Monday, February 28, 2005


The controversy over Harvard President Summers' remarks got me to thinking. The left is castigating him for his remarks, and he may lose his job in a no-confidence vote of the faculty. Even if he keeps his job Harvard will lose some funding from people who will refuse to donate in protest. Summers has been called a chauvinist, and worse, for suggesting in an academic workshop that all possible reasons why women are underrepresented in the hard sciences be explored, even including whether men have more natural aptitude.

And it is crap. The left-wing crusaders out to get him are simply wrong.

In exploring why women are underrepresented nothing should be left on the table, even topics that some find offensive. When the Army was fighting to stay segregated some suggested that "colored" soldiers simply couldn't perform like white soldiers due to whites' superior aptitude. So the Army did a study. Racists didn't like the results because of course they showed that wasn't true. But if the study had not been done it would have been harder to integrate the force. And it is a fact that boys show mathmatical aptitude earlier than girls, while girls show greater verbal aptitude. Whether this is due to nature or nurture is surely deserving of exploration. Men are many times more likely to suffer autism than women, something that may be related to mathematical aptitude. Or not. And reading the remarks Mr. Summers actually made shows that he was not saying he felt women don't have as much aptitude for hard science as men, but that the issue should be discussed in order to understand why so few women are on the hard science faculties of major universities. Result: he is condemned.

The right-wing has come to his defense, claiming (rightly, no pun intended) that punishing Summers threatens academic freedom and intellectual inquiry in general. I say "right on" (pun intended.) The purpose of intellectual inquiry is to discover truth and sometimes that makes people uncomfortable. Tough. Free speech is vital in academia, and if it doesn't exist there it surely exists nowhere at all. Regardless of how offensive a comment is, the way to address it is to show it is true or false in a logical, civil debate. Those who want Summers removed are threatening all of us. Self-censorship from fear of being "Larry Summered" will do all of us harm.

But then there is the case of Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor who made idiotic comments comparing 9/11 victims to nazi criminals. He actually was stupid enough to blame the 9/11 victims for their own murders because they were serving the "capitalist system." Ok, he is a nutbag and maybe a commie. And calling 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns" as he did turns my stomach. But guess what? Those who want Churchill punished are threatening all of us. Self-censorship from fear of being "Ward Churchill'ed" will do all of us harm. Free speech is vital in academia, and if it doesn't exist there it surely exists nowhere at all. Regardless of how offensive a comment is, the way to address it is to show it is true or false in a logical, civil debate.

Hmmm... many of the same people defending Larry Summers' academic freedom are the ones calling for Ward Churchill's removal. And many of the same people attacking Larry Summers are the ones defending Ward Churchill's academic freedom (although, to be honest, there are actually few defending Churchill since he is clearly a nut, and his "scholarship" is mush-headed dribble).

But I want to go on record as defending Ward Churchill's academic freedom. I do not agree with what he said, but I think he should be free to say it. I don't think his saying it will force anybody to believe what he says or do any harm except to his own credibility. Punishing him for his ideas does great harm to all of us.

To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, the "free marketplace of ideas" is vital. The way to defeat communism wasn't to ban the Communist Manifesto or punish Marxist university professors but to show that the ideas were wrong. It is ok to debate those who disagree with you - it helps you understand your own position even better. While you may never convince the Marxists themselves you will be able to convince others. And even Marxist ideas contributed to our nation, believe it or not. While we were defending "freedom" our communist enemies delighted in pointing out how segregation and Jim Crow laws showed that the US was not truly free. On that point they were right. Instead of shutting out the criticism we changed the system, communism fell, and we were better off for having listened to what our enemies were saying. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

So I think Churchill is a flaming idiot, and I think Summers deserves a little credit for trying to explore why there aren't more women at the top of hard science academia, surely not a chauvinistic thing to do. And I think those who would defend Summers and not Churchill are as wrong as those attacking Summers. They are hypocrites. Defending "free speech" when you agree with it is easy. It is defending speech when you disagree with it that is the true measure of how much you like freedom.

Voltaire famously said "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

So to Mr. Summers and to Mr. Churchill, I say I think you should be allowed to speak without being fired. Continue to speak up and speak out. The free and open marketplace of ideas will decide how much weight should be given to what you say.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Myth Number One

I have decided to debunk the cherished myths of the radical right, one by one, on this blog. Today I start with the first of many myths: Bush Supports the Troops.

You've seen them - the bumber stickers on the backs of SUVs that proclaim proudly "I support the President and Our Troops." By implication, to support the President is to support the troops. You have seen how Bush trots out troops at every occasion, either as a backdrop for a partisan political speech ("Mission Accomplished" ring any bells?) or to deflect criticism (inaguaration too lavish in a time of war? Invite some troops!)

