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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

New York Times story on the Center for Inquiry

The New York Times has a recent story on the current rift between CFI founder Paul Kurtz and the current management, led by its (relatively) new CEO, Ron Lindsay. The story doesn't add a great deal to what was already known, and much of it consists of Kurtz taking further opportunities to undermine the organisation, but it provides an occasion to revisit the issue.

Frankly, this whole saga has caused me to lose much of my respect for Kurtz, someone I used to admire. He is increasingly coming across as petulant, disloyal, ego-driven, and clueless. While his ongoing campaign against the new managment may do a lot of damage, it is unlikely to change the CFI's current approach or lead to his reinstatement at the helm. It's plain to anyone who is following all this closely that the organisation's board brought in new blood to manage the place because it found Kurtz's management style wanting, not merely because Kurtz is now in his 80s and some succession planning was needed. But Kurtz was unwilling to hand over any real authority, and forced a show-down between himself and the people who'd been appointed to manage the place.

Quite properly, the board sided with the new management - as long as its CEO, Ron Lindsay, and the rest of the team were proving to be competent, they had a legitimate expectation that the board back them up. If you're put in such positions of responsibility, you must be given authority to go with it or your situation is untenable. It seems that the board understood this, to its great credit.

In the New York Times story, Kurtz is scathing about personnel management at the CFI:

“I am used to the academic life, where we don’t impose rules on employees,” Mr. Kurtz said, sitting in his living room. But Mr. Lindsay, he said, “set up a command system, said these are the rules and laws, and anyone who deviates from that will be investigated.”

Employees were interrogated for minor infractions, Mr. Kurtz said, and several were let go. “That is like Stalinism or the Inquisition,” Mr. Kurtz said.

Frankly, this is rubbish. What Kurtz is describing is nothing like Stalinism or the Inquisition. It is normal management practice. Any organisation, even an academic one, must have some basic rules and policies that apply to its employees, and it must investigate claims about "infractions". If an organisation is suffering financial exigency, it may have to initiate redundancies. If it is an advocacy organisation - as the CFI is - it cannot give all of its employees the freedom to say whatever they like in their public pronouncements. As others have said in commenting on blogs covering recent events at the CFI, how could the American Council for Civil Liberties accept its senior employees publishing comments deprecating the importance of free speech or freedom of religion, or the benefit of protecting these with constitutional provisions? The idea is absurd, and such an organisation would be useless.

Managing all this is not straightforward. Because the CFI is both a think tank and an advocacy organisation, it needs to give some freedoms to people who are employed primarily in its think tank mode. Those people may even have a role in putting opinions that deviate from current CFI policies, but there has to be a limit - if you deviate too far from those policies, then you really have no business staying there. You ought to look for a think tank whose policies are more congenial to your own views.

I wouldn't, for example, have much sympathy for a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies who insisted on advocating a strongly bioconservative approach to technology, or for a Fellow of the Cato Institute who insisted on promoting socialism. The same applies to a socialist think tank and a Fellow publishing articles praising the virtue of capitalism. Fellows are entitled to a degree of freedom in the views they express, but within the overall philosophy and policy approach of the organisation with which they have sought to be identified. If you are in a policy management position, you cannot stay if you insist on arguing in public for policies that differ from those of the organisation that employs you.

Basic rules like these should not even need to be spelled out, but in practice they have to be given some codification because there are always employees who will claim they "didn't know" if it wasn't written down. Of course, there will be grey areas - those can only be handled by everyone showing good sense and a willingness to compromise. No advocacy organisation can afford to employ anyone who puts their own ego or their own idiosyncratic agenda above the organisation's objectives.

The previous paragraphs are not meant to imply that anyone currently or recently employed at the CFI has, in fact, acted in a way that is inappropriate to their position. The point is simply that there do have to be rules applying to the employees of advocacy organisations, and those rules must include, among other things, restrictions on the freedom of employees to say whatever they like, irrespective of how it fits with the organisation's goals and policies. Such an organisation can never give full academic freedom to its employees in the manner of a university.

Kurtz's choice of words, his comparison of ordinary management practices with Stalinism or the Inquisition, shows poor judgment. Poor judgment is also shown in his opposition to forthright expressions of atheism and to the aggressive stance that the CFI is quite rightly taking on issues such as freedom of speech. On these issues, I couldn't agree less with Kurtz.

We currently live at a time when there is a market for strongly worded critiques of religion, as evidenced by the success of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others. This provides the CFI with a great opportunity to "sell" its message that the world can be understood in purely naturalistic terms, that we can live good lives without otherworldly beliefs, and that those beliefs have no place in government. The message does not need to be conveyed in a hamfisted way - the CFI should use humour, careful analysis, and all the other tools that are available, rather than a monotone of denunciation, but of course no one employs such a monotone (Richard Dawkins certainly does not and nor do any of the core "New Atheist" writers).

While Kurtz accuses others of Stalinist tactics, it sometimes seems that he will only be happy if the CFI devotes itself to his comprehensive "affirmative" vision. That, however, is just what it should not do and should never be tempted to do. While the CFI needs its managers and (to some extent) its Fellows to stay on message, the message needs to be a broad one that can be accepted by many people whose comprehensive views may not all be consistent with each other. If the CFI attempts to limit itself to promoting one comprehensive view, that is a sure way to marginalise itself, by representing only a very small segment of the population. If it is to survive and to act as a strong voice for the attractive ideas of secularism and philosophical naturalism, the CFI needs to be open to a wide range of people who favour those ideas. (Those people, in turn, need to accept that the organisation will take official policy stances on particular issues that they don't agree with as individuals. No worthwhile organisation can please every member every time with every decision on every specific issue.)

