“Race” doesn’t determine ideas

When I read this morning about a teacher who allegedly declared, “All white people are racist,” I was initially disgusted. Then I thought perhaps his comments were being taken out of context; perhaps he was making an intentionally absurd statement to illustrate logical fallacies, in the style of “All Cretans are liars.” I still don’t know for sure, but a Christian Science Monitor article takes the statement at face value and yet merely says it’s “reigniting discussion about how difficult it is to talk about race in school classrooms.” Normally the CSM is more respectable than that.
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Student lunacy, in the sixties and today

When I started at MIT in 1969, there were two student movements. The larger one was motivated mostly by opposition to the Vietnam War and fear of being drafted into it. A smaller but noisier group actually supported Communism, cheered dictators, and sometimes engaged in violence. In MIT’s Building 10 lobby (under the Great Dome), one of them punched me in the nose hard enough that I bled. Near Harvard Square, where I was involved in a pro-freedom demonstration, an attacker used an improvised incendiary device to set fire to a 13-star US flag we carried, and the fire spread to my sweater. (I wasn’t hurt, and the assailant was later convicted.)

Melissa Click pointing angrily at somethingToday we have a different kind of student lunacy, with people assaulting Trump supporters, calling for muscle against journalists, but mostly whining that everything is traumatic to them. They suffer feelings of intense distress over chalked political slogans, independent news coverage, and even grades.

The anti-freedom movement of the “sixties” (which extended into the early seventies) wasn’t admirable in any way, but at least it was an enemy worth opposing. They envisioned a world in which “people’s” revolutions would take over one country after another, seizing private property and imprisoning or killing those who stood in their way. They loved mass murderers like Che Guevara and Mao Zedong.

Today’s movement is about trigger warnings and fear that they might hear something uncomfortable, about having “safe spaces” where they’re safe from dissenting views and controversy. This attitude has even spread to spread to science fiction conventions and one filk convention, where speech codes prohibit saying anything derogatory about anyone.

If the anti-freedom student movement of the sixties was Darth Vader, today’s movement is Kylo Ren.

Today academics teach students that conformity of thought is mandatory. The president of Emory University expressed horror at hearing “about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own.” My most satirical filk songs have never topped that for irony. Nicholas Kristof has published a followup to his earlier piece on progressive intolerance (which he grants the undeserved title of “liberal” intolerance) in which he learned that many academic progressives regard people who disagree with them as “idiots” who are guilty of “hateful, hateful bigotry.” I’m now convinced that the obsession with physiological diversity is a desperate attempt to keep themselves from realizing that they want nothing but orthodoxy and conformity.

It’s almost enough to make me long for the good old days of wearing a burning sweater.

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Idea bias in educational hiring

“Diversity” in progressive educational institutions means physiological variety and ideological conformity. How much does this affect their hiring practices? If your ideas differ from the prescribed “diverse” ones, does that wreck your chances of getting a job?

It’s hard to say for sure. If an applicant’s ideas fall under the realm of religion, it’s illegal to take them into account, but employers can (probably) take ideas on politics, academic freedom, and what constitutes fair treatment of people into account. An article from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania discusses the vague notion of being a “cultural fit” for a workplace. It’s not specifically about academic workplaces, but its questions certainly apply there. The article offers a subtle slap at academic dogmatism: “Research also shows the benefits of diversity in the workplace — diversity of ideas, personality and life experience in additional to racial, religious and gender diversity.”

A study by two psychologists at Tilburg University found that a substantial fraction of academics in social psychology responded that they would choose an equally qualified liberal over a conservative. The method of identifying people’s positions isn’t great; it asked them to position themselves on a scale of “liberal” to “conservative,” with separate ratings for social issues, economic issues, and foreign policy. These are vague terms, but we can read them as “minority viewpoint” in the academic world.

The study found that “the more conservative respondents were, the more they had personally experienced a hostile climate.” Ironically but not surprisingly, “the more liberal respondents were, the less they believed conservatives faced a hostile climate.” The surprise is that a substantial fraction of respondents openly admitted they would discriminate against people with “conservative” views.

One in six respondents said that she or he would be somewhat (or more) inclined to discriminate against conservatives in inviting them for symposia or reviewing their work. One in four would discriminate in reviewing their grant applications. More than one in three would discriminate against them when making hiring decisions.

