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.
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