Sunday, January 29, 2006

I recently had the pleasure of seeing a much-talked-about recent film on the subject of doomed, forbidden love. It follows the story of two lead characters who are immediately attracted to each other when they meet, but know that society expects them to pretend otherwise. They soon consummate their smoldering passion in a beautiful rural setting, but part ways shortly thereafter, expecting never to meet again.

Yet they do meet again, and immediately embark on a protracted sequence of steamy trysts. The complications are daunting--duty to a loving wife at home, a family of wealthy in-laws to be placated, job schedules to be juggled, and of course the whole problem of extreme social disapproval of their illicit passion. But despite the obstacles, they simply can't keep their hands off each other, and continue to meet in secret.

The film, of course, is Woody Allen's Match Point, about an ambitious lower-class tennis pro who strikes up a friendship with a rich pupil, and ends up dating and marrying the pupil's sister--while carrying on a torrid affair with the pupil's sexpot current-then-ex-fiancee. But you might have been forgiven for thinking I was describing Brokeback Mountain. Much has been made of the latter film's achievement in bringing gay romance into the film mainstream. But surprisingly little notice has been taken of its distinctly unflattering portrayal of a long-term gay relationship. For while the characters themselves are portrayed as highly sympathetic, their relationship is disturbingly similar to the sleazy affair between the duplicitous creep and the flighty siren at the center of Match Point.

To this straight male viewer, the protagonists' passion in Brokeback could at best be compared with an adolescent first love, rather than a mature partnership. Never, during the entire film, did the couple display any hint of emotional bonding, tenderness, protectiveness, mutual self-sacrifice, or any of the other characteristics of romantic love, other than intense, focused lust, and perhaps relief at finding an outlet for it. In fact, apart from their "fishing weekends" together--which, it is strongly hinted, were devoted solely to nonstop sex--they had no interaction of any kind, let alone mutual care, support or even kindness. In one case, when one was kept away from the other for longer than expected, the other simply headed south to seek his solace with male prostitutes in Mexico.

Fans of Brokeback offer various defenses of its leads' tawdry, unsentimental partnership, but none of them really holds water. Certainly, homosexual love provoked widespread, venomous hatred in the time and place of the film's setting, and therefore needed to be kept completely secret. But then, the same could be said for extramarital love, then and now. Yet one of the most famous on-screen romances of all time, between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, was extramarital--and still, it was a paragon of mature, self-sacrificing, and (despite Rick's protestations) noble passion that stands in striking contrast to both the lurid affair in Match Point and the strangely celebrated one in Brokeback.

Likewise, the tenderness and unselfishness of Humphrey Bogart's hardbitten, hard-drinking Rick towards his forbidden lover in Casablanca puts the lie to the claim that the lovers in Brokeback were plausibly deprived by their taciturn, homophobic cowboy upbringing of the opportunity to learn the finer points of love. In fact, one of Brokeback's protagonists is shown actually managing for four years to maintain a reasonably sturdy, affectionate and respectful marriage, and displaying every sign of understanding, accepting and fulfilling his duties as a husband and father. Had he only treated his supposed lifelong love interest as sweetly as he initially treated his wife, his affair would no doubt have come across as much more compelling and sympathetic.

Now, I know better than to assume that a single fictional film like Brokeback Mountain is a fair portrayal of gay relationships in general, any more than, say, The Bridges of Madison County--which celebrates a married woman's four-day fling with a handsome itinerant photographer as if it were the perfect romance--is a fair portrayal of straight relationships in general. Nevertheless, the gay community's and its supporters' unanimous, unqualified idealization of the relationship presented in Brokeback Mountain raises the question of what advocates of gay equality--proponents of gay marriage, for instance--really have in mind, both for gay men and for society at large. If Brokeback Mountain is to be our new model of romance, after all, then why not, say, Match Point?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

On the subject of "academic freedom", my co-blogger, LTEC, is of the opinion that--well, actually, he has numerous opinions on the subject, most of which I disagree with. I will try to address them one by one.

