Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Freedom Fighters

In case you haven't noticed, we're at war. I'm not referring to the war on terrorism. I'm referring to the no-holds-barred, scorched-earth war that extremist right-wing Republicans are waging to transform every aspect of our society so that it conforms to their ideology. In higher education, they've got academic freedom in their sights. And they've just about killed it. Read on, and you'll see what I mean.

So starts a very troubling piece by University of Virginia Professor Bryan Pfaffenberger, which was the subject of one of my prior posts. In that article, Pfaffenberger, makes the case that the well-oiled, right-wing opinion machine has introduced, disseminated and solidified the myth that the academia is a bastion of liberal demagoguery and indoctrination. With this fallacy nearly enshrined as conventional wisdom, the right-wing has begun to propose solutions to the phantom problem in the form of the dubiously entitled Academic Bill of Rights. Recently, Professors Juan Cole of the University of Michigan and Dr. Graham Larkin of Stanford University have weighed in on the subject with some incisive critique of the proposed legislation, and its most vocal proponent, David Horowitz.

The Myth Makers

The first step in the process is to create the myth, or better yet, transform the myth from vague suspicion to conventional wisdom. In this regard, the right-wing has been ruthlessly efficient - owing, in part, to the disciplined dedication to the
long view, and the ability to delay instant gratification at the polls (current Presidential regime excluded). As journalist and author Rick Perlstein lamented, the Democratic Party has increasingly become a Party with no discernible platform. As he points out, "We are left with a political party whose fixation on shifts in public opinion can be hawk-like, one that concertedly questions core principles in the interests of flexibility."

Conservatives, on the other hand, have taken a more patient approach by adopting their vision of a "unified conservatism" in the early 1970's and suffering losses in the short term, especially in Congress, as their then unpopular theories were being fleshed out. They have, however, benefited greatly in the long run by presenting a clear message, an alternative and comprehensive world view, that allows voters to identify with the party and a pre-packaged heuristic for viewing the world around them.

Part of the formation of this comprehensive world view involved the creation of many sub-narratives that bolster the positions and increase the appeal of the GOP. One such narrative is the
ahistorical critique that Democrats are soft on defense. While this seems to make sense, and polls indicate that most people are quick to make this assumption, history tells a different story. Throughout the 20th Century, Democrats and Republicans alike have waged wars, used the military when necessary, and engaged our various enemies with varying degrees of success, not determined by Party affiliation. FDR, who managed to win World War II defeating the most pernicious and potent threat of Naziism, was this nation's greatest liberal president, and the supposedly "tough" Republican President Ronald Reagan responded to attacks on US Marines in Beirut by "cutting and running" at the first available opportunity - an event which many, including conservatives, claim emboldened the likes of Osama Bin Laden. There are myriad other examples that undermine this story, but history seems lost in the haze of propaganda. Just look at the national security advantage that Bush still receives in the presidential polls despite the tragic incompetence he has displayed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another great success story for the right wing propagandists has been their ability to foster almost universal acknowledgement that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. Never mind the vast conservative media empire controlled by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black, Richard Mellon Scaife, Reverend Moon, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, talk radio and the countless conservative think tanks that churn out ready-made talking heads and talking points for media consumption. According to this narrative, the mainstream media, which is either controlled by self-avowed conservatives (as listed above) or dominated by large multi-national corporate interests dedicated to the principles of de-regulation, supply side economics and free market capitalism, puts out a product that runs counter to their interests and is, to quote David Horowitz, "neo-Communist." These corporate powerhouses supposedly routinely undermine their own power by continuing to promulgate liberal propaganda.

If that sounds implausible, it's because it is. The truth of the matter is that the mainstream media represents the interests of its owners, bosses and patrons. Far from having a liberal bias, the mainstream media is the champion of the status quo, big business and in the case of the conservative media, an open cheerleader for all causes far-right. Furthermore, the allure of media de-regulation, which would allow big companies to own more media assets across the country, as dangled provocatively by current FCC head Michael Powell (son of Colin), has created a cozy alliance of interests between the Republican leadership and the corporate media tantalized by the prospect of an ever increasing share of the pie.

At the very least, the media is interested in presenting the news in a slick way to bolster market share and nielsen ratings. Substance, truth and public interest are frequently sacrificed at the alter of "info-tainment." Empirical evidence supports these claims. Media watchdog Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting conducted a comprehensive study of television and radio news coverage which showed that right-leaning guests outnumbered left-leaning guests on all the major networks, cable news programs and even the oft derided "liberal" National Public Radio (NPR). Journalist and author Eric Alterman provides a wealth of well-documented evidence that refute the spurious claims that have been so widely accepted.

