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Professing Hard Truths

The enforcers of conformity who have criticized professors for daring to link the events of Sept. 11 to U.S. foreign policy would be wise to consider the case of Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick, a professor of chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill during an earlier time of national trouble.

Hedrick published a letter to the editor in which he expressed views that his fellow Southerners found "incompatible with our honor and safety as a people." He was denounced as a traitor and corrupter of youth, burned in effigy, and fired by the UNC board of trustees.

What did Hedrick say to evoke this reaction? He declared his intent to vote for John Fremont, the anti-slavery Republican candidate for president. The time was October 1856.

Hedrick was vilified for opposing a shameful system of exploitation that most of his neighbors took for granted. Today we recognize his position as morally correct and courageous.

Those who have learned little from history want to silence the dissenting voices of conscience and reason now coming from public universities. Professors are not paid to criticize foreign policy or to examine the grievances of terrorists, the silencers proclaim.

But in fact this is part of what we're paid to do. The resources that support critical inquiry and free speech in universities are investments that a democratic society makes to protect itself against internal repression and moral blindness. To remain silent because an analysis might be unpopular is to squander that investment.

In North Carolina we are fortunate that James Moeser, chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, has defended the university as a forum for free speech. Moeser understands that the university can't perform its rightful function if thought and speech are squelched by those acting out of misguided notions of patriotism.

What many others do not understand is that the university's allegiance is not to a specific government or policy, but to the principles that must be put into practice to make our society good and just.

And so professors do not shut up and follow orders, because that's fascism, not democracy. On the contrary, we say it is our right and duty to hold elected leaders accountable for what they do in our name, at all times. That's how democracy works.

Nor do professors blindly accept what politicians tell us, because that's not responsible citizenship. To hold our leaders accountable, we must ask questions, seek answers and tell what we find. That's how democracy is made to work.

If what we say is sometimes irritating, that's too bad, because democracy can't survive on the simple and comforting answers that some people would like. Intelligent self-governance requires more than cartoon notions of good versus evil. We can only hope that when common sense again prevails, no one will confuse analysis with justification.

All this is not self-indulgent contentiousness, as if it's fun to endure threats from war-fevered kooks, or the ridicule of jingoist newspaper columnists. All this is morally necessary action, if one believes in democracy and freedom for people in all countries.

Now more than ever we need the university to protect the seeking and speaking of truth, precisely because so much is at stake: the freedoms we cherish, the lives of millions of people around the planet and our own prospects for long-term peace and security.

Benjamin Hedrick suffered because he spoke a truth that people weren't ready to hear. When the university fired him, it betrayed its best principles. At the very least we should not make that kind of mistake again.

History vindicated Hedrick, after the nation paid a terrible price. If we heed the voices of reason and conscience that are speaking now, ahead of their time, we may yet avoid paying a far worse price in this century.

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Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He is the author of: Rigging the Game: How Inequality Is Reproduced in Everyday Life (Oxford, 2008). He can be reached at

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