Saving American Democracy through Truth
Protecting Uninhibited and Unyielding Academic Free Speech
Bertrand Russell said in The Conquest of Happiness: “No satisfaction based upon self-deception is solid, and, however unpleasant the truth may be, it is better to face it once for all, to get used to it, and to proceed to build your life in accordance with it.”
At no time does this hold truer than in wartime.
Yet: “The first casualty, when war comes, is truth,” as remarked a representative from California during World War I.
Truth thrives in free and vibrant democracies, and democracies help prevent war. There are two safeguarding pillars of democracy: journalism and academia.
I.F. Stone is known for his mantra of what makes a good journalist: “A good journalist is someone who comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable.” Indeed, Izzy, as he was endearingly known, upheld over his long career spanning seven decades, and at times suffered considerably because of, his principles.
Václav Havel, another beloved figure of a people, said of what makes a good intellectual: “The intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all hidden and open pressures and manipulations, [and] should be the chief doubter of systems.”
Of course, at this critical time in American and world history, with much dangerous yet irresponsible talk about World War III and with the Doomsday Clock now ticking in seconds, I have thought greatly about my own role as an intellectual, even if my academic institution ousted me. Being from a family of three generations of physician-professors who upheld their principles through war, emigration, and civil conflict, I have not lost sight of my role in society because of what happened to me at Yale.
Rather, I reproach my alma mater for abandoning its principles in a time of greatest need. Learning that Yale was willing to state on the record—for the purpose of dismissing my powerful lawsuit against it, which I filed for the sake of academic freedom everywhere—that it had absolutely no obligation to academic freedom (a shocking statement for a university!) has propelled me forward. This willingness to abandon all previously upheld principles in order to “win” is a philosophical orientation that reflects its current, conflict-ridden, compromised status, quickly diminishing into an academic institution in name only.
This brings us to our situation amid the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where universities are faced with a choice between protecting their students or caving into the pressure of wealthy donors. This is occurring in a culture where special interest groups are manipulating public opinion as well as politicians through paid, often masked, agents, alongside propaganda techniques, media buys, and a variety of rewards, benefits, enticements, and punishments, as both bait and threats. The goal of such powerful forces is actually to make “comforting the afflicted,” i.e., giving voice to the powerless and voiceless, and “afflicting the comfortable,” i.e., investigating and exposing what the powerful are really doing and why, much more difficult.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Newsletter of Dr. Bandy X. Lee to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.