The good news is that most people said they wouldn’t, but I have to wonder how often the large and noisy pro-discrimination minority pushes them into submission.

When I interviewed at Dartmouth College for a software development position a few years ago, I was asked about my views on diversity. I answered in a way that was honest but hopefully made it difficult for anyone to use my answer against me: That a diversity of viewpoints and experiences was a good thing, but that fake diversity was bad. As an example of the latter, I cited some notes which I’d seen on campus earlier in the day, in which some black students complained that professors treated them as representatives of their race rather than as individuals. The people I talked with seemed to like me; unfortunately, the project I was working on was canceled, so no one got the job. I don’t think my ideas had a negative effect. Still, why should that have been a question at all? The job I was applying for didn’t have any hiring or supervision responsibilities. My views on the topic had no relevance to the job.

More recently I applied for a job with a digital library at a Boston-area university. I thought I did well on my phone interview, but two months later I’ve heard nothing, not even the courtesy of saying they’re going with another candidate. If the managers looked up any of my online writings, they’d quickly see I don’t conform to the progressive orthodoxy. Did that kill my chances? I have no way of knowing. Without naming the institution, I’ll mention that FIRE has given it a speech code rating of “red,” meaning it “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” I’m sure that a lot of people pursuing careers in academic institutions decide that expressing opinions publicly would be bad for their employment and advancement prospects.

Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where people can question established ideas and explore unpopular positions. Instead, too many of them are “safe spaces”: safe from controversy, safe from unpopular ideas, safe from anything that might upset believers in the orthodoxy. That makes them unsafe spaces for people who think.

Update: An op-ed in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, titled “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” reaches similar conclusions.

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Prof. Frankenstein’s monster turns

“Illiberalism” is a word I often use for intolerant behavior, but it’s too weak for what’s happening on some college campuses. The New York Times has an account of what some of the protesters at the University of Missouri were doing.

Tim Tai, a student photographer on freelance assignment for ESPN, was trying to take photos of a small tent city that protesters had created on a campus quad. Concerned Student 1950, an activist group that formed to push for increased awareness and action around racial issues on campus, did not want reporters near the encampment.

Protesters blocked Mr. Tai’s view and argued with him, eventually pushing him away. At one point, they chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go.”

Melissa Click, a professor of mass media, reportedly tried to incite the protesters to violence:

As the video nears its end, the person taking the video, Mark Schierbecker, emerged from the scrum and approached a woman, later identified as an assistant professor of mass media, Melissa Click, close to the tents. When he revealed that he was a journalist, Ms. Click appeared to grab at his camera.

She then yelled, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”

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Sometimes everyone gets it wrong

In a recent story of a “War on Christmas” hoax, everyone ended up looking bad. A satirical site called the National Report ran a story claiming a student at Argon Elementary School in San Francisco was suspended for a week after wishing an atheist teacher a merry Christmas. This never happened, and there is no such school.

There is, however, an Argonne Elementary School there, and many people who were directed to the article assumed that it was the site of a real event. “Loving” Christians made threats which disturbed school officials enough to hire extra security.

The National Report website is itself quite inept. Every article I click on right now is giving me a 502 nginx error. The total effect of the home page should give most people a clue not to take it seriously, but if people find links to the individual articles, it may not be so obvious. The disclaimer on the home page merely says: “The National Report is an online portal for ‘citizen journalists’. The views expressed by writers on this site are theirs alone and are not reflective of the fine journalistic and editorial integrity of National Report.” There is supposedly a disclaimer somewhere that says the site is fictitious, but it’s not on the home page.

A Reddit user claiming to be Paul Horner, the author of the story, stated that he intended to deceive people. He said that comments on the story pointing out that it wasn’t true were deleted, and school officials have confirmed this. The article used a name that was close to a real school’s name, whether intentionally or not. The absurd “zero tolerance” policies which some schools enforce give it a certain amount of plausibility. If it had been true, there would have been good reason for people, Christian or not, to be angry.

The people who made physical threats don’t have an excuse, though. Even if the school had done what the article claimed, violence would not be justified. More broadly, the people who accepted the article’s accuracy without checking the facts against other sources (which is easy to do these days) showed their gullibility. But I can’t point too strong a finger; I’ve been taken in by a satirical news story or two. It’s important to be skeptical about single-source reports, especially from an unfamiliar website.

