Lessons From the Struggle Against the Old McCarthyismRoundup
tags: civil liberties, McCarthyism, free speech, moral panics, academic freedom, teaching history, HUAC, critical race theory
Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin is an associate professor of philosophy at Sam Houston State University in Texas.
These are scary times for teachers and academics, and the situation is only getting worse. The pace and scope of educational gag orders, laws regulating what can and cannot be taught about “divisive” topics, such as race in America, is increasing.
Texas, where I live and teach at a public university, saw the passage of new legislation last year regulating K-12 curricula around issues of race. This caught my eye, because it will affect what my children learn in school. But truth be told, the anti–critical race theory agenda driving this legislation has been on my radar for some time now, since it makes me worried for my academic career. I teach and publish on topics such as racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
At the moment, my state is not on the growing list of those with pending or enacted legislation targeting institutions of higher education. But it seems only a matter of time. Just this past week, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced his desire to see legislation dismantling tenure protections for Texas public university faculty who teach critical race theory. The optimistic take is that this is mere posturing for the coming election cycle. I’m not so sanguine.
Why am I so worried? Because of what the past and present portend.
My grandfather Ed Yellin was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the winter of 1958. Citing the First Amendment, he refused to answer questions about his ties to the Communist Party. The saga dragged on for five years, until his conviction for contempt of Congress was reversed on a technicality by the U.S. Supreme Court in the summer of 1963.
Together with my grandmother Jean Fagan Yellin, he wrote a memoir about this ordeal. In Contempt: Defending Free Speech, Defeating HUAC (University of Michigan Press, 2022) contains some important lessons for those of us concerned with combating similar forces in the current moment.
As my grandparents put it, with a nod to Henry David Thoreau, “it isn’t much fun to be the friction that slows the machine.”