Thursday, April 24, 2008

One more time. notetaking (d.ghirlandaio)
This whole debate is annoying. Brian Leiter is annoying.
The defense of academic "freedom" better described as academic independence, is that once someone has jumped through enough professional hoops he may not be forced to do so again. Any form of social status is political in one way or another, and tenure is a marker after which someone has a right to think pretty much whatever he wants, no matter how absurd. This is not a defense of idiocy any more than it's a claim that whoever passes the mark is a genius or a light unto the world. What it is is a claim that paying some people to be free of constraint, in their thoughts, results on the whole in a social good. Yoo clearly isn't stupid, but he's not that bright. He's a mediocrity, but a mediocrity who's past the post and has reached safe haven for his ideas in the academy. If he defends the actions of Nazi jurists he's safe, though if he did so earlier he might not have gotten tenure (there's the ambiguity of intellectual life as a subset of social life)

If Yoo behaved as a Nazi lawyer he may be disbarred and perhaps charged. But the decision as to whether he crossed that line is not something for the academy to decide. Yoo is a scholar, but he was a jobbing lawyer: his misconduct, if that's what it was, was a misconduct of tradecraft and his guild and prosecutors should be the ones to investigate. If they find him culpable then the academy can choose to expel him. If you want another example think of William Kunstler defending John Gotti's sleazeball attorney Bruce Cutler. And Kunstler defended him on principle. It's a tricky situation.

What's annoying, indeed pathetic about Lieter's argument is his tone. He defends Cloudkookooland as he always does, as the land of enlightenment, when in fact it is a social construction allowing members of our community the freedom to think as casually and sloppily and self-indulgently as they wish, with the knowledge -the hope- that some of them will actually use that freedom to come up with things that they and we would otherwise miss. Yoo is a mediocrity; most professors are mediocrities. A precious few are not. Academic independence is worth the risks, not only of mediocrity but of fostering doctrines injurious to our way of life. As it is worth the risk that the guilty to go free before an innocent man rots to jail. As it is worth the risk to allow freedom of speech to the bitter. The bitter, the aloof, the lazy and the arrogant may sometimes by right. A historian of all things[!], in a post at Crooked Timber wrote proudly that academic freedom predates freedom of speech, defending it as if the Crown's recognition were a valid defense. The arrogance in this case is undeserved.

Academic free speech is an early example of the fight for broader rights. It preceded open free speech in the past for the same reasons it's been granted now in China, which was noted with some surprise by Ronald Dworkin when when he was invited to speak at a university in in Shanghai. To acknowledge that the Crown saw fit to acquiesce is not a defense of the crown, nor is it a wise choice to use the crown as a defense of the prerogatives of academia. That's little more than a defense of the priesthood. "To the pure all things are pure." A historian shouldn't make such mistakes. But he did. As Leiter does, in his ridiculous, obscene, moralizing tone.
The classic defense of the free market is that its openness, vulgarity and risk act as an astringent, testing and tightening thought what would otherwise risk becoming arid blather. But now that the market has reached the academy it wants to escape its roots. So we have an academy predicated not on the hopes and ambiguities of the humanities and of democracy but on the technocratic logic of reactionary schoolmen.

The defense of Yoo's place in the academy is no more or less than a recognition of human weakness partiality, fallibility and unreason. We stumble and acknowledge it, even allowing ourselves to do so so that we may learn. We are fools and lying about it does no good. The defense of academic freedom is not that non-academics are wrong but that we are all even the experts most likely wrong most of the time. The defense of academic freedom is a humble one, not a lecture by the Aristoi to the Hoi Polloi. I'll end with a quote from Henry Farrell who really, really, really, does not get the fucking point:
“I’ve suggested that academic freedom is a good thing on pragmatic grounds, but also made clear that it fundamentally depends on public willingness to delegate some degree of self-governance to the academy. If the public decides that academic freedom isn’t working out in terms of the goods it provides, then too bad for academic freedom.”
To which one can only add that If the public decides that democracy isn’t working out in terms of the goods it provides, then too bad for democracy. Democracy does not begin with the freedom of the individual but with his willing acceptance of responsibility. That the arguments of the academy are now predicated on the former as opposed even to an analysis of their reciprocal relation, is a misunderstanding of language and history and the function of republican forms of government; a misunderstanding of the nature os society itself. Academic independence says this perversion should be allowed, but its a sad state of affairs.

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