It seems that University of Chicago professors are much in the news this week. We recently discussed the controversy of posting by University of Chicago Professor Brian Leiter saying that military leaders should “depose” President Donald Trump and jail him. Now another Chicago professor is under fire. Notably, while no one called for Leiter to be fired for wistfully discussing a military coup, there is a chorus of writers and academics calling for the canning of Harald Uhlig, the senior editor of the prestigious the Journal of Political Economy. Uhlig is also the Bruce Allen and Barbara Ritzenthaler Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago. The reason is that Uhlig had the audacity to criticize Black Lives Matters and the movement to Defund The Police. Joining this effort is New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who is striking out at someone for giving his opposing view — an intolerant position that now appears to be official policy at the New York Times. It is all part of the new order where writers call for censorship, academics call for removing academic freedoms, artists call for art removal, and politicians call for dismantling police.
“Suuuure. They knew this is non-starter, and tried a sensible Orwell 1984 of saying oh, it just means funding schools (who isn’t in favor of that?!?).But no, the so-called ‘activists’ did not want that. Back to truly ‘defunding’ thus, according to their website. Sigh. #GeorgeFloyd and his family really didn’t deserve being taken advantage of by flat-earthers and creationists. Oh well. Time for sensible adults to enter back into the room and have serious, earnest, respectful conversations about it all: e.g. policy reform proposals by @TheDemocrat and national healing.”
His comments immediately led to an effort to get him fired including the ever-present online petition where viewpoint intolerance is some how strengthened by numbers. Leading this ignoble, anti-free speech effort are academics like University of Michigan professor Justin Wolfers who teaches in the Ford Public Policy school but appears to have a strikingly low tolerance for opposing views on public policy.
Uhlig is accused of “trivializing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement” and “hurting and marginalizing people of color and their allies in the economics profession.” He is also being denounced because he did not support the NFL kneelers. In 2017, he wrote
‘In any case, it is pretty clear, that the current kneeling and the current defense-of-freedom-of-speech is not about some courageous act of standing up for democratic values.
‘I would so love that to be true, really. Instead, it is all just Anti-Trump-ism.’
A letter calling for Uhlig’s ouster states ‘Prof. Uhlig’s comments published on his blog and Twitter posts dated June 8th, trivializing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and drawing parallels between the BLM movement and the Ku Klux Klan, are outrageous and unacceptable.”
The KKK accusation appears to be derived from a blog post in which he asked: “Would you defend football players waving the confederate flag and dressing in Ku Klux Klan garb during the playing of the national anthem?” That does not “draw a comparison” between the movements. It makes a standard comparison between acts of expression, a typical “slippery slope” argument used in countless academic and legal works.
Krugman however does not seem even slightly interested in the context and instead cried “white privilege” – a label that now routinely precedes terminations of editors, academics, and others who disagree with a new orthodoxy:
Krugman called him ‘yet another privileged white man’ in a series of tweets
Uhlig was called a racist by academics like University of Victoria economist Rob Gillezeau who wrote: “Racists shouldn’t be allowed to gatekeep our profession.”
I understand that Uhlig’s writings upset people. Academics often upset people, sometimes by design, in advancing unpopular perspectives. I can also understand why people would be uniquely ticked when they read a posting mocking the protests like this one:
“Look: I understand, that some out there still wish to go and protest and say #defundpolice and all kinds of stuff, while you are still young and responsibility does not matter. Enjoy! Express yourself! Just don’t break anything, ok? And be back by 8 pm.”
Much like a recent controversy of a UCLA professor it was a mocking tone that many would not have taken. However, this is a political debate that is raging around the country and many on both sides are using superheated or ironic or mocking language. What we have not seen are demands to can academics using such language on the other side like fellow Chicago Professor Leiter.
Nevertheless, Uhlig issued an apology:
“My tweets in recent days and an old blog post have apparently irritated a lot of people. That was far from my intention… My tweets in recent days and an old blog post have apparently irritated a lot of people. That was far from my intention: let me apologize for that. Did I choose my words and comparisons wisely? I did not. My apology, once again. Let me also make clear that all these are just my views, not pronouncements by the JPE and most certainly not the @UChicago or my department.”
The attack on Uhlig as “white privilege” has become a common refrain. We recently discussed how the President of the Minneapolis City Council dismissed anyone who voices concerns over defunding or dismantling the police as just voicing their bias from a “place of privilege.” Thus, to object to this radical proposal is now proof of privilege.
None of this matter with the wave of intolerance sweeping over our campuses, where academics call for the punishment of fellow academics for voicing opposing views. Professors like Jennifer Doleac, an economics professor at Texas A&M University, tweeted “Yep, lead editor at a top journal. Hopefully not for much longer.” It is that simple.
Figures like Klugman are not just the loudest voices, they are now the only voices that seem to appear on the pages of newspapers like the New York Times. What was striking about the recent controversy over the column by Sen. Tom Cotten was not just the writers at the New York Times calling for the resignation of their editors and barring future columns with such opposing views. It was the silence of the other writers who did not utter a word as their newspaper yielded to these demands. As I discussed earlier, however, history has shown that today’s rebels often become tomorrow’s reactionaries. Such attacks on individuals like Uhlig will not stop with him. It becomes an insatiable appetite as the intolerance for opposing views grows.
Recently, protesters took over a precinct in Seattle and declared it the People’s autonomous zone. I was struck by one flier of one of the protesters that read “I support this, but what’s next?”
For those who are joining calls for sack editors and fire academics, it is a question that should concentrate their minds.