Thursday, June 3, 2010

“Under the Guise of Academic Freedom”— the Aftermath of Mikey Weinstein’s ACSC Appearance

“Do not go back on base again!”

I was just on my way to the gym to get my afternoon workout in when I had received a frantic phone call from Phil, a friend of mine who works in Maxwell Air Force Base’s Air University.

“Do you have any reason to go back to the base?”

“No”, I responded, “I’ve already done all my outprocessing”

“Good, so like I said before, don’t go back to the base.”

Phil’s trepidation was beginning to prove contagious.

“Ok wait,” I said, “just what’s going on here?”

“Phil”, of course, is not his real name. The first thing he demanded when he called me to deliver this urgent warning was that I not reveal his name. I’ve always found it wise to honor promises to people who stick their necks out on my behalf, therefore he will remain “Phil” on this blog.

Tripping over his words, Phil continued, “Here’s the deal. Your blog on Mikey’s appearance at ACSC [the Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College] has sparked a firestorm over here. They are mad, and they want blood. They are in the process of trying to figure out who wrote that blog, and they are going to find a way to go after that person. If I were you I wouldn’t even answer phone calls from the base.”

I broke in, “Ok, Phil, thanks for the warning, but how are they planning on going after me? All I did was write a blog. I don’t even have that many readers”

“I know”, he said, “but they are looking for a reason, and they think they can come after you under the guise of ‘academic freedom’. They have been running around with a printed off copy of your blog, highlighting parts of it they think might violate Air University’s rules of academic freedom. They highlighted the parts where you referred to the nationalities of the two foreign exchange officers, because you might be able to identify them individually.”

“Well just a second” I said, “saying what country they’re from isn’t identifying them individually. And since when does ‘academic freedom’ mean punishing someone for voicing their opinion?”

“Chris, I know what you’re saying but you have to hear me out. As long as you fall under the Air Force’s chain of command they can come after you, and they will. They also highlighted the part where you called the military ‘authoritative and conformist’.”

That one puzzled me a bit, as I wasn’t even attempting to be insulting when I had written that, merely stating a truism of uniformed forces around the world.

“They don’t know who you are yet, but they do know from your writing they are dealing with an Academy graduate named Chris. They have already called one ACSC student who fits this description in for questioning.”

I reeled, “Called in for questioning? This is ridiculous!”

The situation was so perfectly absurd that I was simultaneously laughing and fearful at the same time. I have a pretty spotless Air Force record, but my record as a cadet is quite another story. I had been on the wrong side of a military discipline system and my immediate instinct was to do whatever I could to avoid being squashed. I spun my car around in the gym parking lot and began speeding home.

“They are trying to figure out who you are and when they do they will throw the book at you. This is their version of academic freedom.”

“Well I don’t need this shit,” I blurted out, “I’m on my way home right now, I’m just going to take the thing down until I’m officially out of the Air Force. When I have my full rights back as a citizen I’ll put it up then.”

Phil sounded relieved, “That’s probably the best idea Chris. I don’t think you have any idea the hornet’s nest you’ve stirred up here. Look I gotta go, and remember, don’t tell anyone it was me who called you, I don’t want them coming after me too.”

Now sufficiently panicked, I stepped on the accelerator. I remember feeling this very same sense of dread as a cadet at the Air Force Academy—it’s the feeling that one is a tiny bug, scrambling to avoid being crushed by a massive boot. Such is the overwhelming power of a government institution over the individual.

When I arrived at my house I immediately logged into American Commentary and took the blog down. There! I was safe!

I sat at my desk for a few minutes, mulling over the situation. As I did I began to sense another feeling welling up from within. It was slight, but it was unmistakable. I felt shame. I had just surrendered my right to free speech. The moment I had ruffled some powerful feathers I had slunk away into the shadows. I was letting them use fear to stifle dissent.

After staring at the wall for a few more minutes I picked up the phone and called Mikey Weinstein to let him know what was going on. He was confused.

“Academic freedom?! Don’t they know I can say whatever I want about any of this? I never signed onto any sort of stricture over my speech, and I never would have. Chris, you haven’t done anything wrong here, and I don’t think you need to worry—moreover I understand that you might want to take the blog down now, but I don’t think you should. It’s your choice but I wouldn’t shrink away from this…”

That was all it took. A few words of encouragement from Mikey Weinstein gave me the courage I needed. I put the blog back up as we were talking. He was right—I had been shrinking away out of fear. American Commentary came down for 20 minutes on May 18th, and I still shudder to think how quickly I chose to silence myself when threatened.

How funny that a term like “academic freedom” could be used as a pretense to censor a critic. Being familiar with military culture I wasn’t a bit surprised at this irony, but I was surprised at how sensitive Air University was to a few unkind words—I would have thought their initial reaction would have been to deal with the ACSC students who conducted themselves in such a rude and insolent manner, not to come after me.

