Saturday, January 29, 2005

Ominous Mexico

A few days ago I returned from a winter vacation with a friend in Mexico, my fifth visit since 1969. We avoided the usual hotspots of Cancun, Puerto Escondido, Mazatlan and so forth, in order to stick to north-central Mexico (the Bajio) and Puebla, with a final incursion into the capital. My spoken Spanish has become pretty limber, going beyond the usual inquiries about hotels and food to encompass intellectual discussions.

We saw many beautiful colonial buildings and refreshed our knowledge of pre-Columbian art. The attractions of those things are to me, an art historian, obvious.

Those benefits aside, I have developed serious forebodings about the country. When presidente Fox took office (at the same time as Bush's ascendency), there was much hope. Mexico was finally developing a working two-party system. Fox would move to dismantle the established PRI hierarchies and introduce a wave of neo-liberalism that would release the economic energies of the Mexican people. Contrary to stereotypes they have much endurance for hard work. Indeed they must, for it is necessary to work two full-time jobs to maintain a middle-class standard of living.

But little has changed--except for the worse. Now we hear ominous warnings about visiting northern Mexico, where kidnappings are rife. While the US is distracted by the Middle East ominous developments are happening right on our own southern border.

In reality Mexico is at least three countries. First are the tourist enclaves, constituting a kind of necklace dotting the shores (or some of them) of the country. We easterners are most familiar with Cancun. West Coast folks have a broader assortment available, from Mazatlan to Puerto Escondido. These enclaves are maintained by government policy to rake in tourist dollars. As far as the average tourist goes, they might as well be in Florida or California. For they rarely venture inland.

Then there is a second Mexico consisting of a few islands that show what the country could become if it could discard the debilitating heritage of its culture and the incubus of imported state socialism. San Luis Potosi, north of Mexico City, is a model of order and prosperity. The streets are clean and there is little evidence of begging. Most citizens seem reasonably happy, and they are easy to deal with. The city is lovely.

Finally, there is the swamp of pollution, crime, and hopelessness that makes up most of Mexico. This is true for the twenty-five million people who live in Mexico City, one of the most wretched places on earth. Tourists have pretty much abandoned this once desirable place. Even worse, though smaller, are such border towns as Tijuana and Nogales.

The roots of Mexican difficulties lie in her history. At the beginning there was the sixteenth-century conquest and subjugation of New Spain by the conquistadores. This relatively small Herrenvolk of European origin effectively inferiorized the indigenous peoples.

The foundations for addressing the problem of the racial caste system were ostensibly laid by the revolt proclaimed by Father Hidalgo in the Grito de Dolores of 1810. However, when Mexican independence was achieved a decade later the rule of the white minority was simply confirmed (with a small number of Spanish-born individuals being shipped back to Europe). The prolonged and destructive Mexican Revolution a century later was supposed to address the divisive stratification at a more basic level. The grandiose concept of La Raza Cosmica proclaimed the mestizo to be the bearer of a new type of exemplary hybridity. At the same time the regime adopted a symbology derived from the Aztecs.

Yet serious problems remained. Most Indian groups, as in Chiapas and Guerrero, remained aggrieved. The Aztec symbology favored only one group, the Nahua speakers and those with such a background. Moreover, it became increasingly evident that the indigenista symbology was in large measure simply a cloak for the continued hegemony of the white elite.

Mexico has also been hindered by the imposition of foreign ideologies. During the colonial period a type of mercantilism took root, which empowered the state to restrict economic activity rather than to promote it. The twentieth century saw the importation of a half-baked state socialism.

In some ways Mexico recalls the vanished regimes of Eastern Europe. Yet liberation does not seem to be coming. A basic lack interferes with this, for in reality there is no unified Mexican identity. Today one hears little of the Raza Cosmica (except north of the border where Chicanos speak of La Raza).

