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The Luddite from York University By: Steven Plaut
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, October 24, 2005


Canada has been keeping up with the United States in producing considerable numbers of flaky academic extremists.  But it is doubtful that any are as bizarre as David F. Noble.[1]

 

Noble teaches at York University in Toronto, Canada’s third-largest school.  Originally a graduate from the University of Florida, Noble is today a full, tenured professor of “social and political thought” in the Faculty of Arts at York.  Interestingly, he is the ONLY professor in that department.  Evidently, after recruiting him Noble was such an embarrassment that York had to build a one-man separate department to house him, removing him from his previous position in its history department.  Noble has built a career mainly upon his obsessive opposition to all forms of technology.  He is literally a 21st century Luddite and he is quite proud of that fact.  (Don’t bother trying to look up his personal web page or his email address because he ideologically opposes such things!)

 

Noble embodies a strange hybrid of Marxism and crackpot Luddism.  He proudly proclaims himself to be a “critical historian,” which is PC Newspeak for “Marxist.”  Among other things, he has published Progress Without People: In Defense of Luddism and Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation, both books devoted to the theme that technology is an evil plot by the “capitalist class” to oppress workers.  Machines are simply things used to force down the wages of the worker.  Noble’s conclusions in these books are that the best defense of workers is to suppress modern technology altogether.  Noble dismisses all anti-Luddist people, and if you are reading this on a computer screen then I regret to inform you that YOU are one of those blinded “technophiles” and “technozealots”.

 

Now if you are anything other than a devout member of an Amish sect, you might find all this a bit confusing.  I would bet a month of my own technology-enhanced wages that there is nearly a perfect POSITIVE correlation between the number of machines around and the wage level of workers.  That is - the more machines, the higher the wage rates of workers!  Similarly, I venture to guess that there is almost a perfect correlation between the number of technological innovations and the level of wages.  Moreover, a wonderful thing about technology in one country is that it raises wages even in other societies where few technological innovations are being created (such as when measured by patent registrations).

 

In Noble’s theories, much of the blame for the curse of technology is assigned to Christianity. According to him Christianity, going back to the Middle Ages, did not have enough good sense to oppose technology.  It should have prevented scientists from setting themselves up as demigods of technology.  Moreover, Christian thinkers actually had the temerity to suggest that machines and innovations could be used to better mankind and might even be part of God’s master plans.  Part of Noble’s “proof” that it was “all Christianity’s fault,” by the way, is his claim that Werner von Braun from NASA was a born-again Christian.  Noble’s anti-Christian ideas are expounded at length in one of his other books, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.  He also blames Christianity for the relative dearth of women in science.  And now, in his latest book, he more even-handedly blames both Christianity and Judaism for “globalization,” his current bogeyman.

 

In another Noble book, Forces of Production, he claims to explain how technology is often instigated, connived, and shaped by the military, corporations, universities, and other “mighty institutions.”  Noble claims that “capitalists” are plotting to impose their views coercively upon students via institutions of higher education.  How exactly this works is not clear.  Noble seems to be unaware of the hegemony of leftists over most North American institutions of higher learning.  So if those evil “capitalists” are plotting to brainwash hapless students by means of their “commercializing” higher education, as Noble insists over and over, they are doing a darned lousy job of it! 

Back in 1983, Noble co-founded the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, together with Ralph Nader (and Al Meyerhoff), to try "to bring extra-academic pressure to bear upon university administrations who were selling out their colleagues and the public in the pursuit of corporate partnerships."  Noble claims his aim has been to “have chronicled and fought against the commercialization and corporatization of higher education.”  He also claims he is fighting “commodification” of higher education.  We have no idea what “corporatization” and “commodification” are supposed to mean.  Like most leftists, the principal methodology of analysis used by Noble is the manufacture of senseless polysyllables. 

