Democratic Underground

Defending Civilization
How Our Conservative Citizens are Failing America And What Can Be Done About It
December 21, 2001
by Dr. Durtal

"Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else." - Theodore Roosevelt

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans across the country responded with anger, patriotism, and a firm decision to act carefully, with an eye towards both principles and consequences. Not so in our conservative ranks. Even as many took the occasion to think more seriously about America's place in the world, how we should understand the hatred directed our way, and what we might do in the future to avoid the consequences of such hatred, conservative religious leaders, right wing talk show hosts, Republican politicians, and others rushed to exploit the tragedy to attack liberal Americans, push through a far right agenda, and, most damning of all, denigrate those who would have us understand more thoroughly what has happened.

While thoughtful citizens of every stripe have felt themselves awakened by this tragedy to the significance of world events beyond America's borders, we have been smothered in a patriotic fervor deeply opposed to any attempt at analyzing the events in terms more illuminating than the clash of good and evil. While those who love their country enough to insist that we take an honest look at whatever role it may have played in the origin of these horrors, those who profess to love it more have insisted that it cannot withstand such critical scrutiny, forgetting that the famous slogan "My country, right or wrong," is an incomplete rendering of the Senator Carl Schurz's much more reasonable declaration:

"My Country right or wrong: when right, to keep her right; when wrong, to put her right."

Even while Americans adopted President Bush's declaration that "freedom was attacked today," such an influential conservative citizen as Attorney General Ashcroft insisted that exercising this freedom was tantamount to treason, complaining that those who raise questions about his decisions "aid terrorists", for such questions "erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends."[1] Many refused to approach evil in the only intelligent way, by examining the motives of the evildoers; they instead have been content with repeated declarations that the terrorists are evildoers. While no one will deny that the actions were evil, merely noting this does little to help us understand what has happened. And in this time of national crisis, understanding is of the utmost importance. We cannot afford to act without wisdom.

The failings of our conservative citizens have gone beyond knee-jerk anti-intellectualism. Some conservative leaders' reactions ranged from moral equivocation to explicit condemnations of America, blaming the attacks on, for instance, the presence of homosexuals in America and God's subsequent wrath. Even President Bush has reacted with what seems to be glee at the attacks, as when he declared that he was "lucky" for the attacks.[2] How different is he from Matt Hale, leader of the far-right World Church of the Creator, who declared on the web that "The time is at hand to preach ... We must NOT allow this opportunity to be squandered"?[3] Indeed, the Wall Street Journal counseled Bush to take advantage of this crisis, calling it a "windfall," saying it gave him a chance to "assert his leadership, not just on security and foreign policy but across the board." The Wall Street Journal in effect advised Bush to take advantage of the public's distraction to push through his agenda unnoticed.[4] This is patriotism?

These reactions by our conservative citizens are in pointed contrast to America's reaction in 1941: "Everyone wanted to cooperate and feel like they were helping the country," said Elmer Cornwell, professor of political science at Brown University.[5] One would hope the same would be true today, that what Brown physics professor Leon Cooper says describes our country in its present state: "One thing outsiders don't always understand about the United States is we're a fractious nation but we come together during times like these."[6] But, after September 11, it was our conservative citizens that did not understand. Although most conservatives presumably shared America's horror and condemnation of the terrorist attacks, some did not. And while those citizens should, of course, be allowed to exercise their freedom of speech, that freedom does not exempt them from scathing criticism. The fact remains that conservative leaders stand apart from the rest of America in wanting to milk this tragedy for their own gain, instead of pulling together as a nation to reduce the risk of violence worldwide, strengthen our society and the welfare of those beyond our borders, and become a wiser, more informed participant in world affairs.

