The UW system and Kevin Barrett
We are confronted at once by the ridiculousness of the opinions of Kevin Barrett, a UW-Madison lecturer who believes, publishes publicly and presents to his students as an acceptable theory, the United States government orchestrated the attacks of September 11, 2001.
We are then confronted with the question, what do we do about Barrett?
Well, fire him, obviously.
What about his first amendment rights and academic freedom, and should we fire anyone who teaches a “controversial viewpoint”?
They don’t apply. After all, nobody is preventing him from speaking his especially odious viewpoints in the public square. The real question is, what do we do with someone who apparently has not the intellectual candlepower to enlighten students? Renew his contract? Of course not.
After all, Barrett’s views of the events of 9/11/2001 are remarkably uncontroversial. They are refuted by scientific observation. His views hold no more validity in an academic setting than that of the astrologer or the phrenologist. Why then do we believe his continued employment enhances the university in any way?
What’s surprising to me are his defenders, many of whom agree that Barrett’s version of events rest firmly across the cuckoo line. Are they incapable on defending on any level the truth? Or is it merely a psychological condition that makes us unwilling to see anyone terminated from a teaching position? Or is it the last gasp of moral relativism that sees all points as equally valid, the so-called marketplace of ideas?
Perhaps it’s the fear that when we’re done tossing the quacks out of academia we’ll have rid ourselves of Marxists and Socialists as well, since we have seen objectively the quackery of those philosophies as well. The Hegelian march of history that they so loved has provided enough evidence to demonstrate the long term follies of their ideologies. Unfortunately, I suspect they will be a protected species for some time, if only as museum curiosities.
We can easily teach Barrett’s defenders the limits of academic freedom and their own tolerance. Had he been a Holocaust denier, should we allow him to continue? Sadly in the modern “university” the answer may be yes. Okay, what if he had argued that the World Trade Center was really destroyed by Black Panthers attempting to avenge slavery, and that it was covered up by the Bush Administration because they did not want a racial war to ignite on their watch?
We know the answer, which is he would be tossed by a university anxious to protect what’s left of their academic reputation, academic freedom be damned. Sadly, short of racist conspiracy theorizing, the modern “university” is no longer capable of defending itself from academic snake oil salesmen.
So instead of placing Barrett in a straight jacket in a padded cell with the would-be Napoleons and self-described space aliens, we’re left debating the length and terms of his contract.