Friday, February 04, 2005

The Death of Freedom

Not to long ago my mother got really upset at me. What had started by her asking me to explain post-colonialist theory to her, progressed through an accusation that I wanted to do away with Shakespeare and Mozart and everything beautiful, and ended with her tearful accusation that I “hate God.” Just for the record I don’t hate God, I do love Mozart, and I’m a hardcore Shakespearean. I’m a middleclass white male; God, Shakespeare and Mozart are icons of my culture, and I love all three of them. But they are not part American Indian culture, or Zulu culture, or Chinese culture, and there is no reason they should be forced on any of those cultures as they were during the colonial period.

But I digress. Part of my mother’s tearful denunciation was a statement that liberals like me want to dictate what can be said from the pulpit. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think the government has any business getting involved in religion, any more then religion has any business getting involved in politics. The establishment clause is a two way street. Furthermore, most liberals are secularists, and as I said to my mother, they don’t care what’s said from the pulpit. It’s not their bag. It’s not on their radar, and they really don’t give it much thought.

I am dwelling on this now because it has become evident recently that while Liberals may not want to dictate what is said from the pulpit, conservatives most certainly do want to dictate what is said in the classroom. Conservative pundit David Horowitz, who wouldn’t have a career were it not for liberal campus activism back in the sixties, has been whining about radical liberals on campus for years, and, as with much of the right, he and his followers have been emboldened by President Bush’s reelection and are demanding something now be done. He has authored the deceptively titled “Academic Bill of Rights,” which seeks to limit what can college teachers can say in the classroom at public universities. Among other things, it would require universities to seek out conservative faculty, prevent professors from taking a position, and states that “controversial issues” shall not be brought into the classroom. In other words, it is an effort to muzzle those college professors who disagree with the conservative position. It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. Horowitz was on Scarborough Country just last night stumping for it, and a state legislator in Ohio recently submitted it as legislation which would govern not only public universities but also any private university that receives state funding in any form. Of course, Scarborough pretended, as he always does, to be objective and give voice to both sides of the issue. He invited some feckless liberal professor from the University of Texas to offer a counterpoint, but as happens in most cable news “debates,” Scarborough just teamed up with Horowitz and bullied the poor guy. More to the point, the show framed the discussion by showing pictures of former Black Panthers and Weather Underground members who now have teaching positions, referring to college campuses as the last bastion of radical liberalism, and suggesting that college professors, including this guy, are un-American traitors. Even in the moments when the professor got to state his case, the producers kept a split screen up showing Horowitz shaking his head and scowling, treating the professor as either a liar or a misguided fool. I’ve no doubt this is how Horowitz feels, and likely Scarborough, but it can hardly be called objective journalism or an equal debate to frame one party to the debate as an idiot.

And people wonder why we feel like Jews in 1933.

The attacks on freedom are everywhere, and they do not come just from the terrorists:

* Gerald Allen, an Alabama state senator wants to ban all books that “promote a homosexual lifestyle,” prohibit lectures by gay speakers, and to prohibit the production of theatrical works that have gay characters from all public schools including universities. He has said flat out that this means they could not produce musicals like A Chorus Line or plays like Angels in America. According to James Joyner of the Birmingham News: “Allen said that if his bill passes, novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed. ‘I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them,’ he [Allen] said.”

* Science teachers are being required to teach pseudo science as legitimate in the from of creationism and “intelligent design.”

* The federal government pushes abstinence only sex education curriculum, a practice which harms kids by feeding them incomplete and often false information.

* Bill O’Reiley spearheaded a campaign to have a campus in New York rescind a speaking invitation to a controversial professor from Colorado State because he had written an essay on the World Trade Center bombings stating that workers in the world trade center had been complicit in the deaths of thousands of people throughout the world by supporting international capitalism. (It was an incredibly offensive essay, especially to me, living in New York and having my place of work was destroyed in the attack, but it was wrong to shout this guy down).

