Action Item
A congressman sends a message to Columbia University.


Matthew Continetti

Representative J. D. Hayworth, Republican from Arizona, had never heard of Columbia University assistant professor Nicholas DeGenova before last Friday. But when Hayworth read DeGenova’s comments at an antiwar “teach-in” held inside Columbia’s Low Library last week, the House Ways and Means Committee member knew he had to speak out. The result is a letter to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger — now making its way through the House of Representatives — that calls for DeGenova to be dismissed.

“I heard the press accounts and I think I reacted as most Americans did — with outrage and disbelief,” Hayworth said Tuesday. “I was also disappointed with President Bollinger’s response.”

DeGenova had told the audience at Columbia’s antiwar teach-in that “U.S. patriotism is inseparable from imperial warfare and white supremacy.” He also wished that U.S. troops encounter “a million Mogadishus” during the course of the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime, a reference to the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, when 18 U.S. troops, and several hundred Somalis, were killed in a brutal firefight.

In a statement released on Saturday, Bollinger said that “I am shocked that someone would make such statements.” On Monday, a new paragraph was added to Bollinger’s statement, which read: “Assistant Professor Nicholas DeGenova was speaking as an individual at a teach-in. He was exercising his right to free speech. His statement does not in any way represent the views of Columbia University.”

“What is academic about hate speech?” asked Hayworth, responding to Bollinger’s comments. “There’s no shred of academic freedom at stake here. You have the right to say what you will, but responsibilities come with that right.”

The letter to Bollinger, which Hayworth said will be sent to the Columbia president after the close of legislative business on Friday, praises Columbia while denouncing DeGenova. “Assistant professor DeGenova has brought shame on the great institution that is Columbia University,” writes Hayworth. “As an assistant professor, DeGenova has not yet earned the promise of lifelong academic employment — i.e. tenure. We hope that you will take steps immediately to ensure he never gets it.”

When shown Hayworth’s letter, Columbia officials had no comment. “The only comments we have are on the homepage,” said a Columbia spokesman.

According to Hayworth, members of Congress are “lining up” to sign the letter. “Virtually everyone I show this letter to signs immediately,” he said. By Tuesday afternoon, about 65 congressmen had signed Hayworth’s letter, including the majority of the Republican whip team.

William Pratt, a Columbia University senior whose father is currently fighting with U.S. forces in Iraq, was glad to see that DeGenova’s comments had attracted national attention. “There’s a thin line between freedom of speech and stupidity of speech,” Pratt said. “And [DeGenova] jumped right over it.”

Meanwhile, a group of DeGenova’s Columbia students held a demonstration to support their professor yesterday. About 16 students gathered on the steps of Low Library, their eyes, ears, and mouths covered with American flag bandanas. In a statement, the students said that they were outside in the rain “because Professor de Genova has been prevented from teaching by the threats made on his life. We are here to mark his absence with the silence which has been imposed on us.” As a response to those threats, Columbia eliminated DeGenova’s entry in the school’s online address and telephone directory and also eliminated references to DeGenova’s classes on the Columbia online course directory. The students’ bandanas, apparently, were meant to signal that DeGenova’s speech has been censored by the recent deluge of criticism.

But the larger question in the DeGenova affair does not have to do with issues of free speech. It has to do with why institutions like Columbia University hire radicals like DeGenova in the first place.

In addition to Hayworth’s letter, the release of two other documents may guarantee new life to the DeGenova controversy. The teach-in where DeGenova gave his fiery speech was taped by several video cameras, and at one point during the event historian Eric Foner said that the full tape would eventually be available on the Columbia homepage. Because DeGenova’s comments caused such a media stampede, however, the release of the video is unlikely.

Keeping the video of the event under wraps helps DeGenova, as a review of the tape would show that not only did DeGenova call for “a million Mogadishus,” but he also praised Asan Akbar, the army sergeant who rolled several grenades into an officers’ tent in Kuwait two weeks ago in the first “fragging” incident since Vietnam.

The other document that would add new life to the DeGenova controversy is a transcript of a talk that DeGenova is scheduled to give this Thursday at New York’s Brecht Forum. The Brecht Forum, according to its website, is a “place for people who are working for fundamental social change and a new culture that puts human needs first.” The Forum does this by teaching classes at its “New York Marxist School,” as well as hosting events like “The New Internments: Special Registration, Detentions & Deportations,” the event at which DeGenova is scheduled to speak.

The event promises to be even less objective than Columbia’s antiwar teach-in. The press release accuses the Bush administration of fomenting hysteria “in its push for the continued militarization of the globe, a gutted constitution, and a ghoulish vision of endless war.” It also says that recent INS policies regarding the registry of immigrants from terrorist-sponsoring states is “not dissimilar to being placed in internment camps,” and that “detainees have also reported torture and beatings and great difficulty communicating with the outside, including legal advisors.”

It was unclear by Tuesday evening whether DeGenova would go ahead with the talk. Doing so would, in all probability, only ensure that DeGenova was on record with more outrageous comments. If Professor Mogadishu were interested in making his “Mogadishus” go away, he would avoid the Brecht Forum on Thursday. But his actions in the past suggest that DeGenova is less interested in his reputation as an academic and more interested in condemning the United States.

Matthew Continetti is an undergraduate at Columbia University.