27 September 2007

Liberal posturing



President of Columbia University Lee Bollinger:

this is the right thing to do and, indeed, it is required by existing norms of free speech, the American university, and Columbia itself ... [In] universities, we have a deep and almost single-minded commitment to pursue the truth. We do not have access to the levers of power. We cannot make war or peace. We can only make minds. And to do this we must have the most full freedom of inquiry.
On Monday, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech at Columbia. This, not surprisingly, aroused some controversy. Columbia claimed its right to invite whom it likes, as part of its remit of promoting free debate. Fair enough.

But claiming that this demonstrates the perfect liberality of the contemporary academic community, and its tolerance of the full range of viewpoints? "In universities, we have a deep and almost single-minded commitment to pursue the truth"? Excuse me if I'm a little sceptical. Bollinger claimed that they would have invited Hitler if he had been willing to engage in debate. This seems disingenuous. I cannot imagine Columbia inviting (say) Jean-Marie Le Pen or Jörg Haider — or, come to that, anyone with seriously non-PC views.

Stanford cannot even elect Donald Rumsfeld to a Hoover Institution fellowship without faculty members being up in arms about it. Harvard could not bear its President Larry Summers suggesting that inequality between the sexes might have something to do with genetic endowment.
In January 2005 Summers suggested ... the possibility that many factors outside of socialization could explain why there were more men than women in high-end science and engineering positions. He suggested one such possible reason could be men's higher variance in relevant innate abilities or innate preference ... On March 15 2005, members of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed a motion of "lack of confidence" in the leadership of Summers. (Wikipedia)
The US is one of the few places where an explicitly conservative academic body (Hoover) is permitted to exist in association with an A-list university (Stanford). In Britain, the kind of hoo-ha over Rumsfeld couldn't happen: someone of an obviously right-wing persuasion would never be considered for faculty in the first place.

A mediocracy likes to take pride in its supposed tolerance and liberality. What it is actually tolerant and liberal towards may be rather specific, e.g. sex, rudeness, brutality in movies, certain types of crime, resentment of inequality, other cultures (provided they are large enough).

On the other hand, things which mediocracy tolerates only grudgingly if at all include: capital accumulation, celibacy, non-egalitarian ideologies, non-proletarian versions of masculinity, private medicine, business, Christianity, hierarchy, and aristocracy. What distinguishes mediocracy, then, is not greater tolerance per se, but an ideological shift accompanied by promotion of some things and disapproval of others.

If you want some ideas about why Islam seems to pass ideological criteria for being tolerated better than Christianity does, see this post at Protein Wisdom.

More scepticism about Columbia's moral high ground here.