ne of the striking differences between the 1950's blacklisting of academics under McCarthyism and the current attacks on "leftist" university professors is how the ideological tests for employment are being applied. Whereas before, academics, among countless others, were targeted and in many cases fired for their extra-curricular activities or affiliations with the Communist Party, today, it's the content of our teaching and writing, and the act of "unpatriotic" pedagogy that is under scrutiny-in some ways, an even more serious violation of the freedoms of speech and thought that this country was designed to protect. 1 In the current post-September 11, post-election moment, a particular collusion of crusading forces-right-wing think tanks, print and radio media, and government representatives-has been doing its best to harass, stifle, and legislate critical thinking out of existence. The targets are well-chosen for a national smear-campaign: outspoken, abrasive, polemical minority scholars like Professor Joseph Massad of Columbia University's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), and Professor Ward Churchill of Ethnic and American Indian Studies at the University of Colorado, personalities who often flout decorum and don't go out of their way to be sympathetic. In short, people who make liberals especially uncomfortable.
In both of these very public cases, the university administrations have allowed politically motivated outside forces and media spectacle to make a mess of internal channels of due process and basic academic rights of scholars, including those scholars supposedly under the protection of tenure. And in both cases, the thorough knotting together of issues of content and style, ideas and conduct, has become an intentional, diversionary tactic that diverts attention from the fundamental problem of universities under attack, and dissent under surveillance. It must be emphasized that, over the past months, the charges against these professors have shifted like the weather, in a fashion typical of the ends justifies the means mentality of a war-mongering administration. In the Columbia case, three MEALAC professors, Joseph Massad, George Saliba, and Hamid Dabashi, were charged with intimidating pro-Israeli Jewish students in and outside the classroom, as dubiously "documented" by a student-made film, Columbia Unbecoming . The video, backed by the David Project, a Boston-based pro-Israel organization, was shown only to alumni donors and only select audiences at first, beginning around October 2004. The specific targeting of audiences for the purposes of painting Columbia as a bastion of anti-Semitism seems clear. The video screened, for example, to the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Natan Sharansky and an audience of 400 plus at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem in the context of a debate about anti-Semitism. 2
The accusations made in the video through student testimony, much of it anonymous or second-hand, cited instances of Columbia professors insulting students and using anti-Israel rhetoric when criticizing Israeli state policies against Palestinians. Not only was the video not shown publicly until much later, but different versions of it were being distributed by the makers, creating a complete lack of accountability and record of the charges made, as well as the ability even to address a fixed source. Furthermore, the issue as represented by the video was publicized through a series of slanderous articles in the New York Sun , a news daily backed by right-wing media mogul Conrad Black and started two years ago by Seth Lipsky (former editor of the Jewish weekly paper Forward ) with the aim of correcting the so-called "liberal bias" of the New York Times . In a related instance of the Sun's attack on academic freedom, an article was printed on February 15, 2005 calling History Professor Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia 's Middle East Institute, unfit to participate in a New York City secondary-school training program on the Middle East . The article pointed to past statements he had made that were critical of Israel , statements made completely outside the context of his work with the training program. One week later, Khalidi was dismissed by the New York City Department of Education; a representative for city schools chancellor Joel I. Klein cited Khalidi's "past statements" on Israel as the grounds for dismissal. 3
The slanderous actions of newspapers and outside groups like the David Project point to the role of the media, advocacy organizations, and even international government officials in directly pressuring, mediating, and attempting to dictate the terms by which a university functions and deals with its faculty and curriculum. As at the national political level, what is being promulgated here is a deeply irrational and anti-intellectual culture of rumor, harassment, and guilty until proven innocent.
