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Academic vigilantism

About the author
Vinay Lal is associate professor of history at UCLA. He is the author of Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy.

Last week's launch of a website dedicated to exposing "UCLA's most radical professors" opens a new front in an ongoing war waged by the American right against the allegedly liberal American academy. www.uclaprofs.com is the work of a handful (perhaps more) of UCLA's alumni who have received donations to the amount of $22,000. The site profiles the "Dirty Thirty" or those faculty members who are viewed as having entered into an "unholy alliance" with "radical Muslim students and a pliant administration" to turn UCLA into "a major organizing center for opposition to the War on Terror".

The blacklisted faculty against whom students are warned, are variously described, some at considerable length, in language that is not merely satirical but stridently abusive. They are charged with having debased education, politicised the classroom, indoctrinated students into accepting vociferously anti-American and anti-Semitic views, and having poisoned the entire learning environment.

As one of the "Dirty Thirty" and faculty member at UCLA for some thirteen years, I must confess that I do not even remotely recognise the campus that this website purports to describe. I cannot recall much, if any, agitation among the faculty or students at the passage of the Patriot Act, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the various scandals that have erupted over American detention camps, the practice of extraordinary rendition, the endorsement by the Bush administration at the highest levels of torture as a justifiable means to win the "War on Terror", and the increasing infringements on civil rights.

Be that as it may, should one only view the website as the inconsequential endeavour of a few disgruntled former students, or even as the outpourings of some extreme conservatives? Would the site have attracted so much attention and public debate if it had not, in a bold move, invited students to submit tape recordings and other course materials in exchange for $100?

The incitement to students to spy on professors may not sit well with all conservatives, and the encouragement to bounty hunters is faintly reminiscent of an earlier era when money was paid for American Indian scalps. As an Indian American, I am tempted to dismiss the whole affair as an extraordinarily distasteful joke: one "Indian" is as good as any other. But it would be an egregious mistake to overlook the website as a minor irritant. There are clearly issues of freedom of speech. But the critics of allegedly "radical" professors have as much right to their views as those who they have targeted. The larger context demands that one should recognise the relationship of this kind of endeavour to the burgeoning movement, initiated by David Horowitz and his acolytes, to help in the passage of legislative measures, so far introduced in fifteen states, which would make professors intellectually accountable to students and so diminish their autonomy in the classroom.

The issues at stake here – of which I will outline three – are much more profound than is commonly realised.

Also by Vinay Lal on openDemocracy:

"The Tavistock Square Gandhi: "war on terror" and non-violence" (July 2005)

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First, the increasing frequency and intensity of attacks on progressive or liberal professors have become necessary because the academy is the only remaining site of dissent, marginal as it is, in American society. Every branch of government has been captured by the Republicans, and the corporate world, which is inherently conservative, reigns supreme. Labour unions are nearly toothless, the vast majority of media outlets are owned by a few conglomerates, and the university itself is increasingly becoming corporatised.

Secondly, as American commentators have themselves pointed out, there is a long streak of anti-intellectualism in the American political tradition. More Americans go to college than do people anywhere else in the world, but nonetheless among Americans there is an abiding suspicion about cerebral activities and the intellectual work of the university.

Thirdly, attacks on the liberal professorate stem in part from a failure to recognise that one of the supreme tasks of the intellectual is to be an oppositional figure. Far from becoming an advocate of the nation-state, much less a National Security state, the intellectual must question the state at every turn, probe the received truths, and afflict those who are hugely privileged.

One can debate whether vigilantism has long been a part of the American way of life, or whether it is un-American. The Minutemen now patrolling some of America’s borders, turning over illegal migrants to law enforcement authorities, suggest that vigilantism has a fresh lease of life. Another name for what we are witnessing in the academic world – with conservatives attempting to squash the autonomy that professors have traditionally exercised in their classrooms – is certainly vigilantism. Once again, it has been proven that those who act in the name of being true patriots not only discredit themselves, but suggest that patriotism is indeed the true refuge of scoundrels.


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