Send this article to a friend:


University—An Attack on Intelligence
Patrick Lawrence

Not in my lifetime,” I used to think when contemplating America’s decline and fall—a decline and fall I eagerly anticipate as a prelude to remaking our crumbly republic such that it stands for the ideals it professes to uphold but unreservedly ignores. Blind justice, disinterested leaders and institutions, tolerance of others, freedom of thought and speech, a Jeffersonian respect for reason and knowledge: Those who come after me will see the imperium’s collapse and will begin the work of restoration, but not I.

So I long assumed. And so does the pace of events suggest I may well be wrong. Things I used to think would take, maybe, 20 years now occur in five or six or seven. If I reckoned some turn of history’s wheel was a decade out, what do you know but that it now seems hard upon us.

Decline and fall. It is not pleasant to live in such a time as ours, but it is, as the Chinese are credited with saying (or was it the Arabs?) interesting. Let us not, as we accept our fate, lose sight of the optimism within the apparent pessimism.

On May 2 the House passed a bill that, broadly speaking, defines as “antisemitic” any criticism of Israel, or—heaven forbid!—disapproval of Israel as a “Jewish state.” The kookier House members have been trying to get this rationally disconnected piece of legislation to the floor for eight years. The House now sends the Antisemitism Awareness Act to the Senate on a 320–to–19 vote.

As if to second the House’s intent, President Biden announced, a May 7 event marking the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s annual remembrance day, a series of new legal and administrative measures to counter the nonexistent crisis of antisemitism that now overtakes the U.S. the way a Communist takeover did in the 1950s. Will someone explain why we hear daily about all this antisemitism but cannot see anything of it more than the odd, unalarming case—the everyday here-and-there variety? Someone, anyone?

This is an assault on reason, language, law—and even that highest of American “values”—common sense. It is a sign of American weakness and further advances this weakness. I would ask what the people pushing this bill are thinking, but the question implies an assumption one ought not make.

On Monday an interesting new website called Zeteo published a letter 12 Republican senators signed and sent to the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, in response to the ICC’s reported-but-unconfirmed plans to serve various Israeli officials, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with arrest warrants charging them with war crimes in Gaza. You have to read this to believe it, and you can do so here. “Target Israel and we will target you,” the letter reads. “If you move forward with the measures indicated in the report, we will move to end all American support for the ICC, sanction your employees and associates, and bar you and your families from the United States.”

And then the much-remarked punchline: “You have been warned.”

Think about this. This missive is an outright rejection of international law. At the same time, we see in it an imperium that broods in a defensive crouch, waging rearguard actions as 21st century realities arrive. There are only 12 signatories, and they include such Ciceros as Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. But do not kid yourself: Their letter reflects a strong and prevalent current of opinion in Washington—even, I would say, among Democrats such as Chris Van Hollen, who thought the letter, if not its sentiments, “thuggery befitting the Mafia.”

What strikes me most of all about the senators’ letter is this: Those purporting to lead this nation are very little interested any longer, if they are interested at all, in what the rest of the world thinks of America—or even what Americans think of America. Power is all the late-phase imperium has left to rely upon. And power alone in any of its three principal forms—military power, coercion, and bribery—is not fated, present circumstances notwithstanding, to define the era that is hard upon us.

We are talking about decline and fall. This is what it looks like, piece by piece, perversity following perversity. It is often announced with bold assertions of authority by people who presume to make law as it suits them but stand above it—what scholars, beginning with Carl Schmitt, the Nazi theoretician, call “the state of exception.”

The most startling events of the past few months, approaching a climax as we speak, concern what is now a prevalent effort to destroy America’s colleges and universities as independent institutions of higher learning. It is true, as some have remarked, that the confrontations on American campuses, and may they continue, are not to be taken as the main event. The main event remains the Israeli–U.S. genocide prompting students across the country—and the Western world at this point—to pitch tents and demonstrate in support of the Palestinian cause.

As I type these sentences, the early Tuesday bulletins arrive, reporting that the Israelis have shut the two crossings in southern Gaza, Rafah and Kerem Shalom, that serve as lifelines for Palestinians in need of aid and medical treatment. It does not get more barbaric, except that, in the Israeli case, it consistently does.

