Drawing the Line

Cathy Young's syndicated column today opines on the University of Wisconsin's decision to let instructor Kevin Barrett teach his 9/11 "inside job" conspiracy theory as part of a course titled "Islam: Religion and Culture". Cathy comments:

Defenders of the course say that academic freedom is at stake. But does academic freedom really protect the teaching of what Farrell politely calls ``unconventional" views? How about a course expounding on Flat Earth theory and presenting ``compelling evidence" that the moon landing was faked? Or, better yet, how about a course called ``Germany: History and Culture," in which the instructor presented his ``unconventional" view that the Holocaust is a myth and Hitler was a misunderstood great leader?
I note that people tend to ask these questions a lot more often than they answer them. Not that I think crackpottery has any place in the classroom. But say it's your task to draw a bright line between crackpottery and mere "unconventional views". How are you going to do that? Is answering that question really as easy as Cathy seems to think?

Probably not. But Ann Althouse (a UW prof) has also read Cathy's column, and has a pretty insightful comment:

To be fair, I think most liberals and lefties around here -- not that I'm talking to everyone -- just want to keep their distance from this character. The strategy is to move to a high level of abstraction and talk about academic freedom. I'd like to see them use their free speech to say some more robust things and to engage with the horror that ordinary citizens feel when they see something this repulsive being taught at what they think they should be able to embrace as their public university.

The official reaction from the provost must feel snooty and elitist: You people need to appreciate abstract principles. But when the tables are turned, for example, in the case of affirmative action, the university will say exactly the opposite: You people naively refer to abstract principles, but you don't understand the subtle, contexualized problem.

It's no wonder people get so mad at us. And it's no wonder right wingers find rich raw material to exploit. Why don't the good, serious, scholarly, sane liberals and lefties at the University of Wisconsin speak to the citizens who are watching us?

For an absolutist First Amendment view, see Samantha Harris at FIRE's blog:
The First Amendment exists precisely to protect highly controversial speech. The Supreme Court has said that free speech "may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger." … Kudos to UW for standing up for the First Amendment in the face of tremendous public pressure. As noxious as Barrett's views may be to most of us, he is entitled to express them without fear of government sanction (make no mistake about it, being fired from a government job for publicly expressing a controversial viewpoint is indeed government sanction). Let us never sacrifice the freedoms that define us as a nation simply to avoid confronting hurtful or offensive ideas.
… which is fine, as far as it goes, but by referring to Barrett's views as merely "controversial" and (even) "noxious", Ms. Harris sidesteps the issue of whether Barrett's views are also false, deceitful, and irrational. (Which, well, they are.)

And Barrett isn't merely expected to "express" those views; he's expected to teach them in a college classroom as part of his paid professional duties. On the taxpayer's dime. (And, of course, the tuition-payer's dime too.)

Of course, public universities are legally required to be especially sensitive to First Amendment issues. But does that really extend to putting every possible moonbat into a classroom? We're back to Cathy's questions: if a chemistry instructor becomes enamoured of the phlogiston theory, does he belong in front of students?

Alas, also like Cathy, I've got more questions than answers. I wish that (a) there were a set of "bright line" tests to distinguish crapola from the "unconventional"; and (b) college administrations that could be relied upon to implement those tests fairly. Unfortunately, I have no idea where to find either one of those.

Prof Althouse sagely points out to Wisconsin students: "You have the power to strand Mr. Barrett in an empty room." I'll add, to prospective Wisconsin students: you have the power to turn the campus into a ghost town. Just go somewhere else.


[Amazon Link] [3.0
stars] [IMDb Link]

If you're ever tempted to be unfaithful by a mysterious and sultry woman who looks like Jennifer Aniston, this movie will discourage you somewhat. You'll probably wind up being menaced by a French-speaking psycho.

Other than that, it's a pretty good thriller, although you have to drop your skepticism filter a few notches to buy into some of the twists and turns of the plot. Clive Owen is relentlessly dour through the entire spectacle, as his life slowly hurtles to seemingly inevitable ruin.

The "unrated" DVD is about 5 minutes longer than the R-rated theatrical release, but beats me if I can figure out what they might have added; it's still a pretty solid R. My theory is that they did this to appeal to potential customers hoping to see, um, something more from Ms. Aniston than you would see in a typical Friends rerun. Consumer alert: don't be deluded! This doesn't happen!

Last Modified 2012-10-23 2:45 PM EDT