Friday, February 28, 2014

Making Harvard a propaganda factory—UPDATED

Sandra Y. L. Korn, '14, progressivist Borg.
(Image source WND)
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Sandra Y. L. Korn, a Harvard senior double-majoring in history of science and studies of women, gender and sexuality (I heard you mutter, “Uh-oh”). In a Harvard Crimson post ironically titled “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom”, Korn has just advocated that Harvard remove itself from serious consideration as a center of academic research and become a generator of progressivist propaganda.

Not in so many words, of course. Her proposal, like Jonathan Swift’s, is modest:

… [The] liberal obsession with “academic freedom” seems a bit misplaced to me. After all, no one ever has “full freedom” in research and publication. Which research proposals receive funding and what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities. The words used to articulate a research question can have implications for its outcome. No academic question is ever “free” from political realities. If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?
Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

In a way, Korn’s argument is refreshing in its near-honesty. We already bias our research output by our funding and publication decisions, is the essence of her reasoning. We already have student activism to make sure conflicting positions are unwelcome here. Why be subtle about suppressing political heresies? Why not make it overt by writing it officially into school policy? I’m only surprised she didn’t suggest “academic justice” be written into Harvard’s hiring, retention and tenure standards.

Which makes me wonder: what are her grades in her history of science courses?

It’s not quite an irrelevant question. At some point, she should have learned why scientific papers are supposed to be peer-reviewed — not for ideological purity, but for proper application of the scientific method. (Perhaps, though, her indoctrination in women, gender and sexuality studies will have taught her that the peer-review system merely reinforces the misogynistic and heteronormative biases of the science community?)

Certainly at some point her class should have covered the “Galileo controversy”. One thing I’m less confident of is whether her history of science classes covered scientific research in Russia during the Communist period (1917 – 1991), or during the Nazi dominance of Germany (1933 – 1945). I shouldn’t need to observe that precedents for her proposal are hardly reassuring.

“Yes, but this time we want to do it to prevent oppression!”

But that’s not exactly true, is it? Because if a particular research line begins to indicate that a preferred policy — say, abortion upon request — actually causes women to suffer, would the denizens of Harvard allow the research to continue, or would it be shut down because the research supports the illegalization of abortion and (presumably) the “oppression” of women? Or let’s step into the realm of history: Suppose an historian’s research indicates that commonly-held examples of “gay marriage” in other cultures are/were merely friendship rituals. Would that research be suppressed because it’s “heterosexist”?

The real goal is not merely preventing oppression, an otherwise worthy achievement, but rather the suppression — or perhaps I should say oppression — of contrarian voices. However progressivism started at the beginning of the 20th century, modern progressives seemingly have a need to believe their enemies are horrible sociopathic monsters intent on shoving women and minorities back into servitude and second-class citizenship, a need decreasingly tactical and increasingly psychological. Worse, the belief is one of those things that progressivists do not suffer to be challenged.

One man’s “oppression” is another man’s “reasonable restriction”, just as one man’s “tyranny of the majority” is another’s “democracy in action”. This makes Korn’s “rigorous standard” actually very flexible, because progressives will always choose the subjective point of view when it serves their interests, so the “victims” or their representative will always be oppressed, and that oppression will never be trivial; the process will be mostly bush-league show trials and school-sanctioned academic lynch mobs. There’s no such thing as a fair trial for an ideological crime.

The free exchange of ideas is not an end in itself. Rather, the principle exists to serve the university’s orientation towards truth, by generating hypotheses, constructing explanatory models, and especially correcting error. A hypothesis or theory isn’t true merely because you don’t allow anything or anyone to falsify it. By extension, a public policy isn’t necessary just because you say it is; suppressing the voices of naysayers and critics won’t make it work if the theory on which it’s based is false. So much should be obvious.

