Thursday, February 19, 2009

"There You Go Again:" Republicans Condemn Sex, Slash Education Budget

Arguably, it was Ronald Reagan shaking his head in the middle of a presidential debate with Jimmy Carter as he chuckled ruefully, "There you go again," that created an emotional turning point in the 1980 campaign. It's what we remember, anyway, that and the explosive, derisive response from the audience as Carter stood there unable to respond. This moment became symbolic of what many voters, not just right-wing voters, had come to think of Democratic governance: that the same old strategies, strategies that had not yet resolved a single social problem, were being presented as if they were new and innovative.

Well, it looks like no one is immune from regurgitating old, tired solutions to economic malaise. Having, for almost three decades, tried to deflect attention from the damage their economic policies have had on the vast majority of Americans, Republicans are once again turning to the vilification of gay sex, and knowledge about gay sex, to divert us from their past and present incompetence. I predict that future historians will find documented proof that such attacks are cynically intended to deflect the public view from the real consequences that cuts in public spending will have on education more generally. And just to give you some perspective, dear reader: for the price of incarcerating twenty undocumented immigrants for a year, you could probably fund four women's studies programs granting the BA.

Attacks on women's studies, sexuality studies and queer studies in the Georgia public university system are but one example of an urgent issue that few journalists, politicians or academics, for that matter, seem to care about yet. In the face of declining state revenues, right wingers are once again "Mapplethorping" the public. They are shilling their ideologically rigid view that even more school privatization, and deep cuts in higher education, are an appropriate fix for a plunging economy that has been jointly devastated by pirate capitalists, corporate lobbyists, and decades of neoliberal fiscal policies. How can the dismantling of higher education be turned into a happy thing, you might ask? Because you can get rid of fields of knowledge that students don't need to know, and that might even harm them, like queer and feminist studies, while preserving the teaching of "universal values." And by doing this, you can divert attention from the real consequences to real people of policies that are turning our public universities into a simulacrum of the wretched, privatized Postal Service .

A faithful reader sent this clip from about queer-baiting in Georgia:

For those of you too impatient to watch the video, Georgia Republican State Representatives Charlice Byrd and Calvin Hill, according to this website, have launched a campaign to rid the University of Georgia and Georgia State of faculty teaching a range of classes from queer theory to the sociology of sex. Public tax dollars, say these education-savvy lawmakers in an original argument, should not be going to faux scholarship that teaches students about immoral subjects that the public, in all its wisdom, would not support. Well good, because this is where the state of Georgia can really save the big bucks. To date, university officials are defending the right of the university system to hire and promote its own faculty, as well as the principle of academic freedom, without interference from the political classes. But of course, the legislature does pass the budget for these cash-strapped institutions. So administrators, in an old right-wing tactic, are being given the choice as to whether they will get back to the difficult matter of running the university or spend their time defending queer scholarship.

I find that administrators can be a weak reed at moments like this, but we'll see. And in case you are a reader from an effete, private Eastern institution, and you think that witch hunts against queer and sexual studies curricula cannot "happen here," think again. This article about Zenith, published by the Hartford Courant in May, 1999, ushered in what is known technically by administrators as a "s**t storm" about a class on pornography, taught by a tenured member of the faculty who was well-known on campus for her pedagogical rigor. In response to a vilification of the university that quickly went viral, otherwise sane Zenith administrators launched an unprecedented investigation into the course. Furthermore, when it was discovered that the faculty member who had taught the course -- an extremely shy and highly professional scholar, a popular and dedicated teacher who had worked at Zenith for over three decades -- had been awarded a coveted teaching prize prior to the scandal, all hell broke loose. Your very own Radical who, as a former recipient of the same prize, was on the committee, was pressured relentlessly (and unsuccessfully) to collaborate in an administrative decision (made where it was never clear, since no one would admit it and they sent a very polite and friendly bag man to try to talk me into it) to rescind the prize.

I don't say this to gin up old struggles which are long past, but as an object lesson to all: yes, it "can happen here," as the John Birch Society used to say, if it could happen at fruity-kazootie Zenith. Academic freedom, feminism and queers go on the block when the words "sex" and "education" appear in the same sentence: add a devastated economy, and it's all over, Baby Blue. And of course, in police states like Arizona, proposed cuts of $243 million will cripple the only education system Arizona has. And where do you go to make that kind of cut? Recent news items that show women's studies programs being targeted at Florida Atlantic and San Diego State University suggest that the first place Arizona administrators will go is to eliminate one of the most vibrant Women's Studies departments in the country, and one of the few that grants the Ph.D.

In conclusion, given the fact that the Right has been Wrong about pretty much everything in the last eight years, expect attacks on the intellectual classes, and on public funding for education to intensify, as conservatives haul out old strategies for obfuscating their incompetence and intensifying public ignorance. And expect those strategies to be aimed at women and queers first.


Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

I totally take your point about queers and women as appealing targets for right-wing (nut) budget cutters, and, yes, it can happen anywhere. However, there seems to be an update to the GA story that Towleroad and the sensationalizing CNN piece overlook. According to the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Hill and Byrd backed off after a couple of the researchers came and explained what their work was really about -- i.e., HIV prevention and teen attitudes about sex. The immediate threat seems to have passed, but it's still an important cautionary tale for anyone working on sex and gender. It's also a strong argument for coming up with clear, compelling explanations for the work we do.

The AJC article is here.

Ahistoricality said...

I don't want to hijack the discussion, but how is this not exhibit A in the case for tenure?

GayProf said...

It's a chilling time. Don't forget Arizona Republican efforts to control the content of that state's universities as well.

Anonymous said...

The right certainly has been right about keeping us safe from terrorist attacks for 8 years, God bless George W. Bush, our military and our intelligence services for this heroic effort.

Tenured Radical said...

True. But we don't know whether a normally competent security apparatus might have prevented that without war. And strange how many Americans have died, been mangled, maimed and emotionally damaged overseas in the meantime.

moria said...

It does seem to be an exhibit in the case for tenure, but if I recall correctly, the professor at Zenith left after the shitstorm TR describes - right? Even if you have a Job For Life, you can still be run down and humiliated by your colleagues and superiors until you can't take it anymore and quit.

Furthermore, the problem in this case is not with the structure of the university - the problem is with the content and tone of macropolitical discourse in this country.

AND furthermore: zow, damn, and oooooooo-wee. And CNN ain't doing much to help - "queer sex is okay because daytime TV says so"? "Kids are exposed to teh sexx on teh interwob anyway, we can't stop teh sexx"??

Looks like everybody needs a Queer Theory 101 course, pronto.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

You know, I saw that CNN clip, and it struck me how ignorant everyone seems to be about what queer theory actually is. All they know is it has the word "queer" in it, so it must be corrupting our youth.

And as for this being exhibit A in the case for tenure (or against it, if you're one of the Georgiazona reactionaries), the problem is that even if they can't fire the tenured profs, they can withhold public funding for any reason they like, which will cause the unis to think twice when someone with a potentially controversial topic gives a job talk. In other words, they can't censor, but they can cause scholars and universities to self-censor.

Plain(s)feminist said...

This has nothing to do with tenure. If a department is dissolved, tenured faculty within it can be fired because they are no longer needed to teach in that subject area.

Heather White said...

Another well-done blog post about this entire fiasco from a GSU professor: