Dr. Dawg

Academic freedom under assault

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An attempt to obtain vast quantities of personal information about two academic critics of the Harper government should be disturbing to most Canadians, even if Stephen Harper’s five-year erosion of our democratic institutions has by now blunted our sensibilities.

Amir Attaran and Errol Mendes are two professors at the University of Ottawa who have been vigorously critical of the Harper government. Both have been very large thorns in the government’s side on the Afghan detainee abuse issue, and as blogger Impolitical noted at about this same time last year, they have been the subject of considerable savaging by Con partisans as a result.

A McCarthyite witchhunt is by now apparently well underway, and once again Impolitical is all over it. Given the substance of my last post, however, I thought I’d chime in. If conservatives can’t win on the battlefield of ideas, it seems, there’s always crude intimidation.

As reported in the Toronto Star,

Professors Errol Mendes and Amir Attaran, frequently castigated as Liberal sympathizers by the Conservatives, were notified in recent weeks of two unusually massive freedom-of-information requests at the University of Ottawa, demanding details of the professors’ employment, expenses and teaching records.

Last year, the Conservative party issued “talking points” against Attaran, alleging he was close to Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff — the two share a Harvard background. Mendes and Attaran were attacked on Conservative websites and by partisan spokespersons after the professors had spoken out about the Afghan detainee issue.

Heather MacIvor, a professor at the University of Windsor and a longtime researcher and commentator on the Conservative party, said she believes that there is a concerted effort to put a “chill” on academic critics of the Harper government, especially from the hard-right partisans who appear to see campuses as hotbeds of left-wing dissent.

“This government has a hostility toward people who think for a living or people who write for a living,” MacIvor said, noting that Ignatieff’s academic past has made him an object of Conservative ridicule, too.

Last year, at a conference of the Manning Institute, founded by the leader of the old Reform Party, Harper’s former communications director, Kory Teneycke, told a student: “If you have a teacher or examples of teachers who are trying to jam lefty philosophy down your throat, please send me an email… I’d love to make them famous.”

The two professors in question are fighting back, which is of course what one has to do with bullies. They have tossed out a challenge to the anonymous information-seeker:

Amir Attaran and Errol Mendes, vocal critics of the federal Conservative government, say they will release all the information requested - even the data that they don’t have to disclose by law - if the person making the request comes forward and identifies himself or herself.

“We don’t have anything to hide,” said Mendes, saying that he hopes this is also true of the person making the requests, which were so unusually large and beyond the scope of the law that they set off alarm bells with the university.

Nor is this the first time that perceived enemies of our rulers have been subject to these probing personal information requests:

Sharry Aiken, associate dean at Queen’s University’s law faculty, said she was the target of a massive FOI request in 2009 after she helped organize a conference on Middle East politics at York University. The conference became a flashpoint for controversy when the federal Conservative government made moves to withdraw funding for the gathering because of complaints that some of the speakers were anti-Israel.

A couple of months after the conference was over, Queen’s University was bombarded with a large request for all written and email correspondence between Aiken and a list of 80-90 people involved in the Middle East debate. The university deemed that the request fell outside the bounds of the law in that case too and after a couple of months, the request simply expired with no follow-up.

Conservatives officially deny any involvement in these black ops, of course. But in any case, attempts to obtain personal information of the type requested have been rebuffed. So what’s the problem, then?

Whether the requests themselves are successful or not, they are part of a growing atmosphere of intimidation in which dissent is rooted out and punished, or at least suppressed. From neutering or euthanizing watchdogs to ministerial interference in supposedly arms-length agencies to open contempt for an increasingly irrelevant Parliament, the Harper regime has launched an unprecedented assault on accountability and on democracy itself.

Now conservatives have apparently moved into a new phase: targeting perceived enemies in the population at large, starting with the universities. Recall that the honourable senator from Wisconsin named very few individuals, and only a handful of citizens were ever hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But the nation was cowed. Countless people were blacklisted by helpful non-state actors. Even supporting fluoridated water could get you branded as a Communist (and note the anti-Semitism in the pamphlet at the link). People soon learned to keep their heads down and their mouths shut.

Bit by bit, Canadian conservatives, officially and unofficially, are building a similar climate of fear. Now the “enemy” is Muslims instead of Communists (all of whom are portrayed as murderous fanatics threatening the very fabric of our civilization and values) and their alleged fellow-travellers—liberals, the Left, social workers, professors, and the witting or unwitting “mainstream media.” Xenophobia has become so accepted that a major Canadian newspaper could call for the murder of refugees without any serious repercussions. And the state has no shortage of eager witch-hunting volunteers.

While the current access to information requests might in themselves seem faintly ridiculous and ineffective, then, they are part of a pattern of right-wing muscle-flexing that is anything but. The aim is simple—to bully any and all opposition to the Harper agenda into silence. And if our Dear Leader ever gets his much-sought-after majority, a distinct possibility given the dismal performance of the rudderless Liberals, we can expect this sort of thing to accelerate.

Time to stand up, folks. First they came for the professors…

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on February 12, 2011 2:06 PM.

Conservatives in academe was the previous entry in this blog.

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