Friday, March 09, 2007

Free speech and power.

I touched on the matter of institutional academic power before: we can think of those who have controlled historical institutes, publishing series, journals and even what we might today call think-tanks. There are two ways of achieving such power: either you climb the greasy pole within an established school, as per GR Elton's New Cambridge Modern History, or you launch a bitter insurgency from the margins, as per the Annales school which was launched in 1929 in the exoteric domain of the University of Strasbourg. Deriding the 'Sorbonniste' for their boring histories that focused on politics and diplomacy and on 'events, dear boy', they explored immense new vistas of research, looking at the intersection of social, economic, spatial and environmental research. By the time the school had been re-established after World War II, its founders had moved to Paris (Bloch died in the Resistance), and it eventually came under the sway of Fernand Braudel, who founded the Maisons des Sciences de l'Homme, which became a huge employer and gave Braudel enormous power over what would be researched, who would be appointed, and what would be published.

Stepping outside of the domain of history, the categories still have some loose validity, and in the former category are the descendants of Francis Galton, who invented the pseudo-discipline of eugenics and set up the Eugenics Society, now known as the Galton Institute (because the phrase 'eugenics' kind of went out of fashion after the Nazi period). A current life fellow of that institute is Professor David Coleman, who is also a consultant of the 'think-tank' Migration Watch. Migration Watch is a reactionary outfit that regularly provides the media with spurious statistics and trash Malthusianism to support racist crackdowns on immigrants. These have been used by The Sun and other media outlets, as well as by politicians and commentators on the right, to raise hysterical alarms about migrants.

At any rate, Coleman's repeated denigration of immigrants and their contribution to the UK prompted some students at Oxford University to launch a petition demanding that his tenure be reconsidered and that he cease using his academic title when making media appearances of that character. The use of academic power and prestige to bolster racism was bringing the University into disrepute, they said. The organisers told the student newspaper that they didn't expect to succeed with their demands, but that they would at least raise awareness among students. The problem they raise is not unique. The evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, of LSE, recently claimed that Africans were poorer than Europeans because they were stupider. Frank Ellis of Leeds University uses his position to recommend such things as the 'weeding out' of homosexuality as well as the hunting down, rounding up and deporting of migrants. Leeds Students successfully got him suspended under the Race Relations Act, after winning the support of AUT members. It would be too much to say that this racist tendency amounts to a fraternity, but there is certainly an effort in many quarters to give academic respectability to a political philosophy which is uniquely and inherently responsible for genocide.

Enter the Liberal. He doesn't need to think about issues of repression or oppression, or of long-term consequences, or of power. For him, violence is unproblematically wrong (except when Western states are doing it), free speech is unproblematically right (except when some Islamists want to exercise it by protest, and then it becomes a threat to free speech), capitalist norms are all there is to anything, there must be a 'free market' in ideas, racism is bad but repressing racism is equally bad. Hence, the Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, who you may remember from the Viking Jihad, has condemned the Oxford Students and insisted on Coleman's right to express his views, provided he does so legally. This complaint is self-cancelling - all one has to do is make his views illegal and he can be sacked without a problem. I am not myself calling for such a law, merely pointing to the tautological vacuity of Harris' argument. Similarly, and at much more length, here is Terence Blacker in the Independent. He accuses the students of bullying the racist professor, and avers that academics live and writer under the fear of "reprisals, of the rage of students". He complains that the repeated attempts to counter racism, not the emergence of academic racism, will exert a "chilling effect on the freedom in universities to research and write in the future". He adds that: "If they disagree with the views of an academic, they have endless opportunities to put their own opposing case. That is the way freedom of speech works."

Well, "freedom of speech" does not work like that, and it has never worked like that. I don't know Blacker's writing very well, but if he is as lazy as this under normal circumstances, then his employers really need to look at his right to free speech. Does he absolutely need all of those column inches to express himself? All forms of expression are shaped and convoked by power relations as Blacker knows perfectly well, since he is a former publisher. Student Action for Refugees does not have the clout, the academic mandate, the funding, the media access or the political support that Migration Watch has. Students who spend about three to four years progressing through an institution they are unfamiliar with are not equipped with the institutional power that tenured professors have. The academia does not represent all intellectual currents equally and fairly, and it never has, and what's more it would be an impossible endeavour, and a deeply unpleasant one. Why would one want racism to be 'fairly represented'? Why is it so essential to cultivate reactionary pseudo-science in the ideological state-apparatuses? How far does the logic proceed? Permitting 'research' into a 'cure' for homosexuality to be published under the impress of OUP? A modern history of the Nazi period that explains to students how the Jews and communists and homosexuals and gypsies caused World War II, written by tenured professors with grants from a senior research body? There is no necessary reason why the institutions of power should be devoted to pernicious ends. But of course, power is a factor liberal free-speechers are rarely duly cognisant of: the fantasy of an open discursive field is simply too alluring. The metaphors used to describe this process give the game away: "let a thousand flowers bloom", people say, which unfairly assumes that there is a creative process going on, and also that all of the little flowers are innocent, pretty little things that can share the same space. Funds, power, institutional resources, appointments and so on are finite: their distribution is necessarily political.

On a related note, you will soon be able to read The Threat to Reason, a book by the excellent Daniel Hind on the institutional threats to intellectual development and the attempts to utilise Enlightenment for the promulgation of market values and permanent war. It should be out in May this year, but in the meantime you only have his infrequently updated blog.