Impartiality, debate, fairness

On the day that Congress authorized President Bush to use force in Iraq, I sat through a professor’s performance of “Imagine” in Chemistry, and another’s five-minute rant about why Bush is worse than Saddam Hussein in Computer Science. I considered this an inappropriate use of class time, but was nevertheless prepared to accept the right of others to express their opinions. That said, it is the responsibility of even the most ardent opponents of a war with Iraq to acknowledge the validity of opposing views, and to allow those views equal “air time” in community forums. Unfortunately, last week’s “War, Iraq, Terror?” lecture series destroyed every pretense that the College’s faculty and administration are willing to guarantee a fair and unbiased treatment of hotly debated issues.

The series was presented by (among others) the President’s Office, the Dean’s Office, the political science department, the Lecture Committee, College Council and “The Studies in Democracy Program.” With such a long and distinguished list of backers, one would have expected the week to be filled with interesting speakers advocating a variety of opinions.

Instead, the four events included only one pro-war speaker, who debated an opponent of the potential war. The rest of the week included a “panel discussion” where both speakers (from other Colleges) articulated anti-war views, a keynote speech by leading war opponent Scott Ritter and a bus to take students to the anti-war March on Washington. With the one pro-war voice being that of a Williams professor, it is fair to say that the funding from all of the aforementioned organizations and administrative bodies went exclusively to bringing anti-war opinions to campus.

It is also worth noting the disgraceful nature of the anti-war events themselves. I can’t even imagine someone making the case that excluding a pro-war speaker improved the educational or intellectual quality of the panel discussion and other forums. Scott Ritter, in his speech, argued that, “saying ‘war with Iraq’ really means ‘death to the Iraqi people’” and that the Bush administration’s real reason for wanting war was to maintain support for the “neo-conservative coup d’état.” Ritter wasn’t even willing to challenge a questioner from the audience who drew parallels between Bush and Adolf Hitler. It should not be surprising, then, that the widely advertised protest in Washington was led by a group closely tied to a Marxist-Stalinist agenda supporting everyone from Slobodan Milosevic to Kim Jong Il. From bad, to awful, to worse, the entire week smacked of an anti-war indoctrination campaign.

So the question becomes: Are the President’s and Dean’s offices, the political science department and the Lecture Committee so incompetent that they can’t handle the scheduling of a fair and evenhanded lecture series, or did they not have any interest in doing so? I think I would prefer for them to be incompetent – to believe that they are trying hard but aren’t up to the task – but that just isn’t realistic. In all likelihood, “War, Iraq, Terror?” was exactly what they wanted it to be, and this suggests a failing much greater than simple ineptitude.

It suggests that the political science department does not value open debate and competing viewpoints. What does this say about the course offerings made available to us, or the professors likely to be hired? It suggests that the College’s leadership is fundamentally uninterested in a free exchange of ideas and doesn’t care whether we are given the opportunity to consider many sides of important issues. That hardly bodes well for our entire educational experience.

Looking back, this embarrassing week is not an anomaly. If one considers every major speaker of the past year or two – Scott Ritter, Madeline Albright, Thomas Friedman, Morris Dees, Robert McNamara – there is not a conservative opinion to be found. In fact, the lone conservative speaker of note, Pat Buchanan, was invited only to debate against the head of the ACLU. Is this a vast left-wing conspiracy on the part of the College to deny us access to diverse opinions, or are the powers that be simply too caught up in their own liberalism to recognize the validity of ideas not their own? Both are scary scenarios. I don’t know which would be worse.

I do know this: American politics today is at its most conservative since the Reagan administration. I’m not sure if anyone at the College is aware that the GOP actually increased its majority (in unprecedented fashion) during the recent mid-term elections. To hear everyone applaud Scott Ritter as he claimed that the Bush Administration is going against the will of the people, and has effectively committed a “coup d’etat,” would suggest that certain realities have not penetrated the Purple Bubble. Given the obvious bias of those whom we pay so well to educate us, that isn’t surprising.

If people do not want to understand the many sides of complex issues, we cannot make them. But if the College does not want to present the many sides of complex issues, it has failed as an institution of higher learning. Perhaps it is simply the ineptitude of our Lecture Committee, something that can be easily redressed.

More likely, the narrow-mindedness that pervades the College’s treatment of contemporary issues is only a symptom of a larger problem. Williams is showing itself to be a place where only some ideas are welcome, and some paths of inquiry encouraged. That’s not education – it’s indoctrination, and it will serve us poorly in the vast world of real people with real ideas different than our own.