In Defense of Academic Freedom
12 October 2007
Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago
Noam Chomsky spoke in the video. He could not attend the conference because of his wife Carol's illness. Best wishes to her.
(The background of the denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein explained by Chomsky)
NC: I’m sorry that I can’t join you for this discussion on Academic Freedom. Difficult personal circumstances make it impossible for me, to my regret.
The immediate reason for this conference, as we all know, is the decision by the De Paul administration to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein, a remarkable teacher and outstanding scholar whose work has received the highest praise by some of the most distinguished scholars in many fields in which he has worked, notably the founder of Holocaust studies and its most respected figure, the late Raul Hilberg, and also the denial to tenure to another fine scholar, Mehrene E. Larudee, whose crime appears to have been her honorable support for Finkelstein.
I’m not going to review this sordid affair. The basic facts are clear enough and easily accessible sources. Instead, what I’d like to do is say a few words about the general background for the ongoing assault on academic freedom.
Perhaps a good place to start is with an observation by a prominent University of Chicago professor, Hans Morgenthau. He’s one of the founders of the realist school of international relations. He condemned the intellectual classes for what he called “our conformist subservience to those in power.” Power comes in many forms, typically it’s a state or economic power, although one should not ignore the power of the defamation industries and depraved individuals associated with them, who can lie and slander and vilify with impunity, thanks to the media that tolerate and even encourage such behavior. The assault on academic freedom is broad. But it has specifically targeted the Middle East departments and Peace Studies programs. That makes sense. State power is focused on war in the Middle East. So impediments, after you’re removed, and “conformist subservience to those in power” must be assured in these areas.
The matter goes far beyond purifying academic institutions, a faculty who revealed unwanted truths.
Subordination to power can take many other forms.
Just to illustrate, I’d like to take one recent case that has elicited a huge public outcry (…) the appearance of Iranian President Ahmadinejad at Columbia University. In the background, there’s the frenzied government media campaign to demonize Iran and its relatively powerless president “the new Hitler, if not worse.” In fact “the new Hitler” has been a familiar refrain in the doctrinal system for many years with changes in a cast of characters, depending on current plans for subversion and aggression.
The propaganda campaign about alleged Iranian inequity is accompanied by threats of war that resound across the political spectrum including every viable democratic candidate. The threats are a serious violation of the UN Charter, if anyone still cares about these marginalia. The campaign may also lay the basis for future US aggression in the region, probably even more catastrophic consequences than the invasion of Iraq.
Demonization is a conventional preliminary to aggression. So therefore it is not to be regarded lightly, particularly when it’s carried out in the academic setting, which in a free society should be as untainted as possible by “the conformist subservience to power,” that once Morgenthau deplored.
Before turning to Columbia University’s instructive contribution, maybe a few more words about the context would be useful.
Wars are almost always defensive wars in the eyes of the perpetrators, at least in their words, as when the original Hitler invaded Poland in self-defense against what he called “the wild terror” of the Poles. And right now, the ground has been prepared for war of self-defense against Iran in a manner which tells quite a lot about the dominant intellectual and moral culture.
So speaking for a very large segment of articulated opinion, the editors of the Washington Post thundered that Iran is waging war against the United States and trying to kill as many American soldiers as possible, so we must fight back. What’s Iran’s aggression? Iran’s aggression is its alleged support for Iraqis resisting US invasion, occupation, and virtual destruction of the country right on Iran’s borders.
The propaganda campaign illustrates an important difference between totalitarian and democratic propaganda systems. In totalitarian societies, typically, the party line is openly declared:“Obey it. Or else, the mailed fist takes care of the rest.” In more democratic societies, that won’t work and accordingly the party line is not articulated. Therefore it is protected from easy refutation. Rather, it is insinuated or presupposed as the framework for debate. And lively debate is then encouraged within that framework. That has a double advantage. First, it makes it appear that the society is free and open; simply look at the lively debate. But it also instills the party line even more deeply as the precondition for responsible discussion. It’s accepted as unchangeable, unchallengeable reality that it is something like the air to breathe.