If Paul Kurtz wants to promote his more specific ideas, let him found a new organisation. Well, it looks like he is, as the New York Times story refers to an organisation called the Institute for Science and Human Values. Fine, but he should stop undermining the new management of CFI. He is currently acting as a destructive force, and I wish he'd stop it.

All in all, I am losing patience with Kurtz. We owe him a debt of gratitude for founding and building the CFI and associated organisations such as Prometheus Books. As I've said before, however, they are now bigger than he is; they are not his playthings or his private fiefdom, and they cannot be expected to pursue his particular comprehensive view of the world or to prosper without proper management. Kurtz complains that the locks have changed so that he is no longer able to let himself into the CFI's headquarters, but why should he have that privilege when he is now intent on acting in opposition to the organisation? I have no idea why he thinks he should still have an office there, or why he'd be welcome there.

Kurtz needs to get his ego under control. Sure, he did much that we can all be grateful for, but gratitude has its limits. Of course he's performed many past services, services of great and real value - but gratitude for past services does not give him a blank cheque. He's tarnishing his own legacy, and it's time he moved on.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Russell: I must say, you seem pretty cocky and sure of yourself when it comes to this tragic situation with CFI. How close are you to the situation? You are basically defending Lindsay and Company by simply repeating the talking points put out there by Lindsay and the current CFI board. Have you taken the time to ask Kurtz what his real concerns are? Have you taken the time to speak with others who agree with Kurtz's criticisms, including a sizable number of individuals who have been pushed out of CFI, or left on their own accord? It seems pretty easy for you -- an outside observer who obviously prefers the tactics associated with the more aggressive and strident new atheism -- to sit back and condemn Kurtz. How about you take the time to REALLY investigate what has transpired over the the past two-and-a-half years before you summarily dismiss Kurtz as an angry and bitter old man unwilling to cede power. As a person close to a few of the players in this mess, I can assure you that the situation is a lot more complex than you portray it.

Russell Blackford said...

I didn't summarily dismiss anyone as anything. I wrote some closely-argued post posts based on what is on the public record, including what Kurtz is deliberately getting out there. There may be a lot on that is known only privately that supports Kurtz, but there may also be a lot that doesn't. If anything, Kurtz is in a better position, as a free agent, to say things about that than someone in a management position who has to walk a very fine line. Really, we can't speculate about private infomation. All we can do is look closely and objectively at the information available, including how Kurtz is choosing to conduct himself in public.

If he says a mixture of silly, implausible, and plainly self-serving things in public, no amount of private information, not on the public record, can take away from that. It's his choice to say those things, after all.

Maybe there's private information to the effect that Ron Lindsay beats up little old ladies and has sex with parrots, but none of us can base our opinions on that.

Now, if you want me to devote time to some kind of private investigation, you'll need to pay me for my time and expenses. Don't you see how silly it is asking a blogger whether he's done something that would cost him tens of thousands of dollars to do exhaustively? If you have to have done that to be entitled to criticise Kurtz, then none of us are entitled to criticise him. But that's absurd. He's saying things in public, and we get to comment on how it comes across and what the public record seems to show. If he doesn't want criticism, he has the option of shutting up.

Jack Rawlinson said...

I tend to lose a good measure of respect for any apologist who uses the "If religion dies what will we replace it with?" angle, because it is, frankly, stupid.

To me - someone who, like most atheists I know, felt incredibly liberated by ditching religion - it's a bit like saying "If we get rid of cancer, what will we replace it with?" We don't need to replace it with anything. People witter on about the social side of churches etc... nonsense. Anyone would think there weren't ample opportunities for socialising without churches, and usually in places and amongst people with a far greater sense of what's fun, stimulating and convivial than a church full of superstitious people.

Anonymous said...

You have no idea how accurate your description is, Russell. Spot on, as anyone who actually spends time in the building -- and has seen Dr. Kurtz's increasingly erratic behavior for themselves (and can actually compare it to his dishonest public statements) -- will attest. Spot on, but very sad nonetheless.

Stuart said...

"If we get rid of cancer, what will we replace it with?"

THAT is absolutely priceless. Mr. Rawlinson, you've made my day!

I'm a little confused. Didn't John Shook of the CFI just annoy most atheists in an article in the Huffington Post in which he said atheists had to know more theology, that they were too religiously ignorant (I guess that recent PEW poll showing atheists know more about religion than the religious was most inconvenient)? Is this the same CFI that is now a hotbed of strident atheism and "stalinist" in its dealings with its employees? What's Shook doing there then?

Anonymous said...

"stalinist in its dealings with its employees"

This actually applies to those employees who had been supportive of Paul Kurtz, openly or otherwise. All who were -- save for one -- have now been driven out of the organization. Those who remain have unequivocally repudiated Kurtz, and their jobs are firmly secure under Lindsay. Those remaining also happen to be -- in the main -- the same people who maintain a certain antipathy towards Kurtz's original vision for CFI. So one could say that Lindsay has been victorious.

Frank said...

Excellent post, Russell, and an excellent response to the first commenter (Anonymous) as well. All very well stated and to the point.