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One thing that worries me greatly is the lack of historical
perspective often demonstrated in modern politicized debates. It seems that
people call each other “Nazis,” “fascists,” “communists,” and so on rather
lightly and with precious little understanding of what those terms mean
historically. David and I both
believe the term “McCarthyism” is being badly abused in the current debate over
bias and academic freedom at Columbia
University. While FIRE
certainly recognizes there are serious issues concerning students’ and professors
rights in this case, comparing it to the serious abuses that took place under
the reign of Senator Joe McCarthy is irresponsible. As esteemed FIRE Board of Advisors
member Nat Hentoff puts it in his column in
yesterday’s Village Voice:

I am of an age to have experienced McCarthyism directly from
the source and his followers, as was revealed years later in my FBI files
(obtained through the Freedom of Information Act). It was there I learned the
names of the towns in Russia from which my late parents came, and in which I
was accused of being at “radical” meetings in other countries where I’ve never
been and of mocking FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The ravening senator from Wisconsin and his acolytes—including many in
the press (anyone remember George Sokolsky?)—were dedicated to suppressing
speech by “subversives,” “fellow travelers,” and other unpatriotic dissenters.

To call what the students in Columbians for Academic Freedom
have been doing “McCarthyism” shows the need for much more teaching in schools,
including universities, about that fear-ridden period of actual McCarthyism in
American history—and what could happen again if there is another 9-11 or its

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