Commentary :: [none]

Attack on Academic Freedom: What It Represents and What Needs to Be Done

Attacks against Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado and Columbia University's Joseph Massad (pictured) are only the most recent in a series of well-funded attempts to wreak havoc upon one university department and professor after another.
The rapid escalation of the spurious attacks targeting academic freedom is a phenomenon to be taken very seriously. The manner in which various rightwing groups are implicating university departments and faculty in “undermining national security� and in some cases “promoting terror� is shameful and disgusting. Attacks against Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado and Joseph Massad at Columbia University have been two of the most recent events in the series of well-funded attempts to wreak havoc upon one university department and professor after another. Defenders of academic and intellectual freedom have two important challenges, one immediate and the other long term. The immediate objective is to potently combat the engineering of these farcical, but carefully calculated and potentially dangerous, offensives launched against professors who practice intellectual independence and honesty. The long term and most crucial objective for the protection and enhancement of academic freedom is to ensure that the culture and production of ideas in the academy do not remain aloof from the ideological and cultural life of society at large.

The assault on Middle Eastern studies departments in particular has accelerated with great venom. Notwithstanding the larger attack on the progressive victories in the academy such as the ethnic and women’s studies departments, rightwing pundits and their allies in government have taken exceptional note of the putative “takeover� of Middle Eastern studies in the United States by the “followers of Edward Said,� as rabid Zionist and anti-Arab commentators such as Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes would like to argue. In many ways, there undoubtedly has been some progress at some universities with regard to questions of the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy toward that region. Edward Said’s contribution in exposing so starkly the historically cozy relationship between knowledge and power and the manner in which intellectuals and specialists dutifully participated in the expansion of Western colonial domination certainly presented a much-needed shot in the arm of Arabist and orientalist studies in the West. It created some space for intellectuals to re-examine the methodology and objectives that underlay their study of the Arab and the larger Islamicate world.

However, the major explanation behind the more critical and independent positions taken by some university departments on U.S. policy toward the Middle East lies in the blatant realities and consequences of such policy. It has become increasingly difficult to ignore both the ramifications of U.S. domination of the Middle East as well as the protest voiced by almost the entire world at American machinations. Unquestionably, there persist a great many stubborn orientalists who want to retain and rejuvenate classical orientalism replete with its racist intellectual paradigms that provided ideological artillery for Western power. But there is the sheer conspicuousness of the human costs in Iraq during the decade-long economic sanctions and now under U.S. occupation that we simply cannot ignore. And then there is Palestine where the Israeli government only becomes more and more emboldened by U.S. support to grab more Palestinian lands, build more settlements, and perpetuate its brutal occupation. With such a magnitude of misery and the discontent produced because of it, only outright falsification and cover-up can present a benign view of America’s role in the Middle East. Fortunately, there are academics who refuse to succumb to such overt chicanery.

On the other hand, we must also understand the persistent harassment of Middle Eastern studies departments in another context: the Middle East, lest we forget, is considered to be the “greatest material prize of world history� for U.S. elites and, therefore, maintaining the consent of the educated middle and upper classes is crucial for the continuation of a paradigm that perpetuates U.S. hegemony in the region. It would be disastrous if a whole section of the young educated elite in this country escaped the indoctrination of the party line on U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, and began questioning the motivations and ethics of American actions such as the massive arms sales to “friendly� dictatorial regimes and the uninterrupted support to the state of Israel and its relentless colonization of Palestinian land and resources.

It is important to see how these current efforts to undermine intellectual independence in the university reflects the shallowness behind the rhetoric of the “free market of ideas� that is claimed to allow the unhindered exchange of ideas to compete on a supposedly equal playing field. Just as terms such as “democracy,� “freedom,� “liberation,� and “culture of life� have been bandied about precisely at the moments when they were most blatantly violated, the terms “academic freedom� and “free market of ideas� are flaunted only when it can be ensured that there will be close to complete uniformity of thought and markedly narrow parameters in which there is any debate.

