Saving The Soul Of Academia
In this third installment of a multi-part essay, Hellishly Good Intentions, Patrick Ross examines how academia and scholarly research has been corrupted by political ideology and conspiracy theorists in ivory towers.
It was once said that “the victors write the history books”, inferring that history’s losers – or victims – do not. This may have once been actually true.
No longer. Today, losers can write history books nearly as often as the winners, victims just as often as their oppressors, and on an increasingly-frequent scale. The reason for this is the amount of freedom the free world extends to its academics.
For example, a book like A Peoples’ History of the United States by Howard Zinn could never be written in countries like Libya or Saudi Arabia – orin countries like Cuba, Venezuala, or the Soviet Union (countries with whom the author was said to hold affinity). The book, which sought to re-cast American history through the eyes of black slaves, Indian tribes and other oppressed peoples, was not only published in the United States, but even managed to rise to enough prominence to warrant mention in the film Good Will Hunting.
Good luck to any Turkish academics who would like to write a book about Turkish history written from the point-of-view of massacred Armenians. Or to any Iranian academics who would like to author a tome from the perspective of Kurds. Or to a Chinese academic wishing to pen a volume from the viewpoint of Uyghurs.
These things just don’t happen. Although, to adopt a cynical view on fairness, one must note that Iran is academically free enough to host a Holocaust denial conference. Holocaust denial is illegal in numerous countries around the world, including Germany, Poland, and Israel.
This, of course, raises another caveatto the “victors write history” adage: the losers can often freely write their history books in other countries – even in distinctly unfreecountries with an ideological stake in overturning known historical fact.
In the interest of historical revisionism, imagine Howard Zinn as a Soviet dissident wishing to write a book on Soviet history from the perspective of Holodomor victims. There’s not a chance of it, and anyone who imagines otherwise is simply deluding themselves. Aleksandr Solzhhenitsyn had to defect to the west in order to safely write The Gulag Archipelago.
The truth doesn’t necessarily always have ideological applications, although portions of it often do. Facts are unideological; the decision of which facts are worthy of recognition, which facts are unworthy of recognition, and how they may be interpreted are matters that are inherently ideological.
Holocaust deniers like to complain that truth doesn’t require censorship for its protection. However, it must be noted that Holocaust denial isn’t about which facts may be acknowledged and which may not; it isn’t even a matter of interpretation. It’s actually a matter of whether or not it’s legally permissible to deny demonstrable historical fact.
Holocaust denial is employed for specific ideological ends. More often than not, it’s an attempt by those who empathize with those who lost the Second World War to try to delete Nazi war crimes from history.
McFaul notes that such effort is an illegitimate means of pursuing truth; one that is not a sound survival behaviour.
“Truth is reality,” McFaul writes (McFaul, 2010). “To live by the truth is to live according to reality as it actually exists and not as it is imagined to exist.”
Those who seek to artificially erase atrocities from history bastardize history for the purpose of living in reality not as it is – wherein Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist Party orchestrated the murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and those they deemed defective – but reality with a history as they would pretend it is. They would choose to live with history not as it exists, but as they would imagine it.
The case is likewise but converse for 9/11 “truth”ers, who don’t seek to erase an atrocity from pages of history, but rather to distort one that already exists. In order to do this, they have used very similar means to that of the Holocaust denier. Whatever facts they cannot distort, they simply invent.
Unlike Holocaust deniers, for whom the ideological purpose of their enterprise is clear – it covers a short range in between exonerating Nazism to invalidating the state of Israel – the ideological purpose of 9/11 “truth” is far from lucid. In the hands of many it is used as a political weapon; these individuals allege that 9/11 was a false flag terrorist operation, one orchestrated and executed by the George W Bush administration. (Anti-Israeli activism also rears its head; some blame 9/11 on Israel.) Some others claim 9/11 was perpetrated by a collection of shadowy organizations such as the famed Bilderberg Group with an eye on a single world government.
Fortunately, Holocaust denial has never taken root in any respectable or self-respecting academic institution. To question whether or not the Holocaust took place remains not only a criminal act in many countries, but an instant forfeiture of one’s academic credibility.
