Tag Archives: Free speech

Do humanities professors dream of electric sheep?

Over the weekend, our graduate students put on a fantastic one-day conference, and it included a faculty roundtable discussing the digital humanities. The line-up included one super-enthusiast, two moderates, and me as the designated Mr. Negative– which in itself tells you where the window of debate is now located. I mean, I blog, I occasionally tweet, I push my students to consult Wikipedia for the background facts on what we’re studying. Take away digital photography, and I wouldn’t last a week in the archives; take away my morning dose of internet news, and I’m a wreck. The digital revolution has gone awfully far if someone like me gets cast as the voice of caution and doubt.

In the Teaching section here and on my Academia.edu site, I’ll post a cleaned-up version of my formal comments. Here I’ll offer a short version of those, mixed with some thoughts that came to me during the (outstanding) discussion that followed the panel’s presentations.

I won’t go on much about my own super-enthusiast side, except to say it’s real. As it happens, my particular weakness as a scholar coincides with some dramatic strengths of the new digital resources. I’ve always had trouble getting dates and details exactly right, and the old printed reference bibliographies have always just left me depressed and listless– anyway the specialized resources I usually need aren’t even available in the universities where I’ve taught. Think of it as my kinky version (not my only version, I hasten to add…) of a thrill we’re all experiencing these days: suddenly I’ve got a cheap, easy electronic solution to a dark, secret, personal weakness.

But the storm warnings also seem to impress me more than most of my colleagues. For the PG-13, super-scary version, check out the philosopher Tim Mulligan’s Ethics for a Broken World: Imagining Philosophy After Catastrophe. Among many other issues, Mulligan thinks seriously about the reality we all know lurks behind the digital wonderland– namely, it could go poof at any moment, because of a war, a breakdown of the electrical system, evil-super-hackers, an NSA Stuxnet-type operation gone wrong, or dozens of other altogether-possible scenarios

So Mulligan imagines his post-catastrophe philosophers having to make do with what he calls the Princeton Codex– scrambled bits and pieces of Princeton University’s paper library that survived climate change and its attendant disasters, in roughly the same messed-up way as ancient European literature survived the Dark Ages.

Except for one big difference. Everything from the ancient world at least had a fighting chance of making it through the bad times, and a lot was waiting there for people like Thomas Aquinas and Copernicus to sort through and build on when the dust settled. In 2015 we’re probably already beyond that point. A steadily greater percentage of our knowledge is now preserved only up there in the cloud, and pretty soon it will be most of our knowledge; if it goes, it’s gone for good.

So that’s the Total-Catastrophe worry, but there’s also the Right-Here-Right-Now worry: digital knowledge reshuffles the sociology of knowledge, in some ways for the better, in others for the worse. At this point we don’t know how much worse, but maybe quite a bit.

On the plus side, the digital world gives new reality to old ideals of equality and fraternity. Like everyone else, I now connect directly and easily with scholars all over the world, people I would never have encountered in the old days. And I get to publish my thoughts in places like this without awaiting the approval of editors or reviewers. Sure, the hierarchies and barriers still exist, but they’re way weaker than they used to be.

But as Alexis de Tocqueville explained long ago, the third element in the great French trinity doesn’t necessarily play well with the other two– and Tocqueville would have loved thinking about liberty’s tormented place in the new digital regime. “Tormented,” because our online doings are watched 24/7, by governments, insurance companies, angry teens, employers, and all sorts of others. Real havoc regularly ensues–health coverage rejected, jobs lost, visas denied, legal trouble, personal humiliations.

In the nature of things, life in this new panopticon entails controlling what we say and do, and even what we learn– multiple authorities now monitor our visits to informational websites. It’s the most effective kind of censorship, the kind where we do the real work ourselves, each of us monitoring our own utterances.

