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The New McCarthyism

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The New McCarthyism

What’s wrong with this picture? The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a frequent campus speaker, tells students at Harvard Law School that the United States should “build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls.” Many, including the most hawkish foreign policy analysts, would agree with the generalities implicit in these sentiments, if not the specifics Jackson has in mind. But a group called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has issued a report called “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It.” Their report is described as “A Project of the Defense of Civilization Fund.”
Jackson’s remarks at Harvard Law School are among those criticized. ACTA says campuses are the weak link in the fight against terrorism. Their report is so weak it almost seems unfair to poke fun at it. At the same time, the rush to silence people, on campus and in the media, as they grapple with responses to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, is so deplorable that this report, issued in the name of “civilization” must be deconstructed.
It is part of a national trend toward uniform thinking, a trend that provoked death threats against U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the only member of Congress with the courage to vote against legislation that would give President Bush war powers. It is also part of a trend that has seen significant erosion of our civil liberties, all in the name of “safety.” We topple down a slippery slope, though, when we allow the FBI to listen in on privileged conversations between an accused and his attorney, or when we offer visas for information, decide that some will be tried by military tribunals, not courts of law, or when we condemn people simply for expressing an opinion that is not shared by the majority.
ACTA says while polls have been “nearly unanimous” in favor of military force in response to terrorism, campus views have been different. They object to the fact that some professors have viewed our own complicity in the acts of Sept. 11, that scholars have attempted to put terrorism in context, and that some have tried to define terrorism in broad terms. What is terrorism, after all? One dictionary definition is “violence to influence.” African American people have lived with terrorism for as long as we have been in these United States. That sentence, I suppose, is enough to earn me a mention in ACTA’s litany of “anti-American” comments.
After all, ACTA has taken exception to all kinds of benign remarks that have been made on campuses in the wake of Sept. 11. A student at UC Berkeley said, “Stop the violence, stop the hate,” and they seemed to have a problem with that. “It is the history of terrorism that the United States unleashes against native people all over the world,” says a University of Hawaii professor. Can ACTA refute that remark?
In one version of the ACTA report, those who made “anti-American” statements were named. In a later online version of the report, names were kind of eliminated. Names could be connected to footnotes, so some individuals were implicitly condemned. In other cases, their descriptions of people were so specific (i.e., director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization) that names might as well have been mentioned. When comments are taken out of context, and names are mentioned, this reminds me of the McCarthyism of an era past. How does acknowledging our nation’s complex past get translated into “anti-Americanism?” How does decrying violence and war, or attending a peace rally, erode our nation’s anti-terrorist efforts?
Strangely, the ACTA report condemns the “rush” to study Islamic or Asian cultures. In the rush to add courses, these institutions frequently reinforced the mindset that it was America — and America’s failure to understand Islam — that were to blame. ACTA’s founding chairman, Lynne V. Cheney, said “If there were one aspect of schooling from kindergarten through college to which I would give added emphasis today, it would be American history.”
Saving civilization, according to the
Cheneys of the world, means saving and glorifying the study of WESTERN civilization. I am certain the American history she’d like to have studied differs significantly from the history classes that esteemed historian John Hope Franklin would offer. Would she want students “from kindergarten to college” to study the domestic terrorism that eliminated millions of American Indians? Would she study the terrorism that kept the slave population under control, or would she shrug it off as a necessary evil in our nation’s march to world domination? Is raising these points anti-American?
The ACTA report notes “Many invoked tolerance and diversity as antidotes to evil.” What’s wrong with that? Given the racial profiling that has become part of our anti-terrorist effort, with thousands of people being “invited” to talk to the FBI because of their countries of origin, it makes sense to invoke tolerance as a desirable trait. Even President Bush has seen fit to tout tolerance, hosting a Ramadan meal at the White House and noting that all Muslims are not our nation’s enemies. Why, then, does ACTA think there is something wrong with tolerance and diversity? Is this a veiled attempt for them to wax nostalgic for the good old days of mostly White, mostly male universities that glorified Western civilization and ignored the contributions of people of color and others in the history and culture of this nation?
It is fascinating that ACTA has issued its report in the name of  “civilization.” That censorship they seem to advocate is aggressively uncivil. The strength of our nation, whatever its flaws, is the right to free speech, and our ability to accommodate divergent views. The “Defending Civilization” report is, in my opinion, a victory for terrorists because it is critical of both free speech and diversity. 

  Derrick Bell: keeper of the flame - author of 'Confronting Authority' and Afro-American law professor at New York University



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