The Silence on Terrorism
Everyone professes to love free speech -- the president of the University of Texas calls it the "bedrock of American liberty," the American Council for Trustees and Alumni supports it, the mayor of Modesto defends it, the president of the University of South Florida -- they are all committed to free speech.
Just not on their dime, not on their campus, not in their backyard. Not when it disrupts or upsets. Everone is all for free speech, but a closer look at a number of recent cases suggests that when right-wing pundits stir up controversy -- which, it's important to mention, they have every right to do -- people in power, from city councils to boards of trustees, are responding by silencing the troublemakers. And a troublemaker, these days, is anyone who dares to criticize any aspect of the war on terrorism as waged by the Bush administration.
In Sacramento, California, a speaker is booed off the stage at a graduation ceremony because she urged citizens to protect their rights to free speech and a fair trial.
In Modesto, California, the city withdraws its funding for a speech by Danny Glover because of comments he made against the death penalty and criticizing Bush.
In Austin, Texas, the president of the university responds to comments from one of his faculty by calling the professor "a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy" in the Houston Chronicle.
In Washington, D.C., the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization founded by second lady Lynne Cheney, publishes a report calling professors the "weak link" in America's response to the terrorist attacks because their positions are "distinctly equivocal and divided." (Cheney, who once served as the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is now a fellow at the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute. She is quoted in the report, but said she was not involved in its production.)
In Florida, a professor is fired at a meeting of a board of trustees. The professor is not given the chance to defend himself. The board of trustees was not selected from the academic community, instead, most of the trustees were appointed by Governor Jeb Bush. The university president stated that the professor lost his job because of the "disruption" that the University had to endure, because of the "manner in which a professor exercise[d] his right to express political and social views."
The president of the University of South Florida, Judy Genshaft, along with University of Texas president Larry Faulkner, Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino, Anne Neal at the ACTA, and University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft have all paid lip service to free speech. But none of them have actually come out in public and disagreed with the substance of what Professor Sami Al-Arian or Robert Jensen or Danny Glover or anyone else has to say.
The common role of conservative right-wing talk shows in these incidents is noteworthy. Conservative columnist David Horowitz did the groundwork for the ACTA's report, many of the quotes in the report were cited to his and other conservative publications. The ACTA's report in turn brought increased attention to the comments of professor Robert Jensen. Jensen wrote an article for the Common Dreams Web site arguing that America, too, is guilty of violence against civilians, entitled "Stop the Insanity Here, U.S. just as guilty of commiting its own violent acts." He was then called a fool by the president of his institution.
Bill O'Reilly, Fox TV's right-wing talk show host, brought civil engineering professor Al-Arian onto his show on September 26. The professor said in a press release that producers lured him onto the show under false premises. Once Al-Arian was on the show, O'Reilly badgered Al-Arian and insinuated that Al-Arian is a terrorist.
Al-Arian, an out-spoken critic of U.S. policy in Israel, has, in fact, been investigated by the FBI. One of Al-Arian's former colleagues did turn up as a terrorist, though other allegations against former colleagues of Al-Arian's have not been proven. The FBI never found any evidence of wrong-doing by Al-Arian, and he has never been accused of any crime.
Nevertheless, the O'Reilly show prompted death threats against him. Upon firing him, the university's letter to Al-Arian, according to Florida newspapers, cited the death threats against Al-Arian as security concerns -- part of the reason for his dismissal.
At Princeton university, famous actor and activist Danny Glover gave a speech at an anti-death penalty forum. During the question and answer session, a student asked Danny Glover if he would support the death penalty for Osama bin Laden. Glover replied that no, he didn't support the death penalty under any circumstance. Right-wing talk shows stirred up further controversy, and soon Danny Glover found the city of Modesto backing out of a Martin Luther King day speaking engagement.
These cases, taken as a whole, are frightening for two reasons: first, because of the number of instances where those in power not only failed to defend the minority opinion's right to be heard, but also act against those who dare to voice those opinions. Second, they're distressing because what is missing in all of these cases is actual debate. In the current climate, what is being debated is not the validity of dissenting opinions, but whether dissenting opinions have the right to be heard. Attorney General John Ashcroft set the first example of favoring inflammatory controversy versus true debate, when he stood before Congress to defend his agenda. He didn't defend its specifics, nor did he respond to most of the questions raised by Congress. Instead, he attacked those who would question him, accusing them of "aiding the terrorists."
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni made the same kind of insinuations -- that if you're not with us, you're with the enemy -- in their report, entitled "Defending Civilization." The report called professors the "weak link" in America's response to the terrorist attacks. That lanugage parrots the language used by the House Un-American Activies Committee, McCarthyism's organized body in the House of Representatives, which used the same label for one of the scientists they pursued. Then, in Ashcroftian language, the ACTA wrote, "We learn from history that when a nation's intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization, they give aid and comfort to its adversaries." The report cited university fora and teach-ins as evidence that these professors were not willing to defend their civilization.
In defense of the report, Anne Neal, the report's author says, "It's noteworthy that mainstream public reaction was fairly uniform, but the academic community was divided in its reaction. It was often equivocal, it sometimes blamed America first."
Neal denies that her criticism of the academy's "equivocal" reaction in face of public uniformity goes against free speech. "No one is seeking any unanimity in thought," she says. Instead, students should be taught more history of the United States and Western civilization. Asked whether she was implying that by learning more history, students would be less "equivocal," she replied that "there is no implication." The point of history, she said, was for "students to make up their own mind, and have critical thinking. And I mean that in the broad context, not necessarily negative thinking but critical thinking."