Well, truth from the current charges about Iran’s crimes do elicit a lively debate between the hawks and the doves. The hawks say we have to bomb them as self-defense in response to their aggression. And the doves respond that the evidence is not yet entirely clear, so we should delay before we obliterate them.
By the prevailing logic, Russia would have been justified in bombing the United States in the 1980s, when Washington was quite publicly supporting resistance to the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
The CIA Station Chief in Pakistan, Howard Hart reported that “I was the first Chief of Station ever sent abroad with this wonderful order: ‘Go kill Soviet soldiers’. Imagine, I loved it.” “The mission was not to liberate Afghanistan,” so Tim Weiner writes in his recent History of The CIA, repeating the obvious. But “it was noble anyway,” he says. Presumably, the novelty included support for Reagan’s favorites who amused themselves by such acts as throwing acid in the faces of the women in Kabul that they regard as too liberated. And after the withdrawal of the Russian forces, they turned to tearing the country in shreds, creating such havoc and terror that the population actually welcomed the Taliban. So, killing Russian invaders and supporting crazed Islamic fundamentalist murderers, that was noble. But providing aid to forces resisting a US invasion would be a shocking crime which justifies military action and self-defense.
And that stand is unarguable on the tacit assumption that the US owns the world. So, a US invasion is by definition right and just. It may be costly, it may be a mistake, it may be a quagmire but it cannot be criminal, like comparable acts by enemies. Withdraw the assumption that the US owns the world, and the entire debate about Iranian interference in occupied Iraq is simply ludicrous.
Demonization as preliminary violence is a standard operating procedure for good reasons. The primary reason is that the population is generally opposed to war. And it has to be whipped into hysteria about the ultimate evil that is threatening our existence. In this case, that is not so easy. So, the propaganda efforts must be fierce.
75% of Americans are opposed even to threats against Iran and prefer entering into normal relations. Roughly, the same percentage believe that Iran has the right to nuclear energy and call for a nuclear weapons free zone in the entire region that would include Iran and Israel.
That’s an idea that is virtually unmentionable in a respectable society. Probably few of the respondents are told what you are likely to know it, but they are actually endorsing the UN Security Council resolution 687, April 1991, to which Washington regularly appealed selectively, in their efforts to justify the invasion of Iraq. The resolution calls for “establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery.”
Rather interestingly, Iranians and Americans are almost in complete agreement on these matters and in radical opposition to the government and articulated opinion in the United States. OK, the background.
Let’s turn to Columbia University’s contribution. Columbia University president Lee Bollinger introduced Ahmadinejad with the tirade that has no precedence that I can think of. Bollinger adopted without question the charge that Iran has committed the shocking crime of supporting resistance to US aggression on its borders. And therefore he accepted routinely the tacit premise that the United States owns the world. And he went on with the familiar refrain that’s been trumpeted through the loyal media, which I won’t repeat.
The most apt comment on the scene on this performance was in Asia. The Journal Asia Times, said “An even more appalling measure of western arrogance” is “the diatribe with which the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, chose to greet his guest, a head of state.” “Were President Bush to be greeted in the same manner in any university in the developing world,” “the Pentagon would have instantly switched to let’s-bomb-them-with-democracy mode.” To which we may add, that Bush’s crimes vastly exceed anything attributed to Ahmadinejad by a huge margin in fact.
The hysteria has its comical aspects or what would be comical if we were not so serious. Since Ahmadinejad kept from being too offensive, the media and commentators leaped on his silly statement about homosexuality in Iran. That deeply offended Westerners who have such a stellar record in defending gay rights ever since gaining independence centuries ago. So, who can imagine, for example, that President Bush would have been the governor of a state that outlawed sodomy?
