Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Dialectic of Unenlightenment

David Horowitz is a fucking moron. The left-wing-nutjob-turned-right-wing-nutjob is — for those who don't follow the topsy-turvy world of higher education and politics — the driving force behind recent efforts to "diversify" academia, urging states like Colorado and Minnesota to mandate ideological diversity on university campuses by (among other things) "protecting" conservative students from the agony of hearing "uncomfortable" ideas. Flogging the trojan horse of "diversity," Horowitz and his supporters propose that states adopt some version of his "Academic Bill of Rights," which is (to quote a recently-proposed piece of legislation in Ohio) "dedicated to restoring academic freedom and educational values to America’s institutions of higher learning." In Ohio, according to state Sen. Larry Mumper, "80 percent or so of them (professors) are Democrats, liberals or socialists or card-carrying Communists" who — instead of just trading cheap, furtive sex for grades — apparently insist that students adopt their political and religious (oh, sorry, anti-religious) views before receiving their monogrammed copies of "The Little Red Songbook" and The Noam Chomsky Reader.

As Russell Jacoby points out in The Nation, these sorts of claims lack evidentiary grounding; to use a term of art, they're bullshit. (Mumper's quote reminds me of my friend Eran, the funniest hydrologist you'll ever meet, who once told a local newspaper reporter that "73 percent of statistics are just made up on the spot." Sadly, the reporter chose not to quote this important observation.) In any event, Horowitz and friends like to argue (on the basis of very thin evidence, as Jacoby points out) that most humanities and social science faculty are "liberal" or that they tend to vote Democratic, and they suggest — but would never directly claim — that such political preferences will tend to generate a biased learning environment that makes conservative students feel, well, "uncomfortable." At places like Front Page Magazine and Students for Academic Freedom, Horowitz displays his preference for anecdotal evidence and bloviated reasoning, generating a homemade echo chamber that feeds directly into the tent revival universe of Fox News and right wing talk radio. On the SAF website, for example, Horowitz posts an open letter to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) insisting that students' academic freedom has been "abused on an unprecedented scale" by the ogres of "political correctness"; as evidence for this mighty assertion, Horowitz invokes four anecdotal cases — two of which have been severely called into question — and a handful of unscientific opinion surveys pertaining to faculty voting preferences, which Horowitz uses to suggest the existence of a "hiring bias" against conservatives. There's no need here to review the multiple degrees of stupidity that would allow someone to draw a straight, declarative line between unscientific, anecdotal evidence and unscientific survey data. The stupidity should speak for itself. (But if it doesn't, read the Jacoby article. If that doesn't work, look at this. No, that website isn't a parody, but this is. And now that I think about it, Gargamel — yes, the bad guy from the Smurfs — was clearly promoting a right-wing agenda....)

As Horowitz' career would suggest, he is a renowned master of adapting one rhetorical structure — that, for instance, of student radicalism, or civil rights, or liberal democracy itself — to suit the purposes of its malignant inversion. A few years back, Horowitz created a stink by taking out ads on college newspapers to propound his view that any discussion of reparations for slavery was ipso facto racist, given that black descendants of slaves never had it so good. Apparently, by taking a long enough view of things, we might conclude that the Middle Passage itself was a form of reparations, saving generations of African descendants from the brutalities of European colonialism and its foul aftermath. The recent debate about "academic freedom" is typical Horowitz, as he merely takes the most ham-fisted versions of affirmative action rhetoric (which conservatives so despise) and twists them to construe Young Republicans as the most aggrieved minority of them all. Indeed, as Horowitz sees it, the rights of students are so poorly protected on university campuses that remedial action can only come from beyond the university walls, via popular indignation and legislative intervention. To facilitate this process, Horowitz maintains a complaint form on the SAF website, where wounded conservative students can appeal for relief by describing instances in which professors crossed the line into political indoctrination.

Your homework assignment, dear readers — all twenty of you — is to visit the complaint form and take a stand for academic freedom. And while you're there, if you can think of something else to complain about, go ahead! Maybe you can ask Horowitz why he's not concerned about the corporate dependency of higher education in an era of decreasing state support. Does Horowitz worry at all that public institutions, by relying on private sources of revenue, might somehow create an environment in which "acceptable speech" precludes criticism of their benefactors? Why does Horowitz question the "liberal bias" of disciplines like sociology or literary studies and not, say, the equally-"obvious" conservative bias of MBA programs? Or maybe you can complain about cases outside the academic world in which you've been made to feel "uncomfortable" or "threatened" by public employees — like, oh I don't know, Presidents or Secretaries of State — who manipulated "facts" in ways that promoted a political perspective that sharply differed from your own. Maybe these employees (to paraphrase the law proposed in Maine) "persistently introduce[d] controversial matter into [public discourse] that ha[d] no relation to the subject of study and that serve[d] no legitimate pedagogical purpose." Maybe, say, in a debate about Weapons of Mass Destruction, a public employee began talking about "building democracy"; or maybe someone began arguing, without a shred of sustaining evidence, that Social Security was going to be "flat busted" in less than two decades. Or maybe your public employees began producing fake news reports, and your local television station chose to broadcast them without clearly identifying them as government-sponsored propaganda?

If not to Horowitz, to whom may we turn in defense of truth, reason, and open inquiry?