Put away your pom-poms and start to shout

May 28, 2004

It is time for academics to make a stand on the political stage and show where their loyalties lie, says Bob Brecher.

The question of where academics' political loyalties should lie is becoming increasingly urgent - and contested - as the War on Terror continues unabated. How long will it be before Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch (David Newman, Soapbox, April 30) spawns a new Labour version in Britain? Remember the diktats that were sent out in certain UK universities about open criticism of the invasion of Iraq. And recall that many universities are insisting on a clause in contracts that makes it a disciplinary offence to "bring the university into disrepute". The question is an old one and - according to some - an intractable one. But that doesn't mean we can ignore it. To refuse political engagement, or to advocate some spurious "neutrality", is not an option. As academics, we have an unavoidably political function, and commitment to such neutrality is no less a political action than is overt engagement.

But what are the political values that should command our loyalty as academics? Should they be something like "free expression", "the right...

to engage in (our) normal activities without fear that the stating of (our) political positions will jeopardise (our) professional future" (Newman)? Some argue for a more substantive position: "It's time to start a campaign for real dissent" since "universities ought to be the home of scepticism" if we are "to contest the fundamentalist threat" (Stuart Sim, Soapbox, February ).

Others, of course, consider that we ought to be pursuing the opposite course: it's "the positive value of patriotic loyalty in democracies" that should be our guide (David Marsland, Letters, April 30). On that basis, our task is not to criticise such democracies' shortcomings, but to act as cheerleaders for Bush, Blair and Sharon.

So what should we be doing? The sort of "active steps" (Newman) you take - whether to support those colleagues in the US and Israel who are being subjected to the new McCarthyism, for instance, or to help silence them; whether to support or criticise Marsland's and others' fundamentalist "patriotic loyalty" - will depend on your politics. Keeping quiet is already to engage on the side of those in power. That's an option for those persuaded that it's the values of those in power that are broadly right; and if you can't really be bothered to do anything actively, then your silence will serve the status quo well enough. But how should those of us not persuaded by neo-liberal Christian fundamentalism respond to the pressure to conform? What form might a "campaign for real dissent" take? I'm sure I'm not alone in having no ready-made answers; but then, that's not the point.

The scepticism Sim advocates doesn't demand inertia, but rather a readiness to question the convictions on which our actions are based. So, for instance, shouldn't academics be refusing to go to conferences in America when the US government bars colleagues from Cuba, Iran and North Korea because that's where they're from? Shouldn't we be boycotting those journals and publishers whose editors and owners decline to publicly dissociate themselves from the US government's decision to make it a punishable offence - on pain of a heavy fine - to edit, let alone publish, the work of these academics on the grounds that they're Cuban, Iranian or North Korean? I think there are good reasons why we should, and that we should say so, loudly, not least because we need to "start at home" if we're to be taken seriously on anything at all by the public (Ruth Morse, Professional, April 23). And if you disagree, whether on principle or because you think it would just be counterproductive, shouldn't we be having a debate about the issue in our universities and on the wider public stage?

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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