In short Mexico is a failed state. Prospects for improvement are dim at best. And sooner or later we will have to deal with this problem. Immigration, massive though it is, is only a temporary palliative.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The misdiagnosis trope

In a recent article libertarian congressman Ron Paul has aptly compared the decision to undertake the Iraq war to a medical misdiagnosis. It is not unlike those cases one sometimes hears about where a patient goes into the hospital for treatment of cancer in one part of the body, only to find that his chart has been switched with that of someone else and a different part of the body has been operated on.

On the world's body the cancer is Osama bin Laden, and this malignancy is located on the Afghan-Pakistan border. That is the area that needed decisive surgical intervention. Instead, we operated 800 miles away, ignoring the al-Qaeda metathesis, and in fact helping to spread the malignancy. Formerly in remission, Iraq is now a critical zone.

In the medical field itself, diagnostic displacement has a considerable history. A notorious example stems from a hundred years ago, from the practice of a shady Berlin doctor, Wilhelm Fliess. For a time guru to no less than Sigmund Freud. Fliess believed that the etiological locus of sexual malfunction lay in the nose! He would then operate to extract a bone there that he thought was the problem.

In all likelihood this ectopic treatment reflects a persistent folk belief, which in the 18th century acquired the status of an urban legend. In this view one can estimate the size of a man's penis from the size of his nose. I believe that there is a letter by Alexander Hamilton supporting this belief, which is occasionally found even today.

To be sure, sometimes particular effects derive from seemingly remote causes. However, such claims must be demonstrated,not just assumed. In my view they emphatically were not established in Iraq--at least not until our catastrophic intervention made them possible

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Same-sex marriage in historical perspective

George Chauncey, professor of American history at the University of Chicago, garnered favorable reviews for his 1994 book "Gay New York," which covered the field in the Gotham up to the year 1940. Soon to appear is a sequel with a broader scope, "The Making of a Modern Gay World (1935-1975)."

Between these two major works, Chauncey has found time to produce a quickie on a subject of great current interest, "Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate Over Gay Equality." The time frame of this book is about fifty years, though his analysis of the institution of marriage as such delves back into the 19th century.

Not previously noted for his contributions to the subject of on gay marriage, Chauncey can claim a detached point of view. This does not mean that he endorses any of the unviable arguments against gay marriage emanating from “traditional-values” defenders. But he does not take sides among the several factions arguing for gay marriage. And of course some gays and lesbians, mainly on the left, continue to be leery of marriage. Here he makes a shrewd point. The fact that gays differ over marriage shows that there is no “gay agenda,” as homophobes like to claim.

Chapter 3, on the historical variability of marriage, is excellent. Chauncey indicates that some anthropologists have been so struck by this variability that they deny that there is any single thing called marriage. This means that both traditionalists, who deplore the profanation of their parochial concept of marriage, and gay social-policy types, who assume marriage stability for their own purposes, are on shaky ground.

Reflecting his credo as a social historian, Chauncey gives little attention to the contributions of individuals, so that Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, and Evan Wolfson rate only passing mention. He thinks that historical forces are the main element.

Regrettably, his approach to the central problem is unsatisfactory. On the one hand, he holds that the progress of gay marriage from the periphery to the center of attention (a trajectory that has taken just ten years) is a phenomenon. I agree. On the other hand, he claims that he can easily explain this development. Well, if it is a phenomenon it is not easily explained, even as a prophecy after the event. If, by contrast, it is easily explained, the amazing “legs” of the issue cease to be problematic. In short Chauncey has framed the problem, but has not advanced very far towards its solution.

Though fluent, the book rarely probes deeply. Instead of gesturing towards the ineffable wisdom of the historian’s stance, Chauncey needs to do some hard empirical work to find the relevant data. In fact he misses most of the whole first act of the drama, which prefigured that which was to come in our own day.

In 1952 ONE Magazine began in southern California, founded as an offshoot of the Mattachine Society, our first stable and serious gay rights organization. In August of 1963, the monthly published an exploratory article "Homosexual Marriage?" Matters hung fire until 1961. In January of that year ONE, Inc., the organization, convened a summit meeting to discuss a homosexual bill of rights. According to the position paper plank No. 3 read as follows: "Marriages between homosexual members of the same sex should be recognized and provided for by law and should have exactly the same status and confer the same benefits and responsibilities as heterosexual marriages. This would include tax exemptions, joint ‘husband-and-wife’ ownership, and so on."

