To be “French” means a number of things in America today: “surrender monkeys” in some circles, “spineless appeasement-niks” to the slightly more high-browed and simply “freedom” for deep-fried slithers of potato. Western Europe’s beak-nosed, thankless dandies have become standard-bearers for moral cowardice, the yin to the yang of U.S. bravado. Nowhere else does a people earn so much scorn for their pomposity and over-intellectualism. Well, nowhere else but the ivory towers of the American academy.
It may surprise Joe Neo-Con to learn then that the very term “ivory tower” is a French one. Coined in the 19th century to decry the aloofness of poet Alfred de Vigny, the tour d’ivoire got lost in translation and now sits within the shooting range of the American right. Conservative writers like David Brooks and George Will have targeted universities as havens of liberal bias cut off from American society. The accusations are generally the following: College campuses encourage a climate of intolerance while incubating “Anti-American” passions. Approaches in many disciplines turn increasingly against the best interests of the nation. The French, it seems, have won the day: They gloat from across the ocean while spiritually occupying universities all across American soil.
This line of reasoning amounts to exaggeration. It is undeniable that Democrats disproportionately outnumber Republicans in the halls of higher education, yet this imbalance does not breed an atmosphere of censorship. Most Yalies would be hard-pressed to remember a single occasion of genuine political discrimination by a teacher against a student. Moreover, leftists often feel as embattled on campus as right-wingers. Only a year and a half ago, antiwar protesters at Yale faced physical violence and racist epithets. Police prevented peace activists from even meeting in neighboring Southern Connecticut State University. Republicans complain about sniggers and pro-Kerry signs. The plight of the unfortunate conservative squeezed out by campus liberalism (or “far left radicalism”) is nothing but a self-indulgent myth.
Moreover, in the last three years, conservatives have waged war on the academy. Part Salem witch hunt, part Jerry Springer, this movement has in its thrall members of Congress, moneyed conservative organizations and eager-beaver students. Under the banner of “intellectual balance,” conservatives defame and intimidate professors nationwide.
Recent case in point: dastardly Columbia assistant professor Joseph Massad. Professor Massad taught “Palestinian Politics and Societies,” in which students explored histories and critiques of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. Massad and the class so irked Columbia’s cadre of pro-Israel activists that they made a documentary about it. In the documentary, funded and produced by The David Project, a pro-Israel organization based in Boston, numerous students detailed Massad’s intolereant leftist excesses. The New York Daily News and a New York state representative joined hands with the filmmakers in compelling Columbia to force Massad’s resignation. Bowing to external pressure, Massad has since opted not to teach the course and his once-certain path to tenure is in jeopardy.
Lost within the hot air of this attack are some troubling inconsistencies. Only one of the students interviewed in the film had taken a class with Massad. Far from being intimidated by his professor, the student maintained a lively dialogue with Massad via e-mail and office hours. Other accusations that Massad minimized Jewish suffering in Nazi Germany are pure fabrications. Furthermore, students interested in the Middle East crisis are not limited to Massad’s class. At least three other courses at Columbia center around the Palestine-Israel conflict, and all of them take pro-Israel slants.
Most troubling, perhaps, is the students’ decision to turn to a political lobby. Instead of pursuing any of the viable processes of complaint within Columbia, the students enlisted the rabble-rousing support of a vitriolic anti-Arab NGO and a slanted New York City tabloid. Such a course of action reveals a greater interest in generating propaganda than change. A junior professor’s career now lies in tatters.
Middle East studies and other academic departments are not beyond reproach. Students have legitimately complained that Yale’s Middle East offerings peddle in the arcane and overlook contemporary issues. Yet by relentlessly attacking the academy, conservatives attempt to exclude the alternative voices largely missing in American discourse. In the buildup to the war in Iraq, college campuses were among the few sane spaces where dissenting views could be aired. While the press and major news networks raged and blustered, colleges like Yale provided forums for genuine debate and discussion (with the right-wing and left-wing fairly represented).
The ivory tower, in this sense, is not isolated from the world but from the ravages of jingoism. Unable to stomach political difference like a plate of escargot, conservatives belch “Witch!” and let the Inquisition begin.
Kanishk Tharoor is a junior in Davenport College.