AN aggressive attack on freedom has been launched upon America's college campuses. Its perpetrators seek the elimination of ideas and activities that place Sept. 11 in historical context, or critique the so-called war on terrorism.
The offensive, spearheaded by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based group, threatens free speech, democratic debate and the integrity of higher education. In an incendiary report, ``Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America,'' the American Council claims that ``colleges and university faculty have been the weak link in America's response'' to Sept. 11. It also asserts that ``when a nation's intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization, they give comfort to its adversaries.''
The report documents 117 campus incidents as ``evidence'' of anti-Americanism. More than 40 professors are named, including the president of Wesleyan University, who suggested in an open letter that ``disparities and injustices'' in American society and the world can lead to hatred and violence.
Other examples abound. A Yale professor is criticized for saying, ``It is from the desperate, angry and bereaved that these suicide pilots came.'' A professor emeritus from the University of Oregon is listed for recommending that ``we need to understand the reasons behind the terrifying hatred directed against the U.S. and find ways to act that will not foment more hatred for generations to come.''
Dozens more comments, taken out of context and culled from secondary sources, are presented as examples of an unpatriotic academy.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni was founded in 1995 by Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Its Website claims that it contributed $3.4 billion to colleges and universities last year, making it ``the largest private source of support for higher education.'' Cheney is cited several times in the report, and is reportedly a close associate of its authors, Jerry Martin and Anne Neal.
Although the council's stated objectives include the protection of academic freedom, the report resembles a blacklist. In a chilling use of doublespeak, it affirms the right of professors to speak out, yet condemns those who have attempted to give context to Sept. 11, encourage critical thinking, or share knowledge about other cultures. Faculty are accused of being ``short on patriotism'' for attempting to give students the analytical tools they need to become informed citizens.
Many of those blacklisted are top scholars in their fields, and it appears that the report represents a kind of academic terrorism designed to strike fear into other academics by making examples of respected professors.
The report might also function to extend control over sites of democratic debate -- our universities -- where freedom of expression is not only permitted but encouraged.
At my campus, symposiums, teach-ins and lectures about religion, terrorism, central Asia, the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy have been organized recently. A teach-in entitled ``Background for Understanding'' drew hundreds of students, faculty and citizens from many political and intellectual perspectives. The audience had the opportunity to ask questions and comment freely. The discussion was lively and at times contentious.
As a microcosm of society, the university is a place where people of different ethnicities, religions, generations, and class backgrounds exchange ideas and opinions. Anyone who has visited Bay Area colleges knows that they are especially rich places for intercultural exchange.
The vigorous and often heated debates typical of such encounters are a hallmark of democratic processes. On most campuses this can still be done freely, but official accusations of anti-Americanism might intimidate and silence some voices.
That is not patriotism, but fascism. The American Council's position is inaccurate and irresponsible. Critique, debate, and exchange -- not blind consensus or self-censorship -- have characterized America since its inception.
Our universities are not failing America. On the contrary, they are among the few institutions offering alternatives to canned mainstream media reports.
The targeting of scholars who participate in civic debates might signal the emergence of a new McCarthyism directed at the academy. Before it escalates into a full-blown witch hunt in the name of ``defending civilization,'' faculty, students and citizens should speak out against these acts of academic terrorism.
Roberto J. Gonzalez is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at San Jose State University.
© 2001 The Mercury News