After the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush and others declared that Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists had attacked freedom. How has freedom fared since?
Not well, and not just because Attorney General John Ashcroft suffers delusions of patriotic fervor. If, like many Nevadans, you consider the federal government a constant threat to your freedom, you should check out what others who tend to agree with you are saying.
Recently, Daniel Pipes, who runs a right-wing group called "Campus Watch," branded several scholars Professors Who Hate America. Why? Two of them, Eric Foner of Columbia and Glenda Gilmore of Yale, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that it was because they publicly opposed "the Bush administration's assertion of the right to launch a pre-emptive war against Iraq."
Foner and Gilmore noted that William Bennett, the nation's self-appointed moral arbiter, charged that those who disagree with him "weaken the country's resolve." Lynne Cheney, the nation's self-appointed cultural arbiter, suggests that history courses show how civilization "is best exemplified in the West and indeed in America." Unfortunately, her vice president husband would hide the documents that might prove it.
Actually, the issue is bipartisan. An organization founded by Cheney and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who inexplicably calls himself a Democrat, issued a list of unpatriotic comments in the wake of Sept. 11. One was from a professor who told a class that to understand what happened that horrible morning, we need to understand the people who did it.
Such smears also are a Bush family tradition. Just as the elder Bush's 1988 presidential campaign tried to make his opposition appear unpatriotic, George W. Bush and his friends similarly tarred their opponents--including Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a triple-amputee veteran of the Vietnam War, which Bush and other hawks in his administration managed to avoid fighting in.
My reasons for yammering about this are many. One is that Professor Foner was my doctoral adviser. He would prefer to be called a man of the left, as I would. He also is open-minded to those who disagree with him, including a couple of my friends who did well in his classes and are so far to the right that they meet the far left coming around. He hardly needs me to defend him, although I envy him his enemies.
Another reason is irony: The right often accuses the left of intolerance. True, the world suffers from far too much intolerance--on all sides. Nor does it help when moderate--not liberal--Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle whines about the threat posed by Rush Limbaugh, of all creatures. Limbaugh absolutely has the right to spew his hatred.
But Bennett, Cheney and their ilk are far more dangerous to the civilized public discourse they disingenuously claim to seek. They equate questioning them with supporting terrorism. That should sound familiar: The same thing went on during the Cold War against communism. The right claims to believe in the free marketplace for everything, including ideas, but it has something in common with communist regimes: disdain for disagreement.
Another reason is how Foner and Gilmore concluded their article: "There is little chance that Columbia or Yale, where we teach, would heed the call to allow outsiders to dictate what opinions faculty may voice. The danger is that institutions less financially secure and more dependent on legislatures may bend to this gathering threat to freedom of speech."
In 2001, a UNLV donor trying to get President Carol Harter fired resorted to the claim that one of the professors was a communist, a term used by those who know nothing about communism to describe those who disagree with them. Then-State Sen. Mark James tried (and, happily, failed) to pass a bill stipulating what documents high school government teachers should use in classes--and in trying to tell trained educators how to teach their classes, chose several less meaningful documents at the expense of more important ones.
Could similar assaults on freedom happen in Nevada? Certainly; they have before and will again. Thus the need for vigilance: Some of our legislators and regents know as much about free thought as they do about budgets and education. In other words, nothing.
For all of the talk about patriotism and homeland defense, our national safety is meaningless unless that safety includes the right to express our views. That goes for left, right and in-between. If we fear to think, the terrorists have won--after all, didn't Bush say bin Laden hates us because we are free?
What makes Foner and Gilmore different is that when a demagogue attacked them, they stood up to him. Those who fail to do so merely play into the hands of those who oppose freedom--here and abroad. As Edward R. Murrow, who loved freedom, said of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who hated it as Bush, Bennett and Cheney do, "The terror is in this room."