On August 16, preeminent constitutional scholar and lawyer Erwin Chemerinsky was offered the post of dean at the new law school at the Universiaty of California at Irvine (UCI). He formally accepted on September 4. Then, on the sixth anniversary of 9/11, he was unceremoniously given the boot.
As Chemerinsky himself explained in an LA Times op-ed, "[T]he chancellor at UC Irvine, Michael V. Drake, withdrew the offer. He told me that I had proved to be 'too politically controversial.' Those, by the way, were the exact words that he said I could use to describe the reason for the decision. He told me that he had not expected the extent of opposition that would develop."
The full extent of that opposition remains unknown. Drake is even denying it ever existed. But Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George both weighed in, along with an unidentified group of about 20 prominent Republican activists-Anotonovich comparing the appointment to putting "al-Qaeda in charge of Homeland Security." But UCI historian Jon Weiner-author of a recent book on academic controversies, Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower-called it "hard to believe" there wasn't much more pressure brought to bear.
Nonetheless, one thing is certain: Chemerinsky escaped unscathed.
"I was still a tenured full professor. No matter what happened, I would have stayed at Duke as a tenured professor, or maybe gone somewhere else as a tenured professor," Chemerinsky told Random Lengths. "I never lost a penny. For other people, they're not so fortunate," he added.
One such person is Norman Finkelstein, a controversial rising superstar in political science, denied tenure by DePaul University due to intense outside pressure, despite admitting his top-flight scholarship and teaching.
Finkelstein was denied tenure last June, but had one year left on his contract, when the university abruptly canceled his classes on August 24, placed him on administrative leave, and barred him from his office. A flurry of protests ended when Finkelstein and the university reached an agreement on September 5, less than a week before Chemerinsky's hiring was revoked.
Finkelstein-himself the son of Holocaust survivors, drew savage attacks as well as high praise for his 2000 book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, as well as for his critical writings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Critics of Isreali policy have been widely targeted, but Finkelstein's case is arguably the most high-profile. This is ironic in one sense, given how commonplace such criticism is inside Israel, and how many Israelis and American Jews oppose Israel's failed hardline policies. On the other hand, some argue that critics like Finkelstein are targeted precisely because such policies are so unpopular. Not only do most American Jews-like their Israeli counterparts-favor a two-state solution, they are also among the most opposed to the Iraq War. A February 2007 Gallup Poll found that Jews opposed the war 77- 21, a margin second only to Black Protestants at 78-18.
Finkestein's most prominent adversary has been Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, whose book, The Case for Israel Finkelstein roundly criticized in his 2005 book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Dershowitz tried-and failed-to prevent the University of California Press from publishing Beyond Chutzpah, even going so far as to write Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger, a reformed youthful Hitler fan, who declined to intervene through his legal secretary, "because of the clear, academic freedom issue it presents."
But DePaul's top administrators showed a good deal less commitment to academic freedom. In a move Weiner called "pretty much unheard of," Dershowitz sent members of DePaul's political science department an unsolicited packet containing Dershowitz's "dossier of Norman Finkelstein's most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations, and distortions." In response, DePaul's Faculty Governance Council voted unanimously to send letters objecting to "Professor Dershowitz's interference in Finkelstein's tenure and promotion case" to administrators at both DePaul and Harvard.
When Dershowitz tried to engage the support of historian Peter Novick, another harsh critic of Finkelstein, Novick not only declined, but publicly opposed Dershowitz's efforts, disassociating himself in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education. "There are those who relish the adversarial role," he wrote, "This is ... not my style, which is much more tentative and cautious. It would be disastrous, I believe, to have a university composed exclusively of people like Finkelstein and Dershowitz, ... [and] equally undesirable to have a university composed exclusively of people like me."
In the end, the department voted 9-3 to approve Finkelstein's tenure, while the College Personnel Committee concurred, 5-0. But Charles Suchar, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, recommended against tenure, taking the side of Dershowitz, essentially condoning his unprecedented interference. Following Suchar's advice, the University Board on Promotion and Tenure [U.B.P.T] voted 4-3 to deny tenure, and DePaul's president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, acted accordingly.
"There's obviously a concerted attack going on now in academia against critics of Israeli policy," Finkelstein told Random Lengths. "In my own case, however, I think the hysteria was mostly due to the fact that I am a political activist and speak widely on the subject to the broad public. Most academics do not."
Shortly after the denial of tenure, the Illinois Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) rebuked Holtschneider in a letter, "It is entirely illegitimate for a university to deny tenure to a professor out of fear that his published research, including those that appear under the University of California Press, might hurt a college's reputation."
What's more, a less prominent figure, Mehrene Larudee, an Assistant Professor of International Studies at DePaul, who vigorously supported Finkelstein against Dershowitz's interference, was also denied tenure, in what was widely seen as political retaliation.
It's no accident that Finkelstein writes about Middle East politics, said historian Ellen Schrecker, author of several books on McCarthyism.
"What we're seeing is an attack on whole disciplines, on Middle East studies and ethnic studies," Schrecker told Random Lengths. "That will have a chilling effect on how these are dealt with in the academy."
Finkelstein expressed a similar view, citing several other examples. "Perhaps after my own case, the Joseph Massad, Juan Cole and Nadia Abu E-Hajj cases, academics will be more cautious about expressing their opinions," he said.
This sort of targetting contrasts significantly with the McCarthy era-significantly for the worse, Schrecker said.
"What was happening then was people being fired for their extra curricular activity. What's happening today, there's a great threat to the actual educational function. The the content of the course. To what poeple say in class, which did not happen in the McCarthy period," she explained.
Another prominent example-the first to receive nationwide attention-was Ward Churchill, who was actually stripped of tenure and fired from the University of Colorado at Boulder (UCB) following a prolonged nakedly political attack, stemming from remarks he made in an essay published the day after 9/11. Churchill, who has written widely on the history of imperialism generally, and the genocide of Native Americans in particular, questioned the characterization of all those killed as "innocent," using a term he did not invent, "little Eichmans," to indicate a banal, career-oriented assimilation into a system whose murderous consequences they remain oblivious to.
Churchill.s remarks-obviously quite upsetting on September 12, 2001, went virtually unnoticed then, but were used to whip up an intense frenzy beginning in 2005, long after the release of pictures from Abu Ghraib, which were, in a sense, a far more chilling way of making Churchill's point. UCB found other pretexts for finally dismissing him on July 24 this summer, but Churchill is openly relishing a court fight to regain his position.
"One thing I found working on McCarthyism in the university, their first targets were always the squeaky wheels, the most outspoken, who are difficult," Schrecher said. "That's what's happening now. Churchill and Finklestein are not Boy Scouts. They're not easy colleagues, they're not completly housebroken to the civil discourse of academic life, and yet they're both very prolific scholars. They are polemic, but people know that at the time they were hired. What we're seeing is clearly-in one case a denial of tenure, in the other the actual dismissal-is the university caving into outside policitical pressure to rid themselves of squeaky wheels."
Indeed, the attack on academia as a whole started within weeks of 9/11. Most notably in the form of a report titled "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It," issued by an organization called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which was co-founded by Vice President Cheney's wife, Lynne Cheney, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, among others, in 1995. While Cheney herself was quoted prominently in the report, Lieberman claimed to have been out of the loop, and resigned in protest of the report's crude political agenda.
In the introduction, ACTA's report claimed, "While America's elected officials from both parties and media commentators from across the spectrum condemned the attacks and followed the President in calling evil by its rightful name, many faculty demurred. Some refused to make judgments. Many invoked tolerance and diversity as antidotes to evil. Some even pointed accusatory fingers, not at the terrorists, but at America itself."
What many were doing was actually little different than what an FBI profiler does: looking for reasons behind the word "evil." But that's not how Lynne Cheney's group saw things.
The very first on-campus voice quoted was that of Hugh Gusterson, professor of anthropology and science and technology studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "[I]magine the real suffering and grief of people in other countries. The best way to begin a war on terrorism might be to look in the mirror."
But in an interview shortly thereafter, Gusterson explained it was taken from speech about the difficulty of imagining the suffering of others. "[J]ust before that quote they select, I talked about how difficult it is for us to imagine the suffering of the people at the World Trade Center as they were dying," Gusterson said.
