Professor Kirstein Remarks at New York University Academic Freedom Conference, February 23, 2008


N.Y.U. Freedoms at Risk Conference: Indeed many freedoms are at risk! 

I am very flattered that President Jenny Shen and Student Relations Chair Matt Van Auken of the College of Arts and Science Student Council have given me the opportunity to be here today. A few weeks ago I spoke at a student initiated academic freedom conference at DePaul University that is still reeling from the Norman Finkelstein and Mehrene Larudee tenure cases this past spring. Indeed this may be a major moment in the history of the struggle for academic freedom when students from Chicago to New York and hopefully beyond recognise academic freedom is their struggle too.

Not the right-wing manufactured crisis of students being denied academic freedom by progressive faculty, but student awareness they have a stake in keeping critical thinking alive, in keeping intellectual diversity alive, in demanding professors’ careers are kept alive even when they teach outside the lines, or encourage students to think outside the box or dare challenge the stultifying conformity of empire, anti-Islamic racism, resistance to modernism and intolerance of dissent.

Last April 2007, New York University hosted a Scholars at Risk conference on “Global Strategies for Defending Academic Freedom.” It included scholars from Belarus, Iran, Liberia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Such an event should be commended and praised for indeed academic freedom is at peril abroad. Yet America needs to examine its own shortcomings and recognise that scholars at risk include our own Savonarolas who are threatened, bullied, subjected to show trials, denied tenure, suspended, hounded into silence, marginalised and persecuted for daring to be human, for daring to be free, for daring to question the canon. Perhaps the next academic freedom conference on this campus can jointly examine both external and domestic threats to academic freedom. Our own house needs cleaning before we can address with even greater strength and purpose, the challenges to academic freedom abroad.

Howard Zinn, who was my adviser and frequent professor at Boston University said, “One certain effect of war is to diminish freedom of expression. Patriotism becomes the order of the day, and those who question the war are seen as traitors to be silenced and imprisoned.”

Historically, higher education during war or accelerated international tension has been a frequent target by both conservative and liberal thought police. Defenders of the “vital center,” as liberal Arthur Schlesinger Jr admiringly described the Democratic-Republican Party nexus, operate not by consensus but by coercion. Many centrists wish to perpetuate orthodoxy in the classroom, and purge radical dissent from the academy.

Let us be clear. Let us be direct. There is a movement in this country, while claiming a monopoly on patriotism, is a threat to the national interest. They are opposed to reason. They are opposed to skepticism. They are opposed to internationalism. They are opposed to gay rights. Many want to slay the dragon of alleged Islamic resistance to modernity yet criticise courses that encompass peace studies, socialism, or feminist theory and excoriate professors who place socially relevant posters or announcements on bulletin boards or office doors. They want to impose a political religion of intolerance and ethnocentrism on the sole remaining institution with even a shred of independence: higher education. Their resistance to modernity is profound, well-funded, well-organised and confrontational. They do not have the capacity to seek reconciliation or understanding with those whom they disagree.

Today there is a new McCarthyism in which antiwar rhetoric is suppressed. In the 1950s, it was based on group or party association; in the 21st Century it is based on speech. It’s not so much today whom did you know but what did you say.

After American Airlines Flight #77 flew into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Richard Berthold, then professor of classical history at the University of New Mexico, told a class of approximately 100 students in his Western Civilization course, “Anybody who blows up the Pentagon gets my vote.” Although this was an in class articulation of an opinion, Professor Berthold was reprimanded and not allowed to offer any more classes of Western Civilization. He was essentially driven out of the university when he took early retirement the following academic year.

Nicholas De Genova, an assistant professor of Anthropology and Latino/a Studies at Columbia University, spoke at a teach-in on March 27, 2003 eight days after the criminal Bush administration invaded Iraq and advocated the defeat of American forces. “I personally would like to see a million Mogadishus (in Iraq)…The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military.” One hundred and four Republican Party members of the House of Representatives demanded that Columbia University President Lee Bollinger dismiss the professor. Alumni threatened to withhold their financial support; death threats were rampant and Professor De Genova required police protection on campus. President Bollinger must have been warming up for his unprofessional denunciatory introduction of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He responded to Professor De Genova’s remarks on April 2 at the National Press Club:

I was not at that event [the teach-in]…However, one speech in particular went well beyond the normal range of viewpoints. In fact, the comments by Assistant Professor Nicholas De Genova are both shocking and horrific. At a time of war when American troops are in harm’s way, his comments are especially sickening. This is not only my view, but the view of everyone to whom I have spoken on the Columbia campus.

