The Right's Latest Attack on Academic Freedom Might Actually Work

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      The Trump administration has threatened to withdraw federal funding from the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies because it does not portray Christianity or Judaism in a sufficiently “positive” light. A letter from the Department of Education—sent on Tuesday and reported by the New York Times on Thursday—directed the program to emphasize “positive aspects” of these and other non-Islamic religions in the Middle East. If it refuses, the department may strip the program of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

      Tuesday’s letter reflects the Department of Education’s efforts under Secretary Betsy DeVos to combat perceived bias against Israel on campuses. But what is startling about the agency’s threat is that it puts forth no evidence that the consortium depicts Judaism—or Christianity or any other religion—negatively. Rather, the agency seems to believe that a mere focus on Islam inherently demeans other religions. The consortium teaches Middle Eastern languages, history, and geopolitics; it also hosts conferences and events, like film festivals, to bring the region’s culture to the community. To obtain federal funds, the program must “provide a full understanding” of the Middle East to students. And the Trump administration has charged its instructors with neglecting this duty by teaching extensively about Islam.

      The accusation that the program is not sufficiently inclusive draws on a strategy commonly deployed by the right against cultural and academic study of marginalized groups. When Wisconsin Republicans threatened to shut down a critical race theory class at a public university, one GOP legislator asserted that the course would add “to the polarization of the races in our state.” And when South Carolina Republicans slashed funding for colleges that assigned LGBTQ-themed books, a GOP legislator explained that the literature “was about promoting one side” over the other.

      Tuesday’s complaint is couched in seemingly reasonable terms, demanding “balance” rather than spouting bigotry. But it is just as alarming, because it is seeking to compel speech that aligns with the administration’s agenda. Republican-driven attempts to defund or cancel university courses have largely failed in the face of widespread backlash. The Trump administration’s might not.

      Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction

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