‘The first casualty when war comes is truth’, remarked US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson in 1918. The Republican from California was liberal on social issues but remained a strong advocate of American isolationism and questioned US involvement in world affairs. He died on 6 August 1945, on the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. With wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the threat of further confrontations in the Middle East, might the search for knowledge become another type of collateral damage?
Orwell wrote in his dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four that ceaseless combat at a distance ‘helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere’. In the United States since 11 September 2001 US foreign policy has created an atmosphere of intolerance with regard to views that are deemed unpatriotic, particularly on campus. Middle East studies has been the first area to really feel the effect of anxieties about homeland security.
In late September 2002 an organization called Campus Watch (http://www.campus-watch.org/) was set up with its own website. Its mission is to provide ‘reviews and critiques of Middle East studies in North America with an aim to improving them. The project mainly addresses five problems: analytical failures, the mixing of politics with scholarship, intolerance of alternative views, apologetics, and the abuse of power over students.’ As of February 2014 the website contains reports on sixty-seven campuses identifying academics who express views against the interests of government foreign policy or which address the organization’s five key problems.
Miriam Cooke, Professor of Modern Arab Literature at Duke University, was the target of Campus Watch’s ire. A talk she gave at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center on 26 March 2003 was reported under the headline ‘Duke Feminist Gives Thumbs Up to Taliban’. The correspondent wrote:
Cooke rejected the liberation of Afghan women as a reason to go to war. Rather than being grateful for calling attention to the suffering of fellow women, she castigated First Lady Laura Bush . . . Cooke accused Laura Bush of furthering ‘the imperial project in her highly gendered appeal to a world conscience’.
On close scrutiny, it is clear that the story was compiled from a series of sources available online indicating that it was more than just a disgruntled response to one talk. ‘Initially, I was surprised because the report was accurate’, says Cooke, laughing. ‘I remember thinking ‘‘That is what I think!’’ But then I got lots of hateful emails and partly what was shocking was the speed with which they gathered all those responses.’
For Cooke, the current climate where academics are expected to act in the national interest raises a series of difficult questions. ‘How can Middle East specialists continue to research and write responsibly without being caught in the ‘‘patriotism’’ trap? How can we critique tyrants like Saddam Hussein without falling into the arms of Campus Watch advocates and thereby working towards the perpetuation of greater injustice?’, she asks.
Students inform on their teachers in the name of self-protection: ‘un-American’ faculty members are accused of abusing their power. It seems from reading these accounts that any criticism of US foreign policy is aligned with tacit support for the Taliban or al Qaeda. Some view this as a ‘special problem’ for Middle East studies but others suggest this indicates an overall shift in the mental atmosphere in US academic life.
Judith Butler, Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, wrote:
To charge those who voice critical views with treason, terrorist sympathizing, anti-Semitism, moral relativism, postmodernism, juvenile behaviour, collaboration, anachronistic Leftism, is to seek to destroy the credibility not of the views that are held, but of the persons who hold them. It produces a climate of fear in which to voice a certain view is to risk being branded and shamed with a heinous appellation.
Universities are precious because they afford the opportunity to take risks in thinking, of developing an understanding beyond parochial self-assurance.
Returning to Senator Warren’s famous comment, perhaps it is doubt – and not truth – that is the first casualty of war. The captains of war in our time suffer not from doubt but rather from certainty, a kind of simplistic confidence in a bid to compensate for unprecedented risks and evident global vulnerability. No one ever pulled a trigger, dropped a bomb or informed on a teacher in a state of doubt. It seems the invitation to academic thinking is to question and reach beyond the false comforts of cosy homeland views.
The ‘mental atmosphere’ in the United States is certainly different to what we recognize in the United Kingdom but I think the real risk is that there is a convergence happening. In February 2015 Home Secretary Theresa May announced, as part of the government’s Counter-terrorism and Security bill, plans that make it a legal duty for academics to prevent students from being drawn into terrorism. This would also require academics to vet the content of lectures by visiting speakers and also to scrutinize and ultimately report on student behaviour.
A letter protesting these proposals was signed by 500 professors including Sir John Ball, the Oxford mathematician, Sir Tom Kibble, co-discoverer of the Higgs mechanism and Higgs boson, emeritus Goldsmiths Professor Pat Caplan and Professor Paul Gilroy, author of the classic study Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.
The signatories make a powerful argument for the value of open debate and the folly of closing down campus debate through fostering a climate of fear. They wrote:
The best response to acts of terror against UK civilians is to maintain and defend an open, democratic society in which discriminatory behaviour of any kind is effectively challenged. Ensuring colleges and universities can continue to debate difficult and unpopular issues is a vital part of this. Draconian crackdowns on the rights of academics and students will not achieve the ends the government says it seeks.
It is a reminder though that the value of the university is, in part, to offer an opportunity to see the issues of the day outside of the confines of national interest. Knowledge cannot be policed by the boundaries of the state or its geopolitical priorities. Part of what universities are needed for today is to foster a critical imagination that is truly global and cosmopolitan in reach, that lives with doubt in the service of understanding.