A meeting of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce
A meeting of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. House photo

On Tuesday, Joseph Sabia, a professor of economics at San Diego State University, was on top of the world. Author or co-author of 70 articles in top-tier journals on topics ranging from the effect of gun laws on school violence, the minimum wage and drunk-driving fatalities, and “The Effect of Medical-Marijuana Laws on Labor Market Outcomes,” and principle investigator for over a million dollars worth of grants, he was invited to testify before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on the effect of raising the minimum wage to $15.

But on Wednesday, someone on the committee discovered that in 2002, when Sabia was a grad student, he published two blog posts. One seemed to argue that the government should tax gay sex, the other that “young women are encouraged to be whores.” Immediately, his appearance before the House committee was canceled. Sabia disavowed the blog posts. He emailed Politico  (which broke the story), “I regret the hurtful and disrespectful language I used as a satirical college opinion writer [twenty years ago].”

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SDSU’s official response was unequivocal condemnation: “The language and sentiments expressed in these posts are counter to the values of any institution which supports the principles of diversity and inclusion. Going even further, Sabia added, “I am a gay man in a long-term, committed relationship and these charges of homophobia deeply hurt both me and my family.” President Adelade la Torre tweeted that she is “personally appalled by statements that were published two decades ago and are now at the forefront of the conversation.”

But is this response justified? The posts, we need to remember, are not “statements,” but satire. Sabia’s suggestion that the government tax gay sex was a deliberately outrageous statement, meant no more seriously than Jonathan Swift’s proposal to solve Ireland’s population problems by eating children. The point was to stoke outrage. And just as Swift did at the end of “A Modest Proposal,” at the end of his blog post, Sabia turns to his actual point, which is a form of libertarianism:

“In all seriousness, the bottom line is this — the government has no business interfering in the lives of smokers, fatties, or gays. In America, each citizen ought to be free to choose the risks he is willing to take and the potential rewards (or costs) he may receive.” 

Joseph Sabia
Joseph Sabia

You may agree or not agree. Personally, I think he’s wrong, since others often have to pay for the risky choices people make. Second-hand smoke, for example, endangers anyone who breathes it. But whether one is convinced or not, in this column, Sabia is no more homophobic than Swift was a cannibal when he wrote, “a young, healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food.”

Sabia took these posts down quite some time ago. Since then, probably wisely, he has eschewed satire, restricting himself to writing formal academic papers. Nor is there the slightest hint of bias in his teaching record. I know. I was on one of the committees that promoted him to full professor.

So one has to ask whether two columns, published 20 years ago, long since deleted, albeit recovered through the magic of archive.org’s “wayback machine,” really should disqualify him from testifying before Congress, outweigh an exemplary career as a scholar-teacher, and bring down upon him the wrath of SDSU’s president?

Have we really gotten to the point where an ill-advised satiric column or two from 20 years ago, forgotten by all except the eternal memory of the web, can ruin a man’s career?

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism. He is the editor of the recent book Critical Concepts: Terrorism and Literature.