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Thursday, May 22, 2008

If not Schlafly, then who?

Washington University in St. Louis awarded an honorary degree to Phyllis Schlafly last week, a choice that sparked outrage among faculty and alumni and calls for the university to rescind the invitation, which it declined to do. Brian Leiter covered the controversy in detail. Ultimately, Schlafly got her degree and a number of students and faculty stood and turned their backs when she was introduced. Brian Leiter wrote about the controversy here, here, here, here, and here.

The arguments against the university honoring her always were carefully framed in seemingly neutral terms. It was not about disagreement with her political views (especially her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment). It was about her anti-intellectualism, her history of demagoguery and name-calling instead of engaging with her opponents, her opposition to and criticism of rational political and scientific discourse, her opposition to scientific inquiry. It was about her views of women as intellectually inferior to men and thus unfit for the university environment, her opposition to the principles of judicial independence, and her history of bigotry against gays and lesbians, immigrants, women, feminists, and librals. And Schlafly did not help herself by insulting the faculty and students who objected to her as "a bunch of losers" who need to "get a life" and suggesting that the students who turned their backs were not mature enough to be graduating college, comments showing a disrespect for public discussion and for what was a thoughtful, non-disruptive, and meaningful act of symbolic counter-speech)

But many of the objections to Schlafly cannot easily be disentangled from her substantive political views. Her views about the intellectual capacity of women are entwined with political views about the role of women in society and relations between men and women and related issues such as domestic violence. What many label as bigotry against gays and lesbians relates to a political view about homosexuality. At least some of her opposition to science ties back to her political opposition to teaching evolution and support for creationism. Now, I object to and disagree with every one of these political positions, as do many students, faculty, and others. But the controversy was, purportedly, not about her political views.

So here are three related questions:

1) If not Schlafly, then who? What pundit/commentator/activist from the far-religious-right wing social conservatism would be acceptable? What person who holds similar views to Schlafly about the role of women, about creationism v. evolution, about gay rights, etc., would not be similarly objectionable as a recipient of an honorary degree?

2) Does this somehow become about politics and viewpoints? Is it that some political and social views simply are beyond the pale for a university environment? Is it that these positions are inherently anti-intellectual and dismissive of reasoned debate, thus inappropriate for academic recognition through an honorary degree? Maybe so. But if so, then let's say that and let's conduct the debate about honorary degrees for people such as Schlafly on those explicit terms.

3) Is there anyone on the political left who could be objected to as similarly anti-intellectual or as engaged in demagoguery rather than rational discourse? Dinner companions the other night (both Wash. U. professors, not in law) suggested Michael Moore. I am not sure--anyone else?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 22, 2008 at 08:19 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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"The problem in answering #3 is that the people on the left with the equivalent views and inability to behave in a decent way don't have outlets. There is no Fox News of the left. Air America doesn't really cut it."

Yea, Keith Olbermann isn't at all insane.

Posted by: Brian | May 23, 2008 12:59:26 PM


I thought you were conceding that she is anti-intellectual. I suppose I would pin it on her attempt to replace the teaching of science with the teaching of faith, yes. You and Rick are surely right that this is "not that unusual," but I think people trying to play this argument non-substantively can do so as long as they agree to rule out everyone else under that not-so-uncommon umbrella. I wonder, too, if you're giving belief in creationism and opposition to evolution (it's more than mere "skepticism") too much credit by characterizing it as "a substantive issue." [Analogy: if your school doesn't want to honor me because I believe in elves, is that really because of a substantive disagreement on the status of elves or because I'm some sort of idiot lunatic?]

On the more important point to me, yes, I think equality and anti-discrimination are fundamental principles for a university. For example, it's inconceivable that a university today would refuse to educate black (or female) students. This again goes beyond a real conservative-liberal split, although there may be some elements in our society which disagree. At the same time, if you want to characterize it as a mere point of disagreement between liberals and conservatives, then I would contend that to this extent universities are inherently liberal. The purpose of the university is to further knowledge/truth, right? Part of this is scholarship, academic freedom, and the like, and part of it is educating students -- to do the last part, a university can't discriminate against its students (i.e. it has to teach women physics rather than decline to teach them because their best role is as wives, in the kitchen, obeying their husbands and birthing babies).

