Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Rant about (problematic) truth

I get in these moods--maybe it's because it was another cold day, though the sun was shining so there was no earthly reason (I hear my mother's voice in that last expression) for it to be so bloody cold; maybe it's because I broke another knitting needle and must laboriously pick up the stitches, which will make my stockinette uneven, so I'll have to tink; (that's "knit" backwards); maybe it's just because.  Whatever "because" is, I've gotten to the point where seeing the glass half full, finding the silver lining, is too exhausting.  To use an expression of my brother-in-law, Bill, "Sure is stupid out."

Stupid today came in two sizes, small and large.  I began the day with the small size when my husband Bill alerted me to the article on the CBC website about the use of money donated by Wascana Energy to fund a research chair with a focus on heavy oil recovery processes to cover a deficit incurred in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  We are assured that the Faculty is now getting the appropriate oversight so this won't happen again.  To quote my mother, that's like closing the barn door after the horses are already out.  I have two almost visceral reactions to this news.  Note that I've been very careful in my minimal description of the story on the CBC website.  There's nothing careful about my reactions, however.  First, faculty members who are trying to defend their academic freedom which appears to be under negotiation in this round of bargaining have been told that the Faculty of Engineering doesn't share our passion.  They are much more interested in patents.  Yet what have we been told much of that $1.3 million was used for?  Let me quote the CBC story:  "The university provided some detail and acknowledged that more than $500,000 was spent by the faculty of engineering on legal fees 'for patent and intellectual property work.'"  Let me see if I have this straight.

I doubt there are very many academics who don't recognize how precious their academic freedom is.  The long tradition of this concept essentially acknowledges two things.  One is that someone needs a protected place from which to challenge those moments when powerful individuals or a society make decisions that are not in a culture's best interests.  The second is that the academy, which has as its central raison d'etre an attempt to strain or lurch or fly closer and closer to the truth, is the logical place for such protection to reside.  Our culture's well-being resides in our right and responsibility to declare the truth as we see it.  That truth doesn't belong to any single being:  it is the result of a long, messy, hilarious, and often acrimonious conversation about what matters, who matters, what we value, and what the facts--as far as we can discern them--are.  But when we mute some of the perspectives that might contribute to that conversation, the future suffers.  We know this right now, in Canada, because Canadians and scientists around the world are concerned about the muzzling of Canadian researchers.  We are playing with the planet's future, but we have decided to play with only a fractions of the facts at our disposal?  I don't think that, in my lifetime, I have seen an historical moment when academic freedom has been more crucial.  At the same time, we are being told that the University requires limits to that freedom.

But it is "all right" (I put those words in quotations marks because I don't know what was said behind closed doors; I only know the apparent outcome)  for a dean to use trust funds intended to create a research chair in order to pay legal bills to sort out issues of patents and intellectual property.  In order words--remember, these are my visceral reactions--profit is fine but critique is not.  This is how I felt about my institution this morning.  Doubtless I've missed some of the facts and doubtless there are all kinds of reasons that we don't know all the facts.  In the words of one of my mantras, there's always another story and the story is almost always more complicated than you can imagine.  But this is how I was forced to see the academy, and the academy's values, this morning.

The large size of stupid came on tonight's news, where we were told that the Canadian Government is going to create a website that illustrates how we are being environmentally responsible in our development of the oil sands.  These triggered off memories of various other ads about what the Canadian government is doing for the environment.  Someone out there thinks words, whether they are backed by facts or not, make something true. Who's going to do the fact-checking for this industry-funded website? 

On days when I'm in this mood, triggered by things large and small, I think that the human race is really fairly stupid, that we lurch around in the dark and only just miss exterminating ourselves by accident.  (Cold War anyone?  What on earth was that all about?  The economic costs of responding to climate change?  How much do you think it cost to clean up after Katrina and Sandy?  And you can't possibly put a dollar value on the suffering.)  We lumber around, spin on our heels, look behind us, and notice that something is a little better.  Child mortality and hunger is down.  AIDS is being controlled, though not quickly enough, particularly in Africa.  Human rights have expanded a little more, yet our intolerance has become more and more deadly, more and more explosive.  We  pat ourselves on the back and take collective credit or give some credit to governments.  But I feel that we have less and less leadership that is concerned with our well-being, and more government by ideology and special interest group. (The U.S. failure to pass a bill widening background checks on guns comes to mind here--another big version of stupid.)   I think that if someone tells me one more time that "the market" is the best solution to homelessness and food bank use, I'll....  I don't honestly know what I'll do.  I'm tempted to hit them with a Python-esque rubber chicken.  And then to turn away in despair.  Because what other reaction can I have to valuing of profit over an attempt to acknowledge, responsibly, and with a million caveats, what is true?


  1. I agree that the Python-esque rubber chicken riposte is the way to go here, or perhaps the comfy chair from "History of the World, Part 1." All joking aside, I'm also kind of horrified by this news, and don't really know how to talk about my institution anymore.

  2. President Timmons has just sent out an email that supposedly explains everything, but still leaves me uneasy. Why has this taken so long to address?