Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

A Dangerous Professor Speaks

I'm not rabid; I'm a sedate, nondescript middle-aged academic who tries to approach political and moral questions rationally.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

In an "urgent" email last week, right-wing activist David Horowitz hyped his latest book about threats to America's youth from leftist professors.

The ad for "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America" describes me as: "Texas Journalism Professor Robert Jensen, who rabidly hates the United States and recently told his students, 'The United States has lost the war in Iraq, and that's a good thing.'"

I'm glad Horowitz got my name right (people often misspell it "Jenson"). But everything else is distortion, and that one sentence teaches much about the reactionary right's disingenuous rhetorical strategy.

First, I'm not rabid, in personal or political style. I'm a sedate, nondescript middle-aged academic who tries to approach political and moral questions rationally. I articulate principles, provide evidence about how those principles are often undermined by powerful institutions, and offer logical conclusions about how citizens should respond. I encourage people to disagree with my principles, contest my evidence and question my logic -- all appropriate activities in a university where students are being trained to think for themselves and in a nominally democratic society where citizens should to do the same.

Second, I offer such critiques without hate. Sometimes my assessments are harsh, such as in evaluating George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and concluding the attack was unlawful and, therefore, our president is guilty of crimes against peace and should be prosecuted. Similarly harsh was the judgment that Bill Clinton's insistence on maintaining the harsh economic embargo on Iraq in the 1990s resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents and, therefore, Clinton was a moral monster who was unfit to govern. None of this has to do with hating either man, but instead with assessments and judgments we should be making.

Third, these critiques are not of the United States, but of specific policies and policymakers. No nation is a monolith with a single set of interests or political positions, and it's nonsensical to claim that harsh critique constitutes rejection of an entire nation.

Why would anyone suggest that I rabidly hate the United States? It's easier to defame opponents using emotionally charged language than engage on real issues. Accuse them of being irrational and hateful. Ignore the substance of the claims and just sling mud. By even minimal standards of intellectual or political discourse, it's not terribly honorable, but it often works.

Beyond these junkyard dog tactics, Horowitz's email also makes one crucial factual error. I did write that the United States losing the Iraq war was a good thing -- not in celebration of death and destruction, of course, but because the defeat temporarily restrains policymakers in their dangerous attempts to extend the U.S. empire. But that was the first sentence of an opinion piece I published in various newspapers in 2004, not a statement to students. The distinction is important.

Horowitz and similar critics argue that professors like me inappropriately politicize the classroom, forcing captive student audiences to listen to radical rants. No doubt there are professors who rant -- from the left, right and center; there's a lot of bad teaching in universities.

But I'm constantly attacked by people who have no knowledge of -- and as far as I can tell, no interest in learning about -- how I teach. Because they hear me express strong opinions at political rallies or read my newspaper opinion pieces, they assume I treat my classroom like a pulpit and students as targets for conversion.

I teach journalism, and in the course of that teaching, I regularly discuss how journalists cover controversial topics; it's hard to imagine teaching responsibly without doing that. When appropriate, I have talked in class about how journalists cover war -- explaining that many people around the world believe the U.S. invasion of Iraq violated international law, observing that U.S. journalists in the corporate commercial media rarely write about that and suggesting reasons for the omission.

There's always a politics to teaching; the choices professors make about what readings to assign and how to approach a subject are influenced by their politics -- left, right, or center. But that does not meaning teaching is nothing but politics.

No one knows that better than professors who hold views challenging the conventional wisdom, those of us who don't rabidly hate the United States but do passionately love learning and the promise of an open, independent university.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of, most recently, " The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege " (City Lights Books).