Sunday, May 29, 2016

Politics vs. Scholarship

A side note to Nathan Heller's article on Oberlin concerns the relationship of American politics to the truth. Even in academia, scholarship seems to get short shrift:
On February 25th, published an article that included screenshots from the Facebook feed of Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin. The posts suggested, among other things, that Zionists had been involved in the 9/11 plot, that ISIS was a puppet of Mossad and the C.I.A., and that the Rothschild family owned “your news, the media, your oil, and your government.” The posts did not sit well with everyone at Oberlin, where, weeks earlier, a group of alumni and students had written the president with worries about anti-Semitism on campus; the board of trustees denounced Karega’s Facebook activities. As a teacher, however, she’d been beloved by many students and considered an important faculty advocate for the school’s black undergraduates. The need for allyship became acute. And so, with spring approaching, students and faculty at one of America’s most progressive colleges felt pressured to make an awkward judgment: whether to ally themselves with the black community or whether to ally themselves with the offended Jews.
Personally I don't care a fig which side Joy Karega or anybody else takes in the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. But didn't anybody notice that these assertions are simply not true? Even if we agree that academics have an absolute right to their own politics, do they have a right to be flagrantly wrong about important factual questions? Isn't "fidelity to the truth" a value universities should be promoting?


G. Verloren said...

"The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth. Whether it's scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth. It is the guiding principle upon which Starfleet is based. If you can't find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth about what happened, you don't deserve to wear that uniform."

~ Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Episode 5x19: The First Duty

...if only that conviction were more prevalent in reality, especially within our institutions of knowledge.

Unknown said...

Since her post was on Facebook, I'm not sure there's any *academic* grounds for complaint at all. Imagine if every academic were to be held publicly responsible for the truth value of everything they said in what are legally and, I would say, in essence, private communications!

I hope many academics are bothered by Karega's statements because they are untrue. However, in my own case, I'd simply be lying if I claimed that the statements bothered me *only* because they are not true. I would say the truth is they bother me because they are familiar anti-semitic untruths whose somewhat sad old-fashionedness (dredging up the Rothschilds, even!) doesn't make them less vicious.

G. Verloren said...


I'm not certain you can call this an instance of "private" communications, given the nature of the posts involved and their degree of public accessibility.

That matter aside, surely an institution of learning has a duty toward promoting the truth. And it would appear that Oberlin upheld that duty to a degree, by denouncing Karega's comments for their falsehood.

That really should have been the end of it. The school made a statement of denunciation to make their stance on the issue clear, decided that was sufficient, and took no further action. Nothing else needed to happen.

But the problem is that now they're facing pressure from the student body. Some individuals want Karega dismissed over the comments, which seems excessive. Others are upset over a perception (false or otherwise) that the administration is willing to denounce anti-semitism while not being willing to denounce other offensive behaviors. Personally I don't have much sympathy for either viewpoint, but then again, who asked me?