The War on Academic Freedom

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.

You see, right-wing extremists are the first to have figured out how to manipulate today’s electronic media to modify what they call “conventional wisdom.” —Bryan Pfaffenberger

The War on Academic Freedom (Pink Bunny of Battle)

Bryan Pfaffenberger, a historian of technology at the University of Virginia, invited me to help publicize this essay. It’s not the essay I would have written, but I do think it’s blogworthy and relevant.

Pfaffenberger faults David Horowitz, a former liberal turned conservative, for encouraging his fellow conservatives to use emotion and position themselves as the oppressed underdog in order to gain public sympathy on issues involving the politics of the collegiate environment.

But this is basic rhetoric 101. The Bush administration has been clumsy at it, as was Hillary Clinton when she invoked the “vast right-wing conspiracy” to explain the sequence of events that led to her husband’s impeachment. Michael Moore is an expert. Even liberals have criticized his one-sided presentation of the Iraqi political situation before the war.

If more voters had a basic grounding in rhetoric, such that they could identify exactly what is happening when a politician ducks a question, waves a flag, invokes a boogeyman, or engages in Orwellian duckspeak, then the soft, undifferentiated and uncommitted middle wouldn’t be such attractive fodder for pundits and demagogues.

Pfaffenberger doesn’t cite the source of the meme, but dismisses as “bogus” the evidence supporting the claim that Democrats outnumber Republicans in higher education by 10 to 1.

To challenge that meme, he notes that in 2000, professors gave more money to Bush than to Gore. He cites Capital Eye, which says that Bush raised “more than $1 million” and Gore raised “nearly $968,000” from “educational interests”. These are “contributions from PACs and individuals giving $200 or more”.

So, according to these figures, Bush raised about 5% more from educational interests than Gore did. That’s hardly an overwhelming difference. One jet-setting law school or MBA professor who makes $250,000 a year might easily offset the donations of 10 granola-crunching long-haired adjunct professors of art, English, or psychology. I don’t see evidence that says these funds come from individual professors; “educational interests” implies a much broader scope.

Further, Capital Eye cites Open Secrets, which also gives figures for 2004, which tell a very different story. Kerry has so far collected $3,754,189 from educational interests, and Bush less than half of that — $1,618,667. (Dean raised another $1,260,174.) If Bush’s slight edge over Gore in 2000 is presented as evidence against the claim that lefties outnumber righties in education, then Kerry’s solid lead over Bush in in 2004 should be evidence supporting the claim.

In my journalism class last tear, I used chapters from Bias and What Liberal Media? to examine the issue of statistics and political slant in journalism. Reporters tend to be more liberal than the general public on social issues; the conscientious reporters may over-compensate; but Bias [sorry, it was It Ain’t Necessarily So] describes how reporters tended to play up studies that had good things to say about daycare, since many reporters were part of two-career couples. This kind of bias can be subconscious.

Full disclosure: my wife is a full-time mother and home-schooler. But don’t worry, feminists — I’m the bath-giver and the dish-washer, the tucker-inner and the bedtime-story-reader. My wife handles all the finances, and she can sleep till noon every Saturday.

Reporters with the noblest of intentions are nonetheless working for huge corporations that are ultimately more interested in staying in business than in publishing the truth (and bravo to those who manage to do both). The disappearance of a blonde suburban girl gets more coverage than that of a black inner-city girl because the first story is expected to sell more papers. It shouldn’t work that way, but it does. That’s another form of bias. Ideally, a university should be positioned to prevent that kind of outside pressure.

Pfaffenberger is right to note that labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” shift over time. But suggesting the suggestion offered by Reees that a “conservative” opinion on the revolutionary war would have to favor the British is as far off the mark as the rightist complaint that a critical analysis of the mythology and contradictions surrounding the nation’s birth is unpatriotic. A good historian of any political persuasion would have to present the competing perspectives of the groups that were involved in historical conflicts.

Since my top priority right now is preparing for the new semester that starts in a few days, I’ll just link to what I wrote recently about politics in the classroom. I usually try to adopt a pose of neutrality, until some prevailing opinion arises from the class, at which point I work against it. (My colleague Mike Arnzen is better at this than I am.) There are, of course, limits to this pose. You won’t catch me defending slavery — though I will note the irony that the first black slave in America was owned by a black man, and Africans regularly sold slaves to white traders.

Pfaffenberger’s indignation at the implication that he, as a Democrat, is incapable of being fair in the classroom rings a bit hollow when placed alongside his blanket statement that “conservatives can’t see that there’s a nonpartisan zone of scholarly debate.” Pfaffenberger’s own essay demonstrates some of the very rhetorical tricks that he censures, so I’m not sure how to respond. Given that his political persona is The Pink Bunny of Battle, perhaps I’m reading too much into his rhetorical critique.

On a more serious note, I heartily endorse Pfaffenberger’s insistence that professors not be forced to include fringe perspectives merely in the service of intellectual diversity. Of course, the study of literature in the past 50 years or so has been pretty much been a steady unraveling of the mainstream and an embracement of the fringe, so the rejection of the fringe is actually a conservative action within English studies. Unless the idea of a received canon of literary greats is so out of date that it is, itself, a fringe view by now.

The narratologist-heavy Princeton conference on video game criticism would have been even livelier than it was, had some ludologists been on the program. But it was sponsored by the English department, a field that naturally excretes narratologists. A panel hosted recently by SHU to examine the impact of Gibson’s Passion on Jewish relations would possibly have benefited from the participation of someone with a positive reaction to the movie. The panel was sponsored by our Catholic Center for Holocaust Studies; the panelists stayed on topic, which means they didn’t talk about the Christian significance — which struck some in the audience as strange, given Seton Hill’s identity as a Catholic school. Was there some nefarious conspiracy to exclude opposing views? I don’t think so. These scholarly events had to focus on a particular subset of possible views. That’s just the nature of scholarly inquiry.

I’m reminded of The Simpsons, where a NASA announcer speaks enthusiastically of the diversity aboard a space shuttle mission: “We have a mathematician, a different *kind* of mathematician, and… a statistician!” What seems to be diverse from those within a narrow field can seem very one-sided to those on the outside.