Saturday, April 26, 2008

What is Wrong with Arizona?

Republicans in the Arizona legislature are at war with the state’s universities. Last year the legislature attempted to limit professors’ ability to assign texts that might make students “uncomfortable.” Basically, the end result of that measure would have meant that students could opt out of having to read anything at all. It also included a provision that would have forbidden professors from taking any action that might “endorse, support or oppose any pending, proposed or enacted local, state or federal legislation, regulation or rule.” Yeah, because why would we want universities to be places where people think and discuss legislation? Apparently Arizona Republicans have taken a look at higher education in their state and said to themselves, “You know, I would really like higher education to be less educational.”

This year, the Republican legislature has proposed an even more insidious bill. SB 1108 would forbid students from participating in groups organized around racial solidarity. So, for instance, students could not join the Black Business Students Association, Native Americans United or MEChA (Moviemiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán). Whether one agrees with these groups or not, one would have thought they would be protected by freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Arizona Republicans say "No!" You can sign a petition against this measure here.

Moreover, the measure would also forbid courses to be organized around race. Latino/a Studies, African American studies, and Asian American studies would all be illegal. Note to self: Never take an academic job in Arizona. Note to current Arizona Professors: Get out, if you can.

Republicans have called this measure part of “Homeland Security.” They promise to cut state funding to Arizona schools whose courses “denigrate American values and the teachings of Western civilization.” SB 1108 also would bar teachers from “overtly encouraging dissent” from those values, including democracy, capitalism, pluralism and religious toleration. All teaching materials would have to be approved by the school superintendent for review.

We can set aside the stuff that is just plain confusing or nonsensical (How exactly has Mexico not participated in “Western Civilization?” Why is participating in the Black Business Students Association against capitalism?). We can focus, instead, on the ways that this measure combines Republicans' favorite forms of disinformation.

First, of course, it upholds the myth that we live in a “color-blind” society. It ignores that African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately poor, excluded from higher education, and earn less than their white counterparts. Whites remain the majority of university students (even in states (like Texas) with a non-white majority) at most flagship institutions. Yet, these measures place the blame for racist institutional practices onto minorities. MEChA emerged forty years ago to combat racism in the United States. In a classic Orwellian move, however, Rep. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) and other supporters of the bill have declared that it is groups like MEChA that are “real” racists.

Republicans and other conservatives get testy when notions of race move beyond their control. Clearly MEChA doesn’t understand that racial categories are only supposed to be used to oppress people. Using race as a means to organize for social justice is so missing the point.

This isn’t to say, obviously, that every member of MEChA or similar left-leaning organizations is automatically a saint. Both individually and collectively, they make mistakes. A few members of the left on university campuses, for instance, have wrongly tried to silence people on the right. They must also be educated about the importance of universities being sites of free speech and intellectual engagement.

Don’t be fooled, though. People on the right are not interested in “academic freedom.” They are interested in crushing any person who dares to say they are wrong.

For over a decade, members of the right have been attacking universities and attempting to control their curriculum. A former - liberal - turned - neoconservative named David Horowitz led the charge starting in the 1990s. In essence, Horowitz claimed that university-level humanities departments had become secret havens for Democrats. He put forward (without any real evidence) the outlandish claim that these same faculty keep conservatives out, deprive them of funding, and openly indoctrinate their students to blindly vote Democrat. In an unexpected twist, Horowitz and crew claim that their own Academic Freedom is being impinged.

The notion that college humanities departments are hotbeds of radicalism seems fairly laughable. From my vantage point, these departments are pretty darn conservative. The faculty is not racially diverse (not even coming close to representing the general population of the nation); they loathe change; and they maintain the status quo more than they rock the ship of state.

Moreover, Republicans give faculty way too much credit while giving university students none at all. If, as a professor, I had the power to “indoctrinate” my students, do you think that Bush would still be sitting in the White House? I have no special power to brainwash my students into being radicals. Heck, I can’t even convince my students to use the spell checker on their wordprocessor before submitting a paper. Just imagine how little power I have to foment revolution.

