Saturday, February 25, 2012


When people talk about championing the cause of freedom, what are they really talking about? Is it freedom we value? Or is it the economic progress we believe will be the result of freedom? I ask this question because a recent book review in the Sunday NY Times prompted me to think about it. It was a Feb. 19 review of Revolution 2.0 by Wael Ghonim. I like the subtitle of the book: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power. Wael Ghonim is an Egyptian who has been active in the recent struggle there.

The review is by Jose Antonio Vargas. In it, he refers to "a strengthening borderless digital movement that is set to continually disrupt powerful institutions, be they corporate enterprises or political regimes." We see that a lot. What I mean is that when people talk about fighting for freedom, it is always about rebellion against political governments or sometimes corporate power. And that's fine.

My question is: why is academia always left out? Isn't academia a powerful institution? Aren't the publishers that support academia corporate entities? But somehow we never question the world of scholarship, or not too often, at any rate. We let academics get away with a lot. (In the fields of Darwin studies and historical Jesus scholarship, there is a certain slackness about evidentiary truthtelling.) We never think that sometimes scholars can be the source of oppression. I always wonder why that is.

One reason might be that freedom from political oppression will hopefully bring us economic liberty and, more importantly, prosperity. But when academics oppress, it is usually in the form of telling lies about history or other cultures. And how will that give us more financial blessings? It probably won't. The truth about history or culture or about academia itself might be a cause of pride to some people, it might even be a matter of justice, but justice won't get you a ride on the subway or put food in your belly. It won't buy you a new cellphone or an i-pad or any fancy new electronic doodad.

When educational institutions do wrong -- that is, in the books they publish and in the courses they teach -- the attempt to rectify it is the purest kind of search for justice. Most of the time, it will have no practical consequences. It won't lead to greater economic benefits. So we are not particularly in favor of it. If it threatens people in power in a very deep way, it might even hurt us economically. How many would want freedom from oppression if it did not give us a better material life? Oppression is acceptable, isn't it?, if it means our economy will be better off.

I guess I question our cultural sincerity when writers and commentators say that fighting oppression, be it political or corporate, is a good and noble thing, when it is more likely we support it only because we believe we can make a solid buck out of it. I am pretty sure that if the search for historical justice led to wide economic success, it would get a lot of support. In the meantime, opposing academic oppression (when it occurs) is like pissing in the wind. It will just give you a bad smell in the society you live in.

Leon Zitzer

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?