On the one hand we have someone, possibly a 13 year old kid, who deliberately fooled people and was entertained by the abuse the school officials had to endure. On the other we have people who fell for a dubious claim without considering the reliability of its source and, in some cases, showed a distinct lack of the forbearance Christians are supposed to practice.

But it isn’t quite true that there are no good guys in this story. Kevin L. Jones’ article on ktvu.com, which I linked to at the top, is a fine piece of journalism on the mess.

US Constitution: Banned in Batavia

A teacher at Batavia High School in Batavia, Illinois, has been disciplined for informing students of their constitutional rights. Education News reports:

A high school social studies teacher in Batavia, Illinois, faces disciplinary action for informing students of their Fifth Amendment rights in connection with a survey asking about illegal drug use. The survey, ostensibly aimed at assessing the needs of students at Batavia High School, was distributed on April 18. After picking up the survey forms from his mailbox about 10 minutes before his first class of the day, John Dryden noticed that they had students’ names on them and that they asked about drinking and drug use, among other subjects. Dryden, who had just finished teaching a unit on the Bill of Rights, worried that students might feel obliged to incriminate themselves—an especially ticklish situation given the police officer stationed at the school. Since there was no time to confer with administrators, he says, he decided to tell his students that they did not have to complete the forms if doing so involved admitting illegal behavior.

Dr. Jack Barshinger, the school superintendent, issued a cowardly set of innuendos to justify the action. While hiding behind confidentiality to avoid giving any facts or making any concrete charges, he stated: “What the BPS101 Board does not, and will not support, is any employee giving students false impressions about the motivations of those who come here every day to try to improve the lives of the students entrusted to our care.” Without saying a single thing about what Dryden did, he implies that Dryden misled the students. What falsehood did he suggest? That the Constitution applies to high school students? That admitting to illegal acts could endanger them? That the students should take their own safety into account rather than blindly obeying the school?

He concludes by hypocritically declaring that “the best interests of the students must, and will, always come first.” Apparently he thinks ignorance is what’s in their best interest. That’s a disgusting position for a so-called educator to take.

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A blog worth reading

This morning I came upon a blog called The Skeptical Libertarian.” From the reading I’ve done so far, it looks like one that’s worth following. Since I posted recently on the Ron Paul Curriculum, this article on the Ron Paul Curriculum especially interested me. The links to Gary North’s website confirm that North ties Biblical teaching and homeschooling together, which is exactly what I hoped the “Ron Paul Curriculum” would avoid. The article claims that the “‘Paleo-Libertarian’ Taliban” is behind the RPC. This isn’t much of an exaggeration. North admits in an article in Christianity and Civilization that advocacy of religious liberty is just a tactic for gaining theocratic Christian power. His aim is that “the new social order will return to the doctrine of Christian liberty set forth in the Old Testament.” (And you always thought the Old Testament was Jewish!) He means it too. A number of websites quote him as writing, “Clearly, cursing God (blasphemy) is a comparable crime, and is therefore a capital crime (Lev. 24:16).” Update: Here’s a link to The Sinai Strategy, where that quote is found. The book is a horror, showing that North is about as libertarian as Hitler.

When I started writing this post I was trying to be skeptical myself about that comparison to the Taliban. There are many Christians who claim to believe in every passage of the Bible yet don’t support its long list of capital crimes. But it’s clear that if North had his way, I’d be put to death for the things I’ve said about religion. The major differences between North and the Taliban are that he doesn’t advocate violent revolution — and that he doesn’t currently have the power to kill the people he’d like killed.

If the Skeptical Libertarian never does anything else, it’s already proven its worth by letting me catch myself on this error.

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The Ron Paul Curriculum

Update: My optimism about this project was completely misplaced. Please read this post.

Ron Paul has launched a project to promote an online homeschooling curriculum. The site says: “Here, you and your children can get an education in liberty like no other. I invite parents to take courses and participate on forums — to get the education they never had. Parents do not pay for the individual courses that they purchase for their children.” (Further on that strange-looking last statement is clarified: “What if you want to take a course on your own? It will cost you $50. But if you have paid for one of your children to take it, it’s free to you for the full year of the course.”)