This is not to say that my politics don’t inform my research and my research doesn’t inform my politics. It would be impossible for me, as a Latino historian, to disentangle those two components. I own and make explicit my political perspective to my students and suggest that it does, indeed, influence my teaching.

Being explicit about my perspective does not mean that I am trying to dazzle or trick students into sharing my political ideas. Instead, I believe that students are smart enough to grapple with the information presented in my class. They always decide what to think on their own (as they should). Trust me, students can be asked to question social relations of power, government authority, imperialism, and resistance without having a single one fly off to Cuba the next morning.

Unlike those on the right, moreover, my own political ideology is not threatened knowing that other professors express viewpoints counter to mine in their classrooms. Students should hear as many ideas as possible.

Universities are supposed to be places where students encounter a wide-range of ideas and perspectives. Students learn how to reconcile those ideas for themselves – that is the point of an education – Learning to think independently and stuff.

What the right wants to do with these measures is silence dissent. The right’s vision of “not indoctrinating” really means that we should never hear or learn from people different from themselves. Apparently people on the right imagine that their own intellectual positions are so fragile that they won’t survive a confrontation with alternative epistemologies. Ironically, by shutting down university professors who propose radical ideas about the nation, the right implies that those ideas are more attractive than the status quo.

Finally, it is not surprising that this effort would occur around the time that Arizona is projecting a massive budget deficit for 2009. In a classic move, Republicans look to distract Arizona from their economic mismanagement of the state. Instead, they claim that they are in an ideological war with the “left” to “preserve” the nation. If they really want to preserve the nation, they might look into the collapsing value of the U.S. dollar. That will destroy this nation much faster than a prof who dares to suggest that Mexican migrants have basic human rights.


Mel said...

But, but, if these measures fail, all the brown people might start thinking they can get all educated, and then who'll the decent God-fearing white folks get to do their landscaping?

Les said...

If the dollar keeps falling, the decent God-fearing white folks are going to be doing landscaping for Canadians.

Doug said...

If I were a republican (bite your tongue!), I'd be hiding under a rock somewhere. And changing my stripes.

I'm constantly amazed at how people claim they're oppressed and then attempt to pass laws to prevent others from doing their thing. Amazed. As in, smack me with a 2x4, I'm in shock. Total daze. Yeah.

dykewife said...

more and more i am relieved that i live in canada (despite pope harper in ottawa).

i can't believe that such egregious onslaughts to civil rights won't be challenged.

tornwordo said...

Gayprof, it's time for you to seek out some canadian teaching positions.

Chad said...

So someone out there really has a thought process that operates like this:

"A commitment to pluralism is one of the great achievements of the United States, so we must defend it by drastically limiting both academics' freedom of expression and students' exposure to different points of view."

Jen said...

If the legislators could somehow lay the blame for the water/food/oil crises into the mix they could have a winner there. The AZ electorate could be well ditracted from their state economy. Especially the water one, because when you can't golf there's nothing to do but sit around and blame somebody for something.

The Splendid Scribbler said...

I just heard about this a few days ago, it is ridiculous and infuriating. I can't even comprehend the kind of mind and heart it takes to believe that this legislation is not only acceptable but desirable.

In happier news, however, I am a new reader to your blog, it is fabulous!

Roger Green said...

That line from the musical Chicago comes to mind: "Give 'em the old razzle-dazzle."

When non-whiite people talk about race , it's racist, but when the "majority" talks about "western civ" as the end-all and be-all, it's not.

this hurteth my head.

Michael said...

And we march one step closer to the fascist state, where to express anything critical of "American values" becomes a crime.

The only silver lining to this is that when Hillary becomes President she can have Rush Limbaugh tried for treason...

Anonymous said...

