Revolution #65, October 15, 2006
Nazi Cleansing of America’s Universities: Could It Happen Here?
by Reggie Dylan
Hear Bob Avakian’s talk on:
As students were heading back to campus for the fall term, University of Texas professor Robert Jensen compared a recent announcement by the President of Iran—that “he wants to purge liberal and secular teachers from Iranian universities”—to the attack on college faculty in this country, pointing to the call by a number of politicians in the past year for the firing of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill for an essay he wrote right after the 911 attacks.1 Could it happen here? Could we see the widespread intellectual “cleansing” of America’s universities? Could students and faculty witness professors and colleagues silenced, dismissed, and hauled in front of government hearings for teaching evolution as a fact, or questioning the “official story” of U.S. history and its role in the world “in a time of war”? This question conjures up images of McCarthyism, intellectual life under Iran’s mullahs, or Nazi Germany—but could it happen here?
A profound “culture war” has been raging in this country coming off the political and cultural turmoil and upsurge in this country and internationally of the 1960s and ‘70s. On the campuses whole new fields of study—which emerged to challenge the distorted official history taught in colleges and universities—have come under fire themselves since the 1980s, an expression of the U.S. ruling class’s assertion of its position as unrivaled superpower in the world.
In the wake of 9/11 this attack on the campuses took a leap. The warning by Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, that people should “watch what they say, watch what they do,” was soon followed by an incendiary report by the self-appointed campus watchdog group the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) titled “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America.” The ACTA report claimed that “colleges and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response” to September 11th. “When a nation’s intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization, they give comfort to its adversaries.” Here the use of the phrase “give comfort”—implying something “treasonous” about the actions of the nation’s intellectuals—was coming from a group started by Lynne Cheney, wife of the Vice President, and Senator Joe Lieberman, and includes the governors of New York and Colorado among others. This report compiled a list of more than 40 professors, including the president of Wesleyan University, as examples of an unpatriotic academy.2
David Horowitz has become the self-described “battering ram” for the escalated assault on the universities—and on critical thinking and dissent itself—which has unfolded since then. Horowitz is a reactionary political operative with close ties to Karl Rove and other forces grouped around the Bush regime. Through his “Center for the Study of Popular Culture,” his frontpagemag.com website, and endless publications, he oversees a national operation that includes Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) and other groups that organize right-wing students on the campuses, not unlike Hitler’s brownshirts, to spy and inform on targeted faculty. Horowitz’ book Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left (praised by former CIA Chief James Woolsey) gave encouragement, direction, and political ammunition to Campus Watch and the pro-Israeli David Project which launched attacks on Middle Eastern departments and scholars at Columbia University and elsewhere in late 2004, accusing them of intimidating students, being biased and anti-Semitic, and of silencing students whose views differ from theirs.
Assault on Ward Churchill
This assault on progressive and radical professors, and on dissent and critical thinking on the campuses, rose to a whole new level with the attack on ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill in February 2005. Churchill was head of the Ethnic Studies Department of the University of Colorado (UC) at Boulder when suddenly an essay he wrote after 9/11 was brought to light and used to prevent him from speaking at Hamilton College in New York. He became the target of a nationwide campaign by the right-wing noise machine and Republican politicians to drive him out of the university. The CU Boulder administration first launched an investigation to see if the content of his essay warranted firing (or arrest!). Then, with public advice from Horowitz, the attack was retooled, becoming an investigation into Ward Churchill’s body of work in search of evidence of “research misconduct.”
Same Witch-hunt—Different Form
A faculty committee was formed to provide a thin cover of legitimacy to the continuation of the same witch-hunt in new form. By agreeing to participate in an investigation illegitimate on its face, and in spite of the poisoned atmosphere surrounding it, this faculty committee has done far greater damage to the academy than any alleged research misconduct by Churchill they claim to have found. Their finding of serious research misconduct—described by a Boulder sociology professor that studied their report as “grotesque exaggeration” 3 —has sown confusion, giving the appearance of a neutral review by peers. This was quickly used by Interim CU Chancellor DiStefano to announce his intention to fire Churchill.
Horowitz and ACTA didn’t wait for the investigative committee’s findings to be made public to unleash the next salvo in their offensive. In spring 2006, Horowitz published the book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, branding as “terrorists, racists, and communists” a list that includes some of the most distinguished scholars and public intellectuals in the country. For their part ACTA published a Report asking “How Many Ward Churchills?” with the answer, “Ward Churchill is not only not alone—he is quite common.” Since this report was released days before the Colorado investigative committee’s announcement, ACTA wasn’t talking about the quality of Churchill’s footnotes but his radical political critique.
