The Origin of America's Intellectual Vacuum

The blacklisted mathematics instructor
Chandler Davis, after serving six months in the Danbury federal
penitentiary for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American
Activities Committee (HUAC), warned the universities that ousted him and
thousands of other professors that the purges would decimate the
country's intellectual life.

"You must welcome dissent; you must welcome
serious, systematic, proselytizing dissent-not only the playful, the
fitful, or the eclectic; you must value it enough, not merely to refrain
from expelling it yourselves, but to refuse to have it torn from you by
outsiders," he wrote in his 1959 essay "...From an Exile." "You must
welcome dissent not in a whisper when alone, but publicly so potential
dissenters can hear you. What potential dissenters see now is that you
accept an academic world from which we are excluded for our thoughts.
This is a manifest signpost over all your arches, telling them: Think at
your peril. You must not let it stand. You must (defying outside power;
gritting your teeth as we grit ours) take us back."

But they did not take Davis back. Davis,
whom I met a few days ago in Toronto, could not find a job after his
prison sentence and left for Canada. He has spent his career teaching
mathematics at the University of Toronto. He was one of the lucky ones.
Most of the professors ousted from universities never taught again.
Radical and left-wing ideas were effectively stamped out. The purges,
most carried out internally and away from public view, announced to
everyone inside the universities that dissent was not protected. The
confrontation of ideas was killed.

"Political discourse has been impoverished
since then," Davis said. "In the 1930s it was understood by anyone who
thought about it that sales taxes were regressive. They collected more
proportionately from the poor than from the rich. Regressive taxation
was bad for the economy. If only the rich had money, that decreased
economic activity. The poor had to spend what they had and the rich
could sit on it. Justice demands that we take more from the rich so as
to reduce inequality. This philosophy was not refuted in the 1950s and
it was not the target of the purge of the 1950s. But this idea, along
with most ideas concerning economic justice and people's control over
the economy, was cleansed from the debate. Certain ideas have since
become unthinkable, which is in the interest of corporations such as
Goldman Sachs. The power to exclude certain ideas serves the power of
corporations. It is unfortunate that there is no political party in the
United States to run against Goldman Sachs. I am in favor of elections,
but there is no way I can vote against Goldman Sachs."

The silencing of radicals such as Davis,
who had been a member of the Communist Party, although he had left it by
the time he was investigated by HUAC, has left academics and
intellectuals without the language, vocabulary of class war and analysis
to critique the ideology of globalism, the savagery of unfettered
capitalism and the ascendancy of the corporate state. And while the
turmoil of the 1960s saw discontent sweep through student bodies with
some occasional support from faculty, the focus was largely limited to
issues of identity politics-feminism, anti-racism-and the anti-war
movements. The broader calls for socialism, the detailed Marxist
critique of capitalism, the open rejection of the sanctity of markets,
remained muted or unheard. Davis argues that not only did socialism and communism become outlaw terms, but once these were tagged as heresies, the right wing tried to make liberal, secular and pluralist
outlaw terms as well. The result is an impoverishment of ideas and
analysis at a moment when we desperately need radical voices to make
sense of the corporate destruction of the global economy and the
ecosystem. The "centrist" liberals manage to retain a voice in
mainstream society because they pay homage to the marvels of corporate
capitalism even as it disembowels the nation and the planet.

"Repression does not target original thought," Davis noted. "It targets
already established heretical movements, which are not experimental but
codified. If it succeeds very well in punishing heresies, it may in the
next stage punish originality. And in the population, fear of uttering
such a taboo word as communism may in the next stage become general paralysis of social thought."

It is this paralysis he watches from
Toronto. It is a paralysis he predicted. Opinions and questions regarded
as possible in the 1930s are, he mourns, now forgotten and no longer
part of intellectual and political debate. And perhaps even more
egregiously the fight and struggle of radical communists, socialists and
anarchists in the 1930s against lynching, discrimination, segregation
and sexism were largely purged from the history books. It was as if the
civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had no
antecedents in the battles of the Wobblies as well as the socialist and
communist movements.

"Even the protests that were organized entirely by Trotskyists were written out of history," Davis noted acidly.

