Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Swiftboating of Another Professor

If you need a lesson in why it is so important that our universities continue to protect the concept of “academic freedom” from outside encroachment, in why tenure is so important, and in why we really must continue to fight to keep politicians out of our classrooms, well, the case of John Gerassi, professor of Political Science at Queens College of the City University of New York may provide it.

Of course, this isn’t the first case of this nature to arise over the last few years, nor will it be the last. David Horowitz himself has written smears of professors, as have many working with him. Furthermore, near slander of this sort it is typical of the type of twisting and almost lies (not to mention a few actual ones) that the right is using to try to intimidate intellectuals whose conclusions might not be the same as conservatives might want them to be.

The strategy is one that Horowitz outlines in his The Art of Political War, though it is older than that, going back at least to the time of Joe McCarthy (as I have written elsewhere). It is part and parcel of the “swiftboating” strategy that the right has used so effectively over the last few years, but that doesn’t make any particular instance less egregious.

Each time it arises, it needs to be met, forcefully and swiftly—with truth and outrage.

Though I teach in the same university system with John Gerassi, I had never heard of him before coming across an article on him at frontpagemag.com, the Horowitz propaganda site. The title of the piece is “CUNY’s Anti-Jewish Bigot. The bulk it is a rehash of something published in September in the Queen’s College paper, Knight News, but it contains its own personal “errors,” as I mention on my earlier blog on this case. I was writing about how the right likes to build a trail of slanderous links from one article to another, each new one adding to the lies of the last, building a network of slander based on the assumption that each previous post is true.

Though I didn’t know it would happen so quickly, I suspected that other articles on Gerassi would start showing up. After all, we already had one article built on another—neither based on anything but hearsay and repetition. A third would probably be quick in coming.

And it was. Today at frontpagemag.com is a reprint of a New York Post opinion column by Andrea Peyser entitled “Professor for Hezbollah”—another smear of Gerassi linking back to the Queens College paper. Probably, this piece is actually older than that one I first read by Eugene Girin, making Girin’s that third (but probably not the last) in the chain.

Gerassi is being smeared because, reflecting the views of much of the world outside of the United States and Israel, he supports a Palestinian state and recognizes that Israel can never defeat Hezbollah through military means. As a political scientist dealing with the Middle East, his view is really not very surprising.

The Knight News article that started all of this, by a student named Joshua David Rubin, purports to be an account of things Gerassi said to his students the first day of classes this fall. It is this, completely aside from the validity of any of the professor’s views, that brings “academic freedom” comes into this matter. But let me get to that later.

First, I want to talk about the Peyser article.

Now, until reading the reprint of this piece on the Horowitz site, I had never heard of Peyser. Apparently, she’s a regular columnist at the Post, but that’s a paper I don’t take seriously so rarely read. Her article is a jaw-dropping example of just why I don’t. Appropriately, her next-to-last line applies to herself much more than to Gerassi:
To do this drivel justice would be not to print it

Applied to her, I agree heartily.

After repeating Rubin’s recollections about that first day of class, she claims that she had spoken with Gerassi at his “Upper East Side home,” and that he told her:
"The U.S. does not want peace in the Middle East," he said. "Those bastards now in the White House - these guys said we have to dominate the Middle East.

"We have to dominate who gets the oil." About Sharon: "They killed him!" he shrieked. "How come nobody can see him? As anti-Arab as he was" he wanted a Palestinian state. So Israeli forces working for the United States "took him out." Rabin, too.

"I'm pro-Palestinian," said Gerassi, the son of a Sephardic Jew. "But I support Hezbollah." Gerassi, 75, has been spewing this hatred at Queens College since 1978. "The greatest terrorist nation is the United States," ranted Gerassi, who, incredibly, has quite a following on campus.
Before hanging up, he said, "I hope you do this issue justice."

I wonder, does Peyser have a tape of any of this? At best, she seems to be cobbling together quotes from a number of sources, most of them with no firm connection to anything Gerassi actually said.

