Who Is Crying Wolf?

June 11, 2010

Some prominent liberal academics are soliciting short essays from faculty members and graduate students to document a pattern in American history of major social advances being opposed by conservatives who "cry wolf" about the impact of proposed reforms. The campaign -- known as the "Cry Wolf Project" -- hasn't been officially announced. But conservative bloggers obtained some of the solicitations of essays and published them this week, along with considerable criticism.

A series of posts on Andrew Breitbart's Big Journalism Web site have called the program "Academia-Gate" and suggested that the effort is inappropriately political. The creators of Cry Wolf, meanwhile, say that what they are doing is awfully similar to the ways that right-leaning scholars have used academic work to advance their causes over the years.

The goal of Cry Wolf is to build an online database of short essays showing examples of crying wolf by the right. If people today are reminded that conservatives in the past predicted devastating impacts from minimum wage laws, or requiring cars to have seat belts, or Social Security, the theory goes, they may be more skeptical if they hear, say, that the Obama health care plan will result in the creation of death panels. A letter seeking these 2,000 word essays -- and offering to pay $1,000 for them -- has been circulating among liberal academics (and at least one who sent it off to conservative bloggers).

"Today, as in the past, the fight to transform American politics and policy takes place on a battlefield in which ideas, narratives, and the construction of a politically driven conventional wisdom constitutes a set of highly potent weapons," says the letter. "We therefore need to construct a counter narrative that demonstrates the falsity or exaggeration of such claims so that the first reaction of millions of people as well as opinion leaders will be 'there they go again!' Such a refrain will undermine the credibility and arguments of the organizations and individuals who use such dire social and economic prognostications to thwart progressive reform."

The letter was sent by Peter Dreier, distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College; Donald Cohen, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives (a liberal think tank that is coordinating the effort); and Nelson Lichtenstein, professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

One post on Big Journalism noted that those involved in the project are sympathetic to organized labor, and that many influential academics are serving on the advisory board. "This is what our higher education system has become – a publicly funded amplifier of progressive ideology," says the post by Patrick Courrielche. "If this Cry Wolf program were just limited to a few faculty members at a limited number of universities, it would be of little concern. But the project reaches into some of the most prestigious public and private schools of higher learning in the U.S., including MIT, Yale, Harvard, USC, Columbia, Rutgers, UC Santa Barbara, University of Pennsylvania, and President Obama’s alma mater -- Occidental College."

Liberty Chick, the blogger who started calling Cry Wolf "Academia-Gate," described her concerns this way: "What’s far more dangerous is that the ideological academic, in his capacity as a professor, actually possesses the power to control. The power to influence students’ minds, to mold the students’ way of thinking to embrace their own power-hungry desires and believe in it as 'social justice' -- this is a frightening weapon. Via union solidarity, this weapon is shared with the mobilizers, the janitors and cafeteria workers who agitate the students with various demands against the university after ideologically minded professors have indoctrinated them to hear every grievance as a call for 'social justice.' "

Erin O'Connor, on her blog Critical Mass, writes: "On the one hand, there are no surprises -- there has been a decades-long academic tradition, at this point, of discounting the notion that disinterested research is even possible, and of selling the idea that the proper response to this is to shape one's scholarship self-consciously, as a means of ensuring that it assists and justifies the kinds of social justice one would like to see in the world. On the other hand, this activist line of thought has historically had only one line of defense -- and that is that it is conducted with impeccable scholarly integrity, is entirely above-board vis a vis research ethics, and is unimpeachable from within the standards of professional conduct. In other words, the ethical standards that accompany interested scholarship are, in theory, terrifically strict.

"That's how such scholarship can continue to call itself scholarship, and escape being dismissed as propaganda. It's a shaky edifice, but it's an edifice all the same, and it has succeeded. Arguably, though, the Cry Wolf project undermines that entire edifice, as it explicitly supports the arguments of those who would say that large swathes of academia are little more than publicly funded mechanisms for disseminating and producing an ideologically-driven world view."

KC Johnson, a historian at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, who also blogged critically about the effort, said via e-mail that it was true that conservative efforts -- such as research backed by the Heritage Foundation -- could be criticized in the same way, but that Heritage and similar organizations "are not majority 'academic' organizations." He added that in contrast, Cry Wolf "is an organization largely run by academics to pay academics to produce work that supposedly reflects academic standards -- and not just the standards of any academics, but 'establishment' figures teaching and writing about 20th century U.S. history.... [T]hat approach undermines the argument that contemporary scholarship about U.S. history and public policy isn't inherently partisan."

The liberal blogosphere is now starting to defend Cry Wolf. Media Matters described as a "yawner" the idea that "some college professors dabble in politics" and asked what the controversy was all about. The blog post cites the many conservative policy organizations that have close links to conservative scholars. Some of these centers go beyond the Cry Wolf model, the blog notes.

Citing the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the blog notes: "These are effectively right-wing think tanks that are actually affiliated with and housed on major universities, and are largely staffed by those universities' professors. Yup, that's dozens of university professors explicitly conducting research on how right-wing 'market-oriented' and 'free enterprise' ideas are correct, and progressive ideas are wrong."

Dreier, one of the organizers of Cry Wolf, said in an interview Thursday that the furor over the project was unfair. "This is legitimate work," he said, and the essays will be scrutinized for accuracy. The end result will simply be better organized resources that might be consulted by the public, op-ed writers or others. He also said that he didn't view this effort as either replacing traditional scholarship or doing anything that conservative groups don't already do. He added that the pattern of "the world is going to end" reactions to "progressive efforts" is a legitimate issue for scholars to raise and explore.

Why are the conservatives so critical? Said Dreier: "That's what they are paid to do."

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