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Monday, October 12, 2015

Gleichschaltung at Haskell


Recently a semi-prominent Haskeller, some of whose work the author has in the past enjoyed, has unfurled his personal flag. It consists out of \(\lambda\), the traditional ensign of theoretical computer science (of the practitioners of which Haskell has in recent years been a favorite plaything) and the flag of one of the twentieth century’s great genocidal totalitarianisms, similar to the title image here.No, of course not that one. The other one.

A lot of talk has grown in the programming scene about 'keeping politics out of code' so I decided instead to create a banner for those who feel rather more otherwise.

I believe in a programming community that is aware and conscious of its place within the greater society, and acts with conscience and considerations of the consequences of its actions, rather than one that hides in an imaginary apolitical space oblivious to the effects its creations wreak upon civilization.

I also believe in the ideals of equality of opportunity, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or economic class, and that the needs of all members of society should be met, rather than only those of a wealthy and privileged elite and those who can claw their way into its good graces.

This saddened the author on several levels. For one it means that the author and that Haskeller will likely never be able to collaborate on anything Haskell related. Even if the author could, as he hopes he can, banish his revulsion at the Haskeller’s political views long enough, this Haskeller must consider this author’s views equally contemptible and makes it clear that such suppression of politics is not only not desirable, but would constitute an unacceptable act of ideological treason.

More importantly it means that an effort at ideological Gleichschaltung is underway in yet another field of thought. Even if this Haskeller does not succeed, another one very well might. And when they do, people like the author (or any other views different from that of this Haskeller) will no longer be welcome there.

This is a process which has repeated itself across various fields over the last fifty years. Through a rapid series of events, certain political views become a professional requirement and others a professional bar. Soon the only outspoken political dissenters are those who achieved tenure and other accolades before the Gleichschaltung and avoid missteps which could justify their dismissal. Eventually they die. The minority of political dissenters protect their careers and professional friendships by staying in a closet far deeper than a gay man’s in the 1950s bible belt. A few hardy souls manage to hang on at departments of a lower tier than their accomplishments would otherwise suggest. A few more manage to find sinecures in various think tanks. Almost all prospective entrants of dissenting views shy away once they observe the contempt in which their seniors openly hold them and begin to suspect, often rightly, that advancement in the field would be either severely limited or require the mental pains of the closet.

The various Studies departments were almost all born that way. But over the decades that followed most departments in the Humanities and Social Sciences have fallen to this phenomenon.This is not to say that there are no more political disputes among faculty. Within the permitted range such disputes are perfectly commonplace. So debates about whether it is more important to be a Feminist or Marxist are often heard. But offering an opinion that might be deemed anti-Feminist or anti-Marxist will often have dire consequences. So such opinions are not offered. One set of exceptions are many Economics departments. While economists as a group endorse a wide range of political views far outside the mainstream, once one maps their views onto conventional political party allegiances Economics departments more closely resemble the outside world than any other departments. So, of course, Economics departments are generally described as hostile outposts of the right-wing reaction by most faculty outside of them.

Only departments of the Natural Sciences, Mathematics, the various types of Engineering have so far largely been spared. Surveys show that substantial majorities of even these departments share the received political views. But in these cultures politics is not regarded as an all-consuming or overriding factor. Many of them are not even terribly interested in politics. Faculty colleagues may know each other for years, collaborate on many papers, and consider themselves close personal and professional friends before learning from some chance remark that they have diametrically opposite political views. And after learning that, they remain friends and collaborators. Conversely some practitioners in these fields, at all levels of seniority, openly and jovially avow dissenting political views with little fear of reprisal. Potential entrants learn from this that they will not have to be in the closet.

It is thanks to this political diversity and apoliticality of results that these fields have both been able to continue the advance at their great common task of discovery, each year incrementing their base of knowledge, skill, and power to a heretofore unknown level, and maintain sufficient popular and political prestige to make outsiders to listen to their message when the field speaks to a subject.

Conversely, the gleichgeschaltene departments are distrusted by at least half the public and political class for being their open enemies and regularly producing nothing but denunciation and contempt for their half the political spectrum. Only the politicians who would have agreed with the received view anyway put any stock into anything that comes out of the gleichgeschaltene departments and they did not need convincing. It is one ironic consequence that these departments by becoming overtly political lost whatever political influence they might otherwise have had.

However, just because some departments have so far been spared, it does not follow that they are immune. Even today university administrations, drawn largely from the gleichgeschaltene departments, turn their ire on the non-conformity of the remaining departments and only tolerate them for all nice research grants they bring in and prestige they convey onto the entire campus. And this tolerance is neither limitless nor guaranteed to persist as, for example, the Affaire Summers showed. If the likes of Larry Summers—undisputed brilliance, a university position at the apex of prestige, an unblemished record of devotion to the cause of the Left—can be brought down for merely suggesting that a perfectly plausible, if unconfirmed hypothesis about genetic traits might be worth thinking about (he did not even endorse the hypothesis), then nobody is safe.Nancy Hopkins, a professor of Biology at MIT and Summers foe, proudly told the Boston Globe the following day that Summers’s remarks left her no choices but to run out of the room, to feint, or to vomit. Apparently, MIT-level science professors are taught that these are the only options when presented with an hypothesis one disagrees with. One imagines that MIT Biology labs must be quite a mess, what with all the faculty running away, slipping in faculty vomit, or perhaps tripping over passed out other faculty.

The non-conforming departments are certainly not safe. There is some indication that a large part of climate science has fallen in the wake of the Global Warming issue. Outside of academia, the controversies leading up to and following from the most recent Hugo science fiction award are an indication of another field at risk of falling. So does the recent GameGate controversy among computer game designers and players.

Painful ironies abound. Those marching under the proud banner of diversity and inclusion would, if successful, achieve nothing more than excluding a large fraction of potential recruits and stamping out any genuine diversity of thought. And even if they do succeed, as they generally seem to in the end, they find that the political rewards of Gleichschaltung are curiously small: political influence outside the field evaporates and the potential dissenters excluded from the field do not disappear from the face of the world, but find other paths and positions from which frustrate the sacred cause. The only arguable advance is that some who might otherwise have been lukewarmers or moderates find it advantageous to become flag wavers for the cause. But is that small gain worth the great cost, even to the true devotes of the sacred cause?