The Origin of America's Intellectual Vacuum
By Chris Hedges
November 15, 2010
The blacklisted mathematics instructor Chandler Davis, after
serving six months in the Danbury federal penitentiary for
refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities
Committee (HUAC), warned the universities that ousted him
and thousands of other professors that the purges would
decimate the country's intellectual life.
"You must welcome dissent; you must welcome serious,
systematic, proselytizing dissent - not only the playful,
the fitful, or the eclectic; you must value it enough, not
merely to refrain from expelling it yourselves, but to
refuse to have it torn from you by outsiders," he wrote in
his 1959 essay "...From an Exile." "You must welcome dissent
not in a whisper when alone, but publicly so potential
dissenters can hear you. What potential dissenters see now
is that you accept an academic world from which we are
excluded for our thoughts. This is a manifest signpost over
all your arches, telling them: Think at your peril. You must
not let it stand. You must (defying outside power; gritting
your teeth as we grit ours) take us back."
But they did not take Davis back. Davis, whom I met a few
days ago in Toronto, could not find a job after his prison
sentence and left for Canada. He has spent his career
teaching mathematics at the University of Toronto. He was
one of the lucky ones. Most of the professors ousted from
universities never taught again. Radical and left-wing ideas
were effectively stamped out. The purges, most carried out
internally and away from public view, announced to everyone
inside the universities that dissent was not protected. The
confrontation of ideas was killed.
"Political discourse has been impoverished since then,"
Davis said. "In the 1930s it was understood by anyone who
thought about it that sales taxes were regressive. They
collected more proportionately from the poor than from the
rich. Regressive taxation was bad for the economy. If only
the rich had money, that decreased economic activity. The
poor had to spend what they had and the rich could sit on
it. Justice demands that we take more from the rich so as to
reduce inequality. This philosophy was not refuted in the
1950s and it was not the target of the purge of the 1950s.
But this idea, along with most ideas concerning economic
justice and people's control over the economy, was cleansed
from the debate. Certain ideas have since become
unthinkable, which is in the interest of corporations such
as Goldman Sachs. The power to exclude certain ideas serves
the power of corporations. It is unfortunate that there is
no political party in the United States to run against
Goldman Sachs. I am in favor of elections, but there is no
way I can vote against Goldman Sachs."
The silencing of radicals such as Davis, who had been a
member of the Communist Party, although he had left it by
the time he was investigated by HUAC, has left academics and
intellectuals without the language, vocabulary of class war
and analysis to critique the ideology of globalism, the
savagery of unfettered capitalism and the ascendancy of the
corporate state. And while the turmoil of the 1960s saw
discontent sweep through student bodies with some occasional
support from faculty, the focus was largely limited to
issues of identity politics - feminism, anti-racism - and
the anti-war movements. The broader calls for socialism, the
detailed Marxist critique of capitalism, the open rejection
of the sanctity of markets, remained muted or unheard. Davis
argues that not only did socialism and communism become
outlaw terms, but once these were tagged as heresies, the
right wing tried to make liberal, secular and pluralist
outlaw terms as well. The result is an impoverishment of
ideas and analysis at a moment when we desperately need
radical voices to make sense of the corporate destruction of
the global economy and the ecosystem. The "centrist"
liberals manage to retain a voice in mainstream society
because they pay homage to the marvels of corporate
capitalism even as it disembowels the nation and the planet.
"Repression does not target original thought," Davis noted.
"It targets already established heretical movements, which
are not experimental but codified. If it succeeds very well
in punishing heresies, it may in the next stage punish
originality. And in the population, fear of uttering such a
taboo word as communism may in the next stage become general
paralysis of social thought."
It is this paralysis he watches from Toronto. It is a
paralysis he predicted. Opinions and questions regarded as
possible in the 1930s are, he mourns, now forgotten and no
longer part of intellectual and political debate. And
perhaps even more egregiously the fight and struggle of
radical communists, socialists and anarchists in the 1930s
against lynching, discrimination, segregation and sexism
were largely purged from the history books. It was as if the
civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had
no antecedents in the battles of the Wobblies as well as the
socialist and communist movements.
"Even the protests that were organized entirely by
Trotskyists were written out of history," Davis noted
Those who remained in charge of American intellectual
thought went on to establish the wider "heresy of leftism"
in the name of academic objectivity. And they have
succeeded. Universities stand as cowardly, mute and silent
accomplices of the corporate state, taking corporate money
and doing corporate bidding. And those with a conscience
inside the walls of the university understand that tenure
and promotion require them to remain silent.