That seems to be part of a larger problem, which we’ve barely started wrestling with: digital culture binds us extra-intensely to our late-capitalist social order, not only because the individual bonds are so strong, but also because there are so many of them. Of course we rely on the corporations that supply our computers, browsers, storage, electricity, etc etc etc. But we also find ourselves slotted into mini-capitalist-entrpreneur roles– each of us bloggers now worries about generating traffic, attracting readers, speaking to our audience; nowadays we’re all minor-league versions of the hustlers who produce the Big Bang Theory.

Higher up the food chain, the resemblance gets even creepier. Here’s the former director of a major digital humanities project, a well-established project at a great public university, speaking some years ago about his job: “A main part of Thomas’s role as Director is to write grants, as well as to seek out appropriate public and private agencies, whose interests match the VCDH’s projects. He compares it to finding funds for a venture capital firm.”

So in this world of surveillance, audience-seeking, entrepreneurship, and venture capital, what happens to the humanists’ trouble-making functions, our capacity to raise harsh questions and social criticism?

My own answer is, so far, so good. Anyone who reads these posts will understand how liberating I’ve found the new media. But the storm clouds are there, and they may get very dark, very fast.


Giving new meaning to freedom of expression…

Like others (notably Glenn Greenwald), I’ve pointed out the uneven ways “free expression” gets defined these days– apparently it’s fine to express some views, as harshly as you please, others not so much.  In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, France has become a kind of test track for this kind of free-speech hypocrisy– marching in favor one day, the next arresting those who express themselves a little too freely.

Now its president has taken things a step farther:

“Asked by journalists about the burning of French flags in several countries, in particular in Africa, François Hollande answered: ‘we’re not finished with such behavior, and it must be punished, because when that happens in France it’s intolerable, but also in foreign countries. I think especially of those countries which sometimes cannot understand what freedom of expression is, because they’ve been denied it.'”

Really, this is the level of discussion?  Burning the French national symbol is a shocking violation, which somehow shows that various Africans and Asians “cannot understand what freedom of expression is,” but mocking other people’s religion shows a vigorous democracy in action?


Tough times– some more thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

These are tough times for those of us who love France. The Charlie Hebdo shootings would have destabilized any society, but they carry an extra punch in one that’s usually as peaceful and orderly as France. An extra punch also because of the historical context: ethnic and cultural tensions have been rising there for years, and authoritarian voices have been getting louder. The Charlie events are sure to speed up those trends.

But in some ways it’s the response of France’s governing elites that’s been the most depressing part of the story, and that raises the biggest questions.

You probably already know about the craziest example. Three days after France’s president led millions of marchers honoring free speech, his government arrested the comedian Dieudonné for “glorifying terrorism” in a Facebook post. The post? “Je suis Charlie Coulibaly”– not exactly a call to holy war or ethnic hatred. I don’t know what Dieudonné himself had in mind, but I read his post mainly as an expression of empathy for the dead.

Dieudonné’s only the highest-profile arrest over the past week. As of Tuesday the police had already hauled in thirty-six others for “glorifying terrorism” and seventeen for “threatening” it; by Wednesday noon, the total had reached sixty-nine, and it was expected to keep rising. The perps include a drunk driver who shouted about the Charlie gunmen while being arrested, a twenty-one year old who expressed his endorsement of the killings while riding the streetcar (for that, he’s already been sentenced to ten months in jail), and two teenage girls who threatened a streetcar conductor.

The French government is also going heavy on the military option, sending a nuclear powered aircraft carrier toward Iraq, where it will help the US bomb ISIS. As it happens, it’s the Charles de Gaulle, named in honor of the French president that Charlie Hebdo’s title also commemorates– de Gaulle had closed down the magazine’s previous incarnation, and the editors used his name for their new venture just to piss him off.

So to sum up: France has arrested a comedian, some drunks, and two teenagers, and it’s started bombing another Muslim country. Does anyone believe these efforts will make the country safer or heal its internal divisions? Could the ISIS PR department imagine a response that would better validate its claims about the West?

Of course we Americans expect these kinds of moves from our own leadership. Since 2001, we’ve bombed a long list of Muslim countries. We don’t normally arrest people for statements like Dieudonné’s, but we do fire them, as in the Stephen Salaita case.

