Revolution #81, March 11, 2007
of the American University
“…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.”
American Council of Trustees and Alumni—ACTA—Report,
“…just as in the Cold War we had a very large Left that supported the Communist enemy, we now have an even larger Left— since that old Communist, 'progressive' Left has combined with Muslim radicals to create a much larger fifth column [enemy in our midst] in this country— which wants us to lose this war and the War on Terror generally… Their ‘critiques’ [referring to Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Eric Hobsbawm, and Todd Gitlin] of America have actually influenced radical Islam. The bin Ladenites, the Zarqawi-ites in the secular aspect of their indictments of the United States, follow the American Left’s party line.”
The title of this special supplement of Revolution—WARNING: The Nazification of the American University—is not chosen lightly. A deeply intertwined agenda of right-wing political forces and Christian fascists, which finds concentrated expression at this time in the Bush regime, is working to remold the institutions of higher learning and turn them into active partners of empire, repression, and theocracy (a significant degree of rule by religion).
The scope and scale of this wide-ranging and accelerating attack on dissent and critical thinking in the universities is not widely known or understood. Nor is the vision of society and of the university held by those engineering it. But it is already taking a heavy toll, and moving forward with dangerous determination.
This assault on critical thinking and dissent is spearheaded in large part by David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture and Frontpagemag.com, and by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a conservative academic “watch-dog” group founded by Lynne Cheney, the wife of the Vice President. They are waging a systematic attempt to transform the universities on several levels:
On one level, these right-wing forces are setting out to forge university administrations into instruments of coercive enforcement and control over faculty and students—intimidating, threatening, and “cleaning house” of dissident thinkers when called on to do so, while leaving scholars under attack to fend for themselves.
On another level, they are setting out to turn the university into a zone of uncontested indoctrination, where severe limits would be placed on permissible discourse--in terms of professors speaking out, writing, or encouraging engagement over controversial issues in the classroom, etc.; and in terms of restricting and gutting programs like African American studies, women’s studies, etc., that challenge and refute the official narratives and explanations of U.S. history and present-day inequality and global lopsidedness.
And on a very basic level, they are setting out to break the commitment of the university to rational and scientific discourse and to undercut its ability to influence society in that direction. The attempt by Christian fascist forces to insinuate “intelligent design” into the universities, to blur and overwhelm the boundary between science and religion, and to train, accredit, and mobilize a generation of “creationist science” advocates is a signal and ominous development.
The overall objective of this attack on dissent and critical thinking is to change the university as we have known it: in its internal life and functioning and in its effects on society. If this reactionary program wins out, the university will be turning out students who will have had little, if any, opportunity to think critically, into a society qualitatively more severely repressive than anything seen in this country’s history.
All this is coming at a time when critical thinking and dissent in society are more urgently needed than ever; when not only science but the scientific method, the method of thinking that people must learn to apply in order to know about the world, should be promoted.
In what is happening, including the build-up of a bullying right-wing student movement on campuses in the U.S., there are striking and disturbing parallels to the experience in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s (see “Hitler's Nazification of the Academy”). The current situation has its own features, but things are heading in a very dangerous direction. We should learn from history. We cannot let this reactionary juggernaut gather more momentum, making it much more difficult to stop. At the same time, the development of this serious situation on campus raises serious questions about the society which has generated it; and resistance to that situation can become part of, and a spark to, a larger movement taking on the whole direction of that society, with its war on the world and domestic fascist program. Those are the stakes.
Warning Signs and Dangerous Precedents
This multi-faceted assault has already exacted a heavy toll:
* Sensationalist campaigns have been mounted against dissenting and radical professors, with the attack on tenured Native American Studies Professor Ward Churchill at Colorado University-Boulder being the most extreme example. Right-wing operatives and Republican politicians worked with Bill O’Reilly and the rest of the Republican “noise machine” to whip up a nationwide frenzy that has already had a dramatic and lasting impact. Through it a message has been delivered to scholars: critical analyses of the causes of 9/11, or the role of the U.S. in the world, can be treated as heresy, punishable by loss of forum, career, and even personal safety.
* Right-wing talk shows and blogospheres name and slander progressive professors, leading to mass e-mail harassment and vigilante death threats. Inquisition lists of nationally “dangerous” radical professors are published in high-profile books like The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, and local lists circulate in campus communities. At the same time a conservative and fundamentalist social base has been alerted and aroused to a “treacherous threat” in their midst.
* Attacks on Middle East scholars, which came to a head at Columbia University in late 2004, are designed to stir up a climate where criticism of the actions of the U.S. in the Middle East or elsewhere can be equated with support for the “terrorist enemy”; and where any criticism of Israel becomes synonymous with anti-Semitism. Irish Poet Tom Paulin and NYU professor Tony Judt both had public appearances canceled because of their criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. And progressive anti-Zionist scholar Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, is facing a nationwide right-wing campaign to prevent him from gaining tenure at DePaul University, or anywhere else.
