Kevin Barrett is visiting the campus today. He is the UW-Madison temp who thinks that the Bush administration was involved in the 9-11 attacks. His visit has already generated much more attention than he deserves, but as the campus professor who teaches a course on the U.S. presidency, I feel it is important to add a few more words about his ideas and what the controversy over his appearance here teaches us.
First, let me state that there is not a shred of valid evidence supporting the view that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and others within the administration abetted the attackers. Aiding the terrorists would have required dozens of people to be in on the plot. Washington leaks like a sieve, and it is just not credible that no one would squeal on murderous traitors if they ran our country. The plot also would have necessitated money transfers and phone calls to al Qaeda operatives, as well as other traceable evidence, none of which has been uncovered.
But enough of Barrett's fantasy land. What I find most disturbing about the hubbub surrounding his visit is that it diverts our attention from understanding reality. The more publicity given to Barrett, the less we come to grips with our own government's real failings. The real facts of 9-11 are these:
-The last four presidents failed to stress the importance of airport security.
-The American people are so complacent and fixated on low taxes that they thought $6-an-hour rent-a-cops provided them with real protection at airports.
-Key government agencies like the CIA and FBI were more interested in protecting their own budgets than discerning the real threats to the nation and defusing them.
-Bush so disliked President Clinton that he did not heed Clinton's advice that al Qaeda was the most significant threat to the nation.
The good thing about understanding these real failings of our government is that it can lead us to demand better. We can insist that our bureaucracy work well. We can require our leaders protect us adequately, even if it means paying a few dollars for it in taxes. We can elect people who base their decisions on evidence rather than on their preconceptions. And in general we can force our government to do things which benefit us, provided we educate ourselves enough to demand what is truly beneficial.
By contrast, if one were to adopt Barrett's view, there seems to be no remedy to our problems. If self-serving politicians can get away with murdering thousands of citizens, then there is nothing that the government cannot do. In this scenario, citizens are helpless to think of government as anything but an evil conspiracy. If we embrace Barrett's conspiratorial mindset, we cannot solve our problems. The best that we can do is rage against the machine.
There are other lessons to be gained from the Barrett visit. These lessons should make us ponder the state of our culture:
-The people with the goofiest ideas seem to get the most media attention.
-There are many people who wish to destroy the high reputation of our university system and will seize on opportunities like the Barrett controversy to portray higher education in a bad light
-If the state tries to educate university students on the cheap, as it is doing, we are going to get some truly awful temporary employees, along with the terrific ones we generally find who teach students well for very little money.
With all the excellent professors in this state, it is a shame that Barrett gets the most attention. For those of you going to his talk this evening, have fun. For me, life is too short to waste a perfectly good evening on someone who cannot back up his ideas, who ignores all the evidence which contradicts his view, and who does not give us some hope that we can solve our very serious political problems.