Defending Civilization And The Myth Of Radical Academia

I know it is no laughing matter when America’s thought police control go on patrol. Still, even if it is just as a defense mechanism, I couldn’t help but laugh when I finally read the by-now notorious report on alleged academic anti-Americanism put out last November by the arch-reactionary American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

Bearing the melodramatic title Defending Civilization: How Our Universities are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It, the ACTA report lists exactly 115 examples of supposedly outrageous radical “responses” of the denizens of academe to 9-11 and the bombing of Afghanistan. Its authors claim to show that America’s universities are dangerously out of step with basic American values and indeed the core values of Western Civilization.

The ACTA’s chairman emeritus and founder is Lynn Cheney, the bat-brained former head of the Reagan Era National Endowment for Humanities, wife of the Vice President, and author of patriotic children’s books. Claiming to promote the understanding of American History and Western Civilization, the ACTA is a Washington-based front group for Cheney’s right-wing agenda, dedicated to the supremacy of rich white males and the promotion of American Manifest Destiny past and present.

Our institutions of higher learning, the ACTA claims, have fallen into the clutches of a fifth column. They are dominated, Cheney and her ilk would like us to believe, by a cabal of excessively liberal and radical professors for whom nothing, even “civilization” itself, is sacred. Yes, these evil academic sorcerers encourage America’s impressionable youth to abandon all meaningful distinctions between “good and evil,” to question the God-ordained supremacy of the United States and to always “BLAME AMERICA FIRST.” The ACTA is trying to counter that propaganda by promoting the teaching of real American and Western History, understood to mean the top-down story of the great white men as told to them and us by the great white men.

It doesn’t require much exposure to radical historical literature to see here the living ghosts of the McCarthy era. It’s especially chilling to see academic McCarthyism dusted off and taken out for a post 9-11 spin by an organization whose founder is married to the most powerful Vice President in American history, who is helping oversee and implement a horrifying Orwellian campaign of permanent terrorist war on terrorism.

Still, Defending Civilization elicits amusement in at least four ways. First, it is laughable how little one had to say on an academic campus after 9-11, ideologically speaking, to make it into the ACTA’s little black book. Here are some of the ACTA’s entries, presented verbatim as evidence for Defending Civilization’s thesis of rampant academic anti-Americanism:

“Break the cycle of violence” – Pomona College faculty panel discussing US obligations in the Middle East.

“We need to learn to use courage for peace instead of war” – Professor of Religious Studies, Pomona College.

“We need to think about what could have produced the frustration that caused these crimes. To have that kind of hatred is a phenomenon we will have to try to understand” – Director of the Program on International Intelligence at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Center for International Studies, Princeton University

“An eye for an eye leaves the world blind” – student sign at Harvard rally

“Our grief is not a call for war” – poster at New York University

“If Osama bin-Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the US should bring him before an international tribunal” – Professor at Stanford

Of all the ACTA’s 115 “response” entries, only three at the most are actually “anti-American.” Just one or two actually justify the 9-11 attacks and just 16 show speakers even daring to suggest (as I did on 9-18 at Northern Illinois University) that understanding the attacks and thereby preventing future occurrences might entail a critical self-examination of US foreign policy.

Second, Defending Civilization engages in some amusing double- and even triple-entry McCarthyite bookkeeping. One unfortunate speaker, identified as a “journalist at University of North Carolina teach-in,” accounts for at least three separate listings (numbers 17, 82, and 90) and may account for two others (76 and 105). A “professor of linguistics at MIT” (presumably Chomsky) gets two listings, as do others.

Third, it is interesting to note that most of the 115 academic “responses” were not in fact made by academics. They came from the mouths of students and also from non-academics like the mysterious North Carolina journalist. In the McCarthyite mentalite of the of the report’s authors, no doubt, the insufficiently patriotic responses of students reflected their brainwashing by radical professors.

Last but not least, Defending Civilization and the ACTA promote a laughably inaccurate image of life on America’s colleges and universities. Along with the truly hilarious myth of the liberal media, the notion that America’s campuses are captive to radicals is a standard right-wing nostrum, repeated so frequently as to become a self-evident article of faith between and among conservatives.

The real facts of power and ideology on American campuses are quite different, however. To be sure, academia possesses a hardy cadre of critical and independent thinkers that fulfill the elementary requirements of honest and responsible intellectual work. Those requirements include discovering and communicating the truth about things that matter to ordinary people who care and can do something positive about it in terms that such people can understand.

