Sunday, September 10, 2006

Galileo was a liberal

Today's entry proves that this blog is mostly about films: What follows has nothing to do with movies.

This is too easy. Iran's wingnut president,
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called on his nation's students to identify, persecute and oust liberal professors from its universities. “A student must yell against liberal thoughts and the liberal economy,” Ahmadinejad said, in a quote reprinted by the BBC. No one should be surprised by provocative statements like that from a leader who has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and suggested that the Holocaust is a “myth.” What makes Ahmadinejad's call for a purge of intellectuals grist for the mill is how neatly it corresponds with one of the tactics of American neo-conservatives.

American wingnut
David Horowitz appears to be in agreement with Ahmadinejad's call for the harassment of liberal-minded educators. Horowitz has published a book called The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (Regnery Publishing, 2006), and he is one of the founders and backers of Students for Academic Freedom, an organization that attacks teachers who offend conservative students by expressing “liberal” viewpoints. Horowitz and Ahmadinejad are convinced that exposure to liberal ideas corrupts the youth of their respective nations. Here are their own words on the topic:

David Horowitz: “You see, beginning in the mid-1960s, the left made a concerted effort to take over our colleges and universities. The turmoil surrounding the Viet Nam war made our schools ripe for leftist pickings, and they did -- they methodically took over our campuses … now, four decades later, they have a stranglehold on hiring, teaching, and administering most of our schools in all 50 states!
“As they’ve taken control, they’ve trampled free speech, virtually banished conservative professors, and turned our schools into little more than huge megaphones for anti-American rhetoric from coast to coast.” (

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "Today students should protest and shout at the president asking why some liberal and secular professors are still present in the universities. Our educational system has been under the influence of the secular system for 150 years. Colonialism is seeking the spread of its own secular system."


Both men have correctly targeted the key threat to the authoritarian regimes in their nations: educated people equipped with knowledge and the ability to make their own decisions. It's not easy to control a population that question edicts like ensuring airline safety by confiscating toothpaste, or that the “crime” of converting to a different religion is punishable by death. This ability to question is at the heart of a liberal education, and has always been a threat to those who seek to wield power autocratically, be they on the right or the left of political spectrum.

One of the tropes of neo-conservatives is that questioning any of their viewpoints is equivalent with supporting the most extreme opposite position. To question the war in Iraq is to support Saddam Hussein, the “insurgents” or Osama bin-Laden. Asking what the war in Iraq has to do with the “war on terror” is akin to supporting the “terrorists.” Anyone wondering how free trade benefits the jobless must be a protectionist or a socialist. Use of playground taunting to prevent rational discussion is a brilliant use of the current means of communication: TV news and talk radio for the professionals; anonymous blogs and online discussion groups for the amateurs.

This tactic was adapted from the Yippies, the anarchist group of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was lead by Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner, Abbie Hoffman and Anita Hoffman, among others. The Yippies' prankish theatricalism revolved around extreme poltical polarity: Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey was as much a “fascist” to the Yippies as Republican Richard Nixon. The Yippies' inability to comprehend the definition of fascism, combined with their juvenile exhibitionism, caused befuddlement among mainstream newspapers and broadcasters, who still had managerial staff that took their public service responsibility seriously, and provided more than entertaining sound bites. The neo-conservative's adaptation of Yippie-style antics has been successful because its confrontationally binary approach makes for entertaining viewing in between the commercials that support the nine major companies that control most of the media today.

It's much easier to hold to a fixed idea than to consider alternatives. By looking at the horizon, a child learns that the world is flat; it takes effort to understand how this surface is part of a round planet. That same child sees the sun rise in the east, travel overhead, then set in the west. Much more effort is required to accept that the earth moves around the sun.

Of course, even more effort was required to develop this knowledge in the first place. Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician and philosopher, taught in the fifth century B.C. that the earth was spherical. The Greeks clung to a view of the universe that placed the earth at the center of the cosmos. As their knowledge of astronomy grew, they continued to adapt their new learning to this belief, resulting in the Ptolemy's geocentric model of the universe, which remained dominant for 1,500 years. In the 16th century A.D., Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus developed the first mathematical model that explained astronomical anomalies in the Ptolemaic view of the cosmos. Copernicus moved the earth out of its central position, placing it—along with several other planets—in orbit around the sun, which now occupied the center of the solar system. This model, which defined orbits as perfectly circular, failed to account for observational anomalies, e.g., the varying location of Mars in the sky. He refrained from publishing his theory until just before his death, afraid of persecution by the Roman Catholic Church, which invested much of its philosophy in an earth-centric world view.