I expected better of France. Not a better level of political ethics– French states-persons have always prided themselves on their toughness and readiness to ignore political pieties– but more serious thought about what’s going on in the world and how to respond to it.

My faith rested on the defining qualities of those French elites I mentioned at the start. For the last century or so, France has made a sincere attempt to create a meritocratic society, in which the smartest and the hardest-working run things. Pretty much from day 1, French kids take a long series of competitive examinations. Those who do well move through a series of high-intensity schools, and eventually end up in top positions all through society. There are no legacy admissions or athletics scholarships in French higher education, no extra points for volunteer work.

The state plays a big role in the process. It sets the standards and provides the schooling, more or less for free, right through the French equivalents of Harvard Business School and MIT. Among top students, government service is an expected, widely admired career path, and so also is a certain breadth of humanistic culture. A few years ago, the famously abrasive, business-friendly Nicolas (“President Bling Bling”) Sarkozy created a minor scandal by describing his school-boy dislike of the seventeenth-century novelist Madame de Lafayette.

It goes without saying that there’s always been plenty of corruption mixed in with the meritocracy– cheesy deal-making, self-interested definitions of merit, big privileges, revolving doors.

But both ideals and practical arrangements in France encourage something better. French leaders aren’t expected to be lowest-common-denominator, NASCAR-watching regular guys basking in their ignorance. They’re supposed to have been tops in their classes at the best institutions; they read real books and travel, and they know foreign languages. Many hold lifetime civil service positions, so they’re not thinking about next year’s reelection campaign or about careers as lobbyists.

So what does it mean that when the going gets tough, these smart, cultivated, cosmopolitan leaders act pretty much the same as their yahoo American analogues?

There’s a range of possible answers, some of which eerily track the standard explanations of Islamic radicalism. There’s the possibility of outside influences: maybe Americanism really has taken over the western world, to the point that France has now adopted our political reflexes, just as in the 1950s it adopted our Coca-Cola. Or there’s the “it’s-baked-into-the-culture” explanation: maybe the universalistic, Enlightenment beliefs that are so central to Frenchness bring with them intolerance of alternatives, just as critics have charged for years.

Or it may be that intelligence, study, and cultivation just doesn’t count for as much as we professors like to think. When the big social and political forces hit, maybe the best and brightest are just as lost as the rest of us. Maybe the guidance has to come from other sources, from fundamental ethical and political commitments.  When those weaken, maybe intelligence, study, and cultivation don’t help.

Like I say, tough times.

Disciplining the university, the Illinois edition

My last post talked about fear in the contemporary American university, as seen in the specific case of America’s Russia experts. Apparently many of them feel jumpy about expressing non-standard views, and that startled me.   Even before we get tenure, most of us professors enjoy a fair amount of security; anyway, I’d always assumed (naively, it turns out) that full-spectrum discussions were welcome in foreign policy matters, especially those involving nuclear weapons and exotic languages. So I offered a little speculation about what’s going on and where today’s jumpiness fits into the longer history of American intellectual conformity.

Now a new case of professorial fear is in the news, and it gives a more direct look at the mechanisms that can produce it. It’s the case of Steven Salaita, who’d been offered a tenured position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, only to have the university’s Chancellor and Board of Trustees yank the offer months after it had been accepted.

I won’t go into the details, which have been widely reported on in the academic news–you can find the story explained here, and here‘s an eloquent comment on it by the historian Natalie Zemon Davis–, but the main issue centers on tweeting. In a series of tweets, Salaita expressed in strong language his feelings about Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip, and the Illinois administration decided that his harsh tone crossed a line. He’d been “disrespectful” toward others’ views, and therefore shouldn’t work in UIUC classrooms. It’s relevant to the story that these were just personal opinions– Salaita’s teaching and research have nothing to do with Israel, Islam, Judaism, or Palestine (he’s a specialist in Native American studies). It’s also relevant that big donors and the university’s fundraising office sought to influence the administration’s decision in the matter (as shown here). Whether or not their threats counted, the donors gave it their best shot.