To take, I believe it was Rick's example in one of these threads of his mother who supported NAFTA, we can substantively disagree on the value of free trade, or on that particular policy, but it plainly does not implicate the core values and mission of the university in the way that discrimination and equality do. Take a conservative keynote speaker who opposes Griswold and Roe. That speaker can still get an honorary degree under my analysis, but Schlafly can't because she thinks one class of students immoral simply for existing (LGBT), and another class of students unequal to the male students (females).

Posted by: joe | May 23, 2008 1:36:02 AM


But what makes her anti-intellectual? Is it shouting and insulting her opponents? I agree w/ Rick (in comments to a different thread) she is not that unusual in this regard. Is it her belief in creationism or skepticism about evolution? That is a substantive issue.

And, in turn, what viewpoints are "antithetical to the fundamental principles of the academy"? What are the fundamental principles: Equality? Anti-discrimination? Many of these do break along liberal v. conservative lines.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 23, 2008 12:30:12 AM

So I have a perspective that goes in another direction entirely. Whether or not WashU's Chancellor Wrighton decided that he was okay with conferring an honorary degree on her, perhaps he should have considered the seniors' reaction to it, seeing as the ceremony is ostensibly for THEM, with only a minor portion of the whole production devoted to the honorary degrees. Whether it was a figure on the left or the right, if the individual in question was likely to hijack the entire commencement (as Ms. Schlafly did, ideology notwithstanding), it seems inappropriate to confer any honor upon her in that medium. Anti-intellectual or not, he erred badly in even thinking that it was a good idea to confer the honor, especially after the enormous uproar among the student body.

Consider it something analogous to a religious institution (Calvin College, Notre Dame, BYU, etc.) conferring an honorary degree on Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or just a very loud outspoken atheist. I don't care HOW qualified and/or intelligent they may be, the student body will likely NOT appreciate the gesture and it will thoroughly ruin the ceremony.

Since WashU's commencement appears to be devolving into partisan idiocy (Chris Matthews was the commencement speaker), perhaps next year the degree could go to Pastor Hagee, with Howard Dean as the speaker...

Posted by: Michael J. | May 22, 2008 9:01:00 PM

Vanceone raises an excellent point. Academia is overwhelmingly dominated by left-wing idealogues who not only espouse political demagoguery produced by ignorami like Ward Churchill, Michael Moore, Williams Ayers, and Noam Chomsky (to name a few), but prostitute their works as material worthy of serious intellectual consideration in the classroom. I have been required to read works by all four of the aforementioned academic frauds in my undergraduate coursework at a very large, well-respected university. Most of these men also have tenured positions and honorary degrees from universities throughout the country. Leftist academic has no problem with political debauchery and demagoguery – they practice it everyday in the classroom. It's the viewpoint they have a problem with. Indeed, I find it ironic that they lambaste Schafly for being an anti-intellectual for "not engaging in reasoning, thoughtful, academic discourse," and in the same breath summarily dismiss her views as "hateful," "anti-intellectual," "ignorant," etc.

Posted by: James S. | May 22, 2008 8:33:36 PM


Just to clarify, I think her anti-intellectualism could be independently sufficient to oppose awarding her an honorary degree. It might be harder to untangle her demagoguery from her substantive politics, however -- but for me, it's just not necessary to get that far. Whatever else she is, she simply does not stand for anything that a credible university ought to be honoring, and this is not even a remotely close case.

So I'm not convinced that other people have not taken my (or what I take to be BL's) position in bad faith. There is a good faith basis for their own articulated positions.

But if we were to "have a discussion about which political viewpoints and ideas are unworthy of the academy," note first that it would be about which viewpoints the academy ought to honor, and second, my own position is that viewpoints which are antithetical to the fundamental principles underlying the academy are pretty much it. (This is not simply a question of "conservative vs. liberal" ideas.)

Posted by: joe | May 22, 2008 6:53:56 PM

Nice. No one here thinks that there is anyone on the left who isn't "engaged in demagoguery?" The only name anyone can come up with is Michael Moore?

Snort. Lemme see. How about Markos Mouliterous (or however he spells his name)? Ward Churchill (If you like America, you are Little Eichmanns!) Williams Ayers (Yes, I love the troops so much I'll try to kill them--and happily teach at a major university!). Let's see--what about many of the types who happily refer to G.W. Bush as "Hitler." Oh, but of course--that's rational discussion, not demagoguery! How about the leader of Iran, who Columbia happily invited? The left is in love with him. And what about the dean of leftists--Chomsky? HE is a demogoguist of the worst kind. Celebrated on the left though.