A friend of a friend just left Arizona for these reasons. Just goes to show people who live in a desert are perhaps adversely affected by the climate. ;o)

GayProf said...

Mel: Given that we will soon be out of water, their lawns will be the least of their problems.

Les: My current state is already accepting garbage deliveries from Canada as a means to get some extra revenue. I am surprised nobody has a problem with that.

Doug: See? I don't understand why the Republican party even exists anymore (except for the fact that Democrats are totally incompetent at building support).

DykeWife: You should value your Canadian citizenship. Those in the EU should be even more happy.

Torn: Oh, I have applied in the past. Alas, though, Canada has little interest in Latino history.

Chad: Welcome to Bush America, where up is down and truth is a passel of lies.

Jen: I am sure it is just a matter of time before Republicans claim that migrant workers are "taking our food!" Ugh.

Splendid Scribbler: Hail, Amazon Sister! Glad you stopped by.

ROG: We are doomed, doomed, doomed.

Michael: What do you mean "closer" to a fascist state? It seems like we have been there since around 2001.

WiccaChicky: Good for your friend! Oddly, Republicans don't seem to understand that they really do create brain-drains with these measures. Massachusetts, for instance, has really benefited by being pro-gay by gaining a larger share of gay professionals. It will just make blue states bluer and red states more ignorant.

Bear Left said...

Thanks for posting this; I never thought that the University System of Georgia (now blessedly receeding in my rearview mirror) would look enlightened, but compared to Arizona, it does. I also can't help think that somewhere, Barry Goldwater is spinning in his grave -- any libertarian conservative should be as horrified as those of us on the left by this proto-fascism.

Laverne said...

Don't leave for Canada Gayprof! If everyone leaves, the bigots have won. Fight the man!

Sorry, got carried away. This was incredibly well-written (as of course, all your posts are). My father, who moved to Arizona several years ago, is probably thrilled with this news. Asinine to think this is being supported by anyone other than one or two crazy people. Scary too.

I loved this:
"Heck, I can’t even convince my students to use the spell checker on their wordprocessor before submitting a paper. Just imagine how little power I have to foment revolution."

Anonymous said...

I can only say that this is incredibly scary and I'm glad that Phoenix job never materialized.

Roger Green said...

The Way Our World Ends
by Patrick J. Buchanan
Posted: 05/02/2008

In 1950, whites were 28 percent of world population and Africans 9 percent, a ratio of three-to-one. In 2060, the ratio will remain the same. But the colors will be reversed. People of African ancestry will be 25 percent of the world's population. People of European descent will have fallen to 9.8 percent. ...
The Caucasian race is going the way of the Mohicans. ...
Hopefully, the peoples of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, who are about to inherit the earth as we pass away, will treat us better than our ancestors treated them in the five centuries that Western Man ruled the world.

Otherwise, we all go out with a bang.

historiann said...

Sorry to be late to the party, here. I just had to comment on your last paragraph, where you write "Finally, it is not surprising that this effort would occur around the time that Arizona is projecting a massive budget deficit for 2009. In a classic move, Republicans look to distract Arizona from their economic mismanagement of the state."

Dead on. I would add that it's even more cynical than you suggest. State universities have been under attack by Republicans for years, but their most effective weapon has been gutting states' financial contribution to the universities. But, when they pass bogus laws like this, they can be reassured that it will get a lot of people in the state riled up to complain about "subsidizing liberal indoctrination," and the faculty and friends of the university will organize to protest this law, which means that the looting and decline of the universities can go on unchallenged.

I'm not saying that Arionans and all of us shouldn't be up in arms over this dumb law--but to see it as part of an overall strategy to discredit and castrate state-supported higher education.

Mike said...

They should name the legislation what it is: The White Power Structure Preservation Act.

Andy Walpole said...

God, the lunatics have taken over the asylum in Arizona!
These right-wing conspiracy theories about liberal control of academia is really a US focused thing - over on this side of the Atlantic there really isn't this sort of debate. Thank heavens.