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You know who else also opposed free speech?


Scott’s post linking to Chris Taylor’s thoughts on various bits of meta-commencement commentary alerted me to this Onion article actual op-ed by Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter.

Scott and djw have already pointed out that commencement speeches are highly ritualized forms of institutional identity maintenance, and therefore political gestures of a very specific kind, rather than occasions for real intellectual engagement, let alone actual debate.

So Carter’s protest that objecting to showering Condi Rice et. al., with honors (and money) at commencement ceremonies is an example of shutting down legitimate academic debate is nonsense on its face, and I’m not going to belabor it.

Nor do I want to comment on Carter’s remarkable contempt for the people whose debt-leveraged tuition payments fund his salary, at Taylor does a fine job of thrashing him on this score.

Instead I’d like to comment on the appalling intellectual laziness of Carter’s complacent description of what universities are supposed to be doing:

In my day, the college campus was a place that celebrated the diversity of ideas. Pure argument was our guide. Staking out an unpopular position was admired — and the admiration, in turn, provided excellent training in the virtues of tolerance on the one hand and, on the other, integrity. . .

[On the other hand] there are your fellows at Rutgers University, who rose up to force the estimable Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and national security adviser, to withdraw. The protest was worded with unusual care, citing the war in Iraq and the “torture” practiced by the Central Intelligence Agency. Cleverly omitted was the drone war. This elision allows the protesters to wish away the massive drone war that President Barack Obama’s administration has conducted now for more than five years, with significant loss of innocent life. As for the Iraq war, well, among its early and enthusiastic supporters was — to take a name at random — then-Senator Hillary Clinton. But don’t worry. Consistency in protest requires careful and reflective thought, and that is exactly what we should be avoiding here.

The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.

Again, leave aside the point that commencement speeches aren’t and as a practical matter can’t be occasions for genuine intellectual engagement and debate. What ought to astonish us here is that someone who is purported to be a serious scholar of, among other things, church-state relations, argues for a version of the academy that is both impossible to take seriously and a perfect reflection of the conventional wisdom regarding the academy’s failures (aka the supposed dominance of “political correctness”).

It ought to be obvious to anybody who thinks about for ten seconds that actually making the pursuit of a “diversity of ideas” and “pure argument” the paramount values of an academic institution –as opposed to, say, the pursuit of knowledge — is ultimately inimical to the latter. Consider one of an almost infinite number of possible examples: Should a university history department — in the name, needless to say, of tolerance for “unpopular positions” and the paramount importance of celebrating a diversity of ideas, arguments, and viewpoints — invite David Irving to give a talk on the disputed question of whether the Nazi regime operated extermination camps? Better yet, should Irving be appointed to a faculty position on some optimally tolerant history faculty?

Now it would be simply dishonest to try to wriggle out of answering this question by claiming that the question of the existence of the Nazi extermination camps is not in dispute. It’s in plenty of dispute — although, not, it’s important to emphasize, among actual historians. Now what is an actual historian? An actual historian is, among other things, someone who would be (unlike David Irving as of 2014, although not as of, say, 1970) a person whom it would be reasonable for a history department at a real university to invite to give a talk, or to perhaps consider appointing to its faculty. And there are certain historical viewpoints — such as the claim that the Nazis did not operate extermination camps — that properly disqualify people who hold them from being in that category.

The reason for this is that genuine intellectual debate quickly becomes impossible if tolerating the diversity of ideas trumps the pursuit of knowledge. And there isn’t any magical formula for determining when tolerating certain ideas interferes with the pursuit of knowledge to a sufficient extent that those ideas can’t be tolerated within an institution, such as the university, that values, or ought to value, the pursuit of knowledge above and beyond the toleration of diverse viewpoints. Indeed in one sense the pursuit of knowledge could itself be defined as an attempt to determine which ideas should and should not be tolerated within a community dedicated to its pursuit.

(I won’t comment here at any length on Carter’s trivialization of any protest against the war crimes of the Bush administration via the cheap rhetorical trick of simply assuming that the people protesting those crimes wouldn’t hold Democratic enablers of those crimes to the same standard, or on his remarkable use of scare quotes around the word torture).

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