There's plenty more, too.

Posted by: Vanceone | May 22, 2008 3:55:14 PM

Why should they be criticized, unless the articles were really bad? But these are student-edited law reviews, and they publish crap all the time, so even then, it would be hard to get too exercised about it. In any case, Schlafly's articles in these two journals may have been wholly appropriate. These law reviews didn't "honor" her by publishing her articles! An "honorary degree" is just that: an honor. She doesn't deserve to be honored by a serious university.

Posted by: Brian | May 22, 2008 12:48:57 PM

Is Prof. Leiter also willing to criticize the Northwestern Law Review and the Cornell Law Review for publishing her articles?

Posted by: anon | May 22, 2008 12:36:33 PM

From the letter from the law faculty: "Let us be clear. We are not talking about mere political disagreements - including her most famous political success, the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. . . . Our objection to honoring Ms. Schlafly instead stems from the fact that she has devoted her career to demagoguery and anti-intellectualism in the pursuit of her political agenda."

From the statement of the Association of Women Faculty: "In the academy, honor is given to those who back up their opinions with careful documentation and analysis. It is not given to loose cannons in the classroom, and it should not be given to loose cannons in the public arena."

Both these statements would suggest that, if there were less demagoguery and more careful analysis to her political positions, these objections would go away. It was framed as a process point--it's not what she believes and says, but how she says it--by many in the debate. My question was whether the purported process points are separable from her substantive veiws. The answer from both Brian and Joe is "no, but it doesn't matter"--people who hold her views on certain issues (however those views get expressed) should not be honored by a university.

And that's fine and may well be the correct answer. But let's have everyone be as explicit about it as Brian and Joe were. And we might need to have a discussion about which political viewpoints and ideas are unworthy of the academy.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 22, 2008 12:10:58 PM

To pile on a little bit on top of what Brian said, universities stand for certain things, which you could probably characterize generally as non-bigotry; aspects of this, and other principles for which universities stand, surely include equal rights and not opposing womens' progress. Yes, they also stand for intellectual freedom and free speech, but this is not an intellectual freedom or free speech issue; instead, the honorary degree functions as an endorsement of Schlafly and her views (see, e.g., Crooked Timber here). It should be obvious that a university should not be honoring or endorsing Schlafly's views on (as, e.g., suggested in the post) domestic violence.

Posted by: joe | May 22, 2008 11:20:34 AM

You'll forgive me for being a bit perplexed, but I had thought it was obvious that the primary objection to honoring her at a university was that her views are ignorant and bigoted. I guess some others emphasized that she was a demagogue, or some such, but that was not what struck me. Serious universities are cosmopolitan institutions committed to truth and knowledge (putting some English Departments to one side), ergo they should not honor parochial bigots and ignoramuses. Her views are precisely what make her unsuitable for an honor. Anyone with a similar set of views would be similarly unsuited for such an honor. (I suppose it is the full set that makes the choice of Schlafly so unbelievable.)

Posted by: Brian | May 22, 2008 10:53:36 AM

The problem in answering #3 is that the people on the left with the equivalent views and inability to behave in a decent way don't have outlets. There is no Fox News of the left. Air America doesn't really cut it.

As to #1, how about Pat Buchanan?

Posted by: Jason W. | May 22, 2008 10:34:10 AM

Leiter has compared Schlafly to Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus. A blogger linked by Leiter compared her to Ann Coulter or Karl Rove, or "Cheney, Dubya, and Jesse Helms," but would have accepted degrees bestowed upon William Buckley or the "hateful" George H.W. Bush. (To my knowledge, of those listed, only Coulter has a law degree.)

Schlafly has been published in the Northwestern Law Review and the Cornell Law Review, in addition to the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, the Texas Review of Law and Policy, and the Stanford Law and Policy Review. Some were in association with Federalist Society events. I wonder if critics would begin to characterize the NU LR and the Cornell LR as "anti-intellectual." (For comparison, Coulter has only published twice, a student note in the Michigan Law Review and a book review in the Texas Review of Law and Policy.)

Posted by: anon | May 22, 2008 9:33:16 AM

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