Clearly, the Columbia students' underlying claim to injury is"anti-Semitism", which has also and otherwise been expressed as the pro-Palestinian "bias" or lack of "ideological diversity" on campus. Importantly, the charge of anti-Semitism has been cleared. In a report released on March 31 by an ad hoc internal review committee set up by Columbia University, two key findings, though buried amidst the text, read: "Across the spectrum of these concerns, we found no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-semitic. Professor Massad, for one, has been categorical in his classes concerning the unacceptability of anti-semitic views.  We found no evidence that students had been penalized for their views by receiving lower grades." 4 The report also chastises the disruptive presence of auditors and outside monitors in Middle Eastern Studies classes, and the filming of these classes, without instructor permission, by students affiliated with David Horowitz's Campus Watch, an organization set up to monitor Middle East Studies on campuses nationwide. Campus Watch in late 2002 began to publish a McCarthy-like online watch-list of "anti-Israel" professors. 5 The website solicits students to submit reports on their instructors, and, as the Columbia study finds, this process resulted in hate mail directed at the named Columbia professors. Especially given that no incident of Jewish students' intimidation by Mid-East Studies faculty was actually proven, and in fact nearly every claim was found to be unsubstantiated, it is the professors, not the students, it seems, who have undergone the most vicious kind of intimidation and harassment.
Despite the importance of these findings, where the report of the Columbia Ad Hoc Committee and the statements by university administrators fall short is in the overall emphasis and characterization of the problem as one of a failed grievance policy. It is no doubt necessary and even savvy for the university to focus on improving its grievance procedures, and thereby refuse students the justification of turning to outside organizations to lodge their complaints. Yes, the call for civility and respect between students and teachers must be made, and should go without saying. But to truly put pedagogy in political context, as the Columbia report in one section aims to do; it's not as if groups like Campus Watch would abandon their ideologically-driven program and student recruitment efforts simply if campus ombudsperson services were better run.
There is a broader rights discourse coming from the Right, one that co-opts the politics of identity and the cause of minority and civil rights as part of a backlash against academia that has been building since the 1970s. The idea is to speak from a state of injury with the aim of empowering "disenfranchised" and "abused" students whose young minds are simultaneously helpless in the face of indoctrination by leftist professors and yet so fully formed that their views must not be challenged by these professors. The students behind the attack on MEALAC, calling themselves the Columbians for Academic Freedom, are emulating the national network, Students for Academic Freedom, backed by Horowitz, which also solicits online reports of offending professors via complaint categories that reflect the most jingoistic and crass form of consumerist self-righteousness. 6 There is a profound disconnect between the minoritarian claims of these students at the campus level and the reality of their majority representation in the power structures of the outside world, whether in the case of the Jewish students who claim the hegemony of pro-Palestinian views or the conservatives who cite left bias. One has only to consider who controls the government and military of these two exemplary democracies, the United States and the State of Israel, to put into perspective where power lies..it's certainly not the Palestinians or the leftists running the show.
As I write, new instantiations of insult in the name of academic freedom are being legislated around the country by Christians and conservatives following in the lead of David Horowitz and his Academic Bill of Rights. Written in 2003, this document claims to promote the tenets for responsible pedagogy, civility, and academic freedom already well established by universities' statutes and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) - and reiterated at length in the Columbia University report - but which in fact is designed to stifle academic freedom under the guise of concern for students. Take Bill #5, which reads:
Exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination. 7
Adopting the language of the Horowitz text, Florida Republican Representative Dennis Baxley has this past month sponsored and gotten passed Bill H-837, the rather superfluously titled "Academic Freedom Bill of Rights" that aims, in his words, to prevent "one biased view by the professor, who as a dictator controls the classroom.[and] misuse of their platform to indoctrinate the next generation with their own views." 8 Under this bill, Florida university students would be protected from the "leftist totalitarianism" of "dictator professors" by being allowed to sue those professors who disrespect their beliefs or insist that some theories be taught to the exclusion of others. In a clear example of the gross consumer-capitalist mentality behind the students' rights agenda, Baxter has said, "Being a businessman, I found out you can be sued for anything. Besides, if students are being persecuted and ridiculed for their beliefs, I think they should be given standing to sue."
