Stifling Dissent on Campus

by Robert Jensen

Based on the mail of the past month, a lot of people still want me fired from my teaching position at the University of Texas for my antiwar writings in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Many accuse me of being “anti-American,” but ironically it is their call to limit political debate that is anti-American, for it abandons the core commitment of a democracy to the sovereignty of the people and the role of citizens in forming public policy.

Some of the folks writing to me — and to the president of my university — do not mince words: Jensen is not supporting the war effort. So, he should be fired.

Other people, perhaps aware that such a call violates any reasonable conception of free speech and academic freedom, take a slightly more nuanced position: Because Jensen is so political in public, he cannot possibly teach in a fair and objective manner (though none of them has ever visited my classroom). They reach the same conclusion: He should be fired.

Both arguments are attacks on any meaningful conception of democracy and higher education. Let’s test the logic of those calling for my firing.

In several essays between Sept. 11 and Oct. 7 (posted on CounterPunch and at the No War Collective site, I (along with many others in the antiwar movement) argued against military retaliation, on moral and practical grounds — innocent civilians abroad likely will die, making future terrorist attacks more likely by deepening the anger and resentment against the United States in the Arab and Muslim world. Once the war began, I continued to oppose the reckless Bush policy that has created a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan as the war blocks significant food distribution and the civilian death toll mounts. Events in the world suggest this analysis coming from opponents of the war has been painfully accurate.

Throughout, I have suggested that Americans should confront the ugly history of U.S. attacks on civilians in such places as Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East to understand why so many around the world see us not as the defender of freedom but as a violent bully.

If I had supported the president’s decisions and endorsed a military strike, would anyone have suggested I should be fired? Clearly not; many academics have done that without criticism.

Whatever the merits of either the prowar or antiwar position, one thing is inescapable: Both are political. So, my correspondents’ real objections cannot be that I am political, but instead that my political ideas are unacceptable to them. That means their actual argument is that in times of crisis, certain analysis and ideas are not acceptable and certain views should be purged from public universities, which sounds pretty anti-American.

It is of course dangerous to label any idea “anti-American,” because the term suggests that there can be political positions that are fixed forever. But the foundation of the U.S. system is (or should be) an active citizenry; being a citizen should mean more than just voting every few years. We have the right — maybe even the obligation — to involve ourselves in the formation of public policy, and in that process no one can claim that some proposals cannot be voiced.

If that’s true, then those calling for my firing are anti-American to the bone; their patriotism is supremely unpatriotic.

In my writing and speaking since Sept. 11, I have not supported terrorism or minimized the depth of the pain that Americans feel. I simply have suggested that it is important to understand the reasons that terrorists were willing to fly jets into buildings. Our president’s claim that terrorists “hate our freedoms” is embarrassingly simplistic, to the point of being childish. It is time to face honestly the way in which U.S. foreign policy — so often cruel, callous and indifferent to the suffering of innocent people — must be understood as part of this story.

Those are political arguments. No matter what one thinks of the soundness of the arguments, expressing them is an act of citizenship. In a democracy, we do not surrender to leaders the right to make policy undisturbed by the people.

If people want to eliminate spirited political discussion from the universities, what is left of higher education?

If they want to punish the exercise of citizenship, what is left of democracy?

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective and author of the forthcoming book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

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