Bill Long 8/2/06
On "Consensus" and Minority Opinions
The New York Times had an article in its online paper today discussing the furor that University of Wisconsin adjunct professor Kevin Barrett has stirred up, whether wittingly or not, by his opinion that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center were "an inside job." Setting aside for the moment the fact that the NYT author (Gretchen Ruethling) didn't do a very good job unpacking exactly what Professor Barrett's beliefs are, the story and its political ramifications bring to the fore the question of how a conscientious teacher is to present the 9/11 tragedy in a history, political science, American studies, or Islamic Civilization class.
In short, I will argue that the best way to understand 9/11 is in terms of "long range issues" and "short-term triggers," and that a wide diversity of opinions on the issue, as long as they are documented and their assumptions are laid out clearly, should have free play in the classroom. I will further argue that the assumption behind the Times piece, that somehow Mr. Barrett's blame or innocence in this matter is related to whether he taught his "personal beliefs," is stating the issue completely incorrectly. Let's go one point at a time.
Understanding the Tremendum
Armenians whose family members went through the genocide in the 1910s often say that it is impossible for outsiders to understand their horror and pain at what happened. Jews who lost loved ones in the Holocaust often say the same thing. Sometimes those of us who love history run into affected people who claim that "outsiders" just can't understand what happened to them or, conversely, that only they have the explanation of what really happened. Or sometimes those most affected by a tragedy claim that only an interpretation that makes them look like complete victims or innocent sufferers is a "true" interpretation. Most Americans believe that the 9/11 attacks were unprovoked; that we were just sitting there minding our own business and then, whack, 3000 innocent lives are snuffed out. Because our national outrage was so strong, the devastation so complete, the grief so massive, the pressure to adopt a uniform or consensus view of what happened is extremely strong. And, I am not saying that a consensus view, for that reason, is mistaken.
In any case, a "consensus" view of 9/11 has been adopted by many, including the 9/11 Commission. A group of 19 terrorists, sponsored by Al-Qaeda, a shadowy, stateless radical group probably headquartered in Afghanistan or Pakistan but with ties throughout the Arab world, pulled off the three attacks on America on September 11, 2001. America was not only unprepared for the attacks but it had no advance warning that anything like the attacks would take place. Discovery of evidence in 2002 or 2003 that various terrorists had studied in flight training schools in the US or otherwise had participated in radical activities was simply that--discovery of new information. So goes the consensus theory in chief part.
An alternative theory or theories have developed in the mean time, which Mr. Barrett seems to adopt. This theory would suggest not only that US intelligence was aware of the planning for the attacks but that, somehow, US intelligence was "behind" the attacks. There is no "smoking gun" to prove this theory. It, like many legal cases, rests on circumstantial evidence. From my perspective, it is a very weak theory.
Should the theory be taught in American higher education classes? Surely it should, as long as the evidence on which the teachers are relying is also laid out. Is it legitimate to try to extrapolate from known facts to a larger theory? Sure it is. People do it all the time and sometimes they are correct. The best way to see if the alternate theories of 9/11 have any "weight" to them is to give the teachers a forum to explain themselves patiently on the issue. History comes to life when sacred subjects are patiently and dispassionately broached.
Teaching One's "Opinions"
So, it is clear to me that a person ought not to be fired for teaching alternative theories of 9/11. Indeed, Professor Barrett's course, the syllabus of which was approved by the department, only devoted one week to the "war on terror" (it was, after all a survey course on Islam: Religion and Culture). And, the article goes on to say that Mr. Barrett didn't present his "personal opinions" in the classroom. But here is the problem with the article. It makes it sound as if Mr. Barrett is on firmer ground if he didn't put his personal views into play in the class. But this fundamentally misconstrues the role of professors in the academy. Why shouldn't a professor put "personal" views into his/her subject? What are you hiring, an automaton, who simply "reports" on the opinions of others? If a person writes a book, is it no longer an "opinion" because it is on paper? Thus, the implication that a person is in the clear because s/he has withheld "personal" opinions in a subject where s/he is supposed to have expertise is, I think, a misconstrual of the purpose of teaching. When a student takes a class, the student gets the subject matter refracted through the professor. There simply isn't any other way to do it, unless you teach for the University of Phoenix.
Can you imagine going to a doctor for a diagnosis but being upset if the doctor gives you a "personal" opinion? You would be upset if the doctor didn't provide this. If the matter is controversial (e.g., if your diagnosis is unclear), you get a "second opinion." Well, isn't that what you do when you hear a theory of 9/11 that doesn't "sound" right or which you want to examine more deeply? You go for another opinion.
As is frequently, but not always, the case, shining a light on someone else's "problems" often doesn't solve the problem as you imagine it should be solved. Instead of squelching debate about 9/11, such attempts to silence Barrett's theories end up making more people want to know about alternative theories. Let various theories have their play; trust people to judge for themselves, when evidence is not withheld, which they believe. People will surprise you with how smart they are...
Oh, P.S. I never got to how I would present 9/11 (long-range issues, short-term triggers). Maybe I will do that on some occasion.
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