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Is There Free Debate on Campus?

January 05, 2002

Joel Beinin calls for vigorous debate in time of war (Opinion, Dec. 30). I agree. We are at war and we need to concentrate our minds on destroying Al Qaeda. Debate over our enemies' motivation, resources and probable actions will help us to that end. However, Beinin seems to think the debate should be one-sided. He asks us to question prevailing wisdom, but when members of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni question the prevailing wisdom of university faculties, he labels them McCarthyites. This is not a defense of his position. It is an ad hominem attack designed to silence and marginalize his critics. He will not lose his job over his declaration that the U.S. should bring Osama bin Laden before an international court of justice for his crimes.

Professors will continue to make feckless remarks about war aims or mischaracterize our motivation (that we are pursuing a "racist" war). But, please, professor, don't try to stifle your critics. Try to understand that we are engaged in a deadly serious enterprise. Your critics are pointing out that you are not helping. If you think the contrary, defend your position and show why you are not a "weak link."

James Collins

Oceanside

*

Nowhere does Beinin show that dissent or vigorous questioning for its own sake is more than intellectually and morally neutral. Far more important is an actual search for truth in disputable questions. For while dissent and endless questioning can equally distinguish a bratty 3-year-old and a Socrates--the former after power, the latter truth--Beinin glosses right over these differences. He himself shows little inclination to question the "prevailing wisdom" among the leftist wing of the professoriat. Instead, he goes after the usual suspects (Republicans, etc.), safe targets that surely will not affect his popularity among his students or his fellows. If Beinin were to engage in a true dialectic, he'd mention the pitfalls of mere posturing and the ease with which vanity or flashy covers for not-very-attractive agendas may be mistaken for high-minded dissent.

Stanley H. Nemeth

Garden Grove

*

It is no accident that Beinin refers to the atmosphere of the Cold War. One of the main features of the Cold War was that it completely cut off American intellectual life from the global culture of dissent outside the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. This lack of knowledge or consciousness has been particularly harmful to Americans regarding the Middle East, where intellectuals, almost by definition, are dissidents and provide information and insight into their societies that is unavailable elsewhere. We have begun to regain knowledge about that world only recently, thanks in great part to scholars such as Beinin.

The shortsightedness of trying to silence such voices seems yet another self-inflicted wound upon the body politic. The vicious kinds of insinuation spread by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni are deeply anti-democratic. What is needed is free and open debate.

Ammiel Alcalay

Professor of Hebrew

Queens College/CUNY

Brooklyn

*

Amen to Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman's Dec. 30 Opinion piece detailing the virulent anti-Americanism that informs most teaching in higher education. What is truly unfortunate, however, is that these purveyors of "blame America first, last and always" at the university level are preaching to the choir. By the time students emerge from 12 years of public education they are exquisitely sensitive to every nuance of racism, sexism and imperialism in American history, albeit unable to write a coherent paragraph about any of them. Most of my U.S. history students have it all figured out long before they step into the classroom: America is rotten to the core.

Ask about the Constitution and they can virtually respond in unison, "A racist document written by rich white men." The Westward movement? A genocidal march driven by capitalist greed and a patriarchy intent upon raping the land, slaughtering natives and exploiting minorities and women. They are utterly convinced that in all of human history the U.S. is the only country to have practiced slavery. Of course, there are exceptions, but Hoffman's call for a balanced view of American history is nonetheless a generation overdue.

C. Sheldon Thorne

Professor of History

Golden West College

Huntington Beach

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