Saturday, February 12, 2005

"The Gooney Left" - Part VI

This is the conclusion of "The Gooney Left" entry. If there are further developments, I'll report them under a separate thread.

About ten people have so far accepted the invitation to the "Gooney Left" open house. I'll repeat the invitation in a few days, shorn of the "Gooney Left" label, so that people can come who may not necessarily want to make an implicit political statement.

Ninety percent of the people who read my email in response to Prof. Watts approved of it. Three or four individuals thought it was foolish or futile to engage with him. In at least one instance I had the impression that the individual considered my reply the moral equivalent of Prof. Watts's original post.

I suspect this last appraisal was the tip of an iceberg. There is, within academe, a significant current of opinion that values decorum over free exchange. I do not say that adherents to this view deny the value of free exchange; I merely say that they think there is an appropriate time and place for it. Usually it is some other time, some other place.

For a time the faculty and grad student list servs were swamped with exchanges concerning the Day of Remembrance/Malkin book affair. A handful of people accounted for all of them. Eventually the department chair quite sensibly directed that the exchange be moved elsewhere, and offered to create a separate list serv for the purpose.

His email crossed with mine, in which I stated that I had already created such a list serv:

I placed Prof. Watts's email address on it and my own. I invited others to "opt in" on the exchange and within a few minutes had five takers. At 3:05 p.m. I sent the following email to the six other members on the list:

Hi all,

It seems to me that one of the issues raised in today's exchange is the function of what might be termed academic gate-keeping. For example, academic culture emphasizes publication in university presses and refereed journals so faithfully that I have seen very good books treated as being almost invisible because the author published them with a commercial press. Certain commercial presses are viewed as acceptable; e.g., Norton, Basic Books, Knopf, etc. But others are problematic, while Regnery, the press which published the Malkin book, bills itself as "the nation's preeminent conservative publisher" and I think would therefore be considered highly problematic. See Regnery's website,, esp.

The avowed reason to regard Regnery as highly problematic would be twofold: first, the absence of a referee procees; and second, the assumption that an ideologically-driven perspective would fall outside our professional norms.

But one could argue that many works published in university presses are also ideologically driven, merely in ways congenial to those in the academy. Certainly the perception outside our profession is that academe is inhabited mainly by those whose politics are left-leaning.

It certainly seems to me that people are entitled to their own political views, and if liberals self-select into academe in disproportionate numbers, no one has room to cry foul. If, on the other hand, liberals overtly or covertly make graduate admissions and hiring decisions on the basis of candidates' political views, that does seem open to serious query.



I have so far heard nothing from Prof. Watts, and gotten only a single response from anyone else. This came from a graduate student:

I was more than a little disappointed that one current faculty member today resorted to an ad hominem attack on the senator, rather than address his comments or his use of "gooney left." This reflects poorly on the current faculty member's professionalism, civility and willingness to refute with reason and evidence what he obviously thinks is a mistaken position. I suspect instead that the outburst was in response to the Senator's of the "gooney left" phrase; nevertheless it was completely uncalled for.
The grad student was correct. One faculty member did indeed make at least one and arguably several ad hominem attacks on Prof./Senator Watts, depending on how you count it/them. Worse, it was not even a clever ad hominem attack.


Scotty said...

