Response to “Moss Pushes False Narrative… Yet Again”

By MATTHEW WALKER

I may be mistaken, as Alexander Khan’s argument in his recent letter to The Middlebury Campus is not always easy to follow and on occasion descends into ad hominem attacks that are frankly below the level of what one should read in a newspaper, but it seems to me that what Khan is basically questioning in it is the veracity of my colleague Professor Moss’s description of Ryszard Legutko and his party in Poland, Law & Justice (PiS), as homophobic. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions in anything of course, but here, objectively speaking, it is beyond dispute that Law & Justice and Legutko in particular hold views about LGBTQ rights that are controversial and “hard-right” by US or European standards. This is not just something you will only hear from left-wing campus radicals, or even specialists who happen to speak Polish and know a bit more than most about the region, it is also something you can read about in The New York Times, in English.

The article in the NYT is from last month, but Legutko’s views on LGBTQ rights have been “well-known” for years. See, for instance, this article from The Guardian from 2011, which describes British Conservatives’ efforts to “play down” their relationship in the European Parliament with hard-right parties like Law & Justice and their representatives, chief among them Legutko himself.

What I myself find especially remarkable about the many discussions of the events surrounding Legutko’s visit last month is this: on one hand, one side of the debate seems to insist that it has an “inviolable” right to invite any speaker to campus, no matter how controversial he or she may prove to be; on the other, there has been a consistent effort on the part of many of the same people to “play down” the controversial nature of Legutko’s views, to present him as an even-handed scholar rather than an ideologue. Why this reluctance? Simply put, I think that if we invite controversy to campus, we also have a responsibility as academics to own that controversy, as it were.

I also think that if we are to make any progress in our arguments over free academic inquiry and inclusivity at Middlebury, we have to begin by being honest with ourselves. First and foremost, we have to admit that our right to the former is not, in actual practice, an absolute principle, that there are indeed lines that most of us are not willing to cross (I, for one, do not believe that any of my colleagues would ever invite, say, David Duke to lecture on campus, and I hope I am never proven wrong). Once we admit to this, then we can have a more honest discussion about Mr. Legutko: as the reluctance I mentioned above indicates, what both sides are really arguing about in his case, now, in 2019, is how close to the line we are.

Matthew Walker is an assistant professor of Russian at Middlebury College.

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3 Comments

3 Responses to “Response to “Moss Pushes False Narrative… Yet Again””

  1. Concerned at Midd on May 10th, 2019 11:31 pm

    This op-ed writer says, “What I myself find especially remarkable about the many discussions of the events surrounding Legutko’s visit last month is this: on one hand, one side of the debate seems to insist that it has an ‘inviolable’ right to invite any speaker to campus, no matter how controversial he or she may prove to be; on the other, there has been a consistent effort on the part of many of the same people to ‘play down’ the controversial nature of Legutko’s views, to present him as an even-handed scholar rather than an ideologue.”

    That’s a weird observation. Dr. Walker implies that you can’t both argue for free speech as a principle and simultaneously argue that a speaker isn’t the bigot some people say he is. Why would anybody think these two kinds of arguments are “especially remarkable” in combination?

    If I say that George Carlin should be allowed to say his “seven dirty words you can’t say on television” because of free speech, and then I say that Carlin is actually a funny comedian who is not as filthy as everybody says he is, am I contradicting myself? Have I said something “especially remarkable”? Hardly. Do I have a “responsibility” to admit that Carlin is a filthy worthless hack before I can say that his act is covered by free speech? Clearly not. You can say George Carlin’s critics are wrong about George Carlin AND still claim that Carlin’s act should be protected on the basis of free speech.

  2. Matthew Walker on May 11th, 2019 12:46 pm

    “Concerned,” you are talking about our right to free speech, while I am talking about our right to free academic inquiry. These aren’t synonymous. One key distinction: the latter, as most scholars and legal experts understand it, demands more responsibility to something like the truth than the former. To wit, as a citizen you can say whatever you want about alchemy, but a chemistry professor in an academic setting is required to address it in a considerably different way, according to standards of truth and falsehood, and if said professor nevertheless insists alchemy is a valid field of scientific inquiry, in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary, then she or he will probably not get published in academic journals and will also run the risk of not being granted tenure.

  3. Class of '14 on May 12th, 2019 11:05 am

    Professor Walker’s article is obviously a pretty decent step up from Professor Moss’s (see the comment on that article if you want an explanation why), but one wonders why Walker felt compelled to defend Moss from ‘ad hominem attacks’ but didn’t feel the need to mention Moss’s attacks on Callanan, which are at least as uncharitable and potentially more troublesome coming as they do from a tenured professor and not from an over-excited 0L.

    It would be interesting to hear if Walker thinks that only Khan’s article is “below the level of what one should read in a newspaper” and if so why that is the case when there seem so many other prime contenders for such a distinction.




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Response to “Moss Pushes False Narrative… Yet Again”