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Thursday, May 22, 2008

OK, OK -- More on Schlafly

The posts below by Howard and  Rick both add interesting observations to the discussion about l'affaire Schlafly.  Let me add a couple of observations of my own. 

1) Rick hastens to assume that the objection to Schlafly is based on the view that her opinions are beyond the pale.  Maybe so; I conclude below that there is some evidence to support this.  But note Howard's addition to the conversation in the comments section of his post, which suggests that at least some of the objections stemmed from the view, not that Schlafly's politics are wrong, but that she is a demagogue and an anti-intellectual, and that she is careless in her public arguments.  That seems to me a sound reason to object to a university's choice of speaker.

2) Some of the commenters to Howard's post do make substantive rather than qualitative judgments about Schlafly, and argue that universities do stand positively for particular values, including cosmopolitanism and non-discrimination.  I would rather say that some universities stand for particular values; that in some cases those values are clearly and strongly substantive in nature; that those values may include non-discrimination and cosmopolitanism and like values, but that they may also include more particular viewpoints, including religious viewpoints -- say, being anti-abortion; that many universities at least purport not to stand for particular substantive values other than that of truth-seeking, and rest rather on a largely proceduralist sense of academic values, although that procedural view can certainly fold in, or be made to fold in, a number of substantive values, such as non-discrimination, on the grounds that they conduce to truth-seeking; and that, in a diverse and pluralistic society, and at least provided that some minimal criteria for what constitutes a "university" are met, there is a good deal of room for a diversity of approaches to the academic mission.  That means that if Wash U, or some other school, wants to say that its substantive values as a university preclude -- or, conversely, demand -- inviting Schlafly as a guest, it is free to do so.  I don't think Wash U itself does take either of those positions, although some of its faculty clearly want it to adopt the former view.

3) There is a cost associated, however, with taking a particular view of one's institution's academic mission, and that is the cost of living consistently with that mission.  So if a university opposes (or supports) Schlafly on substantive grounds and believes that universities ought to take particular substantive views (whether liberal or conservative, secular or religious, and so on), then it must try to live by those values, think through their implications, accept criticism when it fails to do so, accept criticism precisely because it is living by its perceived values, and so on.  Similarly, if one takes a purely proceduralist view of the university mission, one must live by that model too.

I doubt that everyone involved in the Wash U controversy has thought through these issues especially clearly or thoroughly, although surely some have.  My own suspicion is that while some of the faculty there do take a thorough-going view that Schlafly violates the "substantive" values of the university, many would adopt a broader view of the university as a neutral truth-seeking organization, in which case it becomes harder to justify excluding Schlafly.

But it is consistent to believe that universities should not generally honor hacks and lousy thinkers and writers by inviting them to deliver a keynote address on a special occasion.  And I think there is at least a reasonable basis for concluding that Schlafly fits that bill.  Those in doubt may consult Schlafly's recent piece, "The Morality of First Amendment Jurisprudence," which is available here and was published in the JLPP.  I remember wanting to blog about it when it first came out because every sentence was so sententious, every argument so poor, that it seemed to me to fit Mary McCarthy's famous put-down of Lillian Hellman -- that every word she wrote was a lie, including "a" and "the."  I would gladly disqualify Schlafly from addressing a university on a major occasion simply by virtue of the utter intellectual poverty of this piece alone.  (Her recent piece in Northwestern, by contrast, is unobjectionable, although also unexceptional in just about every way.)

So there is room for even someone who doesn't think universities ought to champion particular substantive values to exclude Schlafly by virtue of her just being a lousy thinker and writer, regardless of what one thinks about her substantive views.  I personally think universities would benefit from a no-hacks-at-graduation rule; for all I know, Rick agrees with me on this.  The problem, of course, is that universities, administration and students alike, often delight in inviting hacks and lousy thinkers to speak at graduations -- because they are famous, or funny, or powerful, or rich, or what have you. Which leaves the question Rick and Howard were getting at: do people object to Schlafly because she's a hack, in which case we should police the university gates against hacks more rigorously regardless of the ideology of the hack in question?  Or are the objections to Schlafly, although sometimes camouflaged as objections based on her being a lousy thinker, really substantive objections to her politics, in which case the use of the no-hack argument in her particular case can be accused of being disingenuous?   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 22, 2008 at 12:52 PM in Culture | Permalink


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Paul, I agree with your main points here, and you're right that anti-intellectualism and stupidity are certainly content-neutral reasons on the basis of which universities might reasonably choose not to honor someone. But there are some content-based reasons too, or so it seems to me, such as bigotry and severe ignorance. So it seems the decision *not* to honor Schlafly is over-determined! Perhaps Rick Hills will explain why this isn't so.

