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9/11 for Dummies By: Professor Anonymous
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 12, 2005

“Why is it,” wondered my faculty friend, “that after 9/11, and after the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, all of a sudden professors without professional experience or expertise in the subject became ‘experts’ on the Middle East, Radical Islam, terrorism, U.S. foreign policy and the like?”  These instant experts were eager to teach students, colleagues -- and anyone they could get to listen -- about these subjects. They were especially anxious to ensure that everyone would adopt their politically correct viewpoints and have an arsenal of facts to support their views. 

“We both know,” I said, “that this is propagandizing, not educating, and it is an abuse of the true mission of universities, which is the pursuit of knowledge, not political ideology. We see how this undermines academic discipline and standards essential for the pursuit of knowledge. You know what I mean: thorough knowledge of the primary sources and the main scholarship for one’s field; critical and rational analysis of many different approaches and complex explanations for the key questions and problems in one’s field; a total commitment to accuracy and honesty, even if this means sacrificing one’s pet theories; and above all, making sure that our students learn the importance of these standards. They have to embrace them fully. Without these, the pursuit of knowledge leads to the dead end of propaganda and distorted theories, not truth. We see how vulnerable students are to the seductive attractions that instant “experts” offer with their simplistic instant explanations and ideology. This makes insisting on upholding our professional academic standards all the m ore important, don’t you think?”

“Sure,” said the professor, “but there’s been a problem here ever since 9/11 and even before that. Instant “experts” and their low standards are spreading everywhere nowadays.”


I know that this is true, and this is my subject here. The information I am about to present comes from my own experience at the university where I teach, from my teaching assistants and students, from colleagues at other universities, from professional journals such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Academe, the Journal of the American Association of University Professors, and from newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.


The 9/11 Emergency and Instant Experts


Thus radical professors sought to use their newly asserted expertise to indoctrinate and radicalize as many students and faculty as they could; especially students. [1] Students were “too conservative,” said some; the tragic demise of the ideals of 60’s radicalism was at hand, thought others. This crisis called for action.


In one department at a large public university a professor of American business history took it upon himself to organize a "teach-in" with some other professors--most of whom had no particular knowledge or expertise that made them logical choices for this. Meanwhile, faculty members who did have such knowledge, including specialists on foreign affairs, Islamic history, political theory, and military and diplomatic history, were not asked to participate; they were expected to attend and be indoctrinated like everyone else. This event was well- advertised throughout the university, thus insulting genuine experts who should have been in charge of the whole thing, given their qualifications and knowledge. The qualification for leadership here was leftist ideology, not substantive knowledge of the issues and relevant fields.


Another example: a professor of 17th c. British history organized a panel on American foreign policy and Afghanistan. He was no expert on the subject, but considered himself qualified to organize and choose a panel of speakers who all belonged to the "No Blood for Oil" antiwar school of thought. Their analysis of the crisis of radical Islamists, terrorism, Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan and the Middle East etc. revolved around one idea: that our involvement in these problems was entirely and exclusively aimed at gaining control of oil pipeline territories and oil. Not only was the political and cultural analysis beyond poor, even the economics were wrong! (there was and is now no oil pipeline in Afghanistan). Most of the audience, faculty and some graduate students from the history and government and politics department, sat quietly nodding in agreement. Only a few courageous souls dared to question this analysis and its purported factual basis, and in so doing risked getting the disapproval and contempt of the rest of the audience. Social pressure to accept the teachings of the pseudo-experts as much as real experts was evident. Challenging them was “not cool.”


A third example: a U.S. History professor began offering an upper-division course on international terrorism. He had never taught this subject before, and had no professional training or experience with the material. What qualified him to teach such a course? He knew the correct political approach to the material. He had been an anti-Vietnam war protester in the 60's, and knew the importance of indoctrinating students, lest they become naively complacent in  U.S. imperialism and capitalism, not to mention the exploitation of the underprivileged all over the world. The course reading list was one-sided (left) and predictably anti-American. With no other points of view included. He continued to give the course, which was very popular.


