Telling the Truth in Difficult Times

Academe, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

Telling the Truth in Difficult Times


The Ninety-third Annual Meeting of the AAUP combined plenary addresses by three distinguished speakers, business meetings, panel presentations, lobbying visits, award presentations, and an art exhibit.

Two plenary luncheon speakers gave talks relating to the annual meeting's theme of telling the truth in difficult times. Joan R. Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship and consultant to the Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, addressed the annual meeting al a plenary luncheon Friday, June 8. She discussed taboos related to race and gender that have been prominent on college and university campuses. Such taboos reflect genuine social concerns about discrimination, but they also serve to demonize disfavored views and speakers, she said. Since September 1 1, 2001, criticism of the U.S. response to terrorism has become taboo, with the result that disciplinai-)' actions have been taken against professors for statements about the September 11 attacks and a catalog of "anti-American" events on campus was compiled by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The taboos include speech about Israel and Palestine. For example, the David Project has accused Middle Bast studies faculty at Columbia University of anti-Semitism; outside critics denounced Norman Finkelstein and sought to block his bid for tenure at DePaul University because of his book The Holocaust Industry; Brandéis University cancelled an art exhibit featuring photographs of Palestinian children because the exhibit was not "balanced"; former U.S. president Jimmy Carter has been attacked as anti-Israel because of his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid; lirofessoi-s Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer were labeled anti-Semitic for an article, "'!'he Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy"; and the efforts by some British academic and labor unions to boycott Israeli scholars and academics met with charges of anti-Semitism. Berlin noted the atmosphere of "mutually destructive reductionism" that prevents recognition of alternate views. As an alternative model, she cited a current educational effort to create separate historical narratives representing competing perspectives, and using these to defuse taboos and foster discussion, debate, and dialogue.

The conference included an exhibition of twenty-four portraits In Maine artist Robert Shetterly from his nonpartisan series "Americans Who Tell the Truth." These portraits of past and current Americans are intended to remind us of the dignity, courage, and importance of some of America's prominent truth tellers. Shetterly addressed the annual meeting at the plenary luncheon on Saturday, June 9. He described how he came to paint the portraits: formerly a political cartoonist as well as a painter, Shetterly came to feel cynical toward and distanced from his subjects. Believing himself to have an artistic obligation to do something about injustice and acting on an impulse to protect himself from being either complacent in orcomplicit with this moment in our history, he began researching American history and painting portraits of American role models. In painting the series - which has grown from one painting to 108 and counting - Shetterly identified what he believes to be the necessary ingredients for a successful democracy: consent based on truth, dissent, a free and non-corporate press, active citizenry, accountability, and a society that is not funded by corporate donations. The artist now spends most of his lime working with children, talking about his paintings and the role models that they portray. At the end of next year the entire collection will be donated to an as-yet-unspecified institution. More information is available al www.americanswhotellthetruth.org.

The keynote address at the annual meeting's Saturday night banquet was given by Andrew Ross, professor in the Program in American Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University and author of Fast Boat to China: Corporale L'Ughi and the Consequences of Free Trade - Lessons from Shanghai.

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