Posted by: Brian | May 22, 2008 12:58:35 PM

I should add parenthetically, and further to what I said above, that I suspect (but only suspect) that both Rick and Brian would probably support a no-hack rule when it comes to commencement speakers, although they and everyone else could then argue about its application in particular cases.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 22, 2008 12:58:54 PM

Good post, Paul (as usual).

I think the gist of the opposition draws from a sense that an honorary degree should be given to a role model. The further an honorary degree candidate is from a role model, whether for reasons of substance, lack of scholarly accomplishment, or both, the more controversial the selection will be. Of course, different people have different role models, and different standards for role models, which is why the arguments here can be a bit hard to nail down.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 22, 2008 1:41:04 PM

I agree with Orin Kerr. Schlafly is first and foremost a social entrepreneur and role model. To judge her strictly on her academic chops is besides the point. Few people accomplish was she did -- whether for better or for worse. The image of a strong, smart woman who opposed the ERA was pivotal in the defeat of the ERA, as even her opponents (including me) agree.

Maybe universities should stop giving honorary degrees, or should give them only to scholars of the first rank. But, that would preclude a university from giving an honorary degree to the grad who started a business and later donated ten million to the university, or the publicly visible role model, or a politician. So it's an expensive choice.

Posted by: agree with OK | May 22, 2008 2:18:24 PM

So far, I cannot see grounds for protesting Washington U.'s decision to award Schlafly an honorary degree. I CAN see grounds for thinking that it was an unwise decision. But organizing a protest? Turning one's back to her when she accepts the degree? I don't get it. None of the responses to my initial mystification have solved my confusion.

(1) Paul and others says that Phyllis Schlafly is a "hack" or is "stupid," and urge me to agree that stupid hacks should not get degrees.

I beg to differ: Schlafly is most certainly not "stupid," except in eyes of intellectuals and academics whose only metric of intelligence is capacity for abstract thought, cartloads of erudition, and a felicitous writing style. Schlafly is one of the shrewdest political organizers of the '70s and '80s. I submit that it is only a peculiar kind of blindness of academics that refuses to recognize this skill -- shared by American giants like Thurlow Weed, Amos Kendall, Mark Hanna, Ralph Nader, Saul Alinsky, among others -- as genuinely important and, when deployed for worthy causes, far more valuable than what most academics do. Remember: Without Thurlow Weed, there would be no Lincoln.

(2) An anonymous respondent to my earlier post listed a bunch of statements by Schlalfy that served only to remind me of what a bunch of sensitive, paranoid plants professors can be. Here are some samples from the bill of particulars:

(a) She routinely called certain judges -- gasp! -- "activists." I yawn. If this statement justifies a protest, then half of the U.S. Senate has just been disqualified from receiving honorary degrees.

(b) She decried the "force-feeding public schoolchildren with the theory of evolution" and said that the teaching of evolution "makes teachers and children think they are no more special than animals." My favorite Edwardian writer, G.K. Chesterton, expressed the same sentiment, albeit in better prose. For what it is worth, I think that Stephen Jay Gould has essentially said that this statement reflects a correct interpretation of the theory of natural selection.

(c) She said that Justice Ginsburg's "writings betray her as a radical, doctrinaire feminist, far out of the mainstream." My guess is that Justice Ginsburg would regard this statement as a compliment -- and rightly so: Nothing wrong with being doctrinaire and radical about one's views, if they are correct. (I make a point of being radical and doctrinaire whenever possible).

(d) She referred to "the gay and lesbian agenda" as something that she opposes and stated that "[h]omosexuality is "like prostitution. Nobody can stop you if you want to be a prostitute or to patronize a prostitute, but you are not going to force us to say that it is morally acceptable."

It is worth pausing over this last statement, because it reduces considerably my worries about Schlafly. To the extent that she regards same-sex conduct as similar to prostitution, she seems to accept the view that same-sex sexual conduct is like any other sort of sexual conduct -- something that anyone might want to do. Such a view, if it became widespread, would greatly reduce homophobic bigotry. It is a much less worrisome view than the essentialist notion that gay and lesbian people belong to a caste inherently different from, and inferior to, everyone else.

Schlafly's view is, of course, sexually conservative. But it is hard to distinguish this sort of conservatism from general dislike of all non-reproductive sex. (Had she substituted the words "premarital sex" for "homosexuality," no one would accuse Schlafly of bigotry).

In short, I see only that (a) Washington U. has decided to award a degree to an ace political organizer with extremely conservative but not necessarily bigoted views and (b) a lot of academics were riled by a combination of their academic distaste for activists and hostility towards conservatives. All of which convinces me that (a) academics can be a bit snobby about what constitutes honorable achievement and (b) academics are remarkably unselfconscious about their own political biases.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 22, 2008 2:36:22 PM

I'm sure that demagoguery and anti-intellectualism would be reasons (assuming they could be identified) for a university to choose not to honor someone. However, if these offenses are not categorically disqualifying, the question still remains: how much demagoguery is too much, and against what is it balanced? I think the content still sneaks in here: if Schafly were fighting for some value one (such as Mr. Leiter) supported, would not a little demagoguery be overlooked?