So the minimum Illinois story is that an academic can get into serious trouble for expressing personal opinions, and that university administrators face serious pressure from donors to ensure intellectual conformity. That minimum story is bad enough, and it’s hard not to suspect that there’s worse behind it. The university administration insists it’s not pushing specific views of Israeli policy, and that its only concern is the tone in which dissenting ideas are expressed– but would they have dumped Salaita if he’d said mean things about Vladimir Putin or Urban Meyer?

You don’t need to pursue those suspicions, though, to see the real menace here, namely the civility standard itself. It’s a trap, a way for powerful institutions to enforce intellectual discipline while pretending to encourage discussion. John Stuart Mill explained it all 150 years ago. Mill pointed out that we can’t set the boundaries of “temperate” and “fair” debate; “if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate oponent.”

In other words, real disagreement is going to include harsh language and hurt feelings, and the cult of civility is a way of preventing disagreement from getting too real.

The Salaita case shows that mechanism of repression working at full steam.

The intellectual in America: an example

Here’s an example of the intellectual’s situation in contemporary America, courtesy of the American historian of Russia Steven F. Cohen. Cohen is about as well-established a figure as could be imagined (some details here). After thirty years as a professor at Princeton, he now teaches at NYU; he’s published lots of scholarly books and received important honors; he seems to have plenty of money and reasonable access to the media. If anyone should feel secure about expressing opinions, it’s people like Cohen.

So it’s a shocker when he tells us about self-censorship within his well-informed, well-protected milieu. Cohen’s particular concern is American policy toward Russia, an issue on which he’s has spoken eloquently and courageously, but the details here matter less than the intellectual climate that he describes.

In that climate, he tells us, “some people who privately share our concerns” in “the media, universities and think tanks—do not speak out at all. For whatever reason—concern about being stigmatized, about their career, personal disposition—they are silent.” As for young scholars, those “who have more to lose,” Cohen himself urges silence. He reports telling junior colleagues that “‘American dissent in regard to Russia could adversely affect your career. At this stage of life, your first obligation is to your family and thus to your career. Your time to fight lies ahead.’”

This is a seriously depressing account, because Cohen isn’t even talking about outsider radicals, ethnic leaders, or potential “extremists,” the kind of people that the New York City Police Department might put under surveillance (see here and here for examples). He’s only discussing well-trained experts like himself, who work for well-defended, rich institutions. His friends have connections, their opinions fall within the spectrum of American common sense, and the subjects they study have major-league practical relevance. After all, we really don’t want to screw up our relations with another heavily-armed nuclear power. We want to get the story straight, and critical debate contributes to doing that.

Yet fear reigns even in this corner of the academic arcadia. At a minimum, Cohen tells us, university professors wait for tenure before expressing an opinion; until then, they shut up. Many of their elders apparently continue shutting up after when the immediate pressure eases, whether because there are still career steps to climb or for more personal reasons.

In some ways, of course, this is just an updated version of an observation that Alexis de Tocqueville made long ago. “I know of no country,” Tocqueville reported in Democracy in America, “where there prevails, in general, less independence of mind and less true freedom of discussion than in America…. In America, the majority draws a formidable ring around thought. Within those limits, the writer is free; but woe to him if he dares to go outside it.”

But there’s also something more sinister in the story that Cohen tells. Tocqueville believed that American democracy explained the problems he detected. “The tyranny of the majority” (he invented the phrase) ensured that non-conforming opinions wouldn’t be heard, because Americans (metaphorically) voted on their ideas just as they (really) voted on their city councilors. But Cohen and his friends aren’t actually facing the tyranny of the majority. They’re facing instead the readiness of powerful insiders to channel discussion in specific directions, by using among other tools their leverage over academic institutions. In other words, the old fashioned forms of power haven’t lost their relevance in our twenty-first century world– and even historians can feel their effects.