Indeed, the duplicity of our conservative citizens has extended even to accusing anyone hesitant to endorse their views of something they like to call "pervasive moral relativism".[7] This seems to be the term of choice used by conservatives when they want to attack those who insist on the reality of moral complexities -- in particular, anyone who insists on acknowledging that very few parties in conflict have completely clean hands. In the jargon of conservatives, the label insinuates that the person holds the plainly idiotic view that nothing is really right or wrong, that everything is actually morally okay. To taint those who insist on moral integrity with the brush of that absurd doctrine is dishonesty of a very serious order.

Leading conservatives have gone so far as to suggest that America's university system is complicit in any future terrorist attacks. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has issued a report, "Defending Civilization: How American Universities are Failing America, and What Can Be Done About It," in which our academic institutions are described as being "unwilling to sustain [our] civilization" (p. 7) and suggests that in doing so they encourage our enemies.[8] ACTA's report complains about "narrow and trendy classes and incoherent requirements" in today's universities and suggests that what is most needed is more courses in American history. The complaints about the current curriculum may be well-founded (indeed, as a resident of academe, I would agree that there is much to lament), but to suggest that Americans are not getting enough of American history is preposterous: history classes throughout high school are focused almost exclusively on American history. There are genuine problems in our educational system, but the problem is not that American history is neglected. It may be, rather, that American history - along with other history - is not taught very well.

What is needed, plainly, is not just the repeated and simplistic glorification of our own history; what is needed is the skill to think critically about matters of world history, global politics, and - last but certainly not least - ethical issues. Can anyone doubt that Americans need to develop a better conscience in light of the absolutely rancid attacks on Arab-Americans - and those people merely mistaken for Arab-Americans - in the wake of September 11? Can anyone doubt that we need a good dose of respect for the process of intellectual debate given the present state of our civic discourse?[9]

Unfortunately, conservatives have seemed determined to make Americans even worse off in this category than before. By promulgating a McCarthy-like list of statements made at various universities, the right-wing organization ACTA suggests - even while disavowing any claim to want to suppress dissent - that dissent is unpatriotic, or worse, that those in the academy who have devoted their lives to understand global affairs are actually worse off, as voices to be heard in helping us through this difficult time, than, say, a Yale graduate with a C average whose highest academic achievement is an MBA.

Worst of all, ACTA's own document is an example of careless thinking, even to the point that one could reasonably suspect it of deliberate dishonesty. Consider Lynne Cheney's words from an October 5th speech she gave:

To say that it is more important now implies that the events of Sept. 11 were our fault, that it was our failure that led to so many deaths and so much destruction.[10]

To say that it is more important to study Islam now is hardly to imply that the attacks were our fault. Indeed, someone who holds the (benighted) view that Islam is entirely responsible for the attacks and should be counted simply as an enemy would presumably agree that it's more important than ever to study the enemy. Cheney's words belie her dishonest attempt to attribute to academics the preposterous view that we deserved the attacks.

If we are to go about accepting such "implications" as these - if we're to require so little direct connection to attribute an implication - then we are well within our rights to say, as well, that ACTA's report implies that many faculty are traitors to their country, that the only history worth studying is American history, that any acknowledgement that U.S. actions in the past may have had some effect on present circumstances is unacceptable, and so on. Would Cheney like to be attributed such views? Presumably not.

Indeed, what are we to say of the closing comments of ACTA's report imply?

We call upon all colleges and universities to adopt strong core curricula that include rigorous, broad-based courses on the great works of Western civilization as well as courses on American history, America's Founding documents, and America's continuing struggle to extend and defend the principles on which it was founded. If institutions fail to do so, alumni should protest, donors should fund new programs, and trustees should demand action.

Perhaps we should say that ACTA is implying - without saying directly, of course - that powerful corporate interests should withhold funds from schools where faculty are known to have said things ACTA finds insufficiently patriotic? Are they implying that dissent of any sort should be beaten down by the sheer power of corporate interests?

