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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The cowardice of academia

    Over 60 years ago, George Orwell wrote that “”cowardice”” is the “”worst enemy”” an intellectual must face, owing to the “”sinister fact”” that censorship in a free society is “”largely voluntary”” – especially when it comes to criticizing the accepted positions of one’s own society or government. It is particularly in this respect, he writes, that “”Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.””

    Speaking of the U.S. today, the world society that enjoys perhaps the freest amount of political liberties and an abundance of unique privileges and opportunities – especially in academia – such considerations should be front and center to any responsible and concerned citizen.

    Enter Lois E. Beckett, a senior at Harvard University, who wrote some engaging investigative essays for the Harvard Crimson last March exploring these issues. The question that concerned her: What was the role of American intellectuals during the build-up for the invasion of Iraq in 2003?

    Seeking testimony from numerous Harvard economists, policy experts and others, she finds that in one respect many intellectuals, in fact, opposed the war on moral or pragmatic grounds, though for personal reasons reserved their objections to the privacy of their own thoughts. The cases of reticence and self-censorship fell into three notable, overlapping categories: those who opposed the war but did not say anything for fear of appearing unpatriotic, those who refrained from speaking or acting out because they thought such efforts would be fruitless in altering the direction of the impending war, and those individuals who simply were unaware that many others shared their privately dissenting views – and therefore mirrored each other’s publicly acquiescent behavior.

    This shameful sort of intellectual cowardice displayed by the Harvard elites – based on largely fabricated, self-inflicted fears of disloyalty, job insecurity, etc. – is all-too-familiar among the highly professionalized social herds of faculty and grad students in particular. The UA’s best and brightest are certainly no exception to this pathetic norm. Similar polls would likely reveal similar cowards among UA academics with respect to war-resistance.

    Yet despite the luxury of hindsight, conscientious people – let alone intellectuals – often weigh unsettling questions not only in what they don’t do, but also from what they may do very well without question in service of a war that will likely have disastrous effects on the world.

    Stating the obvious, Harvard Middle East scholar Sara Roy writes that “”in the tradition of intellectual humanism, knowledge should improve humanity on a universal level.”” The purpose of scholarship, therefore, “”is to inform”” and “”implement public policy based on the knowledge provided.””

    She laments, however, that this purpose is, alas, “”rarely achieved.”” “”More often than not power politics produces the ‘scholarship’ it needs to legitimize itself.””

    As we all know, unnatural constructs such as war yield significant funding and numerous jobs for the many scholars willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder, and to employ their intellectual and creative talents for state and corporate service, often at the expense of world peoples, including our own. Hence, physicists can develop and improve the atomic bomb, engineers can work on weapons design, social scientists can work on refining methods of interrogation and counterinsurgency, and business executives can work on keeping the world turning around the dollar and the gun. But destructive human tendencies such as war and domination are exactly that – they’re tendencies. They’re not encoded in our nature. When we decide that these things are not what we want as a people or as individuals, we can abandon them.

    As dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky reminds us, individuals induced to work on destructive weapons or domination systems can refuse. They can encourage peers to refuse and organize themselves in this refusal as well. And they can help to bring forth alternatives and enrich countercultural currents against war and terrorism that are leading our country and the world to probable destruction.

    Writing during the Vietnam War, Chomsky, in his 1969 essay “”The Responsibility of Intellectuals,”” highlighted the work of esteemed journalist Dwight Macdonald, who, writing shortly after WWII, spoke of the “”responsibility of peoples”” over questions of war guilt for atrocities committed by all sides during the war, particularly our own Allied Forces.

    Chomsky concludes: “”Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who bursts into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. ‘Why should they? What have I done’ he asked. … The question ‘What have I done?’ is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read, each day, of fresh atrocities in Vietnam – as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.””

    Chomsky’s words are painfully relevant today, as they have been in every act of American aggression since Vietnam – well over one hundred – every single one of them travestied as a “”defense of freedom.”” The question “”what are you doing”” finds its relevance clearer today, its urgency more acute. Though, at a point, questions and speculation are irrelevant, even indulgent – particularly in light of the uniquely abundant privileges of political liberty, facilities, resources, technical training and intellectual leisure of academia. At such a point, serious answers and dedicated action are the honorable instruments of change.

    Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a junior majoring in art, literature, and media studies. He can be reached at

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