What might be the most bizarre narrative to date, however, is the story that the Democrats are the elites who hold all the power, and the GOP is the perpetually disempowered Party of everyday people. That's right, the Party of labor unions, worker's rights, minimum wage, civil rights movements, social security, Medicare, strong public education, progressive taxation, unemployment benefits, etc., is the Party of wealthy, condescending snobs whereas the Party of big business, corporate power, supply side economics, shifting the tax burden to labor, heirs and heiresses, etc., is the Party of good old boys and down home values. That this narrative has taken root is an undeniable reality, as so eloquently portrayed in
Thomas Frank's seminal work, What's The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. In no other country in the world do the lower classes so consistently vote against the Party of labor in favor of the Party of big monied interests - turning a blind eye to the economic realities in pursuit of a conservative social agenda. The results of the economic agenda have been catastrophic for the very people whose support makes the passage of that economic agenda possible.

Emboldened by the success of their recent forays into the realm of the public perceptions of the media, and the collective political wisdom in the arenas of values, economics, concentration of power and national security, the right wing has turned its attention, and the focus of its numerous and well funded media interests and think-tank thought producers, to the milieu of academia.

Target: Academia

You know the strategy by now. Hundreds of right-wing think tanks pound the media with press releases. Newspapers and cable TV stations smell a conflict -- always a safe bet for increasing circulations and ratings -- and bring in the "think tank" experts for interviews. They pound away, repeating the same stock phrases over and over. They'[re echoed by AM talk radio, Good Morning America, and even Jim Lehrer on the goddamned News Hour, and at a certain point, you'll hear your neighbors repeat them as if they were talking about truths handed down from the Mount.

That is the way that Professor Pfaffenberger described the process which is already underway. Leading the charge is ex-left wing extremist David Horowitz, who famously edited the 1960s-era ultra-left-wing Ramparts magazine. For Horowitz the pendulum of personal politics has swung violently in the other direction (his motto is apparently the anti-Aristotelian "moderation in no things"). He is now an ultra-conservative stalwart and founder of the right-veering think tank the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. His group has produced, along with Republican pollster Frank Luntz, some of the dubiously inaccurate studies of the academia that the right wing punditry has relied on to make its case.

According to the findings of the
Horowitz/Luntz survey (and another by Horowitz and Eli Lehrer) professors on the left of the political spectrum outnumber professors on the right of the political spectrum by a factor of 10-1 and more. At some Northeast liberal enclaves like Brown and Wesleyan the ratio rises to 28-1 and 30-1.

There are abundant, and well-founded, criticisms of these surveys. First of all, they focused largely on 32 institutions, primarily from the Northeast, who tend to have a higher population of left-leaning scholars than most other universities. In essence, they cherry picked to make their case more compelling. In addition, as Juan Cole notes, the study of professors left out the business schools and other professional schools, which tend to include higher numbers of right-leaning scholars. Exactly how many liberals do you think are on the faculty at the top business schools in America? Not many. Cole notes one other factor left out by the studies' findings: "It does not consider the possibility that fewer conservatives seek academic careers in the liberal arts. Like most of these think tank studies, it was poorly designed and poorly analyzed."

Professor Pfaffenberger points to this piece of
inconvenient empirical evidence that undermines the conclusions of the Horowitz studies: "College and university professors gave more money to Bush in 2000 than they did to Gore." While Kerry is enjoying a sizable fundraising edge among these constituents this election cycle, Bush's support in 2000 belies the notion that this group is dominated by liberals - unless they are independent minded enough to support candidates from both parties, and if so, what is the problem?

Dr. Larkin points out that the studies, which reported on the partisan affiliations of 1,431 professors at the various schools, failed to account for the 1,891 professors in the same departments who the studies determined to be "unaffiliated" in their party loyalty. Dr. Larkin had this to say:

I can think of only two ways of coherently defending such a move. On the one hand, one could argue that the unaffiliated majority simply doesn't matter, thereby leaving Horowitz free to concoct his 10-1 generalizations about all professors on the basis of less than half his dubious little data sample. On the other hand, one could simply assume that the unaffiliated majority must 'really' break down into exactly the same left/right proportions as the card-carrying Democrats and Republicans, leaving us with a 10-1 statistic that reasonably represents everyone.

Take your pick. Whether Horowitz is declaring the political irrelevancy of the inconveniently-unaffiliated majority, or whether he is presuming to represent their unstated affiliations, his fundamental disregard for their abstention from self-definition is obvious, and his "10-1" ratio is ludicrous.

The problem with such quantification goes beyond the deficiency of Horowitz's particular method of data fabrication. It is hard to think of any method that would provide us with reliable statistics about such a subtle and complex phenomenon as personal ideology--not least in environments, such as elite humanities departments, which actively cultivate ideological subtlety and complexity. The inherent absurdity of any claim to objective ideological profiling raises the issue of how one could possibly go about implementing the kind of diversity that the Academic Bill of Rights is aiming to institute in the university. After all, to successfully foster "a plurality of methodologies and perspectives" and ensure against "political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination," one would first have to develop a sufficiently broad and clear model onto which to map these differences and deviations, and then keep very close tabs on the professors.

These studies are further supported by the human angle - a wealth of anecdotal evidence about students who have been mistreated in classrooms by liberal professors because of their differing political beliefs. Some stories tell of indoctrination at the hands of rigidly dogmatic leftist lecturers, others tell of retaliatory grading practices for students who dared to disagree with the biases of the teacher. While some of these stories have merit, as discussed below, the solution is an over-reaction to the problem.

The Final Solution

Having made their case, and laid the groundwork, the next step in the process was to introduce the means of correcting the perceived imbalance. To do this, Horowitz and his group have crafted the Orwellian sounding
Academic Bill of Rights and Student Bill of Rights. They sound innocent enough - progressive even - if not downright liberal. They're not. And they are also not just theoretical mandates, they form the backbone of legislation that is being introduced in most state legislatures across the country at this very moment.

The main thrust of the legislation is to mandate hiring practices at universities that result in an even split of Democrats and Republicans, as well as some other measures that serve to stifle discussion in the classroom that students could perceive as advocating a certain partisan view. At their core these legislative initiatives amount to affirmative action for conservatives in the academic world. Instead of seeking to compensate for past wrongs, and account for their lingering effects on the aggrieved groups, however, this form of affirmative action invents a wrong based on shaky evidence and then seeks to compensate for a false imbalance. This bit of irony was not lost on Professor Cole:

Horowitz was once a civil rights activist, but over the years he gravitated further and further to the political right Now that he is a conservative, he wants set-asides for conservatives in academic departments. But he does not want race to figure in college admissions.
Here is the pertinent section of the Academic Bill of Rights:

All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives. [emphasis added]
The problem is that this "plurality" seems to be Republican and Democratic Party affiliation, as noted by the criteria used in the Horowitz studies. The American Association of University Professors, one of the most vocal opposition groups to the efforts of Horowitz's movement, had this to say of the system these legislative efforts would create:

The danger of such guidelines is that they invite diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession. Measured in this way, diversity can easily become contradictory to academic ends. So, for example, no department of political theory ought to be obligated to establish "a plurality of methodologies and perspectives" by appointing a professor of Nazi political philosophy, if that philosophy is not deemed a reasonable scholarly option within the discipline of political theory....Advocates for the Academic Bill of Rights... make clear that they seek to enforce a kind of diversity that is instead determined by essentially political categories, like the number of Republicans or Democrats on a faculty, or the number of conservatives or liberals. Because there is in fact little correlation between these political categories and disciplinary standing, the assessment of faculty by such explicitly political criteria, whether used by faculty, university administration, or the state, would profoundly corrupt the academic integrity of universities.
Aside from this, what if political attitudes change? What mechanism is in place to account for shifting political mores and beliefs. What if the Democrats gain the support of 60% of the population? Should the composition of faculties nationwide be altered to account for the change? Is it reasonable to subject professors, and their job security, to the whims of the electorate instead of the rigors of academic scholarship and peer review. Juan Cole took the mandates of the Academic Bill of Rights to their further logical conclusions:

If we go by opinion polls, about half of Americans reject Darwin, so Horowitz's proposal would require that half of all biologists would have to be creationists. Then, with regard to party preference, opinion polls show that at some points in the past 8 months Ralph Nader has been favored by 6% of the electorate. At other points it has been 2%. So presumably between 2% and 6% of the professors would have to be Nader supporters. Indeed, we might have to put people on monthly contracts so that we can adjust the percentage in accordance with the latest polls. About 10% of Americans support radical fringe groups, so of course there would have to be a place for the American Nazi Party on the faculty, Horowitz seems to be arguing. Maybe we could have the supremacist teach modern German history; that seems to be the sort of thing that would make Horowitz happy. How sad that at present the Nazi period in Germany is usually taught by some wimpy liberal, Horowitz seems to be saying.