The relentless drive to purge the universities of radical and progressive faculty is at its heart aimed at transforming the campuses from places where students learn to think critically, including by subjecting the most important issues in society to critical analysis, into sites of indoctrination instead. As the Open Letter From Concerned Academics: Defend Dissent and Critical Thinking states, “The Churchill case is…a concentrated example of a well-orchestrated campaign launched in the name of ‘academic freedom’ and ‘balance’ which in fact aims to purge the universities of more radical thinkers and oppositional thought generally, and to create a climate of intimidation. While the right-wing claim that the universities are ‘left-wing dictatorships’ is specious beyond belief, it is unfortunately true that the campus remains one of the few surviving refuges of critical thinking and dissent in this country. This is something to defend and strengthen.”4
Balance—A Straw Man
Horowitz uses his Academic Bill of Rights to manufacture a demand for left-right political “balance” in order to create the conditions, including by whipping up a reactionary social base, for purging university faculty of scholars and public intellectuals. This reactionary campaign targets those who have arrived at radical critiques of the present order and the official myths through subjecting the dominant and official claims to reality to critical thinking.
In fact, balance has nothing to do with the search for the truth. Yes, there needs to be ideological ferment and the clash of contending ideas. But the object is to arrive at a deeper understanding of reality—not to achieve “balance.” Insisting on all ideas being given equal weight would be impossible and wrong. Teaching astronomy and astrology? In a biology class, offering completely non-scientific intelligent design creationism side-by-side with evolution?
And as many scholars have pointed out, to equate having a political view with a bias that prevents critical thinking denies the existence of objective truth. For Horowitz the appeal for “balance” is just a transition to silencing any challenge to restoring the official myths about this country’s origins, eliminating the reality of genocide, slavery, the theft of land from Mexico, and its imperial conquest, domination, and exploitation of whole parts of the world.
With powerful forces grouped around the Bush regime pushing harder every day to break down the separation of church and state with the aim of establishing a theocracy, this call for “balance” in place of critical thinking and the search for the truth serves that goal as well. According to Professor Dean Saitta, in an editorial for the August ‘06 issue of Anthropology Today, Florida’s version of Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights “gives students the right to sue professors who don’t ‘respect’ their beliefs—for example, by teaching Darwinian evolution to the exclusion of Biblical creation in science class.”5
Opposition Is Growing
In fact opposition to this relentless and escalating attack on academia has been growing significantly in recent months, with a concentrated focus now on opposing the attempt to fire Ward Churchill. The Open Letter From Concerned Academics: Defend Dissent and Critical Thinking has been mobilizing faculty around the country to contact the CU administration and express their opposition to the impending firing, to write about it for newspapers and professional journals, and to speak about it publicly. And they have made many of these writings available at their website (www.defendcriticalthinking.org). Teachers for a Democratic Society (www.teachersfordemocracy.org)—formed by faculty attacked in Horowitz’s book—features a statement opposing the firing, with close to 500 faculty signatures. Articles opposing the firing and condemning the attack on academia are appearing in newspapers, online publications, and magazines, like the one in Anthropology Today. Significantly, a faculty group at CU Boulder has formed in opposition to the attempt to fire Ward Churchill and in defense of the Ethnic Studies Department. An Emergency Summit took place at the University of Kansas in Lawrence at the end of September under the title “The Latest Indian Wars: The 'War on Terror' Targets Critical Thinking—Who’s Next, and How Do We Fight Back?” And campus administrators are awakening to efforts to bring control of the universities under the thumb of state and federal legislatures—directly or indirectly, through control of the process of accreditation.
These developments show the basis as well as the urgent need for opposition to the assault on academia to rise to a whole new level. The answer to the question “Could this happen here?” is, YES. But it could also be prevented, and something much, much better brought into being. As an important part of that, there is a need for political, ideological, and theoretical debate and clarity around the importance not only of challenging the direction the country as a whole is being driven toward, and the role the universities should play in society at this time, but also the need to fiercely defend, while deepening, an understanding of the scientific approach to reality. This must go right up against the onslaught by reactionaries gathered around Horowitz and ACTA, as well as by the Christian fascists, who would impose their absolutist concepts of “Biblically revealed truth” with all the horrors that means for humanity.
1. See “Iranian President’s Attack on Academics Should Sound Familiar in the U.S.” by Robert Jensen, www.dissidentvoice.org, September 11, 2006. [back]
2. “Lynne Cheney-Joe Lieberman group Puts Out a Blacklist” by Roberto J. Gonzalez, in the San Jose Mercury News, 12/13/01. [back]
5. Dean Saitta, “Higher Education and the Dangerous Professor: Challenges for Anthropology,” in Anthropology Today, August 2006. [back]
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