Saturday, January 19, 2008

Best Yet On Academic Freedoms

Mr. David Warren, of the Ottawa Citizen (Canada) is, to my mind, one of the best essayists now in print. If newspapers do not obtain the usual permissions and reprint his offerings, they would be depriving their readers of the output of an unusually balanced mind and of an excellent stylist.

The column below is only one example of that balance and excellence and one which should be quickly reprinted.

January 19, 2008
Galileo again
Over the last fortnight I have been writing much about threats to freedom of speech and press in Canada, without mentioning the rest of the world. “Human rights” commissions or the like -- kangaroo courts and star chambers designed to silence the politically incorrect, without any of the inherited checks of a legitimate legal system -- are hardly restricted to Canada.

More broadly, the witch-hunting spirit of “political correctness” is at large in university campuses across the Western world; is sympathetically received in news and entertainment media; and has become an intrinsic part of the “progressive” ideology of bureaucratic elites in every Western country, including the good old USA.

This is a huge issue that can only be discussed in one tiny aspect at a time, but must be discussed, increasingly, under the noses of the commissars, and in despite of their heavy breathing.

The components of political correctness -- radical feminism, the “gay agenda,” multiculturalism and “reverse racism,” extreme environmentalism, “health fascism,” Darwinist scientism, and lately and most incongruously, Islamism -- do not constitute a coherent worldview. Each agenda contradicts each other, and each is internally irrational. The various interests are however united, not by what they affirm, but by what they deny or oppose, and are dedicated to destroying. Their common enemy is the Christian heritage of the West, or what is often called the “Judaeo-Christian tradition.”

I was quite struck, this last week, by one tiny aspect of this issue on display in Rome. Pope Benedict was invited to speak at a commencement of La Sapienza -- the famous science university, founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303. He had chosen to speak on the case of Galileo. ...

[Update & correction: his speech is now available in English through Zenit, & it does not even mention Galileo. I, & most of the rest of the world media, fell for the imaginings of the people I compare to "howler monkeys" below.]

... This was enough to inspire demonstrations, organized by the Left, at the university and elsewhere. The pope cancelled his appearance, after it became clear that his address would be interrupted by mobs of students and professors acting like howler monkeys (though without their excuse).

A sensible move: for the pope is now publishing the text of his address, and everyone still capable of reading with attention may do so in the quiet of his own home. Moreover, thanks to the negative publicity, more people will now read it.

On contemporary censorship generally, I was further struck by one remark, quoted in a Reuters dispatch on the event:

"I think the Pope's visit is not a good thing because science doesn't need religion. The university is open to every form of thought but religion isn't," said Andrea Sterbini -- a computer science professor who was one of 67 academic signatories of a document protesting the pope's visit.

In those two sentences my reader may see exposed the grounding assumption of every politically-correct proposition in the post-modern, so-called “liberal” mind. The speaker assumes there is an official "open-minded" position, that must be protected by law or force. He then insists on banning any deviation from this official “open-minded” position.

George Orwell made it his life's work to expound the way in which the plain meaning of any English word could be inverted in minds contaminated by ideology. The “open mind” becomes indistinguishable from the closed one. “Human rights” means the withdrawal of the inherited rights of each individual human being. The need for “diversity” means the suppression of variety. “Tolerance” means intolerance of dissent. “Peace” means war. “Freedom” means slavery. “Ignorance is strength.”

I was finally struck by a remark made by Frank Furedi, author of Politics of Fear, Therapy Culture, and assorted other books with nice titles. In the middle of a gallant defence of the pope's right to speak, he dropped this, probably unconsidered, line:

“Historically, science emerged through a struggle with religious dogma.”

This statement is not merely untrue, it is the opposite of the truth, and I believe that any intelligent and literate person, with a genuinely open mind, and the patience to study history, will discover that it is the opposite of the truth. Moreover, the question is extremely important, to science as well as to religion, because science lapses into scientism when it makes claims for itself that cannot be sustained in reason.

As the pope was perhaps going to say, before he was so rudely interrupted, a key to understanding the modern relationship between science and religion comes from e.g. studying the case of Galileo calmly, and then beginning to comprehend its background in a world where modern science had already been growing, for several centuries, under the direct patronage of the Catholic Church.

David Warren
© Ottawa Citizen

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