The Fight Over "Patriotic Correctness" in the Universities

Revolutionary Worker #1140, February 24, 2002, posted at

Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, has a list. It contains 117 quotes that, she says, show that U.S. universities are dangerously out of step with the government and its new war.

A rightwing group associated with Lynne Cheney, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), issued a report in November 2001 called "Defending Civilization: How our Universities are Failing America and What can be Done About It." With Cheney's sponsorship, this report has received wide publicity for denouncing antiwar activity at the universities after September 11.

This rightwing report charged that universities are out of step with the wave of pro-war patriotism: "The fact remains that academe is the only sector of American society that is distinctly divided in its response.... College and university faculty have been the weak link in America's response to the attack."

The ACTA authors fume that "professors across the country sponsored teach-ins that typically ranged from moral equivocation to explicit condemnations of America"-and their original report directly targeted 40 professors by name, for statements they considered disloyal and dangerous.

The ACTA even complain about the way some universities have expanded the course offerings in Islamic studies and Arab history-saying that students don't need to understand other cultures, but need to be trained instead in the supposedly superior values of "Western Civilization."

All the quotes listed in the ACTA report were chopped down to a sentence or two. But even so, if you read through them, you get a sense of something quite fine. These are thoughtful, informed, compassionate, internationalist and courageous statements. They show how widely U.S. war moves have been debated and questioned on campuses after September 11. And they reveal exactly what Lynne Cheney and the ACTA want to suppress.

Students have historically played a key role in the development of antiwar movements. They are often the first to see through government lies and the first to move-often waking up and inspiring broader sections of the population to join the resistance. And the sight of over a hundred anti-retaliation actions on campuses in 36 states deeply worry the Lynne Cheney-types.

All this shows the need and potential for a powerful antiwar movement. It shows how important it is to press ahead rapidly: to step up the debates over this government's grab for world domination, to organize more antiwar teach-ins, to air the forbidden facts about U.S. actions and motives, to challenge people who support the war to think and debate, and to vigorously defend all those who are coming under attack.

Who's Afraid of Open Debate?

"When I was able to raise those issues, especially in public talks where I had enough time to offer evidence and explanation, even many supporters of the war conceded that some of the antiwar movement's critiques were not so easy to answer."

Professor Robert Jensen, Houston Chronicle, January 20, 2002

"These are not times that should try our minds. But, sadly, in some of our nation's most esteemed redoubts, they are."

Leading Conservative William J. Bennett, Boston Globe, Nov. 4, 2001

Robert Jensen is a tenured journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. And he has always practiced journalism-writing pointed radical commentaries on world events.

Within hours of the September 11 attacks, Jensen submitted an essay to the Houston Chronicle. It was published a few days later under the headline, "U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts."

Jensen wrote: "The acts of terrorism that killed civilians in New York and Washington were reprehensible and indefensible; to try to defend them would be to abandon one's humanity.... But this act was no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism-the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes-that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime."

He wanted to stir debate, to bring out facts that were ignored in the media, and provide a counterpoint to the government moves. And he succeeded-thousands of people responded to his essay, in a flood of controversy the Houston Chronicle said it had never seen before. University of Texas President Larry Faulkner wrote to the Chronicle denouncing Jensen as "a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy." A quote from Jensen's essay was prominently featured in the ACTA's "Defending Civilization" report.

Overall, Jenson said, he was quite pleased, even if the response included many attacks and threats: "I write and speak in public because I want to put forward political ideas I strongly believe in. When people respond, shouldn't I be grateful?"

Jensen writes: "What I did find disturbing about the public dialogue after Sept. 11 was not the way in which members of the public sometimes attacked me, but the way in which members of my intellectual community mostly refused to engage these crucial issues about terrorism, the war and U.S. foreign policy. Let's start with Faulkner's response. I didn't take it personally that my boss didn't like my ideas. My concern about his broadside was the possible chilling effect it would have on others, especially untenured professors and students. I also regretted that he didn't move beyond an ad hominem [personal] attack to explain what substantive disagreements he had with my position. As far as I know, he has yet to do that in a public forum..."

