February 8, 2005


GENERATION RED, WHITE AND GRAY: If the children are the future, we're screwed. (Alexander Zaitchik, 2/08/05, NY Press)

Last week was a busy one on the creeping-fascism index. So busy, in fact, that I finally accepted there is even such a thing as a creeping-fascism index.

Over the past few years, I've held fast to a belief that America is too sprawling, too diverse and too fundamentally committed to its Constitution to ever change its flag to red, white and black. Now I'm not so sure. It wasn't a delayed reaction to the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, Iraq or the confirmation of torture hombre Alberto Gonzalez that did it, but a modest blip on the post-9/11 radar: a poll finding that a third of high school students think the First Amendment "goes too far."

At least that's what they think of the First Amendment once it's explained to them. After interviewing 100,000 teens in the largest study of its kind, the John S. and James C. Knight Foundation reports fast shrinking respect for bedrock constitutional freedoms of speech, press and assembly. Among the findings widely commented on last week—but not widely enough—only 51 percent said newspapers should be allowed to publish content without state approval. Three-quarters actually thought flag burning was illegal—and didn't care—while almost one-fifth said Americans should not be allowed to express unpopular views.

News of the poll triggered a few easy comparisons to the fear-driven conformity of the early Cold War. But that analogy is wishful thinking. Even at its worst, the paranoid patriotism of the 1950s existed uneasily alongside a respect for and knowledge of American history and the Constitution. Even as critics were stripped of their passports and driven out of the academy and Hollywood, and even as the CIA subverted popularly elected governments abroad, in U.S. high schools one of the most frequently assigned books was Howard Fast's Citizen Tom Paine. However airbrushed that era's celebratory view of America's past, kids still had a sense of that past as something to honor, if only in theory. However dramatically the country deviated from its stated ideals, the baseline culture still instilled a reverence for the founding fathers and the Bill of Rights. Every teenager at least knew what those things were.

What we have now is the worst elements of the 1950s without the literacy and understanding of the American creed that made possible the corrective revolts of the 1960s. Last week's Knight poll is an ominous sign of more than just another paranoid burst of American politics, one that will flame out or be eclipsed by some inevitable Aquarian renewal. It is a glimpse into the brain of the first videogame generation to come of age during the war on terror. Post-9/11 political culture plus ADD equals those poll results. There is no good reason to expect the trend to reverse on its own.

The authoritarian-minded teens given voice by the Knight study aren't alone in thinking free speech un-American. Everyone gets their politics from somewhere, and the brouhaha surrounding last Thursday's forced cancellation of a lecture by Ward Churchill at Hamilton College reminds us where they're getting it.

For comparing employees in the World Trade Center to Nazi technocrats—"little Eichmmans" he called them—Churchill received multiple death threats and is now fighting to retain his tenured position at the University of Colorado.

If what you want to say isn't worth losing your job over then it can't be very important.

Truth tricky for Churchill (Paul Campos, February 8, 2005, Rocky Mountain News)

The deeper one digs into the Ward Churchill scandal, the more amazing the story becomes. [...]

Consider: Churchill has constructed his entire academic career around the claim that he is a Native American, yet it turns out there is no evidence, other than his own statements, that this is the case. [...]

Why should we care one way or another? We should care because Churchill has used his supposed Indian heritage to bully his way into academia. Indeed Churchill lacks what are normally considered the minimum requirements for a tenure-track job at a research university: he never earned a doctorate, and his only degrees are a bachelor's and a master's from a then-obscure Illinois college.

Churchill's lack of conventional academic credentials was apparently compensated for, at least in part in the eyes of those who hired him at the University of Colorado, by the "fact" that he contributed to the ethnic diversity of the school's tenure-track faculty.

To the extent that Churchill was hired because he claimed to be a Native American, he would seem to be guilty of academic fraud. But the situation is worse than this.

Thomas Brown, a professor of sociology at Lamar University, has written a paper that outlines what looks like a more conventional form of academic fraud on Churchill's part. According to Brown, Churchill fabricated a story about the U.S. Army intentionally creating a smallpox epidemic among the Mandan tribe in 1837, by simply inventing almost all of the story's most crucial facts, and then attributing these "facts" to sources that say nothing of the kind.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 8, 2005 5:13 PM

Poor, pitiable Zaitchik. Alone and moribund.

Posted by: Luciferous at February 8, 2005 5:48 PM

Is it any wonder schoolkids don't grasp the Constitution? They've been lied to about it for years. Indeed, Zaitchik furthers the lie in this article by casting Churchill as some latter-day John Zenger.

Posted by: Noel at February 8, 2005 6:29 PM

Hey, we haven't had a good conservative "see, I told you so" for almost a year. You can't spend 50 years teaching kids that "Congress shall make no law" means "No restriction of any kind shall be enforced by any authority, local, state, federal or parental" without they eventually throw up their hands and give up the whole thing as a lost cause.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 8, 2005 6:42 PM

You know as much disust i have for the man. I don't have a problem describing him as a "native american". I was born in nebraska.
Nebraska is part of America
Therfore I am a native american.

Of course that is not what "they" mean.

Posted by: Joe at February 9, 2005 8:27 AM

If assigning Howard Fasts' Tom Paine as reading is his idea of nostalgia for the past he must take comfort in the current widespread assignment of Howard Zinns' works and recommendations.

Perhaps he could also take comfort in the Students Bill of Rights movement, which hopefully is gaining traction, for the protection of the rights of students with conservatve views in academia.

Screwed indeed... I hope so.

Posted by: Genecis at February 9, 2005 11:30 AM

One thing about American academics is the courage. There isn't a Thomas More in the bunch.

Everywhere a 17 year old looks nowadays there are rules concerning his 'speech' rights so why shouldn't he believe that it's OK to restrict unpopular speech. You can't open up a Christian club in most public schools, even those where the entire student body is made up of Christians. You can't wear an 8 Ball jacket because it is a gang symbol(I'm not Mr Blackwell so I will not try to imagine why someone would want to wear an 8 Ball jacket). You can't even play 'Smear the Queer' because someone's widdle feelings might get hurt.

But of course, the fact that a majority of America's youth do not share an absolutist view of the First Amendment is the result of Fox News, Bush, the Christian Right, the hook-nosed neo-cons, etc.

Posted by: Bart at February 9, 2005 11:47 AM

They probably read the constitution and could not find in their copies the 73rd amendment -- right to abortion, 69th amendment -- right to sodomy, 182nd amendment -- gay marriage, 47th amendment -- desecration of the devine name or the 115th amendment -- penumbras, eminations, ghosts and spirits.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 9, 2005 12:49 PM