In early October George Lakoff began to receive hate mail. The correspondences followed a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, which quoted the UC Berkeley linguistics professor as an illustration of the “imbecility” with which university professors responded to the Sept. 11 attacks and the aftermath.
The opinion piece pointed to the phallic imagery Lakoff used to describe the attacks: “The planes penetrating the towers with a plume of heat.”
But what it did not say was that the quote was drawn from a larger article, which discussed how the many metaphors people use discussing buildings has increased their sense of violation as they watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center fall.
The very same quote recently resurfaced in another publication. A nonprofit group founded by Lynne Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, included it in a recently-released report on 117 anti-American remarks heard on college campuses since Sept. 11.
“Essentially, it creates an enemies list. And an enemies list, as we saw in the Nixon Administration, is dangerous,” Lakoff said, referring to that administration’s use of the federal machinery to punish its political enemies. “And especially when it’s an enemies list created on the basis of no scholarship, no understanding, quotes taken out of context.”
The group publishing the report, “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It,” is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Ten percent of the remarks compiled in the report came from UC Berkeley students and faculty.
Anne D. Neal, the vice president of ACTA and co-author of the report, rejected criticism that said the report amounted to intimidation.
“I’ve been shocked at the way there’s been a suggestion that we’ve tried to suppress free speech,” she said, adding, “We’re not seeking to fire anybody.”
Rather than suppress speech on campus, Neal said that ACTA’s aim is to free it from an academic culture that will not tolerate support for the war. So while Neal said she respects the First Amendment rights of the professors cited, the report makes it clear that they won’t escape ACTA’s notice or criticism.
A quote from Lynne Cheney sets the tone in the report’s opening pages. “To say that it is more important now (to study Islam) implies that the events of September 11 were our fault, that it was our failure...that led to so many deaths and so much destruction,” she said.
Cheney founded ACTA in 1995. Now its chairman emeritus, she is no longer active in the group. However, she is quoted prominently on the cover and in the body of the paper.
ACTA’s mission is to increase the study of American history and Western civilization. It’s a cause that has taken on more urgency for the group since September 11.
But critics are alarmed that the report equates criticism of American foreign policy with anti-Americanism.
Seventy-six Berkeley professors are on the list for placing an advertisement in the New York Times which called the war unacceptable. One student made the list for saying, “The main issue is racism in general.” Even students chanting, “Stop the violence, stop the hate” were included.
Indeed, critics say the breadth of the comments considered to “blame America first” casts doubt on the scholarship if not the motivation of the authors.
The 117 anti-American remarks were gathered from Web sites, magazines and student newspapers. Each is footnoted without naming the speaker.
Professor Lakoff said that if his quote is any indication, most remarks were taken out of context.
“I don’t see any scholarship at all,” he said. “They don’t seem to have actually read my article that they took this from, because it was obviously counter to the general drift of the article.”
Neal said that she did not contact any of the people quoted in order to fact check or contextualize their remarks. “We were relying on public media and Web site sources, and I did not go further than that,” she said.
The Web site sources are those that most undermine the scholastic rigor of the report. Some of the Berkeley student comments were culled from news articles on www.alternet.org, a youth-oriented online magazine. But others were taken from www.FrontPageMagazine.com, a site run by the conservative pundit David Horowitz.
Those quotes, like the one taken from the Wall Street Journal opinion piece were preselected by commentators with known conservative agendas, such as David Horowitz who, last year, sparked controversy on the UC Berkeley campus when he placed an ad in the student-run newspaper opposing reparations for African Americans.
The ACTA report is available at www.goacta.org/Reports/defciv.pdf.