Friday, February 28, 2003

I told you so: In one of my first blog posts ever, I criticized the government's move to define "organic" as used in supermarkets. Among other things, I pointed out that this would make the definition subject to political forces, and in particular to pressure from powerful agribusiness lobbyists.

I was right. Sen. Leahy has introduced a rider (I hate riders) which would allow chickens fed non-organically raised corn to be labeled "organic." I don't have an opinion either way on this one--I don't worry about whether my food is P.C. or not--but I doubt that it will please food purists. Which goes to show that you shouldn't get government involved unless you really, really have to.

Iraq: For a long time, we were told that there was no "smoking gun" proving that Iraq had banned weapons. Then the inspectors discovered missiles with a longer range than allowed. Sounds like a smoking gun to me. Do the opponents of war agree? Oh, no--not so long as Iraq agrees to destroy the missiles which it shouldn't have in the first place, and explicitly lied about starting last December and continuing up to a couple of days ag.

Look, I know that war is an unpalatable option, but if anti-war activists just keep moving the goal posts, they're going to forfeit all credibility. Any pro-war thinker had better be willing to define the conditions under which peace is acceptable, and any anti-war thinker had better do the opposite. So far the anti-war side has done a very poor job, and gives the rather strong appearence of being willing to sacrifice everything to an illusory notion of "peace."

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

No blogging today due to illness... hopefully back online tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Harvard's Penis Problem: (Sorry if this seems out of date, I meant to post yesterday but there was a snafu).

Erin O'Connor reports on a huge phallic snow sculpture erected at Harvard, and subsequently destroyed by female student who used rape imagery to justify her actions.

To begin with, the destruction of the sculpture was both laughable and sad--if non-consensual construction of a 9-foot snow penis is tantamount to rape, then surely the non-consensual destruction of it is castration on a grand scale, and I'm at a loss to understand why symbolic emasculation is more acceptable than symbolic forced intercourse. (That, and the rape comparison is stunningly insulting to people who have been, you know, actually raped. Remember them?)

But here's the thing: I think Harvard should have destroyed this sculpture themselves, on the grounds that it does not contribute to the educational mission of the university, and is offensive to many people.

Now, I know I'm headed into dangerous territory here, censorship and all that. But the mission of a university is not to be a haven of freedom, it is to be a center of education. Education requires standards, which includes standards of civility and argumentation. A student who replied to every question on a test with marvelously accurate pencil drawings of genitalia (or, less offensively, with smiley faces) would fail a class and, if a repeat offender, would be expelled. Such a student could not and should not be prosecuted. Free speech is distinct from proper academic work; the standards for the latter are much stricter.

This sculpture was not, of course, an answer to a test. But even if we leave the silly rape metaphors behind, there is nothing wrong with demanding that people keep their privates private. At some times and in some places, nudity may be appropriate because it furthers the educational mission of a university, but we expect that those times and places will not include the center of campus, so that those who don't want to be involved don't need to be. The most common solution to offensive speech--don't listen--is impossible to implement when there's a giant dick between your dorm and your first class of the day. The same goes for shouting obscinities from an open mike on the quad or having sex in public.

Most importantly, Harvard should be holding a discussion (I don't mean some formal debate, necessarily, perhaps dueling op-eds or something) about academic standards and civility (maybe they are doing so, I don't know). The mere act of debate about appropriateness would be a huge step forward. Actually, I tend to favor mandatory "Great Books" courses for the same reason--not so much because students need to read certain books, but because students need to argue about what books students need to read.

The standard canard which might apply here is that college is all about stepping outside your comfort zone. That's true enough, if "stepping outside your comfort zone" means being forced to defend your Marxism to a PhD economist or explaining your sincere Christianity to an atheist. But just as silver screen violence can serve a purpose ("Saving Private Ryan" "Black Hawk Down"), it can also be gratuitous and totally inappropriate (the terrible made-for-TV movie on as I type, "1st to Die"). Pushing people outside their comfort zones with frozen sex organs accomplishes nothing; the university should put a stop to it.

That does not mean that an individual student should have destroyed the sculpture; there is a difference, indeed a critical one, between individual and community action. This is clearly a case of community standard-setting, and no single person should take that on themselves.

Many people are uncomfortable with the notion of using educational arguments to support the destruction of what was, frankly, a better work of art than many at the campus museum; they worry that any attempt to impose standards will degenerate in to a witch hunt against certain political viewpoints. Those people are probably right; certainly the craze for speech codes is a strong point in their favor. I would, however, argue that such codes are the result of too little in the way of academic standards. Unless expectations are set--and enforced--education becomes impossible, and mob tyranny sets in. Our current predicament, with administrators ignoring newspaper theft but cracking down on blackface, and students literally burning books which suggest that affirmative action should be ended, results from years of neglect--a long period during which no one was willing to say "no" for fear of sounding judgemental. Speech codes are the perversion of academic standards by people who never got to know the real thing.

I'm not saying those who built the sculpture should be prosecuted, or even that they should be subject to school discipline. I don't think either is appropriate. Nor should the snow-Bobbitt girl who destroyed it, though I'd dearly love to wipe the self-satisfied smirk off her face (courageous, my ass).

If we want to reclaim universities as centers of learning, we cannot be free speech absolutists. We must set boundries and discourage people from crossing them. We must have good, long debates about where the boundries ought to be, and whether something is inside or outside, but we cannot doubt the need for the boundries themselves. That an essential tool has been perverted by some--as murders use kitchen knives or handguns, so PC enforcers use "educational mission"--should not lead us to discard the tool altogether. In this case, it's all we have.