Public criticism of academics is not an attack on academic freedom, nor is it McCarthyism

There is an online argument brewing about an attack on Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) Associate Professor Dr Anthony Burke, among others. The attack on Dr Burke was published in a Quadrant Magazine article, written by Mervyn F. Bendle. Bendle argues that Burke represents the “political Left” who have taken over academic terrorism studies, “with all the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Israel, pro-terrorist, and postmodernist ideological gobbledygook that entails”, and appears to suggest that Dr Burke should not be employed by ADFA.

Bendle does appear to froth at the mouth a bit, and makes the serious mistake of conflating Marxism and post-modernism:

…the study of terrorism had either been ignored in Australia or had been colonised by the radical, postmodern Left, which was assimilating the study of terrorism to its prevailing ideological paradigm based on class, race, gender, anti-Americanism and cultural relativism, often under the guise of the neo-Marxist “critical terror studies” approach.

This foolish frothing gives Bendle’s opponents a free kick, which they gleefully take. However, political debate is a game of four quarters, not just a single free kick, and Bendle’s online opponents fail to address what he is actually saying about Burke. (I’ll discuss that later in this piece).

Instead of addressing what Bendle has to say about Burke, and working out whether it has merit or not, academics Terry Flew and Mark Bahnisch have two main complaints:

1) That it may be a form of McCarthyism

2) That it is in some way inappropriate, and bad for academic freedom, for this sort of public debate to happen.

Firstly I’ll get my free kicks out of the way. Although he has now withdrawn it, it was Burke – NOT the “McCarthyist” Bendle – who called for an investigation into the person who criticised him publically, the same Bendle:

Dr Burke, 42, fumed that Dr Bendle had improperly suggested he was pro-terrorist and called for JCU to investigate whether this amounted to “serious academic misconduct”. However, he last Friday withdrew his demand to vice-chancellor Sandra Harding for an investigation, conceding “it may be that administrative action is not the best way to address the problem”.


Dr Burke, who describes his political orientation as “liberal-left”, rejected Dr Bendle’s claim that he had overreacted by seeking a university investigation.

“It’s a funny situation when you have people utilising academic freedom in a sense to attack it,” Dr Burke said.

“But you have got to stand up for your own position … I just don’t like people saying that I support terrorism, when I don’t.”

In his online article, Bahnisch quotes the second of the two quotes I have included here: but omits the first line, thus hiding the fact that Burke, the poor academic attacked by “McCarthyists”, called for an official investigation.

There’s also an amusing comment on Bahnisch’s article:

“If Bendle really described Burke as “pro terrorist” then Burke should sue him and Quadrant for defamation.”

Bahnisch agrees.

Criticism of someone’s views and questioning if they are fit to teach military cadets is McCarthyism, but trying to start official enquiries against someone who does that, or suing someone who does that, is cool. Apparently.

The second point is related to the first: the idea that it is in some way inappropriate to carry out this sort of debate in a public forum:

I think that’s right, but there’s the added dimension here of links between the security state and academia, and also of the willingness of academics to prosecute basically private (and often employment related) disputes through the pages of the public press. The latter was a significant component of the attacks former QUT academics John Hookham and Gary Maclennan launched on Michael Noonan’s PhD project on disability and humour. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to Bendle, with all his complaints about so-called breaches of “scholarly etiquette”, that he might have committed one himself by attacking Burke publicly in such risibly inquisitorial terms.

I’m really not sure how a debate on whether an academic is fit to teach military cadets is a private, employment-related dispute. Surely matters such as this are utterly fit and proper topics for public discussion. Universities are funded partly by taxpayers, after all. I don’t agree with the idea that an academic should be protected by a cone of silence, so that only other academics can discuss, privately, the political effects and implications of their work.

Now, turning to Bendle’s article: well, it doesn’t start well. The first page has a paragraph of guilt by association, and the foolish conflation of “neo-Marxism” and post-modernism.

When Bendle turns to Burke, he starts off by claiming that Burke equates:

the Israeli government’s policies on the Palestinian question and international sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq with terrorism “in that they targeted civilians and sought to inflict suffering and fear for a political purpose”.

Bendle claims that Burke’s worldview is “radical pacifism”, and says that

Burke denies any ultimate legitimacy to sovereign nation-states, and denies that they have any right to preserve their security, defend themselves from attack, police their borders, or pursue their national interests, when these might impinge upon “the Other”.

and quotes Burke saying:

“dreams of security, prosperity and freedom hinge, from their earliest conceptualizations to the contemporary politics of the national security state, on the insecurity and dying of others”.


