Right Scholarship

A blasting site for a new Catholic cultural criticism

Month: October, 2012

The political pendulum

Inside Higher Ed reported this week on a US survey showing that “Among full-time faculty members at four-year colleges and universities, the percentage identifying as ‘far left’ or liberal has increased notably in the last three years . . .” This is not comforting news, but at least we know that the further the political pendulum in academia continues its decades-long swing to left, the harder and faster will be its return to the right–at which point, with any luck, a new balance will be established.

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The ‘free speech’ trap

PEN Canada‘s non-event, the Non-Speak Week, came to an end last week. Once again, PEN’s focus was on pro-democracy writers persecuted by authoritarian governments. These cases are important to address, but focusing on them creates the illusion that the power to silence is held only by governments, and is only exercised by governments that do not uphold the twin pillars of transparency and democracy. If only it were that simple . . .

PEN tends to overlook the obvious. The elephant in the room in any discussion of free speech in Canada is good old Ernst Zundel, the Holocaust denier that Canadians loved to hate in the 1980s. Zundel baited the public and set himself up as a media martyr, but nevertheless, the treatment he received in our courts, along with his later detention and deportation to Germany where he was imprisoned for years, was a blatant and very public example of the denial of freedom of speech in Canada. The repercussions of his trials and deportation are still being felt, as he continues to inspire an ugly underground of Hitler-loving wingnuts as well as some of the more radical anti-Semites in the Middle East. PEN doesn’t mention his name (at least in any materials that I could locate online), perhaps because they know that in the eyes of some, defending his right to free speech would imply agreement with his views. They know what Noam Chomsky went through when he defended Robert Faurisson. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I can tell, PEN never launched a campaign to free Zundel.

If I were a free-speech advocate, and I am not, I would writhe in shame for not standing up for Zundel’s rights when it counted, and not using his case as a prime example of the persecution of writers and publishers in Canada. Addressing his case would take ammunition away from those who would lure people into racist organizations by pretending to defend free speech (one such organization can easily be found through Google searches). The persecution of Holocaust deniers in the West has been addressed by both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the late Osama Bin Laden: they’ve asked how the West can both support freedom of speech and imprison people like Zundel and David Irving. There’s no good answer.

There’s a lot of talk these days about how freedom of speech doesn’t imply freedom from consequences. This is nonsense; it actually requires freedom from consequences. If you don’t accept this, it would follow that there’s nothing wrong with a regime killing dissidents if these dissidents knew that speaking out would result in death. I’d recommend anyone interested in the complexities of the free speech issue to listen to Christopher Hitchens’ brave and eloquent 2006 debate talk at Hart House in Toronto.

A relative lack of support for Zundel and other unglamorous speech-martyrs aside, PEN’s focus on writers persecuted by the state is misleading. Almost all power to restrict freedom of speech in liberal democracies lies in the hands of employers, who can in many cases easily fire employees for their opinions, or choose not to hire. In a world where contract work and multiple careers are becoming the norm, this is a growing problem. Social media has made it a simple task to determine a person’s opinions, political or otherwise. Every employer now has resources formerly held only by CSIS or similar organizations. How many of us were smart enough to erase all of our tracks online, from the newsgroup era to the Facebook era? Luckily, most employers are decent people and choose not to pry too deeply into the private lives of their employees. Still, the power is theirs. Of course, if you hold socially acceptable opinions you don’t need to worry, for now.

How does all of this relate to academia? PhD students, contract instructors, and tenure-track professors live in constant fear of the professional repercussions their political views might have. They are not worried about being hounded by CSIS; rather, they fear the hiring committee. Although the faculty hiring process is expensive and time-consuming for both departments and candidates, final decisions are often largely arbitrary, based on nebulous, subjective qualities like “fit.” There is plenty of room for politically-motivated screening to take place, before, during and after interviews. If you have different political opinions than those held by the committee, you will likely be found out. If you have managed to hide your political opinions by never speaking out in public and choosing to work on ‘non-political’ issues (if such exist) in a way that either betrays no political motivation or mimics the motivations of those you oppose, I feel sorry for you, and you probably won’t get hired anyway. The situation is not fair, but it’s what we have to work with.

