Nor do I believe that conservatives should never receive honorary degrees. There are conservative scholars who do work that is respected within academia—many economists, for example—and they would not be inappropriate candidates for such an honor. Nor would I have a problem with conservative pundits, so long as they’re sane and genuinely distinguished (which these days admittedly narrows the field to practically zero), such as the late William F. Buckley. I’ll even grudgingly accept the reality that conservative Republican elder statesmen are regularly awarded these things. Though even here there are limits—while personally I wouldn’t protest the awarding of a degree to George H.W. Bush, even though I find him pretty hateful, far-right lunatics like Cheney, Dubya, and Jesse Helms should be entirely out of bounds..... Because, as much as conservatives may whine and scream to the contrary, liberalism and conservatism are not moral equivalents. Because, on the one side you have the thinkers and activists who have advanced freedom, social justice, and human rights, and on the other, you have those who have attempted to thwart all those things
Bernstein dryly notes that this hostility towards conservatism may be one of the reasons right-ward individuals stay out of academia.
I agree and I disagree, but I think that Bernstein's statement is very revealing. After all, his argument boils down to a very left-identified post-modern claim about how normative statements about "morality" and "right and wrong" are often masks providing justification for relations of power. After all, one could presumably justify not giving someone like Schlafly an honorary degree on the fact that her views are evil, poisonous, bile -- that's his interlocutors argument. But Bernstein does not appear to accept this as a valid justification. Liberals who engage in this sort of strong moral critique of a Schlafly, or a Dubya or a Jesse Helms, are really just perpetuating particular norms of power -- norms which act to (and perhaps are intended to) marginalize and exclude alternative voices (in this case, conservatives). Only by deconstructing the mechanics of this putatively "moral" critique can we recognize how it is a function of power, and seek to remedy the underlying inequality.
And to some extent, I agree. I've registered my support for limited political affirmative action in academia, and acknowledged the potential that a "hostile environment" towards conservatives may push them away from the profession even in absence of overt discrimination.
The problem, though, is that I doubt there is any other context where Bernstein would make (indeed, refrain from mocking) this form of argument. And to turn the stock conservative response back onto him: why should we refrain from calling evil by name? Why shouldn't we avoid honoring those who traffic in immorality? Jesse Helms was a flagrant racist. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have enacted a regime of torture. Phyllis Schlafly has dedicated a career to undermining the principle of equal human rights and dignity. Is Bernstein now in the relativist camp, saying that we must pretend to ignore these inconvenient facts as blurring the focus on the "power structure"? I see no other explanation.
And as for me? There is, in my view, no way to avoid making value judgments -- and even if that's not true, giving an honorary degree is a rather explicit example of making a value judgment anyway. Universities, like all other institutions, have to decide what values they stand for. Open exchange of diverse ideas is one -- which is why I promote the inclusion of smart, qualified conservative thinkers into the academic structure (my support for race-based affirmative action is on precisely the same grounds). But just as our desire to remedy inequalities in race doesn't mean we should admit any Black person who strays across our path, likewise our desire for intellectual equity does not mean that any prominent conservative thinker deserves our honors. Phyllis Schlafly is an unambiguous force for wrong in the world -- wrong in ways that really are no longer controversial from within any reasonable intellectual standpoint, wrong in ways that I doubt Bernstein would disagree with. It is reducing our standards to non-existence to give her an honorary degree. So while I welcome Bernstein to the post-modern camp, and look forward to his support on all other issues which demand that we undermine entrenched hierarchies of domination, he still has some practicing to do.