A radical for the ages.
by Matthew Rothschild
Chris Hedges, a reporter for The New York Times who shared one of the paper's 2002 Pulitzer Prizes, was the commencement speaker at Rockford College's graduation ceremony on May 17. Hedges, the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award, dispensed with the usual pap on pomp day and got right down to serious business.
"I want to talk to you today about war and empire," he began. (We reprint his speech in its entirety, along with the hostile crowd reaction, on page 24).
"Not long after I began speaking, a significant segment of the crowd began to shout me down," Hedges tells The Progressive. "They were yelling, 'God bless America,' 'Send him to France,' 'Get him out of here,' stuff like that."
Twice during Hedges's eighteen-minute speech, his microphone was unplugged.
Some people even charged the speaker's stand. "People were climbing on the platform," Hedges says. "It was threatening, and a little bit disturbing."
He had to abbreviate his remarks, and when he finished, he was lustily booed.
Rockford College in Illinois is 157 years old. "Our vision: to be Jane Addams's college in the twenty-first century," its website states, proclaiming its values of "Liberal Arts and Citizenship." (Jane Addams graduated from Rockford College in 1882.)
A few days after commencement, Rockford College President Paul Pribbenow apologized--not to Hedges, but to the students. In a May 21 letter to Rockford College graduates, Pribbenow wrote: "Unfortunately, our commencement address this past Saturday did not focus on your educational accomplishments and the challenges you will meet in the future. . . . Our speaker presented his ideas in a style that suggested the day was about him and not you. For this, I am very sorry."
Hedges told the Rockford Register Star, "You don't invite a speaker like this if you want 'Climb Every Mountain.' "
On Amy Goodman's Democracy Now!, Hedges reflected some more on his experience. "Crowds, especially crowds that become hunting packs, are very frightening," he said. "As I looked out on the crowd, that is exactly what my book is about. It is about the suspension of individual conscience, and probably consciousness, for the contagion of the crowd--for that euphoria that comes with patriotism. . . . That kind of contagion leads ultimately to tyranny. It's very dangerous, and it has to be stopped. I've seen it, in effect, take over other countries. But of course, it breaks my heart when I see it in my country." Hedges told Goodman that the campus security guards were worried about his safety, so they "hustled me out" while Pribbenow was "handing out the diplomas."
Hedges's speech also has gotten him into trouble with higher-ups at the Times. They are "looking into whether I broached the protocol in terms of my very pointed statements about the Iraqi war," he told Goodman. "That's something that makes them uncomfortable."
"Chris Hedges's commencement speech at Rockford College did not adhere to the guidelines set forth in our ethics code," says Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications for the New York Times Company. "Specifically, he engaged in public discourse concerning his political or personal views."
What happened to Chris Hedges is only a sample of the goon squad style that is so in vogue today. Rightwing talk radio ran an apparently successful effort to end Danny Glover's ad campaign for MCI because of his anti-war and anti-Bush views. Sean Penn and Janeane Garofalo may have lost acting jobs for their outspokenness. Susan Sarandon was supposed to speak to the United Way in Tampa on the uncontroversial topic of women in volunteerism, but the United Way rescinded her invitation. She and her partner, Tim Robbins, were disinvited to Cooperstown to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Bull Durham. And everyone has heard about the Dixie Chicks.
Less well known, however, are the incidents of neo-McCarthyism that affect noncelebrities. Some of these make the national news, and some don't.
You may have heard about Stephen F. Downs, the chief lawyer for New York State's Commission on Judicial Conduct, who was arrested on March 3 for refusing to take off a peace T-shirt in a mall near Albany. The shirt said "Peace on Earth" on one side and "Give Peace a Chance" on the other. He had just purchased the shirt in Crossgates Mall, the same mall that ordered him to remove it. When the mall's security guards told him to take the shirt off or leave the premises, Downs refused. They called the police, and he was handcuffed, arrested, and charged with trespassing. Downs pleaded not guilty, and the mall later dropped the charges.
And you may have heard about Bretton Barber, a junior at Dearborn High School in Michigan. On February 17, he was wearing a T-shirt that had a picture of Bush on it and the words "International Terrorist." "At lunch, the vice principal came and said I had to turn it inside out or go home," Barber told The New York Times on February 26. Barber went home--and called the ACLU.