This proposal generated a heated controversy. On the whole, the southern California delegates were in favor, while the northern California ones (including a delegation from The Ladder, the lesbian organization) were against. A flurry of publications ensued. A pulp journalist, R.E.L. Masters, publicized the matter in his expose’ book "The Homosexual Revolution" of 1963. The last notice seems to have been a 1963 article in ONE Magazine. This terminal article is the only item in this ten-year development Chauncey has noticed. He seems unaware of the dimensions of this first encounter with the issue.

The art historian Jonathan R. Katz has rightly singled out a paradox. The fifties were in some ways the most homophobic decade this country has witnessed. Not only was same-sex behavior illegal in every state, but gays were denied federal employment and widely subject to entrapment by vice squads, which were intensely proactive. Yet, as Katz points out, this era also shaped such luminaries of American culture as Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and Andy Warhol. Among the creative responses, we must now include the first debate on gay marriage.

Still, the early efforts to place the issue on the table evoked only a modest response--especially by comparison with the outpouring of interest and demand shown in the 1990s. Why was the earlier response muted?

An obvious answer was that expanding marriage to include same-sex couples was "too radical." This response does not take us very far. During the period after Stonewall (1969 ff.) same-sex marriage seemed not radical enough, being perceived as a compromise with bourgeois norms which must be overthrown. Indeed this objection lingered when the gay left dragged its feet with regard to the marriage movement in the 1990s, helping to ensure the sense of its irrelevance.

It may be suggested that the real roots of the modest reception in the early years are based in an experience of long standing. During the early modern era, in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe there were a number of prominent instances of simulated marriages—men and men, women and women. The Molly Houses of early 18th century London saw mock marriage ceremonies in which two men went through a parodic version of the marriage ceremony. More common and lasting were unions between women. Typically one of the two would assume the dress and outward bearing of a man, and the couple might be accepted. Some of course were found out. What excited particular horror in the general society was the perception that one of these women was "usurping" the male prerogative by using a simulated penis, a dildo, during sexual congress.

By the early 20th century an egalitarian ideal had come to be dominant among gay men and lesbians. Not always, as we know from some instances of the butch-fem dichotomy among lesbians. As the egalitarian concept gained ground, men rejected the idea that they, or at least the “submissive” one in the coupled relationship, must adopt the appearance and psychic demeanor of men. Similarly, lesbians, even butch ones, rejected the idea that they must "really" be men. Of course, a small proportion of each sex sought a sex change. But the vast majority rejected both the need for sex change and a long-term commitment to cross-gender identification.

In this perspective gay marriage could only gain more general acceptance as the older idea of simulating the opposite sex faded. There could now be pairs with two wives and two husbands.

Put in this fashion the matter seems a bit outlandish--as indeed it does to some skeptical heterosexuals. Still an increasing number of gay men and lesbians aspire to lead lives that are normal in every way, except for their choice of partner. This "bourgeois" aspiration is decried by the gay left, but its influence has steeply declined.

The removal of the sodomy laws the remaining states that had them, as a result of the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence decision enhanced the sense of gay progress and entitlement. Equality has become the watchword.

There are practical concerns as well. As it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain affordable health insurance in this country, having a married spouse is one way to obtain it. There are other needed benefits as well, including hospital visitation, inheritance, and adoption rights.

There is division in the gay community as to whether the new arrangements will be in the form of marriage or civil unions, which it is hoped will be marriage in all but name.

At all events a new constellation of events had come into play. This constellation has make the gay marriage a central concern--as it was not when the matter was first broached a half century ago.

