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."

Lovett, who joined Saddleback's social and behavioral sciences department in 1996, got a chance to defend herself before about 80 people, mostly students, who gathered in the campus student center Sept. 20 to hear a panel discuss the attacks.

"The response to this statement was nothing short of astonishing," she said. Lovett accused her critics of having assumed the worst when they read that the statement was from an organization with "black" and "radical" in its title. "If the heading had said this was from the Republican National Committee or some Quaker group, I wonder if people would have been more accepting of what the statement said," she said.

Despite the uproar, she refused to shy away from strongly criticizing the U.S. government's response to the attacks. She is not comforted by the fact that warships have departed for the Persian Gulf with seemingly no clear military objective. Such a strategy reminds her too much of wars America has lost, such as the drug war, the Vietnam War and—she would argue—the Gulf War, which failed to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The fact that the Soviet Union lost a bloody, 10-year war with Afghanistan also troubles her.

"I don't want to fight any more wars," she said. "The international community must respond to what happened, but there can be no war."

Talk of a long, drawn-out war with no clear military objective "is the same language that was used to prepare this country for the Vietnam War," she said. "I'm very much on the lookout for that kind of language, and that language scares the hell out of me."

And she does not agree with some who say that Americans will lose their thirst for vengeance once they see soldiers carried out of the Middle East in body bags. "If you remember back to Vietnam, the response to body bags was, 'We must not let these soldiers die in vain,'" she said. "My fear is if we get in a war, we won't be able to get out."

She urged everyone to resist blindly accepting warfare.

"I don't want you people to trust your leaders. All of us can decide on our own whether or not we want to wage war. We can do something to save our lives, Pakistani lives and Afghani lives. We can say we must find a negotiated settlement. By getting into a long, costly war that will lead to countless American deaths, we'll be giving this terrorist what he wants."

That elicited loud applause.

In a chat afterward, Lovett said she and her colleagues on the panel are considered campus "rabble-rousers." But there have been no repercussions as a result of the BRC statement. "I'm tenured," she said and then looked up, as if praising heaven.

Saddleback College president Dixie Bullock confirmed that. "There has been no administration or board 'fallout' at this time," she told the Weekly.

The controversy disgusted Idin Kashefipour, the student representative to Saddleback's Academic Senate. "I am not a political activist or analyst, but I do feel that political views must be presented and debated," Kashefipour said. "It is a shame that we cannot have these political discussions on a diverse campus such as Saddleback for fear that someone might be offended, or a line may be crossed."

Indeed, attacks on academic freedom are not new to the SOCCCD. In 1997, when Steven J. Frogue, a high school history teacher who was also president of the district board of trustees, asked his fellow board members to spend $5,000 in taxpayer money for a community education course he'd teach on conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—including one by a Holocaust denier who pinned the hit on the Israeli government—the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan, as national headlines, late-night TV comics and Jewish zealots zinged the district. But though it was largely ignored at the time, several respected free-speech and academic-freedom organizations across the country defended Frogue, who nonetheless pulled the plug on his class.

"As a citizen of the United States of America, I claim my right to say what I think, believe what I value, to study and listen to many voices, whether I do or do not agree with them," Frogue, who resigned from the board in 2000, said at the time. "To be forced to do otherwise is a travesty of the most treasured American principles."

Academic freedom also became an issue during Orange County Republican Party chairman Tom Fuentes' successful campaign for Frogue's old board seat in 2000. It was disclosed that Fuentes had tried in vain in 1993 to get his alma mater, Chapman University, to force political-science professors to teach only views consistent with their college board of trustees; in the cases of Chapman and SOCCCD, those boards are rock-solid conservative.

For her part, Lovett just hopes the whole BRC thing goes away so she can go back to the life of a quiet, sometimes rabble-rousing community college history professor. But she's concerned about those who publicly supported her.

"Now they're getting the hate mail," Lovett said. "One started, 'Listen, slut.' That shows you the kind of intelligence we're dealing with here."

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