Blogs > Cliopatria > When the Attack Dog is Blind

Jan 19, 2006 7:19 pm


When the Attack Dog is Blind



Andrew Jones is either very sloppy, or a willing liar. Maybe both.

This point is apparently unclear. In a comment about another post, KC Johnson writes this:"A good part of the reasoning in the UCLAprofs site is unconvincing. But as far as I can tell, there's nothing untrue said about any of these professors."

Not so. There's untruth all over the place. Professors Joan Waugh and Naomi Lamoreaux are prominently pictured on the site's banner, and listed among those who've signed"radical" petitions. The single petition listed for both is a letter arguing against preemptive war, which puts Waugh and Lamoreaux in the radical company of Pat Buchanan and American Conservative magazine. No other arguments are given for their"radicalism"; their signatures on this single petition are enough to place their faces at the top of the page, labeled as radical and attacked -- the purpose of UCLA Profs -- for politicizing the university. I have worked for Joan Waugh, and taken graduate seminars with both Joan Waugh and Naomi Lamoreaux. Neither discussed their politics in the classroom. Look at their publishedscholarship:

Lamoreaux is a historian of American ecomomic enterprise -- who won awards, a couple of years ago, for a paper that challenged a particular reading of early American history that has been advanced by Marxist historians. (Simplifying, yes.) And so on; I defy someone to construe this as a piece of radical scholarship. Joan Waugh teaches a highly regarded class on the Civil War, and travels to Gettysburg with her students most summers. Can someone please make a serious case for these two professors being classified as"radical"? My own radical belief is that it is irreponsible to publicly attack people as something that they obviously are not. Speaking of which:

Take a look at the UCLA Profs profile of Ellen DuBois, which includes gems like this paragraph, and let's all play spot-the-problems together (emphasis added):

She and fellow History Department radical Joyce Appleby (an “active retiree,” so to speak) were the originators of the American Historians’ Petition, which gained fame for its relatively high participation (1,200 signatures), and for its insistence that “our members of Congress...assume their Constitutional responsibility to debate and vote on whether or not to declare war on Iraq.” The petition conveniently ignored the fact that the last time the U.S. Congress officially declared war was (drum roll, please) 1941. Confirmation that the petition as little more than a targeted slap at President Bush are found in the petition’s claims that the public discussion to date was “filled with rumors, leaks and speculations,” (as though this were somehow a new phenomenon in the American media). The petition further argued, “Since there was no discussion of Iraq during the 2000 presidential campaign, the election of George Bush cannot be claimed as a mandate for an attack.” Perhaps DuBois and Appleby forgot, but the 2000 election also failed to discuss the 9/11 attacks. Oddly enough, neither Osama Bin Laden nor Saddam Hussein were very high on Bush or Gore’s to-do list in those days, mainly because we hadn’t yet experienced a major terrorist attack.. Imagine that!

Of course, we verymuchhad experienced major terrorist attacks prior to the 2000 elections, and had responded with (politically significant) military force. Neither did Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden suddenly leap anew into American political consciousness, or onto the government's"to do list," after the 2000 elections. And would anyone like to defend the ridicule directed by UCLA Profs at the idea that Congress has the authority to declare war -- which somehow apparently lapsed, constitutionally, from misuse? Or is anyone up to making the case for Joyce Appleby as a radical? There is no defensible argument to be made that UCLA Profs says"nothing untrue" about"any of these professors." The site is sloppy and shoddy, and it absolutely does say untrue things about UCLA professors. Unless we want to argue about the line between"unconvincing" and"untrue," which is apparently the strongest line of defense available for Andrew Jones and his nasty little project.

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Chris Bray - 1/20/2006

The People's Committee applauds the correctness of this response. You are released from this evening's self-criticism.


David Silbey - 1/20/2006

Quiet, Comrade. The Party will tell you what academic freedom is.


Anthony Paul Smith - 1/20/2006

You didn't answer him? Why do you hate academic freedom?


