Intellectual witch hunts: yesterday and today

In the United States, free speech is considered a cornerstone of democratic society. But is speech truly free here?

As Chomsky and others have pointed out, the lip service paid to free speech simply means that more covert measures are found to drive unorthodox views underground. The government no longer openly censors papers for having the things like “libel against the state,” in contrast to countries like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or China, who have no problem throwing people in jail for years when they publish an unappreciated commentary.

Since the society of the United States has established legal protections for free speech, a major step toward a freer society, the state has been forced to develop alternate means to controlling the public debate and the visibility of ideas considered threatening to business and power interests in the establishment culture.

Consider the following examples.

1. The Pentagon Papers and Wikileaks

When Wikileaks released material, the State Department and Pentagon put tremendous pressure on a number of companies to block their own servers from the Wikileaks material. While Wikileaks has yet to be charged with a single crime, the government successfully pressured Amazon to reject the Wikileaks site from its mainframe servers. Likewise, it also pressured Paypal to reject Wikileaks as a client. Where’s the free speech?

This is hardly a new situation. There is a long tradition of using labels like “against the national interest,” “secrets of state,” or “anti-American,” to control the flow of information the government would prefer to keep secret.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of the late 18th century marked the beginning of a long history of this technique in the United States.

As recently as the Pentagon Papers release in 1971, the US government didn’t hesitate to surround the entire New York Times printing press building with National Guards in a (failed) attempt to prevent the publication of inconvenient facts regarding its deceitful role in Vietnam prior to and during the conflict (most notably the direct lies to the American public about that role). For further details on this, see the documentary below.

Analysis of the media’s effective “filters”

2. A narrow range of opinion in the news.

Watch the news recently? It is commonly asserted that the press is free and represents a full range of opinion, including ideas critical of the US government.

In reality, however, we only here a minute splice of the spectrum, and the range of difference within that splice is what passes for a full range of opinion. It is as if the other colors of the rainbow just don’t exist, and the three colors in the middle are seen as a full spectrum.

For example, when is the last time you heard any serious critique or commentary in mainstream sources regarding whether the US military has any legitimacy outside of the US?

Or whether free-trade agreements, from GATT to NAFTA to the IMF have a positive effect on the peoples they impact?

Or whether there is any legitimacy to the idea that American should try to remain “stronger” than China?

Or whether our governmental system is functionally democratic, considering that typically less than 50% of the population considers voting to be a meaningful activity, that over half of the US congress is made up of millionaires, and that you can only with the presidency if you can successfully get a billion or more dollars in your campaign chest?

3. Professional pressures against teachers

A final example worth mentioning regards the pressures brought to bear against teachers who hold unorthodox views. The main message is: conform or risk getting fired.

Consider the case of Norman Finkelstein’s tenure denial, or the recent spate of intellectuals fired for having the wrong ideas.

Pressure is mounted by alarmists “concerned” that evil is infiltrating our society by professors secretly teaching the “wrong” ideas; pressure mounts; and the institutions, worried about their reputation or their bottom line, cave to the pressure and fire away. For some stomach-churning examples of contemporary witch-hunting and black-listing, consider the following example from the 2003 version of the University of Texas professor “watch list,” which polices professors’ opinions in the name of keeping them “balanced:”

The Watch List will provide information to students about professors who push a political agenda on their students and use the classroom as a launch pad for their own political crusades. The list is being distributed on the West Mall of the UT campus and is posted on the YCT-UT website. “It’s one thing for a professor to have an opinion. That’s allowed,” said Austin Kinghorn, Chairman of YCT-UT and a government senior. “What the Watch List hopes to address is professors who twist reality, revise history and present only half the story in hopes of indoctrinating students to their own political beliefs.”…

The Watch List will be produced entirely by YCT-UT and will consist of courses the suspect professors will be teaching for the Spring 2004 semester, their department and a short summary describing the instructor, the content of the course and what biases are pushed through the curriculum.

“YCT-UT is committed to providing this resource to students who are tired of walking blindly into a classroom not knowing whether their professor will deliver an honest education or a subtle indoctrination,” Kinghorn said. “While the first Watch List will contain a list of professors generated by YCT members and submitted by the public, we hope as this becomes a YCT tradition that future Watch Lists will eventually give an account for every professor at the University,” Kinghorn said.

YCT-UT is accepting nominations for the Watch List from the public. YCT members will visit the classes of nominated professors and determine whether their teaching style and curriculum warrants placement on the list.

This list is still being updated (here is a 2008 version).

And there is the now-infamous example of “Campus Watch.”

Below, for example, consider the disturbing implications of their posting of the names of “Palestinian terrorism apologists”:

Following the launch of Campus Watch on September 18, 2002, this site received about 200 e-mails from faculty and graduate students requesting to be listed on in solidarity with academics we identified as apologists for suicide bombings and militant Islam listed on this site. (For more, see the New York Times article).

Most of the writers are academics from fields other than Middle East studies (and so are not qualified to judge the work of the academics we listed) and few of them addressed the concerns and problems listed by Campus Watch on its homepage. Still, the fact that these individuals insist on declaring solidarity in public with academics that Campus Watch has identified as apologists for Palestinian and Islamist violence is important information for university stakeholders to be aware of, so we are posting their names, in compliance with their wishes.

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