Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Brainwashing 101

Jerry Stratton, September 5, 2005

I ran across a reference to Brainwashing 101 as “interesting” on the Volokh Conspiracy. This is a 46-minute preview of what may eventually become a feature-length documentary. The preview is grainy, but otherwise looks fine on my TV set; the graininess is more than offset by the fast download time--it took only about two minutes to download over my cable connection.

Remember that this is a preview and, judging from the cuts, probably hastily-made. So I’m not going to comment on that aspect of the documentary. I was, however, disappointed by the techniques that were used, and by the lack of anything in-depth about the issues displayed.

The first section is heavily influenced by Michael Moore, and that’s not a compliment. The voiceover adds meaning to the film that isn’t necessarily there; the stock footage of 9/11 adds meaning to the quotes that isn’t necessarily there.

The first “story”, after the opening montage celebrating 9/11, is about director Evan Coyne Maloney’s alma mater Bucknell University, and California Polytechnic. One student at Bucknell complained that they couldn’t take high-school-style overviews like “sociology” or “history”. Instead they had to take classes that have an actual topic. Why was that in there?

The Bucknell segments are all heavily edited and appear to be added more as flavor than anything else.

The most interesting part about the Cal Poly section is the victim saying, “I’ve never thought, this person doesn’t look like me, they’re automatically gonna hate me”. Well, you wouldn’t. But because you don’t have to consider this doesn’t mean that others don’t. Other students do have to worry about reactions based solely on what they look like. That you don’t recognize this is an indication that maybe the administration had a point.

This is one of the problems with this version, at least, of the documentary: it doesn’t appear that the interviewer and editors even recognize other points of view, let alone consider them. Because of this, their interviews have a tendency to undercut their points.

Of course, given the Moore-style editing, it is entirely possible that Steve Hinkle does recognize that other people do have to worry about being discriminated against, but was taken out of context. You just can’t know in a “documentary” like this. Fortunately, an interview with Foundation for Individual Rights in Education director Greg Lukianoff salvages this section. Lukianoff clearly and precisely describes the issues and the blundering and outrageous behavior of Cal Poly’s administration. This is by far the best part of these interviews. FIRE needs to make their own documentary.

When Hinkle contacted FIRE, FIRE brought the Center for Individual Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union on board and the University lost--

--on every single possible ground. Cal Poly was just a ridiculous case. They dummied up charges, they held a ridiculous hearing. They worked very hard to figure out something they could “get him on”. The administration wanted to send a message to all the students: “this could be you.” If every time you posted a flier you had to consider the risk of a seven-hour hearing, nobody would post fliers. There is something very worrisome about a university that would teach students that in a situation where someone is posting a flier you disagree with, you call the cops.

Afterwards, Maloney goes off on a Michael Moore-style montage of getting the police called on him in the University administration building. While on the one hand it was interesting how the school’s administration avoided answering the question, on the other hand I can’t really blame them for not wanting to talk to someone as unprofessional as this filmmaker appears to be.

That’s Brainwashing 101 in a nutshell: the issues are fascinating but poorly presented. Interviews are so heavily edited that the viewer can’t trust anything. The director is more interested in grabbing for gotchas than in exploring the issues. The best parts are third parties such as Greg Lukianoff. If you aren’t familiar with the issue of speech codes and speech suppression on college campuses, this one section would make a good download, but I would be very disappointed if I had paid money to see the rest of this documentary in a theater.

That’s sad, because this is an important issue. When a University committee members can make a threat to “shoot those ragheads right in the fucking face” after a Sikh student writes an article critical of the committee’s choices, there is a serious problem at that university. They’ve fostered an environment where the administration is more concerned with protecting turf than with addressing their students’ issues even in the face of clear threats not just to free speech but to individual students and religions.

When a student organization can be harassed as a racist by the university administration for hosting the black author of It’s OK to Leave the Plantation, there is a serious problem at that university. FIRE chronicles hundreds of such cases throughout the United States, of an “increasingly repressive and partisan” educational environment. The loss of political diversity in our schools is becoming repression of political diversity.

Todd Zywicki, in Why Campus Intellectual Diversity Matters on the Volokh Conspiracy, writes:

One of our major goals as educators is to educate individuals who can participate in the governance of a free and democratic society. It is imperative that students be exposed to all viewpoints about the world and to learn to evaluate the truth and resonance of competing world views. It is a short road from the impoverished discussions in modern universities to the idiocy of Michael Moore and red v. blue America.

With its Moore-style editing and lack of honestly diverse viewpoints, Brainwashing 101 is as much a symptom of the impoverishment of modern higher education as the cases it cites. Those cases are important and if this is your only way of learning about them, go ahead and watch it. But you will probably find it more useful and more interesting to browse around the FIRE web site instead.

“It is bizarre that there are people out there who call themselves liberal who believe in crushing speech that they don’t like.”--Greg Lukianoff

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