Harvard Crimson Jumps the Shark

Socrates wept.

Harvard senior Sandra Y.L. Corn advocates, this week in the Harvard Crimson, that professors and students should stop “obsessing” about “academic freedom,” and instead adopt a standard of “academic justice,” in areas of controversy. “Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice,” the headline reads. Thus has Crimson editorial board jumped the shark.

Now, ostensibly, this editorial has to do with an important contemporary issue: the ASA boycott of Israeli academics, and Harvard University’s official rejection of it. But Corn quickly escalates her claims.

When examined closely, her argument appears ludicrous. I might even call it irresponsible. Starting with a long anecdote from Harvard in the 1970’s, it then turns briefly to the boycott—scolding the lack of activist furor in today’s Harvard, before lowering the boom on freedom. She first tells a story about a professor at Harvard who once wrongly believed that intelligence is linked to race. This malefactor was defended in the name of “academic freedom”—can you believe that? And now today, those right wing ideologues who oppose the boycott of Israeli academics also appeal to “academic freedom”—which situation cannot be right. Freedom is the problem. Freedom has to go. It all boils down to this: we should forever subordinate “freedom” to “justice,” because academics have sometimes supported injustice, and because everyone knows that justice is more important than freedom.

I believe that’s a relatively fair characterization of her piece, but, I suppose, you’d have to be free to inquire into it yourself to know for sure.

Yes, justice is a (or maybe the) most desirable of ultimate goals and values.┬áBut apart from a dialectical inquiry, how can there be any knowledge of it? Or of injustice for that matter. For this reason alone, no one else’s demand for justice should trump my demand for liberty in the pursuit of truth.

Yes, you truth-seekers sometimes get things—terribly—wrong. But no less certainly, you justice-promoters also get things—horribly—wrong. It is manifest that the best response to an idea that promotes injustice is to show why it is wrong. In the same way, one must be able to question the standards of justice that authorities (whether they be academic, editorial, economic, moral, religious or governmental) promote. To do that one must be free.

Never mind that this particular call for “justice” is actually just a rallying cry to support a mere pressure tactic, a strategy du jour in an ongoing search for justice and conflict resolution.

Should we even pursue this particular policy?

If we desire “justice”—and we do—then how can we decide what policy to pursue?

Should we ask whether the proposed policy or tactic is just in itself?

Should we ask, in addition, whether the proposed tactic is in fact the best tactic to use in pursuit of the particular end of justice that is sought?

This boycott of academics may well be unjust in itself, because it holds Israeli scholars responsible, it punishes them and American scholars who are working with them, for the actions of their government. It does so not for the purpose of changing the behavior of the academics who suffer the boycott, but only for the purpose of putting pressure on the government.

We don’t even know whether those academics who are affected most by the boycott might contribute to the very same search for justice we ourselves are on. Nor do we know whether the Israeli government will respond to this form of pressure.

Can Corn demonstrate that the boycott will, on balance, do more good than harm to the cause of the Palestinians?

Can Corn show that this tactic will be effective?

If Corn knows, she doesn’t say.

Just to name one argument against the boycott, it has been pointed out rightly that comparisons to the 80’s campaign for divestment of University endowments from South Africa is not so apt, because those actions produced real financial and economic pressure on South Africa. Boycotting academics is unlikely to hurt a government very badly. (You think Netanyahu is feeling the heat because the eggheads are not talking to one another?)

So, there are plenty of questions here, all far from settled.

You know what’s good? what you really need for settling questions? That’s right. Freedom of inquiry.

Now in my view, the ASA boycott is ridiculous. But that’s just me, and I accept that I could be wrong, and that others disagree. And I know well, as should you, that what safeguards the conditions for the debate that could change my mind is some notion of academic liberty. It’s not old fashioned and it’s not in the way of justice.

And so I also think that the boycott itself is not as ridiculous as the idea of throwing freedom under the bus in order to justify a short-term political strategy. The latter honor belongs to the editorial board of The Crimson.

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