Should an indefensible academic be defended?

Caption: Anderson poses for a cheery selfie in North Korea.

Winston Churchill was rarely so right as when he noted that most people’s notion of free speech is that it?s a one-way street. Noam Chomsky says that the great test of our commitment to freedom of speech is whether we are prepared to defend the views of people we despise.

Most of the modern left fail that test.

The right aren?t completely off the hook, of course. Too often, when free speech push comes to shove, too many of the right stand silent, nudging and winking when a leftist?s free speech is curtailed. But it?s the modern left who are overwhelmingly, vocally, violently opposed to the freedom of expressing views they don?t like. The most prominent voices defending the rights of ideological enemies invariably seem to be from the right. Quote:

Tim Anderson?s behaviour is deeply offensive and disrespectful ? but that is no reason for the University of Sydney to sack him. End of quote.

Matthew Lesh is from the conservative Institute for Public Affairs ? a b?te noire for the Australian left. Yet here is the evil ‘Right Wing Nut Job’ stridently defending one of the most odious left-wing extremists in Australian academia.

In his youth, Tim Anderson was a member of a nutty eastern religious cult accused of domestic terrorism. As an academic, he has praised and even met with, some of the world?s most vile dictators: from Bashar al-Assad (whom he called ?a mild-mannered eye doctor?), to Kim Jong-un, as well as praising regimes like Venezuela and Cuba. He hates Israel and sides with anti-Semites.

Caption: Timbo enjoys a cosy chat with a “mild mannered eye doctor”. AFP PHOTO /SANA

None of that has harmed his academic career, of course. But eventually he took it too far for even the notorious University of Sydney. Quote:

Anderson has had his employment terminated because of an infographic that included an Israeli flag partly covered by a cropped swastika. The image, which was used in class and posted on Facebook and Twitter, relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The university claims that the inclusion of a swastika is ?disrespectful and offensive?.

The University of Sydney is correct that linking the world?s single Jewish state to the regime that murdered more than six million Jews in the Holocaust is disrespectful, offensive and downright disgusting. It is unbecoming of a civilised human, let alone an academic. Furthermore, the university is correct to dismiss Anderson?s claim that the graphic does not contain part of a swastika?The decision to sack Anderson is also unconscionable in the context of wider community concerns about freedom of speech on campus. End of quote.

Matthew Lesh is right to argue that offensive views, however much we may personally dislike them, nevertheless fall under the rubric of freedom of speech. In defending an ideological enemy like Anderson, Lesh is commendably sticking up for a difficult principle, in a way that Anderson?s lefty comrades never do. For that, he should be lauded by all sides.

But is Anderson?s sacking still justified?

For leftist academics particularly, ?academic freedom? is a catch-all excuse that justifies a cavalier, all-freedom-no-responsibility self-indulgence. The flipside never enters their woolly heads. As James Shapiro wrote in the New York Times, ?Much has been written about academic freedom, little about academic responsibility?. ?Freedom entails responsibilities,? state the guidelines of one American university. ?It is incumbent upon the faculty member to?refrain from deliberate distortion or misrepresentation.?

Has Anderson passed that test? Depicting Israel as a Nazi state suggests not. Quote:

Former education minister Simon Birmingham described Anderson as an ?embarrassment to academia?. Spectator writer Timothy Cootes says that Anderson is one of the ?most deeply stupid ? people in this country?. It is not clear why the University of Sydney hired the unreconstructed radical activist in the first place. End of quote.


Despite the myriad crosses against his name, many of which show his unfitness to teach at a university, the decision to terminate Anderson?s employment merely for being offensive and disrespectful is wrong.

Emphasis added.

Even Lesh acknowledges that Anderson is simply not worthy of the position he has been granted. Melbourne?s RMIT University ?recognises that [?] members of our community of scholars often speak from positions of power and influence?.

Anderson has used his power and influence malignantly. He should never have been hired by any university ? so was Sydney University right to give him the flick? Lesh argues not ? at least, not for the particular incident cited. Lesh?s principled argument is to his credit. That doesn?t make him right, though.