An Obligation to Question Prevailing Wisdom


What does it take to be branded by a conservative think tank as “the weak link” in America’s response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11? Not much.

I was so designated in a report called “Defending Civilization,” put out last month by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization founded by Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president. The council’s ire was aroused by a comment I made to a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News. “If Osama bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks,” I said, “the United States should bring him before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity.”

I was one of 40 university faculty members the council identified as negligent in defending civilization. The council offered 114 other quotations from both students and faculty members as proof of its charge that “our universities are failing America.” The group charged that American universities have been brought to this sorry state by inadequate teaching of Western culture and American history. Consequently, students and faculty do not understand what is at stake in the fight against terrorism and are undermining the “defense” of civilization by asking too many questions.


In addition to my words, the council’s list of unacceptable speech included such comments as “intolerance breeds hate” and “there needs to be an understanding of why this kind of suicidal violence could be undertaken against our country.” In suggesting that such statements are incompatible with defending civilization, the council reveals both an impoverished and undemocratic vision of our political and cultural heritage and a profound misunderstanding of the role of universities in a free society.

I know of no faculty members at my own university or any other who believe that the Western cultural tradition and American history ought not to be taught. The only questions that have been debated seriously are how those subjects should be taught and the extent to which other cultural traditions should also be taught. This is a healthy discussion. It continues the practices of self-critical reflection and constant revision of the core syllabus of higher education that have long been a part of the Western intellectual tradition.

Engaging in debate over public policy and giving serious consideration to unpopular opinions that question prevailing wisdom--even in times of national crisis--are high forms of civic engagement and patriotism. In a free society, universities are among the principal institutions charged with providing forums for such debate. The humanistic disciplines in particular--history, literary studies, philosophy--are committed to constant examination and reexamination of ideas and values. The council’s report confirms not that American universities are failing but that, at least in this respect, they are doing their job well.

The council’s attack on American universities in the name of defending civilization is a ruse for its real agenda: suppression of any and all dissent from the Bush administration’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The council correctly detected that my views differ from those of the Bush administration in that I believe that those accused of even the most heinous crimes should be put on trial, if possible, instead of simply being shot. Similarly, the council regarded as inherently suspect--and insufficiently supportive of our leaders--the call to understand better why some people in other lands hate America enough to kill themselves to harm Americans.

Vigorous debate is especially needed when our country is perceived to be under attack. In 1964, Congress overwhelmingly adopted the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which President Lyndon B. Johnson used as legal justification for committing hundreds of thousands of American troops to Vietnam. Even then it was possible to know that the Johnson administration’s claim that U.S. ships had been repeatedly attacked by North Vietnam was false. This incident was used to rationalize an escalation the administration had previously been planning. If more Americans had joined Sens. Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, the only dissenters from the resolution, in asking tough questions about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, the subsequent history of the Vietnam War might have been very different.

The council’s goal has nothing to do with “defending civilization” and everything to do with censorship. By casting aspersions on those who have attempted to engage in a debate over foreign policy and by creating a list of those who do not religiously endorse the Bush administration line, the council reveals an unsavory bent reminiscent of an earlier episode of American history.


Our country has been through the trauma of blacklists promoted by the far right before. In the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his followers branded Hollywood actors and writers, trade union leaders, liberal politicians and university faculty members as un-American communist sympathizers. The McCarthyites succeeded in narrowing the range of American political debate and cultural expression, depriving many innocent people of their careers and livelihoods.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni report would be of limited importance but for the group’s powerful supporters. Not only is the vice president’s wife the group’s chairman emeritus, former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) is also a member of its governing board. A long quote by Cheney appears on the cover of the report, suggesting that she endorses its contents and giving the document the appearance of a quasi-official statement of government policy.

Some members of the Bush administration have actively sought to suppress debate over national policy using tactics similar to those of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. On Dec. 6, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on President Bush’s proposal to establish military tribunals to try suspected terrorists who don’t have permanent resident status. Mr. Ashcroft asserted that those who criticized the extraordinary powers sought by the executive branch “aid terrorists,” “erode our national unity” and “give ammunition to America’s enemies.” The attorney general’s charges suggest--as McCarthy’s did in the 1950s and as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s did last month--that dissent is tantamount to treason.

Against such scurrilous accusations those who cherish freedom of speech, open debate and due process of law must vigorously affirm that these values--not the imperatives of the national-security state--are the core of our democratic traditions. “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety,” Benjamin Franklin warned, “deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Those who try to enforce conformity of views in the academy and who condemn critics as traitors have more in common with the Taliban than they do with the founders of our nation.


Joel Beinin is professor of Middle East history at Stanford University and president of the Middle East Studies Assn.