Harper lashes out at academics

Stephen Harper’s distrust of intellectuals may be the undoing of the country.

As part of his effort to get re-elected Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has proposed amendments to the Criminal Code so that serious crimes are not eligible for conditional house arrest sentences.

The media (e.g. 1) tell us that criminologists are largely convinced that harsher sentences do not deter crime. This seems to be reasonable: with hardly any effort at all (a few minutes with Google Scholar), my query for “house arrest recidivism” turned up no fewer than four journal papers on the first page of hits. All of them were studies or reviews of other studies based on actual data on the benefits of house arrest (2,3,4,5). They were all quite clear: house arrest is at least no worse than proper jailing in terms of recidivism, can often be better, and usually cost less. I found no papers that argued for the opposite position. Not that this is a definitive review of the literature, but it’s quite suggestive.

But Harper says,

“Those are the people who have advised soft-on-crime policies for 30 or 40 years. Yes, we believe they are wrong.”
“We’re listening to ordinary people…. Not people who work in ivory towers, but people who actually work on the street and deal with crime on a day-to-day basis.”
“We don’t believe that house arrest is a suitable punishment for serious crime.”

Also, I heard CBC Radio report that Harper chooses to listen to victims, to police, and to attorneys general.

Well, I am a university professor – I’m one of those “ivory tower” types. And I am insulted that my own Prime Minister would derogate any person who gives his life to the pursuit of knowledge for the benefit of mankind. It’s a slap in the face that I, on behalf of the professoriate generally, simply cannot tolerate.

Harper owes academe dearly. Indeed, we all do. If it weren’t for the professoriate, we’d be living more or less as they did 500 years ago.

The roof over your head, the PDA that keeps you organized, the food you eat, the medicines you take when you’re ill, the car you drive, the television camera that broadcasts Harper’s beady-eyed visage across the country, the art hanging in galleries and museums all over Canada, the songs you whistle when you go to work, the poetry you recite to convey your love to your wife…. All of this exists because of people in so-called ivory towers, who have preserved it all, in many cases created it, and then made sure that people learnt about it.

Academics are the gatekeepers and creators of fundamental knowledge. If it weren’t for academics, science wouldn’t exist, and would have never pushed back the tyranny of dogmatic philosophies and religions in the West (think: Spanish Inquisition versus Renaissance). If it weren’t for the influence of a (relatively) free-thinking academy, virtually none of the social movements that have revolutionized modern society – generally for the better – would have happened.

Sure, many important innovations have been created outside the usual academic setting, in everywhere from military skunk works to the machine shop in a garage up the street. But it’s all been enabled by academia. Our modern world is an artifact that required other artifacts to construct. Modern technology exists mostly due to the technologies that came before, which enabled new thinking, new inventions, new ways to improve our quality of life. To make something as simple as a pen requires a set of technologies that have been under nearly constant development for hundreds of years. The knowledge to create, maintain, and optimize those technologies lies predominantly in the academic world. Academics are the ones who run the analyses that decide which manufacturing techniques are best. We’re also the ones that teach the people that make technology work.

You can say the same of academics in the arts. “Ivory towers” are full of philosophers, linguists, historians, and other experts that contribute to society every day, by developing systematic perspectives of how things are, and were, and how they might be in the future. Art curators, who maintain our artistic heritage, have academic backgrounds. Poets and writers often rely on their education – constructed by academics – to give them the skills to write beautiful and important works. Those important works are then analyzed extensively by academics, for the sake of exploring their richness and then making that richness available to their students.

And criminologists (and social justice expects, etc) are of this group too, experts who have developed whole disciplines, whole bodies of knowledge based on all kinds of empirical studies. They know more than the rest of us put together on matters of crime and justice. And they must be listened to, for no other reason than that.

There is absolutely no question: one must trust academic experts, precisely because they are experts. There are no other groups whose opinions can be trusted more.

If it weren’t for us residents of the “ivory towers,” Harper would be living as a cave man, digging for grubs under rocks, in abject fear of being eaten by some predator. There would be no Canada for him to govern.

How dare someone in Harper’s position – elected by the people – speak to any intellectual in such a way!

Unfortunately, Harper’s illogic does not stop there. It’s one thing to distrust those who should be trusted; it is quite another to trust the untrustworthy.

Harper would prefer to trust the “ordinary people.” These are the kinds of people who write comments like those published in The Star online. It is evident that most of these people have virtually no connection to the actual facts. They are responding based on anecdotal evidence, which is the worst kind of evidence there is: localized, incomplete, and highly unreliable. But these people don’t know it because they lack the required education, expertise, and in many cases, brains.

I also heard on CBC Radio that Harper says he is listen to victims, police officers, and attorneys general. Unfortunately, none of these groups can be trusted either.

Victims of crime cannot be trusted because they are under abnormally high psychological and emotional stress. It is extremely unlikely that victims can give a true account of what they have gone through. It would be far better to have the victims assessed by a dispassionate third party – say a court-appointed psychologist, whose expertise ensured a more reliable account of the matter. But so long as victim testimony itself is used, then there is no reliable assurance of the quality of that testimony.

The police cannot be trusted because they are by definition in favour of punishing criminals. The function of police is designed to be counterbalanced by the function of the legal system – including defence attorneys – because it is well-recognized that policing is a lop-sided approach to public security. It is not surprising that police are in favour of harsher sentencing. There isn’t a police force on this planet that would not be similarly inclined. Police officers also lack the expertise to evaluate mechanisms of punishment because their role does not extend that far – the police have by definition no say in how criminals are punished. By listening to them, Harper is extending their power far beyond what the law allows.

Attorneys general cannot be trusted because they are exclusively on the side of the Crown – of the prosecution, not the defence. They are by law required to prosecute criminals regardless of their own views on any particular case. It is not surprising that Harper does not include defence attorneys in the list of people he chooses to listen to, because they would never support harsher sentences, regardless of what they might think in any particular situation.

So, we have experts, and we have non-experts. Harper is choosing to side with the non-experts, in complete contradiction to every rational and logical notion. He draws those non-experts from a pool of candidate groups such that they are all predisposed to agree with Harper. He is stacking the deck in his favour, which makes him intellectually dishonest and a cheat.

As far as I know, he has never explained why he would do something so stupid. I can only assume that this is part of the general “conservative” philosophy: resist change at every turn and maintain obsolete value systems based on religion, patriarchy, and a class-based oligarchy.

And in the process of pushing his witless agenda, Harper has seriously insulted the one group who are the most well-suited to help Canada solve its problems: the academics.

We really, really do not need Harper’s kind of thinking in Canada.

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