Promoting democracy while suppressing ideas
This spring, the U.S. State Department sent a message to the Association of American Publishers announcing new procedures for expediting business visas for U.S. companies’ foreign employees, customers and potential clients traveling to the United States. The message was accompanied by the transcript of a talk in which, while trumpeting the virtues of free trade, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also stated: “An informed and educated public, with access to new ideas, will begin to break a state’s monopoly on information. A rising middle class will create new centers of social power. Legal protections for property rights will feed a demand for human rights and a larger sphere for human liberty. Taken together, this is the beginning of civil society and the end of tyranny – for no matter how much control the state tries to exert, sooner or later, this project will eventually run up against the following fact: You cannot tell people what to think at work but not to think at home.”
Then why, despite her professed high regard for public diplomacy and the free exchange of ideas as key tools in the arsenal of U.S. foreign policy, is Rice permitting so many visas to be denied to foreign scholars who have been invited to the U.S. to engage in the free trade of ideas? The list is lengthy and growing.
Best known is the denial of a visa to Swiss-born Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, who was prevented from accepting a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame by invocation of Section 411 of the Patriot Act. A Bolivian-born historian, Waskar Ari, who earned his doctorate from Georgetown University in 2005, has been similarly prevented from re-entering the country to begin teaching at the University of Nebraska. Aren’t these two academics, both employees of their universities, as much deserving of visas as the employees of any other U.S. businesses?
Other scholars have been prevented from attending scholarly conferences in this country or visiting institutions for scholarly purposes, such as South African Adam Habib, who had been scheduled to speak at a sociology convention in New York in mid-August. Even large groups have been denied entry, as happened at the last minute with 65 Cuban scholars scheduled to be on the program of the Latin American Studies Association meeting in Las Vegas in September 2004 and again, with 55 scholars, at the LASA meeting in Puerto Rico in March 2006. As a result, this association of which I am a member has voted to hold all of its meetings henceforth outside of the United States until such time as government policy changes.
Several suits have been brought against the government to reverse a number of these decisions. LASA is one among a large group of scholarly organizations, which also includes the Association of American University Presses, which are supporting as amici the lawsuit brought by Ramadan, the American Academy of Religion, the American Association of University Professors and the PEN American Center against Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff and Rice to declare the ideological exclusion provision of the Patriot Act unconstitutional.
How can Rice, herself a former professor and provost of Stanford University, square her commitment to academic freedom with such blatant interference with the free trade of ideas? Young people worldwide cannot respect a country that so cavalierly obstructs the free flow of ideas, or one that proposed zeroing out the budget of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the single most important source of funding for the publication of the papers of the Founding Fathers and other principal architects of American freedom, many of them published by university presses.
The cost of running the NHPRC is only $10 million a year, about what it takes to pay for a half hour of the war in Iraq. This administration gives higher priority to making war than disseminating the fundamental ideas of democracy on which our nation was based. On the eve of becoming National Security Adviser for the Bush administration in January 2001, Rice said that for democratic transition in the new Russia to succeed, “the cultural changes ultimately needed to sustain a functioning civil society and a market-based economy may take a generation. Western openness to Russia’s people, particularly its youth, in exchange programs and contact with the private sector and educational opportunities can help that process.”
If the “cultural changes” required to transform a country with a weak civil society into a fully functioning democracy “may take a generation,” as Rice proclaimed, do we really want to sacrifice a generation of young American lives on the battlefield while we wait for those changes to take effect, or shouldn’t we instead be focusing our efforts on those exchanges of ideas that will ultimately be the key to success, as they were in ending the Cold War?
Sanford G. Thatcher is the director of Penn State Press and president of the Association of American University Presses.
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