I’m not very fond of conspiracy theories and in particular one that has sprung up in the last few years that the government or Bush and associates took part in planning 9-11. So far there isn’t a credible piece of evidence to suggest that they somehow engineered 9-11 or helped those that actually carried out the horrendous crimes of that day. In Conspiracy Theories 101 Stanley Fish writes,
KEVIN BARRETT, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has now taken his place alongside Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado as a college teacher whose views on 9/11 have led politicians and ordinary citizens to demand that he be fired.
Mr. Barrett, who has a one-semester contract to teach a course titled “Islam: Religion and Culture,” acknowledged on a radio talk show that he has shared with students his strong conviction that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an inside job perpetrated by the American government. The predictable uproar ensued, and the equally predictable battle lines were drawn between those who disagree about what the doctrine of academic freedom does and does not allow.
Mr. Barrett’s critics argue that academic freedom has limits and should not be invoked to justify the dissemination of lies and fantasies. Mr. Barrett’s supporters (most of whom are not partisans of his conspiracy theory) insist that it is the very point of an academic institution to entertain all points of view, however unpopular. (This was the position taken by the university’s provost, Patrick Farrell, when he ruled on July 10 that Mr. Barrett would be retained: “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.”)
Both sides get it wrong. The problem is that each assumes that academic freedom is about protecting the content of a professor’s speech; one side thinks that no content should be ruled out in advance; while the other would draw the line at propositions (like the denial of the Holocaust or the flatness of the world) considered by almost everyone to be crazy or dangerous.
This is a difficult situation for those like myself that think if we are to err, that we do so on the side of free speech and academic freedom. Barret isn’t teaching a course on 9-11 conspiracy theories and their history, or even a course that looks at the spectrum of conspiracy theories. He is teaching a course in “Islam: Religion and Culture” and while doing so using it as a forum to sell his unfounded notions about 9-11. Barret is probably a smart guy, he probably feels he has good intentions, but he is using academic freedom to sell what amounts to nothing more then superstitious beliefs. I’ve see variations of this theory on the right ( especially the libertarian right) and the left, thus I’m not sure exactly where Barret comes from on the political scale, but if he is from the center to left, he isn’t doing us any favors. Looking at the evidence that is available, such as the Presidential Daily Brief for August 6, 2001 entitled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US “ or we could look at how in spite of warnings by the Clinton administration about Al-Qaeda Bush’s Justice Department considered counter-terrorism a low priority, Terrorism Not a Priority for Ashcroft Pre-9/11
Counterterrorism was nowhere to be seen on Ashcroft’s list of top priorities for the Justice Department. Ashcroft’s May 2001 “budget goals memo” outlined the Attorney General’s top seven priorities. Counterterrorism did not appear anywhere on the list.
that a case can well be made that BushCo was negligent. No conspiracy theories required. Then there is amble evidence that their conduct in the run up to Iraq and their management of the conflict in Afghanistan have been reckless and extreme. Barret and his supporters need to back up and reevaluate. He is not doing himself or any political side any good, but he is doing damage to real academics who exercise academic freedom in a responsible manner.
The distinction I am making — between studying astrology and proselytizing for it — is crucial and can be generalized; it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn. Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.
This is a difficult line to define, but Fish does a good job in defending academic freedom and drawing a line that Barret has crossed. A class on conpiracy theories sounds like a great idea or a class on the pyschology of conspiracy theories where students would be free to toss around ideas and do some critical analysis, that is not what Barret seems to be doing.
Once in a while someone manages to snip some Paul Krugman from behind the NYT paywall. From the Economist’s View, Taking the Core Out of the Apple
But sociologists and many economists believe that there can be non-economic consequences for cities that lose a lot of middle-income residents. The disappearance of middle-income neighborhoods can limit opportunities for upward mobility… It becomes harder for lower-income homeowners to move up the property ladder, buy into safer neighborhoods, send their children to better schools and even make the kinds of personal contacts that can be a route to better jobs. …
With a dwindling middle class, rich and poor become more separate. Alan Berube, an author of the Brookings study, said a two-tiered marketplace can develop: Whole Foods for the upper classes, bodegas for the lower, with no competition from stores courting the middle. “If the two models are check cashers on the one hand and major national financial institutions on the other, who’s thinking about how to hold down costs for the basic consumer?” he asked.
I often wonder, since we’re on the subject of academics, whether some of these professors ever stick there heads out of theor ivory towers. The middle-class is not a herd of cattle. While I’m frequently dissappointed in those in the middle-class that paradoxically vote for policies that weaken the economic corner stone of this country, economists that see them as city gatekeepers are aggravating at best.
Some film-noir viewing suggestions: Old school, Laura (1944)
and more modern, “The Singing Detective” (1986)
Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.
from The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes