Robert Jensen: "Dangerous" Academics ... Right-wing Distortions About Leftist Professors

Roundup: Talking About History

[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 "Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity" (both from City Lights Books). Email to:]

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 is important.

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 but politics.

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.

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Lisa Kazmier - 2/13/2006

Indeed, there is no such thing as perfect objectivity. I made my peace with that long before I entered grad school -- as a journalism student, in fact. You use what you got and make the best sense of what that is. Even-handed does not mean wishy-washy or no opinion. Ms. Spark seems to have a problem with that. I suggest as a book "That Noble Dream" by Peter Novick. I read it as "so what?" while so many colleagues really needed to read it. I definitely did not interpret his penultimate paragraph in the manner she describes because I don't accept the terms as if having any political view makes you automatically unfair or an idealogue. I could not see where Jensen even mentions "objectivity." Did I miss something.

Chris Osborne - 2/12/2006

As the American Left counterattacks against the idea that they hate their own country, they have often queried if the Right has even bothered to define what constitutes "hating America"; and indeed the Right has not produced any comprehensive definition of what exactly this means.
Conservative complaints that American leftists passionately hate their own country usually fall along four lines. The first and rarest of these is if a leftist simply comes out and states that he hates the United States. The Revolutionary Communist Party chairman Bob Avakian, who has sought exile in France, has openly stated that he hates his own country. The angry and bitter Black Panther activist Elaine Brown has done the same--the woman who was a would-be candidate for mayor of Brunswick, Georgia last fall but ultimately failed to meet the one-year residency requirement in that city to run for office.
A second line of criticism taken against the American Far Left is that they give substantial attention to every crime or misbehavior committed by the United States while supposedly being oblivious to similar or worse crimes against humanity committed by foreign states. This very web site had an angry and rancorous discussion about Israel (supposedly the Left's second most hated country on Earth) and the Palestinians in the fall of 2002. Those writing in who defended Israel claimed that the Left gave substantial notice about all of Israel's crimes but that they invariably gave the Arab countries a free pass for the most egregious human rights violations. Likewise American leftists are accused of turning a blind eye to the sins of the communist world. Some seem to be unaware of the downside of the Cuban Revolution; and Michael Parenti's own influence has declined as he has continued to argue that communist crimes are overrated. Leftists are also accused of having no sense of scale on the issue of historical crimes. An example pointed to by writers such as Robert Conquest and the late Max Eastman describe a dialogue in which a mainstream U.S. citizen declares, "Joseph Stalin murdered over 20 million of his own people!" and the leftist responds "what about the American South's lynching of nearly 6,000 Black men?" In this example the leftist also shows an anxiety to change the subject away from communist crimes--much as the right-wing superpatriot supposedly wants to turn discussions of U.S. misbehavior to a more familiar focus on the misbehaviors of the foreigner.
A third area of accusation hurled against the American Far Left is that it is aware of all the liabilities of the American nation and society but none of its assets. Thus if an American leftist claims "I love America!" yet only mentions its liabilities, he doesn't really do so. A similar test of sincerity has been applied by liberal authors to the White community and the issue of racial equality. Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy and the late journalist Carl Rowan argued that if a White person argues "I favor racial equality" yet opposes without exception every practical means to achieve this goal, he doesn't really favor equality.
A fourth line of accusation in charging leftists with "hating America" is their dissent from a bipartisan foreign policy consensus. During World War II both major parties in the United States subscribed to an anti-fascist foreign policy. The American Nazi Party and paleo-conservatives of the time such as Elizabeth Dilling who opposed this policy were accused of being un-American and of hating their own country. After World War II, individuals who dissented from the bipartisan consensus to pursue an anti-communist Cold War foreign policy were also accused of hating their own country. Along these lines, leftists are also accused of reflexively taking sides with the foreigner in any dispute with the United States. Thus they are a supposed Fifth Column whose sympathies lie with the enemy power or force in time of war.
So far as how Professor Jensen fits in with all of this, his statement in the wake of the 9/11 catastrophe that his primary anger was directed at the leaders of the United States was seen by many as a move to "blame America first" and to reflexively take sides with the foreigner in a newly emerging conflict with the Islamic world. His statement that the national day of Thanksgiving should be a source of embarassment to Americans could likewise be construed as a failure on his part to see any assets in the history of the United States or its' present. When he stated that U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War was motivated by a desire to block the communist but popular Ho Chi Minh from unifying his country, his analysis nonetheless overlooked the possibility that his rule may have proven a harsh one--his popularity with the Vietnamese people notwithstanding.
Nonetheless leftist professors are correct in their charge that Rightists have never really defined what constitutes "hating America." Another correct complaint they have issued is that the new witch hunts against professors not only target leftists but mere registered Democrats as well! At least the old McCarthyism supposedly restricted its persecutions to actual communists, fellow travelers, or individuals whom the historians Haynes, Klehr, and Radosh have referred to as "Soviet assets."

Jim Good - 2/12/2006

"In the penultimate one, he states that objectivity is impossible because all teachers are either on the left, right, or center. But in the last paragraph, he is on the side of the open, independent university."

It's interesting that Jensen doesn't actually say that in his penultimate paragraph. In fact, a charitable reading is that he's acknowledging the impossibility of humans achieving a perfect objectivity. It is that admission that makes it possible for mere mortals to strive toward objectivity.

Clare Lois Spark - 2/11/2006

Leaving aside whether or not Jensen's "harsh" critiques may be just as intimidating as a screaming denunciation of US policies, he does create a mixed message in his last two paragraphs, and they are typical of the postmodern academy.
In the penultimate one, he states that objectivity is impossible because all teachers are either on the left, right, or center. But in the last paragraph, he is on the side of the open, independent university.
I fail to see how independent inquiry is served when teachers are necessarily trapped by pre-existent political allegiances, whether or not they are consciously held. It is quite possible, in my view as an historian, that any person who cares about open-ended inquiry and genuine pluralism can 1. declare any social and political views that could subtly or overtly influence his selection of bibliography, relevant facts and favored interpretations; and 2. encourage dissent in the classroom assuming that such disagreements are founded on primary source documentation and more coherent interpretations than the ones offered. The teacher should also describe the competing narratives offered by true believers wherever they are on the political spectrum.
I would appreciate a response from Professor Jensen.