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At Harvard, we expect faculty from other countries to at least try to understand ours. It’s a shame that Robert Walton Goelet Professor of French History Patrice Higonnet is failing so spectacularly. In his remarkably obtuse piece published last month in the French newspaper “Liberation,” Higonnet demonstrates his intolerable ignorance of, and animosity towards, large swathes of the American people.
The piece argues that there are two Americas. There is the good America of the New Deal and Jimmy Carter and the bad America of President Bush. What does bad America want? “War, cheap oil, and, incidentally, the crushing and total humiliation of the Palestinians; in a word imperial domination in its purest form.” In Higonnet’s bad America “pluralism is a mask for special interests, a Christian America (Ashcroft), bursting with revolvers (Cheney), arrogant (Rumsfeld), imperial (William Kristol), racist (Trent Lott), opportunist (Condi Rice), partisan (Karl Rove), the America of spying and denunciation (Poindexter).” Europe, he says, “sooner or later, will have to separate itself from the new America.”
Most of the moral arrogance here is typical of the cant Europeans incessantly write about the United States. Yet two of Higonnet’s outrageous assertions deserve particular attention.
Higonnet’s accusation that conservatives are actively trying to crush and humiliate the Palestinians is just confusing. Was he asleep when conservatives and, indeed, Americans of all political stripes, supported the Oslo process and then mourned its death? Conservatives nowadays do not want to crush the Palestinians but to avoid rewarding terrorism and thereby encourage more.
I would also like to know what Higonnet meant when he called National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice “opportunistic.” I want to be generous, yet I can’t help but think that Higonnet meant to say a black woman can not occupy a key position of power in a Republican administration without betraying her blackness. I could be wrong, but I think he owes it to his students to explain what he meant and why a Harvard professor left his comments open to such an obvious racialist interpretation.
Professor Higonnet, if he reads this, will probably use it in his next article as an example of dissent being attacked in America. The tedious attitude that equates criticism with intimidation and censorship is sadly powerful among scholars who are generally only praised as progressives for their outlandish beliefs. However, I don’t think that he should be stopped from presenting his beliefs. In fact, I think he ought to explain more clearly to Harvard conservatives who admire the leadership of President Bush why we are actually racist, greedy, imperialist bigots, and to its black students why they would be “opportunistic” to become National Security Adviser in a Republican administration.
Andrew P. Winerman is an editorial editor.
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