Monday, January 03, 2005

The conservative approach to gay marriage

Over the course of the year 2004 voters in thirteen states have passed initiatives forbidding gay marriage in their jurisdictions. Harshly, some of these measures even ban civil unions. This unsettling development represents a reality check for the gay-marriage enthusiasts, who arguably provoked some of the backlash by their aggressive and antidemocratic tactics. Judge shopping on the part of judicial activists and the spectacle of the San Francisco "guerrilla theater" (the mass marriages orchestrated by Mayor Gavin Newsom) produced an unfortunate effect. They seemed to reflect an effort to push the development too far too fast. A more organic approach, allowing for gradual change in public opinion, would have been far preferable. As matters have developed, the pro-gay marriage folks may have handed their cause a setback.

The roots of this setback lie in part in the deepening fissures between the "blue" (liberal) states and the "red" (conservative) ones. Massachusetts, with gay marriage, and Vermont, which invented the concept of civil unions, are deep-blue states. Connecticut, New Jersey, and California--all blue--seem to be moving into this camp. However, the defeat in Oregon, which passed an initiative against gay marriage on November 2, suggests limits to the advance even in blue states. Public opinion—and the voters—in the red states are resolutely opposed. This split is important because only if gay marriage becomes a nation-wide phenomenon can it be said to have succeeded. Massachusetts has marriage in name, but those who tie the knot there are deprived of as many as 1000 federal benefits, at least according to some calculations.

We were led to expect that the experiment in Massachusetts, which implemented gay marriage on May 17, would convince skeptics that this change is wholesome and beneficial--and no threat to heterosexual marriage. And so it has turned out--for citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Acceptance in an ultra-blue state does not translate into success in the large portions of the country that remain unconvinced and recalcitrant.

Another token of the national dichotomy is the fact that so far the major gay-marriage advocates have been members of the elite from the two coasts. Their entreaties seem to fall on deaf ears in the heartland. As we shall see, an effort to heal this rift has been made by suggesting that gay marriage is in fact a conservative step, which will help to strengthen marriage as a whole. Yet by and large those targeted by this appeal aren’t buying it.

To be sure the gay-marriage movement has advanced under the cover of a formidable set of arguments. These assertions have largely framed the national debate, which is much more prominent than anyone could have predicted even ten years ago. One can readily access the arguments in articulate books by such scholar-advocates as Jonathan Rauch, Andrew Sullivan, and Evan Wolfson. Having advanced the idea in his Harvard Law School thesis as early as 1983, Wolfson can claim to be the movement’s godfather.

Of the arguments that have come forward the only conclusive one (in my view) is the one that relies on the principle of equity. Let me illustrate. Suppose we had a society in which only one segment of the society can legally drive automobiles. This is not a mere hypothetical example, for in Saudi Arabia only men are permitted to drive cars; women cannot. Presumably those who defend this restriction employ some form of the argument from prescription. "You see, as far back as recorded history informs us, in our culture women were not permitted to drive chariots or to lead camel caravans. Our present-day custom simply affirms this venerable practice, harmonizing as it does with the central values of our culture."

Restricting marriage to heterosexuals is indeed an age-old practice in our own society. But is it just? Clearly not. So same-sex marriage must come to America. But it will probably not be a reality—on a national basis, the only one that counts—for a good many years.

Some arguments for gay marriage have raised unrealistic expectations. Will marriage become the norm for gay people? While a majority of gay men and lesbians hold that same-sex marriage must be permitted, most will probably not personally have recourse to it. Preliminary evidence from the Netherlands suggests that only about 12% of the eligibles will elect it. So while the option ought to be available to everyone, there should be no stipulation that we must elect this path. Many of us are comfortable with domestic partnerships or civil unions—or perhaps nothing at all.

Yet this laissez-faire approach is strongly opposed by one segment of the gay-marriage movement. These advocates may be termed "transformationists." These writers seem to subscribe to the alarmist view common some years back that the decline of marriage represents a significant danger to our nation. Too many, we are told, have been tolerant in the face of this unfortunate development. The spread of "Murphy Brownism," mothers having children out of wedlock, must be deplored. Vigorous government intervention is required. So said the critics. But is their view really compelling today? Many of the social ills discernible in the 1980s era have moderated. One sign is that pregnancies by unmarried teenage girls are now much less common. More broadly, marriage is declining in the US, but as Scandinavia shows this evolution is not necessarily a prelude to disaster.