Many construed his introduction on September 24, 2007 of his guest President Ahmadinejad as “shocking, horrific and sickening,” when he was denounced as a “petty and cruel dictator” and “express[ed]… revulsion at what you stand for.” This hardly encourages open inquiry at Columbia on Iran’s geostrategic vital interests, or the trumped up lies by the Bush administration, as confirmed in a recent National Intelligence Estimate, that Iran was seeking to become a nuclear-weapons state.         

Opponents of academic freedom frequently embrace the notion of American exceptionalism and reject criticism of the violent and even racist projection of power that accompanies our imperial overstretch. Many, but certainly not all, are supporters of Israel which is a key component of their political religion. For them Israel, unlike other nation-states, should not be criticised; its wars and use of cluster bombs, blockades, settlements, separation walls and targeted assassinations against the Palestinians or other Islamic peoples should be immune from ethical or moral challenges and the remarkable assumption of an American-Israeli identical identity of interests never challenged. However, their resistance to modernity includes distorting reality to advance their own perceived interests which may not be compatible with the national interest as their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have all too starkly revealed.    

In 2004, the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership produced a provocative film, “Columbia Unbecoming,” claiming that Columbia University’s Middle East Asian Languages and Cultures Department was anti-Semitic and discriminated against pro-Israel students. There also emerged an online petition drive to deny Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj tenure at Barnard College. External constituencies chose not to merely critique or denounce her, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, but as enemies of modernism, to silence the author by denying her an appointment in academia. They failed in this instance but are not deterred in their anti-modernist assault on the academy.                                                     

For over two years, Alan Dershowitz, Frankfurter Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, tried to derail Norman Finkelstein’s application for tenure and promotion. Mr Dershowitz used the Wall Street Journal,, The Jerusalem Post,, The New Republic (T.N.R. online June 1, 2007), his own website and other venues to campaign personally against the DePaul professor’s tenure bid. Dershowitz slandered Dr Finkelstein as an “anti-semite,” his publications as “trash” and accused his adversary of being a “neo-Nazi supporter, a Holocaust trivializer, and a liar… and…like a little worm.”       

I wish DePaul University had not succumbed to the well-orchestrated hate filled campaign of Alan Dershowitz when it denied tenure to Dr Finkelstein and derivatively to Dr Larudee in June 2007. I might add my blog was the first to report that DePaul University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Chuck Suchar had recommended denying tenure and President Reverend Dennis H. Holtschneider denied it on June 8.

This is more than mere ideological confrontation between competing visions. This is more than the inevitable Sturm und Drang within civil society. This is more than profound disagreements over American foreign policy. This is frankly a battle for the intellectual independence of higher education and for free speech which is the sine qua non for the advancement of knowledge and the pursuit of truth.

I was suspended, removed from the classroom and reprimanded on November 11, 2002. Like the Finkelstein case and the Ward Churchill auto da fé which led to his egregious firing from the University of Colorado on July 24, 2007, it was primarily external forces and organised pressure groups that demanded sanctions including the revocation of my tenure.

I sent an e-mail response to an Air Force Academy cadet’s e-mail to dozens of professors to promote an event on campus.  My e-mail was strident, denounced war and in particular the military tactics employed in war. My suspension from teaching, in the twelfth week of the fall semester, was reflective of a highly militaristic, nationalistic culture that rejects patriotically incorrect inquiry if it becomes too vituperative or frankly too accurate in its condemnation of America’s preemptive imperialistic wars.                    

I denounced in my e-mail the “aggressive baby killing tactics of collateral damage.” I refused to admire “top guns [who] rain death and destruction upon nonwhite peoples throughout the world.” I condemned “cowards who bomb countries without AAA, without possibility of retaliation;” I denounced “imperialists who are turning the whole damn world against us.” I believe my observation that “September 11 can be blamed in part for what you and your cohorts have done to the Palestinians, the VC, the Serbs, a retreating army at Basra,” is reasonable and accurate.

