Sunday, February 12, 2012

Raising Arizona

Given the level of stupidity regularly emanating from Arizona, I’m almost reluctant even to raise the topic.  But stupidity has a way of metastasizing if left unchecked.

The Arizona legislature is considering a pair of measures affecting higher education: the first requiring the use of G-rated language in class, and the second establishing political conservatives as a protected class.

As to the former, I’ll just note that hey, at least they’re speaking English!  Checkmate.

The latter, though, requires more of a response.

First, the obligatory snark.  I’m glad to see that Arizona is so conscious of civil rights!  It’s heartening to see the state that allows police to randomly stop brown people and ask for their papers suddenly develop a concern for the equal protection of the laws.  For conservative white people with graduate degrees, anyway.

Okay, that’s done.  On to the substantive objection.

If political conservatives are given “protected class” status, then they’ll be able to use the “disparate impact” standard to claim discrimination.  In other words, they won’t have to show actual discrimination; they’ll simply be able to point to a predominance of liberals in a given venue and use that as presumptive evidence that discrimination has occurred.  Clearly, the intent of the law is to bully colleges and universities into hiring conservatives and/or getting rid of liberals.

Revealingly, the opposite is not true.  Liberals will not be able to make that claim where conservatives predominate. (The bill is written only to apply to certain corners of higher education.  It would not apply to, say, the state police.)  By itself, that’s reason enough for a court to throw out the law.  If the first amendment means anything at all, it means that one’s legal standing does not depend on one’s political views.  For conservatives to have rights that liberals don’t have would be such an obvious violation of state neutrality regarding political speech that any judge who didn’t throw it out would be immediately discredited in the legal profession.

But back to protected class status.  “Protected class” status can be used as a legal battering ram against an institution.  Typically, therefore, it has only been available where a person’s membership in it can be verified.  Race, sex, and even age are mostly verifiable.  Sexual orientation is trickier, but there’s typically enough to go on.  But in the age of the secret ballot, how does one prove (or disprove) one’s political leanings, especially if one’s publication record is either thin or concerned with other matters?  This is why affirmative action for political inclinations is not comparable to affirmative action for, say, race.

And if “imbalance” is the issue, what, exactly, would constitute “balance”?  Should faculties be evenly split?  Should proportions reflect the latest election results?  (If so, then any sort of long-term employment commitment is literally impossible.)  And what, exactly, is the legal definition of “conservative” or “liberal”?  What’s to keep people from lying on a questionnaire to keep their jobs?  Would people have to testify before the House Un-Republican Activities Committee about their doctrinal purity?

If it’s a matter of party registration, this will accomplish nothing.  It’s perfectly easy and legal to register as a Republican and vote Democratic.  For that matter, it’s perfectly easy and legal to register as an Independent and vote for whomever you damn well please.  (Does “damn well” pass the G-rated test?  And how would I know?  But I digress.)  

If it’s a matter of political perspective, who gets to define them?  My own political beliefs, for example, tend to be pretty liberal, but not on every issue.  How do you count people whose beliefs don’t fall into an easily defined camp?  How do you count, say, libertarians?  And what about people whose views evolve over time, based on their discoveries within their fields?  The one group guaranteed to lose, in this environment, is people who actually think for themselves.

I’d hate to be hired to help fill a de facto quota for a given political position, only to find my own views evolving away from what my employment requires.  In that setting, “academic freedom” is entirely dead, and there’s simply no point in inquiry, since answers are assumed to be pre-defined and pre-approved.  And what happens when the political winds shift?  

Arizona has had its share of bad ideas over the years, some of which it has passed into law.  I hope this bill doesn’t get that far.  Preventing any serious intellectual inquiry for fear that it might run afoul of the political majority is a stake in the heart of higher education.  

Of course, political majorities aren’t permanent.  And payback is a bitch.  (Well, I guess there goes the G rating.)  I’d suggest that the legislature keeps that in mind...