The poster advertising New York University's "Academic Freedom in the Age of Permanent Warfare" conference featured a scolding Statue of Liberty pointing an accusatory finger and stating: "YOU! Stop Asking Questions. You're Either With US or You're With the TERRORISTS!"
The speakers and attendees gathered around the pastry-laden table at NYU's new Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center last week didn't appear to be oppressed or under attack. But once they wiped the sugar from their mouths and stood up to speak, they assured the audience that they were, in fact, victims in an "age of permanent warfare."
According to keynote speaker Roger Bowen (of "Revolting Behavior" fame), director of the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows Program, the purported enemies of academic freedom include the "rabid right" and/or "Republicans, conservatives, the elderly, and the uneducated."
Joan Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, decried the loss of academia as a sanctuary, both from public opinion and the "enmity of patriots and trustees." David Hollinger, professor of history at UC Berkeley, noted that fellow academics in engineering and the hard sciences often felt "no solidarity with the humanities."
Sheila Slaughter, professor of higher education at the University of Georgia, criticized the influence of neo-liberalism and globalization. Most agreed with Barbara Bowan of the City University of New York, who equated true "academic freedom" with financial security and tenure for all academics in the social science/humanities "collective." Under this worldview, anyone who does not support pampering the humanities collective with a lifetime sanctuary is an enemy. That's a lot of enemies.
Despite the presence of these enemies, not to mention allegations of PLO connections, speaker Rashid Khalidi is still gainfully employed as Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies and Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. At the conference, he also felt free to express his opinion that our government in Iraq, and Israel in the Palestinian territories, is equivalent to Hamas and Hezbollah. According to Khalidi, all are political organizations that participate in elections, and "knowingly and wantonly" target civilians. Apparently, we're all terrorists now.
Khalid Fahmy, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at NYU, described an incident in which a foreign student traveling with him in the U.S. was "severely interrogated," apparently because he looked "suspicious." Fahmy noted that this was "how people ended up in Guantanamo…I think." The student was let go and is still welcomed in this country, but, to hear Fahmy tell it, the "chilling effect" of this alleged interrogation remains.
Dhaba "Debbie" Almontaser, who resigned as principal of Brooklyn's Khalil Gibran International Academy after receiving angry condemnations for characterizing "Intifada NYC" T-shirts as nonviolent messages of female self-empowerment, also spoke. Almontaser believes that "academic policy driven by right-wing racist groups," a lack of support from local residents, hostility from the mass media, teachers union boss Randi Weingarten, and the war on terror, continue to infringe upon her rights. She also claimed that in post-9/11 America, "the Arab Muslim community has been at the center of the most vile and hateful racist attacks." All this, despite the FBI hate crimes report for 2006, which showed that Jews suffer over five times more hate crime attacks than Muslims.
The alleged McCarthyism infecting America didn't stop NYU professor of education Gary Anderson from reminiscing about his past life as a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activist at the conference. Anderson and another former SDS member, terrorist/educator William Ayers of the University of Chicago, both felt free enough to sign an open letter in support of Khalil Gibran International Academy and Almontaser.
Similarly, nothing prevented NYU professor of Middle East studies Zachary Lockman from raising questions at the conference about NYU's recent efforts to "divert the Gulf region's oil revenues into their coffers" with the creation of an Abu Dhabi campus. Neither Lockman nor any speaker mentioned that citizens of Israel and anyone with Israel stamped on their passports are barred entry to the United Arab Emirates. It seems "academic freedom" extends only so far.
The audience echoed the speakers' extremism and paranoia. One attendee referred to a purported "chilling effect" three times in a single question. Another woman, claiming to write for Revolution newspaper and responding to Rashid Khalidi's allegations of persecution at the hands of Campus Watch and The David Project, shouted that Khalidi, Fahmy and Lockman were heroes and "canaries in a coal mine!" The speakers nodded, thanked her, and began to stand up, obviously anxious to go to lunch, but the Revolution reporter kept screaming, "The canaries died! You need to bust a hole! Get the oxygen in!"
After lunch, NYU history professor and speaker, Mary "Molly" Nolan, scanned the room, noted that the audience appeared to be free of "right-wing" infiltrators, and suggested that the conference may have flown under the radar. Get the oxygen in, indeed.