Thursday, February 23, 2006

Apropos Academic Freedom and Western Values

My recent post about "Lefty Profs" sparked a post by Joe Miller at Bellum et Mores. There, Joe has penned "A Defense of the Loony Left"), which is really a witty defense of academic freedom, not of the loony left.

This post adds to what I have said in "Lefty Profs" and "A Politically Incorrect Democrat" (which is about Larry Summers's decision to step down as president of Harvard). An unspoken but very real motivation for those posts is the danger that the so-called loony left poses to the very freedoms we enjoy because of Western culture. Apropos that theme, Keith Windschuttle has posted a long essay at thesydneyline entitled "The Adversary Culture: The perverse anti-Westernism of the cultural elite." Along the way, Winschuttle observes:

Cultural relativism claims there are no absolute standards for assessing human culture. Hence all cultures should be regarded as equal, though different. It comes in two varieties: soft and hard.

The soft version now prevails in aesthetics. Take a university course in literary criticism or art theory and you will now find traditional standards no longer apply. Italian opera can no longer be regarded as superior to Chinese opera. The theatre of Shakespeare was not better than that of Kabuki, only different.

The hard version comes from the social sciences and from cultural studies. Cultural practices from which most Westerners instinctively shrink are now accorded their own integrity, lest the culture that produced them be demeaned.

There are absolute standards for assessing human culture. Here's mine: A culture that respects life, fosters liberty, and protects the pursuit of happiness will -- among other things -- yield economic well-being greater than that of a culture which does not repect life, foster liberty, or protect the pursuit of happiness.

Windschuttle concludes:

The concepts of free enquiry and free expression and the right to criticise entrenched beliefs are things we take so much for granted they are almost part of the air we breathe. We need to recognise them as distinctly Western phenomena. They were never produced by Confucian or Hindu culture. Under Islam, the idea of objective inquiry had a brief life in the fourteenth century but was never heard of again. In the twentieth century, the first thing that every single communist government in the world did was suppress it.

But without this concept, the world would not be as it is today. There would have been no Copernicus, Galileo, Newton or Darwin. All of these thinkers profoundly offended the conventional wisdom of their day, and at great personal risk, in some cases to their lives but in all cases to their reputations and careers. But because they inherited a culture that valued free inquiry and free expression, it gave them the strength to continue.

Today, we live in an age of barbarism and decadence. There are barbarians outside the walls who want to destroy us and there is a decadent culture within. We are only getting what we deserve. The relentless critique of the West which has engaged our academic left and cultural elite since the 1960s has emboldened our adversaries and at the same time sapped our will to resist.

The consequences of this adversary culture are all around us. The way to oppose it, however, is less clear. The survival of the Western principles of free inquiry and free expression now depend entirely on whether we have the intelligence to understand their true value and the will to face down their enemies.
My counsel isn't to round up the loony left and ship it off to Afghanistan, salutary as that might be for the loony left and the rest of us. No, my counsel is that those of us who value the best of Western culture must vigilantly defend it against the depradations of the loony left. That is why I speak out.

(Thanks to Political Correctness Watch for the link to Windschuttle's essay.)