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(Tenured Radical)

Friday, May 14, 2004


The weblog Tightly Wound takes off in a recent post after what it calls The Tenured, a group of "pompous, insulated...overbearing and socially pricks." TW acknowledges that not all people with tenure are like this, but there are enough of them to constitute a group, a species, a genotype, a flora, a fauna. Like Bridget Jones's "smug marrieds," these are the smug tenureds.

There's something to what TW says. A person with a lifetime sinecure may well feel smug, and this smugness - the institutional and social and indeed intellectual consequences of it - is one of the many reasons why thoughtful people like Richard Chait at Harvard have questioned whether tenure should survive in its present form. As to tenure's great historical self-defense -- tenure protects unpopular ideas -- it's also been pointed out that in the context of the United States it's hard to think of ideas -- even conservative ones, even in the academy -- that need the sort of protection that unfireability affords.

And yet there are occasionally instances - here and abroad - in which tenure clearly does protect a person with socially offensive views.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, a serious debate began to get underway in the United States about the use of some forms of torture in wartime to extract possibly life-saving information from enemy prisoners. In the November 5, 2001 issue of Newsweek, Jonathan Alter wrote:

We can't legalize physical torture; it's contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.

The next day, in the New York Times, Jim Rutenberg wrote:

Journalists are approaching the subject cautiously. But some said last week that they were duty-bound to address it when suspects and detainees who have refused to talk could have information that could save thousands of lives. Plus, they added, torture is already a topic of discussion in bars, on commuter trains and at dinner tables. And last, they said, well, this is war.

The historian Jay Winik, in an opinion article on Oct. 23 in the Wall Street Journal, detailed the reported torture in 1995 of the convicted terrorist plotter Abdul Hakim Murad by the Philippine authorities that led to the foiling of a plot to crash nearly a dozen U.S. commercial aircraft into the Pacific and another into CIA headquarters in Virginia. Mr. Winik went on to write: "One wonders, of course, what would have happened if Murad had been in American custody?" He did not, however, endorse the use of torture but suggested that the United States might have to significantly curtail civil liberties, as it had done in past wars.

Mr. Alter [see above] said he was surprised that his [Newsweek] column did not provoke a big flood of e-mail messages or letters. And perhaps even more surprising, he said, was that he had been approached by 'people who might be described as being on the left whispering, 'I agree with you.''"

Michael Wolffsohn is a German professor, a military historian. Wolffsohn recently commented that "In the anti-terror fight there are really no effective laws of war. I believe that torture, or the threat of torture, is legitimate as one of the instruments against terror, because terror basically...has nothing to do with our civilized order.... If we attempt to counter terror with gentlemanly methods, we will fail."

Although Wolffsohn later said that he did in fact condemn torture (one supposes he means that he condemns most methods, with possibly an exception for the psychological interrogation, for instance, that Alter talks about; but this is not clear), Wolffsohn has been severely condemned in Germany, and is fast becoming a national whipping boy.

Deutsche welle (DW-world-de.) quotes Angelika Beer, the head of the Green party, saying that "Wolffsohn had lost the right to continue in his teaching job and that he should voluntarily step down. Beer said the right to freedom of expression stopped 'at the point when it departs from the fundamental principles of our democracy and constitution.'" The Defense Minister is "considering taking legal and disciplinary steps against the professor."

Germany of course represents in these matters a special historical case; nonetheless, notice that a professor is being threatened with dismissal and worse because he has entered a debate in a way that people find deeply offensive. Here in the States, tenure protects people like Wolffsohn. I hope it protects him in Germany.