My office is cluttered with over 20,000 pages of FBI files chronicling the damage inflicted on academic freedom in America by McCarthyism. These hundreds of different files tell divergent stories with various twists, turns and morals, but most of them are bound together by a simple feature: the names of these individuals who’s lives were invaded and altered appeared somewhere, sometime on a list of subversives, and the FBI read these lists and opened investigatory files (or added to existing files) on these individuals. There were countless lists of suspect academics printed in publications such as the American Mercury, Readers Digest, newsletters of the American Legion or various religious denominations. Most often these individuals had taken public stands on unpopular issues such as peace, racial, economic or gender equality.
These lists are making a comeback, as once again intellectuals with minority views are being identified and tracked by censorial groups. One such group is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). The ACTA is a Washington, D.C. based organization with the proclaimed mission of being “dedicated to academic freedom, quality and accountability.” Oddly enough its primary means of reaching this stated goal is by intimidating scholars who assert these principles of academic freedom in ways that run counter to the ACTA’s narrow views of the past and present.
The ACTA recently produced a 38 page pamphlet that in many ways reads like a prototype of a neo-McCarthyist blacklist for our new hot war (see: http://www.goacta.org/Reports/defciv.pdf). The pamphlet, “Defending Civilization: How our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It” compiles 117 quotes from respected American academicians critical of current US policies. These quotes range from gentle questions concerning the propriety of specific actions, to radical critiques of American policies and practices, but theses quotes lead the ACTA to make the charge that “college and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response to the attack” of September 11th.
ACTA Chairwoman Emeritus and national “Second Lady”, Lynne Cheney, is quoted on the pamphlet’s cover endorsing the need for Americans to study the past-though the envisioned past she’d have us study is clearly compartmentalized in ways that serve hegemonic interpretations of the current crisis. Cheney tells us that “living in liberty is such a precious thing” as the pamphlet compiles a list of Americans whose liberties the ACTA would like to see reduced. But Republicans like Cheney are not alone to blame for this pamphlet designed to threaten those who would actually practice academic freedom. Besides Cheney the remaining members of the ACTA governing board are two of Cheney’s NEH colleagues (Jerry Martin & Anne Neal) and two conservative Democrats Joseph Lieberman and Richard Lamm.
The pamphlet has a few tantalizingly strident quotes such as the widely publicized (and later apologized for) quote by University of New Mexico historian, Richard Berthold that “anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote”, but most of the quotes are moderate in their view and tenor. In fact, one of the remarkable things about this pamphlet is how relatively tame or even common-sensical many of the quotes are. For example CCNY sophomore Nuriel Heckler’s observation that “we don’t feel military action will stop terrorism, but it will lead to racism and hate,” or Jesse Jackson’s statement that we should “build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls.” To the ACTA such moderate suggestions are too much, and must be shouted down.
This pamphlet title’s use of the term “civilization” is significant. As anthropologist Thomas Patterson recognizes, traditionally “civilization’s champions have claimed that the institutions and practices of the ruling classes and the state are desirable and necessary in that they maintain order and underwrite the conquest of nature.” That academics are not choosing to engage in supporting this modern conquest is indeed disappointing to the ACTA.
That American intellectuals would raise the ire of censor-prone conservatives like those at the ACTA is natural. The refusal of academics to reduce the current war to simplistic analyses of good versus evil, or civilization versus tribalism should be upsetting to those who view intellectuals’ chief duty as rationalizing the actions of state. The ACTA is opposed to independent thought during this time of war and it seems to sense no danger in their wish to muzzle and intimidate knowledgeable individuals who are trying to add more information to an ill informed public during a time a crisis.
The American Association of University Professors (an organization who abandoned many professors during the days of McCarthyism) has thus far come out with strong support for the principles of academic freedom. Last month Mary Burgan, the AAUP General Secretary noted “a distrust of intellectuals has always lurked beneath the surface of American popular opinion. Now it has begun to leak out again-either through the frontal assault in the partial reporting by the New York Post of a forum at the City University of New York, or the sidewipes at “campus teach-ins” by a respected columnist like Tom Friedman or others such as John Leo.” So far the AAUP is standing on the side of academic freedom, but this is a fight in which we must remain ever vigilant.
There is no criticism too strong for those who would intimidate and stifle free thought and expression-especially during times such as these when knowledgeable scholars’ access to the public via the media is being curtailed. That members of the ACTA’s board are among those who can bend the ear of our new Home Security Office should cause us all grave concern, and we must be doubly vigilant in protecting the rights of those of us who exercise our rights of descent. CP
David Price is Associate Professor of Anthropology at St. Martin’s College. His forthcoming book is Cold War Witch Hunts: The FBI’s Surveillance and Repression of Activist Anthropologists. firstname.lastname@example.org