Saturday, December 20, 2008

There are no neutrals there

Natalie Merchant, Which Side Are You On?, on The House Carpenter's Daughter (2003):

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.

Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?

Harlan County strikers

Rick Hills has posted a little item that inspires all sorts of thoughts with varying degrees of relevance (all of them positive) to MoneyLaw:
One reason I chose to be an academic is to gain the right to choose my positions a la carte rather than from the prix fixe menu of Left-Right vacuities that dominate the punditocracy and blogosphere. So, for instance (to pull a random example out of thin air), it strikes me as inane to have a general ideological position on "unions," as if one should endorse or condemn together the baseball players' union, the corrections officers union in California, the Teamsters, or District Council 37. Likewise, it strikes me as absurd to think that, because I worry about the latest round of contracts between the public sector and New York City, that I am hostile even to public-sector unions in general. . . .

Rick HillsMy hypothesis: Some academics have joined a sort of intellectual's trade union in which two positions — disapproval of District Council 37 and love of Wall Street — must somehow be bundled together as negotiating items. That sort of bundling of positions makes perfect sense in a two-party system as a means of simplifying ballots for busy voters: After all, Duverger's Law requires us to choose one of two sides. But it is senseless in an academic blog. When it comes to thinking and writing, we academics should put our union cards in our shoes and all be shameless scabs, choosing whichever intellectual position happens to yield the greatest payoff.
Rick's post is worth pondering for these reasons:
  1. Rick makes an appealing call for pluralism in academic thought. Diversity and freedom of thought, which after all are putatively prized values in academia, should permit the full range of views on all sorts of issues, including labor-management disputes in wildly different economic settings.

  2. Rick drops an awesome name, Maurice Duverger. The full cite is Maurice Duverger, Factors in a Two-Party and Multiparty System, in Party Politics and Pressure Groups: A Comparative Introduction 23-32 (1972). Duverger's Law predicts that first-past-the-post voting systems will yield a two-party polity. More grimly, moderate views tend to polarize until two entrenched parties dominate the political landscape. What is true of electoral politics, I'll hypothesize, is also true of the academic equivalent. Articulating the identity and mission of those parties will be an exercise left to the reader, or perhaps even a future MoneyLaw post.

  3. John Henry Blair, Harlan County (Ky.) sheriff, 1922-25 and 1930-33
  4. In a society that has rightfully come to scrutinize everyone's terms and conditions of employment, members of the most generously compensated and thoroughly sheltered segment of higher education — yes, the tenured professoriate — should be more circumspect. In case you hadn't noticed, there's a class war going on out there. Tenure and high professorial salaries are not outrageous per se. We do need, in these times as never before, to justify those privileges. Living up to our ideals regarding academic freedom and intellectual pluralism would be a good place to start.

  5. In light of all of these points, it seems churlish — even "thuggish," to use a term associated with J.H. Blair — to paint Rick as an "aspiring union buster" for the purported thoughtcrime of thinking and writing for himself.
Seriously. They say in academia, there are no neutrals there. Rick Hills has sounded the proper battle call:
Will you be a thinking prof
Or a thug for J.H. Blair?


Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Alas, Rick pretends to be above the fray, intellecutally neutral or non-partisan, appreciating the merits of any and all arguments or wherever they might lead one, but it's clear if you have been following his posts that he has an ideological agenda, a commitment to certain political positions every much as contested as those he seeks to christen as tainted by ideology and partisanship or intellectual dishonesty. He draws caricatures or strawmen for opponents and then rhetorically lambasts them in a manner that is as inimitable as it is inaccurate and distorting (perhaps I'm being churlish and thuggish for saying so). This was rather transparent in the attempt to link NYC's public sector unions to the City's imminent prospects for bankruptcy. In any case, academic freedom and intellectual pluralism were in part exemplified in the responses to Rick's posts.

12/20/2008 11:21 PM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

Thanks, Patrick. For the record, I think you've represented yourself — and the Jurisdynamics Network — admirably in your responses to Rick Hills.

12/20/2008 11:44 PM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I should also mention that while I've been provoked and sometimes irritated by Rick's posts (and there's nothing at all wrong with that, it makes for lively discussion), his work as lawyer I find admirable and inspiring:

Professor Hills has been a cooperating council with the American Civil Liberties Union for many years, filing briefs in cases challenging denial of domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples (Pride at Work v. Granholm), exclusion of prison inmates from the protections of state anti-discrimination law (Mason v. Granholm), denial of rights to challenge prison guards’ visitation by family members for prison inmates (Bazzetta v. McGinnis), and discrimination of recently arrived indigent migrants in public assistance (Saenz v. Roe).

Too bad we don't hear more from him on these topics, for which he clearly has both invaluable practical experience and considerable theoretical expertise (were it that we all could have our heads, hearts, and wills in such harmony).

12/21/2008 12:03 AM  

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