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Terror at the Academy's Gate

Intellectuals are largely the world?s conscience-keepers, but the precipitous decline of the university into both self-censorship and a false patriotism is a worrying sign of the creeping influence of authoritarianism on institutions of state and civil society in the US.

Letter from America

Terror at the Academy’s Gate

Intellectuals are largely the world’s conscience-keepers, but the precipitous decline of the university into both self-censorship and a false patriotism is a worrying sign of the creeping influence of authoritarianism on institutions

of state and civil society in the US.


ver a year ago, I outlined in the pages of EPW (May 7, 2005) the “witch-hunts” taking place in the American academy. Since then, right wing columnists, commentators, public figures, and even some “educators”, as well as their benefactors and political patrons, have become extraordinarily emboldened and have opened up several new fronts against the allegedly liberal American academy. One might say that the war on terror has, in myriad ways, arrived at the university campus. Genuine dissent has always been rare in the US, indeed, a risky business for its proponents, but now universities are witnessing a fierce determination among self-described American patriots and champions of freedom to compel the abject submission of all those who are conceived as insufficiently devoted to American values and the foreign policies of the US government. Some dissenting academics are now beginning to discover what Muslims and Arabs in the US already know, namely, the “war on terror” permits its votaries to ignore all constitutional safeguards and hold everyone hostage to the imperatives of the national security state.

Military Recruiters

Developments at the country’s largest and most prestigious public university system, the University of California, furnish as good an indication as any that American conservatives, who have captured all branches of the government, are determined to eviscerate the university as perhaps the sole remaining site of dissent in American life. It is only in December 2005 that students at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) came to know that their actions of the previous April had been deemed by the Counter-intelligence Field Agency (CIFA), which is run out of the Pentagon, a “credible threat” to national security. On April 5, 2006 student demonstrators had given a hostile reception to military recruiters who had appeared on the campus. It is a remarkable, and not frequently commented upon, fact of life in the US that the military retains a strong presence in American university campuses: not only does it run the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) programme, but the military, CIA and FBI all place frequent ads in campus newspapers and routinely send recruiters to campus job fairs. Though the protest, organised by a group called Students against War, drew only 300 of the university’s 15,000 students, participants were placed by CIFA on its Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) database, compiled to protect the government against the threats to national security, as well as the threats to military facilities and personnel. Evidently, a mere protest by students can now be raised to the level of a “national security” risk: as UCSC’s chancellor wrote in her statement, “an environment of surveillance and intimidation threatens thecore values of universities and of our nation and sounds chilling echoes of the McCarthy era”.

Andrew Jones and ‘Dirty Thirty’

At another branch of the University of California, this one at Los Angeles, an alumni and former president of the campus Republicans, Andrew Jones, launched in January 2006 a web site (www. dedicating to exposing “UCLA’s most radical professors”. The site, which within days had garnered an extensive national coverage, profiled at great length the “dirty thirty” or those faculty who are viewed as having entered into an “unholy alliance” with “radical Muslim students and a pliant administration” to turn UCLA into “a major organising centre for opposition to the war on terror”. The blacklisted faculty, against whom students are warned, are variously described, in language that is not merely satirical but stridently abusive, as having debased education, politicised the classroom, indoctrinated students into accepting vociferously anti-American and anti-Semitic views, and having poisoned the entire learning environment. No one even remotely familiar with UCLA can recognise the campus that this web site purports to describe. Neither faculty nor students have been much agitated, at UCLA or indeed at other universities, by the passage of the draconian Patriot Act, and the various scandals that have erupted over the practice of torture in American detention camps, the illegal surveillance of American citizens, or the fraudulent pretexts under which Iraq was invaded and occupied have scarcely created a ripple in the academy. Even more daringly, the site invited students, before the threat of a lawsuit for infringement of copyright forced Jones to withdraw his offer, to submit tape recordings and other course materials in exchange for $10 to $100. Bounty hunters of previous generations, who gathered scalps of American Indians, were at least paid handsomely for their work; but intellectual work in America, one realises, has never been valued very highly.

Anti-Semitic Event

These incidents are by no means isolated phenomena. Perhaps taking his cue from Jones, a student at a senior high school in Denver secretly recorded his social science teacher Jay Bennish who, in analysing Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address, told the classroom that Bush’s views had an “eerie” similarity to the pronouncements of Hitler: “We’re the only ones who are right, everyone else is backward and our job is to conquer the world” (Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2006, p A9). In a segment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bennish described the difficulties in characterising besieged Palestinians as conflicts, and correctly suggested to the students that they had much to learn by understanding how Jewish radicals had embraced

Economic and Political Weekly July 22, 2006 terrorist violence in an endeavour to win a Jewish state. The student handed over the recording to a conservative radio talk show host, and Bennish was immediately placed on leave. Schoolteachers, some might argue, are more easily bullied into submission, but even powerful educational foundations are increasingly susceptible to political pressure. An American Association of University Professors (AAUP) conference on academic boycotts, in which eight of 21 prospective participants supported an academic boycott of Israel, was earlier this year cancelled at the last moment when the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League prevailed upon the sponsors to not to participate in what they alleged was an anti-Semitic event.

