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The Origin of America’s Intellectual Vacuum
Posted on Nov 15, 2010
By Chris Hedges
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 kept out.”
“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.”
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