"Not only were a number of us driven out of the American
academic scene, our questions were driven out," said Davis,
who at 84 continues to work as emeritus professor of
mathematics at the University of Toronto. "Ideas which were
on the agenda a hundred years ago and sixty years ago have
dropped out of memory because they are too far from the new
center of discourse."
Davis has published science fiction stories, is the editor
of The Mathematical Intelligencer and is an innovator in the
theory of operators and matrices. He is a director of
Science for Peace. He also writes poetry. His nimble mind
ranges swiftly in our conversation over numerous disciplines
and he speaks with the enthusiasm and passion of a new
undergraduate. His commitment to radical politics remains
fierce and undiminished. And he believes that the loss of
his voice and the voices of thousands like him, many of whom
were never members of the Communist Party but had the
courage to challenge the orthodoxy of the Cold War and
corporate capitalism, deadened intellectual and political
discourse in the United States.
During World War II Davis joined the Navy and worked on the
minesweeping research program. But by the end of the war,
with the saturation bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, as well
as the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, he came to regret his service in the military. He
has spent most of his life working in a variety of anti-war
and anti-nuclear movements.
"In retrospect I am sorry I didn't declare myself as a
conscientious objector," he said. "Not at the beginning of
the war, because if you are ever going to use military force
for anything, that was a situation in which I would be happy
to do it. I was wholehearted about that. But once I knew
about the destruction of Dresden and the other massacres of
civilian populations by the Allies, I think the ethical
thing to do would have been to declare myself a CO."
He was a "Red diaper baby." His father was a professor,
union agitator and member of the old Communist Party who was
hauled in front of HUAC shortly before his son. Davis grew
up reading New Masses and moved from one city to the next
because of his father's frequent firings.
"I was raised in the movement," he said. "It wasn't a cinch
I would be in the Communist Party, but in fact I was,
starting in 1943 and then resigning soon after on
instructions from the party because I was in the military
service. This was part of the coexistence of the Communist
Party with Roosevelt and the military. It would not disrupt
things during the war. When I got out of the Navy I rejoined
the Communist Party, but that lapsed in June of 1953. I
never got back in touch with them. At the time I was
subpoenaed I was technically an ex-Communist, but I did not
feel I had left the movement and in some sense I never did."
Davis got his doctorate from Harvard in mathematics and
seemed in the 1950s destined for a life as a professor. But
the witch hunts directed against "Reds" swiftly ended his
career on the University of Michigan faculty. He mounted a
challenge to the Committee on Un-American Activities that
went to the Supreme Court. The court, ruling in 1960, three
years after Joseph McCarthy was dead, denied Davis'
assertion that the committee had violated the First
Amendment protection of freedom of speech. He was sent to
prison. Davis, while incarcerated, authored a research paper
that had an acknowledgement reading: "Research supported in
part by the Federal Prison System. Opinions expressed in
this paper are the author's and are not necessarily those of
the Bureau of Prisons."
Davis, who has lived in Canada longer than he lived in the
United States, said that his experience of marginalization
was "good for the soul and better for the intellect."
"Though you see the remnants of the former academic left
still, though some of us were never fired, though I return
to the United States from my exile frequently, we are gone,"
he said. "We did not survive as we were. Some of us saved
our skins without betraying others or ourselves. But almost
all of the targets either did crumble or were fired and
blacklisted. David Bohm and Moses Finley and Jules Dassin
and many less celebrated people were forced into exile. Most
of the rest had to leave the academic world. A few suffered
suicide or other premature death. There weren't the sort of
wholesale casualties you saw in Argentina or El Salvador,
but the Red-hunt did succeed in axing a lot of those it went
after, and cowing most of the rest. We were out, and we were
"I was a scientist four years past my Ph.D. and the regents'
decision was to extinguish, it seemed, my professional
career," he said. "What could they do now to restore to me
35 years of that life? If it could be done, I would refuse.
The life I had is my life. It's not that I'm all that
pleased with what I've made of my life, yet I sincerely
rejoice that I lived it, that I don't have to be Professor X
who rode out the 1950s and 1960s in his academic tenure and
his virtuously anti-Communist centrism."
Like Chandler Davis, screenwriters Dalton Trumbo, left, and
John Howard Lawson were sent to prison for refusing to
cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
[Photo accompanying article at:
[Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on
Truthdig, spent nearly two decades as a foreign
correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa
and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries
and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National
Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York
Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15
Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New
York City and has taught at Columbia University, New York
University and Princeton University. He currently teaches
inmates at a correctional facility in New Jersey.]
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