The idea is an interesting one. Education is more important than politics in the long term; people who can think are the best defense for liberty. They’re currently charging $25 for enrollment until September 2, which is when serious content will go on line and the enrollment charge will go up to $250. (The $25 enrollment expires then.) The K-5 curriculum will be free.

The idea is good; it remains to see how good the execution will be. I’m a bit disappointed not to see a specific mention of training in logic or critical thinking, and the FAQ is an embarrassment. An article by Gary North stresses teaching with images, claiming that “if a person comes up with the right image, he can’t be fooled easily.” It’s necessary to be rooted in concretes, but concepts, not just images, are needed for critical thinking.

On the positive side, the emphasis on long-term goals and time management are good. I’m thinking of giving them $25 to sample the materials they offer and express my support. I certainly hope it’s worth it; good homeschooling options are a very valuable thing.

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A letter to the president of Brandeis

I have just printed out and will shortly send the following letter.

November 6, 2012

Frederick M. Lawrence, President
MS 100 Brandeis University
P.O. Box 549110
Waltham, MA 02454-9110

Dear Mr. Lawrence:

I am outraged by the treatment I was given by employees of Brandeis University yesterday evening.

Last night I went to a small concert by Heather Dale and friends (by which I mean friends of mine as well as hers) at Lyman Ballroom. To get in, I was made to empty my pockets, go through a metal detector, and then was wanded down because the detector went off anyway.

One of the three guards present noted my Swiss Army knife and asked if I was planning to use it. Since I didn’t expect to be opening any difficult plastic bags, I said no. He told me that if I had said yes, he would have confiscated it. I must conclude from what he said that guards sometimes confiscate people’s property.

A private institution such as Brandeis has the right to set ludicrous conditions of entry such as passing through a metal detector as if I were in an airport and not a university. It does not, however, have any right whatsoever to take visitors’ property away from them. That is theft, plain and simple.

I do not know if this “confiscation” is authorized. If not, then Brandeis employees are stealing from visitors and this needs to be stopped. If it is authorized, then Brandeis University is stealing from visitors.

As a further example of the surveillance-state mentality which evidently pervades Brandeis, the guest Wi-Fi demanded my name, phone number, and email address as a condition of access. As an example of the stupid security theater that goes with this, the SSL certificate of the Wi-Fi server was expired. I could have been giving that information to anyone. Since the connection was untrusted, I had to give false information. For your records, I was the one who signed in as “nobody@nowhere.com.”

The treatment I received yesterday at Brandeis was outrageous, and I hope I will never have to set foot on its campus again.


Gary McGath

Update: As of November 20, I’ve received no reply. It appears from the silence that Brandeis has no problem with guards who steal from visitors. If I do hear anything I’ll post a further update.

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Harvard vs. open discussion

Harvard has a reputation for discouraging the open expression of opinion, and I can confirm that from eight years of working there. The reasons I left were mostly professional, but I’d like to mention an incident during my last two months that illustrates the Harvard culture.

Employees get an assortment of newsletters in their email, mostly related to their work or inconsequential. One of these had a piece clearly celebrating the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision. I sent a reply saying that taking a political advocacy position in a general employee news mailing wasn’t appropriate.

A week or two later, the head of my department called me into her office. She told me that the person who sent out the newsletter had written to her about my complaint. This person wanted to know who I was. My email had my standard signature, giving my name and work website. It wasn’t anonymous and I’d provided information for anyone who wanted to know about me.

She told me the person who sent out the email wasn’t the one actually responsible for its content and shouldn’t be blamed for it. The sender of the mail knew perfectly well who I was, but I never found out who was responsible for its content.

She went on about “civility.” There was nothing uncivil about my response to the mail. I’ve heard that the term “civility” is widely used in academic circles to mean “don’t criticize the dominant view,” but this was the first time I’d been targeted with that use.

I conceded nothing except that perhaps I wasn’t complaining to the right person. That was the end of the matter, though probably it would have turned up as a negative point in my next review. A financially secure employee isn’t a good target; students fare worse.

By then I’d already decided to resign, but the discussion confirmed my impression that there was no point in continuing my search for another position at Harvard. I was still holding out on accepting Harvard’s so-called “confidentiality policy,” which prohibits the disclosing of pretty much any negative information without regard to confidentiality in the normal sense. (For example, reporting illegal activity violates the policy.) The culture is antithetical to my worldview. More importantly, it’s not conducive to open examination and discussion of important issues.