Earlier this week, Robert J. Birgeneau, former President of the University of Toronto and current Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, issued a surprisingly blunt and gutsy statement about the Arizona shootings. In a campus wide e-mail, he puts the blame for the tragedies squarely on the “climate in which demonization of others goes unchallenged and hateful speech is tolerated”.
But what seems obvious to –at least some of– us, is not for David Brooks. The latter devoted his column at the New York Times to essentially argue that extreme rhetoric and over the top uncivil political discourse had absolutely nothing to do with political violence such as the assault committed against a U.S. congresswoman. Accusations “were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky. They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness”, he writes, and blames the whole thing on mental illness.
Now by definition, people capable of committing such crimes must be mentally ill at the first place. But this doesn’t mean that “words don’t matter”. Is Brooks going to argue now that Timothy McVeigh was simply mentally ill and that his murderous action had absolutely nothing to do with the anti-government rhetoric he was subjected to? Should we blame it all on mental illness? See also the article “Can we deny that words matter?”.
Birgeneau goes however one step further and writes: “I believe that it is not a coincidence that this calamity has occurred in a state which has legislated discrimination against undocumented persons.”
This is amazingly candid –for our times– coming from the Chancellor of a major US public University, and he is indeed drawing criticism from various quarters according to many reports such as the LATimes and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
But then, that’s what is fascinating about Birgeneau. He is an outstanding physicist who never quit his research in spite of his heavy administrative duties at MIT, then Toronto and now Berkeley. He doesn’t give a hoot about Fox news and those who may come after him. One could see him perfectly happy returning full-time to his research Lab.