Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Perversion of Free Speech

I had lunch today with a friend who has two daughters enrolled in the Catholic school in my town. A few weeks ago, the 5th-8th graders of that school were taken out of class to protest Roe v. Wade and agitate against abortions. I asked my friend, who is clearly a supporter of choice (as is his wife), what they will do when their daughter enters 5th grade next year.

"Will you keep her home that day," I asked. That turned out to be a rather naive question. But, alas, I don't have children so I tend to forget some of the more complicated issues invovled. He explained that if they take his daughter out of school that day, or if they protest the school's policy of rounding up all the students in support of their political cause, his daughter will suffer from ostracism. "We will make her different from all the other students," he replied, "and being different at that age is no fun." This dilemma is forcing he and his wife to consider removing their daughters from the school. The downside, of course, is that this is, to their mind, the best school in the area. Do they stand up for their principles, and potentially sacrifice their daughter in the process? Do they coincidentally call her in as sick every Jan. 22nd? Or, do they compromise their principles, so that their daughter gets an excellent education?

These are tough decisions and I couldn't help but consider my friend's dilemma in light of David Horowitz' op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer today, and the link at Shakespeare's Sister to this comic's critique of the Danish Cartoon Story. The common thread in all of these stories is the status and meaningfulness of free speech.

First, let me compare Horowitz' ABOR campaign to my friend's dilemma with the Catholic school. In both cases, a top-down, well-funded, and well-organized campaign is forcing its way into public consciousness or the legislature in the name of free speech. And yet, in both circumstances, this is a total perversion of free speech. In the case of Catholic schools all over America taking students out of class to protest abortion, you have a large, powerful institution coercing and imposing their values onto young children, and using them to sell their message. How is this free speech?

David Horowitz, the engineer behind the ABOR movement and the organizer of student groups like Students for Academic Freedom is abusing free speech in similar ways to my local Catholic school. His campaign to pass the ABOR in legislatures across the states is not the product of an organic, grassroots movement by students who have simply had enough of the "man" indoctrinating them with their dangerous ideas. This is a "free speech" campaign that is designed and sold to these students, who are used to disseminate his message. The right wing has enticed students by flying them out to seminars on seemingly neutral topics like "how to be a good journalist" or "leadership training" and then train them to start a campaign to root out dangerous professors who dare to criticize George W. Bush's policies or conservative principles in general.

The effort is backed by lots of money and supported by legislators who are invested in keeping the party in power. One way to stay in power is to control the message. This is what the right wing has done to the media. Now they are tackling our schools.

It is particularly disheartening to see them disguise their well-coordinated campaign as a campaign to protect free speech. I am terrified how many people will read Horowitz op-ed and think that he is making perfect sense. This is exactly what happened in the Intelligent Design case. These right wing pundits are good at framing issues in ways that tap into abstract American ideals: tolerance, civil discourse, accountability, free inquiry . . . Consider this passage from Horowitz today:

The hearings were authorized by Pennsylvania House Resolution 177, which established a committee "to examine the academic atmosphere and the degree to which faculty have the opportunity to instruct and students have the opportunity to learn in an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and truth" at public colleges and universities in the state.

It is hard to see how anyone could object to such an inquiry, but professor unions and academic associations have protested, loudly. In a series of reckless attacks, these groups have distorted the committee's intentions and activities, while smearing anyone who thinks that there might be a problem of political abuse in schools.

Doesn't he sound eminently reasonable here? It makes me shudder. He blatantly misrepresents his activity as a wholly American pursuit. He doesn't of course remind his readers in this op-ed that he has set up a website for students to send in libelous complaints about professors. He aggressively seeks out anyone who will help him further his cause to shut up anyone who demonstrates the insanity of this administration's policies.

Horowitz further writes:

The question before the committee is whether professors who are public officials, funded by taxpayers, are to be held accountable for their behavior in the classroom, and in particular whether they are to be held to professional standards. Full professors in public universities in Pennsylvania have lifetime jobs. They earn more than $100,000 a year plus a benefits package (medical care, pension, etc.) that many Pennsylvanians would feel privileged to enjoy. Why should they be less accountable for their professional behavior than Enron Corp. executives or SEPTA officials?

This paragraph is so unbelieveable; this is first rate sleight o' hand. He portrays academia as a lucrative job, with very little measures of job performance or accountability to your boss. Most professors out there in the universities are not full professors. It takes years and lots of hard work to earn that title. Here is a recent article from CNN on faculty salaries, if you want to consider carefully how irresponsibly Horowitz has portrayed the facts. As you will see from this article, faculty salaries are not keeping pace with inflation, and like every other employee out there (with the exception of the uber rich) we are shouldering more and more of the burden of health care. Let's also not forget that most of us have an enormous pile of student loans that we are paying off, so that we could have the privilege of being overworked and underpaid. Sorry, that last line sounded bitter. But it is pretty frustrating to listen to this well-financed mouthpiece of the right wing go on and on about how irresponsible educators are in higher learning. Good lord. I would get far better pay and treatment if, like Christina Hoff Sommers, I sold out my principles and started spreading the gospel of right wing ideology.

I am going to go on a limb here and say that most of us get into Academia because we care more about truth and knowledge, and let's not forget education, more than money. We hold ourselves to strict standards of evaluation, which is the tenure process. The tenure process is quite brutal and the consequences of failing tenure are far worse than being fired from a job. To get tenure, you have to work your ass off, have a many experts in your field evaluate your research and teaching, and cross your fingers. If you don't get tenure, it is a black mark on your resume (what we call CV) for the rest of your career. How is this comparable to a CEO from Enron? Shit, you can be the worst CEO out there, get fired, and then rehired for even more money at another company faster than I could type this sentence.

I am straying from my original point. I began by comparing the Catholic school with Horowitz' SAF. Both are perverting free speech, portraying themselves as the rogue fringe who must stand up for minority rights. This is just fantasy land. This is a power grab. They are trying to neutralize the institutions that keep our citizenry informed enough to have a meaningful and rich democracy. A healty democracy depends upon a well educated citizenry. This is what is at stake in both the Catholic school and the ABOR. Both of these groups are indoctrinating people and manipulating information to get the political outcomes they want: elect more conservatives.

This movement, disengenously disguised as free speech, is not so far from August's point about political cartoons and free speech. Sure, technically speaking, racist and fear mongering cartoons are free speech. But, give me a break if you cry "I am being denied my free speech" when people react with disgust and anger to your hateful, divisive, and intolerant tactics. Shame on you for wasting your free speech this way.