Fordham University history professor Doron Ben-Atar recently faced an internal investigation after opposing the American Studies Association’s resolution backing the academic boycott of Israel. If the university’s American studies program did not distance itself from the ASA, he said, he would “fight the American studies program at Fordham in every forum and in every way.” Though he did not end up with any punishment, his use of the word fight apparently raised red flags. “No one has ever asked me what I meant and to pin the case on that word is terribly disingenuous,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “Clearly no violence was implied – there isn't a trace of it anywhere.”
Disingenuous, indeed. It was bizarre to single him out for using a word that is so common in public discourse. “I’ll fight against that deal,” said President Obama in a 2012 campaign speech attacking GOP policy. "I am a long ways away from giving up on this fight. I got a lot of fight left in me.” The word shows up frequently in political book titles. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, former presidential candidate Gary Hart, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm all published books titled, "The Good Fight." Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently caused a fight with his controversial memoir, "Worthy Fights."
Public life is about conflict, so it is natural that much of its language has marched in from the battlefield. In fact, it is almost impossible to talk about politics without using military metaphors. Lawmakers try to be good soldiers, but sometimes the Young Turks break ranks and overthrow the Old Guard. In that case, they might set up a war room to gather ammunition and coordinate attacks.
Such language is hardly new. In Federalist 51, James Madison explained the need for a separation of power: “The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack.” A few decades later, a young Whig politician named Abraham Lincoln drafted a brief field manual in support of presidential candidate William Henry Harrison: “We have the numbers, and if properly organized and exerted, with the gallant HARRISON at our head, we shall meet our foes, and conquer them in all parts of the Union.” Over a century ago, German sociologist Robert Michels wrote: “There is hardly one expression of military tactics and strategy, hardly even a phrase of barrack slang, which does not recur again and again in the leading articles of the socialist press.”
Despite this long history, some commentators object to the use of military language. Several years ago, Gary Hart tried to blame it for the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D) of Arizona. “Gradually, over time, political rhetoric used by politicians and the media has become more inflammatory,” he wrote. “The degree to which violent words and phrases are considered commonplace is striking. Candidates are `targeted.’ An opponent is `in the crosshairs.’”
Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid such language. Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota was the “peace” candidate of 1972. Yet his campaign manager dedicated his memoir to "the McGovern army.” The book included passages such as: “The nomination campaign for us was guerrilla warfare – scattered, ragtag troops, minutemen, roving bands of citizen volunteers, the people of Russia plaguing and harassing Napoleon's elite corps. The general election campaign was heavy artillery, panzer divisions, massive clanking movements of cumbersome weapons, mechanized unwieldy warfare.” The book was "Right from the Start" (pp. 60-61). The campaign manager who wrote it was none other than Gary Hart.
So how on earth could a professor get into trouble for saying that he might “fight” an academic program?
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.