"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A "Dangerous Professor" and My Experience

I am pretty much your standard issue evangelical Christian. Culturally conservative. Orthodox in the essentials of the faith. Jesus really did rise from the dead. He really is the son of God. He really did establish the Christian church. As you can see, standard issue.

I am also pretty much your standard issue American political conservative. Free markets. Strong America in the world. Prominent role for religion in public life. Limited role for the state. Standard issue.

Most of my adult life has taken place with academia in the background. Undergrad at Florida State University. Master's degree at University of Georgia. Law school at University of Houston. I’m currently involved in Ph.D. work at Baylor, which is my first Christian institution and would generally fall in the moderate camp. Most of the time I have felt like a minority and have taken great care to articulate my positions and my reasons for holding them. In the academic world, being a conservative is a little like being a gangsta at the golf course: you start with two strikes against you.

At Baylor the scale is a little more balanced. There on that contested campus in Waco I can find both sympathetic mentors and profs who would just as soon I weren't around. One person who is prominent both on campus and in my program is a liberal Jewish man named Marc Ellis. You might recognize his name. He appears in a new book by David Horowitz as one of "the one hundred and one most dangerous professors in America."

The new book, The Professors, is a Regnery book. Regnery is the flagship conservative publisher. They made their name with authors like William F. Buckley and Whittaker Chambers and have published some great books. If I can go purely by the chapter on Marc Ellis, The Professors isn't one of them.

I haven't taken classes with any other members of the notorious "one hundred and one," but I have spent a semester in Marc Ellis' classroom. Make no mistake. He has a particular point of view. He is generally liberal. He is a Jew who is very critical of Israel and is equally critical of Christianity. Both faiths in certain manifestations, according to Ellis, suffer from "Constantinian" tendencies, which means they take the path of domination and violence rather than love. As you can imagine, I don't share his point of view about everything or probably even most things. My orientation has always been to support Israel and to defend the Christian church reflexively. At the same time, I can see his point. Not being a great student of the history or politics of the Middle East I don't know if he's right about the contemporary situation, but his broader critique is relevant and worth considering.

Being who I am and feeling the way I do, I, like others similarly situated, did not want to take Marc Ellis' class. Nevertheless, we are required to take him in my graduate program. I thought about trying to convince the department chair to exempt me from the requirement. Friends assured me there would be no chance, so I started the class with a big chip on my shoulder.

In the early going, Ellis didn't take a lot of comments or questions from the students in the seminar. Smart move. Many of us were ready to challenge every point and turn the session into a debating society. That's not what Ellis is about. Instead, he seeks to push students outside of their pre-defined ideological territory and get them to engage him on a purely human level. He shares his thoughts, reads a little of his poetry, hands out typed monologues, draws diagrams of history, spends a good bit of time on the I and Thou, and talks a lot about Bob Dylan. In short, he puts himself out there. You can make fun of him. You can dislike him. You can hate him. You can engage him. Your choice. And see, that is sort of the point. This is not a man who is brainwashing students. This is merely a passionate man with whom many of us might disagree passionately.

The result of what he does can be astonishing. I felt space opening up inside of myself where I would be willing to discuss the issues on a personal level rather than as a member of a team trying to win an argument. In an increasingly polarized world of red state v. blue state, liberal v. conservative, believer v. unbeliever, hawk v. dove, and the rest, what Marc Ellis can accomplish in a classroom is valuable not dangerous.

Even as I write this, I know that friends and allies will be tempted to distance themselves from me because I am defending a person from "the other side." But I know wrong when I see it and what David Horowitz has done to Marc Ellis in his book about professors is wrong. Instead of engaging Ellis at any point, Horowitz campaigns rhetorically to convince the reader that this man is not a worthy person. To paraphrase, Horowitz proclaims: He lacks solidarity with his people. Jews don't listen to him. Holocaust deniers like him. He writes for an Arab newspaper. His scholarship is published by the wrong presses.

