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Some thoughts on the (not so) new campus radicals

By Joseph Bressano
web posted April 21, 2003

It's a well known fact that ever since the heyday of campus protests in the late 1960's, student activists have been the standard-bearers for leftist radicalism around the world. Yet over the past decade or so a major shift has taken place within the hierarchy of radicalism. In effect there's been a changing of the guard, and the students have now been replaced by their professors.

The radical professors are of course a small minority out of all professors, just as radical students have always been a small minority out of all students. But there's one important difference: because of their role in society the professors have the type of impact that the students, who continue to protest and march in the streets, have never had. One would be hard pressed to find any other period in the last 40 years in which the books coming out of the universities in the social sciences have been as anti-capitalist and anti-American, and as widely accepted, as they are today. And even a quick glance at the anti-globalization and anti-war movements is enough to show the extent to which they're inspired and led by individuals comfortably nestled within academia.

While the more naive among the hard left still dream about the workers of the world uniting, the reality is that leftist radicalism -- especially at the leadership levels -- has always been an elite, or more precisely a counter-elite business. In the past, this counter-elite functioned mainly outside mainstream institutions, preferring its own smaller and "uncorrupted" versions: radical political parties, radical publishers, etc. In contrast, today's radicals -- many of whom are former student radicals from the 1980's and 90's while others are tenured veterans who have been around for even longer -- are by their very nature as academic professionals embedded in the system they seek to overthrow, quietly enjoying its benefits while loudly preaching its destruction.

The irony here is glaring. The well salaried radical academics who write books decrying the horrors of capitalism and globalization… are then amply compensated for their efforts by their capitalist (and maybe even transnational!) publishers. But you won't hear too many radical professors complain about that. Whatever the ferocity of their opposition, their actions point us to a part of society that is benefiting quite nicely from the free market system: the radical academics themselves. When it comes right down to it, they're just plain ungrateful toward the liberal democratic capitalism that provides them with the freedom to be, and in effect pays them to be, radical.

This irony inherent to the radical academics might even be amusing were their views not so troubling and potentially harmful. By now most people are aware of Nicholas De Genova, the Anthropology professor from Columbia University who last month called for a "million Mogadishus" in Iraq, referring to the death of US troops in Somalia and his hope that a similar event would happen to the American troops fighting to liberate Iraq from Saddam. But De Genova, as extreme as he is, is literally only the tip of the iceberg; one can find many equally or even more outrageous views among radical professors in North America and around the world.

Here in Canada, to look at just one example, there's Dr. Michel Chossudovsky, professor of Economics at the University of Ottawa and head of the controversial Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG). According to the CRG website, professor Chossudovsky and the CRG are committed to opposing capitalism and "neo-liberalism", and to "unveil[ing] the workings of the New World Order" [www.globalresearch.ca]. In a slightly frantic style, the CRG website targets everything from American "crimes against humanity" to the "false consciousness" that everyone in the Western world is apparently suffering from -- except, of course, for Dr. Chossudovsky and those who agree with him. Of particular importance to the site is proving that the attacks on 9/11 were actually carried out by the US itself, which is secretly allied with bin Laden, who is really working for the CIA, who are secretly funding….

Dr. Toni Negri

But perhaps the most alarming example of a radical academic is the Italian professor, Dr. Toni Negri. His anti-capitalist opus on globalization, Empire, (co-authored with Michael Hardt, professor of Literature at Duke University) was published in 2000 by Harvard University Press to the acclaim of much of the academic world and the attention of much of the liberal media. A hero to the anti-globalization crowd along with Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and others, Negri has impeccable credentials: not only is he a professor at one of Italy's most prestigious universities, he also happens to have been tried and convicted for being one of the main ideologues behind far-left terrorism in Italy in the 1970's. While this coming together of terrorism and radical academia appears to be an isolated case, in the post 9/11 world this is a disturbing precedent indeed.