The Copernican model defined orbital paths as circles, not ellipses, making it just as buggy as the Ptolemaic model. Refinements by Tycho Brahe of Denmark and Johannes Kepler of Germany improved Copernicus' model, but it took 17th-century observations of the heavens with the newly-invented telescope by Italian Galileo Galilei to verify not only that the earth orbited the sun, but that other objects orbited other planets, and that the stars were farther away and far more numerous than had been believed before. For this remarkable effort at adding to knowledge, a 70-year-old Galileo was brought before the Roman Catholic Inquisition (the Papal equivalent of Guantanamo) in 1633, and threatened with torture and death unless he declared that the earth was at the center of the cosmos.

Galileo was a liberal thinker. He observed the world, he studied the work of those who had come before him, he used the latest technology, and he trusted his observations and his knowledge more than his core beliefs—the geocentric view of the Roman Catholic Church—which were founded on nothing more than rote recitation.

Liberal thought is not the same as the “liberalism” defined by the nattering nabobs of Fox News and talk radio. Let's take a look at the definition of “liberal” from the American Heritage Dictionary:

Liberal. . . adj. . . 1. a. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry. b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and toleration of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded. c. Of relating to, or characteristic of liberalism.
The Fox News definition of liberal is much the same as its definition of “Islamo-fascist” or the old uses of epithets like “commie,” “red,” “papist,” “bourgeois,” “heretic,” etc., i.e., “a person whose ideas we find threatening.” A true liberal thinker remains open to new ideas. I've known liberal-thinking Republicans and soldiers. I've known closed-minded Democrats and pacifists.

I think the reason folks like Horowitz and Ahmedinejad get their knickers in a twist about liberal thinkers is that it threatens their own tenuous picture of the world. Both men are erstwhile radicals. Horowitz was an editor at the leftist magazine
Ramparts. He was pals with Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton. Ahmedinejad was involved in the revolt that toppled Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1978, and was likely involved in the capture of American hostages in 1979, which lead to the election of Ronald Reagan as president of the U.S. in 1980. Both men found pathways to power, and found it easier to adopt an authoritarian philosophy that helps them maintain their position, than to cling to liberal thought, which is always fraught with uncertainty. In this way, Horowitz and Ahmedinejad have much in common with their respective bogeymen, like Bill and Hillary Clinton or Condoleeza Rice, all of whom surrendered any ideals they might once have had in favor of maintaining personal power and prestige.

Teresa Whitehurst, author of Jesus on Parenting (Baker Books, 2004), offered an interesting meditation on learning and liberalism in “Careful Not to Get Too Much Education...Or You Could Turn Liberal,” an
article at Third World Traveler. She recounted overhearing a conversation between two students at Lipscomb University, a Christian school in Nashville, Tennesee. The elder passed along to the younger advice he'd received from a professor. “You have to be careful not to get too much education, because you could lose your foundation, your core values.”

That statement neatly encapsulates the fear that leads reactionaries like Horowitz and Ahmedinejad to condemn “liberal professors.” Knowledge is dangerous, especially when it's shared among the masses. An educated populace that develops its own conclusions, individually and collectively, is equipped to question the pronouncements of its leaders. That's bad for the people in power, especially when they're in that position undeservedly.

I'm enrolled in college right now, completing a long-delayed bachelor's degree. I've had several professors and teachers, in subjects ranging from math to film history to astronomy. To date, my only experience of a closed-minded, opinionated and arrogant instructor was a tenured English professor who displayed his neo-conservative ideology at every opportunity. His lectures were peppered with expletives, designed to shock and enrage students. One student who challenged him respectfully, following a particularly corrosive tirade of obscenity, was told she should “take this class from somebody else, because I'm not going to change the way I am because it makes you uncomfortable.”

It seems to me that the problem with education today is not a preponderance of liberal thinkers, but the volume of whining from those threatened by free thought.

(Note: This entry is dedicated to extra super special agent M. "It's not too bad.")

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.


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