Friday, November 19, 2010

The Origin of America's Intellectual Vacuum

The Origin of America's Intellectual Vacuum


By Chris Hedges


November 15, 2010


The blacklisted mathematics instructor Chandler Davis, after

serving six months in the Danbury federal penitentiary for

refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities

Committee (HUAC), warned the universities that ousted him

and thousands of other professors that the purges would

decimate the country's intellectual life.


"You must welcome dissent; you must welcome serious,

systematic, proselytizing dissent - not only the playful,

the fitful, or the eclectic; you must value it enough, not

merely to refrain from expelling it yourselves, but to

refuse to have it torn from you by outsiders," he wrote in

his 1959 essay "...From an Exile." "You must welcome dissent

not in a whisper when alone, but publicly so potential

dissenters can hear you. What potential dissenters see now

is that you accept an academic world from which we are

excluded for our thoughts. This is a manifest signpost over

all your arches, telling them: Think at your peril. You must

not let it stand. You must (defying outside power; gritting

your teeth as we grit ours) take us back."


But they did not take Davis back. Davis, whom I met a few

days ago in Toronto, could not find a job after his prison

sentence and left for Canada. He has spent his career

teaching mathematics at the University of Toronto. He was

one of the lucky ones. Most of the professors ousted from

universities never taught again. Radical and left-wing ideas

were effectively stamped out. The purges, most carried out

internally and away from public view, announced to everyone

inside the universities that dissent was not protected. The

confrontation of ideas was killed.


"Political discourse has been impoverished since then,"

Davis said. "In the 1930s it was understood by anyone who

thought about it that sales taxes were regressive. They

collected more proportionately from the poor than from the

rich. Regressive taxation was bad for the economy. If only

the rich had money, that decreased economic activity. The

poor had to spend what they had and the rich could sit on

it. Justice demands that we take more from the rich so as to

reduce inequality. This philosophy was not refuted in the

1950s and it was not the target of the purge of the 1950s.

But this idea, along with most ideas concerning economic

justice and people's control over the economy, was cleansed

from the debate. Certain ideas have since become

unthinkable, which is in the interest of corporations such

as Goldman Sachs. The power to exclude certain ideas serves

the power of corporations. It is unfortunate that there is

no political party in the United States to run against

Goldman Sachs. I am in favor of elections, but there is no

way I can vote against Goldman Sachs."


The silencing of radicals such as Davis, who had been a

member of the Communist Party, although he had left it by

the time he was investigated by HUAC, has left academics and

intellectuals without the language, vocabulary of class war

and analysis to critique the ideology of globalism, the

savagery of unfettered capitalism and the ascendancy of the

corporate state. And while the turmoil of the 1960s saw

discontent sweep through student bodies with some occasional

support from faculty, the focus was largely limited to

issues of identity politics - feminism, anti-racism - and

the anti-war movements. The broader calls for socialism, the

detailed Marxist critique of capitalism, the open rejection

of the sanctity of markets, remained muted or unheard. Davis

argues that not only did socialism and communism become

outlaw terms, but once these were tagged as heresies, the

right wing tried to make liberal, secular and pluralist

outlaw terms as well. The result is an impoverishment of

ideas and analysis at a moment when we desperately need

radical voices to make sense of the corporate destruction of

the global economy and the ecosystem. The "centrist"

liberals manage to retain a voice in mainstream society

because they pay homage to the marvels of corporate

capitalism even as it disembowels the nation and the planet.


"Repression does not target original thought," Davis noted.

"It targets already established heretical movements, which

are not experimental but codified. If it succeeds very well

in punishing heresies, it may in the next stage punish

originality. And in the population, fear of uttering such a

taboo word as communism may in the next stage become general

paralysis of social thought."


It is this paralysis he watches from Toronto. It is a

paralysis he predicted. Opinions and questions regarded as

possible in the 1930s are, he mourns, now forgotten and no

longer part of intellectual and political debate. And

perhaps even more egregiously the fight and struggle of

radical communists, socialists and anarchists in the 1930s

against lynching, discrimination, segregation and sexism

were largely purged from the history books. It was as if the

civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had

no antecedents in the battles of the Wobblies as well as the

socialist and communist movements.


"Even the protests that were organized entirely by

Trotskyists were written out of history," Davis noted acidly.


Those who remained in charge of American intellectual

thought went on to establish the wider "heresy of leftism"

in the name of academic objectivity. And they have

succeeded. Universities stand as cowardly, mute and silent

accomplices of the corporate state, taking corporate money

and doing corporate bidding. And those with a conscience

inside the walls of the university understand that tenure

and promotion require them to remain silent.


