Sunday, September 23, 2007


Reaction Time

Iowa holds a unique place in American politics.

For those of you who are un-American enough to have been born someplace else and stubbornly stayed there, Iowa is one of those states in the upper middle of the U.S., just below the Great Lakes on our Northern Hemispherianist maps. Its most identifying characteristic is that it is kinda boxy. With some prompting, a sizable minority of Americans could probably find it on a map.

In any event, Iowa has long served, along with New Hampshire, as a remote place with a higher than normal ratio of non-human to human multicellular organisms, where politicians who want to be president (which, in any sane world, would automatically disqualify a person from getting the job) can be safely confined, in a kind of quarantine, away from the larger population, until the prospect of an election can no longer be ignored. It is one of the signs of the decline of American politics (if not of the Apocalypse) that other states are now vying to have politicians bombard their citizens with campaign commercials, town meetings, policy statements, and other forms of toxic waste, in place of Iowa and New Hampshire.

But the very nature of the place we have counted on to protect the rest of us, as long as possible, from political discharge may give an acute insight into why our politics are the way they are. For quite contrary to the claims of the Discovery Institute and the editing and special effects to be employed in next year's fantasy movie, Expelled, the reality in the Heartland is hardly that of evil Darwinist professors imposing evolutionary theory on unwilling undergraduates. Quite the contrary ... at least in Red Oak, Iowa, a community of 6,000 residents situated along the euphonious Nishnabotna River:

A college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve is a fairy tale and should not be interpreted literally.

Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday.
As Bitterman explained:

I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn't given any more credibility than any other god. I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there.
According to the news story, Bitterman used the term "fairy tale" in a conversation with a student after the class and some students complained that he had "belittled their religion."

Hector Avalos, a professor of religion at Iowa State University and a participant in the recent flap about the denial of tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez, said Bitterman's free speech rights were violated if he was fired over his comments about Adam and Eve.

If he's teaching something about the Bible and says it is a myth, he shouldn't be fired for that because most academic scholars do believe this is a myth, the story of Adam and Eve. So it'd be no different than saying the world was not created in six days in science class. You don't fire professors for giving you a scientific answer.
However, as the Gonzalez case shows, the legal issues aren't quite that clear. For one thing, there is potentially a difference in implication between "myth" and "fairy tale" that might run afoul of the Establishment Clause when uttered by a government employee acting in his official capacity.

The telling part of the story, however, is the severity of the reaction of the administration and the alacrity with which it was imposed, compared to the Gonzalez case, where there were appeals processes and fully laid out guidelines for tenure applications. Clearly, the administration of Southwestern Community College thought that it was improper to even expose its students to ideas that might contradict their most cherished ideologies. And, instead of trying to clarify the situation and negotiate any ambiguities, the people in charge went straight to the most dire solution they had available.

Is it any wonder then that we have people like the current crop of official drones in Washington?
By the way, Ed Brayton at Disptches From the Culture Wars has more on the story, including some non-statements by the administration.

He should be fired. The story of Adam and Eve is not a fairy tale. Fairy tales have happy endings, like “…and they lived happily ever after”. The story of Adam and Eve ends with, and they were thrown into a fiery abyss, to torment forever. The End.
Gee, I wonder why the school hasn't commented. It must be because we are all evolution-hating hicks in SW Iowa. It couldn't have anything to do with employee confidentiality rights, could it?

Ask Mr. Bitterman to waive his right to confidentiality with regard to his personnel file, and perhaps the public can learn more of the story.
Ask Mr. Bitterman to waive his right to confidentiality with regard to his personnel file, and perhaps the public can learn more of the story.

If he is talking to the press about the reason he thinks he's been fired, he has already waived any privilege to that extent and the school can state the reason it claims he was fired (though it probably shouldn't release information from his file to back that up prior to a lawsuit).

It is possible that the lawyers have told the administration not to say anything out of an excess of caution but absolute silence is more often out of an excess of nothing good to say.

As to how many evolution-hating hicks there are in southwest Iowa, it sounds like you'd know more about that than I would.

I would like to thank all of you for taking the brunt of those evolution-hating Republican hicks, though.
By the way, there are some non-statements by the administration discussed here.
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