According to the 1990 US Census there were 3.2 million unmarried couples. Ten years later the number had surged to 5.5 million. Heterosexuals are abandoning the dinosaur of marriage. Why should the mass of gay men and lesbians embrace it? Other data suggest that young heterosexuals, those in their twenties, are particularly marriage-averse. These are the folks who are most accepting of gay marriage, possibly because, in this era of “hooking up” young people do not care much about marriage anyway.

This erosion notwithstanding, transformationists insist that, when it comes, gay marriage must not be simply an option but a necessary obligation. Gay men desperately need the blessings of the institution. Indeed, our virtuecrats hold that gay men are in a bad way. Gay men are too promiscuous, hedonistic, and uncaring. They must be t a m e d by being encouraged to marry. Only through this transformation, enshrining marriage as the central feature of gay culture, can the self-destructiveness of gay men be curbed. (This argument entails the tacit concession, generally unchallenged, that lesbians do not need to be improved in this way.)

Will marriage really have a taming effect on gay men? Observation suggests that coupledom and stability come to most men only a f t e r a sustained period of sexual extravagance. That is, they evolve, if they do, towards stability and monogamy in a gradual fashion. The evidence we have so far from Massachusetts suggests that marriage is not so much the cause of stability but a culminating recognition of it. That is, the causal chain is achieve stability first, get married after—not the reverse.

In this light coupledom, to be sanctioned by marriage, is not a sudden, magical acquisition, guaranteeing the beneficial effects that have been claimed. Achieving maturity is a long process. Marriage is not a shortcut eliminating this arduous process, it can only crown it.

To be sure, HIV and now crystal meth addiction are serious problems in the gay-male community. Yet every minority has comparable problems, and focusing on them obscures the achievement of the vast majority of gay men who, against great odds, have been able to create satisfactory lives for themselves, often aided by their partners.

In short, the transformationist argument reinforces the perception that it is supposed to resolve. For the gaycon virtuecrats seem to regard gay men as deficient creatures. One of them has opined that because gays cannot have children with each other, they will always suffer from a disability. In this view the deficits of gays are permanent. They can only be attenuated, not eliminated. The wild self-destructiveness of gay men will linger as an enduring scourge, though one that can be mitigated by herding them into marriage. Some advocates of the social-policy argument (as gaycon virtuecrats prefer to call their approach) have objected to my use of the term "herding." Yet when they propose to abolish domestic partnerships and civil unions as soon as same-sex marriage has been achieved, what else can one call it? A wide range of benefits, including partner’s medical coverage and hospital-visitation rights, are only available through such arrangements. Why should marriage be the only avenue to such necessities?

To be sure these advocates do not hold that every gay and lesbian person should get married. Yet they seem to believe that, as of old, stigma must attach to the bachelor state. Feeling the force of this stigma, gay people will develop a deep yearning for marriage even if they do not end up choosing it. This introjected sense of inadequacy recalls the earlier efforts by psychiatrists and others to make homosexuals feel that they were inadequate, simply because they were homosexuals. Only if they accepted a cure could they become "normal." The boundaries of the normal have shifted somewhat, but they are still there. Now we learn hat "marriage is the norm." Those who reject it are effectively inferiorized.

There is more. A system of incentives and disincentives will be established, under the aegis of the state, to reward those who marry and punish those who don’t. And divorce will be hard to get. These provisions suggest the proposals of the gaycon advocates of same-sex marriage are not exempt from nannyism.

