The Phantom Menace

July 31, 2007

For wingnut pundits, Ward Churchill is the gift that keeps on giving. When this obscure academic made ridiculous and hateful statements about the victims of the World Trade Center attack being “little Eichmanns” that were part of “a technocratic corps at the very heart of the American financial empire,” cable TV blowhards turned him into the malign poster child for their jihad against academe. The phantom menace they had created — radical professors turning their students into politically correct zombies — finally had a face and a name. That Churchill considers himself a libertarian rather than the wooly minded liberal of conservative folklore hardly mattered.

Churchill’s university just fired him for reasons that may not hold up under legal scrutiny but that hardly figures in the calculations of National Review pundit Stanley Kurtz, who has just called for a conservative jihad to end tenure, the better to subject university professors to direct political pressure from legislators. Kurtz, naturally, cites “the Ward Churchill fiasco” as one of his justifications:

The notion of eliminating tenure might seem like pie in the sky, but I suspect there are real possibilities for change. No doubt any shift would have to be grandfathered in, but how could we go at tenure in the first place? The answer, I think, is state legislatures. What we need is a campaign in a fairly conservative-leaning legislature, in a state with its own university system. The mere existence of such a campaign would provoke intense professorial reaction, thereby sparking a national debate. Can you imagine college professors on TV trying to seriously defend the idea that tenure has functioned to protect the marketplace of ideas?

No, I can’t imagine it — not because tenure doesn’t protect the marketplace of ideas (it does) but because this issue is most likely to be debated in cable TV shout-show venues that are as interested in preserving “the marketplace of ideas” as the Bush administration is in restoring New Orleans. What self-respecting academic is going to subject himself to the on-air ravings of Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter?  

As Matt Yglesias notes, Kurtz’s suggestion that the jihad begin in “a fairly conservative-leaning legislature, in a state with its own university system” will only work to diminsh the educational standing of the laboratory state. No serious academic, regardless of his political persuasion, will submit to that kind of setup. Talented students with educational options will make their decisions accordingly.

Yglesias says he wonders “what Stanley Kurtz could be thinking here,” but that seems clear enough. Like most movement conservatives, Kurtz prefers a marketplace of ideas that has been cleared of ideas likely to cause distress for movement conservatives. If this vision is realized, it won’t be much of a marketplace, and there would be damned few ideas worthy of the name, but for a movement that has given us such Forest Lawns of the mind as Liberty University and Bob Jones University, I don’t think that would be much of a problem.         

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