A new McCarthy era dawns in America

My friend Vinay Lal is a formidable intellect. An old-fashioned polymath, he teaches South Asian history at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Always outspoken, Vinay relishes a good argument and marshals his case to devastating effect. After an hour in his company, I feel as if I have been hit by an intellectual Hurricane Katrina. So it does not surprise me to discover that he is being targeted by neoconservative jingoists who see him as highly dangerous.

To begin with, Vinay was put on a list of "Dirty Thirty" who were said to have entered into an "unholy alliance" with "radical Muslim students and a pliant administration" to turn UCLA into "a major organising centre for opposition to the war on terror". This was the outcome of a website set up by a handful of UCLA's alumni who invited students to spy on their professors and report their transgressions for a reward of $100.

The student who earned his reward, the story goes, bumped into Vinay one day as he was leaving his office. "I'm looking for some Republican students," he said. "Do you know any?" My friend laughed. "Republicans are not part of my life," he replied. "You knocked on the wrong door." That, and a few articles he had written, was enough to have Vinay blacklisted, and charged with debasing education, politicising the classroom and indoctrinating the students.

Within a few months, Vinay appeared in the pages of The Professors: the 101 most dangerous academics in America (Regency Publishing), a list of "terrorists, racists and communists", who, as the jacket informs us, "want to kill white people", "support Osama Bin Laden", "lament the demise of the Soviet Union", "defend paedo philia" and "advocate the killing of ordinary people". The book, written by the neoconservative ideologue David Horowitz, is basically an anthology of left-leaning aca dem-ics, including such noted scholars as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Paul Ehrlich. Since its publication, numerous academics have been hounded out.

American universities are not renowned as sites of dissent. The campuses have hardly seen any opposition to the passage of the Patriot Act, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, American detention camps, the practice of rendition, endorsement of torture by the Bush administration, and the increasing infringements of civil rights. In contrast, the corporate and right-wing takeover of American universities has continued apace, and is seldom critiqued, even by those on the left. Notice how many right-wing academics now occupy the corridors of power, whether at the White House, in the State Department, or in think-tanks. American universities, it seems to me, are dominated by right-wing zealots.

The university, however, still remains one of the few institutions in the US where a modicum of dissent can be articulated. This is precisely why neo-cons such as Horowitz and Daniel Pipes, the former CIA agent who runs the website Campus Watch, are attacking the professoriate. The aim, says Vinay, is to "turn the American university into the ideological wing of the national security state".

What I find particularly insidious about Horowitz, Pipes and their ilk is the fact that their dastardly deeds are being done in the name of academic freedom. The Bill of Rights is being invoked to justify the enforcement of a political orthodoxy that, as Vinay says, has "gorged itself on the idea that American conceptions of freedom represent the apotheosis of human civilisation". The end result is an atmosphere in American universities of a witch-hunt reminiscent of the McCarthy era. Even giving a student a translation of the Koran can get you fired.

But much worse is yet to come. A consortium of major universities is developing software that automatically monitors "negative opinion" and informs the authorities, which in this case is the Homeland Security Department, the backer of the project. "Sentiment analysis", as it is called, has already begun at Cornell, Pittsburgh and Utah universities. Hundred of articles by American academics on such topics as President Bush, "axis of evil", Guantanamo Bay and global warming are being analysed. It doesn't matter where you publish - in the US or abroad, on the web or a newsletter - your negative, unAmerican views will be discovered. And the agents of Homeland Security will come knocking in the middle of the night on your academic door.

Vinay Lal's "Empire of Knowledge" is published by Pluto Press (£18.99)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Rumbled!