Surrounded by the controversy, Jensen worked to get on the airwaves and discovered that the producers of shows like National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation couldn't find supporters of the government's "anti-terrorism" police operations who were willing to debate, even though there are obviously many of them inside the university and out.

This shows the cowardice and dishonesty of the government's supporters. They want to declare that antiwar politics is outside the realm of legitimate debate, suppress it and then declare "everyone backs the president."

Jensen has pressed ahead rather boldly. His most recent essay in the Chronicle (January 20) was entitled: "Four months later, no regrets for writing against U.S. policy."

Bringing the Bush Doctrine Home

"People have to watch what they say and watch what they do."

Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer

Lynne Cheney, the ACTA and their allies in powerful places remember the Vietnam war well-and want to stop any antiwar movement before it starts. They want to declare war on the world and rule dissent and debate out of order. So much for democracy.

Rightwing politicians and think tanks have long attacked the so-called "political correctness" of liberal and progressive forces in the universities. But this time the threat is far more serious.

First, it is happening now, when this government clearly feels emboldened to demand political obedience and increase the activities of the political police. Now, after September 11, the ACTA want to apply the Bush Doctrine of "you are either with us or you are with the terrorists" to intellectual life. If you are "out of step" with the war effort, if you are not gung-ho and patriotic enough-then they say you should have no right to teach in the classroom or speak from a public stage.

And second, this campaign is connected to forces at the highest levels of the U.S. ruling class. Lynne Cheney is, of course, known as the wife of Vice President Cheney-but she has always been a prominent and aggressive rightwing political operative in her own right. Her focus has long been the so-called "cultural wars"-the demand for the recasting and purging of U.S. education, art and music. She has been in the front ranks of attacking rap music and demanding tighter political control over Hollywood films.

Under Reagan and Bush the father, Lynne Cheney was appointed the chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities. There she tried to manipulate federal grant money to conservatize the culture. Later she worked to get the whole NEH itself abolished-to strengthen the hand of private capitalist "patrons" in conservatizing the culture.

Increasingly, her cause has been focussed on preparing a purge of university life-denouncing the strength of progressive and critical thought, demanding the imposition of conservative and patriotic standards. She wrote a book condemning the post-modernist trend in U.S. intellectual life as insufficiently enthusiastic about Western civilization. Her latest book America, a Patriotic Primer, for grade-school indoctrination in imperialist mythology, is scheduled for publication this spring.

But her biggest brainchild has been the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) which she founded in 1995 together with Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman. The mission of the ACTA is to mobilize corporate conservatives to use their endowments as a club demanding an ideological sea change on campuses. The ACTA claims that it is "the largest private source of support for higher education" in the U.S.-supposedly controlling over $3 billion in contributions to colleges and universities last year. Even if those numbers are an exaggeration, the intent remains clear: the ACTA threatens the funding of private universities that do not actively suppress progressive and revolutionary ideas.

Enforcing "Patriotic Correctness"

"Terrorists Find Allies on Campus"

Headline of "Accuracy in Academia" press release, October 5, 2001

Lynne Cheney, William Bennett and others spearheading this campaign often claim they wouldn't touch a hair on the head of "academic freedom." They say they merely want balance on campus. They just want more courses in American history and Western civilization. They say they want to lift a campus dictatorship of anti-American "political correctness" and stop the intimidation of patriots and flagwavers. This is all completely dishonest nonsense.

The shabby ACTA report is little more than a McCarthy-style hit list. It is designed to intimidate. And it is intended to unleash a purge on campus.

Such attacks on critical thinking have not been limited to the usual rightwing circles. It is significant that even the liberal ruling class newspaper, The New York Times, published a major editorial-page condemnation of post modern (pomo) and post-colonial (poco) trends in intellectual life. After denouncing prominent scholars for saying Western crimes helped cause September 11, the author Edward Rothstein (Sept. 22, 2001) adds that he hopes "the Western relativism of pomo and the obsessive focus of poco will be widely seen as ethically perverse."

