In an “urgent” email last week, right-wing activist David Horowitz
hyped his latest book about threats to America’s youth from leftist professors.
The ad for “The Professors -- The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America”
describes me as: “Texas Journalism Professor Robert Jensen, who rabidly
hates the United States, and recently told his students, ‘The United States
has lost the war in Iraq and that’s a good thing.’”
I’m glad Horowitz got my name right (people often misspell it “Jenson”).
But everything else is distortion, and that one sentence teaches much about
the reactionary right’s disingenuous rhetorical strategy.
First, I’m not rabid, in personal or political style. I’m a sedate,
non-descript middle-aged academic who tries to approach political and moral
questions rationally. I articulate principles, provide evidence about how those
principles are often undermined by powerful institutions, and offer logical
conclusions about how citizens should respond. I encourage people to disagree
with my principles, contest my evidence, and question my logic -- all appropriate
activities in a university where students are being trained to think for themselves,
and in a nominally democratic society where citizens should to do the same.
Second, I offer such critiques without hate. Sometimes my assessments are harsh,
such as in evaluating George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and concluding
the attack was unlawful and, therefore, our president is guilty of crimes against
peace and should be prosecuted. Similarly harsh was the judgment that Bill Clinton’s
insistence on maintaining the harsh economic embargo on Iraq in the 1990s resulted
in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents and, therefore, Clinton
was a moral monster who was unfit to govern. None of this has to do with hating
either man, but instead with assessments and judgments we should be making.
Third, these critiques are not of the United States, but of specific policies
and policymakers. No nation is a monolith with a single set of interests or
political positions, and it’s nonsensical to claim that harsh critique
constitutes rejection of an entire nation.
Why would anyone suggest that I rabidly hate the United States? It’s
easier to defame opponents using emotionally charged language than engage on
real issues. Accuse them of being irrational and hateful. Ignore the substance
of the claims and just sling mud. By even minimal standards of intellectual
or political discourse it’s not terribly honorable, but it often works.
Beyond these junkyard dog tactics, Horowitz’s email also makes one crucial
factual error. I did write that the U.S. losing the Iraq war was a good thing
-- not in celebration of death and destruction, of course, but because the defeat
temporarily restrains policymakers in their dangerous attempts to extend the
U.S. empire. But that was the first sentence of an opinion piece I published
in various newspapers in 2004, not a statement to students. The distinction
Horowitz and similar critics argue that professors like me inappropriately
politicize the classroom, forcing captive student audiences to listen to radical
rants. No doubt there are professors who rant -- from the left, right and center;
there’s a lot of bad teaching in universities.
But I’m constantly attacked by people who have no knowledge of -- and
as far as I can tell, no interest in learning about -- how I teach. Because
they hear me express strong opinions at political rallies or read my newspaper
opinion pieces, they assume I treat my classroom like a pulpit and students
as targets for conversion.
I teach journalism, and in the course of that teaching I regularly discuss
how journalists cover controversial topics; it’s hard to imagine teaching
responsibly without doing that. When appropriate, I have talked in class about
how journalists cover war -- explaining that many people around the world believe
the U.S. invasion of Iraq violated international law, observing that U.S. journalists
in the corporate commercial media rarely write about that, and suggesting reasons
for the omission.
There’s always a politics to teaching; the choices professors make about
what readings to assign and how to approach a subject are influenced by their
politics -- left, right, or center. But that does not meaning teaching is nothing
No one knows that better than professors who hold views challenging the conventional
wisdom, those of us who don’t rabidly hate the United States but do passionately
love learning and the promise of an open, independent university.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University
of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third
Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of "The
Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege" and
of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity" (both from City
Lights Books). Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org