On the question of terrorism, Burke declares that “our critical task is not to help power [that is, the USA] seek out and destroy the ‘enemies of freedom’ [that is, terrorists] but to question how they were constructed as enemies of ‘freedom’ [and how] we … might already be enemies of freedom in the very process of imagining and defending it”. As Burke’s use of scare-quotes indicates, he doubts that terrorists are enemies of freedom or that freedom has any particular value, while claiming that it is “we” who are its real enemies anyway.

I would ask a few questions here:

1) When using the world “critical”, did Burke mean “most important” or mean “analytical”? If he meant the second, then the whole quote is being misrepresented.

2) How can Bendle be sure that the quotes are scare quotes? Burke might merely be being careful to point out that his terms have not yet been defined in his work.

3) How can Bendle be so sure that Western civilisation is not, and can never be, an “enemy of freedom”? He appears to reject the idea as impossible.

Later in the article, Bendle says:

according to Burke’s extremely abstract and tendentious postmodernist perspective, the security of the Australian community is “imagined on the basis of a bounded and vulnerable identity in perpetual opposition to an outside—an Other—whose character and claims threaten its integrity and safety”, and as a result, our community “is always an exclusive one, bounded by a power that seeks to enforce sameness, repress diversity, and diminish the rights (and claims to being) of those who are thrust outside its protective embrace”.

If that is indeed what Burke says, then it seems fairly unexceptional to me.

Finally, Bendle sums up Burke, saying:

Moreover, in reading Burke’s polemics, one gets an impression not only of the “radical pacifism” deplored by Ungerer, but of a deeper, almost pathological tendency revealed in Burke’s antipathy for liberal democracies and mainstream Australians, and his relentless sympathy for terrorists, illegal immigrants, communists, and “the Other” in its multitudinous forms. Burke’s vision of international relations involves a desire to be absorbed into a transnational, ethically pure collectivity, combined with a desire to be passive, supine and receptive, to be penetrated and even violated if need be by the looming, ever-present “Other”, whose active and invasive power apparently expresses, in Burke’s mind, assertiveness, initiative, potency, and all that is good and humane in the world. Clearly, students at the ADFA will be given lots to think about by their new associate professor.

In a letter to The Australian published on Monday, Burke says that students of the ADFA educational unit “Terrorism and the International Order”:

were told that terrorism is a serious threat that states have a right to secure themselves from. They discussed the unique strategic challenge posed by terrorism—that force
has an important but limited utility in countering it, and the real
front is less in Iraq or Afghanistan than in the minds of those who
become radicalised into believing that civilians are legitimate targets
of violence. This has been recognised by the RAND Corporation and MI5,
which recently conducted a study of radicalisation in the UK.

And an article in last Saturday’s Weekend Australian says:

Dr Burke told The Weekend Australian that while Dr Bendle had quoted
him accurately, he had misrepresented his broader view that terrorism
was immoral and politically counter-productive.

“The quotes are accurate, but the characterisation is not,” he
insisted. The inference that he was pro-terrorist was an outrageous
slur, Dr Burke said.

Burke is apparently to rely to Bendle in a future issue of Quadrant, so it will be interesting to see exactly what he says about Bendle’s accusations.

Bendle and his howling colleagues in the reactionary right tribe have not convinced me of anything about Burke. Tim Blair has, of course, joined in, with all the ignorant commenters who appear to have read nothing of what Burke says apart from what is quoted by his enemies But tribalism is not just a problem of the Right. Both Flew and Bahnisch, who appear to be coming at this issue from a liberal/social democratic Left position, decide not to get into the merits of the argument, but complain that it should not even be happening. I suppose as academics they are merely protecting their own turf by demanding “what happens in the faculty stays in the faculty”, but their ridiculous claims that Bendle’s attack is in some way “McCarthyist” – and their ignoring of the fact that Burke’s initial reaction was to call for an official academic enquiry – help to close off debate, not encourage it.

This is the sign of an intellectually timid, fearful culture that demands that no-one outside it should dare be exposed to its internal arguments. It leads to the tribalism I’ve just described, where Left and Right shout at each other, tell their supporters that the other is teh EVUL, without bothering to engage with an unpleasant idea ever. This is not the way to conduct a search for truth.

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