Friday, April 04, 2008

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
So wrote George Orwell almost sixty years ago. I'm reminded of this today by the emerging controversy over John Yoo - a number of people want this man fired because they don't like the legal opinions he wrote while working for the Department of Justice. Of course, if you have any commitment at all to "academic freedom," its impossible to support this. Cases like Yoo's, in fact, are exactly the reason why we have the tenure system -professors need job security precisely so that they can conduct independent and potentially unpopular scholarship. Unless you are perfectly content to live in a world without academic freedom - where the opinions of academics are up for review by their superiors - you have an obligation to support Yoo's right to hold his legal views and still keep his job. All in all, this case is a no-brainer.

Watch, however, how language is twisted in an effort to make Yoo's role seem larger than life. This piece at the Huffington posts quotes the following:
"Addington, Bybee, Gonzales, Haynes, and Yoo became, in effect, a torture team of lawyers, freeing the administration from the constraints of all international rules prohibiting abuse."
while Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber writes
...this is not, in the end, an issue of academic freedom. That is, it doesn’t concern Yoo’s ideas about the laws or communication of same; it concerns credible allegations that Yoo acted directly and deliberately, in his capacity as an employee of the US government to facilitate war crimes.
Of course, when all is said and done, all Yoo did was give his legal opinion. To bring Orwell's point home, you could argue directly that lawyers ought to be jailed if their opinions about the constitution are too wacky, but that would be far too honest.

This whole thing sort of reminds me of another disturbing trend: the way labels like "human rights" have been co-opted in the service of speech suppression. Read more about that here.

Update: This formulation is particularly amusing,
None of Yoo’s critics, to my knowledge, are arguing that he should lose his job for his ideas; rather that he should lose his job for actions that he took as a servant of the US government…
Of course, the actions in question consist of nothing more than writing down his ideas.


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