Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Monster for Idiots: The National Association of Scholars Argus Project

Thinly veiled indeed are the motives of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) whose recently launched Argus Project is precisely what Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Education and Chris Goff of Free Exchange on Campus say it is: a McCarthy-style recruitment of spies to go and “find” evidence of Leftist indoctrination on college campuses. That’s right, an association that claims to represent a community of scholars wants them to spy on each other and then report their findings to the NAS. To what ends? No doubt, more of what the NAS does best—attack the academy as a bastion of left-leaning radicals. Having, in other words, insufficient evidence with which to make that claim stick—even after years of dirt-digging effort and milking cases like Ward Churchill’s for all they’re worth—the NAS has launched an outreach campaign: They can’t smear the academy all by themselves, so they need the help of those right-thinking stewards of democracy at NAS President Stephen Balch must be kidding. His insistence that “the Argus Project is a call for volunteers to examine publicly available sources to report and document what’s happening on college campuses” doesn’t explicitly call for spies ( Balch even claims that his “own notion of etiquette is that if you are going to go to someone’s classroom, you should get permission.” How polite. Nonetheless, when you consider just what it would take to accomplish the objectives of Argus, it becomes patently clear that surveying university policiy is not what the project’s about.

In the first place, policy investigation is a project that could be carried out by one or two NAS staff members on-line—it doesn’t need a thousand and one Argus-eyes to complete it (despite Balch’s protestation to the contrary). In the second place, and far more telling, that the NAS solicited volunteers makes it quite clear that examining university policy concerning student complaints is not what Balch has in mind, namely, “to look into whether that college conducts politicized teaching, requires ideological adherence, or sustains slights to conservative students” ( Nope, this goal demands folks who are willing to enter a classroom, and what better a place to find project-participants than a website whose axe to grind with the academy looks, well, just like his own?

Balch can’t possibly think that we academics are so daft that we don’t know that his “volunteers” are self-selected—in other words, biased, ready to do some “Leftist-hunting.” The Argus project specifically solicits professors, parents, and citizens who “have probably noticed university policies, programs, or events at odds with the responsible exercise of academic freedom or the decent treatment of students. You knew, “This is not right.” Perhaps you even told someone; but very likely nothing changed” ( This is hardly an example of an unbiased pitch for volunteers, and it’s not likely to produce any objective claims. No patient policy read is going to generate the kind of “information” Balch is after, and even if we supplement policy with syllabi or second hand accounts of professorial abuses alleged by presumed students like those routinely solicited by FrontPageMag/FOX contributor David Horowitz, there’s no replacing an on-site spy. Balch knows this, and just because he says it’s more polite to ask for permission to enter a class (as opposed to just invading it?), this doesn’t imply that “volunteers” are likely to inform professors that they’re there to gather damning information with which to smear a university and its professoriate . Indeed, any professor I know would, if they knew, likely throw the spy out—and Balch knows this too. In fact, he’s counting on our not knowing; he’s counting on the duplicity of the spy. Asking permission to sit in on a class is a far cry from a revelation of dubious motives.

However much he might try to spin it in FrontPageMag style as a tacit admission of guilt, Balch has to know that ejecting a spy has nothing to do with course content or instruction method—much less indoctrination—and everything to do with the oppressive atmosphere created by their revealed presence. And “revealed” it must be—if that’s what Balch means by “permission.” So either that’s what he means, or he’s wholly disingenuous. I think we know which it is. Perhaps Balch thinks he’s crafted a Queen’s fork: Either let the spy surveil your class or risk appearing to be hiding something. But what he’s really hobbled together is just a plain old self-fulfilling prophesy: Send out spies and they’re going to come back with dirt—created right out of their own ideologically saturated imaginations, and this won’t be because there is or isn’t dirt to find; it will be because they’re already convinced it’s out there—just like Balch says.

It’s not, however, the smug self-certainty of the Argus project that troubles me so much. After all, this just is what we’ve come to expect from the NAS and its sister organizations like Campus Watch, FIRE, and FrontPageMag. No, what’s troubling is that they can get any volunteers at all, that they’ve been able to manufacture sufficient fear and mistrust of intellectuals that they can recruit spies. It’s certainly no accident that they’d appeal to the disaffected and often very shrill folks; they’re the perfect pitchfork audience for the witch hunt the Argus project really is. Troubling too is that, denial notwithstanding, the project actually goes to very little effort to conceal its motives. To appeal to fellow professors is as McCarthyite as it gets: Balch wants his academic neighbors to spy on each other. Naomi Klein argues in The Shock Doctrine that the strategy of Milton Friedman’s “disaster capitalism” is to either take advantage of an existing catastrophe (like Hurricane Katrina and the corporatization of New Orleans’ public school system), or to create the appearance of one in order to justify some form of oppressive appropriation of resources (that “just happen” to offer a marketable opportunity). Isn’t that what the Argus Project’s really about? A thousand eyes all seeing the same thing—Leftist indoctrination—is just the catastrophe NAS needs to justify the substitution of their own conservative ideological agenda for, well, education. What Balch knows, very much like Friedman, is that you can’t control a citizenry without controlling what it thinks. What better a strategy than to undermine a nation’s centers of knowledge, research, and ideas—its universities—by converting their classrooms into opportunities for distrust.

Perhaps a better metaphor for Balche’s project than Argus, a monster covered in eyes, is a disease like Mad Cow that indiscriminately attacks its host from the inside out. It needn’t be able to see anything; it need only create conditions adequate to destroying and then reconstructing the academy in the image of a single vision of knowledge, intellectual exploration, and citizenship. But this is ideology, not education. Argus is not the projects of scholars, but of charlatans who wrap themselves in the flag.

Wendy Lynne Lee, Professor
Department of Philosophy
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
Bloomsburg, PA 17815