At Radboud University, students are made into left-winged puppets, fears student Joppe Hamelijnck. PhD researcher in European geopolitics Rodrigo Bueno Lacy does not agree with him and gives his own, academic view on the matter. 'This is not a shortcoming of the Radboud University, but a weakness of what right-wing politics has transformed into.'
Some weeks ago I walked past a coffee truck of the VVD stationed at the Erasmusplein and it begged my incredulity to see young Dutch students, who grew up propelled by one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, working for free to promote the very party trying to dismantle the wealth redistribution that they represent. It reminded me of ‘false consciousness’, a concept in Marxist philosophy that refers to the ideologies through which elites mislead the poor and vulnerable to shoot themselves in the foot so that the rich and powerful can have a structural advantage in the race for better material conditions. The interview with Joppe Hamelijnck from the youth association JOVD drove me into a similar fit of disbelief.
Although there is no space here to address the highly debated and geopolitically differentiated meaning of ‘left’ and ‘right’ politics, it should suffice to say that this dichotomy is the oversimplification of an otherwise complex political spectrum. The ideal of free public education for all and, on the larger context, of a fair point of departure for all, was as much a concern of the Communist Manifesto as it is of classical and modern liberal theorists, from Adam Smith to John Rawls.
In today’s global context, this heritage is represented by what are considered ‘radical left-wing politics’. More wealth redistribution is intended as a stronghold against an ever more automatised political economy that is turning profitable work into a luxury and driving exploitation into the mainstream. Non-discrimination is a stronghold against a political insurgency of prudes and xenophobes that want to resuscitate proven self-destructive policies. Environmental awareness is a stronghold against cartoonishly evil industrialists bent on the destruction of our biodiversity, safety and economy just to make an extra buck.
The fact that such ‘leftist’ stances happen to enjoy a more defensible moral ground and are supported by science is not a shortcoming of the Radboud University, but a weakness of what right-wing politics has transformed into.
The proposal of the Dutch House of Representatives to research the political orientation of Dutch universities that Joppe favours calls to mind another crucial concept emphasised by ‘leftist’ authors: power. In order to locate power one needs to go no further than the teachings of The Big Lebowski and ask the ancient Roman maxim: cui bono?, i.e., who benefits? Since the bill was proposed by Duisenberg (VVD) and Straus (PVV), one doesn’t have to be an insightful political analyst to envisage how two far-right parties — and make no mistake, the VVD is far-right — would benefit from it: science contradicts the core positions of their political platforms and universities are among the strongest bulwarks of resistance against them.
‘Who is with me and who is against me?’
The overwhelming consensus in academic literature does not back up the racism, socio-political inequality, or environmental degradation that their platforms propose either by action or omission. Moreover, parties with increasingly authoritarian platforms aiming to chart universities’ ideological inclinations have historically not been the champions of diversity but rather have had a very different concern in mind: who is with me and who is against me? Lists of ideological affiliation have always been the tool of purges, not of diversity.
Joppe complains about feeling isolated as a student with non-leftist perspectives, as if right-wing perspectives suffered from an ideological and political marginalisation. Not only are right-wing newspapers and broadcasters the most circulated and watched, but media’s modus operandi privileges the status quo, and right-wing fake news supported by propaganda behemoths are subverting entire democracies. Joppe worries about an echo-chamber and yet he would like the Radboud University to align with the hegemonic right-wing perspective which is already overwhelming.
Surely, science must be reformed and made less authoritarian. Yet the reforms that Dutch universities require are not fostered by the VVD or the PVV but by those who Duisenberg himself associates with ‘vandals’: the students who occupied the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam or those who took over the Terecht Café in Nijmegen — who, mind you, were not supported but rather shut down by an administration that bragged about its magic power to turn any spark of creativity into a dead space.
Now, the idea that objectivity is the researcher’s detachment from subjectivity is a fairy tale for children. Objectivity refers to scientists’ awareness and honesty about their inescapable bias as well as their openness to question it but also to the firmness to offer their advice in a subject of their specialisation. If in my occasional lectures I advocate what I am sure is considered a very noticeable left-wing approach to European geopolitics, for example, this is precisely because of the knowledge that I have acquired through my research, not in spite of it. The difference between insight and bias is that bias knows better yet decides to lie in order to advance its own political agenda, whereas insight implies an awareness of different opinions yet advances a specific standpoint on the conviction of its inherent merits.
To be sure, science needs to be protected from ideologies. However, what Joppe associates with a left-wing bias is science itself. The idea that a ‘diversity of perspectives’ would require the Radboud University to respect points of view based on flat-out lies represents the kidnapping of emancipatory language by those interested in wiping out diversity.
The university is not an ideological Noah’s Ark and not every single unfounded opinion deserves proportional representation in a lecture room of higher education subsidised by Dutch taxpayers. What Joppe associates with a less hypocritical university would involve opening academic spaces of teaching and debate for the traditional enemies of science: authoritarianism and superstition. The Radboud University and Nijmegen surely have no use for this.