Defenders of the course say that academic freedom is at stake. But does academic freedom really protect the teaching of what Farrell politely calls "unconventional" views? How about a course expounding on Flat Earth theory and presenting "compelling evidence" that the moon landing was faked? Or, better yet, how about a course called "Germany: History and Culture," in which the instructor presented his "unconventional" view that the Holocaust is a myth and Hitler was a misunderstood great leader?This is a crucial point. Farrell's invocation of academic freedom only works if he would apply it in a viewpoint neutral way. But how can we believe that he would?
Mir Babar Basir, a recent University of Wisconsin graduate and former president of the Muslim Students Association, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Barrett had many supporters, which was not surprising since "Madison is fairly liberal." But what exactly is 'liberal" about the belief in bizarre conspiracy theories? If one wants to promote tolerance toward Muslims and counter the stereotypes that equate all Islam with terrorism, denying the link between Islamic fanaticism and Sept. 11 is hardly the way to go about it.To be fair, I think most liberals and lefties around here -- not that I'm talking to everyone -- just want to keep their distance from this character. The strategy is to move to a high level of abstraction and talk about academic freedom. I'd like to see them use their free speech to say some more robust things and to engage with the horror that ordinary citizens feel when they see something this repulsive being taught at what they think they should be able to embrace as their public university.
No one knows if Barrett's nonsense will persuade any of his students. One thing, however, is clear: His course, and the university's lame defense of it, are a gift to all those who want to malign liberals as America-haters and to portray the academy as a hotbed of left-wing lunacy.
The official reaction from the provost must feel snooty and elitist: You people need to appreciate abstract principles. But when the tables are turned, for example, in the case of affirmative action, the university will say exactly the opposite: You people naively refer to abstract principles, but you don't understand the subtle, contexualized problem.
It's no wonder people get so mad at us. And it's no wonder right wingers find rich raw material to exploit. Why don't the good, serious, scholarly, sane liberals and lefties at the University of Wisconsin speak to the citizens who are watching us?