Those eager to see a shredding of political correctness on campus should sample this interview between HBO’s Bill Maher and Brian Levin, a professor at California State-San Bernardino who directs the school’s Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism. Levin’s apparent goal in the interview was to suggest that all major religions are equally inclined toward politically-oriented violence, regardless of contemporary evidence. The most revealing segment came when Maher cited “Book of Mormon,” the Broadway play known for its sometimes pointed humor directed at the Mormon Church, and asked whether a similar “Book of Islam” play could be staged. “Possibly so,” replied this academic “expert”–only to be greeted laughter from the audience. “Tell me what color the sky is in your world,” retorted Maher.
While Levin’s absurdity generated ridicule from a studio audience, it’s quite mainstream in the academy. A Sunday Chronicle article about Muslim students’ fear of backlash veered off into a sampling of extreme political correctness from the professoriate. Consider this excerpt, summarizing a discussion with the former chair of Brooklyn’s Political Science Department, Jeanne Theoharis:
“The gun-related killings [in Colorado and Connecticut] are seen as the work of mentally unbalanced individuals, she said. White people, like her, don’t have to answer for the actions of those white killers in the way Muslims are generally expected to after horrific episodes of mass violence of the kind that occurred in Boston.
“‘We should be looking at this through the frame of mental health,’ she said of the marathon bombings. ‘It’s the frame we’re comfortable with for other tragedies.'”
It’s possible, as Theoharis implies, that some responses to these tragedies evinced religious, racial, or ethnic bias. Here’s an alternative explanation: almost immediately after Tucson, Newtown, and Aurora, credible reports suggested that the perpetrators had backgrounds of mental illness. But the best reporting after Boston noted that there was no indication that either of the alleged Boston bombers had a background of mental illness as well as that virtually all who knew the surviving suspect considered him a normal, well-adjusted member of the community. Is it possible that Theoharis’ implication that all Muslims who commit violent acts should automatically be viewed “through the frame of mental health” constitutes little more than Orientalist condescension?
It’s quite true that the right has also made reflexive and closed-minded statements, such as the joint demand from Senators McCain, Ayotte, and Graham that the administration treat the surviving alleged Boston bomber as an enemy combatant. Yet while we expect demagogic statements from politicians, professors should be held to a higher standard. As the AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom noted, faculty members “should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate [and] should exercise appropriate restraint.”
This approach to academic freedom, alas, has no place in an academic environment where figures like Levin or Theoharis represent the majority viewpoint.