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A Railroading at San Francisco State By: Melissa Smith
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 17, 2004


The following is an e-mail from a Youngstown State University professor on behalf of former Soviet refusenik and FrontPage Magazine columnist Tatiana Menaker. Tatiana has written extensively on the leftist activities of her current college, San Francisco State University, in FrontPage Magazine. Inexplicably, after every FrontPage article, she was disciplined by SFSU. Following her most recent article, on her anti-American poetry class, an SFSU official expelled her from campus for five years. After FrontPage made this a national issue, Tatiana is now undergoing a hearing and may receive a suspension. Her case is a clear miscarriage of justice, an identifiable example of the Left's intellectual cleansing on campus. The e-mail follows. -- The Editors.

I have known Tatiana Menaker since 1979. I have seen her weather refusnik status in the Soviet Union, KGB intimidation, immigration alone with two small children while fighting to get her husband and parents out of the USSR, raising the family on a shoe-string budget despite the case of carpal tunnel syndrome that forced complete reevaluation of skills and job possibilities, building a successful business with Russian tourists, only to see it collapse during the financial crisis of 1998.  I have admired her ability to conquer all manner of adversity in pursuit of her dreams, and I find it extremely ironic that a true believer in "the American dream" should be treated so harshly by an educational institution whose main function should be keeping that dream alive.

Throughout her current scuffles with San Francisco State politics (of which Tanya has periodically apprised me), I have observed that Tanya's "crimes" basically consist of offenses to the lofty principles of "political correctness."  Having been raised myself in a liberal political environment, I find it particularly painful when the spirit of tolerance that we have tried to instill in our institutions becomes applied unthinkingly, in knee-jerk fashion, according to the latest news trend, without considering the character and circumstances of the people whose behavior appears offensive at the current moment.

The Tatiana Menaker I knew in Leningrad in the late 1970s-early 80s was a sensitive musician, devotee of art and poetry, tender mother to her children, defender of the rights of religious believers in an atheistic country.  She risked much to help friends and strangers by preparing emigration documents and holding underground seminars on Jewish history and religion.  Gentleness and gentility were qualities that she maintained in a hostile environment, and I cannot believe that a slightly more comfortable material existence, such as she has struggled to provide her family in recent years in San Francisco, could have so hardened her as to make her "unacceptable" in a university environment.

In my own professional life, I have traveled to the USSR-Russia some 29 times, recently (summer 2000) receiving a Fulbright grant on the subject of "Cross-Cultural Difficulties in Translating for Drama and Theater." Having translated works of contemporary Russian women dramatists, I have often observed how the very political and social issues that most arouse us can, when translated literally, receive an almost opposite interpretation for the foreign audience.  In the theater of American life, I now see how a dear and trusted friend can falter through lack of familiarity with the sociocultural undercurrents of her new society. What distresses me most, however, is the reactions of "thinking" members of our population to statements that might be interpreted by some as vaguely humorous (if not in the best of taste).  I recall how once a main defender of freedom of speech in our society, the ACLU, once defended a demonstration of Nazis in Skokie, Illinois - surely the political climate is not so polarized now as to bring down its legal and administrative wrath on a lone protester against  a powerful student demonstration or a tenured faculty member?

Were I a faculty member at San Francisco State, rather than Youngstown State, I would feel it behooved me to organize a "teach-in" or other open forum for discussion of the issues at hand.  Certainly that is what my own student days at Columbia University would have led me to expect.  In fact, I myself introduced this concept to my Russian colleagues at St. Petersburg University (Russia) when a student disturbance of the newly-empowered Russian students was endangering the safety of a group of American students whose group leader I was at the time (1993).  I certainly would be ashamed for my colleagues and countrymen to hear that university administrators in the former Soviet Union are more capable of reasoning their way through an emotionally-charged situation than current administrators who probably reached their professional status through educational experience like mine.

I cannot judge what thinking or experience led Tatiana Menaker's accusers to feel threatened enough to wish to get her expelled; I suspect, however, that few of them have had to display the courage of their convictions as she has time and time again.  I have no doubt that Tanya is capable of learning any lessons that her new educational institution sees fit to offer her.  It remains to be proven whether that institution is strong enough to learn the lessons that such students as Tanya have to offer.


Melissa T. Smith is a Professor of Foreign Languages at Youngstown State University in Ohio.


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