Saturday, January 28, 2006

Loony Lefties vs. Raging Righties

It's bad enough that our federal government is involved in domestic spying. (Or what President Bush relabeled the "terrorist surveillance program" in his press conference on January 26th--a clever turn of phrase.)

Now, I read that an aggressive conservative has found new tactics for advancing the view that all college professors are liberals. A UCLA alumni group's president is offering up to $100 for college students to provide the group with tape recordings of UCLA faculty who are talking politics in their classrooms. (Read the LA Times story.) The group's aim is to finally have evidence that there is a pervasive, abusive climate for conservatives on college campuses.

In the meantime, the alumni group, called the Bruin Alumni Association has created a website called that aims to expose "UCLA's most radical professors." The alumni president, Andrew Jones, writes in his "A message from" that the profiles of faculty on the website demonstrate that "these professors are actively proselytizing their extreme views in the classroom, whether or not the commentary is relevant to the class topic."

I was curious to see if he actually had any evidence for this in his profiles of five faculty at UCLA. Interestingly, in the critiques of the five faculty there is no evidence presented that these faculty are "proselytizing" in the classroom or attacking students whose views are unlike their own. Instead, the critiques focus on their academic writings.

I was curious if Jones was refuting or contributing to a vigorous dialogue of left vs. right views by offering counter arguments and critical thought on the ideology these professors were allegedly using to indoctrinate their students. I was disappointed.

The website's prose reads like the worst of ad hominem attacks. Take for example the prose of the featured "Radical of the Week" Douglas Kellner. Now, I read Douglas Kellner's writings as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Kellner is a postmodern theorist and critic. Although his writings aren't likely to square with those of a conservative, I did not read him as especially anti-conservative, per se. Kellner's views are those of someone in the Marxist tradition. No surprises there. That's usually what critical theory means.

Mr. Jones writes a seething attack on Kellner, in the first paragraph declaring "A close look at Kellner's personal history and theoretical background reveals a professor whose political views are a witch's brew of worldwide conspiracy, Marxoid theory, 'critical pedagogy,' and an overwhelming dose of anti-Bush hatred."

Of the five faculty featured, Kellner by far gets the most attention. Mr. Jones reprints dozens of paragraphs of Kellner's as illustration that Kellner is, for lack of a better phrase, a dangerous man. It seems that Mr. Jones finds Kellner the most problematic because Kellner has featured 9/11 and the Bush administration prominently in his most recent academic writing.

I'll give you an example of the kind of argument Jones produces. Around paragraph 30, Jones writes that Kellner writes about Bushspeak: "Kellner, however, is not making predictable jokes about Bush's common malapropisms. Rather, he criticizes, in one example, Bush's 'incessant assurance that the "evil-doers" of the "evil deeds" will be punished, and that the "Evil One" will be brought to justice, implicitly equating bin Laden with Satan himself.' Kellner's complaint sets a new low standard for the hate-America crowd, as it literally disputes the idea that Osama Bin Laden can properly described [sic] as evil, and denies that we can logically distinguish between Islamofascists and Western democracy."

Do you see the flaws in Jones' reasoning? I see a few that trouble me greatly. The first is the move to label Kellner part of the "hate-America crowd." This is a classic example of ad hominem attack--attacking the person rather than the argument. By labeling Kellner, in essence, anti-American, Kellner's critique becomes instantly suspect. How could someone who hates America have credibility?

Okay, that's the first problem. The second related problem, is the assumption that anyone who is critical of the President or the war in Iraq is anti-American. To my mind, those who express critique are embodying America's most cherished principles. We want and need critique to ensure a healthy, functioning democracy. It would be terrible dangerous if we were a country of nationalists, blindly following our leaders. It would be even worse if we were a country that silenced critique.

The third problem is the claim that Kellner is disputing that bin Laden can be described as evil. It's not that Kellner is saying bin Laden cannot be labeled "evil." His critique is that the language of "evil" situates the war between us and al Qaeda as a religious one as indicated by the religious metaphor of evil. I think every American feels that al Qaeda and bin Laden should be brought to justice. The events of 9/11 were truly a national tragedy and those who perpetrated such acts should be punished. The question is the way that punishment is executed. But, Jones seems not to understand that we share a common belief in the need for punishment, even if we disagree on how it should be executed, and how such punishment should be framed. Instead, he seems to want to paint those who oppose the war in Iraq as, well, "evil-lovers."

The fourth problem is the final sentence. Jones says that Kellner "denies that we can logically distinguish between Islamofascists and Western democracy." Again, that's not Kellner's claim. Kellner's message is one of caution. We must take heed to protect the principles we hold dear to us. If we recklessly and lawlessly go after our enemy, we risk becoming like our enemy.

For example, let's return to my comment at the start. The President has ordered the National Security Agency to wire tap American citizens conversations with people oversees. He has ordered the detention and has supported the torture of enemy detainees. With the support of Congress (through the Patriot Act), he has advocated a hightened level of surveillance on American citizens in many aspects of our daily lives, from what library books we check out, to what search terms we use on Google, to what banking we do and with whom. To the President's credit, I do believe he genuinely wants to stop another terrorist attack on America's soil. And, for that, I think we in America share a common desire to not have 9/11 repeated.

The dispute comes in how far we must go to protect ourselves. How many people must be tortured? How many Americans must have their rights violated before we say it's too much?

I wish Mr. Jones would genuinely engage the faculty he is attacking, instead of making unfounded allegations that faculty are brainwashing students in the classroom. If we were to have an honest dialogue, perhaps instead of causing even more harm and pain by personal attack and "most wanted" lists, we might learn something from the exercise of exchange. Our democracy would be the better for it.


Walt Hutchinson said...

Perhaps it is the case that Mr. Jones has just a little too much time on his hands. That is a thoroughly rediculous bunch of claims. He must be making Jerry Falwell proud...

Lianzi said...

Yeah, I'm troubled by the tendency to mistake/use publications as evidence of pedagogy. The act of making one's own arguments coherent is different from the act of encouraging students to do the same.

Rod Carveth said...

Here's an interesting tidbit -- Mr. Jones used to work for David Horowitz. Horowitz is head of the Center for Popular Culture, the purpose of which is to expose "leftist" academics. Horowitz is the one trying to get state legislatures to pass the "Academic Bill of Rights" to "ensure" that "leftist academics" don't "indoctrinate" their students.

Anyway, the tactics Mr. Jones used while working for Horowitz were too troubling for Horowitz, so he let Jones go. Imagine being too much for Horowitz.