A friend of mine sat recently on the planning committee for a large regional scholarly organization’s annual convention. It is not the kind of convention I attend, because I usually cannot afford it and I found out long ago that nothing of intellectual substance ever happens at such meetings. I prefer small specialized groups where there is a chance of learning something.
The planning committee received a proposal for a paper on “Robert E. Lee’s Humor.” It was not a profound or significant subject, but was mildly intriguing and presented by a scholar who is of substantial reputation and known to be a good Democrat in his politics.
A black scholar on the committee flew into a rage and delivered a tirade, some of the high points of which were: to have a discussion of General Lee’s humor would be equivalent to a discussion of Hitler’s humor; the purpose of scholarly organizations is to study historical and cultural questions in a way that advances the agenda of minority groups, his own especially; he would resign and boycott the organization if the idea were accepted. With only a few dissenters the committee immediately turned down the proposal.
This trivial incident provokes a number of reflections. Whatever happened to the pursuit of truth? to academic freedom? to scholarly courtesy and tolerance? Another reflection: anyone (of any color) who cannot tell the difference between General Lee and Hitler is not fit to teach young people (of any color). Another: what distinction, if any, can be drawn between the angry scholar’s position and blackmail, or cultural terrorism?
Unfortunately, this is only a trivial example of a kind of thing that happens every day everywhere in America. We will soon be in the position that our colleagues in Eastern Europe are busily emancipating themselves from. In Communist countries there is an official line that everyone adheres to. It is well understood that nobody really believes the Marxist-Leninist line except a few dull-witted and selfinterested party hacks, but everyone must pay obeisance to it. All real discussion is carried on in code (at least until recently), so as not to arouse the ire of the ruling powers. A political or economic analysis of current conditions is presented in the guise of a study of ancient history, for instance, or by the use of double-meaning terminology. We are not very far from that situation now.