But with these developments bitterly in mind, we should recognize the meaning and gravity of the vicious responses—state and private—to the honorable displays of principle, integrity, and clear thinking we witness on American university campuses. In any imperium’s late phase, all institutions are required to serve the state and the reigning ideology. This is a structural reality, an historical imperative, that is rarely remarked upon but easily identified nonetheless. We have already witnessed this coerced enlistment in the cases of corporate media, previously independent courts, nongovernmental organizations, and all manner of cultural institutions—book publishers, libraries, museums, the Hollywood studios. Now it is the turn of the colleges and universities.

In this late phase of decline, no one or no entity is permitted to stand beyond the fence posts in the name of independent thought or free speech. The special gravity of this when tertiary education is the target cannot be overstated. Destroy colleges and universities as sanctuaries of uncircumscribed, purposefully exploratory thought and speech—academic freedom in the common parlance—and you are a good way along to destroying the nation’s intellectual dynamism, and so the nation’s future.

Here is an exceptionally well-crafted segment of the Al Jazeera program called Listening Post, broadcast over the weekend under the headline, “The problem with the coverage of the U.S. campus protests.” Look at the footage, especially of the police—local police departments, state police, highway patrol units, campus police. If there is a term for this other than state repression, I cannot think of it.

Listen to the commentary. It is clear, analytic, grounded in reality, professional, dispassionate, more or less spotlessly objective. It is near to impossible to find footage of campus events this bold, this balanced, this undoctored, and it is absolutely impossible to find analysis and commentary of this insight and honesty in American media.

On American screens we instead see this presentation—the ne plus ultra in television coverage last week—in a segment of Inside Politics, Dana Bash’s CNN program. Let me go back to that list of attributes just mentioned. This piece is neither clear nor analytic nor grounded in reality nor professional nor dispassionate, and it does not even pretend to objectivity. It is one coerced institution that has succumbed to the state and its ideology doing its bit to help coerce another into submission. Nothing more.

“We start with destruction, violence and hate on college campuses across the country,” Bash begins. After a couple of minutes of paranoia-pumping, this, in Bash’s italicized delivery: “Protesting the way the Israeli government, the Israeli prime minister, is prosecuting the retaliatory war against Hamas is one thing. Making Jewish studentsfeel unsafe at their own schools is unacceptable, and it is happening way too much right now.”

Then a video clip of a Jewish UCLA student, who, it is perfectly obvious, does not feel the slightest unsafe, as he tries to argue his way past a picket line to his class. Then Bash again: “What you just saw is 2024 in Los Angeles, harkening back to the 1930s in Europe. And I do not say that lightly.

Jiminy Cricket.

If Dana Bash’s May 1 program was egregious, it also reflected the rest of corporate media. Can you beat the spectacle of boastfully liberal broadcasters and newspapers cheering the suppression of free speech and free inquiry—attacking, this is to say, one of the most fundamental institutions sustaining a liberal order? Media opposition to “free speech fundamentalists” is not a new phenomenon, true, but it worsens as it carries over into educational institutions. The only thing I liked about the Bash segment was her introduction of the old “outside agitators” theme. What fun. She dredged this straight out of the John Birch catechism and sent me on a weirdly amusing walk straight down memory lane.

To stay briefly with the matter of media, I found it just as concerning, if not more so, to read last week that The Real News Network has canceled The Chris Hedges Report. Why?

Well, if you want to list journalists of high professional standards whose integrity is exemplary, it will be short, yes, but Hedges would have to be on it. His dismissal at the hands of people who couldn’t, as we used to say, change his typewriter ribbon is something approaching obscene. Though Hedges was told that an interview he did with a Congressional candidate threatened the station’s nonprofit status, in my understanding knees wobbled at TRNN because Hedges is consistently critical of the Biden regime and the genocide it sponsors, thus jeopardizing Biden’s chances in the election this November. Those running the network folded.