But many stories don't make the national news, and I'm sure some don't even make the local news. They simply go unreported: quotidian acts of repression. I've been trying to track incidents of neo-McCarthyism since shortly after September 11, 2001. And I can barely keep up.
"A chilling message has gone out across America: Dissent if you must, but proceed at your own risk," writes Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, in the foreword to its report "Freedom Under Fire: Dissent in Post-9/11 America."
"Some government officials, including local police, have gone to extraordinary lengths to squelch dissent wherever it has sprung up," the report notes.
One example comes from Iowa, where two police officers and a county attorney "threatened to arrest a pair of Grinnell College students for hanging a U.S. flag upside-down from their dormitory window . . . as a sign of their 'displeasure with the policies of the United States government,' " the report notes.
But it's not always the police who do the squelching, as other upside-down flag cases illustrate. Two were reported by Alisa Solomon in the June 2 issue of The Nation. One occurred at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. After seven housemates hung the distress-symbol flag, "their neighbors responded by throwing rocks through the students' windows, calling in death threats to their answering machine, and strapping a dead fish to their front door, Godfather-style," Solomon reported. "Restaurants in town stopped serving kids from Wheaton, and bar patrons harassed them. Norton police recommended that for their own safety, the housemates move out for a few days."
Katherine Lo, a sophomore at Yale, "also hung an upside-down flag outside her window," wrote Solomon. "Several men wielding a two-by-four tried to enter her room late at night while Lo was home. They left a convoluted note on her door that ended, 'Fuck Iraqi Saddam following fucks. I hate you, GO AMERICA.' "
John Fleming owns the Roost and Coyote's Den, an activist book and record store in Alamosa, Colorado. On the day that Bush began bombing Iraq in March, Fleming hung an upside-down flag in his store window. Some outraged residents complained to the police. "I had a half dozen calls in thirty minutes," Alamosa Police Chief Ron Lindsey says. Lindsey came over to the store and told Fleming that he couldn't legally have an upside-down flag on display.
"If I take the flag down and buckle under, don't you see what the implications will be?" Fleming recalls asking. "Don't you see what that does to the First Amendment, or has Bush destroyed that already?"
"You know, it's inflaming the community," Lindsey said, according to Fleming.
The ACLU of Colorado threatened to sue, and city attorneys quickly told the police chief he had no leg to stand on. Lindsey says he based his action on a flag-desecration statute. "I thought it pertained," he says. "Obviously, that was the wrong thing to do."
Fleming's nickname, by the way, is Coyote. The day after an article by Sylvia Lobato appeared in the Alamosa Valley Courier mentioning that nickname and the flag controversy, he found an unwelcome sight waiting for him at the office. "Someone went out and shot a coyote and threw the bleeding carcass up against the front door of the Roost," Fleming says. "I can't get the blood off the concrete. They took the ears off so they could claim the $5 bounty. I took it as a death threat."
Emily Jane Heynen is a tenant in Minneapolis. She had a problem with her previous landlord, Eulalia Rohleder, who lived downstairs.
Seems the landlord wanted to put up a plastic American flag on Heynen's porch, and when Heynen objected, the landlord and her daughter, Penny, took offense.
"I told Penny that the American flag didn't stand for something I believed in at this point in time, and that I didn't agree with what our government was doing in preparing for this Iraq war," Heynen recalls. "She looked kind of horror-stricken and called me 'a little commie' and an 'American-hater.' Then she said that her mom was not going to like this and that I shouldn't let her mom know about this because she would want me to move out. And I asked her to not tell her mom, and she glared and walked away."
Rohleder called her the next day to raise the subject of the flag, says Heynen, who works at the Headwaters Fund.
"She started arguing with me about patriotism and the importance of the flag, and she said that Penny and she feel very strongly about it, and that I had hurt them," Heynen says.
Heynen wrote about the incident in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "At this point in our history, the flag does not represent freedom and liberty for all," she wrote. "The flag represents our government's intent to politically and militarily dominate weaker countries to support our addiction to oil and our love affair with the automobile."
