Revolution #56, August 13, 2006


Attack on Dissent in Academia hits Madison, Wisconsin Campus

Kevin Barrett, a teacher’s assistant and lecturer for the last ten years on Islam, African literature, and other subjects at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has become the most recent target of the right wing wolves attacking critical thinking and dissent in academia. Republican State Representative Steve Nass last week sent a letter signed by 61 (out of 133) state legislators—all but one of them Republican—to the Governor of Wisconsin and university officials demanding that Barrett’s one-semester contract to teach “Islam: Religion and Culture” be terminated. Nass backed up this threat with the warning that some of the legislators who signed the letter will have the university system’s public funding cut in the next budget if Barrett isn’t fired.

Why has Barrett, who holds degrees in English literature and French from San Francisco State University, was a Fulbright Scholar, and received a Ph.D. in African languages and literature and folklore from the University of Wisconsin two years ago, been determined by these self-appointed dictators of academia to be “unqualified to teach”? Or as Barrett himself asked: “Why is liberal Wisconsin going bananas over an $8,000-a-year lecturer who’s not even teaching his own views in the course? I go out of my way to bring in diverse interpretations for students to look at.” What supposedly makes Barrett unfit to teach is that he does not accept the official story about what happened on September 11, 2001, and said so on a local radio station. Barrett is a co-founder of Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth and is a member of Scholars for 9/11 Truth. Barrett has been quoted as saying “To me, after having studied the facts for two and a half years, the most probable hypothesis is another Pearl Harbor. An inside job, designed by intelligence agencies, probably authorized and commanded by VP Cheney.”

One week of Barrett’s fall course on Islam will explore “9/11 and the war on terror.” As Barrett said in a letter to the New York Times, “In an introductory course on Islam, it is entirely appropriate to devote a week to inquiring into the structure, history and influence of the ‘war on terror’ as it is perceived by Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The fact that somewhere between 60% (Pew, 6/2006) and 89% (al-Jazeera, 10/2003) of Muslims and al-Jazeera viewers respectively believe that the story of the ‘19 Arab hijackers’ is a lie is interesting, and worthy of critical analysis and inquiry. Likewise, the fact that 42% of Americans believe that the 9/11 Commission Report is a coverup (Zogby, May 2006) and that half of New Yorkers believe that top U.S. officials committed high treason and conspiracy to mass murder on 9/11/01 (Zogby, 8/2004) is worthy of critical analysis—in the New York Times as well as the academy. Since there are a great many critics of the 9/11 Commission Report who appear to be arguing rationally and citing evidence that is not easily dismissed, it is imperative that the full light of critical scrutiny be focused on their claims.”

To Steve Nass and his right wing cohorts, certain ideas and events, and in particular the official orthodoxy about 9/11, must not and cannot be subjected to critical thinking. Those who try to do so are to be driven from the academy and from any public forum. Over a year ago Nass led an unsuccessful effort to prevent University of Colorado Ethnic Studies professor Ward Churchill from speaking at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, following a nationwide orchestrated right wing storm whipped up over remarks Churchill made in the wake of 9/11. The University of Colorado first tried to fire Churchill for his political statements, and then assigned a faculty committee to pore over Churchill’s body of work with a fine-toothed comb. On the basis of this committee’s findings, Churchill, a tenured professor, now faces firing for alleged research misconduct.

A statement signed by over 600 college educators condemning and calling for opposition to the witch hunt against Ward Churchill says in part: “However one views his choice of words or specific arguments, [Churchill] is being put in the dock solely for his radical critique of U.S. history and present-day policy in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. Apparently, 9/11 is now the third rail of American intellectual life: to critically probe into its causes and to interrogate the international role of the United States is treated as heresy; those inquiring can be denied forums, careers, and even personal safety.” (emphasis added)( Kevin Barrett is now the most recent educator to pay the price for critically probing into the official history of 9/11.

Barrett has also been subjected to threats by powerful talk show bullies. In a July 18 letter to Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox network, Barrett wrote, “It has come to my attention that one of your announcers, Bill O’Reilly, has stated on national television that he would like to see me murdered and thrown into Boston Harbor.” O’Reilly criticized the leadership at the University of Wisconsin on his July 11 program. “This guy would have been gone at Boston University, my alma mater, in a heartbeat…this guy’d be in the Charles River floating down, you know, toward the harbor.”

The immediate response of University of Wisconsin administrators was to conduct a 10-day university review of Mr. Barrett—solely on the basis of these reactionary attacks. The New York Times reported (8/1/06) that the University provost, Patrick V. Farrell, said “the university was not focusing on Mr. Barrett’s political views but on the teaching and learning experience in the classroom.” “I want to avoid as much as we can creating some kind of a political test for instructors or faculty, to say that only those whose thinking fits within some predetermined mold are well equipped to teach our students. I think that creates a dangerous precedent.” But in the same article Chancellor John D. Wiley was reported as saying that “university officials would keep an eye on Mr. Barrett by meeting with him throughout the semester. ‘We don’t go around and question all our instructors to find out what all their views are.’” No, but apparently a lecturer who comes under fire by powerful right wing forces in the government and by the “Republican Noise Machine” solely for their political views, can expect to have their teaching and learning experience in the classroom scrutinized on an ongoing basis. And they can expect to be on their own to respond to death threats from vicious mouthpieces as powerful as Bill O’Reilly.

According to the New York Times, some Wisconsin students said “they thought it was a crucial part of a college education to learn about a variety of theories, including radical ones, before forming opinions on a topic.” One student said, “It’s a student’s decision in a class whether they believe what a professor is saying. Just because he said his opinions on a radio station does not mean that’s what the course is going to be about.” Another said that “such a controversial discourse should be welcomed at a public university that is known for fostering outspoken academic debate. ‘If it doesn’t happen somewhere like the Madison campus, then I don’t know where else it would happen.’” And one student who said she “did not believe that the government could have been involved in the September 11 attacks,” added, “So many very important things that we know now were considered radical when they were first presented as ideas.”

This is just the kind of thinking that powerful forces in and out of government representing those now at the core of power are determined to stamp out. The fact is that the whole agenda of this ruling class, internationally and within this country, cannot stand up to critical thinking and a rational pursuit of the truth. So they have to change the definition of what’s the truth and how the truth is arrived at. And they have to rule out of order and beyond the pale critical thinking and dissent which would call into question not only things like the immediate causes of 9/11, but the more fundamental realities of U.S. history and its current international role and ambitions.

This attack on Kevin Barrett again underscores the urgent need for a movement on the campuses across the country, among faculty and students alike, to stand up to these attacks on dissent and critical thinking, as a critical part of challenging the whole direction those at the core of power are driving this country, and the world.

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