I was too harsh in some other personal references to the cadet for which I apologised two days later. The cadet, Robert Kurpiel, and the enraged cadet wing sent en masse my e-mail to friends, families and media contacts. The cadet and Air Force Academy Captain, Jim Borders apologized for this dissemination. I was also told in the office of former St Xavier University President Richard Yanikoski on November 4, who is now president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, that the incident was over and that the cadet and I had reconciled. I was praised for my career of service to St Xavier and practically embraced by the president. However, external pressure from military and other prowar groups on St Xavier University engulfed the institution as it was besieged with frenetic media coverage and tens of thousands of e-mails, letters and phone calls demanding retribution. Blogs and websites were created to lobby the university as well. One week later, due to significant public pressure, I was suspended not accidentally on Veterans Day.

Bill Kristol’s, The Weekly Standard, published an article by former Deputy Undersecretary of Defence Jed Babbin during the first Bush administration,  that described me as “a hate-the-military type,” and as “barely literate” He questioned if I were “fit to teach at any college” and implied that my tenure should be revoked. Roger Kimball, editor of the conservative literary magazine The New Criterion which also condemned me, wrote an article for The American Legion Magazine with a McCarthyism-sounding title, “Academia v. America.” He claimed universities are “havens for displaced radicals.” He bemoaned the fact my tenure was not rescinded, and that after my suspension I would “soon be back molding young minds.” The Wall Street Journal wrote two editorials that praised Dr Yanikoski for suspending me and standing up to the radical, progressive left.

Laura Ingraham, the conservative media pundit has described progressive faculty as: “the worst of the worse.” She called me in her diatribe-filled book Shut Up and Sing, “a ‘teacher’ of American history, God help us…[and for not] respecting the military’s unique culture.” It is unique; how many other countries seek global hegemony and torture, invade, destroy and occupy sovereign states for reasons unrelated to defence?

Having been named one of the most dangerous professors in David Horowitz, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, I can assess with some expertise the conservative pedagogical critique of academia. I also debated David Horowitz in Chicago on the Iraq War and academic freedom.

They claim socially conscious professors are too biased. Professors assign only books that represent their weltanschauung. The Social Sciences and humanities are riddled with un-American radicals who overpower their defenceless students with political correctness and anti-American diatribes disguised as critical thinking.

They evaluate students not on performance but political beliefs, which is mere anecdotal propaganda, and expressly prohibited by the American Association of University Professors, “Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students.”

Condemnation of academic activism is not a right-wing monopoly, however: The apotheosis of mainstream liberalism, Stanley Fish, of Florida International University in, New York Times, [May 21, 2004] asserted professors should not concern themselves with “provid[ing] students with the knowledge and commitments to be socially responsible citizens.” He believes the only concerns of an academician are “curriculum, department leadership, the direction of research, the content and manner of teaching, establishing standards – everything that is relevant to the responsibilities we take on when we accept a paycheck.” Academicians should “aim low and stick to the tasks we are paid to perform.”

He wrote “[O]ur job is not to change the world, but to interpret it.” Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach proclaimed: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

Teaching is enriched by professors who are committed to changing the world in a progressive manner. The classroom cannot be nourished if the professor is trapped on a Tom Hanks’s, “Cast Away” island of academic self-absorption.

Roberta Matthews, former provost at Brooklyn College, astutely noted, “teaching is a political act.” For me it is also a moral act that requires challenging the canon and educating responsible citizens. A professor should not merely recite facts and figures and maintain a sterile neutrality, as dictated by Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, or cover slavishly both sides of every issue. Is slavery defensible? Is genocide defensible? Is racism defensible? Is homophobia defensible? Are war crimes defensible?

The seminal document defining academic freedom is the A.A.U.P., “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure:” It states, “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” This was amended with the 1970 Ninth Interpretive Comment which updated the 1940 Statement. “Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the [1940] statement is designed to foster. [One should avoid] persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.”

If academicians wish to discuss controversial subject matter, this is encouraged with academic freedom in this country as long as course content is covered. How many professors discussed the events of September 11 in courses that did not deal with Middle East Politics, the Presidency or American foreign policy?

If professors aren’t free, neither are their students. Those who wish to inflict a smothering orthodoxy on the academy should recognise that instruction need not serve the dominant ideology.

Our campuses and our academic freedom are worth defending. Defending for toleration of dissent, defending for inclusion of race, class and gender in our curricula, defending for respecting Islam and those who dare challenge the Judeo-Christian hegemony, defending the right to challenge the empire and recognizing that without diversity and new thinking in academia, we will witness the closing of the American mind. This must not stand and we must and shall resist it.

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