Thursday, June 18, 2009

On the alleged importance of presenting "opposing points of view"


Yesterday, John Dean, author of the Watergate exposé “Blind Ambition” and a guy who nowadays appears on liberal TV and radio shows, gave a lecture at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum. The Nixon Foundation, which earlier pledged $150,000 to support Library events, is, well, not liberal, for it is dominated by Richard Nixon fans and Nixon was a Republican. Further, since Dean was the guy who blew the whistle on Nixon’s “Watergate” excesses, it's fair to say that the Nixon-loving foundation folks are particularly peeved about Dean and his writings.

They’re unhappy about the Dean visit, so much so that they’ve even decided to withdraw their $150,000. That’s their right.

According to the OC
Reg (Last straw: John Dean still riles Nixon group), “Foundation officials” say that they do not object to Mr. Dean’s appearing at the Library.


According to the Reg, they object “to a lack of opposing viewpoint.”

Much fun could be had attempting to describe those viewpoints. Pro-corruption? Anti-Constitution? Pro-
cocker spaniel? Anti-telegenic?

It’s clear that at least some foundation officials do object to Mr. Dean and his ideas, and not just to his failure to be accompanied by, say,
G. Gordon Liddy, or maybe Beelzebub. For instance, Sandy Quinn, the foundation’s assistant director, is quoted as saying
"He's disgraced and has been disbarred…He's so controversial … and [Blind Ambition] is not a new book. It's 33 years old. It would have been more serving and non-partisan it [sic] would (have been) point-counterpoint.”

That’s a mighty strange thing for Quinn to say.

It is by no means clear that Dean is still a “disgraced” figure. He’s definitely changed since his bad old Nixon days. And isn’t
Dennis “Abramoff” Hastert, a former Library guest, also a “disgraced” figure? (Hastert has been involved in numerous scandals and controversies going way back.) Did Quinn carp about Hastert’s visit too? Doubt it.

More importantly, if ever a President were “disgraced,” it would be Richard Nixon himself. He had to resign, remember? (Plus, he said all those nasty things about blacks and Jews and Jane Fonda.)

And don’t forget:
Dick Cheney was invited to speak at the Library. Surely that fellow's standing by now is lower than a barefoot rattlesnake. He's a sub-disgrace—a subsgrace.

You’d have to agree that Dean is a “controversial” figure—at least among Republicans. But consider this: according to the Foundation’s
Nixon Library fact sheet, the "Nixon Library’s ongoing Distinguished Speakers Series has brought lively lectures and discussions from such leaders as
Vice President Dick Cheney;
Nobel Peace Prize recipient and former Secretaries of State
Henry Kissinger and George Schultz;
former Secretaries of State and White House Chiefs of Staff
Alexander Haig and James Baker;
former Vice President
Dan Quayle;
Speaker of the House
Dennis Hastert;
former Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright;
former U.N Ambassador
Vernon A. Walters;
Sean Hannity,
Bill O’Reilly,
Larry King,
Laura Ingraham,
Mike Deaver,
Charlton Heston

Obviously, the views of at least some of these "leaders" are as controversial as Dean’s views. Gosh, did Quinn object to the appearance of all these folks too?

Quinn obviously doesn’t care about a speaker’s being “controversial.”

That “Blind Ambition” is 33 years old is irrelevant. It is an important work in the
oeuvre of works about Nixon’s White House.


But what about this
“counter-point” business? Is Quinn suggesting that inviting a speaker without throwing in a contemporaneous “counter-point” speaker is somehow inappropriate? That’s absurd. And I doubt very much that the Library has bothered to follow that goofy practice in the case of past speakers. Did Quinn object to Cheney’s showing up sans opponent? I don’t know, but I can guess.

There is such a thing as “balance,” I suppose, though it can never be more than a rough approximation that will inevitably be judged unsuccessful by some. Now, in most situations, balance is not achieved by imposing it on discrete things (a visit, a seminar, a lecture, a purchase, etc.). Rather, it is achieved by imposing it on a
series of discreet things spread over time, or a set of discreet things, viewed as a whole, spread across a zone.

For instance, though, as an academic, I am no fan of instruction that emphasizes advocacy of controversial positions (I’ve discussed this previously), I do not object to “advocacy” instruction
per se. In itself, an instructor’s “teaching” liberal (or conservative or radical) views is not a problem for me (though I would recommend a somewhat different approach). On the other hand, I might object to it if, upon surveying the pattern of instruction at the college, I find that it adds up to a strong bias in favor of some controversial position. (Here, I am referring to controversy relative, not to society, but to academia and expert [“discipline”] communities.)

For instance, if one finds that every instructor in an economics department expressly or tacitly presumes a strong laissez-faire stance regarding the economy and this perspective is incorporated in their teaching, one might worry that students who take economic courses at the college will leave with an “unbalanced” or one-sided view regarding that important matter. One would be relieved were the next hire to recognize regulation of industries as necessary or prudent.

If the Nixon Library were interested in “balance,” it would seek a schedule of lectures including guest speakers representing a range of perspectives. Until two or three years ago, the Nixon Library was private, and it clearly made little effort to provide “balance.” Look at the list of guest speakers above. With two exceptions, they’re all Republicans.

As of two years ago, the Library is a federal facility, and so, nowadays, its director is obliged to pursue guest speakers with an eye to "balance."

It seems to me that, in objecting to the Dean visit, the Nixon Foundation people no longer have a leg (or a
pumpkin) to stand on.


