial preferences” and “quotas” for twenty years now, just as you do here—even though, as I point out, only 5 percent of all doctorates in the U.S. are awarded to African-Americans. Balch is quite serious about opposing affirmative action for women and minorities while proposing it for conservatives, though it is not clear just how we’re supposed to determine a job candidate’s conservatism in the course of the search. Likewise, Kenneth Lee’s remark about conservatives facing “clear practices of discrimination in American academia that are statistically even starker than previous blackballings by race” is meant quite seriously. That remark is pretty strong evidence that the right’s sense of victimization is real, as is their delusional sense that they have it worse than black folk ever did. Strange that you didn’t mention Lee’s statement here, in the course of suggesting that Balch was just kidding.

As for the state of academe before 1970, just keep in mind that white guys back then were competing with 44 percent of the population for jobs, and the jobs in higher education were plentiful. Professors back then were not uniformly people of “extremely high ability,” as Rutgers professor George Levine admitted when he wrote, “When I got my degree from the University of Minnesota [in the late 1950s], almost all my colleagues, no matter how dumb they were, got at least three job offers.”

The rest of Winds of Change’s comments thread is pretty low-grade stuff, full of complaints that poor Larry Summers has been driven out of academe and that poor Richard Herrnstein probably would’ve taken a lot of heat for his very scholarly book The Bell Curve, had he lived to see its publication.  But then Talkington, who styles himself the “Demosophist,” chimes back in, to chastise me a second time:

The idea that one might oppose racial and gender quotas without being a racist or a bigot is apparently something that, for want of a more neutral term, you don’t grasp. This, in itself, is a whisper of the sort of bias we’re talking about.

I was so enthralled by the phrase “for want of a more neutral term” that I adopted it myself:

This response is, for want of a more neutral term, intellectually dishonest.  I’ve written about affirmative action in the past, and my own criticisms of it are a matter of public record (and Nick Gillespie of Reason found those remarks to be fair and balanced, for what it’s worth, though most of his commenters didn’t understand why someone would discuss the history of affirmative action in a review essay on books about the history of affirmative action).  Plenty of people, including many liberals, oppose quotas.  But most sensible—and honest—people know what’s wrong with the claim that conservatives in academe now have it worse than African-Americans ever did.

As for your invocations of academic freedom “with obligations”—that is, with the obligation to hire more conservatives:  thank you for making my point for me.  Honestly, though, I think I did just fine on my own.

That last paragraph was a response to Talkington’s closing argument, which sounded something like this:

In summary, I can conceive of but three methods to correct the dysfunctions noted above: open or veiled quotas based on ideology that attempt to ensure ideological diversity; some abrogation or alteration of the common conception of “academic freedom” to include revocation of tenure; or some institutional arrangement that allows the creation of new departments or programs that can open career paths for competent people of more traditional classical liberal values. Or perhaps some combination.

Of course, anyone who is liberal, in the classical sense, will oppose quotas and will recognize the dangerous precedent they set. That leaves the latter two. It’s important to recognize that freedom must be balanced by obligation of some sort, and that this is less a matter of principle than necessity. If academia were populated by people wise enough to perceive this necessity themselves there’d be no problem. But since it apparently isn’t, we may need to open the door to markets by ending or attenuating the practice of tenure. I regard this as a loss, so perhaps we could try something else first?

We may need institutional arrangements that at least establish the conditions for a credible contest between the “multi-culti left” and the classically liberal or even theo-conservative right, in order to infuse a little wisdom into the self-satisfied academy. If academia wants relevance, this may be the price.

So there’s your conservative academic freedom in a wingnutshell: because academe is not populated by people wise enough to understand their obligation to undertake affirmative action programs for the classically liberal or even theo-conservative right, we need to consider “some abrogation or alteration of the common conception of ‘academic freedom’ to include revocation of tenure.” That will be the price of academe’s “relevance.” It’s good to know Talkington regards this as a loss: Nice university you have there.  Be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Now, why do I bother arguing with people who, as I say, are already making my point for me?  Because there are two important issues at stake.

