Threats Left and Right: A Conversation with David Greenberg

Sep 14, 2022 | Opinion & Commentary

Threats Left and Right: A Conversation with David Greenberg

Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy

David Greenberg, professor of history, as well as journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, was one of the earliest members of the Academic Freedom Alliance.  I recently conducted an interview with Professor Greenberg to get his reflections on the AFA as the organization just passed one and a half years since its public launch.  

Howard Muncy: The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) launched 18 months ago.  As one of its founding members, what attracted you to join the organization?

David Greenberg: Like many professors, I read a lot of stories about faculty and students being punished for expressing opinions—or sometimes just for uttering the wrong words. Instead of arguing back against opinions we don’t like, the new approach is, all too frequently, to rule them out of bounds, even to punish them. This has led to some miscarriages of justice. It also flies in the face of the mission of the university, which is to encourage the search for knowledge and truth. Sometimes truth and insight emerge from unpopular quarters, and academic freedom was developed as a concept many decades ago to protect professors when their research led them to reach unpopular conclusions. We should be rebutting and discrediting wrongheaded or foul ideas, not trying to silence them. 

Groups like the ACLU and the AAUP that once stood up for academic freedom are doing so less and less. So, it seemed to me that a new organization picking up this discarded standard was a good thing.

HM: Since March 2021, the AFA membership has expanded from the original 217 founding members to more than triple that number as of September 2022.  What do you find to be the major or shared concerns for professors interested in joining and supporting the AFA?

DG: Well, I’ve talked to only a small portion of AFA members. But among those I know – as well as among many professors who aren’t in the organization – I see similar concerns. These include the rising intolerance on campus for differences of opinion, resulting in disinvitations, de-platforming, and exclusions; a demand for orthodoxy on certain contentious issues; a desire to put research – or, maybe worse, the classroom – in the service of a political agenda; and the subordination of an evidence-based, analytical approach to scholarship to an ideological approach. 

So, there’s a real chilling effect at work. Students and faculty, especially untenured faculty, are afraid to express their opinions for fear of being either formally punished or informally ostracized.

HM: What led you to become interested in a more robust protection of academic freedom and free speech?  As an advocate for these principles, is there a particular work or event that shaped your perspective? 

DG: I’ve always been a liberal, with a special concern for civil rights and civil liberties. Those are the values I grew up with. Liberal values are the foundation of a free and democratic society, because liberalism is the philosophy whose principles and ideas permit – and even call for – the expression and discussion of all other principles and ideas. There’s a line attributed to Robert Frost that says a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument. It’s funny because it captures the way we liberals can seem to bend over backwards to hear all points of view. But there’s a compliment paid to liberalism buried in that gibe, which is that liberals believe in the freedom of non-liberals, whether on the left or the right, to engage in politics and public discourse in a liberal society. In contrast, extremists on the left and the right these days don’t always believe in extending the same tolerance to rival ideas.

I grew up in an era when the liberal values of civil rights and civil liberties were very strong and seemingly on the ascent. They had been reinforced in law by the rulings of the Warren Court and had become pervasive in popular culture. The voices opposing free speech and equality were almost all on the traditional and religious right. Around the time I was in college, that began to change, and the far left started to advocate for limits on speech and expression. It was sometimes trivialized as “political correctness,” but underneath the sometimes-frivolous incidents we laughed about was an emerging ideology that did not believe in tolerance and open debate as robustly as liberalism does. Today, there are plenty of threats to academic freedom from both the traditional right and the academic left.

One thing I appreciate most about the AFA is that it recognizes and tries to combat threats from both directions. And its members really run the gamut from left to right. Not everyone identifies as a liberal but everyone, by definition, endorses the liberal principle that only through open debate will we acquire knowledge, insight, and understanding.

HM:  As a history professor at Rutgers University, have you witnessed any attacks on academic freedom?

