Two Minutes Hate From Barone

Town Hall columnist Michael Barone has a bee in his bonnet about universities:

I am old enough to remember when America’s colleges and universities seemed to be the most open-minded and intellectually rigorous institutions in our society. Today, something very much like the opposite is true: America’s colleges and universities have become, and have been for some decades, the most closed-minded and intellectually dishonest institutions in our society.

Fox news pundits like Barone really ought to be more careful describing other institutions as closed-minded and intellectually dishonest.

With that opening you might expect the ensuing paragraphs to back up such a serious charge. Instead we get a familiar litany of incoherent right-wing talking points.

He rants about speech codes for a few paragraphs. I’m not a big fan of them myself, and every once in a while, on some college campus or other, you can find a genuine instance of a speech code run amok. But the point of such codes is simply to recognize that at some point speech becomes action. Hurling entirely unprovoked racial slurs at someone in a courtyard (which actually happened during my undergrdauate days at Brown) is not an exercise of free speech. It is a threat against the target of the slurs. Punishing such a person under a speech code is entirely appropriate. The spirit of free inquiry is not threatened by such things.

Speech codes are not the only thing Barone finds objectionable in modern universities:

This is not the only way the colleges and universities fall far short of what were once their standards. Sometime in the 1960s, they abandoned their role as advocates of American values — critical advocates who tried to advance freedom and equality further than Americans had yet succeeded in doing — and took on the role of adversaries of society.

The students who were exempted from serving their country during the Vietnam War condemned not themselves but their country, and many sought tenured positions in academe to undermine what they considered a militaristic, imperialist, racist, exploitative, sexist, homophobic — the list of complaints grew as the years went on — country.

English departments have been packed by deconstructionists who insist that Shakespeare is no better than rap music, and history departments with multiculturalists who insist that all societies are morally equal except our own, which is morally inferior.

A revealing couple of paragraphs. Apparently it is not professorial indoctrination per se that bothers Barone, it is professors suggesting that America has some things to answer for that gets to him.

We can safely ignore Barone’s unsubstantiated slurs against English and History Departments. He has no idea about the day-to-day activites of such departments. He is merely repeating the stereotypes of others. Of course, if you scour the country, you can find a few professors who have some outre views about their subject. But that is hardly a sound basis for describing universities as closed-minded and intellectually dishonest.

More serious is Barone’s mindless hate towards both professors and people who opposed the Vietnam War. His charge here is simply laughable. You can count on one hand the number of people who used their student status to avoid the draft who then went on to become academics, and I would guess it is a small percentage of that small number who did so to promote an anti-American world view. Barone has no basis at all for his charge.

And perhaps Barone needs to be reminded that he was a student at Harvard University and Yale Law School for most of the sixties. I can find no evidence that he took time out to serve in Vietnam.

Contrary to popular perception, conservatives, of both the social and libertarian varieties, are a dime a dozen in academe. What is rare is the sort of mindless right-wingery of people like Barone. People like Barone hate academe not for the patently flimsy reasons put forth in essays like this one. Rather, it is the fact that people who make their living from careful thought and deep study of subtle issues are not likely to support the causes so dear to the lunatic fringe represented by Barone.

Thus, religious scientists can be found in virtually every science department in the country. But you will not find very many creationists because creationism is amply refuted by the available evidence. And you will not find many fundamentalists or evangelicals, because those varieties of religion are especially hostile to the spirit of free and open inquiry. Many economists favor low taxes, small government, and limited regulation. But you will find very few who will endorse the lunacy of supply-side economics, with its fanatical emphasis on tax rates as the sole determinant of the health of the economy. And you will not find many who will endorse the economic policies of Ronald Reagan, because those policies are so blatantly in conflict with the basic principles of sound economics. Just in my own experience I know of political scientists and philosophers from a wide range of political persuasions. But you will be hard-pressed to find any who will discuss Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush with the level of obsequity demanded by the Barone’s of the world. On issue after issue the right-wing holds views that are at odds with the available evidence. College professors tend to point that out. And then hacks like Barone write essays like this one.

This is why the right had to form pseuo-universities (aka think tanks) to disseminate their views. Universities are hostile to open mindedness and intellectual honesty? How about The Heritage Foundation, or any of the other right-wing think tanks? How about cable news, which is almost wall-to-wall conservatives? How about the Bush administration, which is careful to fill its halls solely with people willing to tow the party line?

Universities are virtually the only place left in American culture where getting it right actually counts for something, and that is why the right hates them so much. As with any large and complex institution you can find instances of bad behavior and unfairness. Of course there are people like Ward Churchill out there who give professors a bad name. But those rare extremes have nothing to do with the day to day minutiae of teaching undergraduates the fine points of your discipline, or with producing novel and interesting research to make your own little dent in the ocean of human ignorance. And they definitely have nothing to do with the real reasons right-wingers attack universities with such venom.

Comments

  1. #1 SLC
    October 9, 2007

    What else does one expect from a fascist web site like townhall. Barone sounds like a wannabe Ann Coulter.

  2. #2 Gerard Harbison
    October 9, 2007

    Hurling entirely unprovoked racial slurs at someone in a courtyard (which actually happened during my undergrdauate days at Brown) is not an exercise of free speech. It is a threat against the target of the slurs. Punishing such a person under a speech code is entirely appropriate.

    I’m afraid the Supreme Court does not see it that way. Brown, as a private institution, may set more stringent speech codes than a public university, but mere racial abuse is not per se a threat, and is protected by the First Amendment.

  3. #3 Bob Carroll
    October 9, 2007

    First, you’re right on target for your comments. The wacko right is so far into anti-intellectualism that any feature of our culture that even suggests a preference for independent thought is anathema. So college kids are immature? If they were completely mature and well educated, what need would we have of colleges?

    You know, I’m beginning to think that “tow the line” is not merely a simple error, but rather an new example of folk etymology. The political “lines” we encounter are continually being towed. It’s much like moving the goalposts. “Toeing the line” makes sense if the political/religious/cultural lines would hold still for a while. :-)

    Bob Carroll

  4. #4 Robert Thille
    October 9, 2007

    Scientists are primarily liberal because scientists are concerned with real world, not some fantasy world. And as we all know, “Reality has a liberal bias.”

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 9, 2007

    Gerard-

    In the situation I am remembering, the issue was not simply the content of the speech, but the manner in which it was delivered. As I recall, the person was drunk and clearly enraged when he made his offensive remarks. In that situation, I think racial slurs can be construed as a threat where non-racial speech would not be so construed.

    As I said, I don’t like speech codes. I think they are just aching to be abused and the symbolism is terrible. I was just objecting to Barone’s implication that speech codes are intended to squelch the free exchange of ideas or that somehow students and faculty wander around the campus in terror of saying the wrong thing. To make speech codes the centerpiece of an argument for universities being uniquely closed-minded and intellectually dishonest is simply ridiculous, in my opinion.

  6. #6 Jim Ramsey
    October 10, 2007

    AEI is not a thinktank. It’s a belieftank. Doonesbury got this beautifully. A belieftank is just like a thinktank without the doubt.

  7. #7 Dom
    October 10, 2007

    “As I recall, the person was drunk and clearly enraged when he made his offensive remarks.”

    So he wasn’t disciplined for his speech. I’m still waiting for an anecdote that shows speech codes are somehow, somewhere needed.

  8. #8 Dom
    October 10, 2007

    “Scientists are primarily liberal because scientists are concerned with real world …”

    Most surveys show that a liberal bias exists in the social sciences, especially the more meaningless ones.

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 10, 2007

    Dom-

    I think you missed the point of the example. As I said in my previous comment, the fact that it was racial speech made it threatening in a way that non-racial speech would not have been threatening. The speech code merely recognizes that fact.

    As I have said I agree that speech codes are a bad idea. My point was simply that they are not tools of repression, which is what Barone was implying.

  10. #10 Sam
    October 10, 2007

    Although I generally agree with your critique of Barone’s editorial, does his criticism of professors really represent “mindless hate” toward them? Your demonizing the opposition may serve a rhetorical function, but it also makes me question how objective you are.
    -New Subscriber

  11. #11 SLC
    October 10, 2007

    Another issue relative to commentators like Mr. Barone, Mr. Prager, etc. is that they don’t seem to be very eager to criticize the nutjobs on their side of the political fence. Has any of them commented on Holocause denier Arthur Butz, or evolution denier Michael Behe? What was their attitude on the denial of tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez?

  12. #12 Mike
    October 15, 2007

    Apparently in the liberal fantasy world you have constructed, conservatives are a dime a dozen in academia. However, in the real world, they are almost non-existent.

    http://chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i08/08a01001.htm

    “”But the number of conservatives, 9.2 percent, is lower than what one might have found in the past.”

  13. #13 Jon S
    October 16, 2007

    SLC-
    FYI: Michael Behe (to my knowledge) has never denied evolution.

  14. #14 TBIAGIONI
    October 22, 2007

    Why is the right wing so incensed about racial quotas? They
    had no problem with the total exclusion of racial minorities during the Jim Crow years nor do they have a problem with the seats colleges reserve for the children of rich alumni. Does anyone really think George Bush would have been accepted into Yale with his SAT scores and grades.

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