It is especially instructive to see the way in which elite institutions and their carefully crafted ideological frameworks respond when presented with any challenge. When, for example, Boeing or Lockheed Martin are unable to handle the competition from a European company like Airbus, these American transnational corporations do not simply accept defeat in the mythical free and fair contest of international economics; on the contrary, they readily violate the rules of the free market by calling upon the state to bail them out, by demanding restrictions on their foreign competitors and by eliciting massive amounts of taxpayer subsidies to help them be more “competitive.� One can observe exactly the same phenomenon in the approach of those on the Right who are calling for the U.S. government and Congress to crackdown on those university departments and professors presenting critical and dissenting views that are not in line with prevailing orthodoxy. If you cannot defeat them in the so-called free market of ideas, then call upon the state to help you wage your ideological battle! Of course, considering that the elite-oriented political economy grossly favors the ideas and intellectual paradigms of dominant state-corporate power sectors, with their heavy influence over academia, the partial success of beating back the interests of ultra-Zionism and big oil in certain Middle Eastern studies departments must be seen as nothing less than astonishing.

Indeed, we should be prepared for a sustained campaign from the managers of state-corporate ideology to throttle the further liberation of Middle Eastern, as well as other social science, ethnic and women’s studies departments from conventional doctrines that have advanced Empire quite auspiciously. The ideologues of power insist that university administrations and the faculty in the critical departments of the academia must assist or at least acquiesce in their neo-McCarthyist project. The likes of David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, et al, will not be satisfied until the American academy is full of “embedded intellectuals,� as Prof. Hatem Bazian of UC Berkeley calls them. In the same way that embedded journalists in the war zones are spoon-fed state propaganda and obediently accept and report it, embedded intellectuals must be patriotic supporters of Empire who demonstrate an enthusiastic willingness to render whatever service(s) are required of them.

What we are witnessing today is a deep nostalgia for such “responsible� intellectuals in the tradition of the classical orientalists, and bitter condemnations of any sign of a more critical and independent academic culture. Under these conditions, the defense of academic freedom must be carried out vigorously and relentlessly. It requires the support of thousands of faculty members in the U.S. who may not necessarily (and probably don’t) agree with the particular views espoused, but who have at the very least a commitment to the right of independent inquiry and free speech in institutions of higher learning.

There is another segment of the U.S. whose support is vital in this situation: the general non-academia population. Here, there needs to be serious introspection at how a significant portion of the vibrant progressive and Left forces of the 1960s simply became sucked into the academy and, unfortunately, became too comfortable there. It was clearly an important victory that universities were compelled to offer courses and establish new programs in fields such as ethnic and women’s studies. For the first time, issues such as the genocide of the Native Americans and the history of the oppression of African-Americans and women could be explored and acknowledged in a meaningful way. But gradually it became clear that ruling elites discovered that by limiting their concessions to a few courses and departments here and there in the academy, they could, for the most part, isolate and separate the various progressive articulations and discourses developing within the academy from society at large.

The retreat of a significant section of the 1960s and 1970s Left into the academy has been, to some extent, at the cost of building wider politically progressive movements in society. The “latte class� is a reality, and so is its growing cultural and ideological distance from ordinary working Americans. It would be dishonest not to recognize that something as banal as language has been one of the mechanisms that has created a huge division between the academic Left and the general population. Michael Albert recently made an interesting point when addressing the topic of language: “… I don’t think obscurity in left communication is so much a failing of writing and speaking style, as that it reflects the implicit view that revolution is to be comprehended and led by a small sector of professionals, not by a whole population, and that serious discussion is to occur only among that small highly privileged group, not the whole population.�

Prof. Robert Jensen of the University of Texas at Austin recently stated in an interview about his book Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity that the greatest satisfaction he received after the book’s publication was that his father, a small-town Republican in North Dakota, had read the book, understood its underlying message, and actually liked some parts of it. In Jensen’s satisfaction lay, I think, a notion of outreach that academic intellectuals need to regard seriously.