by Kamran Nayeri
December 11, 2016
On November 21, a group called Turning Point USA, self-described as a “student movement for free markets and limited government,” launched the website Professors Watchlist. In a November 28 New York Times article, Matt Lam, an organizer of the website, claims: “We aim to post professors who have records of targeting students for their viewpoints, forcing students to adopt a certain perspective, and/or abuse or harm students in any way for standing up for their beliefs.” But a review of the list shows that those included have no record of “targeting,” “abusing,” or “harming” students. Instead, they are included because of their academic and scholarly work that the website organizers find contrary to their conservative outlook. For example, Richard Wolfe, Emeritus Professor of Economics, of the University of Massachusettes, Amherst, is included simply for publishing scholarly books in Marxian economics. Moreover, the list is inaccurate; Professor Wolfe retired seven years ago!
Professors Watchlist is an attack on academic freedom and freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. With the election of Donald Trump on November 8, rightist groups have become emboldened. A Southern Poverty Law Center survey of more than 10,000 K12 teachers, counselors, and administrators after the elections found that 90% believed the school atmosphere was negatively affected and 80% reported heightened anxiety and concern among students. Turning Point USA and their Professor Watchlist is an attempt to extend such fears to the colleges.
But there is already resistance. On December 8, more than one hundred professors from the University of Notre Dame published a letter in the student paper The Observer to ask their names should also be included in the Professors Watchlist. They wrote:
We make this request because we note that you currently list on your site several of our colleagues, such as Professor Gary Gutting, whose work is distinguished by its commitment to reasoned, fact-based civil discourse examining questions of tolerance, equality, and justice. We further note that nearly all faculty colleagues at other institutions listed on your site, the philosophers, historians, theologians, ethicists, feminists, rhetoricians, and others, have similarly devoted their professional lives to the unyielding pursuit of truth, to the critical examination of assumptions that underlie social and political policy, and to honoring this country’s commitments to the premise that all people are created equal and deserving of respect.
This is the sort of company we wish to keep.
We surmise that the purpose of your list is to shame and silence faculty who espouse ideas you reject. But your list has had a different effect upon us. We are coming forward to stand with the professors you have called “dangerous,” reaffirming our values and recommitting ourselves to the work of teaching students to think clearly, independently, and fearlessly.
John Bellamy Foster, a world-renown Marxist sociologist, professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and editor of the socialist journal Monthly Review, is also included in the Professors Watchlist. Here are his remarks to the Political Economy of the World-System, Marxist Sociology, and Environment and Technology Sections of the American Sociological Association:
This is no game. We are in a different period. I have not yet seen the environmental sociology discussion on this, but I am a PEWS [Politial Economy of the World-System], Environmental and Technology, and Marxist Sociology Section member (a former chair of the Marxist section) and I am on the list. I believe I am the only one on the list in Oregon. In my case I am on it because of the Horowitz Dangerous Professors list of a decade ago, where I was listed. The Professor Watchlist has taken over the statements by Horowitz there word for word, I believe, but now it is more serious. There is a University of Oregon Chapter of the Professor Watchlist established over the last week and I am the principal target. This week an NPR affiliated local radio station will be interviewing the head of the Chapter in a call-in show, where that individual will no doubt pinpoint me as the local rotten apple and use that as a weapon for threatening other professors. One of my sins is to be editor of Monthly Review. I have been asked to do a separate, “adjacent” interview on the same station, in which I will be able to respond.
Here we have to learn from history. The key to developing a coherent response is the Einstein First Amendment Strategy from 1953 developed in the midst of the McCarthy Era (the initial attempt to use the First in the case of the Hollywood Ten failed) in which Einstein declared that there should be determined non-cooperation and that the goal should be to use the First to attack the inquisition itself. His letter appeared in the NYT on June 12, 1953 and opened the way for writers Leo Huberman and Harvey O’Connor, and then Corliss Lamont, Lillian Hellman, and Paul Sweezy, all of whom were closely connected and linked to Einstein and MR, to put this strategy into practice in a succession of attempts to break McCarthyism. Sweezy was the most successful because he refused to turn over his lecture notes and to name names and they hit him with contempt of court and consigned him to county jail and he fought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Things are obviously not at that critical state yet (we are not talking about subpoenas and prosecutions with possible imprisonment at the moment), though there are calls to reestablish the House on Un-American Activities Committee. But I think that the Einstein strategy is what we need to adopt from the start. If such a stance is taken from the beginning we may be able to head off further disasters. There should be no arguing of specifics of charges, rather freedom of speech and academic freedom and challenging the goon squads should be everything. You might want to familiarize yourself with the U.S. Supreme Court Decision Sweezy v. New Hampshire of 1957. You can find it online under its case number (354 U.S. 234). Welcome to Gleichschaltung.
John Bellamy Foster