Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Moments of Truth

The indefatigable Lesboprof has a great post up about a couple of legislators from Georgia who are using the economic crunch as an excuse to launch a purge of feminists, gays, and anyone whose politics or lifestyle they consider “special interest areas” from public colleges and universities. And it isn't just points of view they're out to silence; apparently, they've going after entire subject areas. The working assumption seems to be that only certain kinds of people – cough, cough – study such suspect things as gender, or women, or (horrors) homosexuality.

(I've long been fascinated by the assumption that the choice of object of study reflects the scholar. Are all scholars of feminism feminists? Are all scholars of ancient Greece ancient and Greek? Are all geologists rocks? I once took a course about dead German philosophers taught by someone who was neither German nor dead. Should I demand a refund?)

The money quote, if you will, is from state Rep. Charlice Byrd:

“Now that the state budget is under considerable reform, I believe the timing is perfect to eliminate positions of professors and staff who are paid to provide such services in these so-called special interest areas,” Byrd said Feb. 6.

LP does a great job of parsing, and rebutting, Rep. Byrd's view, so I'll defer to her on that. Suffice it to say that although LP's self-portrait (“a Jewish feminist lesbian in my 10th year of teaching in my third red state”) differs subtly from my own, our politics are pretty similar. (Full disclosure: we're also personal friends.)

Still, as an example of a different issue, it spoke to me.

One could easily read Rep. Byrd's statement as a pathetic overreach, or an unconvincing fig leaf for another agenda. I don't, though. I think it's a relatively clear statement of what he actually thinks. If you believe that, say, women's history is unimportant and/or objectionable for whatever reason, and you believe that there's a fiscal crisis, then cutting women's history makes perfect sense. The argument is with the first premise, not with the logic (or the second premise, for that matter).

Put differently, emergencies force people to put their cards on the table. To the extent that it's fair to describe the economy as being in a state of emergency – I'll go with 'yes' on that one – I think we'll start to see considerably greater clarity from leaders everywhere as to what they actually consider worthwhile and important. Some of what they say and do will make a great deal of sense, and some will be completely insane. But I expect that it will be unusually clear. In emergencies, things emerge.

Some colleges are apparently responding to the crisis by resorting to frantic, closed-door decision-making at the highest levels. This is revealing. Others are being much more open, sharing information with faculty, staff, and students, and favoring inclusiveness in both process and result. This, too, is revealing.

That's not to say that one can always infer intentions from actions. External constraints are real, and some options are simply proscribed by circumstance. But the better leaders will communicate that when it's relevant, and will do so as specifically as is realistic. If they take inclusiveness seriously, they'll do so out of respect for the collective intelligence of the larger group, and that collective intelligence can only do its thing when it has information to chew on.

I'd suggest that Rep. Byrd is showing his true colors here, and that others will, too. People with long memories would be well advised to pay very close attention over the next year or two. It's easy to please everybody when money is sloshing around. But when the chips are down, and they are, the real priorities become clear. Some of us understand the task at hand as bringing the entire community into the conversation, and preserving the best of our values during a difficult time; others understand the task as bashing the queers. If nothing else, at least we'll get clarity.

Thanks, LP, for the heads-up.