Heynen drew the comparison to McCarthyism: "Is this how people who dared to dissent felt during the McCarthy era? Be careful what you say, lest you be branded a traitor? . . . It is a threat I now face: Comply or get out. It is a threat written in longhand on little pieces of paper that often greet me when I get home from work."
She has now moved out.
"It was the first time I'd heard that kind of anger," she says. "It was really a shock that I'd have to censor what I say. It was scary. I was frightened by that intensity."
When asked about the incident, Rohleder says: "Are you for the flag, or not? We have a great big flag flying in our yard, and if anyone has a problem with the flag, why would they move here?"
She says she never demanded that Heynen leave. "My daughter just said to her, 'Oh, are you planning on moving?' Because like I say, I have a big flag out front, and she doesn't believe in the flag. I tried to explain to her that the flag has nothing to do with Bush and his Administration. The flag is representative of the United States, and anyone who doesn't like it shouldn't be here."
Another tenant that ran into trouble for anti-war views is District 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. It was actually evicted.
District 1199, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, got hit by a complaint from its landlord, Carroll Ventures, Inc., claiming it had " 'breached the terms of its lease by holding an anti-war demonstration,' " Dan Shingler of the Albuquerque Journal reported on May 19. "The union local definitely held an anti-war demonstration, but it was at the intersection of San Mateo Boulevard and Cutler Avenue, and not at its offices."
"It's kind of scary," Eleanor Chavez, director of District 1199, told Shingler. "What's happening in this country? We talk about going to war with Iraq to defend freedom. Well, how do you define freedom?"
One reason for the eviction is that the union local did not respond to the complaint in court, Shingler reports. Both he and The Progressive called Carroll Ventures for comment but received no answer.
To be a freethinking high school teacher or student in New Mexico during the Iraq War was perilous. On March 11, Carmelita Roybal, who teaches ninth-grade English at Rio Grande High School, was suspended for two days without pay when she did not take down her "No War Against Iraq" sign. Heather Duffy, who teaches art at the school, hung a similar sign the next day in solidarity with Roybal, and she, too, was suspended, according to the Albuquerque Tribune.
On March 13, "forty-five students walked out of class" to support the teachers, the paper said. The students "were videotaped by school officials and likely will be cited for truancy. . . . School police arrested four students when they refused to go to class."
On March 19, Ken Tabish, a guidance counselor at Albuquerque High School, was suspended for two days without pay for refusing to take down anti-war material he had posted in his office, including a copy of a speech by Senator Robert Byrd.
That same day, Francesca Tuoni, a language teacher at Albuquerque High, who is the adviser to a campus group called "Students for Participatory Democracy," was ordered by a vice principal to remove a flyer on her classroom wall that advertised a peace rally. Tuoni complied with the order.
Meanwhile, at a third school within the same district, two other teachers got into similar trouble. At Highland High, Geoffrey Barrett and Allen Cooper "have been placed on leave for refusing to remove war-related student artwork posted in their classrooms," AP reports.
"Barrett, who teaches history and current events, said the student art carried both anti-war and pro-war messages, and was created as part of a class assignment," the April 1 AP story says.
Cooper, who teaches English, displayed one anti-war sign "by an Afghani student who has had family members killed in U.S.-led bombings in Afghanistan, he said," according to the story.
Cooper and Barrett were suspended for two days without pay.
Finally, Bill Nevins, a teacher at Rio Rancho High, in a different district, was suspended when a member of the student poetry slam club he supervises read an anti-war poem "over the in-school closed-circuit TV system," according to Green Left Weekly. "Following the reading, the student's parent (also a teacher at the school) was ordered by an assistant principal to go home and search the student's room for a print copy of the poem. The parent declined to do so."
On April 18, the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union sued the Albuquerque Public Schools and several administrators for violating the rights of Roybal, Tabish, Tuoni, and Cooper.
"There has to be a space for free speech for teachers," says Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union. "And we're trying to carve out an appropriate space for that."
Tom Treece could use that space. He taught a course called "Public Issues" at Spaulding High School in Barre, Vermont. This spring, he and some of his students found themselves embroiled in a public issue.
