Sunday, October 07, 2007

HOLY LAND FOUNDATION TRIAL: whose freedom is at stake?

Below are EXCERPTS FROM A SPEECH THAT IS PARTICULARLY INTERESTING in light of recent capitulations by two university presidents to the lowest common denominator in the academic inquiry. Both capitulations were anti-Muslim and against the American guarantee of FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Both benefited Israeli interests.

The first is the insulting and unacceptable childish outburst of Columbia University president Lee Bollinger as he introduced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran. It is not clear what Bollinger meant to achieve by his immature and disgraceful personal attack on the Head of State of a sovereign nation (perhaps he meant to declare to the world that the president of a US university is as important as a visiting head of state; who knows?). Whatever he intended, he succeeded in making himself look petulant and ego-maniacal and certainly not academic.

The second is the bizarre decision of Rev Dennis J. Dease, President of St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, to uninvite Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at the university. That Desmond Tutu is one of the heroic figures of our time is so well-known that it hardly bears saying. That is enough reason to reject Father Dease's decision. But that Archbishop Tutu is the retired prelate of a national church means that the decision was, in every respect, a rejection of the Anglican Communion. (I do not mean to imply anything pro or con about the Anglican church, only to say that Archbishop Tutu's position alone demands respect.)

Both of these decisions were made by university presidents, the first perhaps inadvertently (although I doubt it), and the second openly to please the Israeli lobby in this country. The Israeli lobby's power to stifle even academic freedom is evidence of its power to stifle all freedoms. The Holy Land Foundation trial is, at its root, about the stifling of freedom.

Here are the excerpts from the speech I mentioned above:

“In the classroom, especially, where we perhaps meet our highest calling, the professor knows the need to resist the allure of certitude, the temptation to use the podium as an ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience, to play favorites with the like-minded and silence the others. To act otherwise is to be intellectually self-indulgent.”

“This responsibility belongs to every member of every faculty, but it poses special challenges on those of us who teach subjects of great political controversy. Given the deep emotions that people — students and professors both — bring to these highly charged discussions, faculty must show an extraordinary sensitivity to unlocking the fears and the emotional barriers that can cause a discussion to turn needlessly painful and substantively partial.”

While he repeatedly defended the right of professors to hold unpopular views, the speaker also spoke of the duty of faculties to draw lines around conduct that isn’t appropriate. “We should not elevate our autonomy as individual faculty above every other value. We should not accept the argument that our professional norms cannot be defined and therefore transgressions must be accepted without consequences. We, as faculty, properly have enormous autonomy in the conduct of our teaching and our scholarship. Yet, it will not do simply to say that the professional standards within which that autonomy exists are too vague for any enforcement at all.”

“As we have witnessed throughout recent history, the outside world will sometimes find the academy so dangerous and threatening that efforts will naturally arise to make decisions for us about whom we engage and what we teach. This must not be allowed to happen. We must understand, just as we have come to [understand] with freedom of speech generally, that the qualities of mind we need in a democracy — especially in times of crisis — are precisely what the extraordinary openness of the academy is designed to help achieve — and what will necessarily seem dangerous and threatening when our intellectual instincts press us, to be single minded or, to put it another way, of one mind. In a democracy, that’s what we must be wary of.”

(Excerpts from Inside Higher Ed, March 25, 2005

The speech was given by Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University on March 23, 2005. It was before the Association of the Bar of the City of New York — and came amid a debate at his university over whether professors of Middle Eastern studies have intimidated supporters of Israel. I'm not sure why he thinks he has reason to chide anyone for using "the podium as an ideological platform." And he did not act with "sensitivity to unlocking the fears and the emotional barriers that can cause a discussion to turn needlessly painful and substantively partial.” Bollinger and Dease alike have forfeited their claim to possession of "the qualities of mind we need in a democracy."