November 18th, 2017

Peace, democracy and academic freedom

By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on July 15, 2017.

Andrew Blair, Ph.D.

We Canadians are peace loving. We want our armed forces to be used for defence, and, in certain situations, for peacekeeping. But we do not want them to be used for unnecessary aggression.

Most citizens are busy with their everyday lives. We don’t have the time to do careful investigations of the world’s conflict situations. We rely on our leaders to gather relevant information and to do their best to act in accord with our peaceful intentions.

Democracies are often thought to be more peaceful than other forms of government because their leaders need to get broad public support before going to war. This tends to constrain them, or so the argument goes.

There is a significant flaw in this argument. Leaders can overcome normal democratic constraints through deception. Anyone who studies the history of conflict knows that such deception is not uncommon. We all remember the fears generated by the George W. Bush administration about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The fears proved to be unfounded, but led to the second invasion of that unfortunate country. Was that a pre-emptive war of defence, or was it a war of aggression to ensure access to oil?

Citizens of a democracy need ways to keep their politicians honest. One of these ways is the preservation of academic freedom in universities. Of course we can’t rely on professors to always be right, but, if they don’t have to fear losing their jobs, we can expect them to produce well-considered alternatives to mainstream views. When such alternatives enter the marketplace of ideas it helps us citizens to think through and support better policies.

The primary arrangement that preserves academic freedom is tenure. It is granted to professors who have gone through a rigorous process to demonstrate their clear reasoning ability and respect for evidence. Tenure means that a professor cannot be fired for disagreeing with those in power, or for opposing popular opinion. It has its flaws, but it performs an essential function in preventing and overcoming cultural blindness. It’s not just a mark of high status, but has the purpose of protecting us from being blinkered by propaganda.

Consider this in the context of the longest war that Canada has ever been engaged in, the war in Afghanistan. We got involved because, on the day after the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, our prime minister, Jean Chretien, telephoned President Bush to offer our “complete support.” Given what we knew then, surely that was the right thing to do.

On the same day as the attack, Ehud Barak, formerly the prime minister of Israel, appeared on BBC television, suggesting that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network was a prime suspect. He urged engaging in a “war on terror,” with five countries as targets: Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Afghanistan. Later that day, on NBC, Paul Bremer, who became the administrator of Iraq during the first years of occupation, also suggested bin Laden as the culprit.

Several times bin Laden categorically denied that he was responsible for 9/11, but the United States demanded that the Taliban government of Afghanistan hand him over. The Taliban replied that they would co-operate if the U.S. would provide evidence that bin Laden was guilty. The U.S. refused to do so, but attacked instead. On Oct. 7, 2001, the U.S., together with the United Kingdom, launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan. Canada joined in with other NATO countries in early December of that year. For 12 years we fought; 165 Canadians were killed, and at least 70 soldiers killed themselves after returning home.

Yet it has never been established beyond a shadow of a doubt that bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks.

It seems that nothing good has come from the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East. Freedom and democracy have not prevailed. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria have all been massively devastated by war. In Afghanistan the Taliban strives to return to power and controls substantial swathes of territory. Now the Trump administration is considering a new surge of troops, and is requesting participation from Canada.

Canadian citizens would do well to face the possibility that we were misled into a war of aggression in Afghanistan. This isn’t something that is easy to think about, as it offends our sense of being intelligent well-meaning people. It is not a possibility that politicians can afford to give voice to, as it undercuts their credibility and thus any power they might have to do good. But universities do have a responsibility to consider this. The last thing they should do is discourage any professor who attempts to consider it.

Suppose a university professor comes to the conclusion that we were misled. If this conclusion is right, wouldn’t it be unfortunate if he were to be dismissed for trying to make the truth known? But what if he were wrong? True, he might mislead some for awhile. But he would also provoke others into investigating more thoroughly. Thus, if the official narrative is true it would receive a more substantial underpinning, and provide us citizens with good reasons to believe it as opposed to simply accepting it because it’s what we we’ve been told. Whether the professor is right or wrong, it would be a mistake to dismiss him.

The harm done when a controversial professor is dismissed is not restricted to the influence of that professor alone. A chill is instilled in professors everywhere, and not just on the one controversial topic. Without tenure, self-censorship becomes the rational approach to everything in the academic world. Diversity of thought in the marketplace of ideas dries up. Democratic decision-making becomes stupid. Everyone suffers.