This is a deeply fortuitous detail. Should the extremists who seek to erase the Holocaust from the pages of history succeed in doing so, they could restore respectability for Nazism and fascism in the eyes of those willing to overlook its racist faults and varying brutalities.
It’s on this note that a law rendering it criminal to question the Holocaust may not even be necessary. So long as the academy refuses to even consider granting Holocaust denial any semblance of credibility, the ultimate goal of Holocaust denial has already been denied to them.
On its surface, 9/11 “truth” has a far more benign purpose. To that end it’s far less alarming that scholars within the academy – the majority of whom hold an extreme far-left political agenda benefitted by the alleged “revelations” of 9/11 “truth” – have begun to embrace 9/11 “truth”. Some of their students have even begun to make these theories the centre of post-graduate academic studies, supported by government-funded scholarships.
Excessively liberal interpretations of academic freedom have proven to be a structural weakness susceptible to the ideological pathology of 9/11 “truth”. This is disappointing. But Holocaust denial, at least for now, remains so virulent that even the most indulging academics will not even consider it. The immune system of the academy, so to speak, remains inoculated against this particular pathology.
This inoculation, however, will only hold so long as notions of academic standards and academic respectability hold. When those standards begin to break down – as one almost certainly sees with the creep of 9/11 “truth” into the academy – nearly anything becomes possible.
Those who open the back door of the academy to such dubious theories have the best intentions at heart. Unfortunately, the road to hell is frequently paved with good intentions.
There are many ways in which this proverbial back door is opened. One is through hiring practices that put academic merit second to inherently political considerations. A key case in point is how university administrators have approached ethnic and gender diversity.
Underlying this is a very stark assumption: that if minorities aren’t represented on a scale considered appropriate, it isn’t because of a lack of suitable candidates among any one ethnic or gender group, it’s because of “racism in the academy”.
This seems to be the view expressed by Hariet Eisenkraft in a recent article appearing in University Affairs. Entitled “Racism in the Academy”, the article suggests that “structural racism” – intentional and unintentional vestiges of bias against “racialized academics” – confronts such academics with numerous professional obstacles.
In the article, it’s argued that diversity is key to academic merit. More than this, it’s argued – by University of Ottawa law professor Constance Backhouse – that there can be no academic merit without ethnic diversity.
But as University of New Brunswick sociologist Dr Ricardo Duchesne explains, the urgency of eliminating what these individuals deem “structural racism” either reduces the scope of importance of academic merit, or simply turns it on its head:
“What really matters for progressives is not equality of opportunity as a right but equality as a fact and equality as a result. This is why they have started advocating a way of thinking about merit consistent with ‘equity and diversity.’ Grace-Edward Galabuzi, associate professor in politics at Ryerson, thinks that ‘When you have a critical mass of PhDs in a whole range of disciplines, the issue of whether you have to choose between [race] representation or quality [is] moot.’ Tom Patch says ‘excellence in the academy requires equity and diversity.’ The goal, it seems to me, is to enforce some racial or sexual balance rather than to encourage intellectual openness and variety. Professor Backhouse even says that those administrators who fail to make progress on diversity should be condemned as ‘not meritorious.’ Excellence requires agreement with her agenda. (Duchesne, 2010)”
There is, of course, an assumption that ethnic and gender balance guarantees intellectual openness and variety.
On some levels, this is actually rather intuitive. A broadening of cultural horizons at post-secondary institutions does, indeed, require the recruitment of academics who are willing to break the Eurocentric mold. The contributions made by ancient African and Polynesian societies have made to the determination of truth are very frequently recovered through the work of anthropologists; however, there is much to be said about preserving those contributions before they are lost to cultural obscurity.
But there is a very concerning subtext to Backhouse’s assertion. Making ethnic and gender parity the overruling pretension of academics risks granting artificially-inflated merit to the work of academics whose works otherwise may not meet proper standards. The quest for ethnic and gender parity doesn’t rule out the possibility – or perhaps even the likelihood -- that academic institutions may be forced to choose between representation and quality.
