Straight From the “Department of Bad Ideas”

The so-called “Academia-gate” story has been all over the conservative blogs in the last few days, and rightly so. While the tone of most of the stories has been predictably spittle-flecked — and one can only wonder if the “outrage” would be the same if this “Cry Wolf” project were dedicated to “debunking” progressive shibboleths like, say… the benefits of “diversity” — but I nevertheless find myself unable to simply dismiss this as yet another instance of right-wing indignation at the putative perfidy of progressives.

In case you’re unfamiliar with what “Cry Wolf” is all about, today’s excellent article in Inside Higher Ed provides a pretty good run-down:

The goal of Cry Wolf is to build an online database of short essays showing examples of crying wolf by the right. If people today are reminded that conservatives in the past predicted devastating impacts from minimum wage laws, or requiring cars to have seat belts, or Social Security, the theory goes, they may be more skeptical if they hear, say, that the Obama health care plan will result in the creation of death panels. A letter seeking these 2,000 word essays — and offering to pay $1,000 for them — has been circulating among liberal academics (and at least one who sent it off to conservative bloggers).

Now, this sort of business should give everyone a bit of pause. There is already a great deal of suspicion cast on research that is funded even partially by organizations like the U.S. military and there are some who would like to see all military money banished from campuses forever. Suspicion of motives alone is more than enough to taint that money and studies that it funds.

There is no need for suspicion about the motives of the “Cry Wolf” program — its stated purpose is to pay scholars roughly $0.50/word to produce results that serve a very specific political agenda. Under the fairly shopworn guise of “speaking truth to power, ” as it were, “Cry Wolf” is trying to give what amounts to little more than propaganda an “academic” veneer.

Some might argue that scholars do this all the time — it’s not like we can expect Richard Pipes to produce a loving biography of Lenin or for David Harvey to dispense of his cool black leather jacket and revolutionary red scarf long enough to publish an article in defense of Milton Friedman. And that’s a fair point. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a very real difference between respected scholars like Harvey and Pipes, on the one hand, publishing the results of their research on their own merits and regardless of whatever ideological positions may have informed that research, and on the other hand paying professors and graduate students to churn out studies that “prove” that progressive and liberal ideas are correct and that conservatives are liars.

Peter Dreier, one of the masterminds behind “Cry Wolf,” defends the organization, employing the novel technique of dismissing conservative concerns as being financially motivated:

Why are the conservatives so critical? Said Dreier: “That’s what they are paid to do.”

Other progressive voices, like the blog “Media Matters” defend “Cry Wolf.” “Some college professors [dabbling] in politics” is how they characterized the program. Moreover, they point out, “conservatives do it too.” The Hoover Institution, for instance, “explicitly [conducts] research on how right-wing ‘market-oriented’ and ‘free enterprise’ ideas are correct, and progressive ideas are wrong.” If you’re wondering how closely Media Matters’ version of the Hoover Institution matches up with Hoover’s own mission statement, you can check it here.

I’m not entirely sure when “peace,” “personal freedom,” “representative government,” and “free enterprise” became “right-wing” ideas, but I guess you have to consider the source.

In any case, there are places where academics can go and get paid to produce scholarship that supports one particular ideology or another: they’re called “think tanks.” But I’m not entirely sure that organizations like “Cry Wolf” are going to do any wonders for academic integrity. In a day and age when prices for education are obscene, to say the least, and some people are talking about the impeding burst of the “education bubble,” the last thing academia needs is an even greater perception that scholars are chiefly interested in activism and propagandizing.


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