As the above discussion has indicated, most prominent transformationists are gay conservatives. Initially, they thought that their message of "sound social policy" would entice prominent heterosexual conservatives to rally to their cause. To my knowledge those who have done so can be counted on one hand. The most noteworthy is the columnist David Brooks, who was raised in Greenwich Village. As we go into 2005 the appeal of same-sex marriage to this constituency, always modest, approaches the vanishing point. By and large the expectation of solidarity from heterosexual conservatives has been falsified.

Experience has shown that it is hazardous, perhaps presumptuous to speculate on the motives of others--especially of those with whom one disagrees. I am not an admirer of Freudian or any other psychoanalysis. Yet I may be perhaps allowed a suggestion based on introspection. The course of human life presents many challenges. This is especially true if one finds oneself cast among a minority that has long been despised. To take the worst case, being relegated to a slough of despair not of one’s making naturally fosters a longing for succor and healing. In this sense, seeking to join the majority in their redoubt of comfort (or so one perceives it) is not dishonorable. Whether the majority is as comfortable as we think—that is something else again. To speak in somewhat grand terms, we are impelled to a search for something that may be called transcendence. The great religions have sought to address this basic human need.

Still, acknowledging all these human factors, I doubt that gay marriage is the solution. In this respect it is a bit like that shiny new bicycle that we thought would solve all our problems at a certain stage of childhood. Instead, the achievement of true personal integrity is always a site that is “under construction.” At best we travel in the right direction; we do not arrive. Consummatus non est. Least of all can our arrival be conjured up by the performance of a single rite, such as matrimony. Presto-changeo. But it doesn’t work that way.

The longing for quick fixes is perhaps inevitable in our harried, stressed-out society. A plethora of self-help books offer the prospect of becoming a better person—in no time at all. Sad to say, attaining personal stability does not lend itself to this approach.

Setting such observations aside, let us return to the present situation. Developments over the last calendar year require an agonizing reassessment of the case for gay marriage. The effort to secure it, at base a sound one, must proceed more slowly, methodically, and modestly. One of the ideas that must be discarded is the notion that marriage must effect a major transformation in the behavior and ethos of gay men. Imposing a coercive social-engineering policy is not the appropriate path to this goal. Only gay men themselves can accomplish their self-improvement. And this beneficial process is indeed occurring, as more and more of us develop coherent life plans that are suited to our own nature, while we make steady progress in implementing them.

To resort to an old expression, it is "no accident" that many of the prominent virtuecrats who discern transformational power in same-sex marriage have also been supporters of the Iraq invasion and occupation. The same premises of social engineering undergird both enterprises.

Islamofascism: Does it exist?

In a recent post I summarized the results of the little-known effort, currently ongoing, to subject the founding texts and traditions of Islam to the solvents of the Higher Criticism. These inquiries are, it is fair to say, taboo throughout the Islam world. Some of the scholars who are conducting them have found it prudent to hide their names under pseudonyms.

Still, these findings cannot be kept bottled up forever. Eventually the critiques must spread wider, at first among some circles of the Muslim diaspora, then into the Abode of Islam itself. Moderate Muslims must ask themselves what position is appropriate to assume about these matters, affecting beliefs they profess to be of central importance to them. The orthodox will respond with fury. At the very least the controversy will give the West some breathing room. It may even spark the long-desired Islamic Reformation, though this outcome is a long shot.

Regrettably, the discussion of fundamentals will not contribute much one way or the other to the spread of democracy in the Islamic world. Under present circumstances that is largely a fantasy in certain circles in the West. On the other side, we have the essentialist notion of the "Arab mind," monolithic and unchanging. The Arabs, and Muslims more generally, do change, but not usually in the ways we would desire.

Nor will the controversy do much to dissipate the historical belief in the world dichotomy between the Abode of Islam, the territories that have submitted, and the Abode of Warfare, where we have the misfortune to live. This dichotomy makes problematic the "can’t we all just get along" line of argument. Yes, we can get along, provided we agree to Muslim rule.

My main purpose in writing this posting, however, is to register my disagreement with the expressions "Islamofascism" and "Islamic totalitarianism."