DG: Fortunately, I haven’t seen a great deal of this in the history department at Rutgers. In fact, in the main incident that leaps to my mind, a historian was the victim. A few years ago, my colleague Jim Livingston, a very accomplished intellectual historian who can be a bit of a provocateur, was being targeted by some mid-level administrator for some ill-advised comments he made on Facebook about white kids gentrifying his Harlem neighborhood. Jim is white himself and said he wanted to resign from the white race—obviously a joke, though maybe not an especially funny one. Several of us—along with lawyers from the group FIRE—fought back in his defense, and the administration retreated. There also have been some ill-advised cancellations of conservative speakers, including Condoleezza Rice in 2014 and a journalist named Lisa Daftari in 2018. 

Our current president, Jonathan Holloway (also a distinguished historian), is a strong supporter of free speech and academic freedom. He recently sent out a back-to-school message reminding everyone of Rutgers’s historic commitment to those values. I believe Rutgers first articulated that policy in the 1960s, after the Eugene Genovese affair. Genovese was a famous historian, best known for Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, who in a 1965 antiwar teach-in said he welcomed a Viet Cong victory in Vietnam. All kinds of people attacked him, including Richard Nixon, and there was pressure to fire him, but Rutgers insisted he was entitled to his opinion, however objectionable it might be.

HM: What are some of the primary issues that threaten academic freedom within the discipline of history more broadly?

DG: In the field of history more generally, there seems to be a great deal more politicization of history than there has been in a long time. I should be clear that not only historians but also journalists, filmmakers, politicians, activists, and all kinds of other people have always tried to find “lessons” in history than can be applied to current-day politics. There’s nothing wrong with that. For most of my career I’ve written about ways that history might help us think about current political issues – with columns for Slate and then Politico, and in all kinds of other forums. Insofar as more historians are taking up that kind of work, I am happy to see it. When I was on the job market as a grad student, I had to downplay my status as a writer or general intellectual, but now historians and other academics tend to get reputational credit for newsletters, podcasts, even a Twitter presence. Popular writing can also be a way into history for general readers – people may be lured in by their interest in some contemporary problem only to discover the richness and complexity of the past. I’ve always written my books for both scholars and general readers, and while there are sometimes tensions in trying to reach both groups, they’re not insurmountable.

What I’m worried about is something different: not using the past to illuminate the present, but the tendency to set out to write and endorse history that serves particular political ends. This can lead historians to avoid evidence, arguments, and conclusions that don’t jibe with their preconceived political opinions. It can lead to history as propaganda. A classic example of someone who pursued his work this way is Howard Zinn, who has a large popular following but for most of his career was more an activist than a scholar. These days I see a growing desire to write history that serves political objectives above all. We should instead be writing history that helps us expand our knowledge about the past and then leads us to consider the present indirectly—and from that basis we might, in whichever ways we see fit, according to our own politics and thinking, go about taking on political challenges. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

I also am concerned about the resurgence of moralism in historical writing. I don’t believe moral judgments or thinking should be absent from historical writing. Sometimes they really do need to be included. But it’s much easier for us to pass moral judgment on actors from the past than it is to engage in analyses of how and why they acted as they did. So, history of that sort is usually somewhat glib and shallow. The over-moralization of issues is a problem in contemporary politics, too. Our political culture has lost touch with the kind of pragmatism that was widespread only a couple of decades ago and led to a much more productive political sphere than we have today.

HM: What do you envision as the short and long-term goals of the AFA?  How will a growing membership play an important part in the organization’s ability to pursue its mission? 

DG: I was not involved in articulating its original principles, but as I understand it, a lot of the original work of the AFA was defensive—rising to assist professors who are being unfairly punished for research or writing that deserves protection. More recently the AFA has made expanding the membership a goal as well. In the longer term, it may be necessary to formulate strategies to put academic freedom on a stronger foundation everywhere. For a while I hoped that this frenzy around silencing unpopular views would pass, but it seems to be here to stay, and it’s going to be necessary to strengthen the institutional protections for faculty, students, and others in the university who espouse unpopular opinions or run afoul of whatever orthodoxies take hold. 

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