One of the most controversial cases involving an instant expert occurred at UC Berkeley. [2] A graduate student in English was assigned to teach a Freshman English course on reading and writing skills. He decided to turn it into a course on the Palestinian Resistance, from a strictly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli perspective, as he announced in his course description. Conservatives were explicitly warned in writing in the description to stay away from the course. Was this really a Freshman English writing course? Was the grad student in English really well-prepared without knowledge of Arabic to teach Middle-Eastern political affairs, much less literature? Was he even qualified to teach “Basic Intifada for Dummies”? And what do you suppose would have happened if a grad student in English decided to turn Freshman Reading and Writing R1A into a course on the Israeli cause, strictly pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian? What if the instructor warned leftist students who might disagree to stay away from the course? He’d probably be driven from the department by  “diversity police” as some sort of Zionist bigot who was unfit to teach. This instructor would never, ever, have received the support of the Faculty Senate, and the Chair of the English Department, who all came to the defense of the pro-Palestinian course and the instructor’s “academic freedom”. Yes, they made him tone down the course description a bit, and arranged for extra supervision  and for the prospective students to be assured that they were “free to dissent from the instructor’s views without fear,”  but they did not require him to change the reading list or balance out the one-sided focus. And they never questioned his fitness to teach such a course.


To the question about why this sort of thing happened, what entitled professors without various qualifications to claim and act upon their "expertise," my answer was this. We saw the same thing happen in the 60's in connection with the crisis of anti-Vietnam war protests and strikes and  disruption of many campuses. In such an atmosphere of chaos and emergency, with classes cancelled and universities on strike, many radicals and their supporters believed that it was absolutely crucial to provide guidance and information to students they presumed would be "lost" and confused, traumatized by the disruptions and conflicts, and unable to respond appropriately without the leadership of those who did know "the real truth." The need to mobilize opposition to the war and the military-industrial complex supporting it seemed urgent. Crisis and urgency made any radical with a bullhorn and a vague grasp of basic Marxist-Leninist principles an expert.


More recently the attacks of 9/11 presented a similar emergency. All across the country leftists on campuses became experts overnight, and began offering teach-ins, lectures, forums, panels, discussions, using any venue where they could enlighten the lost and confused to the truth and politically correct positions based on those truths. [3] Comparisons with the leftist activism of the 60’s were natural, with some faculty radicals consciously trying to renew the spirit and antiwar movement of the 60’s. Some of these professors had been student protesters and activists in the 60’s; this experience was perhaps enough to support their claim of qualified expertise. This rush to educate and organize was widely regarded as a noble and humane pedagogical undertaking which would help the students to weather the frightening international crisis. How else would they be able to grasp what had happened, what it meant for them, and what they should do? There was a call for clear, simple explanations, mostly focused on “our” role and responsibility for what had happened.  “Experts” issued straightforward and specific directives:


1. Promote Sensitivity to Others, Especially Muslims


Prevent any harassment or attacks on Muslims and people of Middle Eastern and South Asian background; promote “sensitivity to Others” and diversity. As the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ official Statement on Higher Education’s Role in the Wake of the National Tragedy of September 11 said:


“Valuing diversity and enabling constructive intergroup learning have become hallmarks of the contemporary academy. As we face the current crisis, we must redouble our efforts to build broad understanding of the diversity that is a wellspring both of our democracy and of our intellectual vitality.”


