At my discussion this week about True Patriot, academic censorship came up briefly and incompletely at the end. The English professor referenced that Joe Lieberman had been in the NYTimes after 9-11 with a report of what various college professors had said against the war, quoting many. She clearly found this appalling and chilling, to think that the government was going to be publishing what she was saying with the implied "We're Watching You" threat. She had already previously said that evening that she didn't like slippery-slope arguments, so I challenged that. What do you think was going to happen? What actually came from that?
Dale, the other professor and a friend of mine, told me very seriously, as if I were a person who did not understand the gravity of this, that whenever St. A's brings in a pro-choice speaker the college gets calls from alums saying they will never give money to the college again, and protesters sometimes block the roads, preventing students from getting back to their dorms. The most liberal of the attendees lectured me with some anger that if I didn't have a problem with that, I didn't know what America was all about. I told them they were making mountains out of molehills.
At the time, I was only trying to show that these events were relatively minor. Their dark pictures of mobs getting violent or government thugs dropping nasty hints to college professors were a result of their fevered imaginings, not reality.
I should note at this juncture that I understood their disquiet and at that moment agreed with their belief that if this type of thing extended, it would be a Free Speech chilling problem for society. Yet having questioned part of their premise, it was easier to step back and question their entire structure. This led to my introductory post whether the academy is the best place for free discussion in our current culture.
To round out that discussion, here is the report by Lieberman the professor was talking about. Some discussion of it is here. You can see that the professorial quotes are not just any quotes against the war, or the Bush administration, or even America's flaws. Many are of the extreme nature of the New Mexico prof who said "anyone who bombs the Pentagon has my vote." But even that wasn't consequated in any way except bad publicity. I understand the mindset that believes even these should be protected statements in the academy, as the slippery slope leads to firings, disciplinary actions, and threats. But let's first notice the obvious but neglected point that not every professor or statement opposing the war or the administration or criticising America was even noticed, let alone embarrassed in any way. That may seem over-obvious, but notice in the professor's comments above, she had called it quotations of things professors had said against the war. In her memory, in her narrative, that was what had actually happened (see the immediately preceding post about memory and narrative). She's a smart person. she had remembered an important incident that had escaped me. But she had gotten it wrong. The facts had mutated into something that fit her narrative. Similar mutations have occurred on the left throughout the Bush administration. I don't doubt that they occur on the right as well, though I am less likely to notice them. Bush's comment "You are either for us or against us" has been completely ripped from its context and made to sound as if he said something quite different. The idea that people were being shouted down or silenced for "being against the war" is ludicrous, but it has become how progressives remember it.
They believe they were "silenced" and "people weren't allowed to bring these things up" because they lost the argument. In true narcissistic fashion, they believe that if the public hadn't agreed, it was because they hadn't really heard. Either the public is too stupid, or Dark Forces were preventing them from hearing it. Both of those myths remain popular on the left.
I understand the slippery-slope argument. I understand the thinking that believes it is only a short hop from a Senator highlighting extreme comments to the weight of the federal government silencing all criticism. I grew up with that mentality. It comes from a desire to be seen as real true persecuted person, having gotten that whiff of McCarthyism yourself in your own little town. Exaggerating the power and evil of one's opponents is a delicious way to feel one is nobly standing for truth, just like those brave souls of yesteryear. It's crap; it's juvenile grandiosity, but I understand it. I've done it.
Well, welcome to my world. Welcome to the world that most of America lives in. From the moment my foot hits the parking lot at work Monday-Friday, I have to assume that anything I say or write could be brought into a court of law. I cannot say anything of a political or religious nature in a patient's hearing that might be construed as the slightest social pressure, criticism, or evangelising them for any cause. Everything I write about a patient becomes an unerasable legal document that can come back to haunt me later, and all of us who do this for a living have had that happen. Waitresses can't talk politics with their customers, and appliance repairmen, zookeepers, paralegals, or shopkeepers do so at peril of their livelihoods. We are supposed to feel sorry that college professors live in a protected world whose boundaries are occasionally crossed?
Additionally, step into the other part of my work world. I had a supervisor tell me I should be ashamed of being a man after the Clarence Thomas hearings. I have been told by another supervisor that she personally thinks my political beliefs are inconsistent with our profession. There are things I simply would not say at department meetings because of the social and even professional rejection they would entail, though similar comments from the other perspective are frequent. It's funny when our patients talk about assassinating Reagan or Bush. It's chilling when they threaten Clinton. Do you think those have any effect on professional advancement? Damn straight they do. That's not a major whine on my part. I don't want advancement in that field. Also, my experience isn't that different from millions of other people in this country. That's life. People adjust and bring their political expression to other venues.
Y'know, lots of people might like to have the freedom to indocrinate 20 year-olds and get paid for it. That most professors have the sense of honor not to do that and attempt to teach instead is immaterial. After tenure, they could. Some do. And they are not particularly monitored as to whether they are slipping into that without knowing it over the years. The Academy believes it owns this privilege by sacred right, and that society will take the long descent into barbarism if they are not allowed to continue. Rubbish. Society pays colleges to provide a certain type of education in thinking and preparation for the world. When parents or the students pay they vote with their feet, and simply don't go where the service they want is not provided. When government loans and state legislatures become involved - and that is the reality for most students - that pressure is still there, but indirect. That's just real life.
Conjuring images of the medieval church or the Kremlin persecuting dissidents is delicious, but it comes from times and places where very few people even had access to the information that the academy was exposed to. Those controlling authorities could actually hope to keep certain opinions from spreading by applying pressure at a very few places. That world has been disappearing for years. Anyone can get ahold of the ideas of Foucault, or Trotsky, or Derrida at the touch of a button now. Where unavailability is still a problem, ironically, are precisely those areas where those ideas are in ascendance.
This is why online learning and other consumer-driven postsecondary education is pushing them out. Prestigious universities are losing prestige, not because Americans are anti-intellectual, but because they are anti-intelligentsia, anti-academy. Even George Bush reads Camus nowadays. The figure of The Professor in comic books and Gilligan's Island, a person who knows much about all important subjects, does not even work as comedy or stereotype anymore. People chuckled about the comedic exaggeration of Russell Johnson's character then - now they would fail to find it funny at all, except as some sort of retro thing. People have access to the information themselves and know that humanities professors are often not all that smart. Smarter than average people, perhaps, and trained in particular specialties, but not dealing with subjects far beyond the ken of mortals. That is in fact why these disciplines have developed their own coded vocabularies, to identify outsiders rapidly. They can no longer rely on their superior knowledge to do that for them. It's too easy for a talented amateur to join the conversation after a little work.
There is no need to censor the academy. They are making themselves increasingly irrelevant. The entrenched, government-funded educators at younger levels is more worrisome.