Monday, February 20, 2006

I recently drew an analogy between rioting Muslims today and rioting African-Americans in past decades, concluding, based on the American experience, that alienated and violent minority groups do not necessarily stay that way forever. And as I later pointed out in a comment on one of LTEC's posts, the reaction of the society at large to rioting members of a minority group--in particular, whether they appease or condemn the rioters and the leaders who inflame their grievances and promote their violence--plays a huge role in determining the frequency and disruptiveness of future violence and mayhem. I would argue that two major causes of the decline of racial tensions in the US in recent years have been the rise of public expectations for law and order in large US cities--most notably New York--and the decline in the public standing of such rabble-rousing leaders as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.

Well, my analogy has now been picked up by Robert Wright in a New York Times Op-Ed--but with a bizarre twist. Wright views the decades of racial hostility that plagued America from the 1960's through the early 1990's, and the fawning attitude towards rioters and their cheerleaders that perpetuated it, as a healthy phenomenon:
Remember the urban riots of the 1960's, starting with the Watts riot of 1965, in which 34 people were killed? The St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, in his 1968 book "From Ghetto to Glory," compared the riots to a "brushback pitch" — a pitch thrown near a batter's head to keep him from crowding the plate, a way of conveying that the pitcher needs more space....

Amid the cartoon protests, some conservative blogs have warned that addressing grievances expressed violently is a form of "appeasement," and will only bring more violence and weaken Western values. But "appeasement" didn't work that way in the 1960's. The Kerner Commission, set up by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to study the riots, recommended increased attention to the problems of poverty, job and housing discrimination, and unequal education — attention that was forthcoming and that didn't exactly spawn decades of race riots.
Now, it may be nothing more than a stunning coincidence that decreased attention to the problems of poverty, job and housing discrimination, and unequal education during the late 1990's--starting with the welfare reform of 1996--was accompanied by a significant improvement in race relations, after years of tension marked by the (1977) New York, (1980) Liberty City, (1982 and 1989) Overtown, (1991) Crown Heights, and (1992) LA riots, and many, many smaller conflagrations. But it's hard to argue that increased attention to these issues results in improved race relations, when the historical pattern is so strikingly inconsistent with that claim.

Likewise for Wright's other prescription:
But the American experience suggests that steadfast self-restraint can bring progress. In the 1960's, the Nation of Islam was gaining momentum as its leader, Elijah Muhammad, called whites "blue-eyed devils" who were about to be exterminated in keeping with Allah's will. The Nation of Islam has since dropped in prominence and, anyway, has dropped that doctrine from its talking points. Peace prevails in America, and one thing that keeps it is strict self-censorship. [emphasis added]
Now, the Nation of Islam may have"dropped in prominence" lately, but it was still going strong in 1995, when its leader, Louis Farrakhan, organized the "Million-Man March" on Washington. Was his fall from prominence aided or impeded by the "strict self-censorship" that made the lunacy of his views a taboo topic in the press until his bizarre speech at that event made ignoring them impossible? Likewise, was Jesse Jackson's career as a racial shakedown artist helped or hindered by the "strict self-censorship" (occasionally fortified by threats of violence) that suppressed from public view his shady dealings and personal indiscretions? And have race relations in America improved or declined since these leaders ceased being the objects of widespread veneration?

Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds said it best: "when you reward violence and efforts at violent intimidation, you'll get more of them." After years of racial-guilt-induced blindness to that simple principle, Americans have finally acknowledged it with respect to their African-American minority, and the result has been far greater racial harmony. We shall see which countries, if any, apply it in turn to their dealings with their Islamic minorities.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Some points in response to LTEC's latest arguments about academic freedom:

1) I'm glad LTEC agrees that "to the extent that all 'time' is well-defined as being either company time or private time, politicking should be done on private time." But he goes on to say he opposes applying that standard to universities by cracking down on gratuitous politicking in the classroom. His reason? That there are things that can't be said openly in industry--he uses the example of workers in the IT industry making statements about women in IT--and universities should be places where people are able to say them.

As a worker in the IT industry, I find that argument hugely ironic. After all, I'm not the one blogging under a pseudonym. In fact, I feel quite comfortable saying lots of controversial things on my blog, including controversial things about the IT industry. It's true that I'm quite careful about what I say about my own employer--but I'm generally happy to talk freely about other people's employers, as they no doubt are to talk freely about mine. And the IT industry in general is, as far as I'm concerned completely fair game. (I imagine that if I felt the slightest bit uncomfortable saying the kinds of things LTEC has said on my blog about women in IT, then I would probably feel roughly as uncomfortable lending LTEC my blog for the purpose of saying those same things.)