* Reactionary students are being organized and mobilized on campuses nationwide—and at UCLA were briefly offered money—by groups like the right-wing Zionist Campus Watch and Students for Academic Freedom, created by Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz. These groups hound and harass, spy on, and monitor progressive and left-leaning faculty. At Columbia they have been turned on fellow students who protested the appearance of the leader of the anti-immigrant, paramilitary Minutemen. All of this eerily presages an American version of Nazi Youth.
*Governmental authority is being used to impose restraints on critical thinking in the public universities. David Horowitz’ Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) has been introduced by Republican politicians in at least 23 state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress. It would legislate a set of rules faculty must follow in the name of providing a “fair and balanced” curriculum. The Florida version of the bill, which did not pass, would have given students the right to sue professors who introduce “inappropriate” controversial subjects, or challenge their creationist opposition to evolution (Democracy Now!—4/6/05). The bill that just passed a Senate committee in Arizona would ban professors at public colleges from advocating “one side of a social, political, or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy.” (insidehighered.com, 2/19/07)
Spearheads of Attack
David Horowitz is a former 1960s leftist turned reactionary ideologue. He portrays himself as the defender of conservative students and academics “persecuted” by a “left-wing dictatorship.” This “dictatorship” has supposedly seized control of the universities and is stuffing radical ideas down students’ throats and blocking conservative scholars from academic appointments. He asserts that his ABOR legislation is merely an effort to bring “balance” and diversity to academia. (For more on balance, see “ The Right-wing Demand for ‘Balance’ in Education: A Stalking Horse for Indoctrination.”)
In reality, the claim of a “left-wing takeover” of the universities could not be further from the truth--and few faculty or students recognize this imaginary HOROWITZ U. as having any similarity to their own campus. For this reason Horowitz is too often viewed more as a crank than a threat.
But the man who describes himself as a “battering ram” for taking on the left in the academy is hardly a “victim.” Nor, unfortunately, is he irrelevant. He is a highly connected, reactionary political operative. Horowitz works closely with and has strong backing from Karl Rove and top national Republican leaders, as well as powerful figures in intelligence (James Woolsey, former CIA Director), law enforcement (former Attorney General Edwin Meese), and right-wing talk show opinion-makers (Rush Limbaugh, etc.), along with leaders of the Christian fascist movement like Pat Robertson.
The charges of a left-wing and secular “tyranny” in the universities are pitched especially to the huge and growing movement of Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists, which likes to portray itself as still in the coliseum facing the lions, even though theirs is the semi-official religion of the country.
The Horowitz assault is also savagely racist. He has singled out African American and other ethnic studies scholars for intellectual ridicule and political vilification. In the spring of 2001, Horowitz took out a nationwide series of ads in college newspapers denouncing the call for reparations to African Americans for the horrors of slavery. In those ads, Horowitz asks the question—“what about the debt Blacks owe to America?” Imagine what it would mean for such crude declarations of white supremacy to be restored to their previously dominant position in academia, now in the name of academic “balance”?
The other major spearhead of the attack on critical thinking is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). In the wake of 9/11, ACTA produced a list of 117 statements by American academics and students which they deemed “morally equivocal,” anti-American, or both. Among these was the statement, “We should build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls.”
ACTA focuses its work among Republican legislators and conservative college alumni (and boasts as members the Republican governors of New York and Colorado who publicly denounced Ward Churchill in 2005 and called for his firing). ACTA claims to be the largest private source of financial support for higher education. It organizes and activates the wealthy and influential right to exert control over universities through the purse strings of private and government funding, and by filling more and more positions on university boards of regents, which in turn appoint college presidents.
It is very calculated. When the president of Colorado University made comments suggesting that a McCarthyite atmosphere was being fanned in connection with the Churchill case, she was pressured to resign and was succeeded by one Hank Brown. Brown, it turns out, is a co-founder of ACTA. He is now poised to make the final decision on whether Churchill is fired. When Jeb Bush abolished the Florida state university system’s Board of Trustees in the summer of 2001 and replaced it with individual 12-member boards at each university, he brought in ACTA’s vice president to give one of the key speeches at their orientation sessions (WorkingForChange.com, 11/19/01).
Why Would They Do This?
There is not one homogeneous “they” at work. Rather, there is an array of powerful political and social forces—in the ruling class and society--with particular but overlapping agendas. What unites these right-wing forces is their recognition that in the past few decades, people coming out of the 1960s have become professors, received tenure, and gained influence in some academic sectors, and have brought forward new scholarship that sheds light on and that refutes the official narratives about America’s history and role in the world. This progressive scholarship hardly dominates the role and overall character of universities now, but this kind of intellectual challenge is a very positive thing, and exactly the role universities should play.
But from the perspective of the reactionaries, it is unacceptable. They do not want people coming into the universities and discovering that the self-contained world they came out of doesn’t have anything to do with the real world. There is still far more space for critical thinking in academia than elsewhere in society—and the reactionaries see this as contaminating society. And so they want to stamp it out. For over three decades, the battle to remold the universities has been a key front in the right-wing cultural-intellectual war. In their eyes, the state of academia is a key cause of a “cultural and moral decline” and a source of domestic “disloyalty.”
