Parallel purges: Academic freedom in Iran and America
By Robert Jensen
Published in CounterPunch · September, 2006
When I published an article this summer that condemned the past six decades of U.S. policy toward Iran, and the Middle East more generally, as a strategy of “domination-through-violence,” one critic emailed to suggest that if I was so unhappy with the United States, “why don’t you and all the other liberal professors just pack up and move to Iran and see how you like it there.”
Though I never gave the idea much thought — I’m a U.S. citizen who believes I have an obligation to work to make this country better, and besides I like it here just fine — it appears the option of going to Iran is no longer available to me or my leftie colleagues after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement this week that he wants to purge liberal and secular teachers from Iranian universities.
Hmm. Sounds kind of familiar. After nearly a decade of public political work in various movements on the left side of the political fence, I long ago lost count of the number of times angry readers have expressed their desire to purge U.S. universities of the liberal and secular forces that they believe are out to destroy all that is good about God and Country. This past year, for example, a number of politicians called for the firing of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill for harsh remarks he made about U.S. policy, and it appears that the university is going to answer those calls, albeit under the cover of contentious claims that Churchill plagiarized and fabricated research.
I’m not suggesting the situations of U.S. and Iranian academics are the same. At this moment in history, U.S. professors have extensive legal guarantees of academic freedom that are mostly observed, even if there are other kinds of pressures that can subtly shape how that freedom is exercised (such as the pressure to secure grants for research, which tends to push professors away from radical ideas that might challenge the centrist-to-conservative leanings of major funders and university administrators).
But while the ideologies and traditions of the two societies are quite different, it’s interesting that Ahmadinejad justified his desire to deal with dangerous professors because of the university officials’ “tendency to introduce politics into academic affairs.” The phrase is reminiscent of a common complaint aimed at folks like me, that we “politicize the classroom.”
In the Iranian case, it seems clear that Ahmadinejad is the one who wants most to introduce politics into the university by excluding opponents or even potential opponents. No doubt most everyone in the United States — including those who have in recent years called for the firing of me and other professors with similar views — would agree that the Iranian president’s motive is to eliminate as much dissent as possible.
That’s easy to see, but many in the United States find it difficult to imagine that similar complaints about so-called dangerous left-wing professors might spring from such political motivations. How can so many believe that ridding U.S. universities of professors with a certain politics is not ideologically motivated, but simple common sense?
The quality of discussion of these issues would be improved considerably if we recognized that all teaching about human affairs has a politics. That doesn’t mean teaching is nothing but the imposition of a professor’s politics on a class. But we should realize that every decision in courses that deal with human behavior and society — from the structure of the class, to the specific topics covered, to the books assigned — reflects a professor’s assessment of a variety of political and ethical questions.
As academics, it’s our job to assess competing theories and decide which should be taught in what fashion. That can be done competently in a responsible fashion that airs all important ideas, or done poorly with prejudice. But it always involves judgments about politics and ethics. Professors should be willing to defend their decisions, and I am always happy to do so. I trust that business school professors who teach the doctrines of corporate capitalism without serious consideration of alternatives and challenges are willing to do the same.
I don’t know enough about the internal political dynamics in Iran to understand exactly what Ahmadinejad hopes to accomplish by going after academics, but I assume it’s not that different from the reasons conservative forces in the United States go after leftists:
–First, because academics are relatively privileged compared to many other workers, it’s easy to target us; teaching college usually is a lot easier than working in a factory or cleaning an office building.
–Second, in a society dominated by conservatives in government and the corporate world, universities are one of the few places where liberals and even leftists are present in significant numbers; it’s easy for many to imagine that there’s a conspiracy afoot.
–Third, focusing attention on the alleged leftist menace, wherever it can be conjured up, helps divert attention away from the failure of conservative policies at home and abroad; demonizing opponents is a road-tested political tactic.
Early reports suggest that many in Iran see through Ahmadinejad’s political intentions. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for us.