Letters to the Editor


Regarding Censorship By Other Means: The Witch-Hunting of a Professor, by Gilles d'Aymery (December 2, 2002) On December 5, we received an e-mail from Professor Kirstein, as well as a very thoughful letter from a reader (on 12/2). Both are published below, as well as some further comments.

To the Editor:

I read Mr. d'Aymery's generous assessment of my situation and I wish to comment on a few items. My first reaction is to one of the footnotes. [Ed. footnote (15)] The Kurpiel e-mail was not a setup. There have been a variety of rumors to that effect but I am the authority on this issue and can dismiss it out of hand. I take full responsibility for my response and do not need even a speculative crutch. I teach American History--not English History--and Political Science within the Department of History and Political Science where I am a tenured full professor of history. It is not surprising, therefore, that Cadet Kurpiel would send his message to me. There were also dozens of other names on the e-mail who are fellow academicians in the Midwest.

However, I believe Mr. d'Aymery raises a profound and essential dimension that is more significant than the misadventures of my e-mail exchange with the cadet. To what extent is the intense reaction primarily the result of my provocative e-mail for which I apologized prior to this becoming a national story? Contrariwise, to what extent is this an effort to suppress my views and ideological positions, thereby creating a climate where those who oppose war, collateral damage, unilateralism, genocide and preemptive conflict will be chilled into silence? That is a broader question that impacts public policy and free speech that is deftly covered in Mr. d'Aymery's column. While I have taken full responsibility for the October 31 missive and have long ago made peace with myself over that issue, I am, nevertheless, greatly concerned that other academicians who share a similar ideological point of view may engage in self-censorship. I have received some correspondence to this effect already. This is what haunts and concerns me as we attempt to maintain open and dissenting dialogue in the United States.

This is one of my first public utterances since this tumult began as I resume my mission to oppose and denounce United States imperialism and its hegemonic approach to international affairs.

Peter N. Kirstein
Professor of History
Saint Xavier University
Chicago, Illinois, USA


Gilles d'Aymery responds:

Professor Kirstein appended a short comment to his letter: "should you post this and I am not requesting that you do, can you send me a heads up?"

I then contacted professor Kirstein to advise him that I would indeed publish his letter. I wrote:

Dear Professor Kirstein,

Thank you for your comments and for having read my column on Swans. I am glad to stand corrected on the content of my note that could suggest that you had been set up. I'm sure you must have noticed that I treated that possibility with some circumspection, only in a note, and certainly not in the column itself. There are much too many conspiracy "theories" out there. I certainly do not want to add to the litany.

However, yes, the main, most fundamental issue, is the freedom to express views that may look abhorrent or distasteful to some, or many, at any one time. You may also have noticed that I did not assert whether I agreed with the substance of your e-mail to the cadet. I could not care less about what you were saying. I care about you, or anyone else for that matter, being able to say it, whether offensively or not -- even though I think we would agree that offensive words are most often counterproductive. In my sincere opinion, I consider that you were goated and while missing the context within which SXU president Yanikoski had to operate, I deeply deplore his decisions. His were a great disservice to the cause of free speech; a freedom -- or a privilege -- that should never be taken for granted. I think Cadet Kurpiel and, especially, his superior would concur.

With your authorization, I will indeed publish your comments in our next Letters to the Editor (publication date: December 16, 2002).

Since I wrote this e-mail, I came across the following facts:

Thomas W. Warner, the secretary of a small organization in Seattle, WA, (the Seattle/Cuba Friendship Committee, 8923 2nd Ave. N.E. Seattle, WA, 98115 (206) 523-1720, http://www.seattlecuba.org), allegedly accused of using the internet and the web site of the Seattle/Cuba Friendship Committee to "organize and promote" a trip to Cuba without a license, received a Requirement to Furnish Information letter (dated October 16, 2002) from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control. According to Mr. Warner, "Failure on [his] part to respond in a timely manner to these accusations can result in a penalty of thousands of dollars." Mr. Warner had to hire an attorney to rebut the alleged accusation.

[By the way, the same Office of Foreign Assets Control has recently fined the Chicago-based humanitarian group, Voices in the Wilderness, $20,000 for violating sanctions in Iraq four years ago. (source: Amy E. Nevala, "Chicago group cited for Iraq aid won't pay fine; Coordinator balks at $20,000 penalty sought by the U.S."; Chicago Tribune, 12/5/02.)]