David Silbey - 1/20/2006

"On curricular matters, I'm colored by the recent experiences at Brooklyn here, where the faculty union has bitterly fought against the concept of outside scrutiny as a violation of academic freedom and seems to think that a professor can't be criticized for what he or she writes. We've seen the same sort of thing here, with all-too-quick allegations of "McCarthyism." Compare the amount of information that's available on what professors write or teach now to what was available 10 years ago, because of the proliferation of material available on the internet. Ten years ago, no one would have heard about Ward Churchill, because the "little Eichmanns" journal probably would have had a circulation of 100, so no one would have easily tracked down the piece."

But in fact what you're arguing here is that academia was already remarkably transparent; that most of what professors say, think, or write was accessible by just about anyone who wanted access. The arrival of the internet universalized that for academia as it did not for many other things _because_ academia was already largely transparent. It's easy for a student to leave class and email or blog about the dumb thing his professor just said (ratemyprofessors.com et al). It's easy to confirm that a professor wrote something because it likely exists in a form (text) readily translatable to the internet (if it's not already there). When I search google for my name, just about every major piece of scholarship I've done comes up.

But that's a problem as well as an advantage, and the profession is still learning how to deal with it, and how it should be dealt with. Because a large number of the people speaking up are not critics with reasoned and reasonable objections, but cranks, with their own paranoid fantasies and agendas.

(The first paper I ever gave at the AHA--on World War I--a member of the audience raised their hand and asked me to comment on how World War I was the beginning of the "death of the white race." I, still a graduate student, stared at him like a fish gasping for air until the chair intervened and calmly called on another questioner.)

"But more broadly, especially with groups like the AAUP, there seems to me a misguided tendency to conflate outside criticism of new types, made possible by the internet, with a threat to academic freedom."

And you seem to me to go much too far in the opposite direction, which is to assume that no bit of outside criticism is, in fact, a threat to academic freedom: that the internet brings only critics, and never cranks.


Robert KC Johnson - 1/20/2006

On the latter issue, I was responding to the point that Chris was making, that UCLA's syllabi-posting has, indeed, made it easier to criticize them. I agree completely it's a good thing.

Agree also that lots of what we do is public--but the point where things begin (the decision regarding what areas to hire in and then who should be hired) has almost no transparency at all. Ditto with tenure matters, though I'd argue that the lack of transparency in the initial personnel process is even more important.

On curricular matters, I'm colored by the recent experiences at Brooklyn here, where the faculty union has bitterly fought against the concept of outside scrutiny as a violation of academic freedom and seems to think that a professor can't be criticized for what he or she writes. We've seen the same sort of thing here, with all-too-quick allegations of "McCarthyism." Compare the amount of information that's available on what professors write or teach now to what was available 10 years ago, because of the proliferation of material available on the internet. Ten years ago, no one would have heard about Ward Churchill, because the "little Eichmanns" journal probably would have had a circulation of 100, so no one would have easily tracked down the piece.

I don't like the tone of the UCLAprofs group, and, as I said, I disagree with their definition of what's "radical." But I think that too many faculty have failed to understand how more information about what we teach and write is more readily available to a wider audience. I'm not talking about HNN people here, obviously. But more broadly, especially with groups like the AAUP, there seems to me a misguided tendency to conflate outside criticism of new types, made possible by the internet, with a threat to academic freedom.


David Silbey - 1/19/2006

"I disagree with David's point that he could "hardly imagine a profession more transparent than higher education." There is virtually no transparency in academic personnel matters."

There are two separate issues here. First, should tenure decisions be more transparent. Sure. I would hardly argue otherwise to someone who stands as a case study for exactly that. Second, is academia more transparent than almost any other profession? I still think that's true. All professions have their areas of confidentiality. But the foundation of almost everything a professor does is the production of something for an audience--whether it be other scholars with journal articles or books, or lessons for a classroom of students. I can think of very few things that I do over the course of a day that will not be seen/critiqued by a range of people.