Let us take Islamofascism first. Historically the fascist regimes have shown the following characteristics. A single maximum leader rules over a unified territory and people, the Volk. This group is regarded as racially superior to all others. Only one political party is permitted, and the media are strictly controlled.

Obviously these characteristics do not prevail today. Currently there are twenty-two members of the Arab League. Other sometimes-troublesome Muslim states, such as Iran and Pakistan, are not Arab. Within the Arab league is a range of polities, from traditional monarchy as in Saudi Arabia and Morocco to a (slowly) modernizing authoritarianism, as in Egypt and Syria. Libya remains unclassifiable. There is no single political party. In fact, with the collapse of the Baath, there is no party that operates outside the bounds of a single nation-state. With competing television channels, and newspapers published in London and elsewhere, there is a good deal of media diversity. The Internet makes it impossible for any regime to exercise total control over the media. Moreover, Islam is not limited to Arabs, but has been adopted by members of many ethnic groups.

In short, Castro’s Cuba much more clearly resembles the historical profile of a fascist state. It has one maximum leader for life, ruling through a single party over a single territory populated by a single people. The Cuban media are strictly controlled.

Twenty years ago, I encountered students who suggested that I was a fascist for insisting on required reading and scheduling regular examinations. The epithet fascist was a left-anarchist maid of all work. Islamofascism seems to be more in vogue among neoconservative circles, together with the ineffable Christopher Hitchens. So much then for the slogan of Islamofascism, which is completely without merit.

Recently the columns of The New Republic have been filled with exhortations against Islamic totalitarianism. For the reasons given above, contemporary Islam is not totalitarian either. The purpose of this expression seems to be to imply that we are locked in a struggle similar to that against the Soviet Union, which was indeed totalitarian. But the Arabic and Islamic states are not at all like the old Soviet Union.

What we are confronted with is a murderous nationalist conspiracy, working to gain its ends as the Irish Republican Army and the Basque ETA terrorists have. These are, we are told, fringe groups. Yet in Spain the Basque Assembly has voted, in principle at least, for independence. So the danger is not a monolithic opponent that stands against us in unified fashion. Rather we are dealing with fanatical minorities, whose cause may nonetheless prove infectious.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Trouble in the Ivy League

I have long been critical of the policies of the Likud government in Israel. In my judgment, the argument that these policies are serving more to endanger the security of Israel than to advance it gets little attention in the US press--significantly less than in the Israeli media which offers a wide spectrum of opinion. Too often, our coverage inclines to hasbara, a kind of apologia for the policies currently being pursued in Israel.

That being said I must note what appears to be an ongoing case concerning students at Columbia University that is operating in the opposite direction. In the Middle East Studies department students have difficulty expressing views differing from those of the predominantly pro-Palestinian faculty. In some cases they have been shouted down. A 25-minute documentary film, entitled "Columbia Unbecoming," documents these abuses.

The test of whether one supports freedom of speech is not whether one tolerates views one finds akin to one’s own. One can only pass the test if one permits—and defends—the expression of views differing from one’s own. It appears that, by and large, the faculty at the Middle East studies department is failing to meet this essential requirement.

Moreover, if academic freedom is to mean anything at all it means freedom for the students as well as the faculty. I have taught in the college setting for some thirty-five years, including five at Columbia, and I have never found occasion to suppress the views of a student with whom I disagree. Dialogue, yes. Suppression, no

What has been the response of Columbia University? So far it seems disappointing.

President Lee Bollinger arrived two years ago with credentials in affirmative-action and free-speech issues. His devotion to the latter is open to question. In a December 6 letter to the faculty he announced the formation of a committee to review the situation. By the direction of the president, though, the committee will not review departments as a whole or curricula. What if the curricula are one-sided, as they appear to be, and a single viewpoint is the only one that is tolerated?

Columbia alumni and others are watching the situation closely. As Nat Hentoff, the noted civil-rights advocate who has been writing about the matter in The Village Voice, indicates,"unless president Bollinger can make [this department] worthy of Columbia’s tradition of free inquiry, his tenure may be foreshortened."