  • "Within the University, the most important thing that Academic Freedom means is that no member or job applicant is discriminated against because of his views, unless those views interfere with his work." Well, it's generally considered a Good Thing--in theory, at least--not to discriminate against employees in any workplace on the basis of their "views". In practice, though, people are discriminated against on the basis of their views all the time, if their views are sufficiently bizarre or extreme. They are also discriminated against if their demeanor is too unpleasant, their appearance too plain, their attire too dishevelled, their manners too boorish, or on the basis of any number of personal traits that do not directly affect their job performance. In vocations that involve close collaboration--and academic professorship certainly is one such--discrimination of this type is particularly common, and widely condoned as necessary for "group morale", "unit cohesion", or (in academia's case) "collegiality".

    Where, then, did the idea come from that academics should have a special dispensation from the conformist pressures that affect every other occupation? Originally, in fact, the idea of academic freedom had nothing to do with extraneous personal traits such as political views. Rather, the premise of academic freedom was that academics should not be constrained regarding the ideas that they express in their work. An academic, once accredited (i.e., tenured), should, according to the principle of academic freedom, be able to conduct and disseminate his or her research irrespective of what views it may implicitly or even explicitly contain.

    Of course, the point of academic freedom was never to protect academics from the conformism of their colleagues. On the contrary, academic freedom has always gone hand in hand with "peer review"--the idea that a scholar's work is to be judged solely by his or her colleagues. Instead, academic freedom was intended to protect scholars whose work had gained the acclaim of their peers from external pressures--particularly governmental censorship.

    Over time, academics in America have gradually intermingled the idea of academic freedom with a particularly American notion of "free speech", under which everyone is in some sense free to say (or to loudly proclaim the right to say) absolutely anything to anyone at any time, for any reason, without fear of retribution. The result: a reinterpretation of academic freedom as the untrammeled right of academics to speak uninhibitedly about anything outside of their area of scholarship, at any time.

    I can see nothing whatsoever to commend the application of this expansive notion of free speech to the academic world. As LTEC attests, it certainly doesn't protect academics with unpopular views from ostracism. Rather, it allows academics to neglect the scholarship they were hired to pursue, and instead to exploit the platform of their position by pontificating at length to anyone who will listen--and to students who often have no choice but to listen--on subjects about which they are manifestly ignorant. This abuse of the professor's lectern has in fact become so common that even those who rail against it--such as LTEC--only think to complain about its political lopsidedness, rather than its overall pernicious effect on the serious pursuit of scholarship. Perhaps if scholars were obliged to conduct their non-scholarly ranting, political or otherwise, on their own time, outside their workplace, and without invoking their irrelevant credentials--anonymously, on a blog, perhaps--the quality and volume of scholarship conducted at universities would improve somewhat.

  • "Unfairness can involve unfair grading, not allowing students to voice their opinions, lack of presentation of alternative views, and gratuitous imposition of political opinions." ....Or demanding work, favors or even sex in return for grades. Or failing to teach--or teach clearly and effectively--the appropriate course material. Or evaluating students too harshly--or too leniently. Or any number of other things. Horrendously bad teaching is endemic in academia, and most of it has nothing to do with politics. Why are the particular forms of bad teaching that involve political bias of such interest to LTEC, and to (primarily conservative) critics of academia?

    Often, when someone focuses on a specific minor injustice, to the exclusion of large classes of related ones, it's because the intended solution is not to remedy the injustice, but to counterbalance it--that is, to favor the allegedly wronged person or group. Thus, those who focus on racial discrimination in academic admissions neglect the obvious solution of hiding, where possible, information about the race or sex of applicants, and instead advocate the granting of special preferences to the groups allegedly discriminated against. Similarly, the obvious solution to politically motivated descrimination in university teaching would be to crack down on gratuitous expression of political views in academic settings. But LTEC has a different solution in mind:

  • "I propose that the State should insist that every hiring committee have at least one anti-extreme-left person on it." I've expressed my views of "affirmative action" (i.e., quotas for certain politically blessed groups) so many times that I don't think I need to say more about the indefensibility of this proposal here. But in addition to justifying the many forms of quotas he despises, what outcome could LTEC possibly even hope to achieve with it--apart, of course, from an externally mandated boost in the number of professors who happen to agree with him?