The first is that the right-wing fulminating about “racial quotas” in academe is really quite weird when you come down to it.  Once again with emphasis, folks, when we talk about African-Americans in academe we are talking about five percent of all Ph.D.s.  Talkington, swinging and missing this point completely, writes, “the paucity of new black PhDs in the academy has been shown to be more closely related the paucity of black candidates in PhD programs, a fact that quotas or quota-like strategies probably won’t cure.” Yes, Scott (since we’re on a first-name basis here), I’m aware of the paucity of black candidates in Ph.D. programs.  That’s precisely why I think right-wing fulminations about “racial quotas” in this context are so bizarre.  My goodness gracious, it’s not as if the professoriate is being overrun by scholars of tint.  For the record, however, since the point has been missed twice already: the fact that conservatives whine about all the preferences given to black folk, and the fact that some conservatives believe they have it worse than black folk ever did, does not necessarily mean that those conservatives are racists.  It merely suggests that they might—just might—be overreacting a tad to that five-percent black presence in the professorial ranks, for reasons about which it would be irresponsible to speculate.

On a related note: Talkington refers in passing to “the sort of genuine discrimination that’s leveled at ‘ethnic traitors’ like Thomas Sowell or Jean R. Cobbs.” Again, I know I’m awfully slow on the uptake when it comes to right-wingers’ beliefs about liberals and black people, but I’ve just never understood the claim that liberals criticize black conservatives like Sowell because they’re “ethnic traitors.” The problem with Sowell is not that he deviates from some mythical party line; as most informed people are aware, many African-Americans are socially conservative on a wide range of issues.  Rather, the problem with Sowell is that he has become a third-rate hack, as I pointed out—politely!—in my treatment of his book (from that same Nation review). 

And for Ba’al’s sake!  Are liberals supposed to refrain from criticizing black conservatives because they’re black?  What in the world would that look like?  “Privately,” says one white liberal to another, “I think Shelby Steele’s latest book is the work of a crude, ranting ideologue.  But I’m not going to criticize him, because he’s black, you know.” Now there you’d have yourself a racial double standard, folks.  The fact that white liberals criticize black conservatives is evidence not of liberal duplicity but of simple, single-standard consistency.  We criticize conservatives of all genders and races and sexualities, especially when they slander us!  (Indeed, this humble blog criticizes crude, ranting ideologues of all kinds!)

OK, now for that second issue.  I’ve had my fun with poor old David Horowitz in the past, and I confess that in my dealings with matters Horowitzian, I have sometimes indulged my abiding love for Monty Python.  As Mark Bauerlein notes on Phi Beta Cons, “Berube is solidly to the Left, he slips into sarcasm too often, and he’s made several of the contributors here the object of criticism. But amidst all that there are some substantive points.” Now, that may sound a tad condescending to some of you, who might think it’s possible to be on the left, to employ sarcasm, and to criticize some of the Phi Beta Cons while making some substantive points, but I take it as a mark of grudging respect; it certainly beats being praised for the quality of one’s prose while having one’s essay drained of all its propositional content.  And clearly, there are more measured and credible critics of academe than Horowitz out there:  your Mark Bauerleins and your Erin O’Connors are vastly more civil and circumspect than the sclerotic Horowitz, who, as you probably know, has lately devoted himself to championing Ann Coulter as a “national treasure.” In a recent post, O’Connor writes,

I’m not a fan of mockery as a mode of analysis myself—like Timothy Burke, I dislike intemperate, snide, and snarky criticism, no matter what side of the debate it comes from. I also dislike how, in the current polarized climate, one person’s snark is another person’s temperate utterance. That this is so points both to how little communication is actually taking place in our debates about higher education and to the importance of free, unfettered debate. We might all be talking past one another much of the time, but that’s far better than one side trying to silence the other.

