Lovett or Leave It

Academic freedom becomes blood sport at Saddleback College

Photo by Jack GouldPundits gleefully warn that Americans will inevitably lose some basic freedoms as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast. None of them put "academic freedom" on their short lists of soon-to-be-lost liberties, but none of them has been to Saddleback College lately.

In the days immediately following the attacks, a heated debate consumed faculty at the Mission Viejo community college, but the subject was not inflated salaries, who gets choice parking spaces or even their controversial overlords, the radically right-wing South Orange County Community College District (SOCCCD) board of trustees. Nope, the point of contention this time was an e-mail circulated by a respected history professor two days after the "Attack on America."

Margot Lovett, who specializes in African history, shared with her colleagues a Sept. 13 press release from the Black Radical Congress (BRC), a New York-based group that promotes dialogue among left-leaning African-American activists and scholars on national and international issues that affect the black community. Before receiving the statement from another academic outside Saddleback, Lovett swears, she had not heard of the BRC, whose stated goal is to renew the black radical movement in America. But in her e-mail to faculty, she noted the BRC statement was the "most cogent analysis" of the Sept. 11 events she had seen.

The statement starts with offers of condolences to the families and loved ones of all those who lost their lives, wishes for a speedy recovery for all those injured, and a strong condemnation of the attacks. But then the BRC blames U.S. imperialism for "genocidal levels of death and destruction" around the world, using as examples the ongoing blockade and air bombardments of Iraq, the government's "virtually uncritical" support of Israel's oppression of Palestinians, and the economic blockade against Cuba.

"One clearly sees the callousness and evil intent with which U.S. imperialism treats the lives and property of others, especially non-white peoples around the globe," the statement reads. Terrorism is not "an acceptable strategy" for fighting global oppression and exploitation, the BRC says, but war and vengeance without a precise target "is nothing more than self-serving jingoism." And eliminating basic civil liberties won't stamp out terrorism but will help "strengthen the existing tendency toward a racist and classist police state," the BRC warned.

The group worries that immigrants and the growing anti-capitalist globalization movement could be singled out for scorn in the wake of the attacks. "As a people that has survived over 400 years of genocidal oppression on these shores, we are all too familiar with the human suffering caused by both terrorism and racial hatred," the BRC said.

Not too long after Lovett hit her computer's send button, her e-mail in box started filling with negative responses from fellow faculty members—and continued to arrive for four straight days.

"[N]obody needs the back-handed 'sympathy' of America-hating bigots like yourself in such times as these," wrote Bob Sackett, an astronomy instructor who felt compelled to add he was a retired captain for TWA. "I wonder if you'll look into how many nonwhites were killed in this massacre. Think they and their families would agree with your assessment? You give some justification for every hateful act that has occurred and, like Jane Fonda in Vietnam, aid and abet the enemy."

Other faculty members accused the BRC and Lovett of supporting the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, even though neither was referenced by the BRC. Lovett was also called "a loudmouth" and "a disgrace to the campus." One professor accused her of having wanted to be aboard one of the planes that crashed so she could offer counsel to the terrorists. Another offered her a ticket to take "a permanent vacation to, say, Afghanistan or Iraq."

(Lovett's response: "I happen to be a New York Jew. I'm also a woman. If I was sent there, as soon as I got off the plane, I'd be dead.")

Lovett also received messages of support. Marine technology associate faculty member Mark Howe defended her right to free speech. Psychology professor Kathleen Hodge, who once served as interim chancellor of the SOCCCD, urged her colleagues to reaffirm their "commitment to the exchange of ideas with impunity and free of personal attack." Lovett's fellow history professor Scott Howlett urged the faculty to keep "jingoism and misdirected patriotism" from stifling debate. Howe described how his 85-year-old uncle, while a U.S. military medic in 1944, lost his right arm "to a Nazi shell."

"My uncle thought that the United States was wrong to get involved in Vietnam, and he questions current American foreign policy," Howlett wrote. "Should he be sent to Afghanistan along with Margot?"

Most hate mail dwelled on the poor timing of Lovett's dissemination of the BRC statement, something even one of her supporters, computer-information associate faculty member Karen Merced Willner, agreed with. "It was courageous of her to introduce a radical perspective into an environment that is obviously not yet politically evolved enough to appreciate it within its own context," Willner wrote. "I agree that presenting such strong criticism so soon after the incidents—and at a time of overwhelming grief, pain and emotion—did not serve its intended purpose and was bound to offend those in the throes of this unspeakable tragedy. But in the end, the United States' problems abroad will not be solved by reactionary chauvinism; rather, the time must come for some serious societal introspection. That introspection can only be productive if radical voices, such as that of the BRC, are heard."

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