The drive to radically transform the universities gained new momentum and ferocity after 9/11.
The Bush regime has grand ambitions to remake the world and to establish an unchallengeable empire for decades to come. It is doing this in a period of big changes and turmoil in the world as well as in U.S. society. These powerful forces in the ruling class need, and have been attempting, to hammer together social cohesion in an increasingly diverse U.S. society on a basis that is quite different from what has generally prevailed in U.S. society. They are seeking to impose new social norms grounded in a fundamentalist morality, a religio-absolutist and anti-scientific view of reality and how knowledge is gained, and an aggressive politics of “god and county.” They have ushered in an era of the Patriot Act, of unrestricted spying and surveillance, of warnings to “watch what you say” (as Bush’s press spokesman declared after 9/11), and telling the world we can torture people if we say we need to.
In this context, in a situation where this view of society has a lot of power and initiative now, there are powerful currents pushing the universities to function differently. Critical thinking, dissent, and an academic ethos that promotes freedom to pursue truth wherever it leads are in conflict with this extreme political and ideological agenda.
Bob Avakian, in analyzing the core objectives behind this organized attack on academia, has emphasized that today’s imperialist agenda cannot stand up to critical thinking and a rational pursuit of the truth. And so those behind this agenda have to change the definition of what is 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 that would call into question not only the justification of particular policies, but also the foundation on which those justifications are built. (Readers are encouraged to listen to “Balance” Is The Wrong Criterion—And a Cover for a Witch-hunt—What We Need Is the Search for the Truth: Education, Real Academic Freedom, Critical Thinking and Dissent.)
The “liberal” and “left-wing” university is a particular target—because of its role as a site of critical thinking and dissent; in order to build up a right-wing youth movement; and to stir popular anti-intellectual, anti-secular, and anti-modernist prejudices. At the same time, “intelligent design” creationism is increasingly mainstreamed, and the Bush regime puts federally funded scientific research projects and findings to religious and political tests (see the statements from “Defend Science” and the “Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking” for documentation).
All this gets at why we call the attack on critical thinking and dissent the “Nazification” of the university. These are not scattered phenomena, but part of a concerted program to bring the universities into line with a project of imperial conquest and the reordering of society along fascist lines.
Historical Echoes: “McCarthyism”—And Nazi Germany
It is also why we believe the situation today is potentially more dangerous than what developed during the McCarthy years—even though we have not yet seen some of the worst abuses of that era yet. In the McCarthy years of the 1950s, thousands in academic and cultural and political life were subjected to investigation, blacklisting, and dimissal from positions. This was driven by the threat of war with the Soviet Union at that time; no questioning of that agenda could be allowed, and even though the U.S. did not end up going all the way to war, they still insisted on removing these professors.
Today, with a “war on terror to last generations” under way, and the additional factor of a challenge to the two-century-old secular foundational principles of U.S. society, along with the attack on basic rights like habeas corpus, there is grave potential for far worse than occurred 50 years ago…if we do not act. One important lesson from that McCarthyism experience is that the “safeguards” protecting academic freedom did not prevent this from happening. In fact, it was not until the rebellions and upsurges of the 1960s that the universities really saw more diversity and intellectual ferment.
Today’s program to restructure the universities has strong support and backing from a powerful section of the ruling class, while no other element within the ruling class has a coherent alternative program with which to challenge it. This situation has much in common with the Weimar period in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s that preceded Hitler’s rise to power. Like the Social Democrats of that period in Germany, today’s top Democratic leaders are unable and unwilling to mount a challenge either to the fundamental direction that this dominant core is trying to take things in the world, or to the remolding of society that they believe it requires.
Meanwhile, the offensive against critical thinking in the universities intensifies; millions of Christian fundamentalists are being mobilized around an absolutist, apocalyptic fascist ideology; and new criminal acts of war loom.
The challenge before administrators, faculty, and especially students is to stand up to this assault. And broader segments of society must join with them. We must defend those like Ward Churchill who have been singled out for attack, and, more generally, defend the ability of professors to hold dissenting and radical views. It is vitally important that the new generation of students step forward to defend the unfettered search for the truth, intellectual ferment, and dissent. One way or another, this struggle over the university and intellectual life will have profound repercussions on what U.S. society will be like, and on the prospects for bringing a whole new society into being.
As we state in “Hitler’s Nazification of the Academy”: “The intensifying attacks on radical thinkers and critical thinking in today’s universities and colleges should be a wake-up call. WHEN is the time to act and change the course of things? In Germany, was it the early '30s, before 'Hitler was Hitler' in the fullest and most consolidated and horrific forms, or AFTER? Is it 'sober and wise' to dismiss these historical lessons, in this context—or to learn from this bitter experience and act before, not after, it's too late?”
The lesson—and the challenge—is clear.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.