At most universities administrators issued warnings such as the one at The University of Southern California: 

“Our goal was to prevent harassment of students who shared a common heritage or religion with those responsible for these crimes.” And to that end the president “communicate[d] to all faculty, staff, and students via e-mail that, while he condemned the attacks, he also condemned the harassment of Muslim students, faculty, and staff. At the same time, student affairs staff contacted Arab and Muslim student leaders to reassure them of the university’s support;” and in meetings offered reassurance  to Arab and Muslim students “that we did not want anyone unfairly attacked or questioned about their status in our educational community.”[4] 

2. Protest! Oppose War, Capitalism, Imperialism, Globalism


Oppose war, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq; oppose President Bush and his war-mongering advisers and their policies; oppose U.S. imperialism and supporting of vile dictators and oppressors; oppose capitalism and globalism; and above all, express this opposition in public protests and demonstrations. [5] A classic statement came from Eric Foner, one of this country's most prominent historians, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, and a past president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association:


“I'm not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House. 'We will rid the world of evil-doers,' President Bush announces as he embarks on an open-ended 'crusade' (does he understand the historical freight this word carries?) against people who 'hate us because we are free'. ” 


Howard Zinn, professor emeritus of political science at Boston University and the author of one of the most widely assigned U.S. History textbooks, expressed similar reactions to the horrors of 9/11:


“Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of punishment. We are at war, they said. And I thought: They have learned nothing...from the history of the 20th Century,        from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counterterrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity. [....] We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the         victims of American military action.”


At universities all over the country a new anti-war movement mobilized, inspired by these sentiments. Organizers argued that imperialism, capitalism (“its cause”) and racism were to blame for what Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist of the American military at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, calls our “permanent state of war since the late 1930s.” Noting that “this war has now come home to roost” [sound familiar, followers of Ward Churchill?] she attributes it to anticommunism and capitalism:


“it has been carried on in the name of stability for any regime that would don an anticommunist mantle and allow American business access, hiding a rotten core of systematic terrorism against its own people, often with our weapons....the long reign of nuclear terror by the Soviet Union and the United States—who together took aim at millions of people in skyscrapers and hovels—was called defense, or even peace.” 


Traditional leftist criticisms about the U.S. and its bullying imperialism became a litany repeated continually. The favored Leninist paradigms were invoked to explain everything in a vague way (Hello! Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism!). Faculty and students were exhorted to organize and attend teach-ins and forums to criticize the American policies that “brought this just revenge upon us”  and to blame America first. An early example was the teach-in at the City University of New York, described in a New York Post article as a stupid “peacefest.” Academe reported that the Post writer:


“complained that the forum was dominated by speakers who looked to the history of capitalism, colonialism, religious conflict, and class divisions for answers about why the terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, and that it included speakers who opposed U.S. military action in Afghanistan.”


3. Protect Academic Freedom and Free Speech (Think “Critically”)


Not surprisingly,  many objected to these criticisms and the blaming of America for the attacks. These objections in turn alerted the protesters to understand that academic freedom was in danger, and this produced instructions to exercise academic freedom and freedom of speech to the utmost, and test their limits, while discouraging patriotic displays and flag-waving. The American Association of University Professors expressed intense concerns about perceived threats to academic freedom, especially after the CUNY “peacefest” was denounced by the school’s chancellor and some of its trustees. “The teach-in was organized in order to give students an opportunity to learn about the crisis,” lamented the professor who moderated the event. Right: an opportunity to “learn” by being indoctrinated with recycled propaganda from the 60’s. But this raised grave concerns about an atmosphere seen as “chilling to academic freedom and free speech.” [6] And this near-hysteria resulted in many universities echoing the AAUP’s orders to assert and protect academic freedom. At USC a typical proclamation was issued by the administration “focused on ensuring that those who dissent from the prosecution of a war on terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere can share their views in a setting of academic freedom.” [7] Many universities issued similar statements. On the whole, though, there was less concern about the academic freedom  of conservatives (more below).


There were some universities where students, faculty, and staff were even forbidden to display the American flag for fear of offending “Others” and to avoid crude “jingoism.”


