A university education in the humanities was once supposed to be a civilizing experience. But just how antiquated are the traditional advocates of this ideal -- such as Charles Badham, professor of classics at the University of Sydney from 1867 to 1884 -- can be seen from two new developments at Badham's old institution.
The first is the university's invitation to Antonio Negri to speak at a conference from May 4-6 on "Physiognomy of Origins: Multiplicities, Bodies and Radical Politics", hosted by Sydney University's Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences and funded by its School of Languages and Culture.
And who's Negri? Well, he was one of the organizers of the Red Brigades, the terrorist group responsible for a number of political assassinations in Italy, the most notorious of which was the 1979 kidnapping and murder of the Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro. At the time, Negri was professor of political science at the University of Padua. He was arrested and charged with seventeen murders, including that of Moro, as well as "armed insurrection against the state". The Italian public was shocked that an academic could be involved in such events but most astonished by one bizarre detail. Forty-five days after the kidnapping, someone sounding like Negri telephoned Moro's wife, taunting her about her husband's impending death. Nine days later his body, shot in the head, was found dumped in a city lane.
Prosecutors argued it was 80 per cent certain the voice was Negri's but more cautious independent experts, perhaps mindful that some Red Brigade assassins were still at large, would say no more than the call belonged to the "same class" of voices. The weekly newspaper L'Espresso created a public storm when it included in its January 20 1980 edition a vinyl record containing the call to Moro's wife along with a police-recorded sample of Negri's voice. The paper invited readers: "You make the voice test."
Awaiting trial in prison, Negri got himself elected to parliament on the ticket of the Marxist-led Radical Party. Claiming parliamentary immunity, he was temporarily released and used his freedom to escape to France. In absentia he was convicted and sentenced to thirty years jail. By 1997 he had plea-bargained this down to a thirteen-year term for membership in an armed band, which he returned to Italy to serve.
In 2000, he became an academic celebrity in the United States as co-author with Duke University literary theorist Michael Hardt of the book Empire, a Marxist/postmodernist thesis arguing that, despite the fall of the USSR, a world-wide communist revolution is still on the political agenda. Part of the book's appeal on campus lay in the radical glamour of Negri's terrorist past and the cover note biography recording him as an inmate of Rebibbia Prison, Rome.
Now in his sixties, Negri is still under house arrest that confines him to his Rome apartment from 7pm to 7am but apparently releases him to accept university invitations as far afield as Australia. Even though the University of Sydney has been irresponsible enough to fund his visit here, the Howard government should reconsider whether someone convicted of crime on this scale deserves an entry visa.
The second development is a new book out of the same university's history department which celebrates, in part, the work of Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado. The book describes Churchill as a "Native American activist and scholar".
Last month, Churchill briefly became the most famous, and most reviled, academic in the United States. Shortly after September 11 2001 he wrote an essay saying those who died in New York's World Trade Centre deserved their fate. They were "a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire" who were at the time "busy braying, incessantly into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions".
Churchill added: "If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it."
At the time, these remarks escaped public notice and Churchill expanded his essay into a book on the subject, titled On the Justice of Roosting Chickens. In February this year, Churchill was scheduled to give a guest lecture at Hamilton College, New York. However, this followed close on the same college's employment of Susan Rosenberg, a convicted felon and former member of the 1960s terrorist group, the Weather Underground. Disaffected staff and students publicized the appointments and the Wall Street Journal and Fox News took up the story.
Churchill's "little Eichmanns" comment became public and he was excoriated not only for his offence to all those who died but also for his implicit anti-Semitism. The governor of Colorado called for Churchill's dismissal but only succeeded in forcing his resignation as head of the university's ethnic studies department. He remains a tenured professor.
During the media furore, other aspects of Churchill's background quickly became public. He was accused of academic misconduct, both in misrepresenting himself as an Indian to gain his university post and in his writings about American history.
The American Indian Grand Governing Council issued a statement saying "Ward Churchill has fraudulently represented himself as an Indian, and a member of the American Indian Movement and
has been masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband."
Thomas Brown of Lamar University, Texas, accused him of inventing the claim that the American Army in 1867 had deliberately infected the Mandan tribe with smallpox. Earlier, University of New Mexico specialist in Indian law, John Lavelle, had accused Churchill of fabricating evidence in no less than six books and eleven published articles.
Meanwhile in Australia, Churchill is being presented as a scholarly authority on the Aborigines. In the newly-released anthology Genocide and Settler Society, editor Dirk Moses of the University of Sydney's history department quotes Churchill's 1997 book A Little Matter of Genocide as one of his major sources on the Tasmanian Aborigines. Churchill compares the fate of the Tasmanians to that of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
Moses contrasts this thesis with what he calls the "naïve paean to British expansion" of Hannah Arendt, who denied the Nazi comparison and commended the British for bringing civilization to the indigenous people of America and Australia. Arendt was one of the most formidable intellectuals of the twentieth century who wrote a widely admired book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Hitler's project to exterminate the European Jews. To Moses, however, she is no match for Ward Churchill.
Another essayist in the same book, Henry Reynolds, also cites Churchill as one of the academic authorities who argue that what happened in Tasmania amounted to genocide. A third contributor, Paul Bartrop, quotes Churchill as a reliable source on the massacre of American Indians in Colorado.
Institutions that have hosted the likes of Negri and Churchill commonly defend themselves on grounds of free speech, as if it would be illiberal to deny such political activists a platform. In reality, by lowering the bar to accommodate people with so little concern for civilized values, universities betray the intellectual and moral standards they were founded to preserve.