Freedom of Speech

There are clearly, as everyone recognises, issues of freedom of speech, and one might attempt to claim the middle ground with the observation that the right to unfettered expression of one’s views is largely inalienable, subject only to those constraints which democracies have thought fit to impose upon speech which is calculated to incite hatred of others or stir people into violence. However, as much as one might revere the idea of “freedom of speech”, it does not illuminate the larger issues which are doubtless implicated in contemporary debates on academic freedom. First, the increasing frequency and intensity of attacks on progressive or liberal professors have become necessary because the academy is the only remaining site of dissent, marginal as it is, in American society. Every branch of government, as I have previously remarked, has been captured by the Republicans; and the corporate world, which is inherently conservative, reigns supreme over the marketplace and in daily lives, and is even making extraordinary inroads into the academy. Labour unions are nearly toothless, the vast majority of media outlets are owned by a few conglomerates, and even street agitation has been outsourced to immigrants. Pretty much all that supposedly dissenting Americans can do is sign petitions, or follow their countrymen and sit by their plasma TVs with five-pound bags of potato chips by their side. Secondly, there is, as American commentators have themselves pointed out, a long streak of anti-intellectualism in the American political tradition. More Americans go to college than do people anywhere else in the world, but nonetheless ordinary Americans retain an abiding suspicion about cerebral activities and the effeminate “work” of intellectuals. Thirdly, attacks on the liberal professorate stem in part from the failure to recognise that one of the supreme tasks of the intellectual is to be an oppositional figure. Far from becoming an advocate of the nation state, much less a national security state, the intellectual must question the state at every turn, probe the received truths, and afflict those who are hugely privileged.

Horowitz: Conservative Demagogue

The case of the conservative demagogue, David Horowitz, shows with utter clarity why the American academy is in a largely unrecognised state of peril, and why, in the most powerful and wealthiest country of the world, intellectuals have been eclipsed by those who represent mendacity and mediocrity at every turn. Horowitz, who in the 1960s supported the Black Panthers, has now moved to the other end of the spectrum of extremism, as can be gauged by the fact that he is the author of a full-page advertisement, entitled ‘Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea – and Racist Too’, that appeared in several campus newspapers in early 2001. Here Horowitz argues, among other things, that it is African Americans who owe a debt to America, and they have “already been paid...trillions of dollars in the form of welfare benefits and racial preferences.” Had not Africans been enslaved, so in effect says Horowitz, they would still have been hopping from tree to tree. His book, The Art of Political Warfare (2000), which Karl Rove has described as an essential work for Republican strategists, candidly admits that “[y]ou cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in a political debate. You can only do it by following Lenin’s injunction: ‘In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent’s argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.’” As Kurtz puts it in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “exterminate all the brutes”. Horowitz is also the author of best-selling The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (2006) and, most significantly, the initiator of legislative measures, so far introduced in 15 states, that would make professors intellectually accountable to students and so diminish their autonomy in the classroom. Though there is not a democratic bone in his body, the organisation created by Horowitz is termed “Students for Academic Freedom”.

One might, of course, reasonably argue that the threats to academic freedom in the US have been vastly overstated, and that intellectuals remain largely secure in their ability to champion views critical of the US government and even institutions of American society. There have been cases of scholars being subjected to interrogation by security forces or FBI agents, and many more of reputable foreign academics and writers being harassed at the American airports or being denied visas. But the likelihood of any academic not explicitly or demonstrably linked to a terrorist organisation being compelled to undergo a fate akin to that of Ramin Jahanbegloo, a prominent Iranian intellectual who was apprehended at Tehran’s airport over two months ago on unspecified charges and who remains in solitary detention, is admittedly rather slim. Far much less do we have a situation even remotely comparable to that of Iraq, where scientists, doctors and university professors have been subjected, in the words of the London-based Network for Education and Academic Rights, to a “coordinated liquidation process”. Much like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Iraq is being emptied of its intellectual class.

The American scenario is, however, more complex in some respects, and it is also important to recognise that the stakes are much greater. Whatever consequences the abridgment of the rights of academics and intellectuals in Iran and Iraq have for their own societies, the American academy’s unique position as the dominant arbiter of intellectual knowledge and taste suggests that the curtailment of the prerogatives of academics and intellectuals will have consequences for foreign students and cross-cultural academic exchanges, and is likely to encourage states already indisposed towards their intellectuals to render them, in T S Eliot’s phrase, “hollow men” if not invisible. It may be fatuous to suppose that in our times intellectualsareconsciencekeepers, but it appears to be an axiomatic truth that the precipitous decline of the university into both self-censorship and the patriotism of knaves cannot, but be a sign of the creeping influence of authoritarianism on institutions of state and civil society in the US.



Economic and Political Weekly July 22, 2006

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