It has been a long, long time since corporate media, from The New York Times on down (or over), surrendered their sovereignty, their status as an independent pole of power, to the reigning ideology. This is a sort of “mission accomplished” for the national security state. So far as I can make out, and I am not going to make a study of The Real News Network, its treatment of Chris Hedges is symptomatic of the creep of the liberal authoritarians into independent media. The Dana Bash Monster, let’s say, appears to be drawing nearer. This is an increasing worry now. The No. 1 task of these media now, what they must get done before they do anything else, is to refuse to serve the state and the neoliberal ideology.

Conservatives in Congress have long planned an attack on universities in the cause of suppressing academic freedom. And it has been evident since last December, when they held those McCarthyesque hearings prior to demanding the dismissal of the presidents of Penn and Harvard, that they have identified the Gaza crisis and the antisemitism shuck as the opportunity they had waited for.

The abiding desire is to defund colleges and universities that do not conform to the way they see the world. We now read that four members of the House have begun investigations into the fantastical crisis of rampant antisemitism among university demonstrators.

What struck me last fall, and keeps on striking me now, are the intrusions of very wealthy donors into questions of academic freedom. This started among University of Pennsylvania graduates, when numerous of them either threatened to withhold donations, or did so, because Penn administrators defended academic freedom instead of agreeing to suppress those at the university—students and faculty—who stood against a genocide and in favor of the Palestinian cause.

Last week another such donor announced he would stop supporting Brown University, his alma mater, after the administration agreed to negotiate with student leaders on the question of divesting endowment funds from companies profiting from Israel’s various atrocities. The most determined of these intruders—O.K., the most obnoxious—is William Ackman, who pledges to use his money to go after media as well as universities that do not conform to his way of looking at the world. “I fix things,” he told Fortune magazine in an interview published in January. “This is just fixing things.”

Look at this list, which is very partial. David Magerman (Penn, hedge fund billionaire), Cliff Asness (same), Mark Rowan (Penn, private equity), Ronald Lauder (Penn, the cosmetics empire), Barry Sternlicht (Brown, real estate), William Ackman (Harvard, hedge funds). We now have money people and a landlord—yes, a landlord—purporting to dictate how institutions of higher learning run themselves: what they teach, how it is taught, what can be said or thought and what cannot. It is beyond unconscionable.

Michael Massing, the writer and journalist, published “How to Cover the One Percent,” a brilliant piece on the fraud of “disinterested philanthropy,” in The New York Review of Books back in 2016. There is no such thing as disinterested giving, he argued with plenty of evidence. Leaving private wealth to support institutions in the public sphere—universities, museums, public broadcasting, what have you—is at bottom a way of controlling public discourse—and so a method of political, social and (most of all) ideological control. This is what Massing meant.

A few commentators remarked, as the Israel–U.S. genocide proceeded, that Israel would prove the downfall of the West. The principles by which it, the West, purported to live, its old, old claim to global superiority: backing the hideous apartheid state would leave all this a shambles. And now it is plain. Law, language, free thought, knowledge: In all such spheres, Israel is taking down what is called the liberal order. One cannot be altogether surprised: The state of Israel was an unworkable fallacy, funded on cruelty and intolerance, from the start.

“But the utility of intelligence is admitted only theoretically, not practically,” Bertrand Russell wrote in a wonderful essay, 102 years ago, called “Free Thought and Official Propaganda.” “It is not desired that ordinary people should think for themselves, because it is felt that people who think for themselves are awkward to manage and cause administrative problems.”

We should consider this as we think about the students and the attacks on them from many quarters, about the Dana Bashes corporate media push at us, about the attempted sabotage of Chris Hedges’ work, about the nonsensical laws moving through the House, about the corrupted language deployed in the antisemitism-everywhere routine, about the attacks on institutions of learning. What is under siege in all such cases is our knowledge and our intelligence. We are not supposed to see and think about these things as they are.

It is by far best that we do—to see and think, to guard our intelligence. Then we will know our time for what it is, as it moves so swiftly along.




Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His new book, Journalists and Their Shadows, is out now from Clarity Press. His website is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site

Send this article to a friend: