Opinion » Ted Rall

Barbarians At The Gates

The Right's attack on academic freedom



ANN ARBOR--A Republican group's offer of a hundred bucks for information leading to the identification and conviction of the University of California at Los Angeles' "most radical professors" has all the hallmarks of a cheap publicity stunt: an abrasive young quotemonger, the Nixon-style "Dirty Thirty" enemies list of alleged liberal instructors, and its attempt to compromise students willing to furtively tape their teachers' lectures. The media, for which "at first glance" could equally serve as a motto and epitaph, has treated it as unworthy of serious coverage. Scratch the surface, however, and it becomes clear that the UCLA story is a chilling new front in the right's offensive against the last liberal redoubt in America: academia.

The "Bruin Alumni Association"--not the actual UCLA alumni association, but a one-man shell operation run by one Andrew Jones, Class of 2003, age 24--says it/he merely wants to "restore an atmosphere of respectful political discourse on campus." Linda Chavez, a former official in the Reagan White House, assures: "No one is suggesting that anyone be fired for his or her views." Maybe not yet. But why make a hit list and pay for evidence of ideological incorrectness--unless you plan to use them?

Jones is a former researcher for David Horowitz, a bizarre fringe neoconservative with his own taste for enemies lists. Last year, he launched a Web site smearing Bush Administration critics like Phil Donahue and yours truly by lumping them with Al Qaeda leaders wanted for Islamist terrorism. Horowitz, now operating under the banner "Students for Academic Freedom," has spun himself as a self-appointed campus watchdog arguing that professors with left-wing views should help themselves to a nice big cup of shut-the-hell-up or, better yet, face dismissal. And big-time media outlets that ought to know better, like The New York Times, are taking him seriously.

Last week, Horowitz spooked the Pennsylvania Legislature into holding HUAC-esque hearings on the pernicious presence of liberal professors in state colleges and universities. Read into the record was witless testimony by disgruntled conservative students. "This professor always had something negative to say not only about the Bush Administration," wrote a snitch about an English class at Temple University, "but about conservatives in general. She stated on one occasion that it is impossible to be a moral capitalist. She stated that the U.S. does not have the right to say anything about the Taliban's record of oppressing women because the U.S. oppresses women too." Rings true to me. But Horowitz's message was as clear as when it appeared in the original German: Unless you're waving the flag and cheering the president, stay away from politics. Stick to the textbook.

Though twice as many journalists vote Democratic as Republican, that's the lowest number since 1971. America's media, passing off discussions between right-wing extremists and squishy New Republic centrists as genuine debate, has silenced the liberals in its ranks. Leaders of major religious groups, including the traditionally activist Roman Catholic Church, have cozied up to the right. Corporate power, historically controlled by Republicans, has consolidated its hold on all three branches of government, which are dominated by the GOP on the federal level, as well as most states.

Institutions of higher education, where the hearts and minds of America's next generation of leaders are formed, have become the equivalent of the medieval city-state: tiny refuges where intellectuals and their students can question such conservative articles of faith as free markets, free trade and American military and corporate hegemony.

The nail that sticks out, says the Japanese proverb, must be pounded down. American conservatives, having pounded their liberal foes into nearly total submission, see the campus culture wars as their chance to finish the job.

"By their own description," The Washington Post reported in March 2005, "72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative." At the most elite institutions including the Ivy League, the ideological differential was even wider--87 percent were self-identified liberals, 13 percent conservatives. There's a simple reason for that gap: conservatives, by definition, are closed-minded. When in doubt, they favor the status quo. Republicans give government officials, the wealthy and others in power the benefit of the doubt. The liberal tradition in academia, on the other hand, relies on the willingness to set aside preconceived notions and beliefs in the pursuit of truth, regardless of where it may lead them. It places progress for the many over the good of a few elites. The longer they study society's complex problems, academics tend to find that the simplistic prescriptions advocated by conservatives don't work.

There is no such thing as a conservative intellectual. If people like Andrew Jones get their way, there won't be any liberal ones either.


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