I've been following this discussion somewhat. While I totally agree with Mark that (1) we should be able to discuss our intellectual differences, be they academic, political, religious, or anything else, in a civil manner, in all our communities - the university, our neighborhood, and on the national stage; and (2) that if you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom for the most objectionable kinds of speech, and (3) that the term "gooney left" is unnecessarily insulting.
What bothers me in the academy is that I perceive a double standard - if universities are going to ban "hate speech," I don't see how they can put up with statements like those of Ward Churchill. I would also be a lot happier if the academic defenders of Churchill openly acknowledged that they were defending him on free speech grounds by noting that they found his ideas repugnant (as so many have done quite happily with the recent comments of Dr. Summers, the president of Harvard).
Frankly, I find the academy to be smothered in a political bias that is so deep and widespread that most members of the acdemy don't realize it exists. While I was in grad school I got the impression that there were certain ideas that one simply could not hold and remain a member of polite society. Most isolating was the omnipresent assumption that everyone in the department was a liberal democrat or to the left of that. FWIW I've spent nearly 20 years in the military (active and reserve) and I am well aware that it has a culture where it is assumed that everyone is a good conservative republican - I greatly respected a good friend of mine for openly, and correctly, challenging that assumption.
Bottom line for me: I wholeheartedly support free speech, and I would like our society to return to civil discourse. I don't think "gooney left" is civil discourse, but I don't think Ward Churchill is either. And I think the academy has a serious problem with allowing its political beliefs to affect its mission, be it in how it defines which speech to defend (Churchill) and which to suppress ("hate speech," Dr. Summers), or which books to give prizes to (the infamous Bellisles fiasco).
One last thought - if you're still wandering around wondering how anyone could have voted for Bush, especially if no one you know voted for Bush, you need to get out and meet more people. Likewise if you are mystefied at the motivations for voting for Kerry.

Mark G. said...

Thanks for the post. For the record, if there is any doubt on this point: I think Ward Churchill's "little Eichmann" comment was vile.

I do think that if you carefully detach Churchill's argument (such as it is) from his rhetoric, you'll find something similar to the assertion of Chalmers Johnson and many others that 9/11 can be seen as a reaction to American foreign policy. I consider such a point of view to be reasonable, and would defend the substance of Churchill's remarks just as I would defend those of Johnson and other more measured critics of American foreign policy. I do not say that I necessarily subscribe to any of the above views--the blog is a way for me to discover my own views--but I do think that the substance of these views is reasonable, not repugnant.

I think Scotty is on target when he characterizes the academy as a place where people are assumed to be left-leaning to some degree and that academics are surprised and borderline non-plussed if they discover you are merely Republican, to say nothing of their reaction if you turn out to be a staunch Bush supporter. And if you happen to admire, say, Donald Rumsfeld, then it's Katie bar the door!

I am not sure to whom Scotty is addressing his comment about "if you're still wondering about how anyone could vote for Bush." My brother did. My next door neighbor did. At least one of my colleagues did (he is also a close personal friend). So did many of my students. Even in the academy, we are not that easy to be clueless about why people vote for Bush.

I think if anything, such cluelessness as may exist is of the variety found in What's the Matter with Kansas? The assumption is that people ought to vote in accord with their economic interests, and most academics have trouble believing that the Bush administration's policies help the pocketbooks of most of those who voted for him.

Re the military: for a long time the American military culture seems to have been for officers to be non-partisan; some even refused to vote. When did this change? Similarly, I have the impression that evangelical Christianity is now a strong and visible presence in US military culture. Again, why and why did this come about?

Scotty said...

Replying to Mark:
(1) I fully understand Mark's argument about the impact of american Foreign Policy - don't agree with it, but it is a reasonable position reasonably presented. One of the problems with people like Churchill is that there (in my opinion juvenile) insults undermine those trying to make a reasonable case (just as true on the otherside, too)
(2) My comment on "if you don't know anybody was NOT directed at Mark, but more of a general "we could all use a good look in the mirror." Mark is actually one of the most truly tolerant and open minded individuals I know (no, he's not on my committee :)). However, it's too easy for all of us to associate with people we are comfortable with and to stereotype others - hence my suggestion to get out and meet more people, and to try to understand them. The reference to "What's the Matter with Kansas" is right on target. Perhaps the right answer is that nothing's the matter with Kansas - they just have different priorities.