Capitalism and democracy American-style go hand in hand, after all, and hence the pet free-speech phrase "marketplace of ideas" that is these days repeatedly used by a litigious Right ready to champion ideological diversity and yet, at the same time, reduce education to a self-designed shopping list. " Marketplace of Ideas Would Free Universities from Liberal Tyranny" reads one headline from The Heritage Foundation, a Washington DC based conservative think tank whose president touts the "benefits of competition": "Students are certainly consumers of education, but today they're not getting what they pay for. If there was a conservative alternative on every campus, though, there's a better chance that the overall educational environment would improve, and students might start getting their money's worth." 9 The answer to customer dissatisfaction is then to sue. One instance that Florida Representative Baxter says would merit a lawsuit is a professor's insistence on the scientific factuality of evolution over creationist theories-perhaps not surprising given Baxter's own Baptist commitments. This is a man who, after all, publicly explains his vocation in government office as driven by a battle to "confront the world with the Gospel." 10
In Ohio , legislation has also been introduced that would ban university professors from discussing "controversial" issues in their classrooms. To quote from S.B. 24, Senator Larry Mumper's "Academic Bill of Rights": "Faculty and instructors shall not infringe the academic freedom and quality of education of their students by persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose." 11 The obvious question, of course, is, who determines what constitutes legitimate pedagogical purpose? Like the dangerously capacious language of "intimidation" and "indoctrination," "controversial matter" is a political test which throws academic freedom out the window and subjects those professors deemed un-American, anti-Israel, or un-Christian to ever-elusive and diversionary criminal charges. Needless to say, the extent to which those following George W. Bush and his war on terror have capitalized on the September 11, 2001 attacks to erode the civil liberties of this country, in the name of freedom and patriotic acts, is unconscionable.
The McCarthy-like scrutiny of scholarship and credentials, attack on academic freedoms and free speech, and mandating of patriotism is nowhere clearer than in the ongoing case against Professor Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado. The controversy began this February over his use of an offensive metaphor in an article he published on September 12, 2001, "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens." A renowned activist and scholar of American Indian studies, Churchill was scheduled to speak at Hamilton College as part of a lectures series organized by the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture. The program was already under fire for having in the fall hired prisoner-rights activist and writer Susan Rosenberg to teach a class on memoir writing. Previous to being granted clemency by Bill Clinton in 2001, Rosenberg had been sentenced to a 58-year prison term for her involvement with radical leftist groups in the 1970's. As a result of the outrage over her hire, she was dis-invited by the College. It was in this context of existing and continuing political discrimination that a Hamilton professor, keeping tabs on the Kirkland Project's invited lecturers, dug up Churchill's three-year old essay and publicized his objections in a campus newspaper; this quickly spread to weblogs, local papers, and after being picked up by right-wing radio talk-show commentator Bill O'Reilly, became a national scandal.
In his "Some People Push Back" article, Churchill characterized the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center as part of a broader response or blowback to the injustices perpetrated by the United States through its foreign policy around the world and in the Middle East in particular. 12 He held not only the U.S. government, but also government technocrats and others who indirectly participate in its imperialistic policies and the military industrial complex responsible for the foreign retaliations on the symbols of U.S. power, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The piece is written out of anger toward the entire structure of injustice; it is written as a wake-up call to those who in the following days and months would cry, 'Why do they hate us?' as they supported first the revenge bombing of Afghanistan, which proved so ineffectual at finding the identified culprits, and next the re-bombing of Iraq, which had nothing to do with the original crime. Thousands had already died and would continue to die as a result of U.S. policies abroad, he argues, and the special status of American victims, or those the U.S. decides worthy of consideration, must be placed in a global context of war, poverty, and racism perpetrated by governments and individuals together. (A friend of mine from Europe is constantly baffled by how Americans can be so pro-life and so pro-war at the same time - but then this is a country where the death penalty is legal.)
Churchill's article was written in the heat of the moment, at a moment of tragedy. And it is understandable that his moral outrage would be met with moral outrage, especially because Churchill transgressed the bounds of civility and political correctness in comparing the role of government employees and workers in the World Trade Center to Eichmann, the technocrat in charge of running the everyday operations of the Nazi regime in Germany . His use of the phrase "little Eichmanns" became in February and March 2005 a media sound byte that was obsessively reprinted to the point that even liberal, anti-war professors who had not read the essay took a stand against him. The public was made aware of this essay three years after its publication through the media's irresponsible representation of the article as a sound byte. It is the power of the media, and a conservative media, let's be clear, to stir moral sentiment, create a scapegoat and celebrated enemy within, shut down critical thinking, and stimulate the "vote him out" mentality of reality TV, that we should find most alarming and inimical to academic freedom and civil society. That the University of Colorado system and the state's Republican Governor Bill Owens have been since pushing to fire Churchill and revoke his tenure on the basis of his offending speech points to how criticism of government war policies and the complicity of its citizens in these policies is being suppressed in the name of protecting moral values.