The other major shift within radicalism over the past decade has been in the realm of ideology and has attracted a lot less attention. Largely prompted by the collapse of Communism and the Soviet bloc, most tenured radicals are today espousing a post-Communist hodge-podge of Marxism, anarchism, radical feminism and "post-modern" radicalism (political correctness). Ostensibly concerned with "rights" and "culture" (meaning any culture but Western), this new ideology is still evolving but is already deceptively intolerant -- as anyone opposing the new group-think on campus quickly discovers. The recent attempt by radical professors and students at York University to prevent the pro-Israeli Middle East expert Daniel Pipes from speaking is only one of the more high-profile examples of this intolerance.

Of course, one can also still find many unadulterated Marxists among the radical academics, just as one can find many unwavering anarchists among their street-level soldiers who hurl newspaper boxes through windows of Starbucks to protest globalization. But increasingly, under the rubric of "anti-globalism" or "fighting neo-liberalism", old ideologies are merging into this new post-communist ideology whose key tenets remain anti-capitalism and, above all, an almost pathological anti-Americanism.

Not surprisingly, the anti-American radicals have been emboldened by the terrorist attacks of September 11th. While they occasionally and defensively take great pains to deny it, the fact is that they smelled blood on that day and now feel the wind is in their sails. In the post 9/11 period they have embarked upon what can only be described as a literary blitzkrieg of anti-Americanism. (To see this live in action, simply watch an episode of "Counterspin" on CBC Newsworld and watch the near-rabid anti-Americanism of the left-wing guest of the day, usually a radical professor). And now the war in Iraq is serving as yet another opportunity for the radical professors to write about US "massacres" and "genocide" and to compare Bush and America to Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Every civilian death in war is tragic. And while on a historical and comparative basis the number of civilian casualties in this war has been low, who would disagree that each and every civilian casualty has also been horrific and heartbreaking? But in a war where US army surgeons routinely risked their lives to operate on Iraqi soldiers, and where coalition troops often didn't return fire when fired upon in order to avoid hitting civilians, the radicals' rote cries of "genocide" and "massacres", makes it clear that their real concern is not innocent Iraqi lives at all, but to score points in their campaign of lies (for that's what it is) against the US. Only this can explain why Dr. James Petras, professor of Sociology at SUNY-Binghamton, would claim in a widely-disseminated article written on the very first night of the targeted decapitation strike, that Iraqi civilians were being "radiated" and "roasted by napalm", when not even the Iraqi regime was claiming any civilian casualties that night and the US military hasn't used napalm in battle since Vietnam.

This knee-jerk anti-Americanism is in the end more ritual than research. If anything, it more closely resembles a negative religious reaction, based on deeply ingrained fear and hatred. The radical academic sees the nefarious hand of the CIA (a mythically omnipotent and devious entity) behind every world event, the naked self-interest of American big business behind every American action, not because it is so but because it must be so. Facts are secondary and strictly incidental to the main task at hand.

So where do the radical professors find the largest audience for their vilification of America and the West? It isn't in their classrooms but on the internet. Hundreds of sites on the net feature articles by academics "exposing" and attacking US "imperialism". One such website, glibly and revealingly called iraqbodycount.net was created by British and European academics, including a senior lecturer in International Affairs and professors of Psychology and Music. The site is devoted to the recent fad among the radical academics: compiling a "body count" of civilian casualties in the war in Iraq… but not all civilian casualties, only those "resulting directly from military actions by the USA and its allies". No need for even a pretense of academic detachment or objectivity here. The aim, after all, is not to pursue truth but to pursue a political agenda in which the United States is to be demonized and condemned at all costs.

Ultimately, it's the radical academics' own eclectic ideology, frightening in its implications for liberal democracy, which will condemn them to ineffectiveness. As many radical professors themselves admit, today's radicalism is above all negative; an "anti-" movement that offers little in the way of a practical or even coherent vision of society. But then one gets the impression that that is how they want it. For the radical academics, like the mullahs, will always need the Great Satan and the wretched capitalist system to rail at. A task made all the more enjoyable when they're compensated handsomely and can enjoy a complete lack of accountability to boot.

Joseph Bressano is a freelance writer and former trader for one of the major banks.

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