"Much of the future of democracy in America and the world hangs on grasping and preserving the rich democratic tradition that produced the Douglasses, Kings, Coltranes, and Mobleys in the face of terrorist attacks and cowardly assaults," writes Cornel West in his latest book. "Since 9/11, we have experienced the niggerization of America, and as we struggle against the imperialistic arrogance of the us-versus-them, revenge-driven policies of the Bush administration, we as a blues nation must learn from a blues people how to keep alive our deep democratic energies in dark times rather than resort to the tempting and easier response of militarism and authoritarianism."
Provocative words from one of America's most interesting minds -- the kind of words that might get a professor lacking West's stature as a Princeton professor, and his politically correct eminence as a black intellectual, fired. Or mobbed with career-threatening derision. Examples abound (I'll get to a couple in a minute). But with freedom's evangelists threatening to take their crusade to the six corners of the world, it's time to ask a couple of questions about freedom as we hawk it here at home. What do we mean by freedom, and how much of it do we have?
If by freedom we mean the freedom to make money, shop, consume, waste, elect morons, consume, worship celebrities, revel unassailed in the delights of ignorance or the convictions of faith and consume some more, then we have freedom aplenty. But every democracy enjoys those brands of freedom. So do most nondemocracies. If by freedom we mean the freedom to think, to challenge assumptions, to dissent and admire dissenters, to buck the majority, champion the minority and go where no gray cells have dared go before, then we have a problem. We're not as free as we think we are. On that score, we're more like subjects to the tyranny of the mainstream, that Babbitt-tempered arbiter of all things acceptable, decent and Main Street.
Cornel West hoped 9/11 might jar us out of our intellectual suburbia. It had the opposite effect. The reach of the authoritarian response disguised as a war on terror is unparalleled. The targets abroad are obvious enough. It's the targets at home that should be ringing alarms. Instead they're fluttering prideful flags. Through the USA Patriot Act, drug laws, sexual predator laws and the vast expansion of federal crimes, through rampant surveillance, state databases and privacy violations masquerading as homeland security, through ever-arrogating presumptions of secrecy in government from Washington to the lowliest county office, through the regimentation of school campuses in the name of discipline and of the workplace in the name of efficiency, and through a glib admiration and submission to all things military or uniformed, the United States is creepingly, deliberately aping the language and manners of a police state. The degrees may be debatable. The fact no longer is.
The assault on academic freedom is particularly alarming. The Colorado legislature, the state's governor and right-wing radio have been leading a cabal to get a University of Colorado professor fired for remarks in the same vein as West's, though less elegant -- something about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon amounting to "a case of chickens coming home to roost," and comments about architects of American imperial policies being "little Eichmanns." The imagery is frankly idiotic (imperialism is not extermination, racist though its collateral assumptions are). The idea is not. But the moment the cabal demonized the professor, any attempt at exploring the idea was crushed, and with it a challenge to conventional assumptions. It is political repression by subtler means.
Then there's the left-wing cabal on Larry Summers, the Harvard president who questioned assumptions about women in academia in a recent talk. Whatever one thinks of Summers' theory that women may be less suited to some professions than others, it isn't a crime to explore the theory, especially in the context of a talk Summers was urged to make as provocative as possible, and a talk he qualified with sensitivity strumming caveats. (It's like Bill Maher getting fired from his "Politically Incorrect" television show on ABC in 2001 for being too incorrect.) Instead, Summers is being demonized by the left and his theory declared untouchable.
This particular cabal doesn't have to do with war-on-terror zealotry. But it exposes the equal-opportunity infection of the culture's authoritarian virus. When ideas are prosecuted in the name of one cause, they'll be prosecuted in the name of every cause. The blues nation is becoming a blues-baiting nation. And the rich democratic tradition that produced the Douglasses, Kings, Coltranes and Mobleys now hangs on grasping and preserving the nationalist Muzak of the diversity brigades, "soft rock," the Fox News Channel and the Bushes.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 News-Journal Corporation