"Ignorance is strength."
Americans from the left and the right could scoff at George Orwell's vision of Oceania's Thought Police. See, we made it through 1984, straight into 2001, with our freedoms intact. We can speak our minds, criticize our leaders regardless of party, dissent from war fervor, wave a flag or burn it. Therein lies our greatest strength as a nation we like to say, what lifts us above all the others.
But not if Second Lady Lynne Cheney has her way with our freedoms. This woman is out to shut down dissent, and pressure our schools and universities to teach only the views espoused by her, her husband, and their administration. I told you a couple weeks ago ["The Other Cheney Doctrine," 11/15/01 PP] that she had publicly dressed down a New York school administrator for saying that the events of Sept. 11 meant that schools must teach children more about other cultures, particularly Islam. Now, that should be a no-brainer of an idea, but Cheney revolted against the sentiment, saying that children first "need to know the ideas and ideals on which our nation has been built." That is, an abridged history of what's right about US capitalism and imperialism and colonialism, with what's wrong with what she calls "living in liberty" -- you know, slavery, Native American genocide, Big Oil dependence, and various dabblings overseas -- played down. If it's not pro-US, it should go down the memory hole.
Now Cheney's crusade against free thought and dissent to her federal government is targeting higher education: She is now calling out college professors and students who dare to question -- even in the most innocuous ways -- the Bush Doctrine and the War on Terrorism. She is the head of the harmless-sounding American Council of Trustees and Alumni (www.goacta.org), which recently released a list of 40 university professors and administrators who are making statements deemed unpatriotic by the Council &endash; Thoughtcrimes for this generation. In a report titled, "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It," released Nov. 13, Cheney's Ministry of Truth emphasizes that an overwhelming majority -- 92% -- support military response to 9-11. The report then blasts the academy for not being 100% behind the campaign. Oh, the blasphemy: "[P]rofessors across the country sponsored teach-ins that typically ranged from moral equivocation to explicit condemnation of America," they warn. And imagine this: "Many invoked tolerance and diversity as antidotes to evil." Vaporize the infidels!
The report, which begins and ends with Cheney quotes, then warns that students who support the war -- 79% do, they say -&endash; shouldn't be intimidated by professors and students who are against it. The report then quotes 117 responses that ACTA found reported in the media from students, professors and even journalists that they interpret as anti-this-war (the professor's names are no longer included in the report available on the ACTA web site). They range from a Brown professor saying "the Gulf War was also terrorism" to a CUNY math instructor blaming the "capitalist ruling class of this country" to a Harvard speaker advising that the US "build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls." How about this shocker, also coming from Harvard where 69% support military action: "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!" The most shocking was unique in its cold-bloodedness, but undoubtedly provoked discussion: "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote," from a University of New Mexico history professor.
Of course, all comments are lifted out of context and, more interesting, none are refuted. The report seems to assume that its readers will automatically agree that the US operates in a vacuum, its foreign policy having no effect on other countries, positive or negative, and that this country mustn't change a thing; we're perfect as we are. It's bizarre, really. The report's facile logic -- smart 6th-graders could see through it -- would be hilarious if not so alarming.
Cheney's mission is transparent, and serious: to muzzle professors and create an Oceanic atmosphere where the right is right. Writing in The Heights and for University Wire, Boston College's Kilian Betlach called the report "blatant intimidation, an ugly attempt to silence voices of dissent." The report's authors try to sneak past that accusation, saying professors have the right to academic freedom, but "that does not exempt them from criticism."
Criticism, yes. Censorship, no. Keep reading. Near the end of the report, ACTA gives a call to action: Colleges and universities must adopt "strong core curricula" based on Western civilization, American history, "America's founding documents" and the continuing struggle to defend our (ACTA's) principles. "If institutions fail to do so," the report advises, "alumni should protest, donors should fund new programs, and trustees should demand action."
Then go look at ACTA's web site and read about its Center for Higher Education Policy, established in January 2001, the month Cheney's husband took office. Its goal is to "work more effectively" with &endash; ahem &endash; "governors, state officials and trustees in strengthening the ability of trustee boards to exercise active oversight, correct abuses, and restore a proper sense of educational mission to our colleges and universities." That is, teach about white guys and coo over capitalism more often, or else. So much for academic freedom.
Cheney's paranoia, of course, is absurd: The report itself brags that most students, even at Harvard, are already on the war wagon. The report's obsession with "majority" is patently stupid in its own right: Say support for the war drops to only 49% if her folks attack Iraq, the Sudan and so on. Does that mean that all of academe should then follow the majority and teach that war is wrong? Besides, any true patriot (or scientist) should give a flip about what the majority thinks. As college student Betlach put it so well, "There was once a time when the majority believed the earth flat and slavery appropriate."
Betlach accurately targets the "reek of McCarthyism" in Cheney's latest mind-control effort, adding, "and all that comes with it -- paranoia, blacklisting, repression and disregard of civil liberties and constitutional freedom." ACTA would undoubtedly try to deflect any talk of the First Amendment: this is mere criticism by a group of concerned citizens. Fine, criticize. But it strikes me that the Second Lady trying to pressure elected officials and trustees to "exercise active oversight" over college instruction is bumping mighty close to the First Amendment. At the very least, it's an initiative deserving a little criticism in its own right.
Everyone left of right of center should be worried about Cheney's doctrine. If the far right was obsessed over Hillary Clinton's activities as First Lady, the rest of us should be back-flipping over this assault on expression mounted by Cheney and her posse. The majority now may support the War on Terrorism, but that doesn't mean most want Big Sister trying to pre-program our beliefs. Besides, Cheney's likely to fail. I, after all, was educated on a steady diet of the St. James Version and white apologist history, and look how I turned out.
In 1984, The Party's slogan was, "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." US citizens should not be charged with rising above a whitewashing of American history; we must resist any attempt by a public official, or his wife, to stifle expression and control our thoughts. Put in Montana-style Newspeak: In the name of freedom, somebody rein that cowgirl in.
Donna Ladd is a writer in Jackson, Miss. E-mail comments to email@example.com.