Friday, October 31, 2008

Patriotism and 'loyalty oaths' in a politically contentious time

Milton Greenberg was American University’s Provost for many years and then, briefly, Interim President. Now retired, he often contributes thoughtful columns on higher education to the Chronicle of Higher Education and other outlets. This week, in the on line journal “Inside Higher Ed,” he wrote a very different column about the McCarthy era in American history. The name is from Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. In 1950s, McCarthy sparked an anti-communist witch hunt that destroyed many lives, but netted very few serious threats to America’s security. Dr. Greenberg expresses particular concern about some political candidates who have been distinguishing between ‘true Americans’ (their supporters) and others who, presumably are not ‘true Americans.’ A Minnesota Congresswoman, campaigning for reelection, according to Public Radio, recently called for investigations of ‘un-American activity, though, apparently, with a disastrous impact on her campaign.

Here is the conclusion of Dr. Greenberg’s column:

Members of the academic community need to be especially sensitive to the misuse of allegedly patriotic fervor. Professors have always been the target of oath laws and patriotic suspicion, presumably because of their influence upon the young. But the assumption cannot be escaped that oaths and other patriotic demands directed at teachers suggest that they are more likely to betray their country than others, which is not only patently absurd, but a threat nevertheless to the core beliefs of academic freedom. This absurdity was humorously captured by an anonymous bard, a faculty member in California in the early 1950s when the university was besieged by investigations and loyalty oath demands:

Ode to Hysteria: University Division

I am the very model of a member of the faculty
Because I’m simply overcome with sentiments of loyalty
I daily think of reasons why I’m glad to be American
And thank the Lord I’ve always been a registered Republican
The thoughts I think are only thoughts approved by my community
I pledge allegiance to the flag at every opportunity
I haven’t had a thing to do with Communist conspirators
And neither have my relatives, descendants, or progenitors.

The rise of the patriotism issue in our presidential election of 2008 amidst contemporary worldwide conflicts, threats to peace and actual warfare in which our country is engaged makes it imperative to guard against partisan claims to allegiance and patriotism. An agreement to disagree, so basic to American life, though alien to much of the world, is, in the absence of unlawful acts of betrayal, the core of American liberty.

You can reed the complete column, which I strongly recommend, at:

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