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Politics and the university

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There’s a certain type of liberal (I’m using the word here in its broader original meaning, so this applies to a lot of establishment types across the traditional respectable American political spectrum; thus in this sense David Brooks and Ross Douthat are just as surely “liberals” as Nick Kristof and Tom Friedman) who has a positive compulsion to try to depoliticize what are inherently and intensely political issues. See this missive from Columbia University president Lee Bollinger:

The claim that the university takes no position on political issues, but nevertheless requires a society that has “respect for truth, respect for reason as a means to truth,” and that embraces “a foundational principle of human equality” is oxymoronic — and not merely in some formal/trivial way, but in the most practical possible fashion, given this is America in 2020.

One of the USA’s two major political parties doesn’t respect “truth,” as liberals in the broad sense understand that term, doesn’t respect “reason as a means to truth,” and most certainly doesn’t embrace “a foundational principle of human equality” as liberals (again, broadly defined) understand that concept.

This merely highlights that terms like “truth,” “reason,” and “equality” are essentially empty rhetorical gestures outside of some contestable and contested ideological frame that gives those terms more specific meanings.

For example, conservatives believe in hierarchy, in a way that liberals don’t, and these different orientations toward hierarchy have concrete consequences for concepts like truth, reason, and equality.

Conservatives also have in general a much weaker commitment to empiricism than liberals, and that too has real world consequences. Let me quote again something LGM commenter JEC wrote a few months ago:

The core of the problem is that conservatives have decisively lost a lot of empirical debates. There was a time when conservative ideas about gender, race, genetics, and geology might have been true — they were open questions. But for the last hundred and fifty years or so, the evidence has been piling up on the other side, and, in more and more areas, the questions are basically closed. (Nothing’s ever “closed forever,” of course, but re-opening these questions is going to require extraordinary evidence, not “just asking questions.”)

Consequently, liberal tolerance for conservative views, which was historically grounded in empirical uncertainty, is genuinely narrowing. We’re frankly relieved to have been right (we care about that sort of thing), but the debate is over.

The conservative dilemma is that, in many important respects, the world actually works as liberals wished and hoped that it did, and not as conservatives believed that it must. The actual functioning of the world strikes the conservative mind as deeply immoral. It is fundamentally wrong that reality has sided with the libs.

At the same time, organizations are becoming more sensitive to the actual damage wrought by incorrect conservative opinions. And so, for example, tech company Google finds it impossible to employ an individual who publicly advocates the false view that women — a recruiting target because they are a historically underutilized talent pool — aren’t well suited to programming computers. (And yes, this isn’t “just an opinion,” it’s a flatly false fact-claim. I’m old enough to remember when computer programming was considered uncool drudgery — and was a majority female occupation.)

Similarly, the statistical distribution of values has shifted, so that brand-sensitive businesses who might once have fired prominent employees for too-public advocacy of civil rights or organized labor now avoid homophobia, racism, and sexism. A defense-heavy firm like Boeing might once have been proud to be represented by a man who publicly argued that misogyny was foundational to the profession of arms. But that’s no longer consistent with Boeings preferred corporate image.

It’s a tough time to be a conservative: rejected by the physical and biological worlds, they are increasingly rejected by the social consensus as well. But there is good news: you don’t have to believe wrong things. Conservatives are free to, you know, face facts. (Of course, that, technically, might make them liberals; a tough time indeed.)

This is another way of saying that contemporary American universities are generally hostile to conservative views, because conservative views are generally wrong. Or rather they are wrong from a perspective that values truth, reason, and equality, as liberals understand those terms, over respect for and deference to “valid authority,” which is what conservatives generally value more than truth, reason, and equality, again as liberals broadly defined understand those terms.

The liberal blindness on this point is understandable: you can’t claim to welcome all viewpoints without rather quickly falling into self-contradiction, and the only way to avoid that trap, pragmatically speaking, is to keep the range of “all viewpoints” fairly narrow, ideologically speaking.

That strategy can work when the range of respectable political opinion is all within the spectrum of liberalism, broadly defined. But a liberal university can’t actually “welcome” fascists or Marxist-Leninists or religious fundamentalists into its interpretive community — it can at best tolerate such people, as long as they have no real political power. Because as soon as any of those groups gets any real political power, it will try to eliminate the university, at least as Lee Bollinger et. al. understand that social institution.

The Republican party has become the kind of political party that is actively opposed to the existence of institutions like Columbia University, and the sooner our primly apolitical liberals understand that, the more likely such institutions are to actually survive in the times to come.

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