Once -- in an off-hand, semi-facetious reply to a reporter’s question as to why I thought the current AAUP leadership had abandoned the academic freedom principles their organization had done so much to establish -- I said: “Because they’re Stalinists.” Now comes Cary Nelson, the newly elected President of the AAUP, to prove the point.
In the current issue of the AAUP magazine, Academe, Nelson reviews my book The Professors, sort of. The review begins: “Please ignore this book. Don’t buy it. Don’t read it. Try not to mention it in idle conversation.” Not surprisingly then, Nelson himself has not read the book he is warning people not to read. Oh he has read some of the 100 profiles in the middle section of the book. Two or three perhaps. But he has not read the 15,000 word essay which begins and ends the book and explains what it is about: why I included the professors I did; what I found objectionable in their activities; and why the material included in the hundred profiles is what it is. Why, for example, the profiles generally “ignore the chief publications at the core of those careers” – something Nelson faults me for, since he has not read the introductory essay explaining what the profiles are supposed to show. He doesn't really understand what the book is about.
Nelson springs to the defense of Professor Eric Foner, for example, who is a well-known historian of the Reconstruction era. Foner is not profiled in my book for taking a "progressive" view of the events of that era as one might conclude from reading Nelson's comments. In fact, The Professors explicitly and in so many words, makes clear that professorial “bias” is not an issue. Everybody has one. Academic freedom requires that everyone’s bias be protected. These statements, unfortunately, are in that rascally introduction which explains what the book is about – the section that Nelson, who by the way is the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, did not bother to read. (Nelson, by the way, is himself the author of several books on higher education).
The reason I included a profile of Eric Foner in The Professors is not because of his leftwing views or his academic scholarship, but because he has defended the idea that scholarship and “activism” are integral to each other and that scholarship can and should, in fact, be a form of activism. (This, in fact, is what the book is about: Professors who use the classroom as a forum of intensive political advocacy.) Here is what I actually wrote:
In 2002, Columbia University hosted a conference of academic radicals called, “Taking Back The Academy: History of Activism, History As Activism.” The published text of the conference papers was provided with a Foreword by Professor Eric Foner, who is a past president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, and a leading academic figure. Far from sharing Professor [Stanley] Fish’s view that a sharp distinction should be drawn between political advocacy and the scholarly disciplines, Professor Foner embraced the proposition that political activism is essential to the academic mission: “The chapters in this excellent volume,” wrote Foner, “derive from a path-breaking conference held at Columbia University in 2002 to explore the links between historical scholarship and political activism….As the chapters that follow demonstrate, scholarship and activism are not mutually exclusive pursuits, but are, at their best, symbiotically related.”
In other words, Foner was included in the book because he represents the intellectually corrupting view that professors should regard their academic work as a means of advancing their political agendas. This passage in my book is also to be found in the pages that Nelson did not read.
In addition to not reading (and therefore misreading) my text, Nelson attacks me for attacking the dead: “Assaults on the dead, another feature of the Horowitz method, seem still more unsavory. Thus the Foner entry faults him for invoking the memory of actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson, one of the greatest and most powerful singing voices of the twentieth century and a man of unflinching courage.” But neither I nor Foner said anything about Robeson’s singing voice, while Nelson will perhaps forgive a Jew for not being impressed with Robeson’s courage when it came to defending his friend, the poet Yitzhak Feffer and other Jews murdered by Stalin with Robeson’s acquiescence. The point of including the reference to Robeson was to illustrate the nature of Professor Foner’s academic activism:
In March 2003 as American forces entered Iraq to overthrow the Saddam dictatorship, Professor Foner participated in an anti-war “teach in” at Columbia University, where he invoked Communist Party icon Paul Robeson as a model of patriotism. “I refuse to cede the definition of American patriotism to George W. Bush,” Professor Foner declared. “I have a different definition of patriotism, which comes from Paul Robeson: ‘The patriot is the person who is never satisfied with his country.’” Robeson, a recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize, had made headlines in the early Cold War by proclaiming that “American Negroes” would not fight to defend America in a war against the Soviet Union. That's an odd sort of patriotism: In fact, the only country Robeson wanted to defend, as a good Communist Party member, was the Soviet Union.
Nelson’s real concern, however, is not my book but my campaign for academic freedom, which he also misrepresents in a systematic fashion. “In state after state, conservative representatives have answered his call to have hearings mounted or legislation introduced to force colleges to track faculty political affiliations and guarantee ‘balance’ in their hiring.” How to put this, except that to note that this entire sentence is a lie – or rather a series of lies. I have never sponsored legislation that would “force” colleges to do anything. I have sponsored resolutions. No such resolutions are pending. I have been responsible for one set of hearings, in Pennsylvania, which identified no professors and dealt strictly with academic freedom policy and led to recommendations endorsed by both Democrats (who had opposed the creation of the committee) and Republicans. My Academic Bill of Rights explicitly forbids hiring of faculty on the basis of political views. I have never used the word “balance” in my reform proposals -- nor does the Academic Bill of Rights contain the term.
These falsehoods, moreover, do not spring innocently from Nelson’s computer. I have refuted each and every one of these false AAUP claims on dozens of occasions in print, and in prominent academic venues such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and InsideHigherEd.com. It’s hard to believe that the president of the American Association of University Professors hasn’t read these either.
In his review, Nelson refers to a speech I gave at Duke University during my book tour, which was aired on C-Span. “Except for a few decorous protesters seated up front, the auditorium was occupied with fans,” writes Nelson. In fact, the protesters were hardly decorous. In the middle of my speech a member of the audience stood up, announced he was a leftist and was embarrassed by the organized cackling – organized by the way by a tenured professor – that disrupted my remarks periodically during my address. He asked the protesters to “Please shut up.”
But the idea that the crowd – estimated at between 600 and 800 students out of a student body of 7,000 – were simply Horowitz fans is laughable. The overwhelming majority of the audience were not conservatives but curious. There were even leftists like the gentleman who spoke up. The audience did respond warmly to my comments, but that was because they were persuaded by what they heard. Perhaps this is reason why Nelson doesn’t want anybody to read my book.
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