The right’s assault on the academy: An interview with Robert Jensen
By Robert Jensen
Published in Counterpunch · July, 2005
A version of the following interview with Robert Jensen, journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Heart of Whiteness and Citizens of the Empire, originally appeared in the June 2005 Issue, an independent progressive magazine published in Austin, TX.
BL: David Horowitz was on the University of Texas campus a few weeks ago promoting his bill of academic rights and his version of free speech. I was wondering if you could comment on efforts to promote these academic “bills of rights” and what the effect could be on the academy.
RJ: Actually if you took the principles in that bill of rights and applied them uniformly across the campus, it would probably be very beneficial to the institution. It would be healthy to ask, “Are there orthodoxies in place that are routinely not challenged by the curriculum and the faculty? Are there orthodoxies in place that students are punished for trying to challenge?”
If you took that question seriously, the first place that you would look is the business school. You’d look at the places where basically a centrist to right orthodoxy is in place. The most grotesque example is the business school where corporate capitalism is taught as if it were the only way to organize an economy. It’s a massive propaganda campaign.
What’s going on today is the targeting of faculty with certain points of view to try to create a climate of fear that will turn the university into nothing but an ideological factory, which it almost already is. That’s what this is all about. It is a political intervention; there are no principles involved.
BL: Do you think efforts by Horowitz and others who have formed the “Discover the Network” online database covering the left, are in a similar vein? For instance that network describes you and other progressive and radical academics and activists as “anti-American leftists” and “totalitarian radicals.”
RJ: [Discover the Network] is a political project. One has to analyze what is the project and what is the source of the potential coercion of the project. And, [the left] has to be a little more precise in this.
For instance, I think calling this McCarthyism is inaccurate, for several reasons. First of all, to label the second red scare of the 20th century “McCarthyism” is to demonize one individual. There was a consistent attack on the left from the late 40s through the 60s that wasn’t perpetrated just by Joe McCarthy. Harry Truman and Democrats also participated in it. So, I avoid the term McCarthyism.
Second, that attack on the left in the 1940s and 1950s involved the imposition of government power directly through various agencies of the state — House committee hearings, FBI involvement, criminal prosecutions, and such things — which put direct pressure on universities and the entertainment industry to fire and blacklist people. That’s state power.
David Horowitz is not petitioning anyone in the government to directly suppress the speech. He’s smart to not call for faculty to be fired; he knows that that won’t play in the U.S. at this point with a large enough public to make it politically effective. So it’s not McCarthyism in that sense. It’s not intended to bring state power down on anyone. It’s a political intervention, not a legal one. And he has a right to do it.
And, of course, I have a right to say the Discover the Network website and the argument implicit in it is literally incoherent and laughable. It has no principled or logical application of terms; it’s just ridiculous. The appropriate response is to answer it and explain why it’s silly to have a chart of the left that links Katie Couric and Mohammed Atta.
Here’s what I think is at the core of this: At a time when conservative political forces control the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government, the right-wingers are trying to neutralize two institutions where there is some minimal commitment to free and open inquiry — the media and university system. They’re trying to shut those down. It’s a logic of total control that is so common in political movements that have an authoritarian bent like the reactionary right has.
But they also know there is a deeper commitment to free speech and academic freedom in the culture today than there was in 1950. Those concepts have deepened and enriched American society, so that even among ordinary people who 50 years ago would have been happy to hang communists, there is an appreciation of the importance of these concepts. So, [the right] is approaching them in a way that is different than in the 19-teens or 1950s, but with the same goal — to shut down any space for free and open inquiry that could lead to critique of dominant institutions.
BL: There’s a political movement to instill a climate of fear amongst radical or progressive faculty
RJ: Or even liberal faculty at this point.
We should remember that part of the reason that Horowitz’s argument is attractive to people is that there is a kernel of truth to it. The university is, in terms of the political spectrum today in the United States, disproportionately liberal — not radical, but liberal in a certain limited sense. If you look at things like support for gay rights, abortion rights, support for the Democratic Party — markers of a tepid liberalism — most any state university is likely to have a faculty that is more liberal than the general population. So, we should acknowledge that compared to lots of other institutions in society, the media and universities are disproportionately liberal in certain ways. But they are also centrist and reactionary in very important ways, in how they support the basic distribution of power and resources in the society.
BL: That’s what you see in things like the business school being institutions that support the status quo. But, you would never see someone like Horowitz saying we need to be hiring more left-leaning economists.
RJ: That’s the lie of the whole project — this whole notion of balance. Horowitz and others are not really interested in balance across the whole curriculum. Also, balance is a useless term in academics, when you’re talking about intellectual life. You can’t balance all positions. Some positions have been presumptively excluded from the conversation because of the weight of the evidence and development of theory in a field. For example, you don’t let flat earth people teach geography, you don’t let people who believe in the earth-centered solar system teach astrophysics. There is a process by which knowledge goes forward.
BL: It seems that there is shift from this “culture of fear” towards actual legislation that has been proposed to rein in Middle Eastern Studies departments to make them more “balanced.”
RJ: Area studies programs in general were set up to serve U.S. hegemony, to train people to go run the world. But some of those programs shifted to become places of critical inquiry, and the dominant institutions don’t like that. People with power don’t like that something they set up to support the dominant interpretation of the world has become now a site of struggle.
It’s not that [these professors] shouldn’t be scrutinized. Everybody should be scrutinized. But, if you’re going to evaluate every word that Joseph Massad (Columbia University professor who has come under fire for his defense of the Palestinian right to return) ever said in a classroom, send someone over to the business school, and evaluate everything they say. And what will you find? You’ll find a much more horrendous ideological conformity. But that’s not of interest to people.
So Middle Eastern Studies become the focus of scrutiny, and they become the warning to everybody else in area studies to shut up and sit down, or you’ll lose your funding, you’ll lose your professors. So it’s all about a demonstration effect.
That’s what the attack on Ward Churchill (the radical University of Colorado professor who has been investigated by the university for a post-9/11 article) is about. That’s what Joseph Massad is about. You don’t need to bust everybody; you just need to scare them. It’s the same principle that an authoritarian government might apply to a resistance movement: You don’t have to kill them all, you just have to hang a few of them every now and then when you find them, and hang them up from the lamppost to make sure everyone knows what is happening. That’s what is going on.
BL: Could you speak on how you feel the academy should respond to these political creations of climates of fear?
RJ: Well, I think university administrations should reject an ad hoc examination of one program or one professor. And if they’re going to engage in this there should be some systematic process under faculty control. This ad hoc style of investigation is ludicrous. It’s a response to political pressure. If there is a problem and the problem is systematic, then it should be dealt with systematically. Administrators should rigorously defend the concept of academic freedom, not just for self-interested reasons, but by articulating the value of it to the whole society. If there are claims that classrooms are inappropriately politicized, then we should evaluate what type of problems there are, and if there is a problem we should go about trying to solve it a way that is grounded in academic freedom and due process.
BOB LIBAL is a student/youth organizer for Grassroots Leadership’s Not With Our Money! campaign. He can be reached at [email protected].