The disciplines whose names end in “Studies” (Women’s Studies, Gender Studies, [fill in the blank] Studies, etc.) aren’t taken very seriously outside their own academic communities precisely because they collectively have a lousy reputation for cherry-picking evidence, sloppy methodology, misuse of social science terms and knee-jerk dismissal of any research that contradicts their presuppositions. However, these traits aren’t confined to the “Studies” disciplines. Wherever politics meets academia, charges and countercharges of bias fly from both sides.

This has been going on since long before my freshman year of college over twenty years ago. Indeed, I hardly expect the credibility of the social sciences to survive the culture wars. In a sense, the social sciences are trapped by the widely-held belief that objectivity isn’t possible, that the best researchers can hope for is intersubjectivity, which at best can mean scientific consensus, but at worst simply means the communal sharing of prejudices and sacred-cow errors. Korn’s argument implicitly concedes that the process — at least Harvard’s process — is already corrupted.

Per WND’s Joe Kovacs, conservative loudmouth Rush Limbaugh, on learning of the article, stated:

This woman, Sandra Korn, is real, and she’s serious that free speech needs to be abridged because it is threatening liberalism. It means that liberalism cannot hold up to scrutiny. It cannot withstand a challenge. If liberalism were infallible, if liberalism were so powerful and automatic, they would welcome challenges to it — and they would welcome the attempt to persuade and to convert. But instead they’re threatened by it.

I don’t quite agree. Modern progressivism — which is a more appropriate label than liberalism — isn’t fussed about intellectual honesty or withstanding scrutiny; the time for that has passed. Progressivism has now become a kind of left-wing fascist movement … incapable of admitting error, suppressing criticism, corrupting the democratic process, slowly moving us toward a totalitarian one-party state in the name of the goods it has decided are ultimate.

Progressivism, as Korn illustrates, has become illiberal.

It’s my hope that Harvard’s leadership see some danger in breaking the current gentlemen’s agreement to appear unbiased. But I don’t know how long the status quo can last. One day, fifty years from now, as we sell young girls from polygamous families to brothels as sex slaves, perhaps some people will wake up and finally agree that perhaps the slope was a little slippery.

Update: April 14, 2014
Ross Douthat, a lonely voice of sanity and sobriety in the increasingly shrill and silly New York Times, brings us back to Sandra Korn’s illiberal proposition through reflection on the deposition of Mozilla founder Brandon Eich and Brandeis University’s withdrawal of its offer of an honorary degree to human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Of course, I hold him to be wise and insightful because he agrees with me:

I am (or try to be) a partisan of pluralism, which requires respecting Mozilla’s right to have a C.E.O. whose politics fit the climate of Silicon Valley, and Brandeis’[] right to rescind degrees as it sees fit, and Harvard’s freedom to be essentially a two-worldview community, with a campus shared uneasily by progressives and corporate neoliberals, and a small corner reserved for token reactionary cranks.
But this respect is difficult to maintain when these institutions will not admit that this is what is going on. Instead, we have the pretense of universality — the insistence that the post-Eich Mozilla is open to all ideas, the invocations of the “spirit of free expression” from a school that’s kicking a controversial speaker off the stage.
And with the pretense, increasingly, comes a dismissive attitude toward those institutions — mostly religious — that do acknowledge their own dogmas and commitments, and ask for the freedom to embody them and live them out.

Both Hitler and Stalin knew a fact that progressives have been exploiting since the SDS sit-ins and campus takeovers of the late 60s: For all their cant about the “free exchange of ideas”, academics and university administrators are in the main timid creatures, too uncertain of life outside the walls to take risks with their careers, and therefore unable to withstand pressure from ideologically-driven bullies and demagogues. Corporate types have even less reason to be bold and fearless in the face of consumer pressure: business failure takes away not only their jobs but their employees’ as well. The “pieties” Brandeis and Mozilla uttered in their statements constitute their E pur si muove, their passive-aggressive last defiance uttered in the midst of abject surrender.[1]

[1] E pur si muove: “And yet it moves” … words Galileo is reputed to have muttered as he signed his repudiation of heliocentrism.