Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Boalt Is Better Than This

Per Ben's post below, I'm not sure what's more disappointing - the fact that these Berkeley students think it isn't even debatable whether the Geneva Convention really had in mind protections for nationless enemies without uniforms, or this argument that "we're all for academic freedom, but he was acting in some official capacity, so he's fair game."

What's the pedagogical system at Boalt? Do people ever have to defend arguments they might disagree with? Are students supposed to ignore statutory avenues if they don't sit well with their own predilections? Pretend ambiguity doesn't exist if they don’t like its implications? This group seems to think such an approach is "moral." Sounds intellectually dishonest to me.

And what's with this "official capacity" distinction? It should cut against their arguments. Yoo was asked to write this memo. This isn't some sua sponte work of an academic. Yet, these students think the former situation leaves him vulnerable, while the latter approach makes him invincible. Why? Apparently academic freedom ends at the classroom door – they can sack a professor for what he might think, so long as where he thought it is far enough away. I wonder what they’d think of such a rule if it was applied to a Middle Eastern studies professor espousing, say, the end of the Jewish state at a private conference? Ah, but such a hypothetical is too fanciful to be entertained.

Ultimately, this effort reeks of pretext. The goal is to get rid of a guy who will throw out perspectives some students don’t want to be exposed to. This attitude seems to be all too common at Boalt. I suppose the goal is that certain issues should never be debated. Certain ideas should never be given a chance to rise or fall, even if they reveal strengths and weaknesses in other arguments, or challenge students to think differently. These kinds of inquiries simply make people feel too uncomfortable. Better to suppress such ideas than to tackle them with superior reasoning, the local wisdom goes. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Or maybe their reason really isn’t pretextual – maybe the petition’s supporters really think Yoo caused the prison scandal, has blood on his hands, etc. In which case, these Boalt kids aren't just unprincipled. They're blind. Iraqis aren't "non-state actors." They are not the focus of the memo. Sure is fun to have conspiracy theories though, huh? Bowling for Columbine is a masterpiece, right? Better to be passionate than to be honest.

As a final note, I think it’s important to recognize that one doesn’t have to be a First Amendment absolutist to tolerate Professor Yoo. If Professor Yoo’s deeply held opinion was that “Asian people are stupid,” it wouldn’t be too hard to discover that this opinion was not built upon academic inquiry, but upon hatred and irrationality. We might think such an opinion unworthy of our attention, not because it is misguided, but because it is devoid of any real content. It substitutes hatred and biases for argument. It too values passion over honesty.

In stark contrast, Professor Yoo’s arguments are not irrational. It’s quite clear Al Qaeda is a different type of enemy than we’ve seen before, and Geneva may not have properly anticipated what protections such combatants might merit. It is entirely proper, not to mention quite useful for reformers, to recognize a potential gap in the law. Thus, unless some students can show that Yoo based his propositions on, say, a hatred of Arabs, not on this state of the law, there’s no good reason for effectively silencing him. In fact, you may be shooting reform in the foot.

Well Berkeley, after all this, if you still don’t want Professor Yoo, Chicago will keep him. We will even give him a chance to say what he thinks. We might come to the conclusion that everything he says is misguided, poor as a matter of policy, or just plain wrong. But whatever we decide, our institution will be the better for accepting his input and striking back with ideas, rather than with petitions to resign.

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