Posted by: AndyK | May 22, 2008 4:00:44 PM

Again I ask, how is it that left leaning academic types attack Schafly getting a piece of paper and making a speech but defend Ward Churchill teaching?

Posted by: Vanceone | May 22, 2008 4:07:58 PM

Wait, aren't there, like, several professors in public institutions who, year after year, either salute 9/11, blame the U.S. for its occurrence, or spin some half-witted conspiracy theory? Where's the back-turning there?

Posted by: Lawyer | May 22, 2008 4:18:50 PM

Let me offer a quick reply to Rick, whose comment is offered partly to me and partly to some of the other commenters. My bottom line here, in sum, is that I don't recall calling Schlafly stupid, although certainly I think the article I linked to arguably meets that criterion; and I don't think that every hack is stupid -- indeed, I would say the two are hardly exclusive of each other. Nor do I measure intelligence only by the usual crop of academically treasured values. So the suggestion that I suffer from academic blindness of the type Rick mentions is simply off base.

Beyond that we may or may not agree. Rick is of course quite free to take the view that shrewd political organizers are excellent candidates for graduation speaking slots simply by virtue of the fact that they were shrewd, or because they were successful change agents. So, in addition to his list, we could imagine Father Coughlin, Jimmy Hoffa, David Duke, Amiri Baraka -- change agents all, and worthy LL.D.'s. But I actually am not convinced that universities should honor people simply because they have made a splash; I think a case can be made that those academic virtues Rick damns with faint praise might be reasonable criteria for giving someone special notice at a graduation, even if we don't think one must (or even should) meet those criteria in every walk of life. I am curious whether Rick would think that a moral entrepreneur who is an out-and-out demagogue, but whose demagoguery has been shrewd and successful, is a good candidate to speak at graduation.

But I don't actually know what Rick thinks about these issues, because I'm not sure he actually says that moral entrepreneurs should be invited to speak simply by virtue of that fact. He can also be read to say that if we're going to invite some of them to speak -- say, Ralph Nader or, for that matter, Amiri Baraka -- there is no legitimate reason to disinvite others simply because their ideological views are unpalatable to folks in the academy; I would generally agree with this, with the caveat noted above that in my view individual universities are free to adopt substantive values by which they might distinguish among speakers, provided at least that they do so openly and deliberately. And he also may be read to say -- indeed, this is perhaps the best reading of his comment -- that even if the choice of Schlafly was a stupid one, the heated nature of the response to it is unjustified. I would say that this is true in some cases and not others. An individual academic is free to adopt the view that universities should only stand for certain substantive values and should not invite graduation speakers who violate those values; that academic then should not pretend to espouse a neutral view of the university in other cases. An academic may also take the view that "hackery" is unwelcome among graduation speakers; as both Howard and I have suggested, I think, this seems like a legitimate stand to me, but would then require an academic who protests in this case to explain why their protest was so heated compared to the last time an idiot spoke at graduation. In short, responses should be proportionate and consistent depending on one's views of the university's role and mission.

A word on the last two commenters (as of this writing). I don't see how what they write is especially pertinent to what I wrote about; sparked by the general issue, perhaps, but not direct responses to what I wrote. People who think Churchill is an ass can defend him for some of his incendiary remarks, in the sense of defending him against job discipline for those remarks, because they defend academic freedom as an immunity from viewpoint-based discipline for remarks in an relating to one's scholarship. They may also believe that his tenure was too lightly granted, favor disciplining him for failing the standards of his field and engaging in academic misconduct, and think that his writings are poor enough that it is a wonder he was ever invited to speak anywhere at all, but they can still defend him in the limited sense in which I defined it. They can defend him and still think he shouldn't be invited to speak anywhere; similarly, they can defend Schlafly's right to come on campus as, say, a guest lecturer or a panelist and to speak her mind on that occasion, while thinking she does not deserve the honor of being asked to speak at graduation.

Similarly, there are certainly half-witted conspiracy theorists at universities, just as there are everywhere else. Some of them speak from within the perspective of their field and often fail or degrade the standards of that field, which is a proper basis for academic criticism of those individuals; others are speaking extramurally and simply demonstrate what professors should know all too well but often forget -- that acumen in one field does not qualify you as a genius in every other field. Those individuals must still meet the standard of their field in the classroom and as scholars, I might add. Finally, I can think of few if any instances -- not to say there aren't any, but I can't think of one -- in which a large university in the last seven years has honored a 9/11 saluter or conspiracy theorist with a prime speaking spot at graduation.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 22, 2008 5:14:07 PM

Prof. Hills and others who at least hypothetically defend Schlafly here exhibit a curious attitude toward personal expression. On the one hand, examples of Schlafly's own comments over the years are largely "ho hum," i.e., ordinary or ineffectual, and therefore hardly damning of her.