Those who fulfill these requirements tend to embrace the goal of acting as “public intellectuals,” but not in the standard sense of the term. Rather than simply being “in the public,” usually to advance agendas of private concentrated power, they interpret the role to mean writing and speaking “for the public,” informing and empowering the people in struggle against structures of concentrated power private and public. They tend to be passionately dissatisfied with the existing status quo at home and abroad. They gravitate towards radical opposition to existing policies and institutions in a national and world society that is fundamentally structured around hierarchy and empire, consistent with the explicit principles of the Founding US Fathers that the ACTA wants us all to study. They are deeply skeptical of the rhetoric with which policymakers justify brutal campaigns against insufficiently civilized savages and miscreants at home and abroad.

In communicating this skepticism and other insights, truly radical and democratic intellectuals do not pretend to possess a specialized monopoly on the relevant knowledge certified by a professional degree and the mastery of arcane monographs and secret seminar handshakes. They appeal to and learn from ordinary people rather than simply lecture them, seeking to rise, as in Eugene Debs’ excellent phrase, not “from” but rather “with the masses.” They agree with Debs’s marvelous aphorism: “While there is a lower class, I am in it; While there is a criminal element, I am of it; While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Tragically, such intellectuals are far and few between on the campuses of America. For every Howard Zinn or Edward S, Herman or (the late) E.P Thompson, or Noam Chomsky, there is a much larger mass of professors whose research, publications, and lectures stand in a relation of self-satisfied subordination and often direct service to the forces of concentrated economic and political power.

Most academics in the liberal arts and social sciences, including even a number who think themselves radicals, spend the bulk of their time on thoroughly innocuous and marginally significant topics that offer only the slightest hint of threat to the powers that be. Their reports are commonly constructed only for one another, marked by an incestuous and career-generating discourse (including various mystified forms of neo-”Marxism” and “post-modernism”) that leaves non-specialists cold and in the dark.

As one genuinely radical teaching-centered history professor told me years ago, his colleagues “spend most of their time writing long love letters to each other.” The “love letters” referred, of course, to the academics’ parade of specialized self-refereed and self-referential books and articles. These long and involved life works that rarely attain anything but the most select insider readership. They excel mainly at enabling their authors to gain tenure and promotions and at gathering dust on the shelves of university libraries. Meanwhile, those professors who focus on teaching, on communicating with and inspiring the thousands of students out in their classrooms and lecture halls, the children of people who pay professors’ salaries, are ridiculed for not knowing who the real audience is.

At the same time, the radical potential of academia is badly diluted by the profoundly anti-intellectual super-specialization and subdivision of knowledge and labor across diverse academic departments and programs. The modern university’s artificial separation (reflected in an academic lecture I once heard on “Marx the sociologist, Marx the political scientist, Marx the economist, Marx the historian, and Marx the anthropologist”) of thought makes it difficult for academics and students to make the connections essential for meaningful intellectual work and radical criticism. The few who rise above it to are often denounced for speaking outside their little assigned corner of academic expertise.

On more than a few occasions, I have heard countless academics criticize Noam Chomsky for having the gall to write about developments outside his formal field of linguistics. Among Chomsky’s many sins, in the mind of academics, is his propensity to step on to the territory of their special field area, which they often guard with a furious jealousy that would earn them a time-out in a well-run day care center.

Among most of the academics who do rise the mass of academic specialization and discourse to write and speak about things that matter in a way meant to be heard outside the academy, basic truths about class, power and the consequences of “elite” actions are nearly unmentionable. These academics tend to write and speak in alternately glowing and realistic terms about the United States as the homeland and headquarters of “freedom,” “free-market [really state] capitalism, and “democracy,” all falsely conflated with one another.” They speak in all-knowing terms of the “end of history,” meaning the end of the historical struggle for social justice. They honor the superior “efficiency” of “market” (really corporate and state-capitalist) forces that are raping human society and the earth on which it depends. They state in matter-of-fact fashion the absence of any alternatives to the existing socioeconomic, political and world-imperial orders.

The hardy minority of genuine academic radicals who point out the falsity of these arguments and seek to rescue the campus from its stultifying subordination to power are pushed to the margins of their fields and institutions. They are written off as alienated cranks. They are not invited to the parties, conferences, foundation gatherings, and media events where the rewards and “pleasures of academe” are passed out. They are mocked for failing to understand that giving assent, either directly or indirectly, to power is the ticket to a comfortable life of tenure, sabbaticals, summers off, and reduced teaching loads.

Yes, there is a great moral and intellectual void in America’s institutions of higher learning but it is a right- and not left-leaning nothingness that cripples US campuses.Right-wing reactionaries from the White House on down can relax about the universities and colleges of America. The situation there is very much under the control of the right people.

Paul Street is a social policy researcher and freelance writer in Chicago. He taught modern US history for years at various universities and colleges in the Chicago area. He can be reached at [email protected]

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