Moreover, as Dr Duchesne points out, equity hiring programs haven’tbroadened intellectual diversity, especially not in the humanities. He alludes to the example of the University of Saskatchewan’s Dr Peter Li, and notes that Dr Li is anything buta lone minority voice in his department.
“Of the 15 full-time faculty members teaching in Dr Li’s department, eight are females, and three of the males, together with Dr Li, are visible minorities of Asian origin. What is more, most of these members have research interests that touch on race, ethnicity, multiculturalism and social inequality,” Duchesne notes (Duchesne, 2010). Upon further examination of the university’s sociology faculty one discovers that at leasttwo of the university’s female professors are aboriginal, and at least one is African Canadian.
The University of Saskatchewan’s sociology faculty may not be perfectly representative of Canada’s – or even Saskatchewan’s – ethnic population. But to pretend that ethnic minorities are underrepresented on the department’s faculty is simply ideologically self-indulgent.
Racism is often poorly defined by such individuals, making evidence difficult to produce and evaluate. Sometimes, however, the evidence produced actually falls quite short of the mark.
“Scholars relate stories of disrespect from students, faculty and staff,” Eisenkraft writes (Eisenkraft, 2010). “One remembers a white student telling her that she held the position because she is non-white and that her salary was probably higher as a result.”
Eisenkraft treats this episode as evidence of racism on the students’ part. However, it can quite easily be interpreted differently: as an expression of the kind of cynicism engendered by affirmative action programs. (This interpretation is admittedly no less subjective than Eisenkraft’s; whether or not this interpretation is any more appropriate can’t be determined without knowing the mind of the student, something that Eisenkraft has no more access to than this author.)
Some would look at such an example and suspect they’re seeing a confirmation bias at work; it serves Eisenkraft’s agenda to find racism in the academy, and so she – and those who share her agenda – seek examples that confirm it. Any evidence that racism is notendemic in the academy is simply discarded.
It’s becoming shockingly common for academic exercises to be twisted in service of a specific agenda.
Even more recently, a graduate thesis submitted to – and accepted by – the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education by Jennifer Peto has revealed what many consider to be a need to re-evaluate academic standards at many institutions, including OISE. University of British Columbia professor emeritusof sociology Werner Cohn examined the abstracts of OISE theses and found many of them to be alarmingly academically suspect.
Cohn writes that “In half the cases, these theses appear to be so marred by political jargon and political preconceptions that they should never have been accepted into the corpus in which they are in fact found, viz a collection of putative contributions to knowledge — theses officially certified by the University of Toronto.”
Peto’s thesis was rather vigorously defended – in the comments section of a Macleans on Campusblogpost on the matter – by Joshua Blakeney, the same University of Lethbridge graduate student receiving a Queen Elizabeth II scholarship to support his 9/11 “truth”-themed studies.
Blakeney must intuitively recognize that he shares with Peto a common interest in the degradation of standards of academic merit. In his case, it offers him the prospect of sneaking his 9/11 “truth” theories in through the back door of the academy. In Peto’s case, her argument was that Holocaust education programs provide the state of Israel with artificial cover for its alleged “apartheid” misdeeds.
Intriguingly, Peto’s argument – which attempted to warp the methodology of grievance-based politics in order to deny Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent) their Holocaust-related grievances based on their alleged “white privilege” – shares a common argumentative thread with Holocaust deniers: that Jews (or at least white Jews) are not victims.
Fortunately for Peto, she’s chosen to speak on behalf of what a specific ideological community has deemed to be a victimized people – Palestinians. Fortunately for Peto, she’s chosen to speak against those who that ideological community deep to be their oppressors – Israel.
Were Peto questioning the victimhood of any group considered by these ideological circles to be victims she would likely be subject to the application of university speech codes meant to enforce respect for the grievances – real and imagined – of such groups.
Peto has not been subject to the litany of university speech codes that accomplish this end, nor is she likely ever to be.
I Canada, however, these kinds of speech codes have managed to escape the confines of the university, and infiltrate non-academic society, in the form of the human rights commission.
McFaul. The Future of Truth and Freedom in the Global Village. p 2.