So how can we tell if Bush and the radical right support our troops? No, I'm not going to discuss the well-known "junk armor" controversy, or the refusal to permanently enlarge the ranks of the Marines or Army, or the recent budget request which increases defense spending, but DECREASES money for the Army. I'm not even going to discuss the "backdoor draft" controversy. Or Rumsfeld's refusal to personally sign letters to the families of our dead, or Bush's order preventing any photos of our honored dead on their way home.

There is another way to see how much the radical right really cares about our troops. How do they treat our nation's veterans, those that have already served? It is our veterans that have made it possible for us to even have this discussion. Those serving in harm's way now are heroes, but how is Bush and the radical extremist neo-con movement treating yesterday's heroes? Are they treating them with as much respect and admiration as they claim they have for our nation's warriors? Are they walking the walk or just talking the talk?

Here are the facts:

Under the latest Bush budget proposal, veterans would now have to pay an enrollment fee of $250 for VA care. Their copay for prescription drugs would rise from $7 to $15. Many of these veterans are from the "Greatest Generation" that fought WWII, and as they age they have many prescriptions. Many of them live on fixed incomes. More than doubling the cost of their prescriptions, combined with the new $250 "enrollment fee," will be a huge burden. On top of that, the healthcare they receive is now more limited than ever. In spite of the growing number of veterans from recent wars, the increasingly severe health needs of older veterans, and overall increases in health costs, the administration is asking for just a 2.7 percent increase for "discretionary" health care. That is the rate of inflation or below, not the rate at which health care costs increase, so the "increase" actually is a decrease in real terms, and at at time when the system is coming under increasing strain from increased demand.

The goal of the administration, which has made similar proposals in the past, is to save close to a half-billion dollars by coaxing more than 200,000 veterans to seek care in other venues. But increasing numbers of older Americans have been turning to VA clinics and hospitals because they have lost their employment-based insurance and discovered that Medicare will not start covering prescription drug costs until 2006. Many of these veterans do not have affordable alternatives. According to Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston, veterans in his district often have to wait eight months to see a doctor.

The administration lamely defends these charges by noting that they are for "higher-income" veterans without service-connected disabilities. This implies that "rich" vets will simply have to pay a little more, and nobody is really harmed. After all, hasn't the "left" been demanding that the rich pay their "fair share?" How can the President win if he is criticized for giving breaks to the rich, and now he is criticized for making them pay just a little more?

According to the American Legion, the administration defines "higher income" as $25,000 or more, which hardly qualifies as "rich." A VA spokesman said the income level is based on local conditions. He could not provide a national average. In monthly terms, that is $2083.00 a month. Make $2,000 a month and you are now "higher income?" Vets who make $480 a week are now "higher income" vets and have to pay the increased fees. It makes the record $40 million dollars spent on the many lavish parties during the inaguaration look even more obscene.

Supporting the troops indeed.

What about retirees? Undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, David Chu, recently stated that the growth of military retiree and veteran's benefits in recent years was hampering America's ability to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chu, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, was reported as saying that "Congress has gone too far in expanding military retiree benefits" and added that the unchecked growth in such benefits was "starting to crowd out two things: first, our ability to reward the person who is bearing the burden right now in Iraq or Afghanistan ... (second) we are undercutting our ability to finance the new gear that is going to make that military person successful five, 10, 15 years from now."

Really? Military retirees are "undercutting" our defense?

The national commander of the American Legion, Thomas P. Cadmus, wrote the Wall Street Journal: "I resent the implication ... that veterans are nothing more than greedy pigs feeding off the government trough... [Chu's] remarks ... are a slap in the face to every veteran who took the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies."

Another retired Army colonel, William F. Sullivan of Normandy Park, Wash., also wrote a letter to the newspaper. "Retirement benefits, health care and pension were a carrot on the stick to compensate for moving my household 23 times in 22 years of marriage; being separated from my family for four years; having my daughters attend three high schools; having my son attend 11 schools in 12 years; and owning one house for three weeks and another for nine months before having to sell them at a loss because of changes in orders."

According to the Boston Globe, "We need to be living up to our promises to the people who wore the nation's uniforms for 20 or 30 years, whose families bore the strain of frequent transfers and moves and long, long absences of their breadwinner serving in one or another combat zone. They were promised lifelong health care and a decent pension for faithful service."

I say THAT would be supporting the troops. Certainly a lot more than slapping a bumper sticker on the SUV and then cutting benefits for the veterans of this great nation.

Myth number one debunked.