Neal's report was taken to task in the press, the subject of critical articles in the New York Times, The Boston Globe and a number of other major outlets. Its heavy-hitting political allies are holding "Defending Civilzation" well at arms length. Cheney herself denied having read the report in the New York Times, and Senator Joe Lieberman has issued a letter expressing his disagreement with the report. He is listed as a founder of the ACTA on their Web site, but his spokesman says, "that's a mischaracterization."
But the ACTA is a well-funded organization, with ties to places like the University of South Florida, where Al-Arian was just fired. And the ACTA's report also brought increased attention to journalism professor Robert Jensen's comments, which led to the university president calling him a "fountain of undiluted foolishness." The president sets the example for debate on campus in his position as the head of the institution. He paid homage to the first amendment, but then engaged in an ad hominem attack on Jensen. Never, as Jensen himself points out, did president Faulkner engage with Jensen's opinions, never did he offer something along the lines of, "In the spirit of democratic engagement, I would like to offer my critique of Jensen's argument..."
Instead, the president's led his campus by attacking a professor's character without responding in any way to the substance of his arguments.
On most of the college campuses cited in the ACTA's report, professors say that their institutions have supported their right to express themselves. An email petition is even circulating on college campuses bidding professors to email the ACTA and demand to be included in the list. Professor Erin Carlston at UNC Chapel Hill writes, "I can fervently affirm that I am every bit as treasonous as [my colleagues on the list]." Carlston ends by affirming her dedication to reasoned debate and independent thinking, and asks, "please include me on any future blacklists you choose to publish."
But where is the reasoned debate that Carlston longs for? While most of the college campuses report having speakers both supporting and criticizing the Bush administrations' policies, what seems to be lacking is an engaged discussion, a give and take, between the two sides.
"A student came to me and said she wanted to organize a public forum on civil liberties. I said, fine, I'd be happy to do it," says Jensen. "She got the state director of the ACLU to agree to speak. But she had to cancel the event. 'I can't find anybody to speak on the other side,' she told me. I said, 'You can't find anyone who supports Bush and Ashcroft?' And she said she could find people who have the other view, but they wouldn't debate. If you're part of the majority, then why debate in public if you're already winning? It's why the leading presidential candidate doesn't want to debate the second place guy. You've got not much to gain and a lot to lose."
"You can't have a healthy democracy if you don't have ongoing and spirited public dialogue," Jensen continues. "What passes for public dialogue -- TV talk-shows and radio shows -- that isn't dialogue, it's show biz."
In Modesto, California, the mayor of the city, much like Faulkner or Anne Neal, affirms that "This has nothing to do with censorship." He insists that Danny Glover had simply proved too expensive for the city. He says he "didn't know" why the Modesto city college had withdrawn its offer to host the event, or why the Modesto Bee had repeatedly reported that the city had withdrawn its support for Glover. He admitted that as recently as last year, MLK speakers have received both city funding and spoken in city-owned venues, but offered no explanation. Nor did he offer any explanation for why previous MLK speakers, as recently as last year, had spoken in city-owned venues and received city funding.
But the city official who spoke to the Modesto Bee did explain himself. He said he thought the controversy surrounding some of Glover's comments would "overshadow the celebration of Martin Luther King." In other words, once Glover was tainted with a whiff of non-support, a trace of controversy, then he immediately lost city funding.
The committee that invited Glover was quick to respond by pointing out that Dr. King himself was an eminently controversial figure in his time. But no one is arguing with them. Instead, Glover is trying to fight the free-floating taint of being "pro-terrorist," while angry letters to the editor in New Jersey call for him to be sent "back to Afghanistan," as they have for anyone else who has dared to criticize our administration and its policies.
Perhaps the most disturbing case, however, is Al-Arian's. He is a controversial figure. But until an FBI probe or some other legal organization returns with proof and/or actual charges against him, then he is guilty only of unpopular speech and guilt by association. Guilt by association was McCarthyism 's strong suit.
Al-Arian is not talking to the press on the advice of his lawyers, who are not confirming or denying that he may sue. But he has been silenced by his university. And once again, whatever his unpopular opinions may be, the debate now revolves around their very right to be expressed -- not on their relative worth.
In a statement published on the Web, some of the University of Florida and University of South Florida faculty wrote this in support of Al-Arian: "Professor Sami Al-Arian says unpopular things in public, and he and USF now face demands for his resignation or dismissal, and even threats of violence... By the principles upon which this Nation was founded, each person has the right to speak -- indeed is encouraged to sepak -- as an individual. And a scholar has a greater obligation to be honest than to be agreeable. Therefore, while we have varied opinions on what Professor Al-Arian says, we defend his right to speak. We believe that only out of a debate that includes all voices will the truth come forth."
But in the debate that is making it out of the universities and into the public sphere, we are arguing about whether a tenured professor should be fired for "security concerns" raised by the criminal threats made against him. We are arguing about whether professors who participate in teach-ins are a "weak link."
In Sacramento, when a group of people at a commencement ceremony disagreed with the speaker, they didn't stand and walk out in protest (as students did at UC Berkeley two years ago when they wanted to protest against Madeleine Albright's speech). They silenced the publisher of the Sacramento Bee, Janis Besler Heaphy. We are now arguing about whether a commencement speaker has the right to speak her mind. The press grossly mischaraterized Danny Glover's statements as a plea for Osama Bin Laden's life instead of an unqualified stand against the death penalty. Now the debate centers on how and if his speech will proceed.
Of course, not everyone will agree with Danny Glover, or with Janis Besler Heaphy, or Professor Sami Al-Arian. But calling someone "un-American," or firing him, is the semantic equivalent of booing him off the stage. It does not constitute debate. It certainly does not constitute that debate which we so desperately need, a debate that includes all voices.