Chilling for thee, but not for me

Posted: Feb 11, 2005 12:00 AM

If you're a liberal who's still moping like a dog whose food bowl has been moved, thanks to all the conservative victories of late, I have some words of encouragement for you: You guys are still way, way smarter than us about some things.

Consider the current flap about Ward Churchill and the recent one about Harvard President Larry Summers.

Ward Churchill, as you've probably heard, is a tenured professor of "ethnic studies" at the University of Colorado. Until recently he was the chairman of the department. When invited to another school to give a talk, it came out that he had written an essay comparing the civilian victims of 9/11 to "little Eichmanns." This was a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the chief architect of the Holocaust.

Known for making factually unencumbered statements about the evils of America, Churchill recently gave an interview in which he said he wanted the "U.S. off the planet. Out of existence altogether." He thinks "more 9/11s" are necessary. He holds no Ph.D., and his scholarship - for want of a better word - is under relentless attack. Before the current kerfuffle, he'd attained whatever prominence he had by pretending he was an American Indian radical. He likes to pose with assault rifles. The Rocky Mountain News did a genealogical search of Churchill's past and found that he's basically a vanilla white guy playing Indian and enriching himself in the process. The American Indian Movement called Churchill a fraud years ago.

OK, flash back to the hysteria over Larry Summers. By now his auto da f?s old news. But let's recap. One of the most respected economists in America, president of Harvard University, and the former Secretary of the Treasury, Summers was invited to a closed-door, off-the-record academic conference at which everyone was encouraged to think unconventionally. Warning his audience several times that he was going to be deliberately "provocative," he suggested that there might be some innate cognitive differences between men and women.

This is not a controversial hypothesis in macroeconomics, and it is losing its taboo status in psychology, genetics and neuroscience. Thousands of peer-reviewed academic papers have been written on the differences between men and woman when it comes to various cognitive functions. Note I said "differences." Superiority and inferiority don't play into it, and Summers never said otherwise. Indeed, he ventured this hypothesis, after showing his obeisance to the more politically correct explanations: discrimination, not enough effort to recruit women, etc., etc.

So what was the reaction?

An MIT feminist biologist - who moonlights as a feminist activist - quickly got the vapors and stormed out of the room for fear of fainting. If she stayed any longer, she explained, she'd vomit. Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe compared Summers to people who cavalierly bandy about the N-word or who thoughtlessly wear swastikas. One hundred members of the Harvard faculty drafted a letter demanding that he apologize. The National Organization for Women demanded that he resign.

The dean of engineering at the University of Washington called his comments "an intellectual tsunami." Since the Asian catastrophe had only just transpired, the tastelessness of the metaphor may not be as apparent now as it was then. Regardless, if his comments were a tsunami, Summers' critics have certainly cashed in on disaster relief effort.

Forced to apologize over and over, Summers was then bullied into appointing not one but two new "task forces" on gender equity. Staffed with 22 women and five men, the task forces will no doubt discover that much more work needs to be done and that Summers should apologize more.

In the Summers affair, free speech and academic freedom barely came up, except among a few conservative commentators and one or two academics who were already known for their political incorrectness. Instead, Summers was a pinata to be bashed for material rewards and to send the message that some subjects are simply taboo even among serious scholars, no matter what the evidence, in closed-door, off-the-record meetings.

Meanwhile, Ward Churchill, whose scholarship is a joke, whose evidence is tendentious at best, and who called the victims of 9/11 the moral equivalent of a man who sent babies to the gas chambers, is a hero of free speech. He has refused to apologize. Many conservatives are forced to defend free speech and "diversity" in academia while liberals let the NOWers feed on Summers' flesh.

Liberals may despise what Churchill said, but it's a matter of principle now. The normally insightful and fair Mort Kondracke declared on Fox News, "I really think it's useful for universities to have people like this around, to show students and the rest of us just how odious some of the ideas of the far left are." Would Kondracke punt on a professor who endorsed slavery? I somehow doubt it.

Hopefully - and, I think, probably - someone will find enough academic fraud to fire Churchill for cause. No doubt, we'll hear from many on the left about the "chilling effect" such a move would have on "academic freedom," and many conservatives will clear their throats in embarrassment. You really have to marvel how the other side has mastered this game.