On the last issue - when did the officer corps become republican (I think it has always been conservative - as Mark noted earlier, professions self-select, and military officers tend to be practical, conservative people). I think that this trend occured in the late 60's and 70's, when the rifts over the Vietnam War led the Democrats to become identified with the anti-Vietnam War and anti-military position. The left, and academia, has always had this tendency, but the Democrats were not identified with these trends until that time (prior to 1940 the Republicans, as the traditional party of parsimony, were more inclined to oppose defense spending than Democrats, making them hardly a natural home for officers.) After all, Kennedy, the Democrat, ran on a platform of increased defense spending against an incumbent Republican.
Bottom line: Officers became more partisan when they perceived one party to be range from unsympathetic to openly hostile to their concerns. As to the evangelical Christian component, I don't know that it's that large. Catholics still comprise the most over-represented religious group in the military. Hazarding a guess, I would say that any increase in evangelical Christians in the military mirrors the growth of these denominations in American Society, as conservatives leave old mainline denominations.
Last observation: I think a lot of military officers think long and hard about the implications of their political and religious beliefs, and the appropriate way to express them. I know a lot of us are appalled at recent the parade of retired generals lining up to endorse political candidates. There is a long tradition of retired military officers publicly championing certain causes (veteran's benefits, military preparedeness) and I think that's OK. I even think they can discuss specific policies without crossing a line. I think that the "Revolt of the Admirals (1940s)" was a service to our political system rather than a dangerous violation of civilian control. But I think that over the last few years that line has been crossed. Retired officers, of course, have every right to publicly endorse anyone they want. I just think that our military, and our nation, would be better served if they were more circumspect.

Rich McGaha said...

Scotty and Mark,

Great comments to the discussion. As for Ward Churchill, I agree, his comments are repugnant. As a historian of Nazi Germany, I find his analogy to Eichmann to be deeply flawed, which shows how people on the left and right will deliberately use inflammatory language to draw attention to themselves. Conversely, this same inflammatory language obscures whatever point they were trying to make. As for Scotty's point that the academy seems to be left-leaning, while that may be true, how does one account then for the fact that a Pew Research poll showed most college graduates as voting and identifying as Republicans after graduation? It would seem to me that if this were true then the academy is doing a poor job of indoctrinating students and that it would be in the best interests of conservatives to leave them in place. In my department here we have professors who openly fall at both ends of the spectrum, in fact two of them are the brightest professors in the department in my opinion. Most of the undergraduate and graduate students who I have spoken to find them to be the fairest professors in not pressing their views on their classes. As for the academy, alas, I think we are our own worst enemy in terms of civil discourse.

Mark, as for Thomas Frank, we had him here for a talk in which he clarified some of the ideas he put forward in his book. Frank argues that traditionally people have voted with their economic interests, but now, the "culture wars" are being used to mask conservative economic policies that hurt the people who are in favor of the "culture wars." I think it is a bit cynical, but I do think that right now culture trumps economics and that people who traditionally vote Democrat don't because they feel their core values are under attack. Example one: Ward Churchill.

As for the military, like Scotty I spent a substantial amount of time in the military. I don't think the turn is to evangelical Christianity specifically, but to Christianity or religion in general. I see it as a reflection of our society, which is generally religious. To me it seems that the military and the people in it feel their core values are under attack (read Bill Clinton and his ilk). The military in general tends to see issues in black and white, except in the theoretical arena of War Colleges etc. where shades of gray are allowed for pedagogical purposes. However, in day to day activity black and white is the rule. Christianity does present, or its views can be interpreted as being black and white. In an organization that presents values such as duty and honor, Christianity seems to be a source of comfort since it stresses these same values. Plus, it seems to justify certain prejudices (such as gays openly serving) that society is trying to do away with. That, hopefully, addresses the why. As for the how, that remains an open question, which I would need to think about more before venturing an answer.

J. said...

Coming into the discussion late, on the issue of military officers and their political persuasions, I have heard that it was two things: Carter's cut-backs in defense programs and not keeping salaries in step with civilian counterparts, and Reagan's revitalizing the defense program and increasing salaries and benefits for the military. Granted, Reagan caused a massive federal deficit, but most military officers were deeply appreciative to the Republicans for allowing them to make a decent living and modernizing the military.

I was in the military between 1985 and 1992, not that I'm a fan of Reagan by any means, but I can attest to this scenario. I think it stuck. Different for the enlisted, I think the officers are more political. The enlisted probably reflect more from what states they came and do not reflect a general conservative natuer.