Bench Memos

Loathed in Toronto

Sunday evening I blogged here (and here and here) about a petition of political scientists concerned about the 2009 meeting of the American Political Science Association being located in Toronto, given the worrisome trend of assaults on free speech in Canada.  The petition’s signers include such eminent scholars as Hadley Arkes of Amherst, Walter Berns of AEI, James Ceaser of the University of Virginia, Robert George of Princeton, Charles Kesler of Claremont, Harvey Klehr of Emory, Harvey Mansfield of Harvard, and James Q. Wilson, a past president of the APSA.

On the other side, opposing the petition–indeed, ridiculing its signers–is the distinguished political theorist Clifford Orwin of the University of Toronto, who counterpunches in today’s Globe and Mail.  I know Orwin, though not extremely well, and I have long admired his writings both academic and popular.  So his opposition is a disappointment.  But still more disappointing is the poor quality of his arguments.

Orwin has two arguments, not entirely comfortable coexisting with each other–and neither one stands very steadily on its own.  First, he challenges us to “adduce a single instance of the abridgment of academic freedom in Canada,” and assures us that “Canada’s record on academic freedom is exemplary.”  But the petition explicitly concedes that we know of no cases yet brought against academics by any Canadian human rights commissions (HRCs), federal or provincial.  Our point, which Orwin does not trouble to attempt refuting, is that the HRCs have an untrammeled authority over what is said in Canada, that they are complaint-driven, and that they are procedurally lawless.  We don’t know when the first HRC proceeding will commence against a Canadian professor, or a visiting academic from elsewhere.  Neither does Orwin.  But when a man’s barn is on fire, he doesn’t wait until the blaze reaches the house before he calls the fire company.  The day after tomorrow, “Canada’s record on academic freedom” may be anything but “exemplary.”  If that happens, I trust Orwin will change his tune.  If it happens to Orwin, a lot of us who signed the petition will be happy to rally to support him.

Orwin’s second argument is that the problem of the HRCs is “for Canadians to worry about.  Americans should stick to their own worries.”  That’s right.  He admits that the HRCs are a problem–a tricky dance step, since he tells us we’re cowards to worry about them.  In fact, Orwin writes that he “loathe[s] human-rights commissions as much as anyone.”  (So far as I can tell, this is the first time the well-published Orwin has said so in print.  So at least we accomplished that much!)  Of course, Orwin writes frequently for the Canadian press on American politics, with the useful perspective of an American expat who has lived in Canada for many years.  In fact, he is known up yonder as a fairly reliable defender of America.  But if he were a native Canadian, and a consistent critic of America, I wouldn’t tell him that American problems are none of his business.  Yet evidently we Yankees should just zip it about Canada.

Even this rude rebuke would be easier to take if Orwin were telling us that Americans should stay away from Canada.  But no, he wants the APSA to hold its meeting in Toronto, and, I can only conclude, for everyone in attendance to shut up about Canada’s HRCs for the duration.  Toronto is not Beijing, but would Orwin counsel us to go there and say nothing about the fate of freedom?  One might keep quiet in a really dangerous place like Beijing on prudential grounds–but one’s silence would not be mistaken for a principled stand.

Along his sneering way, Orwin suggests that “what’s really going on” in the petition drive is that “the question of location [of APSA meetings] has become politicized, first by the left and now, in revenge, by the right.”  I will freely admit that the “boycott New Orleans” effort by gay-marriage advocates prompted us organizers of the Toronto petition to think about what to do about the APSA.  But our aim is to get APSA to stop politicizing its choices as an organization, in ways that have nothing to do with its purposes as an association of scholars who study politics.  Freedom of speech, unlike gay marriage, is at the center of APSA’s purposes.  And isn’t it interesting that defense of free speech is regarded by Orwin as a project of “the right”?  This will be news to those among our signers who don’t think of themselves as right-wing.

And I have to correct the record on one point.  Orwin, like some reporters and bloggers elsewhere, says that if APSA rebuffs our petition, the signers “will boycott next year’s meeting,” leaving him to enjoy the company only of those American political scientists unwilling to criticize his adopted country.  I can’t speak for them all, but some of our signers might stay away; some political scientists wouldn’t sign the petition because under no circumstances will they set foot in Canada while it is afflicted with the HRCs.  But most of us, and certainly we who organized the petition, plan to be there to speak out on all the matters that concern us–sexual morality, radical Islam, and the slow-motion collapse of Canadian freedom.  We make no claim that our presence there will be particularly brave; we’ll be in and out in a weekend.  Real courage is what full-time Canadians need, however, if they wish to utter certain heterodox opinions.

Orwin concludes thus: “Surely I have as much right to defend Canada as you to traduce it.”  Yes, indeed.  I hope he will improve his arguments and try again on a panel with us at next year’s meeting.  But first he will need to find someone among us who has traduced Canada.  We think it is doing a fine job of that all by itself.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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