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My Five Minutes of Infamy

Illustration of Richard Berthold by Curtiss Calleo

Prior to 11 September 2001 I was simply a professor of classical history, popular on the campus but essentially unknown beyond the confines of the second-rate university where I have taught for the last thirty years. Then, on that day, while preparing to leave for an eight o'clock Western Civilization class, I watched in amazement as two airplanes flew into buildings in New York City. A bit later in front of perhaps one hundred students I then uttered the remark that brought me my fifteen minutes of fame – or better, infamy:"Anybody who blows up the Pentagon gets my vote."

Why? I have long been suspicious of and more recently very disappointed in the military and civilian leadership of my country, and the remark, which referred to the Pentagon and said nothing about the World Trade Center, was clearly a reflection of my disagreement with much of our foreign policy. Over thirty years of teaching I have on many occasions made such comments about the government, inevitably to the amusement of students, and in fact three current and former Pentagon workers subsequently informed me that they made cracks like that all the time. But in an embarrassing moment of insensitivity and stupidity I made this observation when more than a hundred people had just died at the Pentagon, making those words an exercise in incredible callousness and setting myself up as a lightning rod for all the anger and frustration sweeping the nation.

Let me say right off that I am not, as everyone immediately assumed, some sort of liberal or leftie, and I have in fact for three decades been fighting liberal silliness and threats to free speech on campus. Nor am I, like many who castigated me in the media, an unthinking conservative. Depending upon the issue, I might be to the left or to the right, and I despise those benighted types, many of whom are intelligent enough to know better, who cannot think outside their ideological boxes. Contrary to the belief of so many plainly silly conservatives, it is entirely possible to love this country and be disgusted with its political leadership. It is entirely possible to support out troops and respect our veterans while believing Donald Rumsfeld is a greater danger to this nation than any terrorist. And if one regards the Constitution as one of the greatest political documents ever created, as I do, it is in fact a duty to criticize the Bush administration and its whacko attorney general, John Ashcroft.

Most Americans, however, do not pause to consider such things, especially in a moment of national hysteria, and the hate mail and death threats began to pour in, as the society made the easy assumption that I was a typical pinko, un-American professor. I deleted the ones that began with"go join your raghead friends in Afghanistan, you commie" or some similar sentiment, but I attempted to answer every reasonable criticism of my words. I was astounded, though perhaps not surprised, at how many outraged Americans reminded me how much blood was spilled to defend our freedoms and then in the next sentence denied me one of those freedoms. It is a constant source of wonder to me how frequently Americans speak of the need to defend freedom, often with war, while at the same time being so quick to surrender that freedom in the interests of security, cheap gasoline or whatever. Increasingly sick of being told I should resign, I began replying that I would resign if they promised to quite their jobs the next time they made an offensive or stupid remark. The point was lost on most, I am sure.

As a long-time gadfly at my university, I was accustomed to taking flak from sundry offended persons and groups on campus, but this was different. I had never received death threats before and had no idea whether they should be taken seriously, until some patriot attempted to assault me in front of my house. I also learned that local talk radio hosts were stopping just short of telling their listeners it was all right to beat the hell out of me. And while it is a heady experience to receive requests for interviews from the likes of CNN and Nightline, receiving over a hundred hate emails a day starts to get to you. The one bright side was the support that began to pour in from the almost 20,000 students who have passed through my classes in the last three decades. Especially gratifying were the letters of support from military personnel, particularly those who knew nothing about me, but believed the First Amendment was not just a catch phrase and protected insensitive jerks as well as everyone else. And the week after the remark when I entered my Greek history class, the hundred plus students spontaneously applauded me, probably the finest moment in my teaching career.

In contrast, I received very little support from the approximately fourteen hundred faculty, many of whom jumped on the bandwagon of those demanding termination. The Faculty Senate, a sort of academic Weimar Parliament, finally issued a tepid defense of free speech, at which debate everyone whom I had offended in the last thirty years popped up to proclaim what a jerk I was. Their statement on free speech seemed to exclude me. Most disappointing were the members of my own department, some of whom I had worked with for three decades. Of some two dozen members four said anything to me at all. It is not at all clear to me why successful revolutionaries even bother to shoot the intellectuals.

Meanwhile, an outraged community was demanding that I be fired by the university, and state legislators, rarely a group noted for its deep thinking, were threatening the university’s funding. The university administration never even hinted at termination, not because of any commitment to principle, but because they knew full well it would go to court and they would lose. Presumably because of fear of a lawsuit, the university was very emphatic about the"process" by which I would be judged and punished, causing me to think immediately of Stalin's show trials. I adamantly refused any suggestion that involved my classes or my pay, but the university's position was that I should be suspended for a semester without pay, a serious economic hardship for someone who makes only $45,000 after thirty years of teaching. In order to escape the growing stress I proposed a letter of reprimand, which would have no material effect on me.

I have been led to believe that there was apparently a division within the central administration, with the President, William Gordon, who also wanted this ended, agreeable to a reprimand and the Provost, Brian Foster, with whom I had already clashed over other free speech issues, demanding more serious punishment. I will never know whether it was threats of legal action against the university by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (a group to be cherished by every real academic) or something much more indelicate that resolved the issue in favor of a reprimand, but the university agreed to the reprimand. In my desperation to get out from under this, however, I foolishly allowed them to insert"warnings" about my behavior, thus setting myself up for future harassment, which has now come to pass. The characterizations of my alleged behavior were either completely bogus or laughable; I was, for example, scolded for"threatening the life of a colleague" because I had publicly stated that the dean of libraries was so incompetent that he ought to be shot. The Provost accused me of this with a perfectly straight face.

I am now ashamed that I gave in and did not take the university to court over infringement of my free speech. For thirty years I had been mouthing off about free speech, concerning which I take an extreme position (anything that does not create an immediate physical danger), but when the heat was turned up, I ran away. It is very disappointing to discover that ones character is nowhere near as strong as one had assumed. Perhaps in my younger days I would have fought, but now in my fifties, I just could not take the stress, and my wife was terrified that we would be bankrupted if I went to court. Still, I failed at a crucial moment in my life and ate far more crow than I should have.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education urged me to accept absolutely no punishment and take the university to court, promising that I would never hear the end of it otherwise. They were right.

In the fall of 2002 the chair of my department, Jane Slaughter, a feminist who did not care for me even before my remarks made her life more miserable, issued a negative post-tenure report on me, stating that even my teaching was found wanting. Odd, since I have been drawing into my ancient history courses enrollments typically three to four times greater than my colleagues and had won the university's major teaching award a few years earlier. Student support for me had been overwhelming. I had agreed not to teach Western Civ in the spring (to spare those delicate young minds my offensive words), and she arbitrarily decided that I would not teach it again, though I had successfully taught this course every semester for thirty years.

This semester the harassment from the Provost and my department chair has become steady, as I am accused of sexual harassment and professional misconduct on the basis of arguments the average American would find entirely risible. According to the Provost, for example, my use of vulgar language anytime anywhere in the world constitutes professional misconduct, a gross assault on my free speech.

Well, the drones and the ribbon clerks win. Rather than suing these people in a case that I would almost certainly win, I am retiring at the end of this fall semester. I love being in classes and teaching is part of my identity, but one can only take so much crap, and I am thoroughly sick of benefiting my department with huge enrollments and getting nothing in return but constant harassment and a salary that would be unacceptable to someone right out of graduate school.

But then, my whole experience is hardly atypical, as we all make our way through John Ashcroft's America. The republic is in far more trouble than I have been.