Archive | September 2013

Dueling Scarecrows

YESTERDAY, Patrick Henry College held its semesterly “Faith and Reason Day.”  The controversial lecture, delivered by Stephen Baskerville, has generated some scathing criticism from students and alumni.  I do not write to comment on the merits of the lecture as a whole or the portions discussed below.  I just feel the need to point out the irony that arises when someone criticizes the argument of another while utilizing equally poor reasoning.  If you wish to argue that someone’s work is of “poor quality” and demonstrates that they should not be employed as a professor, please do what you claim that they cannot:  construe their paper as logically as possible and *then* discredit it with contrary facts or analysis.  Straw men are very fun to destroy, but the internet is getting so full of the hay dust that my allergies are acting up.

For the reader’s convenience, I’m including the entire blog post by Kate Kane at QueerPHC with three of my own observations interspersed.  The original post had pictures (one chart and several photos of the text of the lecture).  I’ve removed them for easier reading.  If you want to see them, check out the original.

Patrick Henry College Professor Says ‘Homosexual Activists’ Were ‘Integral’ to Rise of Nazism

Posted on September 13, 2013 by Kate Kane

In a so-called Faith & Reason lecture delivered to the entire student body today, Patrick Henry College Professor Stephen Baskerville claimed that “homosexual activists” played an integral role in the rise of Nazism.

I find it hard to understand how any academic could retain any shred of self-respect after implying that the Nazis and queer people were bosom buddies. This chart, for example, lays out the various triangular Nazi concentration camp badges that were used to categorize Jews, sexual offenders (which were primarily gay men), the Romani people, and those who were mentally ill, among many others. 

This quote was only one of many similarly inaccurate and deeply offensive statements delivered in the course of the lecture, the text of which is about 25 pages. Baskerville, who has made a career of railing against the “divorce regime” after a messy divorce in his own past, warned the student body against adopting a “theology of resentment.” 

The article’s title, of course, focuses on the (always) inflammatory association of homosexual activists with Nazism.  And, it’s true that Baskerville made the statement.  The argument of the paper, however, had little to do with Nazism and nothing to do with the factual accuracy of that single statement.  Nor did the statement mean, as Kane interprets it, that he was  “implying that the Nazis and queer people were bosom buddies.”  She’s right in claiming that Baskerville would have no credibility as an academic if he seriously made that implication.  That, however, was neither said nor implied.  It is well known that several of the Nazi higher-ups were homosexual despite the Nazi’s systematic persecution of homosexual persons.  There has been scholarly debate on what to make of this since the 40s.  Most reach the conclusion that the Nazi’s were astoundingly oppressive to homosexual persons but a few managed to escape that ire by virtue of their position (and not the other way around).  This conclusion would counter Baskerville’s – but by no means does his statement carry the expansive meaning Kane imposes.  Knee-jerk reactions are not uncommon whenever anyone or anything is associated with Nazism.  Understand, however, that neither Kane’s construction of his phrase nor her discussion of Nazi persecution actually reaches his assertion.  His assertion may be factually inaccurate – and probably should not have been casually included – but Kane’s criticism misses its point.  (Really, this sort of thing will probably never go away until people learn that you can’t associate anyone with Nazis and get away with it unless that comparison is actually the entire subject of your research.  But, I digress.)

He also said that the AIDS epidemic has been exacerbated by “sexual ideologues, who sabotage effective campaigns for abstinence and fidelity in favor of ideologically inspired but useless condom distributions, resulting in further spread of the disease and millions of needless deaths.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Distributing condoms spreads AIDS. 

This sort of lying and misinformation is malicious and irresponsible. If someone chooses to be abstinent, that’s their business, but they shouldn’t be made to feel as though they literally deserve death if they choose to be sexually active.

I can’t see how Kane herself “read that correctly.”  Nowhere does Baskerville imply that the spreading of AIDS is a result of condom distribution.  Baskerville simply argued that focusing on this means of prevention has been ineffective, not that condom distribution affirmatively spreads AIDS.  Again, that statement would be laughably false – but that statement was never made or implied.  The merit of abstinence as a means of prevention is, of course, hotly disputed.  But, if you wish to criticize his reasoning, please do respect the distinction between exacerbation and causality – it is an important one.

Baskerville spews classic MRA and queer panic rhetoric for much of the lecture. He puts words like “rape” and domestic “violence” and “child abuse” in quotation marks, to suggest that straight cis men and fathers are being persecuted in a witch hunt full of supposedly false accusations.

Now, there is much that could be said about the discussion of criminalization in the paper.  I think Kane is probably right when she suggests that this section seemed to describe a “witch hunt.”  However, the point being made when the above terms were included in quotation marks was absolutely not related to minimizing their seriousness.  Rather, he made the important argument that those terms signify acts which every rational person should strongly oppose.  Yet, those terms are now beginning to include meanings which the average person would not anticipate.  Since one does not want to be seen as defending, rationalizing, or minimizing things like rape, violence, or child abuse, it is very uncommon for the expansive meaning of these terms to be scrutinized.  Maybe their expanse is warranted by our experience, as it is true that more constrained definitions imply a higher burden of proof in areas where evidence is difficult to obtain. The point, however, is the way certain inflammatory words can be used to control public discourse and policy.  That such terms might have been instrumentalized is a possibility that should inspire contemplation and, if necessary, counterargument, not summary dismissal as “spewed MRA and queer panic rhetoric.”

I’d like to say that I’m surprised that these sorts of comments are coming from a PHC leader, but I went to school there for four years. I heard rape victims referred to as manipulating liars, I was told that children’s rights was a ploy to take children away from their parents, and feminists were dismissed as ugly people who couldn’t get dates. So no, it doesn’t surprise me that a PHC professor would say these things, or that he would be met with thunderous applause.

But I do wish that Patrick Henry College valued reputable academic research and healthy discourse over demagoguery and targeted attacks. That Baskerville is even employed at PHC, given the poor quality of his research and rhetoric, let alone allowed to represent the college in a campus-wide lecture given to the entire student body, shows how little the school respects academic disciplines and its own students. 

The depth and fairness of discussion at PHC with regard to matters of sexuality is, as Kane suggests, insufficient.  Baskerville is, in some sense, working to correct this, as a serious attempt to understand these issues would also require students to read the arguments of different sides.  For instance, though PHC’s government faculty is critical of Marx, students read Marx.  Perhaps this lecture will lead students to be exposed to voices that have been heretofore absent from the conversation.  This result might at least be salutary, whether one agrees with the substance of the instigating lecture or not.  At any rate, my concern here is to see that, if a person or group is accused of valuing “demagoguery and targeted attacks” instead of “reputable academic research and healthy discourse,” that the accusation is substantiated by the latter rather than the former.