Not really an issue of academic freedom

by Henry on April 28, 2008

Ms. Almontaser, a teacher by training and an activist who had carefully built ties with Christians and Jews, said she was forced to resign by the mayor’s office following a campaign that pitted her against a chorus of critics who claimed she had a militant Islamic agenda. In newspaper articles and Internet postings, on television and talk radio, Ms. Almontaser was branded a “radical,” a “jihadist” and a “9/11 denier.” She stood accused of harboring unpatriotic leanings and of secretly planning to proselytize her students. Despite Ms. Almontaser’s longstanding reputation as a Muslim moderate, her critics quickly succeeded in recasting her image.

The conflict tapped into a well of post-9/11 anxieties. But Ms. Almontaser’s downfall was not merely the result of a spontaneous outcry by concerned parents and neighborhood activists. It was also the work of a growing and organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life. The fight against the school, participants in the effort say, was only an early skirmish in a broader, national struggle. “It’s a battle that’s really just begun,” said Daniel Pipes, who directs a conservative research group, the Middle East Forum, and helped lead the charge against Ms. Almontaser and the school.

I’m temporarily coming out of hiatus to point to this “New York Times article”: which should, I hope, give some pause to people who claim that concerns over whether to fire people like John Yoo reduce down to academics trying to defend their privilege of tenure. And yes – I completely agree that there is a vast gaping difference between trying to fire someone for actions that were directly intended to facilitate torture,1 and firing someone because vicious paranoid hatemongers like Daniel Pipes and his cronies say that she deserves firing. The question is whether that distinction can be maintained politically in an employment system where very few people indeed have the kind of job protections that academics (or, to a lesser extent, teachers in an unionized system) have, and where people like Daniel Pipes have considerable political sway. I think it’s perfectly legitimate for people to maintain either (a) that firing people like Yoo in the absence of external proceedings is still worthwhile, even if it has substantial knock-on effects, or (b) that firing Yoo is unlikely to have the kinds of repercussions that I fear. But I also think that my position is legitimate (and I also think that it’s right or I wouldn’t have put it forward), and whatever you believe, it’s clear that the battles that are about to begin are only indirectly about academic freedom. They’re better considered as battles over whether people who hold minority views (‘middle ground’ Muslim views, certain political beliefs), whether they be professors, teachers, or whatever are going to be persecuted (either sporadically or systematically, depending on how successful Pipes is), sacked or forced to resign, and forced out of public life in its myriad forms. That’s the agenda that Pipes is proposing. Now back to my cave …

1 I should say, by the way, that I think that “Brian Leiter’s claim”: that

Anyone calling for him to be fired is calling for him to be punished for his ideas, and nothing else. Attempts to claim it is more “complicated” are just attempts to rehabilitate the idea that having bad ideas, even bad ideas others act on, is a crime.

is misleading and very badly wrong. “Ideas” that are floated in an academic paper are very different from _legal analyses_ that are offered by someone working within a bureaucratic apparatus, which are directly intended to help others in that apparatus to carry out war crimes. The latter are better considered as actions than ideas – they are directly connected to the activities that are carried out on their basis in a way that free floating ideas are not.

UPDATE: I should perhaps have made clearer that I am not diving into the comments section of this post for reason of time commitments. I recognize that this isn’t very satisfactory for people who might want to push me on this or that aspect of my argument, and promise that I’ll post again on this when I return …

War crimes questions

by John Quiggin on April 28, 2008

It’s not that surprising to read that former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad has called for an international tribunal to try Western leaders with war crimes over the war in Iraq, nominating Bush, Blair and Howard in particular. Mahathir is well-known as a provocateur, with a fondness for extreme statements, which have included anti-Semitic attacks on George Soros and others. So it’s unlikely that anyone will pay much attention to him.

Still, his views on Iraq as a war crime are widely shared. It scarcely seems beyond the bounds of possibility that someone like Baltasar Garzon might find a legal way to file criminal charges (Wikipedia says he’s already threatened a civil suit).

Such charges would have enough factual and legal support to make the outcome unpredictable if they ever came before a tribunal. Apart from the general question of the legality of the war itself, the US in particular has openly denied the applicability of the Geneva Conventions and has engaged in many actions (torture of prisoners, bombing of occupied civilian areas, reprisal attacks of various kinds) that at least arguably violate the Conventions.

On the other hand, the prospect of Bush, or any US official, for that matter, actually standing trial, let alone being convicted or punished, seems unthinkable. The only consistent inference that I can draw from this is that, if charges are ever laid in any jurisdiction, the governments concerned will find a way to abort the process without allowing the substantive issues to come before a court. Since most of the doctrines that might be used to achieve such an outcome (sovereign immunity, non-interference in internal affairs and so on) have already been repudiated, it seems as if such an outcome could only be justified in terms of a bald claim of “reasons of state”.

Are there any legal experts who can help me out here? I have two main questions:

1. Where, if at all, might charges be brought against Bush and others?
2. How would the hearing of these charges be prevented?

Puzzling about Hobbes and obligation

by Chris Bertram on April 28, 2008

I gave a couple of lectures on Hobbes last week, having volunteered a long time ago when doing so seemed like a breeze, then remembering rather late in the day that I hadn’t taught Hobbes for a while. Anyway, it all seemed to go pretty well but then a smart first-year student asked me a question that I’ve been puzzling about ever since. No doubt *real* Hobbes scholars have the answer all sorted (and if so, please tell me) but I wasn’t quite sure what to say. The problem is below the fold.

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