Few would argue there are direct parallels between the current assaults on liberals in academe and McCarthyism. Unlike the McCarthy era, most threats to academic freedom - real or perceived - do not, yet, involve the state. Nor are they buttressed by widespread popular support, as anticommunism was during the 50s. But in other ways, argues Ellen Schrecker, author of Many Are the Crimes - McCarthyism in America, comparisons are apt.
"In some respects it's more dangerous," she says. "McCarthyism dealt mainly with off-campus political activities. Now they focus on what is going on in the classroom. It's very dangerous because it's reaching into the core academic functions of the university, particularly in Middle-Eastern studies."
Either way, a growing number of apparently isolated incidents suggests a mood which is, if nothing else, determined, relentless and aimed openly at progressives in academe.
Earlier this year, Fox news commentator Sean Hannity urged students to record "leftwing propaganda" by professors so he could broadcast it on his show. On the web there is Campus Watch, "monitoring Middle East studies on campus"; Edwatch, "Education for a free nation"; and Parents Against Bad Books in School.
In mid January, the Bruin Alumni association offered students $100 to tape leftwing professors at the University of California Los Angeles. The association effectively had one dedicated member, 24-year-old Republican Andrew Jones. It also had one dedicated aim: "Exposing UCLA's most radical professors" who "[proselytise] their extreme views in the classroom".
I think the chilling effect these kinds of actions have on academic freedom should be readily apparent. It should be equally obvious that the cogency of a certain group's arguments must be weak when they have to intimidate the most astute among us into keeping quiet.
The article discusses many different fronts in this all-out war on progressive professors, some of which are pretty scary, as well as legislative battles over the cynically Orwellian "Academic Bill of Rights" (it's one of those "Clear Skies Initiative" type of names) which calls for things like requiring universities to hire quotas of conservative professors. I guess affirmative action is ok as long as the beneficiaries are conservatives. Seriously, though, the whole point of academic objectivity is lost when you start hiring based on political allegiance, especially when you're hiring people for their politics to counter people hired for their professional credentials.
Channeling Atrios, you don't balance professors with conservatives.