* Jim DeMint, the new senator from South Carolina, has proposed that homosexuals be prohibited from teaching school (and where have we heard that before?) and that single women teachers who become pregnant should be fired.

…and on and on.

As I struggle through the final stages of my Ph.D. I wonder why I ever wanted to do this in the first place. I am the new Satan. Me, Michael Cramer from Sacramento CA.

And yet…..

I also wonder about the unrealistic liberalism of so many of my colleagues. It’s not that I’m not a liberal, and it’s not that I want people to change how they teach, but sometimes it’s a little too much for me. There is a real group-think attitude in academia sometimes. If you don’t think George Bush is an idiot (which I don’t—I think he’s smart but wrong) there is something wrong with you. If you are not a Marxist you may have few friends. When I entered grad school there were twelve people in my incoming class in my department. Four of us were straight white males and although three of us considered ourselves to be liberal (one is a Republican) we were all politically to the right of everyone else in the class. Not everyone welcomed us with open arms. Our politics were considered suspect by one or two people, and we were occasionally referred to as “the white boys.”

I attended a conference at recently. It was an interdisciplinary conference, and we had people from comparative literature, theatre, art history, political science, and languages, particularly French. We had lively discussions and debates, and also engaged in that other communal activity common at all academic conferences these days, sharing our collective angst over President Bush’s reelection. On the whole it was great. I met wonderful, smart people and shared ideas with them on many topics. Everyone there was both brilliant and interesting, but it was certainly one sided. I got into a fun exchange with a guy on how Frederic Jameson can’t be a postmodernist because his project is to support his own master narrative, that being Marxist Socialism, and he said “oh, I don’t mind that particular master narrative.” One grad student delivered a paper on martyrdom that noted the difference between suicide and martyrdom is that one is selfish and one egalitarian: the suicidal person takes his own life out of personal despair, whereas a martyr sacrifices his own life for a greater good. This position naturally has implications for discussions of terrorism which would get the person demonized as an apologist on Fox News. Some of it I thought was foolish, and one or two things made me feel uncomfortable, but there you have it. Nothing wrong with it, but it does add fuel to Horowitz’s fire (of course, I'm a liberal, a conservative might have felt under attack the same way I do when watching Fox news; I guess this is what it felt like to be a conservative in the 1960s).

For the most part though academics are preaching to the choir at gatherings such as this and that’s ok. I don’t mind the fact that some people in my field are further to the left then I am, or that I can have disagreements with them. That’s what academia is: it’s a debate, an exploration of ideas. People think we teach a “truth” and in some ways we do, but we are always debating or challenging that “truth” in the form of experiments or theories. Hopefully they are more valid then “creationism,” but even that has its place in the debate so long as it is serious scientists and not politicians who are arguing for it—it just doesn’t belong in high school curriculum until the scientific community has accepted it as valid. Academia is fluid and needs to be free. To use a metaphor most conservatives can appreciate, it is like the market: it is most efficient and works best when it is unregulated.

That both the conservatives and the Marxists, from different directions, argue that academia is a monolithic attitude which seeks to indoctrinate students to a particular world view with which they disagree (Marxists tend to see it as part of the hegemonic structure of contemporary capitalist society), indicates to me that it doesn’t really need fixing. If both sides hate it it’s probably doing some good.

The real problem as far as I’m concerned right now is with the right. It is David Horowitz and Joe Scarborough and Bill O’Reiley, none of whom seem to recall that the name of this place is America. And, frighteningly, they have the congress, the president, the courts and about half the American people on their side. They are going after those of us who disagree with them, gays, scientists, academics, leftists, Hollywood producers, abortionists, anybody who challenges their conservative doctrine. And most of this comes from the conservative media—the talk shows and the cable news networks who have whipped up a feeding that threatens to devour the academy, Hollywood, Planned Parenthood, New York and San Francisco, and freedom along with it.

Kristallnacht is coming. Mark my words.


Blogger Hanna said...

Powerful words. I hope people will read them and understand what their insistence on homogeneity will bring this country to.

10:31 AM  

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