One would think that most mainstream leftists and liberals would seek to distance themselves from Noble’s anti-technology crackpot views.  But for someone who dismisses universities as captives of the evil business class, Noble gets an awful lot of invitations to speak on assorted campuses.  Many among the chic chattering classes seem to adore him.  When he got canned from MIT, a group of 44 British academics rushed out, publicly defended and endorsed Noble.  However, not everyone on the Left appreciates him.  Even Noble’s supporters often describe him as polemical in his writings and abrasive in his manner.  After Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of far-leftist The Nation, commissioned Noble to write a piece for the magazine, she had the uncharacteristic good sense to refuse to run it.

 

Noble likes to rant about a sort of “industrial-educational complex”, which presumably replaces the “military-industrial complex”, ordinarily the preferred bogeyman of the Left.   Noble claims that during the Gulf War he examined the use of fuel-air and wrote a political article in The Progressive entitled "Academic Atrocities."  The article explores how 20th-century weapons of mass destruction have been researched and developed largely in university laboratories.  One thing that really yanks his chain is when universities set up for-profit enterprises, to make money for themselves out of the patented technologies they develop.  Profitable education and research are pure evil, he pontificates.  Better the taxpayer should foot the bills.  And of all the sins of the academy, Noble hates “distance-learning” most of all.  He insists that it means universities are becoming “digital diploma mills.”  He seems to have successfully inserted into the student handbook at York, distributed annually to all students, a warning against the dangers of online education.

 

Noble has also been the subject of harsh criticism, even in his own university.  Before he arrived at York, however, he had been fired from a job at MIT, probably because of his Flat-Earth views about science and technology.  MIT was not prepared to change its name to the Massachusetts Institute of Luddism.  After this he was hired by the Smithsonian to organize an exhibit there, but he insisted on the inclusion of sledgehammers used by the legendary followers of Ned Ludd to smash the power-looms supposedly taking away the livelihood of English hand-weavers in the nineteenth century.  Noble called the exhibit "Automation Madness: Boys and Their Toys.”  It was not what the Smithsonian had in mind.  They also fired Noble.

 

Noble next taught for at Drexel University in Philadelphia, which granted him tenure, and there he managed to antagonize people as well.  He has run into walls of opposition in other corners of academia as well.  For instance, Noble was blocked from giving the commencement address at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, because the administration claimed he was anti-technology.  When he tried to get an appointment as the endowed Woodsworth Professorship in the Humanities at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University (a chair paid for, by the way, with funds from labor unions), the appointment was blocked by administrators.  According to Noble, this was because of his criticism of “online education and the corporatization of academia.”

 

At York University, he was attacked as "anti-science" and "anti-intellectual" by the university president himself (surely, given his ideology, Noble should regard the first of those terms as a compliment!)  Noble opposed the establishment of the International Space University at York University,  which he called “a finishing school for space cadets.” 

 

Noble is currently fighting a libel suit against his own employer, York University.  He is demanding $10 million in damages and an apology from the university for alleged defamation, telling the media he is confident he will win if it goes to arbitration.  Noble maintains that York University damaged his reputation, discriminated against him, and violated his academic freedom when it issued a press release condemning the material he distributed at a campus event as "targeting Jewish members of the York community."

 

Noble seems to like to file nuisance litigation.  He had tried a similar nuisance-suit when he got turned down for tenure at MIT.  Unsurprisingly, Noam Chomsky  was one of Noble’s main supporters at MIT, although later Chomsky publicly denied Noble’s charge that he had been canned as an act of political repression by MIT.  Noble had been assistant professor in MIT's Program in Science, Technology and Society.  What on earth was MIT thinking when it hired him?

 

Robert Sullivan, a lawyer for MIT, said Noble was denied tenure at MIT because his scholarly work was not up to par, and because he was not considered trustworthy by some of his peers. Noble then filed suit for $1.5 million, but the suit was eventually dismissed in a pre-trial settlement, without Noble getting any money.  In the settlement, Noble got essentially nothing at all, but MIT did agree to release some information related to Noble’s failure to get tenure.  When Noble then illegally published various classified documents released to him under the terms of this settlement, including confidential letters of evaluation used in the tenure proceedings, MIT filed suit against him for contempt.

