Saturday, April 19, 2008

Professing torture

Somewhere way, way on the back of the burner of the week's events in politics -- behind the important question of which Ivy League-educated Democratic presidential candidate can best represent the "Shot and Beer" rank-and-file that has replaced the Soccer Moms of earlier campaigns as the go-to constituency in American politics; behind the equally weighty question of whether Barack Obama's alleged "assocation" with a former member of the Weather Underground, which left its mark on New Left politics in the 1969, when Obama was 8 years old, is or was worse that President Clinton's decision to pardon the same person almost thirty years later; and far, far behind the most important question of all:

Did George Stephanopolous ever advise Bill Clinton, when the ABC "newsman" worked as a primary campaign advisor for him in 1992, to leave the race because of his less than honest answers to questions about his decision to avoid the Vietnam draft, or for his and Hillary's often vengeful attacks on the women who alleged the former Arkansas governor sexually propositioned them, or his uncomfortable relationship with the truth? If so, why didn't Stephanopolous quit in protest? If not, was a chance to work in the White House more important than his personal ethics?

Or did anyone ask George any of those questions? Or is just members of the establishment media who are allowed to lord over everyone else?

. . . behind those questions -- yes, those I alluded to in the first paragraph -- was this little controversy, more important, naturally, to balsamic vinegar swilling, free-range chicken eating elitists such as myself:

Should a professor who, during his period of "government service" in the Bush administration, wrote the legal memorandum authorizing the use of torture on suspected terrorists detained in American military and off-books facilities be allowed to retain his tenured post at one of the nation's most elite law schools, which also happens to be a public institution?

My answer is simple: yes. And I don't answer "yes" simply because I want to keep tenure for myself. Tenure as a good idea or bad idea isn't relevant here. The only question is whether a professor who "professes," i.e., writes or talks about an idea or action thought abhorrent by more "civilized" minds should be allowed to teach students who, as lore tells us, are "impressionable" and thus likely to see our viewpoints as just one of many having validity. Worse, if we are good teachers, we may well dupe students into becoming our acolytes . . . sort of a, "I think Professor Ivers is a good teacher" (this is a hypothetical, so bear with me), so if he says you should be required to name all 50 states and their capitals to vote in presidential elections then, goddamnit, you should!" There is a difference, though, between teaching your own opinions in class as somehow "true," and then asking students to consider many different ideas to test their strengths and weaknesses. Advocating pedophilia as a perfectly natural expression of love and attraction is not the same thing as asking your students if religious groups should be permitted an exemption from criminal law for religious practices that are illegal in a secular context.

John Yoo, a law professor at Berkeley, worked in the Bush Department of Justice as a political appointee from 2001 to 2003. During that period, as the ACLU recently discovered in a memo obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Yoo was the primary legal architect of the Bush administration's rationale for torturing terrorists suspects being held in military facilities. Since the memo was made public, the reaction has been predictably split between those who opposed the Bush administration's support for torture (let's dispose of the "enhanced interrogation" euphemism, okay?) and those who believed that the ends, whatever they may be, justified the means. Between the cracks fell the question of whether Yoo should be allowed to retain his position at Berkeley. Would firing Yoo somehow go against the principles of academic freedom that remain at the core of the tenure system? Is protecting someone like Yoo necessary to protect someone like me, assuming that one day I write or profess something that advocates illegality in the name of some greater good?

Here's my take: Yoo should keep his job, assuming, of course, he is not linking obedience to his views to course credit and student grades. If Yoo wants to incorporate his views into his lectures and classroom discussion so that students may have a chance to rebut him and offers a fair hearing to everyone, then he is on solid ground. If a student writes a paper or legal memo for class concluding that everything Yoo has written is shoddy and wrong and does a first-class job of making his case, and his teacher/tormentor rewards him with an A, then no harm, no foul. The bigger question is not whether Yoo should remain a tenured professor; it's why would an institution hire him in the first place? I cannot imagine a university in the country that would go out and hire a committed racist by design. Yet, strange people slip through the cracks of the academic hiring process much more often that you might think. Can you fire someone because of their views before you tenure them? Sure, within certain boundaries. To argue that professional academics cannot distinguish someone with, let's say, profoundly conservative or liberal or libertarian or socialist views from a pedophile or racist makes a mockery of the whole idea of a learned community and the idea of inquiry.

Remember the Ward Churchill saga of last year? Didn't think so. Read about it here. SIDEBAR: Interesting, isn't it, how left-wing crackpots who hold tenured positions in universities end up as poster children for "rethinking" tenure while right-wing crackpots who hold forth on brain size and racial superiority, or the racial inferiority of African-Americans, or torture, or how landlords shouldn't have to rent apartments to co-habitating gay couples are, in addition to being defended as "misunderstood," cited as case studies of why we need tenure?

Believe it or not, allowing John Yoo to proceed apace protects academics in other ways. Almost all my pre-tenure colleagues are hesitant to voice their real views on university politics for fear of being punished for speaking out. They are afraid to give their students poor marks or hold them accountable for dishonest behavior for fear of retribution by an academic officer or administrator. They goose and manipulate their teaching evaluations to improve their ratings so they can alleviate any concern that they are not an "effective" teacher. And many more bright young scholars follow the the mind-numbing conventional "literature" in a chosen field rather than call the standard-bearers in their fields the unimaginative, boring and dull-witted drolls that they so often are for fear of not being published in journals they would otherwise use to clean their kitten's litter boxes. The lack of innovative, creative scholarship in political science, for example, is self-imposed. A young academic looking for tenure is punished for coloring outside the lines. Only by adhering to the conventional wisdom of the field, not be challenging it or embracing new technologies and/or approaches to communication and investigation, will an academic have a chance of being awarded tenure. Once you've been tenured, you have the freedom to pursue new and usually much more interesting avenues of inquiry. You cannot be fired for coloring outside the lines. Looked down upon by your peers for cashing in that get-out-of-jail free card, yes. But canned? No.

John Yoo's tenured position at one of the nation's most elite law schools reflects poorly on Berkeley's decision to hire and promote him. Now that he's there, he has, as he should, the freedom to write and say what he wants, as long as he respects the bounds of professionalism in the classroom. Let him publish in all the law reviews he wants. So few people read them that debate over "controversial" articles in law reviews, like those in political science journals, is little more than a parlor game for academics with little or no connection to the policy-making world. It is only outside academia can law professors or political scientists have any real influence. Trust me, you'd much rather have the John Yoos of the world sitting comfortably in their campus offices spinning theories that are little more than, well, academic, for as long as they want than mapping the ignoble road to torture one short hop, skip and a jump from the White House.

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