Even liberal professors get slapped around, while China gets a pass
Harvard Law School Professor J. Mark Ramseyer ignited a firestorm over his recently announced paper, “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War.” For straying from the official line that Imperial Japan enslaved Korean (and other) women to pleasure Japanese soldiers prior to and during World War II, Ramseyer faces a hue and cry from “concerned” academics, with some demanding that he be fired and others demanding that the paper be retracted.
Ramseyer explained to Harvard colleague Jeannie Suk Gersen that he had written the new paper as a follow-up to a 30-year-old article he had written about indentured servitude contracts for prostitution in prewar Japan.
But by disputing the widely held position that the “comfort women” were actually sex slaves, Ramseyer was accused of reigniting a schism between Japan and South Korea that was thought settled after an official apology from Japan in 1993, a 1996 United Nations report that branded “comfort women” as sex slaves, and a 2015 bilateral agreement under which Japan pledged to set up a fund for the aging survivors.
The few academics who, without necessarily endorsing Ramseyer’s arguments, have stood up for his academic freedom have also been vilified, especially in South Korea. The Philadelphia City Council even passed a resolution condemning Ramseyer, and Harvard’s Korean Student Association has demanded a formal apology.
Two South Korean professors, Joseph Yi of Hanyang University and Joseph Phillips of Yonsei University, wrote not in defense of Ramseyer’s theory but of his and their own right to debate such issues as academics without threats of retaliation or termination. In response, students and alumni at Hanyang demanded that Yi be fired on the spot.
The oft-published Ramseyer is Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies and a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. He previously taught law at UCLA, the University of Chicago and several Japanese universities. He was raised in Japan by missionary parents, speaks fluent Japanese, and admits he did not rely on any Korean sources for his article. All these facts have been used in attempts to discredit his research.
Yet even the Ramseyer controversy pales in comparison to South Korean professor Park Yu-ha’s 2013 book, The Comfort Women of the Empire. Even though Park studied archival documents and interviewed surviving “comfort women,” her statements that some Koreans collaborated with private Japanese recruiters and some women voluntarily signed contracts for sex services resulted in both civil and criminal cases against her.
Park was sued for defamation by nine surviving comfort women and ordered to pay each of them a sum amounting to about US$8,500. For daring to dispute the widely held narrative of victimization, Park was accused by internet users, domestic media and civic groups of being a pro-Japan traitor who is “callously” undermining the comfort women’s quest for justice.
When Park was subsequently indicted criminally by a state prosecutor, dozens of academics came to her defense, citing longstanding American values adopted by both Japan and South Korea after World War II. In a formal statement opposing the criminal indictment, they objected to the prosecutor’s move to “confine academic freedom and freedom of speech based on a particular view of history.”
Later, when Park was acquitted, the High Court still judged that Park had given “false statements” in her book, “because they do not converge with what the prosecutors believe to be the ‘correct’ view of South Korean history.” [emphasis added]
Kazuhiko Togo, director of the Institute of World Affairs at Japan’s Kyoto Sangyo University, attacked the prosecutor’s reasoning as “disturbing in its implications. It means that the state prosecution can decide that a certain view on an issue is the ‘correct’ one, and that anything that does not fall within these predetermined parameters can potentially be criminally indicted.” [emphasis added]
These assaults on professorial academic freedom, both tied to events 75 to 90 years ago, are hardly the only examples of the “righteous indignation” against “incorrect” ideas, as determined by an increasingly “woke” academic environment. Indeed, the heirs to Berkeley’s 1960s “free speech” movement have turned college campuses into political war zones, where any deviation from “woke” views is simply not tolerated and will be viciously suppressed.
It is perhaps small comfort that at least the assault on academic freedom has of late become somewhat bipartisan. University of Illinois – Chicago law professor Jason Kilborn was vilified for using profane expressions (identified only as “n …” and “b …”) for African Americans and women as examples in an exam question regarding a mock employment discrimination case.
His “reward” was being subjected to an hours-long mental examination, required to undergo drug testing, placed on administrative leave, barred from campus and prevented from carrying out any of his faculty duties, after several students rebelled … at a final exam question that he had been using for a decade. He lost a year, and much of his reputation, but ultimately kept his job.
St. Johns University (New York) history professor Richard Taylor was not so lucky. A self-described “left of center guy,” Taylor asked students in an exam to decide whether the “positives justified the negatives” in the so-called “Columbian Exchange” – the transfer of plants, animals, disease, people and culture following Columbus’ voyages.
But an anonymous Instagram group calling itself “SJURadicals” declared he was a “RACIST PREDATOR ON CAMPUS” who “forced students to formulate a pros and cons list concerning the topic of slavery.” Zero tolerance for “racists,” you know.
Except, it appears, when the victims are Mongolian Uighurs, for example, and the “racist” perpetrators of the abuse are members of the Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Few today doubt the authenticity of charges by Uighurs that the CCP is subjecting Uighur women to mental and physical torture, including rape, forced sterilization and abortion, and killing of babies born alive. (This is on top of reports that the Chinese have been harvesting organs from Falun Gong members and other reports that the Chinese are closing Christian churches, jailing pastors and even rewriting Scripture.)
The Dutch and Canadian Parliaments have both condemned China for the Uighur genocide, as did former U.S. President Donald Trump. China historian Geremie R. Barmé has stated that China under Xi Jinping combines “the vitriol, hysteria and violent intent of its Mao-era ancestor with the forensic detail afforded by digital surveillance.” Barmé surmised, “If America or Europeans think they have ‘cancel culture,’ they don’t have a clue.”
Surely, one might think, an academia so fixated on racism and abuse that professors can be skewered for an exam question hardly anyone would find offensive would jump at the chance to battle active, ongoing racism that many have referred to as genocide.
But criticism of China on U.S. campuses is rare, and at best faint-hearted. Indeed, the most likely connection between the words “China” and “racist” are howls by academics that the Chinese are victims of American racists who used the term “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” to identify the origins of the corona virus pandemic.
Three years ago The New Republic expressed grave concern over “an epidemic of self-censorship at U.S. universities on the subject of China, limiting debate and funneling students and academics away from topics likely to offend the Chinese Communist Party.” Today, it’s crickets – stony silence.
And it is not just on campus. Recently, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi flatly denied claims of genocide, calling them “ridiculously absurd … a rumor with ulterior motives and a complete lie.” When asked about the issue, President Biden calmly said “the central principle of Xi Jinping is that there must be a united, tightly controlled China.” Unity through censorship and Big Tech, Big Government intolerance, cancellation and punishment.
Do Chinese money and “diplomacy” exert this much influence on the dialogue? In an environment when academic disputes over 80-year-old probably-forced prostitution generate ten times the vitriol as does ongoing genocide, how can academic freedom survive, let alone any freedom at all?