"Indeed UCLA's decision to put syllabi on-line makes it easier to criticize them. But in intellectual life--where we're supposed to be dealing with the exchange of ideas--is that a bad thing?"

Why does what should be a compliment of the UCLA history department come across, instead, as a criticism?


Robert KC Johnson - 1/19/2006

I disagree with David's point that he could "hardly imagine a profession more transparent than higher education." There is virtually no transparency in academic personnel matters. To my knowledge, not a single college publicly explains the manner in which it allocates lines. Hiring and tenuring decisions are shielded by the cloak of confidentiality; the only time we get anything close to transparency is the once-in-a-blue-moon instance of a successful tenure lawsuit.

Indeed UCLA's decision to put syllabi on-line makes it easier to criticize them. But in intellectual life--where we're supposed to be dealing with the exchange of ideas--is that a bad thing?

On Chris's point to start the post, I'd also disagree. I (and many others) consider petitions demanding divestment from Israel to be an anti-semitic act, since the signatories are holding Israel to a higher standard than every other nation in the world. People can disagree with this interpretation, of course. But the interpretation is not "untrue." Likewise, many people (including me) wouldn't consider the petitions some of these profs. signed to be "radical." But the profs. did sign the petitions--the website didn't make the claim up. The site provided a link to show what the petition was, and therefore allowed outsiders to (properly) question the definition of "radicalism" that the website's authors have.


David Silbey - 1/19/2006

By the way, I don't think that having given any of those talks makes me anything more than average in terms of what academics do. I was holding them out as something that an ordinary professor does in the ordinary way of things.

Ralph Luker, for example, puts all of us in the shade.


Alan Allport - 1/19/2006

Then why do so many of you seem so defensive when that audience expands to include those who are openly critical of you?

I am about as boringly unradical as anyone could wish for, but the pettiness and mean-spiritedness of the UCLAProfs site jumps out at you immediately. I think I could forgive someone for feeling rather tetchy about that sort of 'criticism.'


David Silbey - 1/19/2006

"Then why do so many of you seem so defensive when that audience expands to include those who are openly critical of you?"

If you think the audience needs to expand to include people who are openly critical then you have never
...taught about the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Inquisition in a small Catholic college.
...discussed Jim Crow laws at a large state University in the South.
...given a guest lecture on Vietnam to a local VFW group.

I have. All of them included very critical audience members. All of them included passionate discussions about the topic at hand that explored the issues pretty thoroughly.

But there is no topic at hand here other than a Gotcha! in which a group having already made up its mind looks for ways to impugn people.

By the way, it is a dodge to criticize the tone of someone's response. Spouses everywhere would call it the "You're overrreacting" ploy. "I don't like this" "Why are you overreacting?" It avoids dealing with the issues at hand, in the hopes of simply putting the other party on the defensive.


Christopher Newman - 1/19/2006

"Just about everything we do as professors is in front of, or intended for, some sort of audience."

-- Then why do so many of you seem so defensive when that audience expands to include those who are openly critical of you? By all means, criticize away -- the group is obviously stupid and careless -- but the "how dare they?" tone that creeps into much of the criticism, along with the silly accusations of McCarthyism, suggest there's something more going on than merely concern over false accusations of "radicalism."


David Silbey - 1/19/2006

"All the more reason for full transparency, don't you think"

To extend it farther than the UCLA department, I can hardly imagine a profession more transparent than higher education. Just about everything we do as professors is in front of, or intended for, some sort of audience.


Chris Bray - 1/19/2006

The irony, here, is that KC Johnson has said on this blog that he focuses on UCLA, when he examines ideologically unbalanced history departments...because it's one of the few departments that puts all of its course syllabi online. The history department at UCLA is substantially more transparent than most, and is the department most consistently under attack for resisting transparency. This is transparency.


Christopher Newman - 1/19/2006

All the more reason for full transparency, don't you think, Chris? Or do you take the "if secrecy is good enough for Halliburton, it's good enough for me" line that Professor Johnson mentioned earlier?

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