Academic McCarthyism Threatens Democracy

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger recently took a lot of heat when he allowed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to make a speech at the Ivy League institution. Bollinger, a First Amendment legal scholar, understands the importance of free speech in a democratic system. And these days, free speech is under attack on college campuses throughout the nation.

Professor Norman Finkelstein, son of Holocaust survivors and the most prominent critic of Israeli policy in American academia, was denied tenure by DePaul University, even though the political science department and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences recommended tenure.

Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz lobbied against tenure for Finkelstein, an act described by MIT professor Noam Chomsky as a "jihad" designed "simply to try to vilify and defame him, in the hope that maybe what he's writing will disappear." Finkelstein told the Democracy Now! program: "I met the standards of tenure DePaul required, but it wasn't enough to overcome the political opposition to my speaking out on the Israel-Palestine conflict." The late Raul Hilberg, dean of Holocaust historians and a Finkelstein supporter, had said: "I have a sinking feeling about the damage this will do to academic freedom."

Professor Ward Churchill was fired by the University of Colorado at Boulder, ostensibly because of research misconduct, a pretext, many believe, for his unpopular views. Churchill has written extensively on the genocide of Native Americans and the federal government's COINTELPRO program. The trouble started when Churchill characterized the 9-11 attacks as a response to years of U.S. abuses, and called the victims of 9-11 "little Eichmanns" who formed a "technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire."

Then there is Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional scholar extraordinaire who has argued for judicial review for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and represented Valerie Plame, the CIA agent outed by the Bush administration. He was chosen to become dean of the new University of California-Irvine law school. Then, the chancellor of Irvine rescinded the contract -- allegedly due to pressure from conservative groups -- then reinstated Chemerinsky.

Meanwhile, Andrew Meyer, a student at the University of Florida, was tasered by police during a speech by Sen. John Kerry, while he asked questions that were critical of Bush. And there are calls by the College Republicans for the resignation of David McSwane, the editor-in-chief of the Rocky Mountain Collegian, Colorado State University's student newspaper, who wrote an editorial in which he said "Taser this. F*** Bush."

Conservative pressure groups, including David Horowitz and his Students for Academic Freedom (in classic Orwellian fashion, they purport to stand for academic freedom, the opposite of that which they really advocate), are trying to muzzle free speech in academia. In their warped worldview, there is a leftwing conspiracy to control the college campuses and enforce liberal, politically-correct thinking. They are kindred spirits with those political hacks in the Bush administration who cried liberal bias in public broadcasting, and attempted to recreate PBS in the image of Fox News.

And professors are strong-armed and vilified in the process. Horowitz has compiled a list of the "101 Most Dangerous Academics in America," which includes Finkelstein; Chomsky; Kathleen Cleaver of Emory University; Howard Zinn of Boston University; Manning Marable, Eric Foner and Victor Navasky of Columbia; Angela Davis of the University of California, Santa Cruz; David Cole of Georgetown; Derrick Bell of NYU; Amiri Baraka of Rutgers; Robert McChesney of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Ron (Maulena) Karenga of the California State University, Long Beach, bell hooks and Leonard Jeffries of the City University of New York, Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, and others.

Horowitz claims most college professors are left-leaning, which is hardly the point. I am inclined to believe that free thinking, open-mindedness and flexibility are more compatible with the purpose of the university.

Ideological conservatism stands for black or white, right or wrong, friend or enemy, with no shades of gray. One is not supposed to challenge conventional wisdom, authority, the laws, the status quo or longstanding institutions. It is worth noting that in a recent study, psychologist David Amodio and others found that conservatives tend to be more rigid and closed-minded, less tolerant of ambiguity and less open to new experiences.

And as far as the Ahmadinejad speech at Columbia is concerned, certainly, those chickenhawk Americans who are beating the drums of war with Iran are dying to be provoked by the words and actions of the Iranian bogeyman. And denying the existence of the Holocaust, and presiding over a government that disregards women's and gay rights, and executes juveniles is reprehensible at the very least. Is he a petty dictator, as Bollinger suggests? Perhaps. But he is also a politician who is playing to his base. And there are many would-be petty dictators in this country who, in playing to their base, support the most outrageous and unconscionable policies, such as the criminalization of women's rights, including abortion, even in the case of rape and incest, guns for everyone, the teaching of creationism mythology in the schools, homophobia, criminalization of Latino workers, and the elimination of civil rights and civil liberties.

Our own President Bush is responsible for the deaths of 1 million Iraqis and thousands of U.S. citizens, all from a war based on lies, for the purpose of protecting his and his friends' oil interests. His administration, detested by millions, acts with a total disregard for the law, on a daily basis. Yet, he is allowed to give speeches everyday -- albeit with the aid of teleprompters displaying phonetically spelled words -- unimpeded, and without impeachment, for that matter.

Free speech dictates a higher standard than merely giving a pass to those whose ideas are acceptable, those with whom we agree, whoever "we" are. It is better to have all of the ideas out there in the marketplace, save those which amount to yelling fire in a crowded room or inciting violence. If the Constitution is not durable or inclusive enough to protect dissident views and unpopular statements, maybe it is not worth keeping. Perhaps it is not worth the paper on which it is written, and it is time for us to find another plan.

So, enough of this academic McCarthyism. Words are powerful, as they can liberate bodies and minds, spur revolutions, and change history. Indeed, the pen is mightier than the sword. But free speech is supposed to be feared by a dictatorship such as Burma or China, not a democracy. Which one are we?