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Published: Saturday, 11/17/2001

The new McCarthyism

TheyY came a lot earlier in the current war on terrorism than one might have expected, those latter-day thought police who are issuing lists of college professors who make statements “short on patriotism and long on self-flagellation.”

A group of conservative academics founded by Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, is focusing on college faculty members whom they regard as “the weak link in America's response to the attack.” It's a variation of the “nattering nabobs of negativism” charges raised against critics of the Vietnam War, but more mean-spirited and more dangerous to our democracy.

Reacting to a report of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, one professor on the thought police list, Hugh Gusterson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called it “reminiscent of McCarthyism” and added that such documents reminded him of the Soviet Union, “where officials weren't satisfied until 98 or 99 per cent of people voted with them.”

And what was Professor Gusterson's crime? His comments at a campus peace rally made a connection between American suffering after Sept. 11 and the suffering in war-torn Afghanistan. Taken in context, it was a reasonable comment. Thousands of innocent people were killed in the bombing of the World Trade Center. Many thousands of Afghans also have died from one cause or another, mostly at the hands of their oppressors.

The idea that college professors lead their young charges astray is tommyrot, anyway. Such anti-intellectualism smacks of settling old scores or pursuing their own policies of intellectual “cleansing” designed to make sure nobody in a position to influence others interferes with the war effort.

Usually, American history has shown, sedition scares don't begin until the crisis is over, the witch-hunts that followed both World War I and World War II being the principal examples.

Sedition can be broadly defined as an act of criticizing the government. The First Amendment forbids prosecution of citizens for sedition, on grounds that freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are the guarantors of all our basic liberties. It is when times are difficult, when government occasionally overreaches, that those liberties are most on trial. If we begin persecuting or intimidating citizens for exercising those liberties, we might as well concede defeat in the war against terrorism.

The idea that college professors lead their young charges astray is absurd anyway. Most confine themselves to comments about government activities that are in context. If they are doing their job, they challenge students to think, question, and probe accepted modes of thinking about our society. Such mentoring is an important part of a college student's four-year trip through the halls of higher education.

As Judge Learned Hand wrote, “I believe that that community is already in process of dissolution where each man begins to eye his neighbor as a possible enemy, where nonconformity with the accepted creed, political as well as religious, is a mark of disaffection.”

This country survived and prospered in a century of hot and cold war by its robust tradition of free speech and free inquiry. There is no need to abandon these cherished rights, and there is a particular danger in doing so during a time of crisis.



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