Nick Will, the Editor of Harvard Business School newspaper, Harbus, has had to resign under pressure for having published a "tiny message ('incompetent morons') in the corner of a cartoon criticizing the business school's career services program." (source: John Leo, "A breach of free speech," U.S. News & World Report, 12/9/02.)

Here is an Associated Press dispatch found on CNN on 12/6/02: "A man who made a remark about a 'burning Bush' during the president's March 2001 trip to Sioux Falls, SD, was sentenced Friday to 37 months in prison." (source: http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/12/06/burning.bush.ap/index.html)

In a 12/6/02 article, "Should I stay or should I go," Workingforchange.com columnist Geov Parrish writes about an e-mail he received from a reader that read, among other things, "I have an online zine...and it has a politics section where I direct readers to the better stories I find each week....At this point, I've got enough pessimism combined with a streak of fear to where I'm probably going to eliminate the Politics section. Even if it means cow towing to the Evildoers, my hope would be to fly 'under the radar screen' long enough to save enough to bail out of this country for good." (source: http://www.workingforchange.com/article.cfm?itemid=14193&CFID=3996728&CFTOKEN=93347427)

Then there is Hollywood self-censorship, shelving a movie like The Quiet Man, starring Michael Caine, because the studio, Miramax, concluded that "you can't release this film now; it's unpatriotic." (Source: Jon Wiener, "Quiet in Hollywood," The Nation, 11/26/02; http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20021216&s=wiener)

...And the barrage of criticisms against "Academic leftists" from well-funded conservative think tanks continues unabated. viz. The Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) resident fellow Onkar Ghate who's of course "available for interviews on this topic." (source: Onkar Ghate, "Censorship On Campus Post 9/11?" ARI, 09/17/02; http://www.aynrand.org/medialink/pr091702.shtml)

Meantime, to provide an example of how these news are being handled in some quarters, here is what can be read in the December issue of the Air Force Magazine: "A professor at Saint Xavier University wound up in hot water for accusing USAF of 'baby-killing tactics,' among other things.

Peter N. Kirstein, 56, taught for 28 years at the small Catholic college in Chicago. In November, he received an e-mail from an Air Force Academy cadet seeking help publicizing a campus event. He fired back by calling the cadet a 'disgrace to this country.' The college subsequently received thousands of angry calls, prompting Kirstein and President Richard A. Yanikoski to issue apologies and clarifying remarks. Kirstein was publicly rebuked and disciplined."
(source: Suzann Chapman, Managing Editor, "Pacifist Professor Feels Blowback From Comments," Air Force Magazine, 12/02.)

Intimidation, condemnation, "punishment,". . . . FEAR.

The list keeps growing.

These issues are not new to me. Readers may recall my own sentiments of fear expressed in my 12/10/01 column, "Un-American, Fly-Shit Melody." Fear, a potent motivator some would argue, is both a disease and a reactionary tool. It's a disease to humanism and it's always used by dogmatic individuals who in the name of whatever "truth" want to impose their views on the many. Fear is a tool of control and power. It's in essence a terroristic tool.

Freedom of speech and censorship by other means are not new to me either. Please, see my 10/1/01 column, "Freedom of Speech and Swans." Or read my June 97 column, "The 'Flag' Amendment" where you will find a quote of something I wrote in....1989! Not new to me indeed.

It's just that the situation is becoming increasingly precarious and the viciousness of the attacks against any kind of discordant or unconformist views has grown steadily (and exponentially since 9/11) for the past twenty-some years. We've been navigating through reactionary waters for a good time. Now, it's big time...

Some readers may find my concerns a bit too alarming, too Cassandraish... then here is what Professor Kirstein said to me in answer to my e-mail:

"Dear Gilles,
I appreciate the professionalism and kindness of your response. Yes, you may use my e-mail but brace yourself for the response. Think of what you may be getting yourself into."

Of course, my answer was professional (as it should be) and kind (is it not what we humans are supposed to be?) but to have to brace myself and to think about what I may get myself into tells me loud and clear that the title of my column was right on mark. This professor got witch hunted with a ferocity that in perspective would make a rattle snake look friendly.

