Not ‘McCarthyism,’ but…

By on February 28, 2005

While I agree with David’s view that the situation at Columbia has not reached the heights of the governmental abuses of the McCarthy era, I have to express my empathy with the struggle faced by the professors of the MEALAC department and many of the students involved in the debate. Let’s not forget that although protests and calls for dismissal by politicians do not constitute real intimidation or coercion in the legal sense, such reactions to unproven allegations against an individual, combined with other emotionally draining incidences, do significantly impact one’s morale and ability to go about “business as usual.”

For example, Professor Joseph Massad reported to the Columbia Spectactor that Moshe Rubin, an associate clinical professor of medicine, had sent him a personal e-mail that read, “Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar.” While I stand by my previous post that Massad and professors in similar situations should not succumb to the pressure of their opponents by canceling their courses, sometimes a human being can withstand only so much hostility, not just against one’s views but also against one’s very presence in this country, before feeling a strong desire to go hide in a cave. In addition, to receive such a reaction from a fellow professor, no less, can be very taxing and must make one incredibly uncomfortable to be part of the same university’s faculty. Perhaps he wonders how many other colleagues would prefer that he “get the hell out of America” because of his views and ethnic background.

In an intensely emotional situation in which hateful mail has flown in all directions, in which Jewish students have also received anti-Jewish messages and swastikas have been painted in public spaces on campus, individuals on both sides of this controversy feel incredibly threatened and mutually unwelcome by others. Reacting with cries of “McCarthyism” may seem a bit exaggerated, especially for those of us not directly experiencing the current climate at Columbia; however, I can see why, just as those whose lives were interrupted by McCarthyism, so too the MEALAC professors may feel that many individuals’ professional and personal lives have been thrown out of loop by this whole ordeal. On the flip side, many Jewish students’ lives have likewise been deeply impacted.

Currently, campuses like Columbia’s are battling not just policies and practices that attempt to unlawfully regulate expression but also a disturbing culture in which people would rather bully speakers into silence than engage in open and direct dialogue. Instead of reacting with destructive messages that seek to dehumanize those with an opposing view (such as demanding that someone leave the country or painting Nazi symbols in bathrooms), campus communities must try to achieve an academic environment in which all individuals can feel comfortable with their ideas’ being challenged in dialogue directly, critically, and openly—especially about the most controversial issues. Not only do universities need to end all forms of arbitrary censorship of their students and faculty, but they also need to be able to readily provide effective opportunities for vigorous debate and reflection whenever it is needed.

Hopefully, the Columbia community can find a way to transform its difficult situation into a positive and inclusive learning experience for all parties involved. Otherwise, what appears to be counterproductive antagonism and tension may only escalate.

Schools: Columbia University