Here is Gerassi’s recollection of his telephone exchange with Peyser:
She never interviewed me. I hung up on her three times. I do not live on the east side, and never did. I never said I wanted Hezbollah to win, or lose for that matter as I never talked to her except to say "I don’t talk to the fascist press" (first time) and "look you work for Murdoch who is Bush's Goebbels. I don’t talk to Bush, I don’t talk to Goebbels and I won’t talk to you." And hung up. Third time I just hung up. If she called again I did not pick up the phone.[…] I never said anything else to her….

Given the pattern of lies being woven around Gerassi by Peyser, Girin, and Rubin (not just about where he lives, but where he has been and how much he makes, among other things), I tend to believe Gerassi over them.

It’s a hateful thing Peyser is participating in. She’s trying to destroy a man because his views on Israel are different from hers. Fortunately, Gerassi has the institutionalization of “academic freedom” in our universities to protect him.

She’s trying to destroy a man because he is upfront with his students about his views, making sure they know where he stands before continuing in a course with him. According to Gerassi, there were 55 students in the class that first day—and only one (Rubin) walked out. The others, probably recognizing what he was trying to do, stayed to learn.

Because he is dealing with a controversial topic (something quite natural to a Political Science class), it is quite honorable of Gerassi that he makes his own personal views known right up front. Students can then make their decisions about the class based on full knowledge of what they are getting into. Also, Gerassi can head off conflicts that might sidetrack him from doing his job by putting everything on the line right at the start.

Professors need to be able to do this. For us to effectively teach students, we have to be in control of our classrooms. Yes, there can be debate, and students should be able to disagree with us—and they do. But there are goals in each course, and they have to be reached. Certain ground rules have to be established so that movement will be in the direction of education and not of continued squabbling. Political issues, even in a Political Science classroom, are only tools for the facilitation of learning. Gerassi uses them in this way, I am sure, as much as I do. However, it is sometimes possible for people to hijack the discussion for their own political purposes, making it almost impossible to reach the goals of the course. Gerassi, I suspect, was trying to circumvent this by laying out his own beliefs at the beginning of the semester, making sure that people who could not even consider them would not stay in the class.

We professors need to know that we can say what we need to without interference from outside forces with their own political agendas—and Peyser’s like Rubin’s, like Girin’s are quite obviously so pro-Israel that they want to intimidate anyone who disagrees with them from speaking at all. They aren’t willing to counter Gerassi’s stands. Instead they mischaracterize them, making them sound ludicrous by twisting them into shapes Gerassi never intended. They are stifling the very type of debate that Gerassi, by being honest and open, wants to encourage.

The university system of “academic freedom” and tenure was designed to protect professors from exactly this sort of attack. And it is because of this that David Horowitz has been attempting to undermine “academic freedom” through his Orwellian “Academic Bill of Rights.” He wants to bring politics into the classroom because he does not like the way politics is used as a classroom tool. What he wants is to force political control onto what a professor can say, forcing people like Gerassi (and me) out of the universities in favor of people who say only what is acceptable to the right. Horowitz does not understand that people like Gerassi use their own political stances as tools in teaching. The students aren’t being forced into Gerassi’s point of view but, through encountering it, are shown how to think, how to come to their own conclusions.

This is something the right (and David Horowitz in particular) doesn’t understand. Unlike them, we liberals (for all that nonsense about political correctness) don’t try to impose our views on people, but use our views as one of the tools for educating our students. They don’t need to come out believing as we do, but (if we are successful, and we often are) should have learned to be flexible enough to understand different points of view. We are not propagandists, forcing certain ways of looking at things down student throats. Anyone who spends time on our campuses knows this. We promote exploration and discussion—but we also need students to come to us with a willingness to learn from us. And this is what Gerassi was insisting upon that first day. “If your mind isn’t open enough,” he was saying, in effect, “to consider the views that I am putting forth, this class is probably not for you.”

