Revolution #83, March 25, 2007


Roundtable & Radio Show in L.A. Confront Attacks on Critical Thinking 

By Reggie Dylan

March 13, UCLA: About 100 students and faculty filled the History Department Conference Room for a noon-time discussion by six prominent scholars and public intellectuals of the “Responsibilities of Intellectuals in Dark Times.” The roundtable discussion was sponsored by the Departments of Anthropology, Chicana & Chicano Studies, Comparative Literature, and English; and the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and the Women’s Studies Program at UCLA.

Each faculty member who took part is highly regarded in his or her field: Richard Falk is Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, and is currently teaching at UCSB and UCLA. Juan Gomez-Quinones is a distinguished Chicano historian. Professor Saree Makdisi teaches English and Comparative Literature and contributes often to the L.A. Times Op Ed page. Professor Sondra Hale teaches Anthropology and Women’s Studies. Peter McLaren is an internationally recognized leader in critical pedagogy (education). Vinay Lal, an associate professor of History and Chair of the Center for South Asian Studies, writes a regular column for Economic and Political Weekly, and acted as moderator.

Each of these academics has been targeted for attack by powerful right-wing operative David Horowitz or by people “inspired” by his attacks on critical thinking. Horowitz attacked professors Falk and Lal in his “101 Most Dangerous Professors” book last year. And all of the participants except Professor Falk were declared part of UCLA’s “Dirty Thirty”—the 30 “worst” professors at UCLA— by Andrew Jones. Jones is a UCLA alumnus who once worked with Horowitz. At one point Jones offered $100 to every student who would spy on and record the lectures of their “left-leaning” professors.

The presentations gave a glimpse of how faculty are being suppressed and censored: Professors are being disciplined or terminated for questioning the official version of 9/11. A group calling itself “Scholars for Peace in the Middle East” issued an open letter to the University of California Regents calling on them to suppress criticism of Israel on UC campuses. One professor described being contacted by the FBI and asked to turn over the names of people they met while doing research in Africa. This professor asked: “What lengths would we go to defend academic freedom?” Several speakers pointed to the attempt to fire tenured Native American studies professor Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado—Boulder, for an essay he wrote right after 9/11 critical of the U.S., as the focal point of this nationwide barrage.

Professor Falk posed an important question at the start of his talk: why do the campuses seem so quiet and at the same time feel under siege, in the face of four years of unlawful, criminal war; an open sanctioning of torture; and no principled opposition within official circles? Falk situated the roots of the attack on critical thought in the universities in the attempt by powerful ruling class figures following the Vietnam War (people like Zbigniew Brezezinski and Samuel Huntington, both associated with the Trilateral Commission) to identify, and to eradicate, the source of the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome.” (The “Vietnam Syndrome” is a term used by the political right wing to describe what they see as an undesirable opposition to U.S. wars on the part of the American public and the U.S. government in the period following the Vietnam war.)

Professor Falk concluded by talking about an “American Weimarism”— referring to the government that preceded Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933. There is, he said, a “Weimar atmosphere, that makes people prudently afraid.” Falk described this as a “fragile set of circumstances” that could “slide toward fascism” if there were another 9/11. And in relation to impeachment he asked, “If not now, when?”

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Similar issues were taken up later in the day when Professor Ward Churchill and myself appeared on Michael Slate’s Beneath the Surface radio show on Los Angeles station KPFK (Pacifica-LA). Churchill updated the audience on the status of his fight against being fired by the University of Colorado (see "The Case of Ward Churchill: A Witch-Hunt That Must Be Defeated!" in a special supplement of Revolution #81, "WARNING: The Nazification of the American University.") Churchill is appealing a recommendation by the chancellor of the university that he be fired, supposedly for errors in footnoting academic research. Even the committee that investigated Churchill admitted that the whole process was framed by Churchill's comments after 9/11. His appeal is being heard by a campus faculty committee, and their recommendation after reviewing the case will be forwarded to the University president and, ultimately, to the Board of Regents.

Professor Churchill spoke to how he has become a concentration of the overall attack on critical thinking and dissent: “I seem to be the focal point, or the benchmark, that they seem to be gauging tactics, among other things, for neutralization of other targets. As you know, Horowitz has got his 101 [professors who are singled out for attack in the book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America]… We are sort of the benchmarks of what he is trying to see removed from the academy and he has 101 people who are comparable in some way to us. And that's a short list.” Churchill added, “It's more selective targeting around the country to establish precedents, get people used to this, and to indoctrinate the idea that critical inquiry, engagement, challenging orthodox interpretation is in-and-of-itself unscholarly.”

Later on the show, I had the opportunity to discuss the special supplement to Revolution issue #81, “WARNING: The Nazification of the American University,” which draws parallels between the situation on U.S. campuses today, and the suppression of dissent on campuses during the rise of, and coming to power of the Nazis in Germany. Ward Churchill commented, “Basically you see a craven capitulation of the German academy —lock, stock and barrel. You did have purges and there were people who were resistant but they didn't last too long. Ultimately this became the motor of Nazi ideology. You had your ideologues on the outside, you had your Nazi party officials. But this was essentially the mass basis of it.” And, he noted that “Within this framework—where you looked to the academy and the scientific tradition for validation for concepts and ideas—this is where they came up with a theoretical structure to create the appearance for validation of racial hierarchy and the geopolitical equivalent of Manifest Destiny (Lebensraumpolitik and all that)—which had been articulated in the political sphere. But this provided the appearance of a scientific basis. If you remove that from the structure, you don't have a coherent whole.”

I pointed to the sobering fact that during the rise of Hitler, not one of Germany's 23 universities, 11 academies of science, or 10 technical colleges became a center of protest or resistance. The point being that such resistance is needed here, and now.

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Both the dangers posed by the assault on critical thinking in academia, and potential for a counteroffensive, were expressed in the day’s events. At the end of the Roundtable at UCLA, people in the audience recommended holding the same roundtable again, in a much larger venue, providing much broader number of people the opportunity to be a part of this wrangling over how to mount a challenge to the whole direction toward which this society is being driven.

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