Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mark Thoma, Brad DeLong, and Ernst Kantorowicz on Xia Yeliang, the importance of tenure, and the dangers of political tests

The various pieces of this picture were pulled together by Brad DeLong in his post titled Mark Thoma on Xia Yeliang and the Importance of Tenure. Obviously, there is an argument embedded in that title, and in Mark Thoma's introductory comment on the significance of the case of Xia Yeliang.  Speaking as someone who doesn't have tenure and never has, I can endorse that argument in a personally disinterested and principled spirit.  But that's only part of the story, so read the whole thing.  (I've added my own editorial comment at the end.)

—Jeff Weintraub

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal
July 9, 2013
Mark Thoma on Xia Yeliang and the Importance of Tenure

Mark Thoma:
Economist's View: 'Liberal Peking University Professor Threatened with Expulsion':  On tenure:
Liberal Peking University professor threatened with expulsion, South China Morning Post: A renowned professor has confirmed online rumors that his peers will decide whether he will be expelled from China's most eminent university after he made a series of remarks in favor of free speech and constitutional governance. Economics professor Xia Yeliang of Peking University was told by his department that his fate would be decided by a faculty vote, he told the South China Morning Post on Monday. "They told me it's because of all the things I have said and written," Xia said. "They have threatened me before, but this is the first time they will vote on my expulsion."

Over the last years, Xia has been one of the most outspoken liberal voices among Chinese academics. A friend of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, he was among the first signatories of Charter 08, the call for personal freedoms that landed Liu in jail.
I wanted to link to his Twitter account, but I couldn't find it:
… Recently, he has been writing critical remarks - on Twitter and Sina Weibo - about party censorship and President Xi Jinping's "Chinese Dream" slogan. Several, at least seven he said, of his Sina Weibo accounts have been deleted...
Ernst Kantorowicz (1950):   [JW:  In the US, the late 1940s and early 1950s were an era of debates over instituting various sorts of "loyalty oaths".]
As a historian who has investigated and traced the histories of quite a number of oaths, I feel competent to make a statement indicating the grave dangers residing in the introduction of a new, enforced oath, and to express, at the same time, from a professional and human point of view, my deepest concern about the steps taken by the Regents of this University.

Both history and experience have taught us that every oath or oath formula, once introduced or enforced, has the tendency to develop its own autonomous life. At the time of its introduction an oath formula may appear harmless, as harmless as the one proposed by the Regents of this University.

But nowhere and never has there been a guaranty that an oath formula imposed on, or extorted from, the subjects of an all-powerful state will, or must, remain unchanged. The contrary is true. All oaths in history that I know of, have undergone changes. A new word will be added. A short phrase, seemingly insignificant, will be smuggled in. The next step may be an inconspicuous change in the tense, from present to past, or from past to future. The consequences of a new oath are unpredictable. It will not be in the hands of those imposing the oath to control its effects, nor of those taking it, ever to step back again.

The harmlessness of the proposed oath is not a protection when a principle is involved. A harmless oath formula which conceals the true issue, is always the most dangerous one because it baits even the old and experienced fish. It is the harmless oath that hooks; it hooks before it has undergone those changes that will render it, bit by bit, less harmless. Mussolini Italy of 1931, Hitler Germany of 1933, are terrifying and warning examples for the harmless bit-by-bit procedure in connection with political enforced oaths.

History shows that it never pays to yield to the impact of momentary hysteria, or to jeopardize, for the sake of temporary or temporal advantages, the permanent or eternal values. It was just that kind of a "little oath" that prompted thousands of non-conformists in recent years, and other thousands in the generations before ours, to leave their homes and seek the shores of this Continent and Country. The new oath, if really enforced, will endanger certain genuine values the grandeur of which is not in proportion with the alleged advantages. Besides, this oath, which is invalid anyhow because taken under duress, may cut also the other way: it may have the effect of a drum beating for Communist and Fascist recruits.

The new oath hurts, not merely by its contents, but by the particular circumstances of its imposition. It tyrannizes because it brings the scholar sworn to truth into a conflict of conscience. To create alternatives—"black or white"—is a common privilege of modern and bygone dictatorships. It is a typical expedient of demagogues to bring the most loyal citizens, and only the loyal ones, into a conflict of conscience by branding non-conformists as un-Athenian, un-English, un-German, and—what is worse—by placing them before an alternative of two evils, different in kind but equal in danger.

The crude method of "Take it or leave it"—"Take the oath or leave your job"—creates a condition of economic compulsion and duress close to blackmail. This impossible alternative, which will make the official either jobless or cynical, leads to another completely false alternative: "If you do not sign, you are a Communist who has no claim to tenure." This whole procedure is bound to make the loyal citizen, one way or another, a liar and untrue to himself because any decision he makes will bind him to a cause which in truth is not his own. Those who belong, de facto or at heart, to the ostracized parties will always find it easy to sign the oath and make their mental reservation. Those who do not sign will be, now as ever, also those that suffer—suffer, not for their party creed or affiliations, but because they defend a superior constitutional principle far beyond and above trivial party lines.

I am not talking about political expediency or academic freedom, nor even about the fact that an oath taken under duress is invalidated the moment it is taken, but wish to emphasize the true and fundamental issue at stake: professional and human dignity.

There are three professions which are entitled to wear a gown: the judge, the priest, the scholar. This garment stands for its bearer's maturity of mind, his independence of judgment, and his direct responsibility to his conscience and to his God. It signifies the inner sovereignty of those three interrelated professions: they should be the very last to allow themselves to act under duress and yield to pressure.

It is a shameful and undignified action, it is an affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity that the Regents of this University have dared to bully the bearer of this gown into a situation in which—under the pressure of a bewildering economic coercion—he is compelled to give up either his tenure or, together with his freedom of judgment, his human dignity and his responsible sovereignty as a scholar.

[=> JW:  Kantorowicz's argument has several present-day resonances closer to home than China. I'll mention just one of them.

In the apparently never-ending series of campaigns for an international blacklist of Israeli academics (often presented under the misleading slogan of an academic "boycott"), several versions offer Israeli academics and other scholars an escape hatch if they express the approved political positions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and other subjects. In effect, they can escape being blacklisted if they publicly make a 'disloyalty oath'.

As the American Association of University Professors correctly noted in its 2005 statement condemning these efforts to blacklist Israeli academics, that's an "exclusion which, because it requires compliance with a political or ideological test in order for an academic relationship to continue, deepens the injury to academic freedom rather than mitigates it." And if academics themselves demonstrate that they don't take seriously the most basic principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, then who on earth is going to take them seriously?  Kantorowicz spells out some of the implications even more fully.]

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