The case of Richard Berthold, a tenured history professor at the University of New Mexico, shows the intensity of the attacks that have followed. On September 11, Professor Berthold reportedly quipped to his class, "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote."

Three Republican state legislators and a school regent demanded that Berthold be fired. Berthold was featured prominently in the ACTA "Defend Civilization" report and in the campus activities of the rightwing "Young Americans for Freedom."

After a formal inquiry, the university authorities announced that although Berthold's remark was constitutionally protected speech, they felt he had failed "to meet his professional responsibilities as a faculty member" (by exposing his freshman students to such "offensive" anti-Pentagon sentiments). Professor Berthold received a formal letter of reprimand, will not be allowed to teach freshman classes for the immediate future, and will undergo a post-tenure review by his peers. This decision was a shamefully unjust and cowardly act of repression by the university authorities.

It is revealing that this university decision then came under attack from several state legislators-because they considered it too lenient. They demanded that Berthold be fired.

The arguments of State Representative William Fuller were revealing: he argued that Berthold's remarks should not be treated as constitutionally protected speech but should be considered treason. Treason is a serious crime under U.S. law. Fuller said the university should be punished for permitting such treason, and proposed cutting university funds from the state budget.

Similar arguments have been raised by the professional anti-leftist David Horowitz. Horowitz has launched a well-funded campaign to buy ads in university newspapers (similar to the operation he conducted last year against reparations for slavery). His new ad calls on students to oppose the formation of an antiwar movement. He charges that in the climate of the 1960s "the line between dissent and treason was eventually erased."

Horowitz has published an attack on the well-known MIT professor Noam Chomsky, who has been exposing the U.S. motives and actions in the present war. Horowitz's article starts by quoting that passage of the U.S. Constitution which defines treason as giving "aid and comfort" to an enemy.

In other words, Fuller and Horowitz are arguing that antiwar remarks should be considered illegal and should be punished. The ACTA does not openly advocate this, but pointedly uses the definition of treason in their report, when they write: "We learn from history that when a nation's intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization, they give aid and comfort to its adversaries."

A Time for Urgency

"The enemy is sharpening his sword, we must sharpen ours."

Mao Tsetung

This whole campaign against dissent in the universities has a Nazi ring to it.

The Nazification of Germany in the 1930s did not happen overnight. A key part of this Nazification process was the campaign called "Gleichschaltung"-which means "getting everyone in step." The Nazis announced that a proud, new, patriotic Germany was being born out of pain and danger. They charged that sinister forces were tearing the country down from the inside. The Nazis demanded Gleichschaltung-where dissenters were forced into line and often torn from their posts. For a decade from the late '20s to the late '30s, communists, radicals, progressives and Jews were targeted in the universities and other institutions-and so were many who defended them. The emergence of a "new normalcy" in the late '30s was a prelude to wider war and greater horrors.

There are, of course, differences between then and now-as there always are in historical comparisons. But there is a real value in studying some lessons from this experience.

"United We Stand" is being morphed into "Get in line or else." Rightwing college students are being mobilized to shadow progressive professors and students-to report on their words and activities. antiwar activists are accused of providing "aid and comfort to the enemy." Some in authority are accused of being lenient on "treason." There are threats of firing and funding cut-offs backed by media campaigns.

Professor Jensen made an important observation about the early outbreaks of antiwar activism last fall. He said, "Ordinary people, feeling the danger, are flocking to peace demonstrations in unexpected numbers. But without organization, those efforts will die down as people attempt to return to their normal lives-while we enter a cold new world of ongoing fear, hatred, and war."

At this point, antiwar views and activities are not officially illegal. However this struggle has only just started.

It is extremely significant that there are such open calls for punishment, and for the criminalization of antiwar views. These calls are themselves an attempt to intimidate people. And they are a sign that powerful ruling class forces are considering the suppression of the most basic political rights of the people to question government policy.

Their moves must be fought at every step. And this resistance needs to be organized now, with great urgency.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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