"And then I went on from there to invite the audience to try and imagine the suffering of people in Afghanistan if we were to go and declare war on the people in Afghanistan. Of course, the quote is carefully cut so it seems that I only care about the suffering of people in other countries and not about the suffering of Americans as well, which is the truth. That's part of a process of distortion that I think marks the report more generally."
Among the other supposedly heinous sentiments recorded in the report was Jesse Jackson, in a speech at Harvard Law School: "[We should] build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls," Princeton emeritus professor Richard Falk, Princeton, saying, "[T]here needs to be an understanding of why this kind of suicidal violence could be undertaken against our country," and Falk's Princeton colleague, Fred Hitz saying, "We need to think about what could have produced the frustrations that caused these crimes. To have that kind of hatred is a phenomenon we will have to try to understand."
The report itself specifically complained about efforts to understand, "Ironically, instead of ensuring that students understand the unique contributions of America and Western civilization-the civilization under attack-universities are rushing to add courses on Islamic and Asian cultures. UCLA created 50 new courses in response to the terrorist attacks while other institutions expanded existing offerings."
Thus, from the very beginning, understanding the grievances that terrorists exploit-which might seem to be the basis for any sane long-term counter-terrorist strategy-was seen by Vice President Cheney's wife as something akin to treason.
Things are only growing worse, Shrecker fears.
"What were seeing, for example, with the reception of the book by Walt and Mearsheimer [The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, a bestseller that argues that Israel's influence is detrimental to both countries]-they're having speaking engagements canceled. They had one canceled at the City University of New York, that was a total disgrace," Shrecker said. "Here are [authors from] two of the biggest, most academically respected schools in the US. The University of Chicago, a conservative school, and Harvard University, and they're having their speaking engagements canceled. What it means is that people who hold similar positions are going to be frozen out. We're not going to hear them."
At the same time, conservatives are claiming that they're the ones being frozen out. In a February 10, 2006 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education Shrecker wrote about the Orwellian "Academic Bill of Rights" campaign organized by former-Communist-turned-rightwinger David Horowitz, "Today's assault on the academy is more serious. Unlike that of the McCarthy era, it reaches directly into the classroom. In the name of establishing intellectual diversity, Horowitz and his allies want to impose outside political controls over core educational functions like personnel decisions, curricula, and teaching methods. Such an intrusion not only endangers the faculty autonomy that traditionally protects academic freedom, but it also threatens the integrity of American higher education."
Later this month, Horowitz-whose modestly-named "David Horowitz Freedom Center" has received over $15 million from rightwing foundations since it was founded in 1989-is orchestrating an "Islamofascist Awareness Week" on campuses nation-wide this month, blatantly promoting religious intolerance, presumably to "balance" the academic ethos of tolerance. In a dramatic turnaround, conservatives will be attacking Muslims for their mistreatment of gays and women, reversing the usual alignment long seen at international conferences where religious conservatives of all faiths regularly form a united front against gays and women's autonomy.
Shrecker says that such repressive activities will contribute to two particularly troubling consequences from the McCarthy Era. First is that organizations will be constantly on the defensive, devoting all their energies merely to surviving, and none to their primary purpose for being in the first place. Second is that the silencing of experts will have devastating consequences for us as a nation.
"The scary comparison here is what happened to the East Asian studies in the McCarthy period, and what that lead to in Vietnam," Shrecker warned. Attacks on East Asian experts, both within the State Department and in academia, under the rubric "who lost China?" lead to policymaking by people utterly ignorant of Vietnam's nearly 2000 year struggle to be free of Chinese domination-a small piece of strategic information that might possibly have saved tens of thousands of American lives.
Finkelstein, for one, has a distinctly similar view of those who came after him.
"These are mostly hoodlums and thugs who are also diehard supporters of the most retrograde Israeli policies which will cause the destruction of Israel and perhaps equally dire regional and global repercussions," he told Random Lengths. "They neither support the best interests of Israel nor the best interests of Americans."
"History shows that whenever there's a crises there's a tendency to repress speech," Chemerinsky said. "In hindsight we realize we aren't any safer for the repression. I believe history will look back at this period in the same way."