Those who remained in charge of American
intellectual thought went on to establish the wider "heresy of leftism"
in the name of academic objectivity. And they have succeeded.
Universities stand as cowardly, mute and silent accomplices of the
corporate state, taking corporate money and doing corporate bidding. And
those with a conscience inside the walls of the university understand
that tenure and promotion require them to remain silent.

"Not only were a number of us driven out of
the American academic scene, our questions were driven out," said
Davis, who at 84 continues to work as emeritus professor of mathematics
at the University of Toronto. "Ideas which were on the agenda a hundred
years ago and sixty years ago have dropped out of memory because they
are too far from the new center of discourse."

Davis has published science fiction
stories, is the editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer and is an
innovator in the theory of operators and matrices. He is a director of
Science for Peace. He also writes poetry. His nimble mind ranges swiftly
in our conversation over numerous disciplines and he speaks with the
enthusiasm and passion of a new undergraduate. His commitment to radical
politics remains fierce and undiminished. And he believes that the loss
of his voice and the voices of thousands like him, many of whom were
never members of the Communist Party but had the courage to challenge
the orthodoxy of the Cold War and corporate capitalism, deadened
intellectual and political discourse in the United States.

During World War II Davis joined the Navy
and worked on the minesweeping research program. But by the end of the
war, with the saturation bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, as well as the
dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he came to
regret his service in the military. He has spent most of his life
working in a variety of anti-war and anti-nuclear movements.

"In retrospect I am sorry I didn't declare myself as a conscientious
objector," he said. "Not at the beginning of the war, because if you are
ever going to use military force for anything, that was a situation in
which I would be happy to do it. I was wholehearted about that. But once
I knew about the destruction of Dresden and the other massacres of
civilian populations by the Allies, I think the ethical thing to do
would have been to declare myself a CO."

He was a "Red diaper baby." His father was a
professor, union agitator and member of the old Communist Party who was
hauled in front of HUAC shortly before his son. Davis grew up reading New Masses and moved from one city to the next because of his father's frequent firings.

"I was raised in the movement," he said.
"It wasn't a cinch I would be in the Communist Party, but in fact I was,
starting in 1943 and then resigning soon after on instructions from the
party because I was in the military service. This was part of the
coexistence of the Communist Party with Roosevelt and the military. It
would not disrupt things during the war. When I got out of the Navy I
rejoined the Communist Party, but that lapsed in June of 1953. I never
got back in touch with them. At the time I was subpoenaed I was
technically an ex-Communist, but I did not feel I had left the movement
and in some sense I never did."

Davis got his doctorate from Harvard in
mathematics and seemed in the 1950s destined for a life as a professor.
But the witch hunts directed against "Reds" swiftly ended his career on
the University of Michigan faculty. He mounted a challenge to the
Committee on Un-American Activities that went to the Supreme Court. The
court, ruling in 1960, three years after Joseph McCarthy was dead,
denied Davis' assertion that the committee had violated the First
Amendment protection of freedom of speech. He was sent to prison. Davis,
while incarcerated, authored a research paper that had an
acknowledgement reading: "Research supported in part by the Federal
Prison System. Opinions expressed in this paper are the author's and are
not necessarily those of the Bureau of Prisons."

Davis, who has lived in Canada longer than
he lived in the United States, said that his experience of
marginalization was "good for the soul and better for the intellect."

"Though you see the remnants of the former
academic left still, though some of us were never fired, though I return
to the United States from my exile frequently, we are gone," he said.
"We did not survive as we were. Some of us saved our skins without
betraying others or ourselves. But almost all of the targets either did
crumble or were fired and blacklisted. David Bohm and Moses Finley and Jules Dassin
and many less celebrated people were forced into exile. Most of the
rest had to leave the academic world. A few suffered suicide or other
premature death. There weren't the sort of wholesale casualties you saw
in Argentina or El Salvador, but the Red-hunt did succeed in axing a lot
of those it went after, and cowing most of the rest. We were out, and
we were kept out."

"I was a scientist four years past my Ph.D.
and the regents' decision was to extinguish, it seemed, my professional
career," he said. "What could they do now to restore to me 35 years of
that life? If it could be done, I would refuse. The life I had is my
life. It's not that I'm all that pleased with what I've made of my life,
yet I sincerely rejoice that I lived it, that I don't have to be
Professor X who rode out the 1950s and 1960s in his academic tenure and
his virtuously anti-Communist centrism."

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