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Naming—and Un-naming—Names | The Nation

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Naming—and Un-naming—Names

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Two months after the September 11 attacks, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an academic watchdog group founded by Lynne Cheney, issued a report grandly titled "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It." Its authors proclaimed that while "citizens have rallied behind the President wholeheartedly.... college and university faculty have been the weak link in America's response." They painted academe as a passivist fifth column undermining the war effort through equivocation, "moral relativism" and outright opposition, noting: "Some [professors] even pointed accusatory fingers, not at the terrorists, but at America itself." And they named names: academics who had supposedly pointed such fingers and uttered such equivocations in 117 instances collected from media sources. They also announced that they would send the list to 3,000 trustees at colleges across the country.

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Eric Scigliano
Eric Scigliano is the author of Love, War and Circuses: The Age-Old Relationship of Elephants and Humans , to be...

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What goes down comes around. Amidst all the attention to United Airlines' post-September 11 woes, no one noticed the ringing irony of its tapping John W. Creighton Jr.

Some of those named, such as University of Washington psychology professor David Barash, cheered at making ACTA's list: "Before, I was disappointed at being too young or too inconsequential to make Nixon's list." Others howled, however, that they'd been misrepresented and quoted out of context, leading the authors, ACTA president Jerry Martin and vice president Anne Neal (both of whom served under Cheney at the National Endowment for the Humanities), to yank the list off the group's website (www.goacta.org) after a week. It was soon back, however, minus the names, where it remains--not quite blacklisting, but a weird, anonymous graylist.

This switch went unremarked, and ACTA--which according to the Media Transparency project received nearly $700,000 from the conservative Olin, Bradley, Earhart and Sarah Scaife foundations between 1997 and 2000, and which was hired by Governor Jeb Bush to train Florida's 143 university trustees--continued to score the sort of high-volume attention most watchdog groups only dream of. The Wall Street Journal's editorialists and a Washington Times commentary endorsed the findings of "Defending Civilization"; Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley endorsed the similar findings of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which provided ACTA with some of its citations. Leftist "thought-police," Yardley intoned, "have launched a new onslaught on free speech and revived the anti-Americanism that was pandemic on the campuses in the age of political correctness." Other papers reported the claims in more neutral fashion while conceding ACTA's main premise: that it had actually assembled what Emily Eakin, in the New York Times, called "117 anti-American statements heard on campuses."

In fact, many of the statements were innocuous (e.g., "We have to learn to use courage for peace instead of war"), while one, by Oberlin freshman Jim Casteleiro, voices the appreciation of history that ACTA itself extols: "War created people like Osama bin Laden, and more war will create more people like him." Former US ambassador at large to Russia Strobe Talbott, now at Yale, makes the list by noting, "It is from the desperate, angry and bereaved that these suicide pilots came." He shares billing with Arun Gandhi, the Mahatma's grandson, who told a UNC, Chapel Hill, gathering, "We must acknowledge our role in helping to create monsters in the world, find ways to contain these monsters without hurting more innocent people and then redefine our role in the world."

Some of the other statements ACTA cites do express strong opposition to the post-9/11 campaign, and a blithe zeal for blaming America. But the most obnoxious, which leads ACTA's list--"I was cheering when the Pentagon got hit because I know about the brutality of the military. The American flag is nothing but a symbol of hate and should be used for toilet paper for all I care"--is attributed not to an academic but to a "freelancer" at a Brown protest. Freelance peacemonger?

Nearly a third of the 117 examples in this critique of faculty "weak links" come not from faculty but from students and protest signs. ACTA's watchdogs vacuum up attributions where they can, sometimes at third hand (for example, a William Bennett Op-Ed citing a Commentary article). But "Defending Civilization" gets most slippery when it cites instances of universities supposedly suppressing or rejecting patriotic expressions. It reports that when Williams College president Morton Schapiro announced a "public recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance," only Schapiro and one other faculty member showed, plus 200 students and maintenance and cafeteria staff. But the one-minute event was held on a Sunday, when faculty aren't on campus and students and cafeteria workers are. Michael Lewis, the lone Williams professor who came to say the pledge, who sharply criticizes his colleagues' tepid war spirits, admits that many of them did attend a later candlelight vigil.

Then there's the Penn State vice provost whom ACTA lashes for telling a faculty member that "his web page advocating military action against terrorists is 'insensitive and perhaps even intimidating.' 'Intimidating' expression is grounds for dismissal at Penn State." Professor Stephen Simpson had quoted and endorsed an editorial by the Ayn Rand Institute's Leonard Peikoff that concludes, "We must now use our unsurpassed military to destroy all branches of the Iranian and Afghani governments, regardless of the suffering and death this will bring to the many innocents caught in the line of fire." Vice provost Robert Secor says that after "some of the students in Mr. Simpson's class" complained to him, he wrote to Simpson: "Since we have students from all countries at Penn State, whose families might be among the innocents Peikoff refers to, you can understand why these students would find such comments insensitive and perhaps even intimidating. I am sure this is not what you intended, but I want you to know this has been the unintended result."

Simpson at first contested Secor's assertion but then removed the quote. His site now just endorses "all-out war" against terrorist sponsors and has a link to Peikoff's tract. He says he heard nothing more from the administration but "felt a bit intimidated" by Secor's letter. Secor says he never threatened sanctions and, by stipulating that any ill perceptions were unintended, he seems to have absolved Simpson of "acts of intolerance"--which is what Penn State's policy actually proscribes. But though misconstrued, the episode demonstrates the boomerang effect that free-speech advocates warned of when colleges instituted speech and "tolerance" codes in the heyday of the culture wars.

To rouse the academics' enthusiasm for war, "Defending Civilization" proposes that they be required to teach more American history--a reform ACTA has long advocated, along with restoring the liberal arts core, which bears little relation to the purported problem. This turns a good cause into wartime polemic and loads it with extraneous neo-Red Scare baggage. And it's already alienated at least one ally. Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, whom ACTA flaunted as a "co-founder," though he says he was only a supporter, considered resigning from its advisory council out of dismay at the report's methodology and conclusions.

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