As a quiet troubadour, in the midst of much violent commotions that are entirely out of my control, I consider that one must take a stand when one can. This is clearly a case where we all can. And this stand must also hold firm, even when a politician such as Senator Trent Lott makes blatantly racist remarks. "Sunlight is the best antiseptic," said Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis... Lott should not become a punching ball in the name of political expediency. The ballot box should be his ultimate and democratic 'censor,' like the ballot box took care of David Duke and the like. To defend freedom of speech boils down to defending speech that one finds particularly, deeply abhorrent.

I am wondering whether SXU President Yanikoski has had second thoughts about his decisions and whether he would care to comment... And I would ask the same question of Cadet Kurpiel and his superior, Captain Jim Borders. Furthermore, I would truly appreciate it if the Cadet and the Captain, should they ever read this, could share their opinion about Sabina Becker's contention (see her eloquent letter below) that the military is indeed not defending free speech. Thinking of it, would President Yanikoski also care to comment on Ms. Becker's letter and would he consider rescinding Professor Kirstein's punishment? It's never too late to redress a wrong.

Please, defend free speech.

Gilles d'Aymery
Menlo Park, California, USA


To the Editor:

Interesting article on the Kirstein kerfuffle. It all certainly gives one to wonder about freedom of speech, who protects it, and who attacks it.

It is all very well for an air-force cadet to denounce a professor for infringement of his right to free speech, even if said infringement only consists of rudely refusing to help that cadet announce a forum for political discussion. But what about the free speech rights of the professor? True, his response to that innocuous request was inept, ineloquent and intemperate, and seems basically to stem from a knee-jerk reaction the cadet's military affiliations. Still, it is not as if anything the professor said or did prevented that cadet from actually going ahead with his activities. Understandably, a professor who believes strongly in peace and has done so for decades is not likely to have much good to say about young whippersnappers in the armed forces. But his insulting e-mail is hardly an act of terrorism or even silencing; it is simply an ill-worded expression of disapproval toward something the cadet represents (in his mind, anyway) but has no personal power to change.

That said, the professor made a poor choice of words. Should he apologize for them? Yes--and he has done so not once but several times. That should be an end to the matter right there. The fact that it isn't--and that there are still strident calls for him to be stripped of his right to teach anyone, anywhere, anytime ever again, even if his teaching has nothing to do with politics--is proof that free speech is in serious trouble in America. Why is it that the Ku Klux Klan have a constitutional right to parade in their hooded sheets, and the various neo-Nazi gangs are allowed to post hate propaganda and incitements to violence on the Internet, but a private communication between a professor and a student who didn't even know him is somehow supposed to be grounds for the "unpatriotic" professor's dismissal? Is it only me smelling the dead fish here and deducing that something is rotten in the States, our esteemed neighbour to the south?

Elsewhere in the links pertaining to the Kirstein case, I read a military chaplain's contention to the effect that the military guards Americans' right to free speech.(*) Very nicely worded, very eloquent...and alas, very far from the truth. The military, with all due respect, does not guard free speech, it actively guards AGAINST it. Soldiers on assignment are told what they can and cannot say to their families and friends back home. Not advised, not recommended--TOLD. And if they disobey those orders, the censor comes down hard. Presumably, this is to protect national security interests; as such, military censorship seems reasonable. But...

Far more dangerous than any breach of military security, to my mind at least, is the idea that those who are guarding a so-called free country are in effect being told by whoever governs that country what they may or may not say. The danger is great because it is so insidious, and so often glossed over. How free is the country in actual fact if this is the case? And how secure should the civilians of that country feel, knowing full well that this is the fate of those who guard their so-called freedom? How does anyone reconcile this conundrum? How do military persons, knowing all this, keep from going insane out of sheer cognitive dissonance?

The military guards the country, yes. But it does not uphold free speech rights itself, and should not pretend that it does. To do so is arrogance, and flies in the face of fact. An army fights the country's battles, but not the battle for free speech, which no one but the citizens themselves can fight--by speaking truth to power. The military does not do this; it keeps silence unto death, in the interests of protecting that power. Therefore it is absurd to contend that the military defends free speech; it is only those who USE free speech, however ineptly, who defend it in actual fact. And the military, as noted above, has an active interest in the suppression of free speech.