On the other hand, Prof. Hills "cannot see grounds for protesting Washington U.'s decision..." And yet, really, weren't the protests also merely "ho hum"? If Prof. Hills can't "see" the grounds for them, then he's not paying attention. That's not to suggest he ought to accept those grounds, but the very fact of the protests and the widespread outcry indicates that a lot of interested people are seriously put off by the award. The expression of those contrary opinions is as legitimate as the expression of Schlafly's opinions, even if they also entail putting off a few folks. I suspect the remoteness of Schlafly's remarks, their having been for the most part uttered years ago and until recently neglected, presents them in a favorable, perhaps a fairly innocuous light. The protests, however, were current events proposing urgent action. Their consequences were, potentially, imminent and, relatively speaking, palpable.

We're not talking here about an entitlement, such as protection afforded by tenure. An honorary degree is in certain respects gratuitous, conferred in part to signal an ethos presumably shared more or less by the institution's community of scholars, staff, students, and alumni. If that ethos has been mistaken or a controversial recipient sends an ambiguous or disruptive signal, then perhaps those who made the decision would be prudent to rethink their action.

Posted by: Dean C. Rowan | May 22, 2008 6:59:53 PM

Schlafly isn't just someone with conservative views. She's a straight-up liar who relentlessly pushes untruths, including anti-semitic conspiracy theories. To quote Rick Perlstein:

“Schlafly believes a secretive cast of bankers—the "Bildergergers"—are conspiring to impose One World Government on the United States. She believed it in the 1960s, when she said the Bilderbergers were fronting for the International Communist Conspiracy, and she believes it now (or, at least, she believed it in 1997 when I interviewed her; I have it on tape) that that International Communist Conspiracy is fifteen years gone. Schlafly believes—or claimed to believe—that if the Equal Rights Amendment passed, boys bathrooms and girls bathrooms would be outlawed, and that little girls would be forced to see little boys' wee-wees each and every day; and that women would not be able to refuse their husbands if their husbands demanded they went out to work—would be slaves of their husbands."

To be clearer, she is not someone who expresses different moral judgments or has different policy prescriptions. She is someone who routinely lies about facts in order to support her policy prescriptions. Alternatively, she's just so bat-shit crazy that she doesn't know that she is lying. Ralph Nader is not an analogous figure. Maybe Louis Farrakhan is. In any case, there's nothing honorable about her.


Posted by: hedgie | May 22, 2008 7:55:20 PM


It seems to me that Wash U, like every elite research university in this country, does in fact stand for non-discrimination and cosmopolitanism and like values. I'd place a hefty wager on the fact that the university regards as part of its mission creating an atmosphere of tolerance on campus such that LGBT students and other students with nontraditional or alternative lifestyles is treated with equal dignity and respect. (We could check with the department of residence life/campus housing.) This does not have to, and surely does not actually, extend to supporting certain politicians or political groups, but my contention is that it should extend to whom the university chooses to honor (as Orin puts it, set forth as a role model).


I really don't follow your point. If there are grounds for thinking Schlafly should not have been awarded an honorary degree in the first place, why does it nonetheless go too far for students and faculty to protest the award of such a degree?

Posted by: joe | May 22, 2008 8:06:55 PM

Prof. Horwitz,

I agree with you, and would also like to point out that in the Harvard JLLP article you cite as an example of writing does not justify receiving an academic award, Schlafly cites Julius Caesar in translation:

"WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, JULIUS CAESAR 114 (Mary Ellen Snodgrass trans.,
Wiley Publ’g, Inc. 2006) (1623)."


(personal bias: My alma mater, UChicago, refused to grant an honorary degree to the Queen of England on the grounds that her scholarly accomplishments were lacking)

Posted by: Amanda | May 22, 2008 8:33:38 PM

The students have every right to protest what they view as a hijacking of a commencement ceremony ostensibly intended for them. When a person who one is exceedingly opposed to is honored at a ceremony intended for oneself, one does have the right to protest if one so chooses to do so.

And I don't think it's an issue of her being a hack vs. her politics being disagreeable, I think it's her blatant and overt anti-intellectualism that's the problem, which goes drastically against everything a major research university should stand for, WashU included.

Either way, when you have protests outside the Chancellor's home by graduating seniors, 3,000+ students joining a facebook protest group in less than a week, plus close to 3/4 of the class participating in the protest (turning around when she was awarded her degree), it's a pretty clear indication that the administration fouled up rather severely in its insistence on first extending the offer, then refusing to withdraw it.

Posted by: Brian J | May 22, 2008 9:21:17 PM

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