Several months after the September 11 tragedy, the response on America's college campuses to the terrorist attacks and the subsequent war has become the center of controversy. Some charge that the groves of academe have become a haven for virulent, knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Others worry that wartime jingoism threatens to eviscerate freedom of speech in the very place where it should be most hallowed.
In the first camp is the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which issued a report in November titled "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America -- And What Can Be Done About It." In the second camp are numerous critics, from Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page to Don Campbell, a lecturer in journalism at Emory University in Atlanta, who see such accusations as an attempt to launch new McCarthy-style witch hunts.
ACTA, a joint undertaking of Republicans and culturally conservative Democrats (it was co-founded in 1995 by future Second Lady Lynne Cheney and future vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman), sees the climate at many institutions of higher learning as rife with moral relativism at best and America-hating at worst. In the words of the report, "the message of much of academe was clear: BLAME AMERICA FIRST." More than 100 comments and incidents from campuses across the country are cataloged to support this claim.
While such a list may seem to have McCarthyesque overtones, the ACTA report doesn't name names, only institutions. A more valid criticism, perhaps, is that the report is a tempest in a teapot. Page, Campbell, and others point out that anti-war fervor has been notoriously lacking on most campuses, and that the list is heavy on vague, not particularly radical statements about breaking the cycle of violence and finding alternatives to war.
It is true that many of the protests mentioned in the report were sparsely attended. It is also true that some of the incriminating statements quoted in it are fairly innocuous. The list includes hackneyed peace rally chants such as, "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!" and wishy-washy platitudes such as, "We have to learn to use courage for peace instead of war." It also features such inspired silliness as a linguistics professor's attempt to find sexual metaphors in the attacks ("The Pentagon, a vaginal image from the air, penetrated by the plane as missile"). Even some hapless student's comment to The Los Angeles Times ("I'll pretend I'm gay. I'm against war. It's scary.") made the cut.
But while the authors of the ACTA report weaken their own case by making such a muddle of the evidence, it is disingenuous to pretend -- as do some of the report's critics -- that all the evidence is feeble. "Defending Civilization" clearly identifies a real problem. An alarming proportion of campus voices heard since September 11 have drawn a moral equivalence between the terrorist attacks and America's response, and sometimes transparently implied that we were asking for it. For instance:
� "Perhaps our best options now are to search for the origins of this new war, draw strength from understanding our own weaknesses, and make changes within ourselves and within our relationships to others. Many wonder if we are paying an accumulated debt for centuries of dominance and intervention far from home, retribution for our culture of consumption and exploitation."
� "The ultimate responsibility lies with the rulers of this country, the capitalist ruling class of this country."
� "If I were President, I would first apologize to all the widows and orphans, the tortured and impoverished, and all the millions of other victims of American imperialism."
There is ample evidence that attitudes illustrated by these examples were predominant at the teach-ins and speak-outs organized at many colleges and universities in the wake of September 11. Some of the participants, of course, bristle at being called anti-American.
One Wesleyan College sophomore, writing in the student daily The Wesleyan Argus, indignantly protested against charges that an anti-war event in which he was involved was about making excuses for terrorist attacks on America. He then went on to state that "it is understandable why America was targeted" and that "when we enter [Third World] countries to rape the land of its resources and leave it barren, we are being watched and we are being judged." If anything, such cognitive dissonance is even scarier than outright support for terrorism.
There is a world of difference between questioning government policies, even in wartime, and questioning America's moral right to self-defense. Too often, what passes for dissent in academe today is much closer to self-hatred.
ACTA stresses that its report is "not an argument for limiting free speech" on campus. But as the report correctly notes, "Academic freedom does not mean freedom from criticism."
The cries of neo-McCarthyism are particularly ironic since many of the incidents chronicled in the report are not about offensive anti-war or anti-American speech. Rather, they have to do with attacks on free speech -- not by overzealous patriots but by proponents of multicultural sensitivity.
Thus, the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley, The Daily Californian, came under fire for running a cartoon that showed the dead hijackers arriving in hell while imagining that they were about to meet Allah and be serviced by 70 virgins in paradise. This supposed act of anti-Muslim "intolerance" sparked a protest rally about 100 strong. The U.C.-Berkeley Student Senate passed a resolution, by 11 to seven votes, demanding a front-page apology and diversity training for the paper's staff; it also proposed raising the paper's rent as punishment for the cartoon. The editors, to their credit, held their ground, saying the cartoon fell within the realm of fair political commentary.