Beshara Doumani: Interviewed About ‘Academic Freedom After September 11′

Historians in the News

Academic freedom is facing its most serious threats since the McCarthy era, according to essays in Academic Freedom After September 11, published this month by Zone Books. Essays in the book — which come from scholars such as Joel Beinin, Judith Butler and Robert Post — both focus on current issues and offer a historical perspective. Beshara Doumani, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley who edited the volume, recently responded to questions about its themes.

Q. How severe do you consider the attacks on academic freedom, post-9/11?

A: Academic freedom is facing its most serious threat since the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Some of the repressive but short-lived measures imposed on U.S. population after previous crises makes the post-9/11 period look tame in comparison. But the Global War on Terrorism is distinct from previous wars in ways that do not bode well for the future of academic freedom. The unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties following the passage of the Patriot Act in October 2001, the national “Take Back the Campus” campaigns of special interest groups, the changes in the grant language of major foundations, and the attempts to legislate political intervention in area studies programs are but some of the developments post 9/11 that have impacted academic freedom in structural ways. This comes at a time when the academy is in the midst of an economic and institutional transformation driven by the increasing commercialization of knowledge. Buffeted between the forces of anti-liberal coercion and neo-liberal privatization, colleges and universities are more vulnerable than ever to the myriad ways in which outside government agencies and special interest groups are reshaping the landscape of intellectual production.

Q: How would you judge the defense of academic freedom by college leaders, professional societies, and academic groups? Are there groups doing this well?

A: Systemic challenges require a systemic and collective response and that is not on the horizon (yet). Generally speaking, organizations such as the AAUP, the ACLU and the Union of Concerned Scientists have spoken loud and clear on the issues, as have some professional organizations such as the Modern Language Association and the American Anthropological Association. Opposition to Title VI legislation on Capital Hill and to attempts to introduce the Orwellian-named “Academic Bill of Rights” on the state level has been largely effective thus far, but those battles are far from over. With notable exceptions, university administrations have not defended their faculty and students as well as they should have. Increasingly dominated by a corporate managerial culture, most university administrations have reduced the number of tenure-track positions, undermined shared governance by faculty, fought attempts by graduate students who are bearing the bulk of teaching to improve their working conditions, and tightened their grip on student activities. They have also been too accommodating to some demands by corporations, donors, and government agencies that have a chilling effect on the free circulation of information and on the freedoms of research, writing, teaching, and extramural speech. By and large the press has not covered this story well nor undertaken the kind of in-depth investigative reporting that is needed.

Q: Do you think the war in Iraq has changed the state of academic freedom?

A: The war in Iraq is but a part of the Global War on Terrorism and its spinoffs on the domestic front. It is a truism that war and truth do not go well together, but we usually take comfort in the fact that wars end while the pursuit of knowledge is endless. Herein, however, lies the danger of this new and unique Global War on Terrorism. It is a war without end and it is a virulently anti-intellectual war in that terrorists are represented as irrationally evil and freedom is said to be a God given right. Both are located outside of history and society. The black and white warning by President Bush, “you are either with us or with the terrorists,” not only asks other countries to surrender their foreign policy. It also asks academics to give up what they hold most dear: the use of critical reason in the free pursuit of knowledge.

Q: Professors who study the Middle East say that they have been particularly vulnerable to attacks. What should these professors and others do about that?

A: While coordinated attacks on specific scholars, course offerings, and programs of study have targeted a variety of fields of study, they have focused with greatest intensity in the post-9/11 moment on Middle East and Islamic studies. Students and faculty connected academically or culturally to Muslim and/or Middle Eastern countries tend to be identified as suspect both in their loyalties to the country and in their ethical commitments to the pursuit of knowledge. Racist profiling and scapegoating are common in Web sites that compile lists of “Un-American” professors critical of the U.S. war in Iraq, and charges of anti-Semitism are routinely leveled against critics of Israeli government policies towards Palestinians. These campaigns of surveillance, intimidation and control, if unchecked, will not remain confined primarily to scholars who study the Middle East. These scholars need the support of their colleagues and communities and academics in general have to explain to the public why academic freedom is fundamentally important to a democratic culture.

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed

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Richard Landes - 3/8/2006

this is warmed over stuff we've been hearing for a long time. the problem that is not addressed by those who keep repeating their claims to victim status is the degree to which they are victimizers.

they cannot distinguish btw anti-semitism and legitimate criticism of israel, and therefore whitewash anti-semitic remarks (like the moral sadism of comparing israel to the nazis), by claiming that their critics won't even let them criticize israel. their work is so riddled with inaccuracies and misinformation that they leave themselves open to attack for their unprofessional behavior, and then take refuge in claiming their victim status again.

if there's a mccarthyite academic scene it's the way that the anti-zionists have, under the guise of post-colonial, subaltern studies, driven out anyone who dares defend the "colonialist, imperialist, racist... etc. etc. zionist oppressors."

it's true that academic freedom is fundamentally impt to a democratic culture, and part of that is the give and take of criticism. these folks have insulated themselves from criticism for so long (last 25 years) that they now make quite silly comments and feel they have an academic right to get away with them without contradiction.

and this doesn't even begin to address the problem of how much their criticism of the west (which tolerates them) masks the serious problems in that part of the world where they are supposedly experts.

richard landes