Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Speaking of Paranoia on the Right--

--as we were just the other day--David Bernstein (George Mason) has now served up a remarkable example

First there is the sheer weirdness of comparing being fired from a job with being disinvited to give a dinner speech to a Board of Regents.  (Even a commenter remarked on this:  "[Y]ou really think being disinvited from speaking at a Regents dinner is an issue of academic freedom? If I don't want to mow Larry Summers' lawn because I don't like what he said, am I also violating academic freedom?   Once upon a time I was sick of political correctness. By now I am mostly sick of the martyrdom of its foes.")  It is, indeed, foolish to hang the albatross of one remarkably ignorant speech given several years ago around the neck of someone like Summers who has multiple professional and scholarly accomplishments that might make him an interesting speaker, but only on the paranoid right would someone think this at all comparable to the case of outside political muscle resulting in the rescission of a job offer!

And that brings us to the far odder aspect of Professor Bernstein's opinion piece.  for Professor Bernstein claims that the Chemerinsky case is "highly unusual" because "the pressure to enforce political orthodoxy at Chemerinsky's expense came from the right, not the left." 

In fact, from the McCarthy era to the present, the most successful efforts to "enforce political orthodoxy"--the ones that resulted in people being fired from jobs, or having their jobs threatened--have almost all come from the right in the United States.  Professor Bernstein may be blind to this because many of the targets of smear campaigns and orchestrated attacks by political forces outside the universities have, in recent years, been critics of Israeli policy, from Norman Finkelstein to Joseph Massad.  But how many times in the last 50 years have "liberal" politicians and interest groups outside universities successfully mobilized to get someone fired or even threatened that person's tenure because of "conservative" views?  Where are the right-wing counterparts to M.I. Finley, Chandler Davis, Clement Market, and Staughton Lynd, among many others?

I guess there must have been at least one case Professor Bernstein had in mind, but, to be honest, I can't think of any.

So what in the world is Professor Bernstein thinking? 

What he has in mind is suggested when he writes that,

the primary challenge facing academic freedom in American universities: the rise of an academic far-left establishment that seeks to use universities as a base for political activism, and is perfectly willing to violate accepted standards of academic freedom to achieve that goal.

As an example, Professor Bernstein indicts the field of Women's Studies.  He might have chosen the field of economics as a more striking example, though it does not fit his fantastic vision of the academy as a bastion of the fearsome "left":

"There is much too much ideology," said Alan Blinder, a professor [of economics] at Princeton and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Economics, he added, is "often a triumph of theory over fact."

This charge, if warranted (and far be it from me to dispute the assessment of an economist of Professor Blinder's standing in the field), should strike those outside universities as far more worrisome, given the role that economics plays in public policy.  And since the "ideology" that dominates economics--and which lets theory trump facts--is a kind of free market utopianism, it can hardly be adduced as evidence of the make-believe "academic far-left establishment."

In any case, diversity is overrated as an intellectual virtue, as I noted a couple of years ago in my debate with Peter Schuck (Yale) about "ideological diversity" in law schools.  My central example was none other than Professor Bernstein's own law school, George Mason:

I think again of George Mason, the least intellectually diverse law school in the United States, but whose phenomenal success in the last 25 years is largely attributable to that fact. A familiar fact in academic life is that intellectual and scholarly work often flourishes in an environment where like-minded individuals can work together. By adopting as its market niche "conservative/ libertarian law and economics," George Mason has been able to attract a highly productive and accomplished faculty, who no doubt stimulate each other to do more and better work. One of the more unfortunate consequence of Justice Powell's introduction of the "diversity" mantra into American public discourse is that it obscures the extent to which in scholarly pursuits depth, subtlety, and the comprehensive exploration of the possibilities of an intellectual paradigm require the stimulation of colleagues who share some basic premises, substantive and methodological: it's some degree of homogeneity, not diversity, that often makes possible the deepest work.

UPDATE:  Professor Bernstein is unmoved, alas.  I should note that I thought Economics a "more striking example" because it is a more central and substantial academic discipline than the various ethnic or gender studies fields.  (His data on the economics profession is also rather misleading.)  I fear Professor Bernstein also has a mistaken impression of why Larry Summers resigned, but it had nothing to do, on any account I have seen, with forces outside the university engagead in persecution of him for his political views.


Of Academic Interest | Permalink

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