  • "Imagine what would happen if the university were more like the real world, with all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time." Actually, opinions in most real-world environments are pretty uniform, since the demographic composition of most real-world environments is also pretty uniform. University environments are even more uniform than most, since they consist primarily of academic scholars, a rather exclusive class of people who have been selected by a rigorous multi-year winnowing process that has marked similarities across disciplines. Moreover, as I've mentioned repeatedly before, a university "with all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time" would be very different from the traditional academic institution, where opinions on a large number of topics--those on which scholarly consensus has been achieved--are expected to be uniform, and those who express contrary views are denounced as "bad scholars" and denied academic credentials.

    Then again, I don't believe that LTEC really wants "all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time" at universities. Claims of evidence for paranormal phenomena? Scientologist dogma? Sightings of Elvis? There's a reason, after all, why LTEC has proposed an "anti-extreme-left" representative on every hiring committee, and not an "anti-Elvis-is-dead" representative on every hiring committee. And the reason isn't hard to figure out.
  • Academic Freedom
    Amongst supporters of academic freedom, there have been many criticisms of David Horowitz' "Academic Bill of Rights" and, more recently, the academic freedom campaigns (here, here, here). (I'm ignoring criticisms that are thinly disguised efforts by enemies of academic freedom to stop people from interfering with the status quo.) Here is what I think is going on.

    Firstly, I am talking about academic freedom within an institution, not of an institution. So, for example, if the government penalizes a university because that university denies academic freedom to its members (this has happened to Bob Jones and Harvard Universities), then this is certainly interfering (whether rightly or wrongly) with the academic freedom of that university.

    Within the University, the most important thing that Academic Freedom means is that no member or job applicant is discriminated against because of his views, unless those views interfere with his work. (One additional meaning has something to do with the "freedom" to choose research topics. This is confusing, and it makes no sense unless one first has the academic freedom discussed here.) By "interfering with his work", I do not include the fact that people who don't like his views choose not to work with him. Good examples are: someone who doesn't believe in evolution might be a good mathematician, but he would make a poor evolutionary biologist; someone who is against feminism can be a good biologist, but shouldn't teach a course (or even pass a course) in Women's Studies. (An argument can be made that a field that is as purely political as Women's Studies shouldn't exist in a university, but that is a separate issue.)

    I believe that in most major North American universities there is very little academic freedom, and in most (but certainly not all) cases the victims are anyone who openly opposes the views of the extreme left. Much of this has been documented by FIRE. There are many examples I know of in my own university; for example the administration tried to fire a computer scientist for expressing anti-feminist views in a public forum outside of class; for example, a student newspaper was shut down for blaming Native American cultures for the problems of Native Americans.

    Of course, it is very hard to get statistics about this. My favorite way would be as follows. Ask University Presidents the question, "In your university (outside of Women's Studies), do anti-feminists and feminists have the same right to speak and the same right to offend?" I think very few presidents would answer at all, and almost none of them would answer, "yes". (Lawrence Summers would probably die on the spot.) There are other questions about women, Islam, or homosexuality that would work as well.

    Unlike a number of supporters of academic freedom, I do not think there is anything subtle or unconscious or accidental about the lack of academic freedom in universities. If a department goes out of its way to try to fire someone for expressing a particular view, are we supposed to believe that their unwillingness to hire a person with the same views is unconscious? Should we even need examples of such non-hires before we suspect this department of discrimination in hiring? One evidence that is often given of political discrimination in hiring/firing is the high proportion of Democrats versus Republicans on university faculties. Although these statistics suggest improper discrimination, there are other possible interpretations. A few well-posed questions to university administrators would, however, remove all doubt.

