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Academic McCarthyism By: Jerry Sternstein
History News Network | Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Before I retired at Brooklyn College, CUNY, in 1998, a history department meeting was held to consider, among other things, whether to support the awarding of an honorary degree to Eugene Genovese, an outstanding historian of slavery and the American South, who had graduated the college in 1953. Invariably, such requests from the administration that the history department vote to honor one its own distinguished graduates would sail through unanimously. But not in the case of Genovese and not in the present politically correct climate. Two women members of the department, one a historian of German and women's history who regarded the demise of East Germany and the Soviet Union as Paradise Lost, and another, who taught women's history from a radical perspective, whose field was originally English history, strongly objected to honoring Genovese. As they viewed him, he had betrayed his former radical friends (though they didn't use that term, but their meaning was clear), by becoming an outspoken member of the National Association of Scholars, which they denounced as a right-wing academic organization hostile to minorities and especially women. Whatever Genovese had accomplished as a historian over his lifetime was vitiated, in their eyes, by his membership in that organization -- which I'm not even certain he belonged to. But that didn't matter: He had made speeches and written articles that conformed to that organization's purported anti-women and anti-minority agenda.

Some of us countered this attack on the grounds that it was a form of reverse McCarthyism, hardly befitting an institution which suffered from purges of Communist Party members on the faculty in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when Brooklyn College was known as the "Little Red Schoolhouse." Also, we argued, we would be honoring Genovese for his scholarship not his current politics, whatever they might be. This carried no weight with his opponents on the left -- as well as the majority in the department -- who emphasized over and over again what they considered his retrogressive beliefs, made emblematic by his supposed membership in the NAS. In the end, his detractors, much to the department's shame, won the day by a considerable margin. Genovese was not honored at Brooklyn College's commencement that year, or, I believe, has he been honored since.

Now if a highly regarded scholar such as Genovese can be denied an honorary degree because of his supposed association with a particular organization many politically correct academics on the left condemn, think of how a new candidate for an opening might fare if he or she belonged to the NAS or something similar. One would not have to ask the candidate anything about party registration or political philosophy. To many on the left, that would be as clear as day, and, in today's highly politicized campus atmosphere, make that candidate, no matter how sterling his scholarly credentials, as "unsuitable" for the position as Genovese was for an honorary degree.

What's the solution to the ideological tilt among faculty Horowitz wants to correct? I'm not bright enough to offer a solution, other than to warn prospective job candidates not to sign any petitions championing conservative causes or to join any organizations considered to have a conservative bent. Indeed, do the exact opposite. You can always show your true colors when you have tenure. But don't ever expect to get an honorary degree.

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