Another Absurd ‘McCarthyism’ Complaint

By September 6, 2005

The most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features a fascinating forum (subscription required) highlighting the battle for free speech and intellectual freedom on campus.  FIRE’s own Greg Lukianoff weighs in with an insightful piece, while Stanley Kurtz and Carol Swain make their customary excellent arguments.  One essay stood out from all the others, however, and not in a good way.  Jonathan Cole, a “university professor and former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia University” spends an entire column playing the “M” card: “McCarthyism.”  Cole argues:

A rising tide of anti-intellectualism and intolerance of university research and teaching that offends ideologues and today’s ruling prince is putting academic freedom—one of the core values of the university—under more sustained and subtle attack than at any time since the dark days of McCarthyism in the 1950s.

And what is the evidence for this explosive charge?  As anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of history should recall, actual “McCarthyism” involved a comprehensive effort by a U.S. senator to commandeer the vast power and reach of the federal government to root out communists and communist sympathizers from virtually every influential institution in American society, from the government to the film industry to academia. This effort involved governmental inquiries (coercive inquiries involving use of federal subpoena power) into deeply held personal beliefs and into the private lives of ordinary citizens.
 
What about this “New McCarthyism?”  Well, it turns out that most of this “McCarthyism” involves either increased federal oversight over the use of federal funds, or actual dissent from the dominant academic ideology.  For example, Cole argues that McCarthy’s ugly ghost hovers over the following:

Witness the furor last year over a purported “documentary” by the Boston-based David Project, Columbia Unbecoming, that charged professors with anti-Israel bias, or the Orwellian efforts by the national group Students for Academic Freedom that—in the name of ending the alleged politicization of the academy—attempt to limit legitimate scholarly discourse.

What Cole doesn’t note is that the material charges in the “purported ‘documentary’” were actually held to be “credible” by a panel of investigators from Columbia that was stacked with individuals sympathetic to the accused professors.  One of the “credible” allegations included a claim that a Columbia professor actually suppressed dissent in his classroom by forbidding a student from debating his false claims about Israeli actions in Jenin.  So Cole apparently believes that it is “McCarthyism” for a student to complain when a teacher violates her own academic freedom rights.  And regarding Students for Academic Freedom, can someone please direct me to a single professor or administrator that SAF has censored?  The last time I checked, nonprofit advocacy groups like SAF did not have much power (“Orwellian” or otherwise) to censor or control professors.
 
But in his final paragraph, Cole gives the game away:

The sad fact, however, is that few academic leaders and prominent members of their faculties are rising to the defense of academic freedom. Where is the Robert Hutchins of today, who protected the idea of the university against ideological foes during the 1940s and 1950s? As Hutchins said, it is “not how many professors would be fired for their beliefs, but how many think they might be.” It is time to recognize the seriousness of the current attacks, analyze carefully the bases for them, scrutinize evidence on their incidence and consequences, and organize a defense of the university against those intent on undermining its values and quality.

So: when describing this new McCarthyism, it is no longer necessary to point to any actual censorship and repression; it is merely enough to point to the fear (reasonable or unreasonable? Apparently, it doesn’t matter) of the employed-for-life tenured class.  Even untenured university professors enjoy far greater written job protections than the vast majority of America’s employed-at-will workforce.  Until Mr. Cole can point to the systematic deprivation of actual civil liberties (rather than systematic criticism and some threats of—oh, the horror—funding oversight), he should refrain from playing the “M” card.  Make no mistake, there are serious threats to academic freedom and free speech, but labeling external critiques and internal dissent “McCarthyism” does nothing to address those threats and goes a long way towards demonstrating the bad faith of the defenders of the status quo.
 
To paraphrase Jon Stewart’s incomparable takedown of overwrought Hitler analogies, when you compare critics of the academic establishment to Joseph McCarthy, you lose a bit of credibility.  It demeans you, it demeans your opponent, and, frankly, it demeans McCarthy.  He worked too long and too hard to become the foremost totalitarian of modern American history to have his throne usurped by, for example, a Boston-based nonprofit that believes “the values of tolerance, pluralism, and civil society are prerequisites for achieving genuine peace for all people in the Middle East.”

Schools: Columbia University