In the spring of 1968, antiwar activists protesting American military action in Indochina besieged Columbia University’s historic Low Library, the massive, Romanesque space designed by McKim, Mead, and White which houses the offices of university administrators. Thirty-five years later, Low Library still contains the offices of university administrators. But today, antiwar activists are welcomed inside.
Such was the case on Wednesday night, when hundreds of Columbia students braved long lines and rain for a chance to witness a faculty-led “teach-in” on the Iraq crisis. I was one of them. And judging from the monolithically antiwar attitude of the speakers — and the uproarious applause that greeted criticism of the war and of the Bush administration — I was a pro-war minority of one.
The teach-in, organized by the Columbia Anti-War Coalition in conjunction with leading faculty members (among them historians Eric Foner and Alan Brinkley and law professor Patricia Williams), included over 20 presentations from faculty members on topics including international law, humanitarian aid, and the reconstruction of Iraq.
While some presentations — notably those of political scientist Gary Sick and historian Charles Armstrong — took a dispassionate, scholarly attitude toward the events in the Middle East and elsewhere, most of the lecturers simply argued that George W. Bush, not Saddam Hussein, poses the greatest threat to world peace and security.
Moreover, “teach-in” is something of a misnomer. In fact, the panelists were not really teaching, if teaching means “to impart knowledge or a skill.” Instead, the cavernous rotunda of Low Library was in effect made into an echo chamber for anti-Bush boilerplate.
At times, the scene resembled a sporting event. Thunderous applause and whistles greeted anthropology professor Nicholas De Genova’s sick desire that “a million Mogadishus” be visited on U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq. And then there’s Roger Normand, an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs and director of the lefty Center for Economic and Social Rights. Normand took the podium to yell, “Let’s see if we can make some noise in this auditorium,” and began a call-and-response, “We Will Rock You”-style chant with the capacity crowd.
It became clear over the course of the six-hour teach-in that antiwar activists and intellectuals care little, if at all, about Iraq. There were few direct references to Saddam Hussein. What the antiwar professors do care about is the Bush administration. “A coup d’etat brought us to this path,” said Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and author of Letters to a Young Activist. “Our most cogent obligation is to assure that George W. Bush is not in office in 2005.”
Nary a speaker departed the podium without mentioning that George W. Bush is an “illegitimate” president. “Try democracy in Washington or somewhere else,” said George Saliba, a professor of the history of science in the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures.
“I live under an unelected government,” said Bruce Robbins, a professor of English and Comparative Literature. In Robbins’s view, apparently, not all wars are equally evil: “I fantasize,” he said, “about being liberated by a European invasion.”
Comparisons of the Bush administration with Nazi Germany and other totalitarian, imperialist powers were also common. “We must talk in order to remind the tyrants who have ignored the consent of the governed,” said Barbara Fields, a professor of history. “Our leaders have given the finger to the millions who have demonstrated against the war.” Professor Normand quoted Nuremberg prosecutor Robert L. Jackson, essentially equating Donald Rumsfeld with Hermann Goering. And political scientist Jack Snyder found room in his speech to compare the Bush administration with, in chronological order, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, and Tojo.
But what may have been most interesting about the teach-in was what the speakers persistently ignored. Not a single speaker mentioned the fact that a majority of the American public supports military action in Iraq. Only one speaker mentioned that the president obtained congressional authorization to use military force last year. And not a single professor answered, or even acknowledged, the question of whether Saddam Hussein would constitute a threat against innocents in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere were he to obtain nuclear weapons or provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorist proxies. Professor Robbins even claimed that “There is no threat [from Iraq] to prevent.”
There were two other notable features of last night’s teach-in. The first was the concern many speakers had over language; as political scientist Ira Katznelson put it, the United States is currently experiencing a “degradation of language.” Professor Fields found it necessary to “reclaim” words like “war crime,” “Geneva convention,” and “democracy” from the Bush administration. Professor Foner reminded the audience of what “freedom” and “patriotism” meant (using definitions provided by Paul Robeson).
Why is this concern with language important? Because it suggests that when antiwar activists and intellectuals hear presidential rhetoric, read the New York Times, and watch CNN, they see an entirely different set of facts than pro-war liberals and conservatives, and use an entirely different set of definitions in interpreting world events. As Walter Lippman once wrote, “The opponent has always to be explained, and the last explanation we ever look for is that he sees a different set of facts.” At the teach-in, only one set of facts was acknowledged, and it said that an unelected, plutocratic White House junta was engaged in a war of aggression in order to cement an American empire.
The second notable feature of the teach-in was the profound sense of nostalgia that pervades the antiwar movement. Bumper stickers reading “Bring Back Monica” have been popular at recent antiwar rallies. Professor Gitlin and law professor Gerald Neuman both expressed a desire to return to “the way things were” before 9/11. While standing in line outside the Low Library, I was given a flyer by a member of the “International Compaign [sic] to Support UN Resolution #377.” According to the flyer, U.N. Resolution #377 would “demand an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and Afghanistan (which has [sic] been attacked by the US, UK, and Australia).”
In other words: Let’s pretend that al Qaeda didn’t kill 3,000 innocents, and that merciless regimes like Saddam Hussein’s wouldn’t help them do it again and again. Tenured professors ensconced in Ivory Tower echo chambers — like those in the Low Library rotunda on Wednesday night — can afford to turn a blind eye to the harsh realities of a dangerous world. The rest of us cannot.
— Matthew Continetti is a student at Columbia University.