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Stop going before the Stefanik committee, you fools

Plus: An update on Haiti

Yesterday, yet another group of university presidents — from UCLA, Rutgers, and Northwestern — subjected themselves to the now-regular humiliation ritual of going before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to testify about “campus protests and antisemitism.” As you (but somehow not they?) are surely familiar at this point, it doesn’t matter what was said in three hours of mostly mind-numbing testimony. The result was a foregone conclusion: a handful of readily prepackaged clips of enraged Republican lawmakers, most notably Rep. Elise Stefanik, shrieking down from their elevated platform about “violent pro-Hamas mobs,” followed by the inevitable calls for the university presidents to “resign IMMEDIATELY.”

At this point, anyone who goes willingly in front of that committee deserves what is coming to them. They have to be aware of what happened in previous iterations: to Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Liz McGill (both fired on flimsy pretenses) and Columbia’s Minouche Shafik (threw her faculty under the bus and got cornered into authorizing brutal police repression against her own students, only to end up getting slapped with a no-confidence vote anyway). Whoever keeps advising these university chiefs to Tobias Fünke themselves should get fired immediately — unless they secretly work for the Republican committee, in which case they should get a raise.

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One of the universities represented this time was my alma mater, Northwestern, from which I have both a bachelor’s in American Studies and history, and a master’s in journalism. Watching the clips of university president Michael Schill shrinking into a ball of nothing (in front of a comically oversized prop check from “Qatar Related Sources” to his institution, festooned with crossed Palestinian and Qatari flags and a memo line that read — and I am not making this up — “FROM THE RIVER TO THE SEA”), I remembered a piece of my college education. It was an American Studies seminar I took my sophomore year, taught by a professor in the law school, on free speech in the McCarthy Era.

Specifically, I remembered the story of a university administrator named Owen Lattimore. Lattimore was little known to the public, but one of the leading American scholars on Asian affairs of his day. Raised in the Chinese international city of Tianjin in the years after the Boxer Rebellion, and educated primarily in Europe, he rose through academia to spend a decade and a half as the director of Johns Hopkins University’s Page School of International Relations and the editor of the influential journal Pacific Affairs. During World War II, Lattimore was a key advisor to the U.S. Office of War Information and a chief liaison to America’s ally in China, the dictatorial anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek, in their shared fight against the Japanese Empire.

In the spring of 1950, Joe McCarthy infamously declared that he had a list of hundreds of Communist agents working inside the State Department. This was a lie; he didn’t even have a list, much less evidence to make one, but pressure quickly grew on him to start providing specifics. McCarthy was aware that Lattimore had been the target of an (equally spurious) FBI investigation a decade earlier. So he named Lattimore as the linchpin of his alleged conspiracy, declaring that the then-49-year-old scholar was not only the “top espionage agent in the United States” but the “architect of America’s China policy” — a policy which arch-conservatives fervently believed had deliberately toppled Chiang’s nationalist government in 1949 and delivered China into the hands of the Communists led by Mao Zedong.

Lattimore and Chiang Kai-Shek, September 1941. W. L. Holland Papers (MS 782). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Again, the was no evidence of Lattimore’s supposed participation — much less masterminding — of the alleged plot. As the historian Ellen Schrecker has written, Lattimore had never been a Communist. “But he was a feisty, outspoken liberal who, like most of his fellow China experts, had few illusions about Chiang Kai-shek’s corrupt and undemocratic regime.” This was enough for McCarthy.

Lattimore, who was on a United Nations mission to Afghanistan at the time, raced home to angrily deny McCarthy’s accusations. Though the Democrats who ran the committee sided with the professor, denouncing McCarthy’s allegations as a “fraud and a hoax,” the Republicans refused to sign onto it, making it seem like a partisan whitewash — Democrats protecting the Democratic Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Instead of “muzzling McCarthy,” Schrecker summarized, the committee had thus “publicized the charges” against him.

The ignominy did not go away. Two years later, Lattimore was called before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, on which McCarthy also sat. Instead of trying to make the case that Lattimore had participated in any kind of espionage or treason, he was instead subjected to twelve days of nitpicking questions about things he had said, written, or published decades earlier, in an attempt to catch him contradicting his earlier testimony. His position became more precarious when it was revealed that some past staffers at the journal he ran, such as Frederick Vanderbilt Field, did in fact have Communist politics or had donated to Soviet causes.1 This effect of guilt-by-association was enhanced by still other witnesses who invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination — constitutional invocations that, as McCarthy would invariably exclaim, were “the most positive proof obtainable that the witness is a communist!”

Yet even in this highly prejudicial atmosphere, no shred of evidence was ever produced that Lattimore had a record of even Communist beliefs, much less a period as a spy. Undaunted, the committee recommended Lattimore be charged with perjury. He was. The prosecutor at the trial was none other than McCarthy’s henchman (and Donald Trump’s future mentor) Roy Cohn.2 The charges were so spurious and petty (one involved Lattimore lying about the date of a luncheon) that the judge—himself a former Republican governor of Minnesota—threw them all out. A second set of charges, indicting Lattimore on grounds that he was a “follower of the Communist line” were also summarily dismissed.