In addition, the chapter on Ellis is wrong on at least one major point of fact. For example, Horowitz claims Ellis is a "passionate endorser of the 'One-State Solution,' in which Israel will simply be eliminated as a Jewish state and will be enfolded within a larger Palestinian-dominated state." That statement, an important one, is factually incorrect. Ellis favors a two-state solution that maintains a separate Jewish state.

I hate it when I see my friend and mentor Francis Beckwith treated this way by unthinking leftists and advocates of scientism who object to his defense of the philosophical pro-life position or his willingness to consider the constitutional arguments for intelligent design in public education via a nasty mixture of ad hominem attacks and repeated commissions of the genetic fallacy. The spectacle offends my sense of justice.

When I see these tactics turned against Marc Ellis, I still hate it and my sense of justice is equally offended.

[I hasten to remind all readers that I defend Dr. Ellis not as part of some pro-Palestinian program of my own or as my own endorsement of some future two-state plan approved by the U.N. or some other body. I have no such program and as I said above, have always been pro-Israel in my politics. The program I do have is to attack this sort of non-argument argumentation that deals in personalities and alliances rather than the substance of a point of view. I also want to be clear that I have read much of David Horowitz’s work and have enjoyed it, but I think he has attacked Ellis in a way he would find abhorrent if done to him.]

34 comments:

Jay D. Homnick said...

Thanks, Hunter, for this insight. But even based on your description, one can see how Horowitz, compiling research material from a distance, might think that this guy is Ward Churchill redux.

I feel certain that had he interviewed a person who experienced that course in the way that you did, he would have been more circumspect in his judgments.

Hunter Baker said...

Jay, I thought about bringing you into this post because I think you would be capable of engaging Ellis on this question in a way that is substantive and avoids the sort of ideological misanthropy that is becoming so common.

I'm appreciative for your comment because I was afraid you'd be terriby offended. You clearly understand my intention here.

Tlaloc said...

"The result of what he does can be astonishing. I felt space opening up inside of myself where I would be willing to discuss the issues on a personal level rather than as a member of a team trying to win an argument."

Then is it any wonder someone like Horowitz would consider the man dangerous?

Tlaloc said...

"...might think that this guy is Ward Churchill redux."

What precisely is wrong with Ward Chirchill?
I mean if you look at the guy himself rather than what a lot of sites said about him.

Kathy Hutchins said...

The left is exceptionally skilled at slander by overbroad generalization and sloppy background research, but they by no means have a monopoly on it. I wish I could assert that "my side" was above such tricks, but they're not, and I don't suppose they ever have been. Two examples off the top of my head are Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage and Michael Jones's Degenerate Moderns. The intellectual and theological movements detailed by these two authors are deserving of harsh criticism, yet both of them spoil their arguments by attributing the entire problem to psychological instability and sexual perversion. It's much harder to acknowledge the subtleties and half-truths of opposing arguments. You actually have to engage another mind with charity and respect. Yet if you don't do the hard lifting, you leave yourself open to legitimate charges of intellectual dishonesty.

Kathy Hutchins said...

I believe in my comment above, "partial" or "incomplete" truths would have been a better choice of words than "half" truths, which has a pejorative connotation I did not intend.

Hunter Baker said...

Amen, Kathy.

JC said...

"What precisely is wrong with Ward Chirchill?"

To name a couple of things, he said that the victims of 9/11 were essentially Nazis that got what they deserved (among other similarly absurd and disgusting comments), and he was serious and presumably sober at the time. Sure, it's protected by the first amendment, but it's a terrible that the university continues to pay him. At most schools, if a professor admitted to being KKK, the college would drop him like a hot potato, first amendment or not.

Apparently he is a plagarist, and better still: he tricked the university into thinking he is Native American just by saying he was, taking advantage of an affirmative action program.
Ward Churchill is a lunatic who ended up being the chair of a department at a major university, and has yet to be fired (to my knowledge). Those aren't things off "some website," they were major news stories. They were on web sites, too, including the University of Colorado at Boulder website, which has a vested interest in making him (and therefore UC Boulder) seem more tolerable.

Perhaps you could clarify your position---what precisely do you see in the "guy himself rather than what a lot of sites said about him?"

