Rather than going away, the contraception carnival returned stronger than ever the past couple of weeks. And although on the facts the whole Sandra Fluke thing is a farce, politically it has served its purpose. In particular, having Rush Limbaugh go on a rant accusing Fluke of being a AAA girl (and no, that does refer to an auto club) allowed Obama to pose as the defender of oppressed womanhood, to the point of bringing his daughters into the debate. (Uhm, whatever happened to how much he hated that his family was dragged into politics? I guess the more accurate statement would be he likes to have the option to drag it in when it is politically expedient for him.) More importantly, it again distracts attention from the crucial issues. Spending. Obamacare. Iran. Obama is vulnerable on all these issues: he suffered bruising political defeats on these issues in 2010. Hence the desperate need to change the subject.
The media, of course, will always oblige. And so will the Stupid Party, and others on the right, who chased after the Sandra Fluke matter like a golden retriever bounding after a ball.
In politics, as in war, victory often depends on choosing the ground on which the battle is fought. Social issues are Obama’s ground. The issues of 2010 are not. Will anybody get a clue?
Even academics have been swept into this debate, unfortunately. The University of Rochester’s excellent, hyper-intelligent, and very articulate Steven Landsburg wrote a post defending Limbaugh, and followed it up with a typically incisive post on the inefficiency of subsidizing contraception. URochester President Joel Seligman (whom I know slightly from when we overlapped at Wash U) just couldn’t permit such acts of speech-and analysis-pass. He attacked Landsburg publicly, accusing the economist of “demean[ing] a student.” Not Landsburg’s student. Not even a Rochester student. An adult student at another university whom Landsburg has no power over whatsoever, who is in no way Seligman’s responsibility, and who of her own volition inserted herself quite vocally as a partisan in a contentious political debate, but who apparently is immune from the ridicule that Landsburg heaped upon her.
Seligman of course issued the disclaimer that he fully respected Landsburg’s right to exercise his academic freedom, and couched his criticism as a mere statement of his views. But that’s all weaseling. When a university president makes a public statement criticizing a faculty member (an apparently unprecedented act insofar as Seligman is concerned), it carries an implicit threat to utilize the powers of the president’s office to punish those with the temerity to voice politically incorrect views. Moreover, it is a signal to others in the university that attacks or retaliation directed against the transgressive faculty member not only will not be discouraged, but actually have official sanction.
Landsburg is perfectly capable of defending himself, as he did here and elsewhere. Seligman picked the wrong target, and Landsburg is unlikely to be deterred in the future from speaking his rather impressive mind. But other faculty members, less accomplished, less secure professionally and economically (and perhaps personally), and less renowned will almost certainly be far more reluctant to offend the Gods of Political Correctness knowing that such offenses may bring down the wrath of the university president, and may be interpreted as an invitation to other faculty to rid him of this troublesome faculty member.
Seligman gave lip service to academic freedom, but he would have given it genuine service had he kept his lip zipped. Or, his statement should have ended after acknowledging Landsburg’s academic freedom to make controversial statements. Seligman’s attempt to suggest a symmetry between his statement and Landsburg’s-that both were merely exercises of academic freedom-is belied by the fundamental asymmetry in power and authority between his position and Landsburg’s. An asymmetry that leftist academics are quick to point out in other circumstances.
Oh, would this all go away so that it would be possible to focus on things that really matter. Big things. But it is in the interest of too many to keep this kind of distraction going.