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Resurrection of a Witchhunt

Belmont, California

There’s been a whole series of attacks on left-wing academics across the whole country. The most prominent ones are the Middle Eastern Studies department at Columbia University in New York, which was attacked in a film made by a pro-Zionist group; Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado, who is being pilloried for his article written just after September 11; and other cases of harassment of left-wing or progressive faculty members.

Across the country, you’ve got a move backed by David Horowitz–a former 1960s radical who has made the transition to the far right–backing a so-called academic “bill of rights,” which is coming up for discussion in legislatures across the country, and may pass, to create “balance” in academia.

What they mean by balance is what Fox News means by balance. It’s a way of trying to enforce the most extreme views into the classroom. In Florida, they’re talking about giving equal time to creationism and intelligent design in biology classes, at the university level. Because they’ve lost the battle of ideas in lots of areas, they’re trying to insert right-wing ideas by legal fiat.

The right controls most institutions in the U.S. They control the political institutions, the federal government, the judiciary, most of the media. Universities are one of the few places where you get at least a small opening for a different point of view.

Its not as if the universities are a radical hotbed–they’re not. In fact, there’s immense corporate influence on universities. But on many campuses, you’ll still find people willing to put forward an alternative point of view or promote critical thinking about what’s going on in this country. This is too much for the right to swallow. There’s an attempt to intimidate not just these individuals, but to change the whole climate on campuses so that people will think twice before raising critical views.

There are a lot of parallels with the 1950s. Then, the enemy was communism and anyone critical of right-wing policies was branded communist. Now, the enemy is terrorism, so anyone who criticizes what the U.S. is doing in its foreign or domestic policy is attacked as pro-terrorist. I don’t think we’re yet on the scale of the 1950s, but that’s where they want to get us to.

I think that one of the first major attacks was on Middle Eastern scholars. They’re the ones who are most vulnerable. That follows an attack on Arabs, Arab Americans and Muslims, who have had their civil liberties basically obliterated. These are the people they’ll start going after. The whole strategy here is to intimidate anybody who raises critical questions.

That’s why it’s so important to defend the people who have been attacked, no matter whether or not one agrees with the particular views they happen to hold. It’s not so much what they’ve said or done as individuals–it’s the fact that they represent some sort of critical voice that has a different view about policy in the Middle East or what the U.S. is doing at home,

In both the cases of Churchill and Joseph Massad and the others at Columbia, these are attacks that were orchestrated first in the right-wing media. What’s so disappointing about it is the fact that that the administration at the universities where they teach caved in to these attacks. In both cases, there have been official inquiries into the charges made against them. You would think that the place where the First Amendment ought to be defended most strongly would be a university campus–and yet Churchill was investigated for writing an article three years ago.

Instead of exposing these attacks as politically motivated and part of a broader pattern, what the universities have tended to do is treat the criticism seriously. It gives credence to the idea that these are serious charges, rather than political harassment.

But there has been enormous response by faculty across the country to defend the people being criticized. At Columbia, the defense campaign has been very important because it helped galvanize some opposition to these attacks. And at Colorado University, about 400 faculty members from around the country signed a statement which appeared in the newspapers on campus and in Boulder–and that is sparking an ongoing effort to respond not just to these specific attacks, but to the whole climate of right-wing intimidation.

PHIL GASPER is a member of Professors for Peace and the International Socialist Organization. A professor of philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in California and a contributor to the Socialist Worker.