Jay D. Homnick said...

Hunter, I agree with your larger point. The conservative critique of liberals in academia should be limited to the following abuses.

a) If a prof gives bad grades to people who oppose him politically.

b) If he (or she, obviously) singles them out for public humiliation in the classroom in a way that he would not do for another scholastic error.

c) If he introduces liberal politics into courses where they have no relevance.

d) If he uses his influence in the university to impede the careers of political conservatives as teachers or students.

Beyond that, any view that is imparted in a fair and open forum, amenable to discussion or debate, is legitimate in a university, short of ad hominem or racist nastiness.

Tom Van Dyke said...

He shares his thoughts, reads a little of his poetry, hands out typed monologues, draws diagrams of history, spends a good bit of time on the I and Thou, and talks a lot about Bob Dylan. In short, he puts himself out there.

Hunter, what is the subject matter putatatively being taught in the course?

Hunter Baker said...

To Jay: I agree completely with what you set out as a policy.

To Tom: The course I took was titled "Jewish Philosophy." We read Buber, Heschel, Levinas, Arendt, and a few others. He had creative methods.

Tlaloc said...

"To name a couple of things, he said that the victims of 9/11 were essentially Nazis that got what they deserved (among other similarly absurd and disgusting comments), and he was serious and presumably sober at the time."

His point is that we all share a responsibility for the actions of our state and our state has committed atrocities around the world. We don't like to acknowledge it but it is true. And we share responsibility for it.

If I die in a terrorist attack I am not an "innocent" victim. I paid my taxes that supported the murder of civilians in a dozen countries around the world in my lifetime.

Hence "chickens coming home to roost."

The problem isn't that what he said was wrong, it was that people didn't want to hear about how they were guilty too. But when you sit down and analyze it he was right.


The questions of plagiarism and so forth are being investigated by the UC but as of yet no determination of fact has been made.

JC said...

Don't forget:
"If he teaches things that are observably false so that no reasonable person would believe them."

The entire religion department at my former school was filled with people like this. Sometimes it was innacurate even to say they were teaching "liberal" things---they just said things that were patently absurd.
For example, I knew several students in an Old Testament ("Hebrew Bible") class. They studied the Eden story. The teacher had them read the passage in class, skipping over several verses for no apparent reason. Then the teacher told the students that the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil were the same tree. One student held fast to this belief until I showed her the verses (conveniently skipped in class) that clearly state the exact opposite. Also, the teacher discussed and assigned a paper on the hypothesis that Adam was literally asleep for the entire story (including talking and eating the fruit) until "his eyes were opened." Again, anyone reading the passage would reasonably wonder if this teacher had lost her sanity or was illiterate.
This is way beyond the department faculty being super-liberal, which they are. I just couldn't take them seriously as professors. The sad part is that most of the majors do, swallowing every piece of garbage that they spew forth.

JC said...

Tlaloc, could you explain how you can consistently hold that position while simultaneously condemning terrorism?

Tlaloc said...

"Tlaloc, could you explain how you can consistently hold that position while simultaneously condemning terrorism?"

It's easy. Just as I can condemn The atrocities of the Soviet Union AND those fo the US. It comes from not believing in a binary reality where you must be with or against everything.

JC said...

Let me clarify my question.

Either terrorism is morally acceptable, or it is not. If it is not acceptable, then terrorist acts should not happen and the victims do not deserve to be victims, regardless of whatever else they may have done, including paying taxes.

Consider a girl who was in jail for selling illegal drugs. Three years later, she is raped in an alley by a drug addict. Did she "deserve" to be raped? If rape is wrong, then the answer is "no," and she was an "innocent victim," despite what she may have done in the past. Of course no one is 100% innocent, because we all do bad things sometimes, but that doesn't mean anyone deserves to be raped by a drug addict or killed by a terrorist. We still say victims are "innocent" regarding the particular crime committed against them.

If the 9/11 victims "got what they deserved," as you and Mr. Churchill say, then what the 9/11 hijackers did is vigilante justice, not terrorism; our government should have responded by convicting itself and all U.S. citizens of crimes against humanity, and then executing all of us.