Moreover, there is no obvious reason that "balance" should be conceived only along the narrow US spectrum. A fifth of human beings lives under Chinese Communism, so the logical conclusion is that Horowitz is insisting that 1/5 of all US university professors be believers in Chinese communism. And, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood and Jama'at-i Islami would have to have its faculty representatives in proportion to the popularity of those fundamentalist parties in the world.
Cole then applies this paradigm to other segments of the society. After all, why stop at the academia? If balance is such a noble concept in academic life, it surely must be worth implementing in other segments of society. What's good for the goose is surely good for the gander:

For instance, Corporate Executive Officers of major corporations are vastly more powerful and influential than are mere college teachers. And yet, it has long been known that CEOs are heavily Republican in their voting patterns. Shall we make a law that half of all persons chosen CEOs of corporations must be registered Democrats, and must give their campaign donations to that party?

Or, let us take the officers in our military services, who have grown increasingly rightwing in the past thirty years. Polling data show that in 1976 only one third of military officers said they were Republicans. By 1996 two-thirds of officers identified with the GOP, and only ten percent were Democrats. This development is truly worrisome. Would President Bush have been so successful in pushing his joint chiefs of staff to put away their objections to an Iraq campaign last summer if he knew two thirds of his officers had voted against him? Did not the open contempt many in the armed services expressed for Bill Clinton weaken our democracy?
The real danger, though, is that excellence in academic and scholarly pursuits would be subsumed to partisan beliefs. We would sacrifice much to achieve this bizarre sense of balance. The repercussions would be catastrophic. How much longer can America expect to maintain its position of dominance in the world of higher education if our standards departed from competence to political affiliation? Would we attract the best and the brightest, both among students and teachers, if our system were so turned on its head?

Pfaffenberger noted, ruefully, "progress in science and scholarship requires that professors are sufficiently free from political interference that they can advocate unpopular ideas." Under the Academic Bill of Rights, and its companion, the Student Bill of Rights, independence of thought and speech would lose out to partisan quibbles and a reverse political correctness that suppresses the opinions of professors in favor of bland instruction that no partisan would object to.

Dr. Larkin recalls the opinions of Supreme Court justices Roberts and Reed, "[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." (West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943)). Under the Academic Bill of Rights, government figures would be called upon to do just that in an ever vigilant monitoring of ideas on campuses nationwide.

In fact, this
process has already begun with the creation of "black lists" of professors who are put on databases by right wing student activists. These same activists then target the professors for termination by waging relentless campaigns of protest, inundating the administrative offices with messages and mailings until the professor in question is removed. Think of it as grass roots McCarthyism. Of course, they have yet to target a right wing professor for their bias or tendency to indoctrinate. Those, it appears, don't count.

The Real Problem And Real Solution

The truth of the matter is, there is a problem on campuses across the country, even if it is not of the magnitude that Horowitz and his ilk would have you believe. Professors are human beings, and as such, occasionally allow their personal beliefs to cloud their professional judgment. They are hardly the only group in society to fall victim to this, and thus it is flawed reasoning to target them. It is also disingenuous to suggest that there aren't mechanisms in place to curb the abuses and punish the behavior when it manifests. Pfaffenberger made the following observations:

But wait, you'll no doubt say. Isn't there some truth to the conservative's grievances with academia?
Frankly, yes. I've known faculty who use their courses to promulgate an essentially political point of view. (I've seen this done from the right as well as the left, I might add.) And I've had students come to me, privately, and complain that they were graded down because they refused to go along with their professor's not-so-secret political biases.

This sort of thing shouldn't happen. And when it does, it should be a matter of concern for this professor's peers, who are alone capable of determining where the line separating political indoctrination from legitimate instruction should be drawn. And frankly, I don't think we've been attentive enough to the harm this sort of thing causes to our students. But it happens less often than conservatives think...
Universities, administrations, and the profession of professors themselves should remain ever-vigilant to avoid abuses, but these isolated examples do not justify the extreme approach proposed by Horowitz. Professor Pfaffenberger had this to say:

Colleges and university teachers aren't perfect, I'll willingly admit, but we don't need the medicine right-wing extremists prescribe. If they get their way, you're going to be saying "bye-bye" not only to academic freedom, but also to our higher education system's sterling, worldwide reputation.
I think freedom is worth fighting for, as is the invaluable laboratory of ideas that our institutions of higher learning have become. In many ways, they are our ambassadors to the world, inviting emissaries from abroad to partake in our scholarly endeavors. Losing this would be yet one more example of how America, under the current leadership, would become more isolated, less trusted and less respected. That also is worth a fight.

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