Many of my co-workers know about my blog, some of them even read it, and I've never felt anything like the pressure that LTEC claims to feel in his academic environment to conform to a "party line" on broad topics like "women in IT". If that's the crying need that "academic freedom" is supposed to fill, then we really don't have any need for it.

2) LTEC went to great lengths to insist that he's not advocating "affirmative action" for views he thinks deserve more representation on campus, and that he merely wants everyone to be free to express their opinions. But he never answered my question: if every hiring committee should have a non-feminist "whistleblower", then why not an non-elvis-is-dead whistleblower, a parapsychology-is-real whistleblower, a Holocaust-denial whistleblower, and so on? Which opinions get whistleblowers, and which do not? By what standard do we choose them?

3) LTEC's analogy between academia and journalism is flawed in two ways. First of all, journalism, unlike academia, has a natural, useful point of reference against which to assess bias: the audience. If a journalist's audience suspects the journalist of bias, then they stop trusting that journalist, and start paying attention to somebody else. That's the sense (and, as I've repeatedly argued, the only sense) in which many of North America's major journalistic institutions exhibit political biases.

What, though, is the comparable basis (apart from LTEC's personal judgment) for assessing biases in academic institutions? After all, academics are supposed to be judged by their peers, not by students, politicians or the public at large. We thus arrive at the problem I identified above, of distinguishing opinions worthy of protection against "bias" from those that aren't. Is the low number of, say, academic Elvis-sighters, compared to their numbers in the public at large, a sign of pervasive bias that should be remedied? Do more of them therefore need to be hired into faculty positions? Do we need "whistleblowers" in hiring committees to identify bias against them?

Second, to the extent that the availability of diverse views has improved journalism lately, it has been--by LTEC's own admission--a result of external competition, not internal measures such as his proposed "whistleblower" program. It has yet to be seen whether any press organ has actually lessened its degree of bias in any direction in response to a "whistleblower on the hiring committee" rule, or any other such internal mechanism--even if the desired effect of diversifying viewpoints in the press at large has been achieved. I'm similarly skeptical about any such mechanisms working in academia.

On the other hand, if there are good, capable researchers and university-level teachers who are being denied an opportunity to enter academia because of political bias, then the obvious solution is for some enterprising university administrator to begin courting and recruiting them, thus building up a faculty far better than he or she would be able to attract by conforming to the prevailing academic prejudices. As long as universities have the power to do that--that is, as long as "academic freedom" as it was originally intended exists--good academics will be sure to find a receptive haven in which to work.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Academic Freedom, again
I wrote a post below on Academic Freedom, and Dan has posted a response to it. This is a response to Dan's response.

I will defend myself against Dan's charges of hypocrisy below but I'll
begin with a discussion of issues of more general interest.

1) What is "academic freedom"?
Dan complains that my definition is too recent, and that we should stick with an older definition. The first definition he offers is, "the premise of academic freedom was that academics should not be constrained regarding the ideas that they express in their work". I alluded to this definition briefly in my post. It seems to me that this notion makes little sense, since "the ideas they express in their work" are precisely what academics should be constrained on.

Dan then suggests (what seems to me to be) a different definition: "academic freedom was intended to protect scholars ... from external pressures -- particularly governmental censorship." As nearly as I can tell, this definition corresponds to my notion of "academic freedom of the university" (rather than within the university). This notion is well-defined, as long as we don't consider the issue of government funding, or giving tax breaks to, universities. Under this notion, for example, Bob Jones University would be free to do push its religious agenda, and Harvard University would be free to discriminate against students for being the wrong color or against army recruiters for discriminating in their own ways. The problem comes in when the government is expected to give funding or tax breaks, but in a way that respects "academic freedom", and then it's hard to figure out what the thing means. A similar problem arises when we discuss "artistic freedom" in the context of government funding of the arts. A similar problem arises in my definition when we discuss funding of a department within a university, and I have little to say about this. My definition implies, however, that funding of student groups should be done in a content-neutral way.

From now on, I will stick with my definition.

