The recent protest against David Petraeus called for by the Ad Hoc Committee Against the Militarization of CUNY (City University of New York), has been met with a lot of controversy. One of the most interesting has been the controversy on academic freedom and the battle of ideas – this actually has had a section of the academic left either ignoring or attacking these protests, joining forces with reactionaries in the process, either by action or inaction.
Without getting into the hypocrisies of the Right, which has very recently sometimes violently protested the inclusion in CUNY of anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement actions by faculty and students – not to mention utilized political and institutional measures to punish the spread of these ideas, lets examine this particular controversy.
Some of those who support the protests have defend the actions by arguing that ideas are in themselves weapons, and if we want to disarm the enemies of the people, we must also disarm their ideas. I think this can be correct – ideology can indeed become an ideological State apparatus, and thus become a weapon in itself. Yet, the application of this perspective at the micro-level of a single visiting professor can be problematic, as he or she is not the ideological State apparatus, but merely its employee. Thus I want to explore a different perspective: it is not Petraeus’s ideas who matter – it is his actions that matter.
CUNY’s University Faculty Senate (UFS), recently put out a short comment defending Petraeus:
Protestors reportedly including CUNY Students have harassed new Macaulay Honors College Visiting Professor (and former CIA head and general) David Petraeus on his way to class, using epithets, shouting “You will leave CUNY,” and chanting “Every class, David,” expressing an intent to continue their verbal attacks.
Because they disagree with Professor Petraeus’ views, these demonstrators intend to deprive him of his ability to teach and the ability of his students to learn from him.
The Executive Committee of the University Faculty Senate deplores all attacks on the academic freedom of faculty, regardless of their viewpoint. In the past, we have been strong advocates for the freedom of Kristofer J. Petersen-Overtonto teach at Brooklyn College without harassment or retaliation.
Professor Petraeus, and all members of CUNY’s instructional staff, have the right to teach without interference. Members of the university community must have the opportunity to express alternate views, but in a manner that does not violate academic freedom.
Even if we were to accept the incorrect presumptions of ideas as neutral and equally deserving of protection, in the case of Petraeus this is a distraction. Petraeus is not a professional academic, who made a living and became known for his academic work. He was a professional, volunteer Officer of the highest ranks in the US military, who rose to the leadership of this institution, and whose primary work has consisted in making this institution more effective in its task, namely the killing of people on behalf of the policies of US imperialism.
To speak about ideas, as the UFS does, is to disingenuously claim that ideas exist in the abstract, and who is holding them and why they are holding these ideas is irrelevant. It is disingenuous because as academics they, more than most people, know that who holds an idea and why is a central perspective in the study of ideas themselves- what is called epistemology. More so, they are making a false claim that the reason for the protests is the suppression of abstract ideas, rather than the denunciation of war crimes and of sexual harassment.
The protests against Petraeus are not, as these critics claim and as the UFS posits, protests against the ideas he holds as an individual academic, but protests against his epistemology, the origin, of these ideas in the Military-Industrial Complex and more importantly, the execution of these ideas, the prosecution of war and murder. And they are political protests against the imposition of the perspective that higher education institutions should be places where war, institutionalized murder, imperialism, colonialism, and hate are taught. Petraeus is a war criminal, and war criminals who have not paid their debt to humanity shouldn’t be teaching anyone anything.
When Petraeus became a military officer for life, he became a leader in a machine of destruction, directly responsible in ordering the deaths of hundreds of thousands of anonymous people. To treat him as just one more academic is not only an insult to academic independence and freedom but to thousands of academics who struggle to make a living in CUNY and elsewhere devoting their entire lives to ideas, and not murder.
To compare Pertreaus with Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton is an exercise in cynical false equivalency, designed to ultimately black mail and silence the opposition to the militarization of CUNY – making the correct support for the inclusion of people who advocate BDS in the University community contingent upon the acceptance of this militarization. It makes the false equivalence between those who want to continue war and murder and those who want to end it. To my knowledge, Petersen-Overton has not ordered anyone dead, directly or indirectly, nor have they utilized their position of power to get in bed with those in subordinate power positions.
The UFS should be spearheading the fight against this militarization – as military institutions are notably hostile to the kind of freedom of ideas the UFS proclaims itself to champion, as well championing an environment for female students free of the kind of behavior Petraeus has exhibited – with little in the way of criticism – in the past towards women, including his wife.
You cannot both justify the wanton murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and then claim to all of the sudden, without any process of self-criticism or of repudiation, claim to be simply advocating “ideas”. The University shouldn’t be the place where “ideas” that advocate murder and imperialism be studied. We have a long history of this leading to terrible outcomes in the world – from Yale’s CIA shenanigans overthrowing democracy world-wide to the Chicago Boys‘ support for Pinochet’s mass murder stadiums. It is time to struggle and overthrow this militarization of higher education once and for all.
The sexist behavior that Petraeus has exhibited in the past, which endangers young women who might be harassed sexually by such an individual taking advantage of his position of power, having done nothing affirmative in terms of rectifying his past behavior in this regards. And this is not a trivial or secondary issue – CUNY is hiring as a visiting professor someone who explicitly and unethically utilized his position of power to pursue ethically inappropriate sexual relations with at least one person. CUNY, in effect is saying that those who misuse their position of power for sexual advantage have nothing to fear at CUNY, it is all “Academic freedom” to do so. Yes, freedom for men to misuse power for sexual satisfaction is being supported by both CUNY and the UFS.
The UFS, in their fake neutrality and fake appeal to academic freedom are actually becoming accomplices in the militarization of CUNY and of sexist and misogynistic behavior.
Those are the stakes, and those in the left who forget this, are themselves – wittingly or unwittingly – also becoming accomplices of this militarization and this sexism.
The time for action is now – do we want a CUNY that is an extension of the Military Industrial Complex including its misogynistic culture, or do we want a CUNY that serves the poor and the oppressed?
Are we with the Petraeus murder machine advocacy and sexist behavior, or the real freedom to be educated in a murderer-free, harasser free, environment?
Petraeus is not special – we have to resolutely oppose his actions in the past and hold him accountable and incompatible with the academic community, even if his ideas, echoed by others in the academic community remain part of the heterogeneity of higher education.
It is actions, not ideas, that matter, much like a rifle is just an object until it is fired by someone with a purpose. Petraeus’ ideas are irrelevant compared to his murderous and sexist actions of the past – and framing this as a battle for the freedom of ideas is a distraction from this central fact – and ultimately, a fig leaf to cover up his institutional and personal crimes.
In case you haven’t seen the video, here is it again. It is worth watching multiple times and be enjoyed thoroughly: