As the campus community surely recalls, The Badger Herald reprinted a Danish cartoon depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb for a turban in an issue early last spring. It caused quite the uproar, and the Herald subsequently printed dozens of letters from readers reacting to our decision.
We printed as many letters as we could and even expanded the opinion section on multiple days to accommodate the glut of responses — a compilation that, on the whole, shared little sympathy with our stance. But there were some letters that still did not make the cut, largely due to space or relevancy concerns.
One of the letters that did not appear came from Kevin Barrett.
Yes, that Kevin Barrett — the one who is set to teach a course on Islam at the University of Wisconsin this fall.
In Mr. Barrett's case, his letter didn't make it because, other than claiming our decision was based upon a "Goebbels-like desire to spew anti-Muslim hate propaganda," he didn't really address the cartoon. Rather, in an e-mail he professionally titled, "free speech my irish muslim ass," he bemoaned the ink we devoted to the cartoon when we could have instead used the space to cover the "story of the century" — which for Mr. Barrett, as you all know by now, is how the Bush administration orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
His primary evidence consisted of a couple unscientific polls showing that people don't always believe 100 percent of what the government tells them. It was just too zany and implausible to print.
But you can be sure I remembered the letter.
So when Mr. Barrett's views became the talk of Wisconsin this summer after he appeared on a radio talk show, I was not surprised. I knew what he believed in, and I knew he desperately wanted a stage to advance his conspiracy theories.
Furthermore, I knew if there was one place that Mr. Barrett's notions of a diabolical George W. Bush scripting the murder of 3,000-plus American citizens could find some level of sanctuary, it would be at UW — partially because Madison loathes the current occupants of the White House, but mainly because of academic freedom.
Yes, that academic freedom.
Not a bad concept, really. As UW professor Donald Downs pointed out this summer, it is the reason this university no longer suffers under the oppressive weight of 1990s-era campus speech codes. The codes aimed to promote political correctness and root out any dialogue in the university community not thought to be progressive enough.
It's just that academic freedom is not the issue here. It only serves as a convenient crutch for UW leaders to use when fending off critics of their decision to employ Mr. Barrett. But any assessment of the lecturer and his university position needs to start elsewhere.
Namely, what is at stake in this matter is academic quality. Sadly, Mr. Barrett doesn't have it, and UW seems none too concerned with encouraging it on campus.
See, Mr. Barrett absolutely loves all this attention. Before, his heinous theories had to compete in the marketplace of ideas, and they fared poorly. Nobody took his radical ideas seriously, so he struggled to be heard.
But now he has a pulpit, and look how he has exploited it. He has appeared on Fox News, been featured for long pieces in the Capital Times and Isthmus, written to the New York Times following its coverage of his actions, started a mass online campaign to get State Rep. Steve Nass to debate him — and the list goes on. Through it all, Mr. Barrett's public behavior has run the gamut from childish (his letter to Gov. Doyle) to downright delusional (his appearance on Hannity & Colmes).
It all raises extremely strong questions as to whether he can be a serious teacher — one dedicated to scholarly arguments and teaching facts, not opinions. Mr. Barrett is just too attached to his conspiracy theories. They define who he is. To suggest that Mr. Barrett can suppress his personal viewpoints and teach an objective introduction to Islam appears to be wishful thinking at best.
Additionally, Mr. Barrett has admitted to divulging his 9/11 views in previous classes he has taught at UW, a course selection that includes topics such as folklore. Surely you remember the Brothers Grimm tale about Dick Cheney directing his jumbo jets into a couple skyscrapers — the one that taught us mass murder is okay so long as you get to fight the Taliban afterwards, right? Don't worry. I can't recall reading that one either.
Really, Mr. Barrett, 47, probably didn't take the teaching job at UW because the $8,000 salary was just too good to pass up. But when telling the media about your irrational conspiracy theories, being able to say that one of the nation's leading universities employs you lends a modicum of credibility to your otherwise inane ramblings.
Sadly, the loser here is not Mr. Barrett, but UW. He gets all the exposure he wants, while the university is saddled with a teacher whose unprofessional public behavior and affinity for unsubstantiated hypothesizing under the guise of serious scholarship deals the school's reputation a daily black eye.
Mr. Barrett will teach this semester, but he needs to be monitored closely, and UW must remember that mentioning his theories in the classroom as anything more than an unsubstantiated theory that enjoys popularity in the Muslim world is unacceptable.
There is, however, an upshot to this whole fiasco. My application to teach an intro nutritional science course for UW is looking much better. Sure, I'm a political science major, and sure, I approve an all-trans-fat, all-the-time diet (heart attacks are inside jobs perpetuated so the heart can get even with the brain; they have nothing to do with artery blockage, people) but I think I'm qualified.
Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is chairman of the Badger Herald Editorial Board.