a new context for the communal production, appropriation and distribution of critical knowledge

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

academy fights: round 2 to the fascists

this past june, professor norman finkelstein was denied tenure by depaul university thanks to a concerted effort by alan dershowitz. yesterday, the university of colorado fired tenured professor ward churchill thanks to an effort by the horowitz-ACTA crowd.

i remember long ago reading an essay by stephen king in which he instructed his readers how to act when they've heard of a case of censorship: to immediately get the censored material and read it. censorship usually targets interesting and relevant ideas. finkelstein and churchill have not been censored, but they have been punished for their political views by a system that is supposed to reward intellectual accomplishment and protect the academy from political intimidation. for the enemies of critical thought, actual censorship is not a viable short-term goal, so they are instead making inroads into a more manageable goal: distorting academic debate by intimidating faculty who are independent-minded and critical in tone.

in the case of finkelstein and churchill, i happen to have read extensively of both of their works, and i recommend them without reservation. they are two of the sharpest analytical minds that i've ever read, and they both write clearly and engagingly on important topics. it is partly for these reasons that they are being targeted by the enemies of intellect. for these reasons i suggest that the appropriate response to this particular attack on critical thinking is to read these authors.

neither decision was plausible on its merits. in finkelstein's case, there was no pretense of applying the universal standards for tenure - quality of teaching and research. he was denied tenure for his "tone". if this seems like a subjective non-standard, that's because it is. he was denied tenure because conservatives don't like what he writes, and because twice he's made the conservative intellectual establishment look very, very foolish. first as a graduate student, by exposing joan peters' anti-palestinian propaganda tome "from time immemorial" as a fraud; then by demonstrating the extraordinary stupidity and absence of merit in alan dershowitz's anti-palestinian book "the case for israel".in churchill's case, there was a pretense of applying a reasonable standard - he was accused of research misconduct. but the pretense is transparent. the president of the university who recommended his termination is a right-wing ideologue who belongs to ACTA, a highly ideological group, founded by lynne cheney and joe lieberman, dedicated to opposing critical thinking in the academy about history and politics. when it became public knowledge a few years ago that churchill had written a highly inflammatory essay about 9-11, the university president promised to subject churchill's writings to an extraordinary level of scrutiny, and convened a committee that did so. in a report that is itself subject to complaints of misconduct (but has not been investigated), the committee concluded that churchill had plagiarized and falsified information relating to native american history, though not in any scholarly writing. the faculty panel charged with making a recommendation recommended against dismissing prof. churchill. as prof. gary leupp has suggested, if "boards of regents in this country were to investigate and punish the falsification of Native American history by scholars, or if society in general were to investigate such falsification in the media, popular culture and political discourse, we’d all be in for a very time-consuming process resulting in a whole lot of people out of jobs." the president, however, overruled the faculty's recommendation and recommended dismissal to the university's board of regents, which rubber-stamped his recommendation 8-1, with no public debate.

these attacks on the academy can't be seen separately from the ascendancy of fascism generally, including the bush administration's war on civil liberties, the erosion of institutions and laws intended to protect us from centralized power, and the increasing concentration of wealth and centralization of power, in this country and worldwide. follow my recommendation, do yourself and the world a favor, and read finkelstein and churchill.

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