2) Should there be academic freedom within universities?
Dan thinks it is arbitrary to have academic freedom in universities and not elsewhere, and he thinks that in any case it is a bad idea. One reason he thinks it is a bad idea is because it leads to professors gratuitously pushing their politics in class. I agree this is not a good thing, and I'll discuss it more below. He also implies that academic freedom leads to professors neglecting their proper work and speaking politics instead. I doubt this is true, but in any case, professors should be judged according to how well they do what they are supposed to do, not according to how much time they spend doing other stuff. I suspect that Dan has a day job, and doesn't feel that writing on the internet (blogging) makes him a worse employee. I do agree that to the extent that all "time" is well-defined as being either company time or private time, politicking should be done on private time. As far as anonymity goes: sometimes a political writer is writing on a topic within his expertise, and then it would be good to write as an authority; other times it would be better to be anonymous; sometimes the expertise and the politics mix, and then it's not clear. Some people are such craven cowards that they write anonymously no matter what.

But what's so special about universities? Here is an example. Does Dan think it is at all possible that an employee of Google or Microsoft or Yahoo would be able to say, as I have, that nearly all that is written on the subject of women in information technology is nonsense? Would this employee be able to openly say this, in his own name, in a forum that many other people actually read, without being fired? Wouldn't it be good if someone who comes from IT can be able to openly say such things? Universities should be such places. If they are not, let's try to fight to change them, rather than complain that academic freedom is, at the moment, working quite poorly and therefore shouldn't exist at all.

3) Am I a hypocrite?
Dan implies that my suggestions are merely self-serving, that I only want academic freedom for those whose views I share, and that I support affirmative action for such people. However, I explicitly said I do not support such affirmative action ("the goal is not that we should discriminate on the basis of feminist views, but rather that we should not"), and the single "whistleblower" I want on each hiring committee would not have the power to cause such action. Furthermore, I have made sufficiently many statements on this blog and in private, including support for the academic freedom of the disgusting Ward Churchill, that Dan should know I am consistent in this matter. I would not object to my department hiring the Princeton prof I wrote about (assuming
he doesn't spend too much time proselytizing in the classroom), even though his political statements (linked to) on his web site make Ward Churchill look reasonable. I also supported FIRE's support for the academic freedom of Sami Al-Arian, even though I hope he will be convicted of terrorism (and even though I won't mind if he is executed).

4) What about gratuitous politics in the classroom?
I tried to make it clear that (except in the most extreme cases) I don't support the most direct and obvious way of dealing with this problem because I believe it will lead to less academic freedom, not more.

5) Should Elvis-sighters be "welcome" in my university?
Absolutely, and I expect they are a lot more sane than most of the people who are here now. In fact, I think Elvis-sighters would be good balance against all those who believe eyewitness accounts of gunmen on the Grassy Knoll, or of a guided missile hitting the Pentagon. I don't think that any supporter of freedom of speech believes that all speech is equally good, and I certainly don't. Free speech is necessary in order for good speech to be allowed, and for ultimately reasonable public discussion to take place. Reasonable discussion can take place, even if Scientologists and psychics are also allowed to speak; people can choose who to listen to. But they can only choose if speaking and listening is allowed. (I discuss the issue of speakers and listeners getting together here.)

6) Why are most universities so extreme-left dominated?
Dan thinks it's because of "rigorous multi-year winnowing", and gives no credence at all to my theory that is just might be related to conscious, brutal suppression (in most universities) of anyone who says anything opposed to the extreme left. I'll let the reader decide.

7) What would be the result if universities were places where all views could be expressed?
What if newsrooms were populated by a broader class of people, including many reasonable, moderate people? I take the idealist view that this would result in many people with extreme views becoming more moderate. I gave no evidence for this and Dan gave none against it. In fact this is the contrapositive of a widely held view that when like-minded people get together and become isolated, they gradually become more extreme.

I consider this to slightly support my view. Everyone seems to agree that major newspapers are recently very eager to avoid impressions of liberal bias. (There's some disagreement on how successful they are.) Why is there this sudden eagerness? It's not because of diversity in the newsroom, but it is because of diversity on the internet. This is a very new phenomenon, and it is at least somewhat positively affecting newspapers. Note: CBS did not have to respond to internet sites claiming it is a Venusian conspiracy, but they did have to respond to criticisms of those "memos". Reason and good writing is very powerful once people can write and be read. Of course, our universities remain largely internet-immune.