Yes, Professor Kirstein made a poor choice of words. That much is beyond doubt. But the right to free speech surely covers his right to express his own opinion, privately in this case, and however badly in any case. It should also cover his right to apologize for his initial rudeness and have done with it, and to go on teaching.

Sabina C. Becker
Cobourg, Ontario, Canada

*  The quote in question is as follows: "It is the soldier, not the reporter who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gives us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag."
--Father Dennis Edward O'Brien, Sergeant, USMC  (back)


Regarding Swans and what could be improved...
Greeting, and firstly THANK YOU for putting the immense effort into SWANS that you do. I found SWANS through a link on thunderbay.indymedia.org This is my first visit and it won't be the last; I appreciate the layout of the site, the information within, and the fearless information that you cover. I've eaten up its contents for the past three hours when I really should have been doing other things, and I'm a non-surfer, so you might take that as a compliment.

Allow me a suggestion:
I suffer from political ignorance. Admission is the first step to treatment. The second is to seek help. I'm at a loss when name-dropping happens -- 'Bilderburg-Trilateral' references [Ed. See the Note from the Editor in Swans' last issue], for instance, go right over my head. So I grinned with joy that you had the foresight to include a link to a dictionary. Unfortunately the dictionary lacks many of the references that you make. I'm hoping that someone there can wizard out of the blue an encyclopedia or dictionary that explains so many of the references made in your articles (which seem to be privy to the writers of so many leftist writers) and that you can link your site to it so that others that share my stuntedness can seek treatment.

Many thanks, again, for a great service;

Glenn Kukkee
SnowPIRG, the Superior Northwest Public Interest Research Group
Lakehead University
Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada


Gilles d'Aymery responds:

Thank you for your e-mail and for visiting Swans.

I've been going on through the same 'treatment' for several decades! To recognize one's ignorance is a daily process for me. The more I know, the more I know I know not. I think it's an intelligent process but then I am biased!

As much as we endeavor to footnote and provide relevant sources, your comment made me realize that what I take for common knowledge is not necessarily so. In regard to the Bilderberg on the one hand and the Trilateral Commission on the other, the best way to look for information is to use your favorite search engine... But I will attempt to do so and include the links in the future.

As to what is "privy to so many leftist writers," I wish to take this opportunity to repeat what I have often said: I never ask and have never asked Swans' contributors whether they are or were 'left', 'right', 'center', 'north', 'south', 'east', 'west', 'red', 'white', or 'blue'... (The fact is, Swans is strongly committed to affirmative action. We offer our work and recruit volunteers, occasional contributors, regular columnists and poets without regard to race, color, sex, religion, age, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, national origin, or political affiliation.)

I personally do not like labels. They tend to add weight to the goodies and end up cluttering landfills. There is no need to put people or ideas in a nicely ordained taxonomy. As I keep saying to Swans visitors, "please read and then form your OWN opinion." I mean what I say... Ignore the drawers... They're only useful for socks and underwear; not for ideas, opinions and thoughts.

That said, the 'red' baiting in the USA is a sad part of my American experience; many 'leftist writers' are quite didactic and helpful. They have a lot of knowledge that should not be dismissed due to their appellation. In other words, knowledge is colorless! I regularly visit 'leftist' sites such as Marxmail.org, ZNet, World Socialist Web Site, etc., and when time permits participate in the often lively discussions.

Furthermore, at a time when we are driving ourselves (as humans) into oblivion, at a time when the mainstream voices are by and large regurgitating and promoting the conformist and self-interested views of an increasingly authoritarian oligarchy, it seems to me that it would make sense to listen to a wide variety of other voices including, quite deliberately and appreciatively, 'leftist' voices. This has been Swans' intent, among others, from its very inception in 1996.

Finally, you found the link to Swans on thunderbay.indymedia.org thanks to the relentless work of Gregory Elich.

I think Greg would proudly assert that he is 'old left,' and I am equally proud and honored that he and our other columnists and contributors, regardless of appellation, consider Swans worthy of their work.

Thank you again for the kind words.

We appreciate and welcome your comments. Please, remember to sign your e-mails with your real name and add your city, state, country, address and phone number. If we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country. We are for real. Please be for real. Thanks. (Letters may be shortened and edited)
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Published December 16, 2002
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