Please explain where you disagree. How can you argue that 9/11 was just and wrong at the same time?

Evanston said...

Hunter, following on Tom Van Dyke's question regarding the content of Mr. Ellis' class, I'm not sure that you're more objective than Horowitz. I would hope that Mr. Horowitz and his assistants reached their conclusions based on reading Mr. Ellis' published works. Have you done the same, or are you repeating statements Mr. Ellis made in a closed classroom? I've read your online articles and know your background, above all that I'm making an obvious point, but what I mostly gather from your comments is that Mr. Ellis is a nice guy. For example, you say that Horowitz has incorrectly framed Ellis as a One-State solution guy. Well, did Ellis ever back this policy, or has he always backed two states? Again, I know you're conservative, an accomplished writer and above all a strong thinker, but have you compared Mr. Ellis' published thought from his in-class positions and persona?

tbmbuzz said...

It's easy. Just as I can condemn The atrocities of the Soviet Union AND those fo the US. It comes from not believing in a binary reality where you must be with or against everything.

It also comes from a lack of perspective and an incapacity to make rational judgments. Coming from a family that experienced the depradations of both Nazi Germany and Soviet-style Communism I find your morally relativistic comments absolutely repulsive. Unlike many, if not most, of (y)our dem/lib brethren, I am of the ilk that believes in American exceptionalism, that the American experiment is the noblest in history. And I vote accordingly.

Hunter Baker said...

Evanston, I totally get you on this. I really do, so don't think I don't.

I think what you have to do is read the chapter on Ellis. I got hold of a pdf. file of the chapter. What immediately struck me is that Horowitz was refusing to engage the substance of Ellis at any point. Instead, like I said, he tries to make him out to be AN UNWORTHY PERSON. Depending on where you stand, it is THE SECULAR HUMANIST, THE FUNDAMENTALIST, THE CONSERVATIVE, etc. I just don't think it is cricket to play to type and try to whip up hatred toward someone without really addressing their point. I didn't really see Horowitz taking Ellis on in an argument, but rather just pointing a finger and screaming.

mdvoutlook.com said...

Hip, hip, hurray for tmbuzz! Three cheers and all that! Repulvise is definitely what it is.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I will point out for the record that according at least to Wikipedia:

Professor Ellis is also on the board of Deir Yassin Remembered and member of the Council for Palestinian Restitution and Repatriation, supporting the claim that

"Every Palestinian has a legitimate, individual right to return to his or her original home and to restitution of his or her property."


If the "right of return" is yielded to the Palestinians, there will be no two-state solution: Israel's democracy will be swamped under by the demographic shift.

I realize we're into Dan Rather-type "false but true" territory here, but Horowitz is not completely all wet on this issue.

Judging by his past history, I have no doubt that Horowitz is rhetorically intemperate. He often is caught on (usually minor) inaccuracies, as in this case. He is an embarrassing ideological ally.

Tlaloc said...

"Either terrorism is morally acceptable, or it is not."

I don't see terrorism as any more or less moral than say militarism. Of course I may personally feel that using either in a specific instance isn't called for, or is counterproductive.



"If the 9/11 victims "got what they deserved," as you and Mr. Churchill say, then what the 9/11 hijackers did is vigilante justice, not terrorism"

There is a distinction you aren't getting here. It's not that 9/11 is what they deserved per se. It's that they helped to bring it about. It was part and parcel of the way they lived their lives.

A person who chooses to walk in the mountains and gets killed by a mountain lion doesn't "deserve" to be eaten per se. But they most definitely made choices that brought it on themselves.

Tlaloc said...

"If the "right of return" is yielded to the Palestinians, there will be no two-state solution: Israel's democracy will be swamped under by the demographic shift."

Wait tom, that's two different things. The argument was whether he supported a two state or one state solution. You are now saying that a two state solution isn't a two state solution unless Israel gets to keep it's demographic makeup as it is now.

Hunter Baker said...

Tom, I can only say what Ellis has said to me personally, which is that he is not in favor of the one state solution. He favors something he calls the international consensus in which Jerusalem ends up being split between the two camps.

It's wrong to call someone a "passionate endorser" of something that they explicitly deny passionately endorsing.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The last thing I want to do is defend someone who goes about things so sloppily.

But since I looked it up, I thought I'd forward what I found. To my best understanding, the "right of return" for Palestinians is the end of Israel as we know it. I doubt even the name would remain.

If Mr. Horowitz won't engage Dr. Ellis on substance, I'll have to try. ;-)

As for Jerusalem being further split, if a secular solution is to be found, it seems reasonable that it stop being considered an intrinsically holy city and therefore indivisible. Secularism does not recognize the sacred.

Hunter Baker said...

Tom, as much for own benefit as for anyone else's, I would love to see a primer or some kind of debate here at TRC about the Israel-Palestine situation. Like I said, I have been reflexively pro-Israel, but I would rather be thoroughly educated on the matter. Feel free to take that ball and run with it. It should attract some new visitors when word gets out.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, man, you want me to take on Usama bin Laden and Pat Robertson?

There's a reason nobody talks about this stuff. If you read Persecution and the Art of Writing, you'll know what I mean.

It's by Leo Strauss. ;-)

Hunter Baker said...

What I would like to see from somebody, anybody, is a succinct account of what exactly occurred in the middle east with the Jewish re-settlement of Israel and the subsequent creation of a nation-state and how the Palestinians played into the mix. After that, I'd like to see a considered discussion of what justice looks like in the situation.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Hunter, there is no question which book to read: insightful, accurate and objective. It's The Siege by Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Paul Johnson handles that well at the end of History of the Jews, as well.

JC said...

Tlaloc, now you've shifted from saying the victims were "guilty too" (they deserved what they got) to they "brought it on themselves." I strongly disagree with both positions.

A person who chooses to walk in the mountains and gets killed by a mountain lion doesn't "deserve" to be eaten per se. But they most definitely made choices that brought it on themselves.

That's ridiculous. Terrorists are sentient people, responsible for their choices like any other criminal, unlike mountain lions.

The victims of 9/11 had not done anything worse than anyone else in the U.S. Assuming you live in the U.S. (if you don't, pretend you have a friend or relative here), why shouldn't you be included with the 9/11 victims? They weren't "walking in the mountains," so to speak, they were going about their everyday business in New York City.

Are you going to tell me that a woman who is raped "brought it on herself" by walking around at night? What if she were with a friend? What if it were during the day? The people killed in 9/11 were doing absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Half of them probably would have voted against anything that you or Mr. Churchill are whining about. The average 9/11 victim is so far removed from any military action on the other side of the world that you can't possibly assign him the blame for it.

If you try to assign responsibility to the 9/11 victims (whether they deserve it as Mr. Churchill and you seemed to imply before, or whether they merely share in the "responsibility" for it), how on earth will you ever draw the line at assigning responsibility? Are the Jews somehow responsible for the Holocaust?

Normally, that last question would just be a rhetorical one, but at this point I'm force to ask it seriously of you, Tlaloc. I'm particularly interested to know what "mountains" you think the victims were walking in, and how you personally are different from any one of them. If terrorists killed you, should we just say, "oh well, he's a U.S. citizen, so he's responsible for his own death"?

James Elliott said...

Kudos to you, Hunter, for a well-written and thoughtful piece. Your defense of Ellis reminds me that there is indeed good will among both sides of the debate that can transcend the vitriol.

I'll have to congratulate Paul Ehrlich (a friend of my aunt and uncle) next time I see him on making the "Horowitz list."

I'm surprised Cass Sunstein, Jeffrey Rosen, and Lawrence Lessig weren't on there.

James Elliott said...

It's The Siege by Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Great book. Read it in my "Ethnic Conflict Resolution" course. Good stuff.

Evanston said...

Hunter, thank you for answering my questions. Best wishes on the course of study.

Hunter Baker said...

James, Cass Sunstein is way too reasonable to be on that list.