 

Noble combines Luddism and dislike of Christianity with utter contempt and hatred for Jews and Judaism.  He is a leftist hater of Jews who himself was born Jewish, a fact that helps him defend himself against charges of anti-Semitism.  Self-hating Jewish academics are common on campus today, and range all the way from the phony sophisticates like MIT’s Chomsky and NYU’s Tony Judt, all the way down to the vulgar neo-nazi buffoonery of DePaul’s Norman Finkelstein.  Like those others, Noble has a long history of bashing Israel and demonizing Zionism.  He has maliciously tried to stir up anti-Jewish passions at York, where he alleges that the board of the York University Foundation, the school’s fundraising arm, is biased by “the presence and influence of staunch pro-Israel lobbyists, activists and fundraising agencies.”  Meaning Jews.

 

In late November 2004, Noble got into trouble for biting the hand that pays his York salary.  He was attacked by his own administration for handing out information sheets regarding the York Foundation.  He maintained that the presence of Jews on the board affects the “political conduct of York's administration” in important ways, such as the “silencing of pro-Palestinian voices” on York’s campus.  The University then issued a press release on Nov. 19, 2004, condemning material Noble had been distributing at a campus event a day earlier as "targeting Jewish members of the York community."  Noble is tied to local pro-Palestinian groups, who back him in his nuisance litigation against York.  Meanwhile, he has been condemned by the Canadian Jewish Congress and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto for his anti-Jewish and anti-Israel activities.

 

But Noble’s latest high-visibility antic has been against the right of Jewish students at York University to observe Yom Kippur.  Most universities try to accommodate Jewish students, often asking professors not to schedule exams in the Jewish High Holidays.  York actually cancels classes altogether.  Noble maintains that this is “discriminatory and illegal”, because classes are not cancelled (unless later made up) for every holiday of every other conceivable religious persuasion. Chris Morley, a spokesperson for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, said canceling classes on holidays “is a decision the university has the authority to make,” adding that “it seems the York policy is reasonable.”

 

Prof. Martin Lockshin, an observant Jew who teaches at York and is on the university’s senate, said that the holiday policy follows a general York principle of respecting religious diversity; but - more importantly - it avoids problems that would be created when many students and faculty cannot attend class.  York also holds no classes on Christmas and Good Friday, but Noble threatened to hold classes on Good Friday as a political statement.  Noble demanded that York stop accommodating Jewish students and he threatened to hold classes on the Jewish High Holidays to show his contempt for them.  When threatened by the administration, Noble claimed he would henceforth cancel all classes for any holiday of any sort for any religion, including those of Bahais, Zoroastrians, and Wiccans.

 

Now just for the record, on Yom Kippur the Jewish students at York (Jews are 10% of the student body there) fast for 26 hours, pray the entire day, and may neither write nor use electricity.  So it makes perfect sense to make accommodations for them, and I am sure that if anyone can find any Christian, Hindu or Moslem holidays on which people fast for 26 hours, York would similarly be happy to oblige them.

 

But most significantly, Noble’s sudden determination to force the university to celebrate Wiccan holidays makes perfect sense in light of his career devoted to promoting anti-technology superstition.  After devoting so much of his energy to bash Jews, Christians, scientists, and technology, what could be more appropriate than this York University “academic” turning his mental powers to the tasks and challenges of witchcraft.

 

Notes:

[1]   A bit ironically, there is another David F. Noble, who writes books singing the praises of technology and  computer word processing, but the two should not be confused.

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Steven Plaut is a professor at the Graduate School of the Business Administration at the University of Haifa and is a columnist for the Jewish Press. A collection of his commentaries on the current events in Israel can be found on his "blog" at www.stevenplaut.blogspot.com.


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