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You’re still free to be stupid

Another appallingly stupid op-ed piece in today’s Chron. The author, a professor of history at Tomball College named Tom Lovell, really needs to get out more.

SOME years back, a Rice grad invited me to an Owls home football game. As we awaited the kickoff, the public address announcer — the affable keeper of the Rice flame, Fred Duckett — intoned the familiar pre-game admonition cautioning fans against drinking in the stands. But, to my astonishment, Duckett saw fit to include two additional transgressions against public order and decorum, which, if undertaken, apparently could lead to the guilty party’s removal from the stadium. As I recall, the two newly minted offenses were “the use of sexist and racist language.”

I immediately felt vulnerable. Only minutes before I had groused — out loud, no less — about the unseemliness of the numerous young women assistant trainers I spotted on the Rice bench. My old-fashioned unease over dressing-room privacy, it appears, was overheard. What looked to be a well-coiffed Rice faculty wife sitting to my front abruptly turned on me with a menacing glare. Would she now, I wondered, hand me over to the nearest usher?

Doesn’t your heart just break for the guy? Imagine the burden he must have felt, not being able to make sexist remarks in public without being made to feel like a bad person. Where’s Miss Manners when you really need her? Oh, wait, Miss Manners would not side with the professor on this one.

To the best of my knowledge, by the way, the injunction against “the use of sexist and racist language” came from the NCAA, not from Rice. I can’t find a citation for this, so I may be wrong. In any event, it wasn’t put in place to make a stuffy old professor keep his comments about girls to himself. It was put in place to keep spectators from shouting racial epithets at the players. Given that Rice markets its athletic events as family-friendly, it’s not hard to see why they might want to do so.

The object of the professor’s wrath was the recent incident in which head coach Ken Hatfield was quoted by the Chronicle of Higher Education saying that he’d consider removing an openly homosexual player from the team. Reaction from Rice President Malcolm Gillis was swift, prompting Hatfield to write a letter to the CHE stating his support for Rice’s nondiscriminatory policies and to issue an apology to the campus.

All this has the good professor in quite a tizzy:

Rice’s student leftists and administrative apparatchiks — bent as they are on turning Houston’s academic Jewel in the Crown into the People’s Republic of South Main — won’t let the matter die a quiet death. They demand even greater dollops of contrition from the humbled coach.

Those at Rice who don’t adhere to the leftist party line, so dominant in American higher education, are targeted for abusive public pillory. In the China of Mao Zedong the target was intellectuals, former landowners and merchants and their descendants. On Rice’s campus those singled out for public opprobrium, it seems, are conservatives, and Christian conservatives in particular, at least those with the courage to speak their minds in the public square.

This tawdry attack on Hatfield raises yet again the question of what has happened to the freewheeling exchange of ideas that not all that many years ago echoed through the halls of American higher education?

There are three points that need to be addressed here.

1. The right to one’s opinion does not include the right to countermand one’s employer’s official policies. The large multinational corporation that I work for has very explicit nondiscrimination rules, including one that covers sexual orientation. Whatever I might think about gays in the privacy of my home, if I were to be quoted in a national publication saying that I’d fire any homosexuals who worked for me, I’d expect to get a call from the HR department telling me otherwise. If I didn’t like it, I’d be free to find employment elsewhere. And I assure you, the company I work for is nobody’s idea of a hotbed of leftists and apparatchiks.

2. The right to speak one’s mind does not include the right to be free from harsh criticism for doing so. Isn’t that what a “freewheeling exchange of ideas” is all about? I guess the professor is more interested in ideas that he happens to agree with.

3. I’m a fan of Rice sports. I think Ken Hatfield is the best coach Rice has had since Jess Neely. I want to see him coach at Rice for as long as he wants to. I join many other Rice fans in admiring Hatfield for how he goes about his job. He’s a winner with high standards who puts academics first. His honesty and integrity is beyond reproach. Many people, in rising to Hatfield’s defense after his remarks were published, noted Hatfield’s deeply held principles.

That’s all fine and good, but let’s not forget that strong principles are not a virtue unless the principles themselves are worthy of praise. As Jonah Goldberg noted in a column written after the memorial service for Sen. Paul Wellstone, another man lauded for deeply held principles

Everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike, say that Wellstone’s most-admirable quality was that he was a tireless worker for what he believed in. That’s fine. Doggedness and determination are wonderful things when in the pursuit of the noble and good. But, it should be remembered that doggedness and determination alone aren’t necessarily admirable qualities. Serial killers and murderous dictators are also dogged in their determination to see their wills done. Hitler prioritized trainloads of Jews bound for death camps ahead of needed trainloads of war materiel bound for the front in his dogged pursuit of what he considered to be right. Saddam Hussein chooses not to feed his people and risk war thanks to his willingness to stick to his convictions.

Now, it would be wrong to compare Paul Wellstone to Hitler or Hussein and I am not doing that. What I am doing is pointing out that conviction without a moral context or motor is merely a white-knuckled grip on an idea without paying heed to what you grip or why. After all, grabbing a sword by the handle is wise, grabbing it by the blade is folly, and normally we do not think the fingerless fool is as proficient as the swordsman and we do not judge the man who uses the sword for murder to be as good as the man who uses the sword to prevent it.

The same is true here. I join with the Rice students and faculty in saying that Hatfield’s deeply held principles about homosexuality are wrong. He’s still entitled to hold those principles, of course, and within the bounds of his employee handbook he’s entitled to try to convince others that he’s right to think that way. My personal evaluation of Ken Hatfield as a good coach and an honorable person is in spite of this particular belief, not because of it.

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3 Comments

  1. Don says:

    Right on! A Houstonian myself, I missed this piece in last week’s paper (could anyone blame me for forgetting to read the Chronicle editorial page?).

    What this “honorable” prof. seems to forget that what’s at issue here is not Coach Hatfiled’s opinion, or even his personal morality. What’s at issue is his inability to separate his morality from the conduct of his job in a senior leadership position. He was hired to coach a football team — not to inflict his version of religious morality on student atheletes. Proslytizing from a senior position such as head coach of a football team goes to the heart of religious, or possibily even sexual harrassment (criticism and coercion with regards to one’s sexual preference/orientation).

  2. Ginger says:

    I missed the editorial, being out of town and all, but I am still laughing my ass off at the prospect of “The People’s Republic of South Main”. Now there’s a guy who pretty clearly hasn’t set foot on the Rice campus.

    Rice wasn’t incredibly liberal when I was an undergrad and all indications are that it has gotten less liberal since then. Certainly that was the trend when I was in grad school, and recent forays on the campus have not suggested the trend has reversed.

    (If a right-wing troll, even an alum, pops up here to suggest otherwise, I suggest we send him to a Ph.D. biologist of our acquaintance who can commiserate with him on the failures of the Rice bio department, that liberal bastion that just won’t accept the truth on intelligence and genetics. đŸ˜‰

  3. Rice is fairly liberal, but it isn’t really political so you usually don’t notice. The only times you see the slant is sometimes during class discussion and in the election returns for the campus precinct (Nader nearly beat Bush). Oh, and the Thresher can be bad at times as well, though they’ll generally run conservative columns (staff editorials are another matter).

    The Hatfield controversy has pretty much characterized this. A small minority of people on campus were up in arms over it, but most students simply couldn’t care less. There was no mass protest, no persistant calls for Hatfield’s resignation (except at the Thresher), and certainly no “People’s Republic of South Main.” Lovell’s over-the-top piece doesn’t really mesh with the reality.