IN THE jungle of today's political scene, there has been a lot of shrill, intemperate, and vicious rhetoric from the right directed at liberals, leftists, and, particularly, liberal academics. In the rhetoric of people like talk show host Sean Hannity or activist and writer David Horowitz (to use just two examples), liberals are portrayed as fuzzy-headed naïfs at best and terrorist sympathizers at worst, as people always ready to believe the worst about the United States and the best about its enemies.
It's too bad that, at times, some on the academic left seem determined to live up -- or down -- to this stereotype.
The latest in the academic follies comes from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where the administration has cleared the way for an instructor to teach his belief that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were plotted by the US government to create an excuse for war.
There's nothing new or surprising about Sept. 11 conspiracy theories. E-mails with "conclusive proof" that the attacks were an inside job land regularly in my mailbox. They are subject to automatic deletion, right along with "proof positive that evolution is a fraud" and invitations to collect $150 million from a Nigerian bank.
As a rule of thumb, conspiracy theories are bunk. People are not smart enough to carry out their scenarios, and not discreet enough to keep their secrets. It is particularly a stretch to believe that the Bush administration, given its track record in managing things like the Iraq War and the Hurricane Katrina response, could have pulled off a conspiracy so immense.
Kevin Barrett, an instructor at the University of Wisconsin and the head of something called the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth, thinks otherwise. On the group's website, he claims there is "compelling evidence" that the attacks were planned by the United States. This fall, Barrett is going to teach "Islam: Religion and Culture," a course in which he plans to present his theories to the students (along with the "official" version, which he calls a "big lie"). After he shared his views on the radio and in a newspaper interview, a controversy ensued, with some politicians demanding Barrett be fired.
University provost Patrick Farrell and two other officials have reviewed the course as well as Barrett's past record, and have given him the green light. In an official statement, Farrell declared, "There is no question that Mr. Barrett holds personal opinions that many people find unconventional. These views are expected to take a small, but significant, role in the class." He added that Barrett has assured him that students will be free to challenge his viewpoint.
Defenders of the course say that academic freedom is at stake. But does academic freedom really protect the teaching of what Farrell politely calls "unconventional" views? How about a course expounding on Flat Earth theory and presenting "compelling evidence" that the moon landing was faked? Or, better yet, how about a course called "Germany: History and Culture," in which the instructor presented his "unconventional" view that the Holocaust is a myth and Hitler was a misunderstood great leader?
According to Farrell, "We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas." Would he use the same kind of reasoning to defend a Holocaust-denying course or a course in "creation science"? When it comes to those issues, it is widely understood that even to open up an academic "debate" about certain crackpot theories is to give them a legitimacy that will be corrosive to genuine scholarship. It is one thing to say that professors should not be penalized for whatever views they preach outside the classroom; it's quite another to say that they have the right to poison the well of the college curriculum.
Mir Babar Basir, a recent University of Wisconsin graduate and former president of the Muslim Students Association, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Barrett had many supporters, which was not surprising since "Madison is fairly liberal." But what exactly is "liberal" about the belief in bizarre conspiracy theories? If one wants to promote tolerance toward Muslims and counter the stereotypes that equate all Islam with terrorism, denying the link between Islamic fanaticism and Sept. 11 is hardly the way to go about it.
No one knows if Barrett's nonsense will persuade any of his students. One thing, however, is clear: His course, and the university's lame defense of it, are a gift to all those who want to malign liberals as America-haters and to portray the academy as a hotbed of left-wing lunacy.