While it’s laudable that Professor O’Connor no longer has the enthusiasm for Horowitz that characterized her early work as a blogger (which I found stunning years ago when I first started reading blogs, though that’s no excuse for my losing my temper with her back in 2003), I have to say I just don’t understand her temperate, well-spoken, and civil complaint about the fact that the University of Louisville has created an Audre Lorde Chair in Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality.  Maybe I’m obtuse about such matters, but when O’Connor writes,

It seems safe enough to assume that the Audre Lorde chair is reserved for a black woman, even though that would hardly increase the “variety” evoked by the job description. One can only conjecture—but one can also conjecture with some degree of certainty—what the politics and even the sexuality of the new holder of the Audre Lorde chair will be. Audre Lorde, it’s worth remembering, described herself as a “Black lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” A dedicated activist, she was once described by Mario Cuomo as a woman whose “imagination is charged by a sharp sense of racial injustice and cruelty, of sexual prejudice.” It seems safe to assume that the ideal candidate for the Audre Lorde chair will likewise be a black lesbian feminist activist. I could be wrong. The Audre Lorde chair might end up going to a straight white male whose idea of activism is to recycle and take public transportation—but I doubt it. What’s more likely is that such men know they need not apply.

. . . I have two responses.  One, she’s got a point: I’m a white guy, and I’m fond of recycling and public transportation, and I’m not thinking of applying for this chair.  Two, so what?  I mean, how many Audre Lorde Chairs do there have to be in this country before conservatives start complaining about them?  Only one, apparently. 

O’Connor explains:

So what’s the issue here? I have no problem with Audre Lorde—in fact I quite admire her and possess a well-worn copy of The Cancer Journals. And I certainly have no problem with either women or minorities or gay people or activists holding jobs in the academy. What I do have a problem with is the manner in which being female, or non-white, or gay, or politically engaged, can function as a job qualification within academe. It’s not just that jobs such as the Audre Lorde chair seem to be reserved for academics with particular biologies and beliefs (how else could such a chair be honorably filled?), but that those biologies and beliefs are tacitly treated as part of an overall scholarly package. This is identity politics in action: the idea that professional excellence cannot be separated from personal characteristics, or even that it includes certain personal characteristics, is simply assumed in certain academic fields. I might be less annoyed by job descriptions such as this one if there were also, say, advertisements for the Christina Hoff Sommers Chair in Equity Feminism, or the Friedrich Hayek Chair in Liberty Studies. But there aren’t. This sort of thinly veiled demographic screening only runs one way in academe—even though political correctness is a myth and even though accusations of liberal bias in the academy are totally unfounded..

Well, some people might question whether Christina Hoff Sommers has achieved the kind of intellectual stature that merits a chair endowed in her name.  That Hayek guy, however, he’s in the clear. 

But can O’Connor be serious about this?  She would be less annoyed by an Audre Lorde Chair if there were ads for a Hayek Chair?  You know, at some point I don’t care how “temperate” someone claims to be: if that person is complaining about an Audre Lorde Chair on the grounds that there are no comparable positions in academe for scholars wanting to study Hayekian economics and social thought, they’re just not playing by the rules of argument recognized by knowledgeable, responsible people.  And quite apart from O’Connor’s violation of the protocols of serious argument here, there’s also the element of ingratitude—yes, ingratitude.  Ingratitude for all the hard work done by the John M. Olin Foundation over the past thirty years.  I mean, the good people at the Olin, a charitable nonprofit explicitly charged with spending the Olin inheritance within one generation, have been crazy busy creating endowed chairs, entire programs, and even a brand new libertarian discipline called “Law and Economics,” all for the benefit of conservative scholars, and do they get any thanks, I ask you?

Is the Pope a black lesbian activist?

Don’t get me wrong.  The day that someone creates a John M. Olin Chair in Law and Economics and writes the job description in such a way as to suggest that a black lesbian feminist activist would be the ideal candidate for the job, then I’ll begin to get the sense that the whole black lesbian feminist activist thing in academe has finally gone too far.  Let me know when that happens, and I’ll be sure to blog about it.

Posted by Michael on 06/19 at 12:12 PM
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