Setting aside matters of insinuation, let me focus on what is most damning about ACTA's report - what most blatantly displays its utter incompetence when held up to the standards of academic work: it simply compiles a large list of quotations, taken from university settings, and describes them variously as carrying the message "blame America first," as "moral equivocation", as showing a lack of patriotism, and as not sharing "America's horror and condemnation of the terrorist attacks," when the vast majority of these quotations cannot be understood this way at all.

ACTA presents a list of no fewer than 115 quotations purported to show that many in academia "blame America first" or are guilty of "moral equivocation." Let's just take a look at some of these.

The very first quotation is surely the prize possession of the authors of ACTA's report, for it is the only one listed in which I can find anything explicitly denouncing America. It says:

"I was cheering when the Pentagon got hit because I know about the brutality of the military. The American flag is nothing but a symbol of hate and should be used for toilet paper for all I care." (Freelance writer at Brown University protest.)

This statement is, I am sure, as upsetting to most faculty as it is the members of ACTA. For someone to be happy that innocent people have died is deplorable indeed. So much for the leading quote - that which ACTA tellingly chooses to advertise first. What of the rest?

Here is the second allegedly damning quote:

"We offer this teach-in as an alternative to the cries of war and as an end to the cycle of continued global violence." (Professor of art at University of North Carolina teach-in.)

In what way does this blame America or engage in "moral equivocation"? The statement clearly indicates that the person wants violence to end - which hardly means endorsing the terrorist attacks as a good thing. The professor apparently believes that the best way to end the violence is not to wage war, but when did advocating a different approach to avoiding violence amount to blaming America or finding the attacks on innocent civilians somehow morally tolerable?

The third cited statement is this:

"We will tumble from chauvinism into the abyss of recession and tribalism." (Panelist at University of North Carolina teach-in.)

Far from being a clear case of "blame America first" or condoning terrorism, this statement isn't a clear case of anything other than a prediction of some sort. (And it's not even obvious what it predicts.) Yet ACTA puts it forward without commentary, context, or analysis as evidence of "how our universities are failing America" The remaining statements mostly follow the same pattern; I invite anyone to examine them for him or herself.

Let me be blunt. ACTA's report is extraordinarily similar to a paper submitted by a lazy undergraduate hoping merely to impress his instructor with a huge mass of citation devoid of real significance. Is this the caliber of those who think themselves qualified to judge our universities? Can anyone take this seriously?

They might, if they don't bother reading the "evidence" for themselves - if they merely note that there are a documented 115 cases of allegedly anti-American sentiment included and consider that number enough to complain loudly that "colleges and university faculty have been the weak link in America's response to the attack."[11] Perhaps ACTA defends academic freedom but cares not one whit for academic rigor?

Another sign of absurdly sophomoric argument on embarrassing display in ACTA's report is its repeated tacit appeal to popularity - a well-known fallacy. Note the structure of the appendix to their report. It contrasts "public" with "campus" responses, and prefaces the "campus responses" with poll numbers:

The American Public: Americans Should Take Military Action Even If Casualties Occur - 92%

Harvard Students: America Should Take Military Action - 69%
America Should Take Military Action Even If Casualties Occur - 28%

Note as well the language in the first paragraph:

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans across the country responded with anger, patriotism, and support of military intervention. The polls have been nearly unanimous - 92% in favor of military force even if casualties occur - and citizens have rallied behind the President wholeheartedly.

Not so in academe.

Lots and lots of Americans favor a certain course of action, but these folks on campus aren't as enthusiastic. Tsk, tsk! How could they ever be so out of step? The undeniable suggestion here is that academe is to be excoriated for not going along with the greater consensus. This is rather amazing, coming from an organization allegedly concerned with academic integrity. Anyone associated with ACTA should simply be ashamed.