Actually there’s a lot more to say since we’re concentrated on universities, we might recall the murder of the very distinguished mathematician and computer scientist, Allan Turing, by the British government which forced him to undergo hormone therapy to cure his “disease,” homosexuality, leading to suicide. That year was 1953, which has a certain significance in US-British-Iranian relations, not forgotten in Iran.
It’s worth remembering the reaction in the media and Columbia University to the events to that important year in which the United States and Britain instigated coup to overthrow the Iranian parliamentary system, imposing the iron rule of the brutal tyrant and torture of the Shah.
The NY Times editors were full praise for the achievement. In their words, “Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism” of seeking the control of their own resources. Columbia University played its part by inviting the Shah to deliver the university’s 1955 Gabriel Silver Lecture Dedicated to International Peace and also granting him an honorary degree.
In his lecture, the Shah urged that “we must be strong enough internally and externally so that the temptation of subversion from within, supported from without, can be obliterated.” The New York Times reported the lecture of “an honorary degree” but without embarrassment. Now the headline reads, “Shah praises US for Peace Policy; Iran’s ruler calls on West to bolster independent nations” as the US and Britain had just done with such grace and nobility in the Shah’s country.
Columbia’s delicate taste with regard to visiting dignitaries was revealed again when Pakistan’s military dictator, Pervez Musharraf visited recently. His country, of course, not only developed nuclear weapons and refused to sign the Non Proliferation Treaty but also provides refuge to the world’s champion proliferator, Abdul Qadeer Kahn, who “did more damage in ten years than any country did in the first 50 years of nuclear age.” I’m quoting James Walsh, executive director of Harvard’s managing the Atom Project.
President Bollinger opened his fulsome welcome by saying “Rarely do we have an opportunity such as this to greet a great figure of such central and global importance. It is with great gratitude and excitement that I welcome President Musharaf and his wife to Columbia University.” “Mr. President, as you share your thoughts and insights, you will give our students, the leaders of tomorrow, first-hand knowledge of the world their generation will inherit.” Maybe true or intended. “President Musharaf, we thank you for being with us today, and we welcome you to Columbia University.”
To enhance the imagery, while Bollinger was once again confirming the state doctrine by berating Ahmadinejad, Musharraf’s riot police of firing tear gas and beating lawyers and human rights activists protesting Musharraf’s plans to have himself reelected while serving as chief of the military by blocking any viable, alternative candidate.
A few hours before Ahmadinejad arrived at Columbia, the university welcomed another distinguished figure, the president of Turkmenistan, another vibrant democracy with a stellar human rights record, and plenty of natural gas which the US covets.
That’s just a sample but perhaps enough to remind us that “conformist subservience to power” takes many forms in the academic world. Denial or withdrawal of tenures is only one.
The current assault on academic freedom traces back to the activism of the 1960s and the elite reaction to it. This “time of troubles,” just as it is called, “had a dangerous civilizing effect on American society and culture,” in quite a few domains: civil and human rights, opposition to criminal aggression, concern for the environment, critical analysis of dominant institutions and ideology, and plenty more. That aroused deep concern and elicited a backlash that is taken many forms and continues today.
A good indication of how the problems were perceived is given in the 1975 publication of the Trilateral Commission called “the Crisis of Democracy,” should inform and remind that this is the view from the liberal internationalist end of the political spectrum.
So, the Carter administration was largely drawn from the (…) Commission. The “crisis of democracy” that troubled the liberal internationalist commentators, was that the 1960’s activism was making the country too democratic. It was mobilizing formerly the passive "special interests" to enter the political arena to advance their concerns. These dangerous special interests were women, the young, the elderly, working people, minorities and majorities, in the simple term, the population. The commission called for more moderation in democracy overcoming the “excess of democracy” in the 60s. The reason was that so that national rulers would not be disturbed by “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders”: the population, borrowing the phrase used earlier by Walter Lippman, the leading public intellectual of 20th century expressing the same rather conventional thoughts.