The student, as a learner, has a responsibility to put aside preconceptions and even cherished beliefs for the duration of a semester, to see what the professor has to offer and to learn from her or him. In most of our colleges, students take classes from up to 40 professors in their four years, and they see a great number of perspectives (Horowitz’s claim that we are all lock-step liberals notwithstanding). If the student is unwilling to do that, it can be very difficult for the class to succeed. In other words, the student must be willing to work with the professor, whether they like the professor’s views or not.

When dealing with issues that touch on views a student may hold dear, a professor does the entire class a favor by stating clearing what his or her perspective is at the beginning. The student doesn’t have to agree, but does have to agree to consider, to listen and think. If the student comes to the class with ideas so solid that they can’t be changed, there’s little point in taking the class, anyway.

I remember a teacher I had years ago, in US history. He was extremely conservative—as I am not. Throughout the semester, we battled. But I listened to him, which allowed him to use our battles in order to reach his goals for the class. I remember perfectly well the final exam. The assignment was (this was in 1968): “Name and discuss four things the United States has done to stop the spread of communism since the end of World War II.” The very question made me livid, for it implied that the US had stopped the spread of communism. But, instead of ranting, I wrote about the failures to stop communism—in China, in Cuba, in Eastern Europe, and in Vietnam. I argued that the Cold War wasn’t stopping communism, but was dividing the world between the camps of superpowers, quite a different thing. I turned in my essay quite ready to accept whatever bad grade the teacher would give. As I had throughout the semester, I continued to give him the respect due his role as teacher, though I disagreed.

The exam came back with an A on it. See, I had been willing to consider the professors question and respond to it, though in my own way. I did not attack him. I did not call him names or slander him. I argued, yes, but I had let him control the class and move it in the directions he felt it needed. He hadn’t been trying to change my mind anyway, but to teach me. He could, because I was willing. The class ended up being a success for both of us.

I’ve seen many other students, over the years, completely refuse that sort of consideration and respect. They disrupt the classes, making progress impossible because of their intractable stands.

It is only the fact that our academic institutions still uphold the concept of “academic freedom” that keeps students—and outside political influences—from disrupting our classrooms completely. Students and faculty are not equal. Faculty members know much more about their fields and about their goals in particular courses than students at an undergraduate level are ever aware of. Our job is to lead students to knowledge—but we cannot do that when students refuse to work with us, accepting that, for fifteen weeks, we really do know what we are doing.

We cannot do our jobs when students are able to marshal outside forces against us, as Rubin seems to be trying against Gerassi. Not, that is, unless there is a structure in place that protects us. Yes, there need to be avenues for student complaints when we really do overstep our authority (and there are), but the protection afforded us is just as necessary.

Fortunately, right now, “academic freedom” is enshrined in our university system.

If David Horowitz has his way, a disgruntled student could go to a legislator (someone who probably has no experience in teaching at all) and have the career of the teacher threatened for purely political reasons. The legislator, a political being, would surely respond to that, ignoring pedagogy and intellectual pursuit to make her or his own political point. It may sound like I am overstating the case, but if this comes to pass, our whole system of higher education will collapse into mediocrity, at best.

This year, the US has done quite well in winning Nobel Prizes. Our educational system continues to dominate the academic world. It will not continue to, however, unless we make sure the protection of “academic freedom” as extended into the classroom for the professor continues unweakened.

Earlier, I quoted the next-to-last line in Peyser’s piece. I’d like to give the rest of that bit now:
To do this drivel justice would be not to print it - but then how would the parents of this city know what their kids are being taught?

Whatever Gerassi said that day, it was not drivel. This is an experienced full professor who knows what he is doing in the classroom, who (even now) is evaluated by his peers. The threat implied by Peyser—that parents, on “knowing” what Gerassi says in the classroom, can bring influence to bear on what goes on there—either through politics or through withdrawing their children—is extremely scary. It is not for Peyser or for parents to decide what goes on in a college classroom, and should not be. Again, if they ever take control, our great system of higher education is doomed, for one of the pillars it is built on, “academic freedom,” will have been destroyed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You know Telos once had an article on "the footnote fetish," but perhaps here we have a case of "footnote phobia." Students need to be trained how to do proper research and document their claims. Propaganda and mediocrity are often bedfellows.