    Let us assume that there are many more liberal than conservative faculty at a particular university. (Or more accurately, assume there are a large number of extreme-left faculty and very few faculty who express opinions contrary to the extreme left.) Let us ignore the reason this situation came about. (Maybe it's unrelated to the constant repression that takes place; maybe it's because Republicans are religiously obsessed morons, as has often been
    suggested.) Is this imbalance bad? After denying that the imbalance exists, and then seeing statistical evidence to the contrary, the typical response of the supporter of this situation is to say that it's not because of discrimination but because "conservatives" are stupid, and then to say that in any case it doesn't matter, because left-wing professors are generally extremely fair in the classroom.

    It is the issue of fairness in the classroom that especially concerns Horowitz and It is their lack of good proof that concerns their (reasonable) critics. Unfairness can involve unfair grading, not allowing students to voice their opinions, lack of presentation of alternative views, and gratuitous imposition of political opinions. Since grading is subjective, and since the topic of the class and the academic freedom of the professor mean that under many circumstances professors will and must say things that offend some students, it is very hard to accumulate the proper statistics here.

    But what do we expect from a professor who wants to fire a faculty member or shut down a student newspaper because they express views he doesn't like. Do we expect him to be a paragon of fairness in his own classroom? This is not merely unlikely; it is virtually out of the question. If we suspect a professor of abuse, a few well-chosen questions of him (see above) would settle the matter quickly. Often these professors brag about how they view it as their mission, no matter what the class is, to enlighten their conservative students with the truth. For example, one professor interviewed here is especially horrible. This should be contrasted with a brag I once heard from a (conservative) professor. He said that after a semester in which controversial issues were discussed at length, the students said that they couldn't figure out what his own opinions were. This may not always be possible or desirable, but this is an example of a professor who doesn't want to abuse his power. They're usually pretty easy to tell apart from the ones that do.

    I see a hint of how bad the abuse is in the non-sciences, by looking at my own science department. I don't attend many courses but I do go to many talks. It is surprising how often I hear nasty, gratuitous political remarks by the speaker or his host. One well-known scientist began his talk with a completely irrelevant joke, the point of which was that anyone who voted for Bush over Kerry is a moron. Do we seriously think this person is careful not to similarly impose his political views on his students (in Princeton)?

    So what should be done about this classroom misbehavior by professors? Horowitz wants some constraints imposed by the University, or failing that, the State. Although I like the idea of general principles of proper classroom behavior being enunciated, I think that attempting to enforce these principles -- except in very special cases -- will cause more problems with academic freedom than they will solve.

    It has also been suggested that the situation would improve if there were less of an imbalance in the faculty, but there is uniform dislike (or at least stated dislike) for having affirmative action for the anti-extreme-left. Here is my concrete suggestion. In my university, a rule says that there has to be at least one woman on every hiring committee, even if there have been no accusations of discrimination against women in that department. Since there is proof positive of repression of the anti-extreme-left in my university and my department, I propose that the State should insist that every hiring committee have at least one anti-extreme-left person on it. One version of this idea that I especially like is replacing the "at least one woman" rule with a "at least one anti-feminist" rule in my (science) department. The goal is not that we should discriminate on the basis of feminist views, but rather that we should not.

    But how would the classroom situation improve if the faculty were more balanced? The typical answer is that students would now see -- perhaps have imposed upon them? -- alternative views. There is some truth in this, but I see things very differently. I ask myself why the Princeton prof mentioned above made his nasty joke. Was he trying to be controversial? Was he trying to insult some members of his audience? I don't think so. I think he wanted to inject some humor into his talk and he was interested in politics, so why not make a political joke? Surely the audience would enjoy it. He never met (or so he probably believes) anyone at Princeton who wouldn't enjoy the joke, and he couldn't imagine there would be anyone in the audience in my university who wouldn't. This is the problem with imbalance. The professor who has successfully repressed all contrary speech will now use the lack of contrary speech as proof that everyone agrees with him and that he must therefore be right.

    Imagine what would happen if the university were more like the real world, with all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time. Every professor would expect most of his opinions to be controversial, and he would have a good idea of which ones would be considered most extreme. There would be no point in making a joke which half the audience found funny only because it insulted the other half. Rather he might (if he wished to take up class time) respectfully explain why he thought Kerry was a better choice than Bush, fully expecting this to lead to an actual discussion.

