Monday, November 29, 2004

Crackdown coming?

Writing in the journal Conservation Biology recently, I called attention to
a looming conflict. Here's a segment from the article, "Science Policy for True Believers,"

"American society is now engaged in a range of policy debates in which
standards of critical thinking and public debate are often sacrificed to
crass calculations about who wins and who loses. In this process, many
who hold power in government and business are strongly attracted to
patterns of thinking and talking more compatible with classic “closed
societies” than with open, democratic political systems. The underlying
sentiment is all-too-clear: Just win, regardless of cost. Partisans of this
insurgence feel compelled to promote corporate interests, “conservative”
social agendas and unilateralist foreign policy objectives, even when
prominent scientific findings cast doubt on the wisdom of actions favored
within the prevailing groupthink.

Attempts to dominate the content of information and ideas in ways that
advance a particular agenda to the exclusion of all others -- such
projects are evident in many key domains of social life. A notorious
example is the almost total absorption of AM radio by right wing talk
show hosts who harangue national audiences with uniform, angry talking
points hour after hour, cutting off callers who dare offer any different
views. Much the same influence is visible on cable television news and
news/talk programs in which the spectrum of opinions voiced has
recently narrowed to include only the hand picked “moderate” and
“conservative” voices favored by corporate media managers.
Widespread public unrest about these developments is evident in the
protests about relaxation of government regulations governing the
concentration of media ownership. The increasing uniformity of cable
news and news/talk programming, the penchant for cleansing discussion
of annoying dissent, looms as a major problem for the long term health
of our democracy.

Now science itself looms as a convenient target, just another
communications channel ready to be adapted to the dictates of a rapidly
moving, power-hungry social movement. Will scientists and scholars
yield to this aggressive onslaught, taking their research grants and laying
low? Or can we hope for a more positive, more hopeful, more forceful

[Conservation Biology, Page 866, vol. 18, no. 4, Aug. 2004]

My expectation has been that a Bush victory would lead to further steps
in the ongoing attempt to establish a hegemony of message content at all
levels of American society. Just before the election, I predicted to my
class of first years students in an American politics class that there
would be "a crackdown on dissidents in major institutions." I was
thinking of NPR, PBS, and the country's colleges and universities, for

Now we see the first wave of hand wringing and argument that could lead
to the ideological cleansing that, I believe, is near the top of the
far right "conservative" agenda. George Will's article, "Academia, Stuck
to the Left," begins to lay out the case.

"Academics, such as the next secretary of state, still decorate
Washington, but academia is less listened to than it was. It has
marginalized itself, partly by political shrillness and silliness that have
something to do with the parochialism produced by what George Orwell
called "smelly little orthodoxies."

Many campuses are intellectual versions of one-party nations -- except
such nations usually have the merit, such as it is, of candor about their
ideological monopolies. In contrast, American campuses have more
insistently proclaimed their commitment to diversity as they have
become more intellectually monochrome.

They do indeed cultivate diversity -- in race, skin color, ethnicity, sexual
preference. In everything but thought."

* * * * * * * * *
Wills' claims are both ludicrous and pernicious. The best, extended
critique I've read is one by Juan Cole, historian at the University of
Michigan. He begins with the allegation that universities have few
conservatives in teaching positions.

"There are all sorts of social-science problems with this allegation. First,
what is the population that is being studied? Is it all tenure-track
teachers in all universities in all schools and departments? Are we
including two-year colleges? Four-year ones? Are we including
Economics Departments, Business Schools, Medical Schools,
Engineering schools?

If that were the pool, then academics probably mirror the general
American society pretty closely. There are about 1.1 million post-
secondary teachers in the United States. A lot of the ones in the Red
States are conservatives, and a lot of the ones in the engineering schools
everywhere are. So it simply is not true that "universities" are bastions of
the political left. Moreover, there are almost no leftists in any major
economics department in the United States, in contrast to Europe."

Cole's piece runs in his blog, Informed Comment, 11/28/04 (in the archives).

Coming to a campus near you: the thought police.

Note that in my comments above I've put "conservative" in quotation
marks. When I run into people who tell me they are conservative these
days I say, "Oh, that's interesting. What are you conservering?"
Embarrassing moments of silence usually follow.