It all started with a dialogue board the school hung up to facilitate an exchange of views after September 11. The administrators invited students and teachers to post their opinions. One day in March, "I posted a little notecard-sized paper that said, 'All hail the idiot boy king.' That started the whole fury," Treece recalls. Local residents Paul and Norma Malone, who have founded a group called Citizens Advocating Responsible Education, wrote a letter to the local paper, The Times Argus, that was published on March 28.
"It is unrealistic to expect that current world events would not be a topic of discussion among students or faculty," they wrote. "But it is quite another matter for a teacher to use taxpayer dollars (his salary, the school facility, and related resources) to proselytize his leftwing political rhetoric and anti-establishment rhetoric. Of particular concern is the lack of respect shown in this reference to the President of the United States as 'the idiot boy king.' We would advise the board and the administration to examine Mr. Treece's teaching practices and course materials."
Superintendent Dorothy Anderson says she asked Treece to take the "idiot boy king" note down. "It was in bad taste, it was strongly worded, and it may discourage his students from offering an opposite viewpoint," she says. Treece complied.
That did not mollify the citizenry.
At a school board meeting on April 7, "about three dozen residents" came "to confront the school board about a bulletin board they say has been abused by faculty promoting an anti-American agenda," The Times Argus reported. They also objected to bumper stickers Treece had on his door that said, "Impeach Bush," and, "Vermonters for a Bush/Cheney Regime Change."
Treece says that some of these residents have been calling for his head. He cites a flier circulating in town with his yearbook picture on it, along with a copy of his "Impeach Bush" sticker, and the words, "We cannot allow this kind of stuff to happen in our schools."
Things really got weird when a local police officer entered Treece's classroom in the middle of the night on April 9 with a camera. He convinced the custodian to unlock the door to Treece's classroom, and he took a picture of a student project that showed President Bush with duct tape over his mouth, and the words: "Put your duct tape to good use. Shut your mouth." (Treece had students make posters defending their pro-war or anti-war views.)
The police officer, John Mott, told The Times Argus, "I wanted everybody else to see what was in that room. . . . Having spent thirty years in uniform, I was insulted. I'm just taking a stand on what happens in that classroom as a resident and a voter and a taxpayer in the community."
Mott, incidentally, used to work at Spaulding High as the Junior ROTC officer.
Superintendent Anderson was not happy that Mott entered the school at 1:30 in the morning to further his own political agenda.
"I find this behavior, at the very least, in violation of our policy for visitors at the school," she wrote Police Chief Michael Stevens on April 16. "I also find it disturbing that a police officer would wear his uniform under such circumstances, thereby intimidating our employee into letting him in the building at a very unusual hour. I question the intent of his visit. Why could he not have come during regular school hours? Please look into this matter and determine if any ethical or legal guidelines were breached."
According to Anderson, the police chief told her "he was going to handle it administratively." Stevens did not return several phone calls from The Progressive.
On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh called Mott a hero and posted the students' artwork on the Limbaugh web page.
"These kids didn't turn these projects in with any understanding that they would end up on Rush Limbaugh," Anderson says. "Their parents feel very violated and angry."
Anderson defends Treece's teaching practices. "In the course of his teaching, he does present both sides and gives resources on both sides," she says.
But she is pursuing administrative action against him.
"I can't teach that class anymore," Treece says. After this year, "they've removed me from the class."
Treece is "very upset" about losing this class. "This is purely a political move on their part," he says. The controversy has taken a toll on him. "My reputation has been spoiled," he says. "I haven't got a lot of rest in the last month."
While the climate right now is not as bleak--unless you're a Muslim immigrant--as it was during the harshest days of McCarthyism, these incidents indicate a powerful, frightening trend. Today, deeply reactionary forces don't need a Joe McCarthy in the U.S. Senate. The hecklers, goons, radio and TV talkshow hosts, nativists, and know-nothings in our midst are perfectly capable of doing the tarring and feathering themselves.
-- Matthew Rothschild is Editor of The Progressive. He wrote "The New McCarthysim" in the January 2002 issue. He tracks this subject on the magazine's website, www.progressive.org, under "McCarthyism Watch."