As of last week, Ward Churchill's speech act has been officially declared protected under the First Amendment. And yet, he is now being investigated under new allegations of research misconduct and of falsifying his Native American tribal identity to gain "employment advantages." How does what began as an investigation of free speech, turn into an ethnicity test, and a review of professional credentialsthat were already examined and found acceptable under the process of academic tenure? If the political motivations behind the unwarranted questioning of Churchill's right to free speech were not transparent to begin with, they surely are now.
As in the Columbia MEALAC case, forces external to the university have interfered with the very integrity of the university itself, and this is happening at the level of state legislation. In Wisconsin , the worst kind of merging of patriot tests with "academic standards of conduct" took place last month when one state representative attempting to block Churchill's speaking engagement at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater introduced a legislative resolution calling for reforming tenure review along patriotic lines. The final part of the resolution of Representative Steve Nass reads:
Now, Therefore, Be It Resolved by the Wisconsin State Assembly with the Wisconsin State Senate concurring that: (1) the Wisconsin Legislature condemns the anti-American hate speech promoted by Professor Ward L. Churchill; (2) recommends strongly that the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater cancel Professor Churchill's speech on March 1, 2005; and (3) requests the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents conduct a review of hiring and tenure procedures to determine if appropriate policies exist to prevent the hiring of and, if necessary, the timely dismissal of faculty failing to meet honorable academic standards of conduct expected by students, parents and taxpayers. 13
Speech becomes intentionally conflated with conduct, academic qualifications, tenure, academic freedom, and even ethnicity tests in the effort to characterize Churchill and potential others as alien and seditious. In the legislating of patriotism, dissent becomes anti-American becomes hate speech, and thus unworthy of constitutional protection.
This shift from free speech to the new charges in Churchill's case comes down to a racist attempt to silence his radicalism in the name of "liberal principles". Columnist David Yeagley of the right-wing magazine Frontpage accuses Churchill of faking his Indian identity and thus committing "genocide" against all Native Americans, calling him "anti-Indian, as well as anti-American..Churchill despises Indian blood." 14 Never mind that such authenticity tests and mandates for racial purism have historically been administered by the state as part of a eugenics movement that has been a source of continuing trauma and dispute within the American Indian community. 15 (Not coincidentally, this history of government-sponsored racism is part of Churchill's scholarship, currently under review by the University of Colorado ). The ethnicity test Churchill is currently being subjected to should have nothing to do with his employment and tenure to begin with; but the right's appropriation of identity politics distracts us from the issue at hand. It also points to the shortcomings of 1990's multiculturalism while at the same time attacking and trivializing the continuing need for affirmative action, effectively throwing out the baby with the bathwater: after all, if the system encourages people to fake their ethnicity, what good is it to begin with? There is more than one way to skin a cat, or so the saying goes.
While the likes of Yeagley and Bill O'Reilly on the right can spew hate unqualifiedly, the left must always remain even-toned and indeed is under obligation to create an ideological balance of opinions by teaching alternatives to their own views. Thee are double standards at work here: according to the right, the marketplace of ideas must be upheld.unless those ideas involve criticism of the right: thus, i n the name of free speech, ensuring the very erosion of free speech. In Horowitz's words, "The American public will support a marketplace of ideas in education. What they won't support is a left-wing monolith with extremists like Churchill." 16 University of Colorado Chancellor Phil DiStefano, in an official report on Ward Churchill published March 24, 2005, essentially echoes this hypocrisy, citing the importance of maintaining the university as a "marketplace of ideas" welcoming of "academic freedom -the right to pursue and disseminate knowledge without threat of sanction," but then going on to cite Churchill's "crude application of metaphor" in the essay on September 11 and calling for continued investigation into his research and ethnicity . 17 The logic seems to be that once the war is begun, it must be followed through with, despite its illegitimate beginnings and shifting targets, and despite the fact that one's commitment to academic freedom has been contradicted by one's very actions.