"Not only were a number of us driven out of the American

academic scene, our questions were driven out," said Davis,

who at 84 continues to work as emeritus professor of

mathematics at the University of Toronto. "Ideas which were

on the agenda a hundred years ago and sixty years ago have

dropped out of memory because they are too far from the new

center of discourse."


Davis has published science fiction stories, is the editor

of The Mathematical Intelligencer and is an innovator in the

theory of operators and matrices. He is a director of

Science for Peace. He also writes poetry. His nimble mind

ranges swiftly in our conversation over numerous disciplines

and he speaks with the enthusiasm and passion of a new

undergraduate. His commitment to radical politics remains

fierce and undiminished. And he believes that the loss of

his voice and the voices of thousands like him, many of whom

were never members of the Communist Party but had the

courage to challenge the orthodoxy of the Cold War and

corporate capitalism, deadened intellectual and political

discourse in the United States.


During World War II Davis joined the Navy and worked on the

minesweeping research program. But by the end of the war,

with the saturation bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, as well

as the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and

Nagasaki, he came to regret his service in the military. He

has spent most of his life working in a variety of anti-war

and anti-nuclear movements.


"In retrospect I am sorry I didn't declare myself as a

conscientious objector," he said. "Not at the beginning of

the war, because if you are ever going to use military force

for anything, that was a situation in which I would be happy

to do it. I was wholehearted about that. But once I knew

about the destruction of Dresden and the other massacres of

civilian populations by the Allies, I think the ethical

thing to do would have been to declare myself a CO."


He was a "Red diaper baby." His father was a professor,

union agitator and member of the old Communist Party who was

hauled in front of HUAC shortly before his son. Davis grew

up reading New Masses and moved from one city to the next

because of his father's frequent firings.


"I was raised in the movement," he said. "It wasn't a cinch

I would be in the Communist Party, but in fact I was,

starting in 1943 and then resigning soon after on

instructions from the party because I was in the military

service. This was part of the coexistence of the Communist

Party with Roosevelt and the military. It would not disrupt

things during the war. When I got out of the Navy I rejoined

the Communist Party, but that lapsed in June of 1953. I

never got back in touch with them. At the time I was

subpoenaed I was technically an ex-Communist, but I did not

feel I had left the movement and in some sense I never did."


Davis got his doctorate from Harvard in mathematics and

seemed in the 1950s destined for a life as a professor. But

the witch hunts directed against "Reds" swiftly ended his

career on the University of Michigan faculty. He mounted a

challenge to the Committee on Un-American Activities that

went to the Supreme Court. The court, ruling in 1960, three

years after Joseph McCarthy was dead, denied Davis'

assertion that the committee had violated the First

Amendment protection of freedom of speech. He was sent to

prison. Davis, while incarcerated, authored a research paper

that had an acknowledgement reading: "Research supported in

part by the Federal Prison System. Opinions expressed in

this paper are the author's and are not necessarily those of

the Bureau of Prisons."


Davis, who has lived in Canada longer than he lived in the

United States, said that his experience of marginalization

was "good for the soul and better for the intellect."


"Though you see the remnants of the former academic left

still, though some of us were never fired, though I return

to the United States from my exile frequently, we are gone,"

he said. "We did not survive as we were. Some of us saved

our skins without betraying others or ourselves. But almost

all of the targets either did crumble or were fired and

blacklisted. David Bohm and Moses Finley and Jules Dassin

and many less celebrated people were forced into exile. Most

of the rest had to leave the academic world. A few suffered

suicide or other premature death. There weren't the sort of

wholesale casualties you saw in Argentina or El Salvador,

but the Red-hunt did succeed in axing a lot of those it went

after, and cowing most of the rest. We were out, and we were

kept out."


"I was a scientist four years past my Ph.D. and the regents'

decision was to extinguish, it seemed, my professional

career," he said. "What could they do now to restore to me

35 years of that life? If it could be done, I would refuse.

The life I had is my life. It's not that I'm all that

pleased with what I've made of my life, yet I sincerely

rejoice that I lived it, that I don't have to be Professor X

who rode out the 1950s and 1960s in his academic tenure and

his virtuously anti-Communist centrism."




Like Chandler Davis, screenwriters Dalton Trumbo, left, and

John Howard Lawson were sent to prison for refusing to

cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.


[Photo accompanying article at:




Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on Truthdig, spent nearly two decades as a foreign

correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries

and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York

Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.


Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City and has taught at Columbia University, New York

University and Princeton University. He currently teaches inmates at a correctional facility in New Jersey.




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