    I feel that newspapers would similarly benefit if there were more balance on the news staff. The result would not, I believe, be two kinds of stupid, extreme articles. Rather, I think, the result would be more intelligent, less extreme articles from everyone.

    Friday, January 06, 2006

    I find the recent encomia to stricken Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as an utterly irreplaceable visionary leader to be somewhat baffling. Put aside, for a moment, his rather checkered history prior to his election as prime minister of Israel. Even in office, his major initiatives, now touted as revolutionary master strokes (no pun intended), were in fact--with one glaring exception--nothing more than the obvious, necessary actions that any Israeli prime minister would have taken in his place. Indeed, they were rather more timid than they needed to be, or than a more decisive leader with a more pristine record would likely have been able to pull off.

    First, there was the re-invasion of the West Bank in 2002. This military action was in fact inevitable from the moment Arafat launched his "Al Aqsa Intifada" in September of 2000. Once he committed himself to violence, Arafat had no strategy available other than escalation until victory or defeat. And escalate he did, working all-out to stoke terrorism against Israel pretty much till the day he died. Yet Sharon, after being elected in February of 2001 on a get-tough-with-terrorists platform, nevertheless barely responded for over a year and a half. He continued to restrain himself even after 9/11, when the support of his main ally, the US, in the battle against terrorism became virtually certain. He only stirred himself to initiate large-scale miilitary operations after an horrific month of suicide bombings in March 2002 effectively forced his hand.

    Then there was the security fence. Again, its necessity became glaringly obvious almost from the moment the second intifada began, as terrorists easily infiltrated into Israel from the towns controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Yet Sharon didn't stir himself to act until well after Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. Even then, his commitment to the fence was somewhat perfunctory, and to this day large sections of it have yet to be built.

    Finally, there was the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. This really was a bold, unforced move, and it remains defensible as a long-term strategic decision, albeit with major short- and medium-term costs. However, it does not by itself solve any problems. Rather, it can be seen as a clarifying step, placing the ball in the Palestinians' court and making possible a much more unified Israeli stance in the future. In this respect, it parallels another bold gesture by an Israeli prime minister: Ehud Barak's peace proposals at Camp David. Both Sharon and Barak essentially granted the Palestinians explicitly what Israel had long been implicitly willing to concede, and thus successfully exposed and clarified the depth of Palestinian rejectionism in the eyes of the world--and more importantly, of Israelis themselves. Barak's move thus paved the way for the national consensus in favor of resolute action that Sharon finally got around to embracing in 2002. Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza will likely have a similar effect, persuading a solid majority of Israelis to abandon negotiations altogether for the foreseeable future, and to concentrate instead on consolidation of territory and military interdiction of terrorist organizations.

    Of course, Barak is now vilified as a clumsy naif for his earlier clarifying act, while Sharon is glorified--for now--as a visionary for his. Perhaps that's because Barak's decision shattered the illusions of the Israeli left, while Sharon's shattered the illusions of the Israeli right. The hard-liners who vilify Sharon today don't dominate Israeli politics and culture the way the doves of 1999 did. Nevertheless, I predict that as the situation in Gaza deteriorates, Sharon's move will increasingly come to be seen, somewhat unfairly, as a blunder--just as Barak's is today.

    I also predict that the next Israeli leader, faced with the increasing militarization of the terrorist operations emanating from the twin Augean stables of Gaza and the West Bank, will be compelled to launch large-scale military operations into both of them from time to time. He will then be celebrated as a bold, decisive leader, merely for doing what Levi Eshkol was forced to do in 1967, what Golda Meir was forced to do (with Sharon's help) in 1973, what Menachem Begin would eventually have been forced to do at some point anyway after 1982--and what Ariel Sharon was forced to do in 2002: sending Israeli troops once again into enemy territory, in pursuit of Israel's relentlessly bloody would-be destroyers.