In a way it's not surprising that, given the continuing force of tragedy as well as jingoism in the post-September 11 moment, even the defenders of free speech would abandon Churchill. The AAUP supported him only in principle, not in person. Free speech advocates like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who wrote in defense of Churchill's First Amendment rights, take no issue with the shift in investigation into allegations of research misconduct . 18
Even The Nation , a progressive publication by scholars and activists on the left, has participated in the silencing of those dissenting voices whose language or even emotions may cause discomfort or trigger a particular identity politics sensibility. A recent Nation article by Scott Sherman, "The Mideast Comes to Columbia," considered the case of MEALAC Professor Hamid Dabashi, who had been singled out in the David Project's Columbia Unbecoming film for an essay he wrote entitled, " For a Fistful of Dust: A Passage to Palestine." In one passage of his essay Dabashi reflects on the experience of being subjected to a five-hour search and detention by Israeli security in Ben Gurion Airport and writes:
Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left...its deep marks on the faces of [these people], the way they talk, walk, the way they greet each other.... There is a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture. 19
The David Project, however, substituted "Israeli Jews" for "these people," misconstruing the context as well as meaning of the passage. For this inaccuracy, Sherman criticizes the David Project, but he then goes on to charge Dabashi with anti-Semitism and unacceptable speech:
What's troubling about the passage is its sweeping characterization of an entire people--"Israeli Jews" or not--as vulgar and domineering in their very essence. The passage can easily be construed as anti-Semitic. Dabashi, at a minimum, is guilty of shrill and careless writing . In panning for gold, his critics discovered a precious nugget, one that he would do well to disown . 20
Is it not possible to generalize about the conditions under which racism becomes internalized by a culture and is experienced by its minorities? To have one's words put into historical, political, even poetic context? Must we excise emotions, especially anger and sorrow, from our work for fear of reprisal, of being found "guilty of shrill and careless writing" that we will be asked to "disown"? The poet Audre Lorde, writing on black women's responses to racism within the feminist movement, argued for the importance of allowing a space for anger in public discourse if put into social context. She was addressing, in particular, the inability of white feminists to deal with anger expressed by women of color. "Anger is loaded with information and energy," she wrote. "The angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying. When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar. I have tried to learn my anger's usefulness to me, as well as its limitations." 21
There must be a space for critical, uncomfortable metaphors and comparisons, for polemic, and for dissent. The issues brought out in the MEALAC controversy are far from resolved, and the case against Churchill continues. On the one hand, the McCarthy-esque patriot legislation and disingenuous call to academic freedom by the right is a sign of its desperation and hypocrisy. On the other, it is a sign of how crucial it is that academic freedom and dissent must be defended at this political moment. An open letter entitled "Defend Dissent and Critical Thinking on Campus," has been signed by a broad spectrum of over 450 professors and administrators from universities and colleges across the country, and this letter deserves to be read, signed, and circulated. Let me end with one passage that clearly articulates the stakes for us all:
To be clear: the issues here have nothing to do with the quality of Ward Churchill's scholarship or his professional credentials. However one views Churchill's choice of words or specific arguments, he 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, September 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." 22
- I've found very helpful the comments of Ellen Schrecker, author of Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America , as they were shared at a Columbia University teach-in, "McCarthyism and Academia," held on Feb. 21, 2005 in Jerome Green Building ..
- http://chronicle.com/daily/2005/02/2005022202n.htm or http://chronicle.com/redirect/c/2005/02/2005022202n.htm
- http://studentsforacademicfreedom.org/ . To give an example, one of the categories of complaints reads, "Mocked national political or religious figures."
- Full text can be found on the Students for Academic Freedom website. See also Horowitz's magazine, http://www.frontpagemag.com
- For full text of the article, go to http://www.politicalgateway.com/news/read.html?id=2739
- In fact, their primary concern seems to be ensuring that the precedent of Churchill's protected speech be applied to " conservative students who protest affirmative action and evangelical Christian professors." http://www.thefire.org/index.php/article/5469.html
- Audre Lorde, "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism," in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984).