In any case, it is not just ACTA that is to be blamed for divisiveness and dishonesty in a time of national crisis. The Washington Times has endorsed their duplicitous propaganda, in addition to having propagated an absurdly misleading account of Bill Clinton's speech at Georgetown University.[12] Conservative columnist Ann Coulter went so far as to suggest that we should have "Military tribunals for liberal lawyers." [13] And, of course, Jerry Falwell said the day of September 11th on Pat Robertson's 700 Club:

"The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this...throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools....I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle...all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"[14]

While Falwell has backpedaled from his statement, other conservatives remain unrepentant. Indeed, Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, now has a website named "God Hates America," wherein he makes his "blame America first" attitude far clearer than anything ACTA could hope to discern in its list of 115 statements:

"The largest terrorist attack in United States history occurred on September 11, 2001, killing thousands. God uses these kinds of tragedies to punish evil nations for their monstrous sins against Him."[15]

Phelps is not alone. August Kreis, webmaster of the Sheriff's Posse Comitatus group based in Pennsylvania, wrote:

"DEATH to His [God's] enemies, may the World Trade Center BURN TO THE GROUND! ... We can blame no others than ourselves for our problems due to the fact that we allow ... Satan's children, called jews today, to have dominion over our lives."[16]

Where is the outcry against our conservative citizens' appalling reaction to these horrific events?

We must, of course, protect the right of these citizens to speak their minds. But we must not let them pass without criticism. We must respond to their vitriol and ignorance with vigorous debate, reaffirm the importance of critical reflection, and, especially, refuse the pressure to classify anything even mildly critical of the present administration as part of "moral relativism" or a "blame America first" attitude. We must, if we are patriots, not let their deceptive and self-interested attempts at exploiting our tragedy pass. We must speak up for the real spirit of America, of free inquiry, and - of course - for civilization itself.


1. Attorney General John Ashcroft, November 6, 2001, during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

2. Believe it or not, Bush actually said this. Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels reported this comment at a conference board meeting on October 16. Daniels was discussing Bush's campaign pledge not to use Social Security funds except in the case of war, recession, or national emergency:

He had always listed, throughout his campaign and since, the reasons why the nation might depart from this policy, reasons he had given as acceptable for running fiscal deficits: for war, recession, or emergency. As he said to me in mid-September, "Lucky me. I hit the trifecta."

This report can be found at the White House's own website:

3. As described by Jim Nesbitt of Newhouse News Service. See his article "Extremists Applaud Attacks." Biloxi Sun Herald/September 26, 2001. .

4. Wall Street Journal editorial on September 22. "A New Presidency: How Bush Should Spend His Windfall of Political Capital."

5. Cited in the report "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It," issued by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), written by Jerry I. Martin and Anne D. Neal. The report can be found at ACTA's website:

6. Cited by ACTA's report "Defending Civilization," p. 4.

7. ACTA's "Defending Civilization," p. 5. The Washington Times editorial, December 15, "How Universities Can Help the War Effort."

8. See the citation in note 5.

9. I can think of no more apt description of our public life than that provided by Mark Crispin Miller: "the endless shitstorm that is now our civic culture." For an absolutely dead-on description of the lack of critical thinking skills that conservatives seem to be encouraging, see his essay "Brain Drain," published online at .

10. Cited by ACTA's report "Defending Civilization," p. 6.

11. See The Washington Times editorial, December 15, "How Universities Can Help the War Effort."

12. The Washington Times editorial, December 15, "How Universities Can Help the War Effort." For an account of the utterly reprehensible misleading account of Clinton's speech propagated by The Washington Times, see Bryan Keefer's November 19th article at Spinsanity "Clinton speaks, pundits spin. The Washington Times and the spread of a media myth," which can be found at For a more detailed and outraged account, see Bob Somerby's November 9th account of the same deception "Why Andrew [Sullivan] Lies," at

13. Ann Coulter on CNN's Crossfire, broadcast November 23.

14. For more context, see

15. This declaration can be found on his For more of his absurd filth, see his older site

16. As described by Jim Nesbitt of Newhouse News Service. See his article "Extremists Applaud Attacks." Biloxi Sun Herald/September 26, 2001.

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