Wednesday, February 08, 2006

I swear I won't make fun of his name.

If you're not attending Northwestern right now, or working for them, or aren't a reader of the Tehran Times, stories put out by the Mehr news agency or the Chicago Tribune, you're probably not even aware of the controversy surrounding one of the faculty.

I speak, of course, of Electrical Engineering Associate Professor Arthur Butz, whose interests are digital signal processing, long walks along the beaches of Evanston, and Holocaust denial. Of course, his recent comments in support of Iranian President Ahmadinejad aren't the first time he's expressed these views. That would be in what's considered by some to be the seminal work of Holocaust denial, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry. Incidentally, that was published in 1976, two years after he received tenure, proving once again that tenure more or less means you get to do whatever the hell you want, from publishing books in no way related to your research or field of expertise on why you think the Holocaust didn't happen (though, regarding his comments in the Mehr news agency's story, it should be clarified that he doesn't deny that the Holocaust happened, but rather denies that the extermination of millions of Jews during the second World War didn't happen. I'm not quite sure what the difference is, but thought I'd give the guy a chance to explain himself here) to running around naked with a meat cleaver. Flipping through it (or rather, clicking, as it's available as a PDF,) he doesn't say that his book in any way reflects the opinions of Northwestern and at times rails against the University, merrily commenting that he should, perhaps, "look for Northwestern's gas chambers for white males," at the end of the third supplement to the book, published in 1992.

In response to his recent comments in the Tehran Times and Iran's semi-official (?) Mehr News Agency, the president of Northwestern has issued a somewhat scathing statement regarding Butz. I agree with Bienen that Butz comments are an embarrasement to Northwestern, the implicit allegation that Holocaust Revisionism is a poorly conducted "science", making up claims and then searching for evidence to prove them rather than analyzing what the evidence suggests, often relying on the absence of evidence to equate to evidence of absence, and outright rejecting any eye witness reports (including that of Rudolph Hoess) that disagree with their beliefs. However, in a nation where the freedom of speech (and, more fundamentally, the freedom to think what one will), it's impossible to take him to task for what he's saying. It's possible to prove him wrong, and expose the chicanery that goes along with what he's saying, but as an individual, if Arthur Butz would like to believe the Holocaust didn't happen, then fine. Let him. If he's made it clear that he's not expressing the views of Northwestern, and Northwestern's come out to say that they'll not punish him as long as he maintains the whole "this is outside my role as a Northwestern Faculty member" that's fine. He's not teaching it in the classrooms, he's not claiming the beliefs are anything but his own, that's fine. Northwestern probably loses a few students who, hearing of it, decide that they're not going to attend a school where one of the faculty is a "revisionist", but whatever. That's their choice.

There's just one issue that came to light concerning Northwestern's recent decision to retire Pubweb, a service through which Northwestern hosts personal web pages. He can say that his views do not represent NU all he wants. The higher-ups at Northwestern can insist the same thing. But as long as the URL he's using to propagate his beliefs contains the word "Northwestern", it's not true. Yes, it will stop being an issue on December 31, 2006, but that's incidental and, since it's been up and until then, Butz' personal page is lent credence that having "" in your URL brings with it. Removing the page would, essentially, be editing for thought, yes. But it's not consistent with Northwestern's claim that they can do "nothing to stop it." As a non-governmental organization and private school, it is not required to use the First Amendment as a rule to decide who gets to publish on a address. If it decides that a certain web page is costing the school in terms of money, attendance, whatever, it has the ability to disallow the web page to continue. And it's not a restriction of free speech, as it's the one paying for the server. That'd be like saying that if a speaker (and I'm not saying that there's a connection between this example and Butz. It's hypothetical, but interpret it how you will) from the Klan wants to give a speech in one of NU's auditoriums and demands that NU fund his speech directly in providing snacks with Northwestern napkins, private security and an opening performance by scary little white nationalist kiddies Prussian Blue (which, incidentally, is a reference to the "science" employed by deniers of the Holocaust), Northwestern couldn't refuse as it would be a violation of freedom of speech.

I doubt we'd be hearing about how they couldn't do anything if a pubweb page detailing why a prospective student shouldn't go to Northwestern was put up. They'd take it down in an instant, as it'd hurt the University financially while being funded by the university. If Professor Raindrop Q. McHippie, professor of abstract Mathematics had a page devoted to arguing that ecoterrorism really isn't that bad and maybe it's ok, they'd have the right to do the same thing, of course. But to sit there and say they are completely separate from him is just false.

But then whatever.


Hal said...

Hm . . .

So if people are paying for evidence that Professor McHippie is saying such things in class, and then writing about it on the internet . . . is that wrong?



-Murphy said...

If the university would like to investigate Professor McHippie, that's fine. If students in McHippie's Linear Algebra as it applies to Late 80's Punk Rock Bands, a thrilling investigation involving primarily the formation and breakup of Operation Ivy and how it can be explained through the wonders of mathematics including whether or not Jesse Michaels actually went off to become a Buddhist monk, want to start complaining about McHippie because he's started advocating ecoterrorism, or would like to publish it online, that's fine. If Exxon wants to pay students to be little amateur investigative journalists, but wouldn't think, say, of paying Professor McGill, Associate Professor of Partying like it's 1999, who's started advocating violent intimidation as a form of persuasion against environmental regulation, I think that's a bit unbalanced, an example of trying to fix bias by enforcing one's own bias (which is still bias), and I probably wouldn't trust their report, which might be, oh, I don't know, an attempt at informing students of institutional bias as it addresses the fact that McHippie is biased, as it doesn't consider that McGill.

But then, that doesn't come up if McHippie is anything like Butz, as he's not saying any of this stuff in class or using it as a factor in his grading (I don't believe). He's doing what McHippie (and, presumably, all professors) with a political agenda should do by attempting to distance his personal political views from what he's teaching by not bringing it up in class, by making it clear that his political commentary occurs outside his capacity as an electrical engineering professor. As long as Butz and McHippie grade based on whether or not a student can do electrical engineering (I'm not sure what an electrical engineer would do) and whether a student can pull numbers out of nowhere (which is all higher level mathematics is in my little reality) and not on whether or not they wear a Go Team Israel shirt to class or drive an H3 (the disturbing offspring of Iron Giant and Godzilla, evidently), I'm fine with both of them holding private political views. The thing I take issue with is the University pretending they can't do anything, when they can. They can stop putting their name in his URL if they really, really wanted to distance themselves from him or believed that having a page that promotes Holocaust Revisionism (or Denial, or whatever) might hurt the school in one way or another, just as they'd be free to take down McHippie's page about how the ELF never did anything wrong and shouldn't be marred and the whole idea that they blow up SUVs (which is remarkably stupid, really, as that's kind of a bit of pollution right there) is a myth started by the SUV companies.

Incidentally, the Exxon Alumni Group (that was investigating McHippie, but not McGill) can post whatever they feel like on the internet. I just don't think I'll believe them when they tell me what they're doing can rightly be called "eliminating bias" if they're tacitly condoning bias they agree with. With which they agree. $%&#@!# ending a sentence with a preposition.

Disclaimer: I don't think that McGill was suggesting that, and just took his name as an example of someone who has a clear bias (toward selling more oil), was in the news today and so that I don't have to post that story in another post. I actually agree that we're probably a lot further from any real kind of energy independence than we think right now. I just think it's funny that his solution is "Well, we're probably not 5 years away from being energy independent. So let's quit trying to become so. I mean... FIVE YEARS. Might as well be never. So let's stop."

I use lots of parenthetical statements. Hm.