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Fantasizing "The New McCarthyism"
by Phil Orenstein
After the lengthy front page tribute in the New York Times treating Deborah Almontaser, founder and former principle of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), as the later day Mother Theresa, I thought the public forum she would be addressing later that evening, alongside her embattled sister in solidarity, City University of New York (CUNY) faculty union official Susan O'Malley, would be thronged by numerous admirers and reporters. But there were no such crowds or media. Wandering the endless corridors of the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, I bumped into the panelists Susan O'Malley and Ms. Almontaser, who were just as lost as I was, looking for the classroom where the public forum, "Academic Freedom and the Attack on Diversity at CUNY," was to be held.
A little more than 20 people including CUNY faculty, students as well as the speakers showed up. The poor attendance may be due to the fact that the CUNY Senate Forum email list received the announcement on Sunday after 10 PM, the day before the event. I was the only person at this "public" forum sponsored by the Middle East Student's Association (MESO), who attempted to speak up to dispute the cunning agenda and break through the monolithic conformity of the group.
Billed as an important forum to address the issues of Islamophobia at CUNY, the email announcement stated: "Around the country, Islamophobic and Anti-Arab attacks on professors have increased, most notably at Columbia and Barnard. This movement to attack and discredit dissent has been called "the New McCarthyism" – shutting down reasoned debate on important issues….. Ms. Almontaser will appear on this panel along with CUNY Professor Susan O' Malley and others working to expose the attack on academic freedom across the nation…There is some urgency here as these attacks are one tip of a vast ideological iceberg that is also threatening to impact the current election campaign."
Although the issue of the "anti-Arab attacks" at Columbia and Barnard was not broached in the forum they were most likely referring to the recent public uproar of Columbia and Barnard alumni over the ill-advised tenure decision of Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj granted by virtue of her unimpressive scholarship of one book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society based on flimsy evidence and hearsay, which purports that the historical origins of the State of Israel are fictitious.
What I witnessed was a closed forum dedicated to a veiled radical agenda, riddled by hysterical paranoia, name-calling, slanderous accusations against prominent scholars and city officials, and strategies for their ouster, where the panelists professed that "attacks" against Arabs and professors are a coordinated right wing smear campaign launched by Daniel Pipes, CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld and their ilk, which they dubbed the "New McCarthyism." But Mr. Pipes and company whom they demonized with such venom, have simply exercised their First Amendment rights of critical journalism and free speech, civilly exchanging opinions and information in online magazine articles, speeches, op-eds and blogs, where all sides of the issues were often given a fair hearing in the media.
I was confused as to the reasons for their excessive paranoia. How are Pipes and company threatening their academic freedom? The so-called "New McCarthyites" have been vociferous, no doubt, but they demonstrated nothing resembling the violent student mob attacks at Columbia University on Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, because he expressed disagreeable views. Mr. Pipes and a few opinionated bloggers, including myself, are not U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy. What is this "vast ideological iceberg" that is "threatening to impact the current election campaign" of which the so-called attacks on academic freedom are only the tip? Here now are the panelists, their background, some of their words and the answers to these questions.
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