19.2.05

BALANCING TRANSGRESSIVENESS AND CONTINUITY. Book Review No. 8 is Richard J. Evans's The Coming of the Third Reich (details only; the price comparison service appears to be bad-ordered.) This book focuses on the evolution of German government from the North German Union of Bismarck to the consolidation of power by the Nazi government in 1933, with primary focus on events from the Armistice on. Professor Evans suggests that a combination of irresolution on the part of republican elements and economic difficulties left Germany in a difficult spot. He speculates that after an emergency decree by Chancellor Franz von Papen in July of 1932, "the only realistic alternatives [for a German government] were a Nazi dictatorship or a conservative, authoritarian regime backed by the army." (p. 287). The latter, he suggests, would be unlikely to have engaged in the aggressive suppression of the opposition parties, the avant-garde, and Jews documented in Coming.

But it is not to Nazi suppression that I wish to speak. Rather, I want to contemplate an observation University Diaries made about Ward Churchill's being disinvited to Hamilton College, quoting a Hamilton professor who said, "If I want to have someone come to class to talk about problems with the Treaty of Versailles, I don't have to bring in a Nazi."

Per corollary, I want to contemplate alternatives to bringing in the thought police (bearing in mind the true nature of Nazis Atlantic Blog has documented) to talk about problems with the academy and the broader culture. Do such alternatives exist? Consider first the avant-garde. Professor Evans devotes several pages to Nazi attitudes toward such manifestations of (take your pick) advanced creativity or jerkishness as dadaism, abstract art, or atonal music. Sample, from p. 413.

While German music in the 1920s was no longer the dominant force it had been in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries German painting, liberated by Expressionism, abstraction, and other modernist movements, had undergone a remarkable renaissance in the first three decades of the twentieth century, outstripping even literature as the most prominent and internationally successful of all the arts. This is what the Nazis ... now undertook to destroy...

Controversy had long raged over the work of painters such as George Grosz, Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix and many others. Conservatives and Nazis detested their paintings. A major furore had been caused by Grosz's use of religious motifs for the purpose of political caricature ...

I claim no expertise in the finer points of painting, or of composition, although I know what I like and what I don't like. But here's my problem: what is the proper balance between freedom for the avant-garde and continuity of the stable society that makes the avant-garde possible? And what happens when, as many German voters perceived during the Weimar era, and many U.S. voters currently perceive, the avant-garde is monopolizing the institutions of higher learning, of the performing arts, and of the entertainment in ways that are destabilizing the society? We know what choice the Germans made. What can we do differently, and with what freedom for contemporary transgressives, and with what respect for continuity?

Contemporary case in point: Roger Kimball identifies the influence in the academy of transgressives whose dominant paradigm is subverting others' dominant paradigms.
Ward Churchill is not the problem. He is merely a symptom of a much deeper disease, interesting and worthy of attention for the light he sheds upon the larger issue, which is the extent to which higher education is captive of the anti-American, politically correct Left.
Strong stuff, that. But how best to end that captivity without destroying the free inquiry by which alone the truth can be found, and without excluding the Academic Left on grounds that may not withstand scrutiny? Put another way, is it possible to talk about problems with the transgressives without imitating their worst behavior? Or summoning the thought police? Or conducting a book-burning? (The first book-burning rally occurred at a German analog to the Kinsey Institute, see Coming, p. 375.)

Inside Higher Ed has captured the contradiction at the heart of the academic bill of rights -- which is a long way from a book-burning rally, let's stay calm here -- currently under debate in Ohio.

The sloppiness [in the bill] may well be intentional, since the goal isn't good law but political intimidation. The most plausible outcome is that the bill will die a quick but noisy death: After hearings in which radical right-wingers get headlines by blasting academics, college presidents pledge to promote fairness and the bill dies. Meanwhile, red-baiting students will get the not-surprising impression that they can level charges against any professor who makes the slightest polemical point, or, more important, who utters a disconcerting truth. Students who aren't satisfied with an administrative response are likely to sue. The university will waste precious money in either administrative or legal costs, and any atmosphere of robust and critical thought that now exists will dissipate as many instructors take the line of least resistance.

Not the least curiosity here is that the very same people who, 10 years ago, ridiculed the campus speech codes as "political correctness" now want to impose the most extreme sorts of speech codes through force of law and outrageous intimidation. The very people who howled about the debunking of the great Western traditions of free speech and critical reason are now engaged in a frontal action that can only squelch free speech and establish a radical subjectivity as the rule of the day.

Harvey at The Torch makes the same point more succinctly.

For more than two decades now the academic left has been seeking—with a considerable degree of success—to censor and otherwise punish the right for its politically incorrect views on a wide range of social, political, and even intellectual/academic issues. Speech deemed offensive to “historically disadvantaged groups” or otherwise “regressive” has been punished as either “harassment” or “hate speech.” Now comes someone from the left mouthing words and ideas found highly offensive by those on the right (and indeed by many on the left), and he is roundly attacked, with a state legislator from Wisconsin, protesting Churchill’s scheduled March 1 lecture at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, describing his writings as a form of “anti-American hate speech.”

Ah, how the worm turns! What better proof is needed that all folks need to protect the rights of all other folks, because next year the target might be on one’s own back? This is the proven genius of our notions of academic freedom and constitutionally protected free speech, and especially of the doctrine of “viewpoint neutrality.” We all enjoy only so much liberty as we accord those we despise but who might be in the driver’s seat next time around.

So I repeat: can we talk about problems with the lack of viewpoint diversity in the academy, about vulgar and un-whistleable music, about artwork of dubious creativity, about misbehavior by entertainers who have easier access to safety nets than the common folk who mimic them, about vapid poetry, about junk science, in such a way as to keep the truly useless developments in the junk box, rather than "celebrating" it, without destroying the opportunity for some of those developments to produce a genuine insight?

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