Remember when then-trustee
Steve Frogue arranged a “forum” or “seminar” on the Warren Commission Report on the JFK assassination? Frogue invited four speakers, each of whom took an arguably incompetent, and certainly a marginal, position regarding the assassination. Further, some of these speakers inspired moral outrage. One speaker was the chief reporter for the notoriously anti-Semitic “Liberty Lobby,” and another speaker contributed to that organization’s publications.

To make a long story short, Frogue had organized a crackpot forum. This was explained to the board on the night that the vote approving traveling expenses was taken, but the board majority (John Williams, Steve Frogue, Teddi Lorch, and Dorothy Fortune) were unmoved. The forum went forward. The press learned of the details, and, owing to a public outcry, the forum was soon cancelled and abandoned.

I believe that, when the board approved this daffy Nutcake Forum, they erred. In my view, it is not a simple matter arguing that they erred, for colleges are supposed to be bastions of free speech.

On the other hand, colleges are supposed to have high standards--they do not regard all opinions as equally valid--and so, if one seeks to enrich the community’s reflections on some event such as the JFK assassination, one ought to organize forums comprising competent experts, not crackpots. So this was a case of conflicting values (or desiderata). Which value should prevail?

At the time, many who objected to Frogue's forum explained their objection by appealing to the need for “balance.” As I recall, then-Chancellor
Robert Lombardi took that view, though he waffled a bit. He found fault with the forum owing to its lack of differing points of view. On the other hand, eventually, he said that “free speech” means that the forum should be allowed. “I think it’s terribly important to allow differences of opinion to be voiced,” he said.

Yes, but that can’t mean that a college should provide a forum for any group expressing
any idea—for instance, that the Earth is flat or, say, that President Obama is a Manchurian candidate or a mujāhid. Remember: Frogue and his guest speakers were crackpots from Hell (crells). Even among conspiracy theorists, this crew was viewed as subpar. (I recall that that point was nicely made by noted author Gerald Posner.)

In an editorial that appeared in August of 1997, the
LA Times weighed in on the issue of whether the forum should be allowed:
The seminar was thrown off campus only after the district received more than 200 calls of protest Thursday. The callers had more wisdom than the trustees. There is a difference between airing seemingly crackpot ideas in an intellectual, substantive manner on a campus devoted to academic freedom and giving legitimacy to bigoted ravings with no balance from opposing speakers. [My emphases.]

One things is clear: one does not achieve “balance”—or at least one does not achieve a rationally desirable kind of balance—simply by having “opposing speakers” at one's forum. In fact, Frogue's four "experts" had strongly divergent views. One attributed the assassination to renegade Nazis. (Yep.) Another blamed Israel's Mossad. Another favored Jim Garrison's long-discredited views. Frogue’s pick was the CIA or the ADL or the Brownies (my memory is fuzzy). These people were clearly not on the same page.

OK, so the forum already had a kind of “balance” in that it presented
opposing views. On the other hand, it did not include the view that the Warren Commission was correct: there was no conspiracy. That’s “imbalance,” I suppose.

It’s clear, then, that presenting opposing views does not by itself ensure the quality of the discussion/forum. The views presented might all be lousy. And one can assemble opposing views while leaving out the view that is in some sense best or most defensible among alternatives.

Further, sometimes, rationally speaking, an issue is not controversial and so opposing views
don’t exist. For instance, though there are people who insist that the Earth is flat, among those who can reason, there is no controversy regarding the shape of the Earth. It is spherical. Case closed. Imposing “opposing sides” to the “discussion” of the shape of the Earth (or to whether there was a Holocaust or to whether AIDS is caused by HIV) would actually diminish the quality of the discussion.

That's right. Sometimes, bringing in the "opposing views" just muddies the waters, rationally speaking.

I think that the JFK assassination verges on being an uncontroversial “issue” (or non-issues) that really has only one "side." Evidently, amongst the general public, how JFK was killed is controversial. But, among the relevant experts, the basic facts are not disputed, and the consensus (namely, that the Warren Commission essentially got it right) seems to have grown stronger over the years.

Still, I would not be opposed to a forum on JFK assassination conspiracy theories at a college. That so many Americans—a handful of whom are intellectually estimable, I suppose—suspect a conspiracy might be a reason to arrange or allow a college “forum.”

But you'd better be darned careful who you invite. No crackpots. (That a guest "expert" is
anti-Semitic doesn't strike me as relevant to the quality of his view about the JFK assassination. You wouldn't want your sister to marry the guy, but, hey, even a bigot can have a good theory.)

Should the forum be “balanced”? (In this case, we’re talking about a one-shot event. Hence, any balance will have to be a balance within the event, not some pattern the event fits into.)


I think “balance” is overrated. I would not object to inviting one solitary speaker on a controversial topic if the speaker were sufficiently impressive in his/her intellectual attainments and abilities. After all, whether a position should be accepted is not ultimately a matter of
comparing views. A view is worth believing if and only if the grounds for it are logically compelling. (This, of course, is often a matter of degree.)

There’s room for talk of “balance,” I think, for those who seek to promote sound discourse. But surely one betrays misjudgment—a kind of error in proportions—if one approaches a “forum” about X by focusing on “presenting opposing points of view.” Ultimately, we should be judging, not the winner of a debate, but evidence and arguments. There are standards for such things, and, by those standards, some thinkers and some positions
just don’t rate. So don't include 'em.

We need to find a way to encourage “forums” that honor the authority of those standards. That's the crucial thing. If we do that, we won't be yammering so much about "balance" and the need to present "opposing views" and debates.

But, of course, I’m talking as though the public would even know the difference.

Silly me.

(Note: I'd next like to consider J.S. Mill's view concerning the benefits of allowing expression and advocacy of even false and absurd views.)

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