Finding a balance
by President Baird Tipson
In the months after the attacks last September, I began to get letters and e-mail messages questioning Wittenberg’s patriotism. It seems that an organization called the Claire Booth Luce Policy Institute had referred to Wittenberg College [sic] as a blatant example of how America’s universities were undermining our country’s response to terrorism. Some of those on the Institute’s mailing list were outraged enough to call us on the carpet.
What had we done? It turns out that the occupants of one of our off-campus student houses had committed the sin of hanging a peace sign, long before 9-11, in their window. Since I pray for peace every Sunday in church, this didn’t strike me quite the way it appears to have struck the people at the Luce Institute. I frankly resented Wittenberg’s being singled out when in fact the campus had shown extraordinary support for the President and his anti-terrorist policies. So in addition to sending an explanation to every message whose sender we could identify (some were anonymous), I wrote to the Institute to see if it could explain its actions.
Far from apologizing, it responded that not only had the peace sign been displayed (by that time, in fact, the occupants of the house had replaced it with an American flag) but that a faculty member had written a letter to the campus newspaper that proved our lack of patriotism. The faculty member had dared to suggest that it might help if we tried to understand why some people in the Middle East had become so alienated that terrorist activity seemed to be the only solution. What seems to have caught the Luce Institute’s particular attention was the possibility that U.S. support for Israel might have contributed in some way to the alienation of young Arabs. So we were guilty as charged!
I relate this not only for its own sake but also as an example of what I can only term hostility toward a fundamental part of Wittenberg’s mission: the free exchange of ideas. Shortly after the Luce-inspired complaints began arriving, Forest Wortham, our director of multicultural student programs, was quoted in the Washington Times to the effect that assuring free and open discussion of controversial issues, including America’s Middle East posture, was an obligation of colleges like Wittenberg. Forest, too, began receiving hostile e-mail.
These incidents put me in mind of my experiences as a young faculty member during the 1970s and early 1980s when similar attacks on free speech began coming from the left of the political spectrum. It became a badge of honor for self-styled radicals to shout down speakers with whose positions they disagreed. The radicals argued that as members of the “military-industrial complex,” these speakers had forfeited the right to have their positions heard.
Whether these pressures for conformity come from the left, the right, or somewhere in between, I believe Wittenberg has a deep obligation to resist them. The free exchange of competing ideas is at the core of who we are. Our commitment was tested last spring when John McLaughlin ’64 from the CIA spoke at commencement. Some members of the faculty and student body had grave reservations about CIA activities in Africa and Latin America, and they were determined to demonstrate their dissent. But they did so peacefully and without disrupting Mr. McLaughlin’s address, which was enthusiastically received by most of the audience.
More is at stake even than the free exchange of ideas. The broad, liberal education that we offer to our students challenges them to put issues in context, to see behind the black and white presentations often presented in the media to the complexity of actual human experience. The faculty member who wrote the letter to the Torch wanted the campus to recognize that a simple good guy/bad guy analysis distorted the truth. What were the consequences of our support of the state of Israel? What about our need for Middle-Eastern oil and our willingness to prop up autocratic regimes to assure a steady supply? Had we been wise to abandon Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat? What could we do about America’s ignorance of Muslims and Muslim culture? Such questions can be uncomfortable, but they are the very questions with which we must struggle despite attacks on our patriotism.
Personally, I am convinced that a deeper patriotism, a deeper commitment to the underlying values of our American democracy will result from our efforts to see these issues in all their complexity.
Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112