Right Thinkers are a minority, and I would advocate for freedom of speech if I thought it would protect us. I would also defend the principle of freedom of speech if it could reasonably be defended. Instead, I think Right Thinkers should speak honestly and clearly, without appealing to the concept of freedom of speech (except, of course, if strategically unavoidable in a legal situation). Use prudence, but never lie or mislead. Prepare to stand your ground when you face criticism, ostracism or worse. Frequent and forceful truth-telling cannot be resisted indefinitely.

Appealing to the principle of freedom of speech only adds a layer of deception to your message. The very concept of free speech is restrictive, because it cannot become absolute without defeating itself. Allowing freedom of speech for those that oppose freedom of speech could easily lead to the end of freedom of speech. There is also no way to clearly distinguish between regular speech and hate speech or incitement. A seemingly innocuous speech-act, in the right circumstances, can be interpreted as a sign to riot, revolt, rampage or persecute. Even silence (the refusal to condemn) can function that way. Context plays too great a role.

Because it can never be absolute, freedom of speech is never just in practice. Some speakers are always left out in the cold. Free speech defenders like PEN bless certain forms of speech and damn others, indirectly, through inattention and non-action. In other words, it is the free speech advocates themselves who survey the speech landscape and determine who can speak freely. The moment you advocate for free speech you betray your principles, for you are not only luring cautious free-thinkers out of the shadows by perpetuating the myth that free speech exists, but also focusing your gaze on a privileged category of persecuted speakers that you will defend. The others who have revealed themselves find that there’s no more room on the ark, and are left to their fate.

Getting caught up in the free speech issue is a trap. It’s a tool people use to gain support for their views; after they have made it safe for themselves to speak, they proceed to silence their opponents.

The fight is not to speak without consequences but to speak the truth, whatever the consequences.

Knowledge Chaos (KCh)

I have had a nightmare vision of the academic future, and it is Knowledge Mobilization (KMb). I saw, in my fevered dream, a vast network of knowledge brokers, knowledge traders, and knowledge hedge fund managers creating a knowledge market that grew to titanic proportions and then just popped . . . when it became clear that nobody was actually using any of this knowledge. People had returned to consulting well-rounded experts, who are adept at knowledge synthesis, which is a skill that can’t be democratized or achieved through social-media collaboration.

Knowledge Mobilization is a model for the dissemination of knowledge acquired through academic research, and is the key idea in the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Knowledge Mobilization Strategy. Programs such as York University and University of Victoria’s ResearchImpact (their Mobilize This! blog is on WordPress) are attempting to put KMb into action.

Here’s the basic idea, as I understand it from a perusal of the ResearchImpact site:

A “knowledge-user” needs information to make a decision, so he/she connects with a “knowledge broker” at a particular university. The knowledge broker chooses a number of relevant “Research Snapshots” held by the university, which are plain-language translations of research conducted by university “knowledge-creators.” The broker then passes the snapshots along to the knowledge-user, who uses the information in the snapshots to make a decision about a problem. This is the process by which KMb feeds “Social Innovation.”

I won’t talk about how this approach marginalizes the humanities. A more serious problem arises:

If SSHRC tends to fund research that is ‘relevant‘ to the things that knowledge-users deal with, and KMb supplies knowledge-users with this relevant knowledge, research paradigms will shift in accordance with knowledge-user demands. This will create a system rooted in the present, which means that research designed to be relevant will be rendered worthless when social or economic circumstances change. Research that at first looked shiny and Apple-esque will suddenly look like last year’s IPhone (is there a discount on knowledge that’s past its ‘best before’ date?) and there will be no existing research to draw upon in order to face new, unexpected realities.

