Monday, May 12, 2008

Po-Mo Bernstein

David Bernstein is complaining about how liberal bloggers are protesting Phyllis Schlafly's honorary degree from Washington University (St. Louis). Specifically, he objects to an excerpt of this post:
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.


Unknown said...

David Bernstein seems to get the lion's share of your critiques aimed at VC bloggers.

But then, I read VC, so I know there's a very good reason for that. Since Prof. Bernstein is presumably an accomplished scholar, I'd be interested in hearing more about legal issues from him and fewer polemics.

All that said, the post you've dissected here is more substantive than his usual Obama Fishing Expedition fare.

schiller1979 said...

Honorary degrees are, in my opinion, a somewhat silly aspect of academia. But they exist, and they constitute more than just inviting someone to make a speech at commencement. By definition, they "honor" the recipient. So, someone whose values are out of synch with those of the college should not be so honored.

But the way in which you describe those with whom you disagree politically at least implies that you are not even prepared to listen to them. Please forgive me if I'm misconstruing your post, but that's the way it came across to me.

I disagree, by and large, with Phyllis Schlafly's point of view. But she is an articulate spokesperson and should be listened to, and debated with. For example, those of us who do not want people to be trapped into traditional gender roles should at least consider the effect on children when women to one degree or another move away from traditional female roles. And Schlafly is probably helpful in keeping that question in front of us.

I too supported the Carleton diversity statement, including political diversity, when I was on the Alumni Council. As someone who, I like to think, defies labeling, but takes many positions (especially regarding economics) that are commonly labeled "conservative", I appreciate the College's recognition that diversity in that regard is an issue. And I do support the diversity initiative in regard to race and all of the other categories.

Radical Reminders said...

completely and totally off topic i just wanted to let you know how grateful i am for your comments on Feministe re: Israel. You said everything i was thinking (+ so much more) way more eloquently and intelligently than i could have. Thanks for your thoughtful and well linked comments. Honestly, your comments taught me a lot and helped me form much better opinions out arguments for the people i'm constantly going up against who think Israel is in the wrong.

PG said...

I think David Bernstein gets the bulk of almost every moderate/liberal blogger's VC critiques. He even gets a disproportionate chunk of the sane conservatives' critiques.

schiller1979's claim, that Schlafly should be engaged with because she is useful in keeping certain live issues before us, is superficially true. However, it is undercut by a world in which Schlafly is not the only articulate person advancing these concerns. I can name three conservatives off the top of my head who wouldn't count her as an influence yet could articulate similar arguments -- without her baggage of being openly sexist and homophobic.

schiller1979 said...

Schlafly's statements should be met and refuted. While it's not inappropriate to label her sexist and homophobic, doing so should not be deemed to be the end of the argument.

There are people who make that type of statement who are not worth listening to (e.g., Fred Phelps), but I don't put Schlafly in that category. As I wrote earlier, I would not "honor" her, but I would engage her in discussion.

PG said...

It's not the end of the argument about the substantive issues of how minimizing gender differences will affect our society. I think it is the end of the argument about whether she should be honored, and is pretty close to ending the argument about whether Schlafly herself -- NOT the issues about which she is concerned -- should be engaged. I wouldn't protest having her on campus, but she's also not the person I would choose to represent those positions which are worth discussing.

I had this same discussion with other members of the Federalist Society a few years ago, when someone floated the idea of inviting Ann Coulter. My reply was that we could do better in representing a conservative viewpoint, especially at a predominately liberal school. Frankly, I find it stupid of conservatives to put forward representatives who are absolutely useless at changing the minds of the undecided. It makes sense at CPAC or other places where it's preaching to the choir, but certainly not in any actual debate.

I would have loved to have had Robert Bork (I could have worn my RENOMINATE BORK tee), and we had several people speak and debate with whom I disagree strongly, including John Yoo, Dinesh D'Souza, John Ashcroft, Ken Starr, John Bolton and a guy who believes in intelligent design. But those people were respectable, and Ann Coulter (and Schlafly) aren't.

schiller1979 said...

I would definitely put Ann Coulter in the "not worth listening to" category.

She's one of the worst examples of the type of cable TV pundit that was spawned by Crossfire. What she and her ilk do is to political commentary as professional wrestling is to real sports.