Wednesday, February 02, 2005

It's A Dirty Job ...

Yeah, but somebody's gotta do it. I mean, defend the dummies of the world. The ones with the appalling opinions that sensible people wish would shut up. One of those dummies is a Colorado professor named Ward Churchill. While riding into work this morning, I heard the following report from NPR about him. Here's the money quote:

"Colorado legislators and some students are calling on the University of
Colorado to fire a professor who wrote an essay comparing some victims of the
Sept. 11 attacks to Nazis. Ward Churchill's essay went largely unnoticed until
an upstate New York college invited him to speak this week. The invitation drew
protests from victims' families and was cancelled after the college received
death threats."
According the rest of the NPR report, he actually likened these victims to "little Eichmans." His point is that they were not innocent bystanders because some of them worked for companies that support the economic and political structure of America, which he, no doubt, finds reprehensible. He further said, in his essay, that they were merely getting a taste of what America has inflicted upon the Palestinians and other oppressed groups.

So, according to his logic, some secretary or mailroom delivery boy who was unlucky enough to be in the World Trade Center on that tragic day got what she or he deserved for supporting "American Imperialism in the third world." Yeah, right. And every blonde who wears a mini-skirt is asking to be raped. I thought we dispensed with blaming the victim eons ago. Silly me.

If Professor Churchill isn't a candidate for one of Andrew Sullivan's Sontag Awards, I don't know what is.

However, however ...

Although I obviously don't agree with the good professor, I also disagree with those who pressured the New York school into disinviting him to speak and even more with those who are pressing to have him fired from the University of Colorado. This goes beyond the first amendment protections. In truth, Professor Churchill already has that protection, regardless of whether either school caves to the pressure. That's because all the first amendment does is to protect citizens from government censorship. Our government can't officially silence us, and most important, it can't throw us into jail for speaking our minds, regardless of how unpopular or stupid our opinions may be.

And as far as I know, neither the federal government nor the state of Colorado is hauling Professor Churchill's butt to jail. Nor are they shutting down the magazine that published his essay or the bookstores that might carry any books he might have written. They are doing nothing to interfere with his right to speak.

However, the first amendment does not guarantee anybody a podium either. That means that if I don't like your views, I am not legally obligated to post them on my blog (although I might because I'm a contrarian). A magazine editor does not have to publish them in his magazine. A bookstore is not obligated to stock his books and a university does not have to invite him to speak.

Having said that, I think it's bad policy, once the invitation has been issued to disinvite somebody and it's even worse policy to fire him or her because of public pressure to do so.

As much as you, I, or the vast majority of people may dislike hearing this guy's opinions, I personally believe passionately in the "marketplace of ideas." This goes beyond an anti-censhorship position. It's actually a free market issue.

The very best way to combat a reprehensible idea is to debate it publicly. By now, history should have taught us that bad ideas never go away no matter how much you try to censor them. Regardless of how vigorously Europe tries to quash hate speech, neo Nazis rear their ugly skinheads. And no matter how many times well-intentioned people try to ban it, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion keeps getting recycled.

Anything you censor only continues to fester like a pustular boil. But expose it to the fresh air and sunshine of the bustling marketplace where different ideas jostle for attention, and it's like lancing that boil. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor. Yes, I know better, but I just couldn't resist.)

Many of the people who are pushing for Professor Churchill to be fired are Republicans, including campus Young Republicans. To me this is very sad because some of those same conservative students, on other campuses, have themselves been the victims of the urge to censor coming from the left. Such political correctness may keep you from having to listen to things you don't like to hear. But somebody else is also hearing those ideas, even if it is in the underground; and by your ignoring them, you lose the opportunity to respond and truly combat bad ideas.

The only way to shut down bad ideas is to debate them freely and openly. Anybody who doesn't believe that doesn't have faith in the free market. And that's a failure of nerve.

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