September 10, 2006

9/11 and academic freedom, the weird side

And now, just days after Brigham Young suspended physicist Steven E. Jones, there's an article about pressure on the University of New Hampshire to fire William Woodward, who (like Jones and Kevin Barrett) is a member of Scholars For 9/11 Truth. Especially troubling is word that ACTA has called for an investigation into Woodward, presuming that because he's a nut on 9/11, he must be bringing it into classes and is otherwise suspect.

To borrow from Evelyn Hall (who put a certain saying in Volaire's mouth... long story), I think Barrett, Jones, and Woodward are dead wrong on 9/11, but I will defend their rights to academic due process. Ad-hoc investigations outside established procedures are generally dangerous on campuses, and the pattern of attacks on these relatively marginal figures makes me wonder what's behind them. They're not going to convince large numbers of people that the WTC fell because someone planted thermite in the buildings, and in some ways the attacks on them will bring attention to their views.

I can think of a few explanations, but none is satisfying (see the full entry):

  1. The new lese majeste. If this hypothesis is true, some people think that the 9/11 conspiracy claim somehow attacks the head of state and our government in an illegitimate fashion. Major weakness: I don't know of any widespread attempts to fire other faculty who disagree with Bush on a whole host of policy issues.
  2. Pure politics. If this hypothesis is true, the attack on 9/11 conspiracy theorists is designed to attack political outsiders. Major weakness: See the weakness with #1 above.
  3. A sacred memory. If this hypothesis is true, some people view the public memory of 9/11 as sacred, and challenging that memory violates our commitment to remember the day in a certain way. Weakness: Given the arguments this weekend over the ABC fictionalization auto-mockumentary fraudulent folktale, I'm skeptical that there is some sacred consensual memory.
  4. Attacks on academic freedom as cultural capital. Personally, I'm partial to this explanation, that those who attack academics and know of other attacks somehow are sharing some visceral experience. It's like... an echo chamber with endorphins! Yes, that's it. Weakness: while this explanation might be consistent with social networks, there is (as yet) no evidence that there is a social network behind the attacks.

But enough of such lingua franca-style academicizing. Thus far, UNH has resisted the pressures. Kudos to New Hampshire Chancellor Stephen J. Reno! Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom on September 10, 2006 10:10 PM |