One specific concern of the commission was what they called “the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young”: schools, universities, churches and the like. They were not carrying out its task with sufficient rigor, therefore they must act rigorously to inhibit the freedom and opportunity they were providing for independent thought. That’s a liberal end of the spectrum. The other end, we have today the attack by statist reactionaries who are outraged by what they call “the liberal bias” that “subjects conservative students to punishment and it instills anti-American, pro-Palestinian and other left liberal dogma,” --quoting the press commentary. The Press also reports that Congress is taking the first steps towards pressuring colleges to maintain “ideological balance” in the classroom which are the claims that scarcely merit ridicule in the light of the realities of the academic world.
The attacks are, however, quite real. The press also reports that the House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill that would require university international studies departments to show more support for American foreign policy or risk their federal funding. The unanimous resolution was aimed particularly at Middle East Programs, which I mentioned are the main targets along with Peace Studies programs.
The late Baruch Kimmerling, one of Israel’s leading scholars, warned of the dangerous consequences what he called “this assault on academic freedom by a coalition of neo-cons and thus zealous Jewish students supported by some Jewish mainstream organizations, inspired by David Horowitz Crusade.”
The title of the essay was “Can a patriotic mob take over the universities?” The article by this distinguished Israeli scholar was rejected by the Chronicle Higher Education. Writing in the London Review of Books, a Harvard University Middle East scholar, Sara Roy, “Horowitz’ attack on “250 Peace Studies Programs in the United States,” which she quotes Horowitz, “teach students to identify with America’s terrorist enemies and to identify America as a Great Stan, oppressing the world’s poor and causing them to go hungry. The question is, how long can a nation at a war with ruthless enemies like bin Laden and Zarqawi, survive with if it’s educational institutions continue to be suborned in this way?”
Well, it’s pointless to debate such lunacy, but it’s wrong to disregard. The good goal of the statist reactionaries is not to tell the truth---this is perfect nonsense, as well as we do---but the goal is to extend the range of omissible options, extend towards the repressive, authoritarian end of the spectrum.
And it’s entirely understandable that the Middle East departments and Peace Studies Programs should be the primary targets. Peace Studies are inherently subversive if they are all serious. And the Middle East departments might expose the truths about the region and about the US policies there as Norman Finkelstein has done with scrupulous documentation and penetrating analysis.
Truth poses a serious barrier to the policies carried out by the state power, and supported by all too many among the educated classes, whether it’s invading Iraq to establishing a client state, and in order to give us power in the region, or restoring Iran to the happy days under the Shah, or destroying Palestine under the pretext of defense and democracy promotion, or a long series of other crimes.
These crimes are likely to extend into the future in the region that President Eisenhower described as the “strategically most important area of the world,” which contains about two thirds of the world’s energy resources. 60 years ago, the State Department recognized that these resources constitute “a stupendous source of strategic power,” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” What is more, there are—a lever of world control. That’s a matter that has been understood by planners from the early post war period until the present day.
For example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who wasn’t a particular supporter of the Iraq war, nevertheless wrote at its outset as “successful conquest of the Iraq,” would provide the United States with a critical “leverage” over industrial rivals. He was in fact echoing remakes of George Kennan when he was a leading planner right after World War Two. And it explained that the control of the Middle East oil, which the US was using, the control over the Middle East oil would provide Washington with “veto power” over allies.
The Bush administration understands the point very well. Control over pipelines can provide “tools of intimidation and blackmail.” Dick Cheney warned. It’s control by others, that is. Control by us is for benefit of the world. It’s true by definition, and another tacit presupposition that provides the framework for discussion in polite society.
The assault on academic freedom has deep roots and ominous portent. It should be resisted with the steadfastness and the courage that has been shown by students of De Paul University who have courageously and honorably protested its manifestation at their own university. In a free society, there should be zero tolerance for “institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young,” or for the rest of the attacks on democracy under the cynical pretext of defending freedom.