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Turnabout in campus radicalism
By Cathy Young | April 14, 2003
The conundrum of parents and professors bred in the 1960s who find themselves dealing with children and students far more conservative than themselves has been a subject of much discussion in the past two decades, even receiving humorous treatment in the ''Doonesbury'' comic strip. The latest manifestation of this peculiar generation gap has to do with the war in Iraq. According to a recent article in The New York Times, students on various campuses across the country have publicly chided professors who have canceled classes to protest the war or asked college administrators to enjoin faculty members from discussing the war in class unless it's related to the course material. At Amherst College, an antiwar rally drew more professors than students; on another occasion, a number of students angrily confronted professors who marched into a dining hall with placards protesting the war. While college students are less supportive of the war than the public at large (at Yale University, the split among students is about 50-50), they are certainly far more supportive than the overwhelmingly antiwar faculty.
The professors' unease with the students' attitudes can be almost comical. ''We used to like to offend people,'' Martha Saxton, a women's studies professor at Amherst, was quoted as saying. ''We loved being bad, in the sense that we were making a statement. Why is there no joy now?''
Saxton's comment speaks volumes about the mentality of many antiwar protesters. It's not so much that they're concerned about the loss of Iraqi lives (of which Saddam Hussein's regime, if left intact, would have doubtless claimed much more than the war has), it's that they want to thumb their noses at American society. One could say that such an attitude -- the politics of a temper tantrum, essentially -- is a bit childish for a college professor.
Some ''tenured radicals'' (as conservative writer Roger Kimball, in his book by that title, called the children of the '60s now holding professorships) go far beyond infantile rebellion; their attitude is one of downright America-hating. In a now-notorious incident at a Columbia University antiwar teach-in, Nicholas De Genova, an assistant professor of anthropology, voiced hope for the defeat of the US military and wished for ''a million Mogadishus'' -- referring to a street battle in Somalia that culminated in the dragging of the nude body of a slain American soldier. While a couple of speakers, including teach-in organizer historian Eric Foner, distanced themselves from these remarks, some others were almost as hateful. History professor Barbara J. Fields compared Americans who oppose Bush and the war to the '' `good Germans' of the Nazi era'' who publicly stood up to Hitler.
This virulent anti-Americanism isn't just a reaction to war in Iraq -- which many Americans have opposed in good faith, believing that it was bad policy for various reasons. Some professors, however, were taking a similar attitude when rescuers were still digging through the rubble of the World Trade Center. In the new edition of the book ''Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women's Studies'' by Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, Patai, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, recalls her post-Sept. 11 experience on the Women's Studies list on the Internet. One academic after another talked about using the tragedy as an opportunity for classroom discussions of ''US imperialism and terror.'' Only Patai and two other list members argued that this was not the time for faculty to re-educate students.
The American traditions of free speech and academic freedom protect dissent (even when it's couched in vile rhetoric such as De Genova's). But should antiwar professors be free to force their views down students' throats? Austin Sarat, a political science professor at Amherst, told the Times, ''The notion that campuses are awash in political correctness . . . is given the lie every day in my classroom.'' Is it? Charges of a stifling atmosphere of political correctness in the universities have generally focused on left-wing professors, not students. And in fact, one of professor Sarat's students, David Chen, said that the faculty and the antiwar events on campus had ''a chilling effect on discussions for the prowar side.''
The right-wing intolerance that exists in some quarters, and that labels antiwar dissent as unpatriotic, is disturbing. But many of the ''tenured radicals'' espouse a different brand of intolerance: one that regards support for the war and for the US government not as a legitimate opinion but as a cause for dismay.