Academic Witch Hunt Project Gets an F for Accuracy

I'm one of the roughly 200 professors listed on the Professor Watchlist, which claims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students.” It was launched on November 21, two weeks after Donald Trump was elected president. It is sponsored by a right-wing group called Turning Point USA and run by a 22-year conservative named Charlie Kirk. The website is getting a lot of attention in both the mainstream and right-wing media. None of the stories about it so far have sought to identify where its funding comes from or who is really behind it. Mainstream news outlets, like The New York Times, have reported about it as a controversial group that might threaten free speech. Fox News, the Daily Caller, and other parts of the right-wing echo chamber celebrate it as a useful tool for exposing the allegedly “liberal” atmosphere on college campuses.

If the Professor Watchlist were a research paper, I'd give it an F. Much of the information about me on the Watchlist is simply untrue. The entry about me links to a right-wing website called Discover the Networks that repeats lies about me that have been published in several books and websites by right-wing propagandists and apparent lunatics. For example, it claims, incorrectly, that I once worked for the Industrial Areas Foundation, the community organizing network founded by Saul Alinsky. And it repeats a story, published in several other places, that as a young student at Columbia University, Barack Obama heard me speak on a panel at a Socialist Scholars Conference in New York. Also wrong. Some right-wing books, articles and websites take this fabricated story even further, and claim that it was this event that inspired Obama to become a community organizer. This is all complete fantasy.

The Watchlist does get some things right in its profile of me. I have criticized the National Rifle Association. I am a member of Democratic Socialists of America, which means I agree with many of Bernie Sanders’s ideas and would like the United States to be a more humane society, like the ones in Canada or Denmark. I do assign Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States in my course on “movements for social justice.” What it doesn’t mention is that in that course and others, I also require readings from the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, and Business Week, and from the works of conservative writers.

The Professor Watchlist is a good example of our increasingly “post-truth” culture, which is primarily the consequence of several decades of persistent right-wing propaganda, such as attacks on the reality of global warming or Donald Trump’s statements that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because there were “millions” of people who voted illegally, something that the Times called a “baseless claim,” and which in everyday language we would call a “lie.” It is also, to a lesser extent, partly the result of left-wing postmodernism, which posits that there are no facts, just points-of-view—something I wrote about earlier this year in an article titled “Academic Drivel Report,” for The American Prospect.

I was even a bit disappointed that the Watchlist entry about me didn't include some of the things I'm most proud of, including my work with labor unions, my activism around the minimum wage, my books, my mentoring of students, and my five minutes of fame being interviewed on TV by Bill O'Reilly!

The Watchlist offers no evidence that I discriminate against conservative students, and that’s because there isn’t any. In fact, one of the things that students routinely mention on their anonymous course evaluations is that they appreciate my insistence that they be able to understand and defend ideas from different political perspectives. Being “politically correct” in my classroom means being able to clearly and convincingly articulate your own ideas as well as those you disagree with. At the beginning of each semester, I tell students up front that even though I’m a progressive, “I prefer smart conservatives to stupid liberals.” 

I assume that much of the information about other professors on the Watchlist is, like its entry about me, also false and misleading. Apparently its “method” is to find conservative students who will to “report” on their professors, with no standards to define what is considered radical, leftist, or progressive. In truth, most of America's most significant and influential “radical” professors didn't make the list. And many of the people included on the Professor Watchlist are not even radical at all. But that's the point. Anything that makes a conservative (or simply misinformed or naïve) student feel uncomfortable could be reported as “radical” to the Professor Watchlist.

The Professor Watchlist is not a new idea. In 1990, Roger Kimball published a book titled Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, which reflected the “culture wars” of that era. In 2006, the conservative propagandist David Horowitz wrote a book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, along the same lines, put out by the conservative Regnery Publishing. I was disappointed to be excluded from that list, although I'm occasionally a target of Horowitz's fantastical conspiracy theories on his website, Frontpage.

The Professor Watchlist would be a joke, except that in the Trump era we could be in for a bumpy ride when it comes free speech and civil liberties, as demonstrated by his recent tweet that people who burn the American flag should be put in prison and lose their citizenship, something that even conservative Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia recognized violated the Constitution (a document with which Trump and his attorney general-designate Jeff Sessions appear to be unfamiliar). Not to mention Trump’s attacks and threats to rein in the news media, and his talk of bringing back torture, barring Muslims from entering the U.S., and expanding the surveillance state.

In 1950, as the Cold War Red Scare era was underway, three former FBI agents created a list of alleged Communists called Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. The pamphlet-style book names 151 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists, and others who, it claimed, were Communists whose goal was to infiltrate Hollywood and the entertainment industry in order to subvert American minds. The operation was funded by Alfred Kohlberg, an American textile importer and leader of the right-wing John Birch Society (JBS). (He was a 1950s version of the Koch brothers, whose father was also a leader of the JBS).  

Hollywood studios and other employers, under pressure from the subservient media and right-wing groups, used Red Channels to blacklist employees. Many colleges and universities, as well as public schools, had blacklists of their own after right-wing groups pointed the finger at professors and teachers for being subversives. Thousands of people lost their jobs and their careers. But the ripple effect of the blacklist was even greater, because it stifled dissent and free speech, among liberals and progressives in particular. Last year's Hollywood film, Trumbo, provides an entertaining and sobering account of that period, which is excavated in a number of scholarly books, including Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund’s The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960 and Ellen Schrecker’s No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities.

Like Red Channels, the Professor Watchlist is riddled with lies and disinformation, but it could have the effect of chilling dissent and free speech if college and university faculty feel intimidated or threatened. Faculty members without tenure, especially those who teach at institutions run by conservative trustees or administrators (like Baylor University, which until recently was headed by the reactionary Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel who sought to impeach Bill Clinton), could feel vulnerable. They could engage in self-censorship, afraid to speak out about issues of social injustice, or even afraid to incorporate “radical” topics and readings in their course.

Soon after the Watchlist appeared, I got a number of emails and Facebook comments from colleagues and friends congratulating me for making the list. But I’m reminded of a comment made by Lee Hays, one of the members of the popular 1950s folk singing group, the Weavers, who said, “If it weren't for the honor, I'd just as soon not have been blacklisted.”

So even though Professor Watchlist is run by a 22-year-old conservative activist with no standards for accuracy, we have to take it seriously. That’s because it could be taken over and/or used by more powerful and more serious right-wingers, who could then abuse it to revive a new wave of McCarthyism. Remember, Newt Gingrich recently suggested that Congress restore some version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which, along with McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, was the principal tool of the Red Scare witch hunts.

So I hope that every professional academic organization—like the American Sociological Association, the American Political Science Association and the Organization of American Historians, join forces to condemn this latest witch hunt. Indeed I would extend that invitation to American Association of University Professors, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers, and any number of intellectuals in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. This falsehood-laden propaganda campaign might begin with trying to intimidate college professors, but it could soon extend into other arenas—public school teachers, journalists, clergy, and political activists, for example.

At times like this, it is always useful to remember the poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Although it might be easy to dismiss the Professor Watchlist as the amateurish rantings of a few extreme conservatives, we cannot ignore its potential as a harbinger of efforts by Donald Trump and his ilk to suppress free speech and dissent, which, if successful, would undermine our democracy and make it possible for bullies and tyrants to rule, perhaps even with the unwitting consent of the governed. 


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