Sunday, April 24, 2005

Column on Past Political Incorrectness

Being Politically Incorrect Before Its Time

Tibor R. Machan

A couple of days ago I mentioned to some friends my theory about
nostalgia: The past tends to look good to us because we remember it minus
one of its most important ingredients, the jitters we had back then about
the future. After all, when we do remember the past, we no longer have any
good reason to recall those jitters since we did survive, probably even
succeed, with the future that faced us back then. Minus those jitters,
that past does tend to look good in comparison to the present when we have
our current jitters about the new future we face.

I was reminded of this when I recently received a letter of invitation to
attend the 35th anniversary of the opening of the university where I had
my very own first full time teaching job in 1970, California State
University at Bakersfield. It was their and my own first year!

The late chair of the newly formed philosophy department had hired me, on
the recommendation of Professor John Hospers USC, and on the strength of
my budding academic record and promise. I was very pleased and gave I
believe my level best at CSUB. He had told me in no uncertain terms that I
would be renewed in 1972 if I did, as promised, earn my PhD by then and I
gained my degree in December 1971.

Sadly, however, he went back on his word. And I believe I know why: I was
doing politically incorrect things back then when the term had not yet
been introduced into the language.

A secretary in our dean?s office told me at the time of my termination
that my (then secret) files had contained a copy of a letter to the editor
I had written to (and that was published in) the local newspaper in
Bakersfield in which I was very critical of the United Nations for
extending coercive policies around the globe. Much more importantly,
however, I had received bad marks from him for giving a luncheon talk
during that academic year in which I was critical of public education as
such. This talk was then published in the budding Reason magazine and
later became a chapter in my first edited volume, The Libertarian
Alternative (1973), "The Schools Ain't What They Used To Be...and Never
Was." (The title is a quotation from Will Rogers.) My chair, allegedly
echoing our dean?s sentiments, had also chided me, utterly
unprofessionally, for my divorce from my then wife in 1971.

There was never any question at the time about my professional conduct
and, especially, my publications, which were beginning to mount by then.
Because records back then were still kept secret by the university
administration, I could never check for myself what mine contained. I was
merely not rehired and the small grievance I had filed got me nowhere. The
President of the university told me that having me dismissed would be good
for them and for me?and, perhaps, he was right. Still, the experience was
something of a shock, since I did exactly as was my professional
responsibility and yet it got me nothing, in light of factors about me
that should have had no bearing on my employment. It was, in fact, my own
first experience with the phenomenon of political incorrectness at the
academy, something that by now has become something of an epidemic for
people who articulated convictions, quite outside the classroom, that
didn?t please university administrators and colleagues.

I do not think I will accept the invitation, frankly, but not because I
hold grudges. To do so seems to me a colossal waste of energy and, in any
case, I am too lazy to hold on to anger, which really does require having
to keep recalling why one is mad anyway. But I am not sure I wish to
dredge up yet again, this coming May, the sad memory of my dismissal from
CSUB, especially since no one ever apologized to me for the disgraceful
treatment I received, despite my having gone on to become a well published
and respected academic philosopher.

Why then bother recalling the matter in public? Well, quite often people
lament the current atmosphere in the academy for the way academic freedom
is being violated left and right. But in some ways it used to be worse in
the past, when such violations could be hidden from view because of the
secret file policies of many universities. Not unless one had the good
fortune, as I did, to have a mole in the system could one ascertain just
why despite one?s unexceptionable academic records one got sacked. Today
there is much ado about the matter mainly because it is evident enough,
while in the past it existed but behind closed doors.

All in all, in this and other realms of life, many people think that the
present moment is much worse than all others in the past and this may well
be a huge, largely unchecked mistake. Every generation, of example,
laments how the current crop of young people is far worse than any in the
past. I believe this is a crock.

While there are variations in the quality of the lives we lead generation
after generation, the truth is probably that there isn?t all that much
novelty under the sun, not in how shabbily or how swell people are being
treated by one another.

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