Born on August 4, 1938, Ellen Schrecker holds a BA from Radcliffe College (1960), as well as an MA (1962) and a PhD (1974) in history, both from Harvard University. She has been a professor of American history at Yeshiva University since 1987, and also has taught variously at Harvard, Columbia, the New School for Social Research, New York University, the Union Institute, and Princeton. From 1998-2002, Schrecker was the editor of Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, where she served as a National Council member. She is best known for her work on the history of McCarthyism.
Describing herself as both a “radical” and a “card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union,” Schrecker says she “undertook the study of McCarthyism precisely because of my opposition to its depredations against freedom of speech.” Claiming that “McCarthyism did more damage to the Constitution than the American Communist Party ever did,” she derides anti-Communists generally as conspiratorial McCarthyites who are “misguided or worse.” Among the books Schrecker has published are: No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986); The Age of McCarthyism (1994); and Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998).
Schrecker has no more esteem for the anti-Communist liberals of the Cold War era, than for the McCarthyites of that time. The “anti-Communist crusade,” she has written, “tapped into something dark and nasty in the human soul.” Schrecker believes that if any harm was caused by “Soviet-sponsored spies,” it was “dwarfed by McCarthy's wave of terror.” She describes the executed spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg not as traitors, but rather as people possessed of a “non-traditional patriotism” that ultimately caused “a “grotesquely disproportionate punishment” to be “inflicted on them.” Numerous other Communist spies, adds Schrecker, were merely “internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national borders.” Agnostic regarding the actual guilt of either the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss, Schrecker laments, above all else, that these individuals “reinforced the [negative] image of Communists as Russian spies.” And even while acknowledging the vast extent of Soviet espionage during the Cold War, she asks: “Were these activities so awful?” “As Communists,” Schrecker answers, “these people did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism; they were internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national boundaries. They thought they were building a better world for the masses, not betraying their country.”
With the American Communist Party's “demise” following the Cold War, laments Schrecker, “the nation lost the institutional network that had created a public space where serious alternatives to the status quo could be presented.” She contends that it was anti-Communism which was “undermining” American democracy, not the Communist true-believers who betrayed America to serve Soviet interests. In keeping with that analysis, Schrecker regards the Cold War as the “most extensive episode of political repression in American history.”
Schrecker asserts that even in the post-Cold War era, political repression remains a mainstay of American academic life. Professors are still being tyrannized for their politics, she says, only today the targets of the witch-hunt are not Communists but academics who are perceived to be “radical, one-sided, and hostile to Israel and the United States.” As evidence, Schrecker once cited the University of South Florida's 2001 dismissal of Professor Sami Al-Arian, a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and a fundraiser for Islamic terrorism. Portraying him as a victim of political persecution, Schrecker said that al-Arian’s firing confirmed that “universities are going back to political correctness,” which “[is] really political repression.” “Just as charges of communist sympathies in the 1950s destroyed the careers of people who studied China,” wrote Schrecker, “so today the Arab-Israeli conflict plagues scholars who come from or study the Middle East.... [Al-Arian's] summary dismissal … is a classic violation of academic freedom: It involved his off-campus political activities.”
In April 2002 Schrecker lent her name to a “Letter from United States Citizens to Friends in Europe,” in which the signatories charged that “U.S. power has more often than not been used to prop up the remnants of colonial regimes and unpopular dictators, to impose devastating commercial and financial conditions, to support repressive armed forces, to overthrow or cripple by sanctions relatively independent governments, and finally to send bombers and cruise missiles to rain down death and destruction” on innocent populations around the world. Schrecker’s co-signatories included, among others, Anthony Arnove, Stanley Aronowitz, Medea Benjamin, William Blum, Ward Churchill, John Bellamy Foster, H. Bruce Franklin, Thomas Gumbleton, Robert Jensen, Gabriel Kolko, Joel Kovel, Robert McChesney, Norman Solomon, Paul Sweezy, Gore Vidal, and Howard Zinn.
Asserting that advocates of greater intellectual pluralism in the university are essentially revivalists of Cold War-era “McCarthyism,” Schrecker has derided academic freedom campaigns designed to prevent the imposition of any political, ideological or religious orthodoxy on professors or students. She claims that such initiatives are “worse than McCarthyism” because they seek “to impose outside political controls over core educational functions like personnel decisions, curricula, and teaching methods”—a practice that “not only endangers the faculty autonomy that traditionally protects academic freedom, but … also threatens the integrity of American higher education.”
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