My father says"any number is a good first approximation for any other number" and, by extension, any historical event or process can be compared to current events if enough context is excluded. I believe that the integrity of historical comparisons matters because historical analogy is mostly a shorthand language that is more often used to wound and rally -- nearly useless in finding common ground -- than to explain or convince.
David Horowitz is Mao? Students for Academic Freedom are the Red Guard? Academic Bill of Rights is the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution? It's pretty standard comparison, given the generally shallow quality of historical discourse, and there's no doubt that it's intentionally overdrawn (speaking of drawing, the modified CCP posters are likely to become ubiquitous images on the left [ha, ha!] and the right [those fiends!] blogospheres in short order. You can view some of the originals here.), but still... it's funny, right? It's good commentary? Some peoplethink so. Lots, in fact [I haven't found a critical link yet. (See below for updates)].
Clever, certainly, to skip over the usual McCarthyist and fascist episodes and go to the left (from which David Horowitz originally hails), but does it really help us understand or resist the politicization of academia? Frankly, the GPCR comparison is one that the FrontPageMag crew would probably be able to produce themselves, for their opponents in academia and elsewhere, too. (There's been enough talk of "Stalinism" in academia lately, don't you think?) So that leaves the question: what does it tell us?
It tells us that this is a political movement concerned with changing an aspect of public life through the use of communication, public comment and, at times, humor, ridicule and rhetorical excess. Sounds like a lot of good rallies I've been to.
And that's all you get... The nature of the problem, the importance of that aspect of public life, the nature and methods of communication and comment, the fairness of the ridicule, the scale and the consequences, are all different. The GPRC was a vast atrocity, combining the worst elements of witchhunts, Inquisitions and McCarthyism with the power of a thoroughly totalitarian modern regime. The results were horrific, in human and cultural terms -- not as much outright death as in the Great Leap Forward (though it was more deliberate), but plenty of personal abuse, fear and suffering, and the destruction of cultural treasures and historical materials is a different sort of crime against humanity. (Yes, I'm teaching 20th century China this semester, why do you ask?) Even McCarthyism wasn't the Cultural Revolution -- God willing, it's the closest we'll ever come; I think there are reasons to be concerned for the political health of the nation and that it can happen here (which is one of the reasons that I have deep reservations about legislating academic matters)... but it hasn't yet.
I do think that David Horowitz has some legitimate points to make, but that he needs to be more careful about how he presents his cases, his arguments, his proposals, how he manages his movement, if he's going to actually appeal to (or at least stop scaring) moderates who share his interest in academic integrity. Horowitz and his staff and allies have declared total vindication (here and here for example), when, as my colleague points out, the details which came out (after much prodding) about the UNC case were mixed: In other words, the case was not an"urban legend" but neither was it a"slam-dunk" (and I hope that's the last time I have to use either of those terms for a while). The professor in this case is clearly guilty of bad question writing and poor record-keeping, but whether there's more involved is going to require corroborating evidence beyond competing testimonies. These are issues worth addressing, but there have to be better cases (ones where the students involved are not trying to be anonymous would be easier on everyone, I think), and I think it's time the discussion moved on.
I believe that the details of these cases matter because we are so often wrong in drawing conclusions about social phenomena. We overreact to our own experience and to the personal experiences of others; we over-rely on logical formulations (or intuition, or"gut reactions") to cover gaps in evidence; we resist restructuring narratives with which we are comfortable. We need to address individuals and episodes before we get to patterns; we need to engage arguments rather than"taking names." If we can keep the conversation civil and focused, we might even change some minds, though that's terribly rare for some reason. If we can agree that there's a problem (and I think there is at least one problem), and on the nature of the problems (we're a long way apart on that score), then we can talk about solutions. I'm going to keep trying.
Update: There's a few critical comments now, including Horowitz's own -- which just seems to have added fuel to the fire, judging by the technorati catalog -- and Alan Allport's where"billmon" drops in to call us"humorless droids." Simon World doesn't say much about it, but he says it clearly.