One of the most irritating aspects of the entire Columbia academic freedom debate is the persistent cry of “McCarthyism” from the MEALAC department’s defenders. A little perspective, please. For those who remember the McCarthy era (I was not alive then, but I can read history books), true “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 do we have at Columbia? A coordinated protest by students (assisted by the David Project, a small nonprofit corporation) against what they perceive as pervasive bias and unethical conduct in Columbia’s MEALAC department. There are no governmental investigations (though a few politicians have expressed opinions). In fact, both the protesting students and the David Project itself have clearly expressed that they have no intention of impairing basic academic freedom rights, nor do they take the position that professors cannot have a viewpoint.
Criticism is not the same thing as McCarthyism, and the mere comparison cheapens the experience of those hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of American citizens who were personally impacted by the shameful excesses of that era.