Academic freedom, and the key to preserving it, tenure, is an essential element of a democratic society. It helps to save us from mass delusion and from perpetrating massive injustice.

Andrew Blair is a Lethbridge resident who taught philosophy of education for 10 years to pre-service teachers in Ontario.

5 Responses to “Peace, democracy and academic freedom”

  1. Mike says:

    Where is Dr Hall when you need him?
    A specious letter to be sure. Why has the left wing become the dominating influence in university arts programs? Not due to academic freedom or rigour, in my opinion at least.
    Yes we need the free flow of ideas that allow for better informed decision making. Does that mean tenure needs to be a permanent fixture for 100% of those who are granted this priveledge? Ask recent doctoral grads selling coffee and donuts because no opportunities exist in the academic fields of their choice. Some turnover, other than death, is also essential to a heathy academic environment. Processes to assess and remove those who become incompetent already exist. Tho rarely used they are a way for professionals to be regulated but not necessarily constrained.
    As far as the import of being right or wrong, peer review exists to challenge outrageous postulations, as long as it does not fall into politically correct dogma.
    It seems that the emergence of social media may actually lead our civilizations into the abyis of ungovernability and chaos. Not every revolution brings progress.

    • Andrew Blair says:

      What do you mean “specious letter”? Are you thinking I am Dr. Hall? I’m not. Or do you mean the reasoning is specious? How so?

      My opinion piece did not refer to Dr. Hall because his case is not unique. However, Dr. Hall’s case is a particularly sharp example of a widespread problem. Why do you think my arguments come from the left wing? Is desire for peace left wing?

      What processes are you referring to that somehow manage to regulate competence without constraining the views of a professor? I am of course in favour of recent doctoral grads getting jobs, but how do you propose to oust tenured professors in order to hire new ones yet avoid enforcing a prevailing orthodoxy? Will it work just to say we believe in the free flow of ideas?

      What you say about peer review is very unclear. I would say that the primary purpose of peer review is to ensure clear reasoning in published articles, and maybe that fits with what you are saying, but I cannot tell.

      Regarding the relation of peer-review to being right or wrong, nothing can guarantee the truth, but a good peer-review process does increase the likelihood of arriving at the truth. There are very few peer-reviewed articles that offer evidence in support of the official narrative of 9/11. Sure, there are many that assume its truth, but that is not the same as offering supporting evidence. On the other hand there are many peer-reviewed articles that support Dr. Hall’s views. Or do you dismiss those that support Dr. Hall’s views as not really being peer-reviewed? How does this relate to what you are saying about politically correct dogma? What dogma are you trying to avoid?

      Your fear of social media reminds me of the fear of the Catholic Church to the emergence of print media 500 years ago. That technological revolution did bring about chaos and warfare. I hope that our society has learned to be sufficiently tolerant of diversity of opinion that the current upheaval being caused by social media will not lead to violent chaos. Please work with me on this.

    • Montreal13 says:

      I agree Mike with a number of your points. Especially ,”Why has the left wing become the dominating influence… “. scary. It is irresponsible the narrow view of the world installed in our young people’s brains. “Mass delusion” is exactly right, in my opinion, Mr. Blair.
      Sorry Mr. Blair, I don’t have alot of respect for many of the academics referred to here. Not all. But we never hear anything from most of you when it comes to civic politics. There is plenty to comment on ,as you know. But silence from the bunch of you on this topic, it seems? Could it have something to do with all the money the city donates to the university? Has the powers that be at city hall done a good job of buying some academic’s silence? Do I smell the old , don’t burn the hands that feed it philosophy, at all costs? Democracy and academic freedom unless it is personally politically incorrect?

      • Anthony Hall says:

        Prof. Hall here. I have been at different times been very active in the campaign to persuade the city government to withdraw its policy of forced fluoridation. I got really involved in the campaign against fracking. I have written in the Lethbridge Herald many articles on local politics, including civic politics. One of those articles explained my critique of the smart meter installations forced on our community coercively and without making the relevant information publicly available. I do try to think globally while I act locally, often bringing on myself harsh criticisms in the process.

  2. phlushie says:

    Bravo Montreal13

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