When I encountered post-modernism, critical theory, and all the rest of the nonsense back in graduate school, it soon emerged that anybody who resisted these trends was dubbed "conservative," and that, with the clear implication that this was an insult.
Being politically conservative myself on many issues, I found this strange. I knew for a fact that Professors X and Y were not politically conservative. They were politically liberal, though you found that out only in passing. They were professionals who were interested in their subject matter, taught it well, and did not bring political issues into the academic discussion gratuitously.
The "conservative" label, however, was wielded to good effect repeatedly to get professors like X and Y to vote to hire other people who were much more politicized than themselves and not nearly so professional. After all, if you're a political liberal, you hate to be called a conservative just for voting for the best candidate!
Why, I have always wondered, is a commitment to professional integrity so often thought conservative? Take legal theory, for example. It hardly needs to be said that people like Bork and Scalia are treated with scathing contempt as "conservative" despite their repeated, patient, and determined efforts to explain that originalism is an apolitical position. In fact, they get in trouble on the right as well on the grounds that they are "legal positivists."
I do think that there is a position here tacitly taken by those who resist the politicization of their professions, a position that has ramifications in areas as widely divergent as legal theory, affirmative action, and literary criticism. It's not a terribly precise position, but it goes roughly like this: Human activities that are worth doing have their several excellences, and it's important to pursue and maintain the standards of those several excellences. Put more fuzzily, things should be themselves. An activist should be an activist. A soldier should be a soldier, a doctor, a doctor, a judge, a judge. A teacher of literature should be a teacher of literature. And, even, a widget-maker should be a widget-maker. The peculiar excellence of being a good interpreter of the law does not depend on the moral nature of the outcome of a case but rather on whether you have correctly explained what the law says and applied it according to its meaning to the case before you. The peculiar excellence of being a widget-maker does not depend on whether one has advanced an overall just society by hiring "enough" women (or minorities, or married men). The peculiar excellence of being a teacher of literature does not depend (heaven help us!) on whether one's students end up having their consciousness raised about the supposed oppression of women in American society or, for that matter, about any other political issue at all.
I'm not quite sure why doing the right thing because of professional integrity has such a special and important quality, but I know that it does. Consider the case of a doctor who treats an injured terrorist brought to him as a patient. Even if the doctor believes (as I do) in the death penalty, and even if he knows that the terrorist has done something worthy of death, when the man is his patient, he must treat him to the best of his ability. This has something to do with the fact that he is a doctor. It isn't just that vigilantism is wrong. It's that doctors qua doctors should never kill their patients and should always treat them simply as patients, and as well as they can. The doctor's commitment to do that deserves special praise. Or again, consider this quotation from Richard Feynman:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool....I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you're talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend...when you're not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We'll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our resonsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen. (From "Cargo Cult Science")
Here was a man not particularly well-behaved in his private life. When he implies that it may be okay to lie to your girlfriend, I'm afraid he means it. But when it comes to science, to the thing he serves, then he doesn't tell lies. Because a scientist is what he is and who he is. And being especially honest in science is a part of his professional integrity.
There is no question that professional integrity is under attack, both in theory and in practice. From discipline to discipline in the universities comes the cry that it is all about power, about advocacy. Professional news organizations publish as genuine faked memos, photographs, and whole stories. Scientists falsify or exaggerate their results to make embryonic stem cell research sound more successful than it is. And Ward Churchill shows not the slightest remorse about the professional sins of fabrication, plagiarism, and/or sock puppetry. And we would be foolish if we did not admit from what side of the political spectrum these statements and actions are, or are chiefly, coming.
When liberals accuse non-politicized professionals of being conservative, they give us an unintended compliment. By consigning to the ranks of the hated conservatives those who have integrity, they inadvertently imply that integrity is a specially conservative virtue. For my part, I have never yet figured out why that should be the case. But it appears that the crazy contingencies of history have in the end made Western political conservatives the de facto custodians, if not of apolitical professional integrity itself, then at least of the concept of apolitical professional integrity and the explicit defense of its importance.
It would be a tragedy if we were to fail in that charge.