The message given to students was that patriotism was offensive and that it was “best” to blame and criticize the U.S. for the tragedy and its underlying causes. [8] Small wonder that besides organizations for the defense of free speech, also the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) condemned academia’s “blame America first” response and said that after 9/11 “College and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response to the attack,” with “public messages [that] were short on patriotism and long on self-flagellation.” [9] When it came to blaming America first, it was hard to beat the Arabic and Islamic studies professor who bitterly complained:


“Little, indeed,  is said about the disastrous effects of an American foreign policy that has supported many twisted dictatorships in the Muslim world and helped thwart democratic reforms, or about the American-Saudi partnership that turned the country [Afghanistan] into a breeding ground for misery and monstrosity. [....]While the September 11 acts were criminal, the grievances that fed and inspired them were real... The list of grievances is long, but it invariably boils down to the obscene indifference to the loss of human lives that do not appear on American television screens...” 


4. Organize Rituals, Promote Comfort and Community Spirit


Having encouraged students to avoid seeking comfort and collective solidarity with the American majority in support of what they portrayed as an unacceptable patriotic national response to the crisis of 9/11, there remained the problem of finding appropriate sources of comfort and emotional release. Universities and colleges demonstrated care for students’ welfare and development (and heeded the importance of good university publicity) through organized rituals of mourning, candlelight peace vigils, prayer services, planting “peace gardens,” and writing messages on huge sheets of paper for public display. They congratulated themselves on the moving spirit of community (and diversity!) these rituals displayed. At the University of Virginia a teach-in on September 13 ended with a religious studies professor’s observation that with the deeply moving closeness of the university community at this event he had “never seen UVA as beautiful as it was...You and I have the opportunity to continue to turn negative energy and use it to produce more human awareness among our citizens.” Thus:


“Students took this opportunity to educate themselves at a moment when the world seemed incomprehensible. Disillusioned by the media and disheartened by many reactions of their fellow Americans, the University of Virginia, in an evening, provided its students with the familial comfort for which they all so desperately longed.            The lines between students and faculty were blurred as both shared honestly and sincerely. Despite their grief, they were left with the tangible sense that, as a group, they would be able to face the world as one.” [10]


At the University of Maryland the vice-president of student affairs “urged administrators to press faculty members to lead teach-ins, pay special attention to the concerns of Muslim students, and recognize the desire for public grieving.” This produced, in addition to many teach-ins, a ceremonial placing of roses in a fountain and later burying the flowers in a mound of soil that would be tended by students. As the vice president emphasized, “It’s really important to the grieving process. ...This is, I think, the defining moment for this generation of college students.” [11] Universities awarded themselves high scores for all kinds of “sensitivity” and took full advantage of all opportunities to get rid of negative energy and guide students towards proper self-actualization. It seemed as though many of the “instant experts” could also serve as “instant grief counselors.”


So there you have it: if you could master these concepts, it was easy to become an “expert” faculty leader or a student activist leader. These instructions made things quick and simple for the followers, especially  apolitical students with little knowledge of the relevant issues. The clever and empowering principle of blaming America was easy to grasp and placed control of the situation in our hands.


“Expert” Advice: Blame America First


Everyone assumed that amidst the chaos and mourning students would be unable to concentrate on the courses they were taking, and would prefer their professors and teaching assistants to devote class time to informing them on the political struggles of the moment. The main guideline presented was that in the face of a vicious terrorist attack which precipitated international crisis and war, the proper response was deep questions: what did WE do wrong? Why do they hate US? Why did WE deserve this? The narcissism of this is striking. It offers a  simple explanation for what went wrong, points to “remedies” that lie mainly in our control, requires little or no understanding of other cultures and peoples except as victims of our exploitation and political oppression, and spares us from having to expect of the “Others” any sort of cooperation , comprehension, or toleration, much less self-criticism such as ours. This seems to provide for us reassurance and hope, although it infantilizes and disempowers our terrorist enemies (“our victims”) by stripping them of responsibility for minimally civilized behavior and improvement through critical self-reflection and reform. It is, in a word, condescending.