A more practical problem is that if policy-makers rely on Research Snapshots to make decisions, they are likely basing their decision on a small number of studies. In even the most science-focused disciplines, research findings can contradict each other. You need an expert in the field who can look at decades of studies and come to a reasoned conclusion.

For example, if you access the ResearchImpact database of Research Snapshots and search under the category of “identity” (maybe you’re a knowledge-user dealing with immigration policy or something similar) you will find two snapshots, each describing the result of a particular research project. Each snapshot features a “What you need to know” paragraph that provides an easy-to-digest summary. The problem is that each of these snapshots provides starkly different advice. Here are the key ideas in each “What you need to know” section:

From research by Ian McGregor: “Identity confusion causes people to become more hostile and aggressive toward those who do not share their beliefs.”

From research by Robert Latham: “Multiversalism is a positive alternative to multiculturalism. Canada is a multiverse made up of many different identities and realms, which intersect and overlap. Canadian identity isn’t fixed or homogenous. Viewing Canada as a multiverse is ultimately more honest and comprehensive. Modern life already tends to be multiversal in nature. Canada has an opportunity to create the first truly transnational society.”

It would seem that Canadian Multiversalism, in which “identity isn’t fixed or homogenous,” would cause social violence if advocated as is recommended by the second study. What is a knowledge-user to do? Forget the knowledge broker: cough up some extra money and hire an expert.

Business models do not suit academia. Not all research can be immediately put to use in the knowledge economy. Some of it will never be relevant, but history is full of surprises, and new and unexpected connections can’t be made between ideas that never came into being because they couldn’t be packaged as commodities and traded.

Creative righting!: A poem about Canada

This blog is focused on academic issues, but I hope to offer some bits of “creative righting” occasionally. “The Holy Land: A Satire” is a poem of mine that I published on a separate blog, but since it’s received approximately zero hits (ah, the plight of the Internet poet), I thought I’d publish it here as well. Plus, it’s not really publishable anywhere else.

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, and this is my offering of gratitude.

The Holy Land: A Satire

Henry Wentworth Monk,
The Zionist prophet of Ottawa,
Left his cold hometown
For Palestine.
Like George Parkin Grant,
And Percy Wyndham Lewis,
And every decade’s brains and talent,
He gave up on Canada.
Why do all the best ones leave?
—They’re not the ones we need.
Let us force the rest to breed.
Let us make the Last Man.

Each Canadian is the brainchild
Of my ancient class of man—
Headquartered in this great nation,
We have sculpted generations.
Cash to fund my class comes from
Our liquidated native sons:
Scraped and gutted tiny martyrs,
Served on steel to Morgantaler.

We are they who razed the dams
To let two hundred-thousand in
Every year. We train and baptize
New Canadian citizens,
And free them in this fractured land.
(Ask the old ethnologists—
You cannot save a mongrel mix.
Mind you, please don’t mention this.
Bigots beware! Your hearts of hate
Will steam upon our dinner plates.)

On Canada we’ve staked our claim,
From sea to sea and pine to plain.
To our kind, this yawning tomb
Functions like a womb.

We offer no apologies
To tribes and cults that we’ve displaced.
There never were first nations here—
We were the first to walk this waste,
Given to us by our lord,
As part of his great plan
To hobble and castrate the West.
This is the holy land.

We consist of forces legion:
Every province, every region,
Every school and church and party
Bows to our control.
Canada is just the base;
Other lands will fall in place.
As you lie there, tied and muzzled,
Watch us make our tedious puzzle,
Watch us build our blandest breed
A global, just society.

Underneath our open spaces—
Snowfields void of human faces,
Maple jungles, deserts of wheat—
A hidden hell lies wide and deep.
Wails from this Cocytus,
Passing through the limestone,
Become a frigid wind to carry
Our mosaic syndrome.

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