It's not often that one gets to be called dangerous by a bona fide expert on the subject. But when I heard about the release of a new book by liberal-hater (and ex-Marxist rabble-rouser) David Horowitz, titled The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, I had a feeling that maybe I'd made the list. After all, I'd already been profiled in his online rag, frontpage.com by the even more conservative founder of Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer (he called me a "Noam Chomsky as Rock Star" character, which would have made a great book blurb, if only my publisher had remembered to use it). And just before I found out about making Horowitz's hit list a former student emailed me from London saying I had the "quote of the month" on Campus Watch, the originator of the professorial watch lists.
Judging by the combination of congratulations and jealous glances I received from colleagues, it would seem that the only thing worse than being named to a list like this is not being named to it. In fact, while a lot of colleagues are very upset about the very idea of Horowitz's list, I'll admit that I would have been really angry if I had been left off. But I can afford such a reaction; given that I'm a tenured professor with a bunch of books either already or in the process of being published (in fact, I think it helped in negotiations for my next book), Horowitz's attack is at worst a minor annoyance and at best a chance to have a bit of fun, get some free publicity, and maybe increase book sales.
But let's say I was an untenured professor; or, even worse, an untenured Arab professor, or, more dangerous still, an untenured Palestinian Arab professor who isn't too thrilled with the Israeli occupation or US foreign policy in the Muslim world. And let's say that a few students, at the encouragement of people like Horowitz, or his one time protégé, Andrew Jones (the former UCLA student who started his own mini-list of UCLA profs and offered money to students to secretly record classes), started taping my classes, editing my lectures, and doing a "documentary" that took comments out of context and made me look like a raving bin-Ladenite, or at least vaguely anti-Semitic.
Well, then, I wouldn't be so happy. And let's say these tapes, or rumors of what I might have said (or more likely, not said) in class started circulating, sending the organized Jewish community into a tizzy and calling for my head on a platter, or at least the denial of my tenure. This may sound like unfounded fears, until you talk to my colleague Joseph Massad, a professor at Columbia, who's suffered through much of this treatment. Or you can get your administration pissed off at you when wealthy donors threaten never to give your university money because you invited the "wrong" people to speak on campus (although they have no problem inviting Daniel Pipes, the rabidly conservative founder of Campus Watch, to their own gatherings). This happened to me; thank God it was while the campus was flush with money and not last year, when Governor Schwarzenegger drastically cut the university budget.
But it's not just the threats to individual academics represented by Horowitz et al's lists that should concern people. There is a larger issue here, which is the professional wrestling-ization of American politics and culture that they reflect. By this I mean that today, more than ever before, the mainstream media--and at base, American culture--prefers Jerry Springer and professional wrestling-style confrontation to actual attempts at reconciliation, and America is the poorer for it. More specifically, The Professors, and the kind of political and cultural discourse it represents, are dangerous to the functioning and purpose of the university, and to the larger notion of both free speech and civil debate that have long been cornerstones of American higher education, and through it, culture.
This dynamic was brought home to me on two consecutive days last week. On Monday, my university, UC Irvine, hosted a dialog between the Palestinian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Manuel Hassassian, and a senior Israeli academic based at the University of Maryland, Edy Kaufman. Despite numerous entreaties to the major southern California media outlets to come and hear their innovative ideas about how Israelis and Palestinians could re-imagine their peace process the event was largely ignored. However, the next day the media flocked to UCI to cover the "unveiling" of several of the now infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons by a small but well funded campus Republican group, which led to an equally large teach-in by Muslim groups outside.