But none of that mattered. The spectacle of the hearings and surrounding press coverage ensured that Lattimore would become a public pariah. Johns Hopkins didn’t just end his directorship, they shuttered the entire School of International Relations of which he had been head, throwing the anti-intellectual, ultra-nationalist faction that McCarthy epitomized an unequivocal victory. Lattimore ultimately moved to England, where he started what is now the East Asian Studies department at the University of Leeds. Not even public statements by an FBI agent that the accusations against him were “ridiculous,” nor the fact that his name never appeared as an agent in decrypted files Soviet files released by the U.S. National Security Agency, were enough to remove the stain of having been accused of plotting against the United States. Lattimore died in 1989, still tainted by his participation in McCarthy hearings, even in the eyes of some of his liberal colleagues.

As Schrecker wrote: “The process that transformed the nation’s leading China expert into a nonperson illustrates an important aspect of McCarthyism. Though McCarthy could never prove that Lattimore was a Communist, he had made him controversial. And by the early 1950s, controversy was almost as damaging to the men and women tainted by it as Communism.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) speaks at a hearing called "Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos" on May 23, 2024. (Photo by Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)

Though the GOP ultimately repudiated Joe McCarthy (he was censured in 1954 and died a broken, bitter alcoholic three years later), the current series of hearings are proof that McCarthyist instincts live on in both the modern GOP, and much of the American public besides.

It does not matter if, as a series of seemingly spurious lawsuits now contend, any part of the student pro-Palestine movements will ever be shown to have any tangible connections to Hamas. Nor will the fact that the almost unanimous majority of violent incidents on American campuses related to the protests have been at the hands of pro-Israel mercenaries and counter-protesters and the police. Nor does the implausibility of the Rube Golbergian mechanics these hearings are alleging (that decades of Gulf State investments in American universities were a slowly manifesting Hamas trojan horse that resulted in student protests that [checks notes] said university administrators keep dismantling?). None of that will matter any more than the actual details of Soviet spying and Communist sympathies in mid-century America, nor the veracity of McCarthy’s infamous “list.”

What matters, then as now, is the spectacle of the hearings — the public denunciations, the meek explanations and insistence on legal rights on the part of the witnesses, and the careers ended and public humiliations of the accused that serve as the ultimate proof that the accusers were right all along. All the hallmarks are there of a Third Red Scare (or fourth, if the post-9/11 era was another): increased warrantless surveillance against pro-Palestinian activists, accusations that people horrified at an ongoing genocide are “liberal dupes” at best and secret terrorists at worst, calls to deem supporters of Palestinian self-determination as enemies of the United States. So too, inevitably, will be the uncounted instances of people too afraid of the consequences to speak out against grave injustices and real threats, and those who may quietly change their opinions to match.

Dismantling such a juggernaut is a daunting task. In the original McCarthy Era it took more than a generation. But what anyone who believes in liberal democracy and human rights can do at the very least is to refuse to participate in it. Owen Lattimore, after all, had to testify; he was subjected to a subpoena. These foolish university presidents, on the other hand, keep choosing of their own volition to participate in the farce.

I have another little interview this week in Flaming Hydra, the group newsletter I’m also part of. We talk about the misleading discourse about Biden’s mental fitness and the things I think he should really be criticized for. If you’re already a supporter of The Racket, maybe throw a little lucre their way as well:

Finally, Haiti: The long-rumored, constantly delayed U.S.-sponsored, third-party international military mission to suppress rival paramilitaries and defend a yet-to-be-named acting head of government is … delayed again. This is doubtlessly disappointing to the Biden administration, which nonetheless hosted Kenyan President William Ruto, whose police are set to lead the mission, at a state dinner at the White House on Thursday. Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton all made cameos. Sounds like a lovely evening.

In Haiti, meanwhile, things are horrible. Insecurity, both physical and material, has the entire population on edge. Almost half the population — five million people — are facing crisis or worse levels of acute food shortages. Most cases of violence go unreported and unremarked upon in the states. But the killing of two young American missionaries—David Lloyd III, his wife Natalie, and their Haitian mission director, Jude Montis—broke through into U.S. media today. According to the New York Times, the three were killed at their private missionary compound in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Bon Repos. It seems one gang tried to kidnap them, a rival gang attacked the first, a security guard fired his weapon, and the three ended up dead, possibly among others.

This is a tragedy of course, but one which may have outsized effects given the timing. Natalie Lloyd’s father, Ben Baker, is a Republican state legislator in Missouri. That connection, and the fact that two young, white Americans died, means it is the rare case of individual violence in Haiti that prompted comments from the U.S. National Security Council and State Department, as well as coverage in international media. It could be the sort of thing that finally puts the armed mission into gear. I am well on record as saying that I don’t think another armed intervention is going to make things better, and will in fact most likely make things worse. But like pretty much everyone else in the world and Haiti, I too am out of ideas.

1  Field, a great-great-grandson of the robber baron “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, turned his back on a $70 million inheritance to pursue radical left-wing politics. Those included both activism on behalf of civil rights and antiwar causes (cool) as well as being a defender of Stalin’s policies (less so). He said in his memoirs that he had never been a Communist Party member but “I suppose I was what the Party called a ‘member at large.’” There is little evidence however that he was a Soviet spy.

2  Lattimore’s attorney meanwhile was Abe Fortas, who would briefly be a Supreme Court justice, before being forced to resign over an ethics complaint. Yes, those used to actually mean something.

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