In the days and weeks (and eventually semesters) after 9/11 many faculty members responded to the need for decisive measures to attend to shocked, frightened students. These students were of a post-Vietnam, post-draft, post-Cold War generation with no experience of fears of attacks on our soil, war, and international crisis. To be fair, much of the faculty’s concern was well-intentioned. Moreover, it was encouraged by college and university administrators who cherished the image of the benevolent “caring” university nurturing its young and proclaiming its political and social awareness. One university public relations official couldn’t contain his excitement in a meeting of deans and department chairs about “how we can use this to improve the university’s image!”. This explains why many university presidents and administrators not only allowed but encouraged “instant experts” to do their thing.


However not all university presidents were in a position to be as thrilled with this. As mentioned earlier, a teach-in at CUNY went over the edge of decency in the faculty’s merciless bashing of the U.S., bringing shameful publicity and disgrace to the university. [12] And who can forget how poseur professor of ethnic studies Ward Churchill, with his “instant expert” rants against U.S. imperialism and tyranny, has polluted the reputation of the University of Colorado? But for some instructors this was also a golden opportunity to recruit and indoctrinate converts for the left, and to expand its influence and the effectiveness of its criticism and protest; an irresistible golden opportunity which could be presented attractively as the humane duty of concerned educators in a crisis.


Apart from the concerns of college administrators, for much of the faculty the traditions of the 60's antiwar movement were reborn, teach-ins and all. And as in the past, it was the perceived need to provide politically correct guidance and knowledge to help students comprehend the crisis and face the future that made “instant experts” out of faculty members and teaching assistants. This is what qualified them to begin teaching about Islam and radical Islamists, about U.S. foreign policy (a.k.a. imperialism and bigoted hatred of "Others") and about terrorism and how to respond to it. What students most need in an international crisis, they felt, is guidance towards the truly politically correct, moral, humanitarian, leftist doctrines, and if possible, organized activism. In a crisis, those who can provide this guidance are therefore suitable experts. Radicals with new-found "expertise" and "truth" about foreign and domestic affairs strove to minimize potentially confusing disagreement, dissent, contrary information and ideas, confident that they knew what was best for everyone. In addition, they used this authority to instill leftist ideology in their students in order to safeguard the survival of radicalism in future generations.        


"Threats" to Academic Freedom?


Three great fears seemed to trouble academics: concern about heightened patriotism, which they saw as a potential moral threat to human rights and their own core beliefs such as multiculturalism and the evils of American capitalism; the problem of properly grasping terrorism, especially because of their claim that we brought this upon ourselves and were getting, in the attacks of 9/11, what we deserved; and grave worry about academic freedom and free speech, which they claimed were threatened. [13] No one, however, expressed concerns about protecting academic standards and the quality of teaching.


Instead, educators on both sides of the political divide complained about constraints on academic freedom, and violations were recorded and reported by defenders of free speech. But administrators and professors on the left usually significantly outnumbered conservatives, and thus the shrillest outcries about suppression of academic freedom came from professors on the left, even as their freedom to criticize and blame America was continually asserted. Rather, more often it was expressions of patriotism, even displaying the flag, and criticism of the left's anti-Americanism that were silenced, along with conservatives whose speeches were protested and disrupted. (No academic freedom for them!). Radicals interpreted any criticism of their views as suppression of their academic freedom, using this claim to fight back and silence their critics. Campus radicals had little respect for their opponents and critics, whom they mocked, attacked,  and accused of trying to destroy academic freedom. [14] They portrayed themselves as victims of right-wing repression, a posture which strengthened their bonds to “Other victims” of American tyranny and increased their credibility as radical experts on oppression.      


But the academic freedom of the highly qualified was largely neglected in the frenzy to snatch up young minds for enlightening to leftist doctrine. Instant experts were more numerous and vociferous, usually more stylish and hip—and appealingly rebellious against traditional authority. They proclaimed their complete freedom to teach almost anything (from rap music to comic books and erotica) and expect it to be accepted as legitimate college course material, and their teaching was relatively simple, with light workloads and easy grading. Against these advantages real experts and traditionalists with heavy reading lists and course requirements, and complex ideas and dissent didn't have much of a fighting chance.


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