Echoing Air University, one of the critics who charged that I had broken the rules on academic freedom was the illustrious, Constitutionally ignorant, “Christian Fighter Pilot” (who I presume has taken to spreading Jesus’ love with his field grade rank from the cockpit of his fighter jet). In his blog he lays out the rules regarding academic freedom, and notes that I may have violated them. A few other commenters on this blog have said the same thing. Earlier I noted that my description of the nationalities of the foreign officers may have allowed them to be identified individually, though I seriously doubt it. Still, as a courtesy to those officers, I deleted those descriptions, but as for Air University’s rules on academic freedom, I must confess I don’t take them seriously. To start with, all the talk of concern over “academic freedom” was clearly a thin pretext for a planned attack on a writer who gave a room full of unruly ACSC students a bit of much needed criticism. Motive aside, I view restrictions like this as illegitimate strictures on the natural right of freedom of speech. A natural right, as described by philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Paine, is an absolute right possessed by all human beings. Government institutions can put all the rules they want to on paper, but human beings will still possess their natural rights. Some of my critics on this site and others have noted that I didn’t ask permission from Air University to write my blog. They are correct—I’m not interested in their permission.
When he was recently barred by Israel from crossing the border into the West Bank to speak at a university, Noam Chomsky was asked if he would approach the Israeli government in the future to ask permission. He responded “It's not the government's business to decide who's going to give a talk at a university. I wouldn't implicitly grant them that right.” To ask permission to use one’s rights is to give them away by implication. I will not be “asking permission” from anyone to write what I see, as I see it.

To return to Air University’s response to my original blog post, it is very telling that their instant, most visceral reaction was to attempt to squash the dissident blog, rather than to address the endemic problems that must be in place that would cause so many Air Force officers to behave so disgracefully and disrespectfully. The entire ACSC incident can serve as a sort of microcosm example on how many military leaders are responding inadequately to the threat of fundamentalist Christianity in their ranks. Weinstein was invited to speak at the Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College, a move that does deserve some kudos, because clearly some senior ranking officers recognize the value of having his view presented. When Weinstein spoke a sizeable segment of the officers present conducted themselves disgracefully, unprofessionally, and disrespectfully, and booed and jeered lustfully from the back of the room.

(A side note: the last time I saw behavior like this from military members was during my cadet days. Of course, there were some major differences between this episode of mob behavior and the ones I occasionally witnessed at mandatory assemblies at the Air Force Academy: any time a crowd of cadets would turn unruly and disrespectful towards a speaker it wasn’t nearly to the same degree, and we would always expect to get hammered. Someone would have intervened in the middle of any such debacle and would have dressed down the entire cadet wing. As cadets we never would have gotten away with such behavior, but I suppose rank has its privileges.)

Instead of disciplining the unruly officers, or offering a well deserved formal apology to Weinstein, the first action taken by the leadership was to seek out the one person who wrote publicly about the incident so he could be silenced. A letter was sent to all ACSC students reminding them of the strictures that “academic freedom” places on public speech. As for dealing with the behavior of students, Brigadier Gen Rock gave a briefing to the entire class on “professional behavior”, which should be recognized as a baby step in the right direction. According to one ACSC student there seems to be some internal debate on the issues Weinstein presented, though it is far too lopsided. While a few instructors told their classes they were “very disappointed in the lack of professionalism and childish behavior” from the students, these instructors appear to be “the exception”, as “most instructors had similarly disrespectful attitudes towards Mikey [Weinstein].” As this particular officer sees things, “it seems ACSC is more worried about non-disclosure than respectful behavior.” This attitude, unfortunately, is all too common in military culture: major problems are dealt with by covering them up and keeping them from the public view.

I’m pleased to have gotten a good bit of spirited feedback from ACSC students on the original blog post. I’ve received praise from some for “saying what needed to be said”, and was told that I “hit the nail on the head”. I’ve also received criticism from others who insist I presented a biased view of the day’s events, and say I was acting on some sort of “self-serving” agenda. I suppose that my agenda may be self-serving, in that I’m supporting a cause I’ve believed in for a long time— if that’s the case you can paint me with the “self-serving” brush all you want. As to the charge that I’m biased I won’t spend a lot of energy refuting it— I offer full disclosure in admitting that I’ve been a long-time supporter of Weinstein, and I’ve always felt that achieving perfect objectivity in one's writing is an impossible task. But I will stake my reputation on this statement: everything I described in my first blog post absolutely took place, and I’ve been told by many that I captured perfectly the atmosphere in the auditorium. To those who disagree I offer the same challenge I offered weeks ago: I know this presentation was taped by Air University and I will gladly post it, in its entirety, on American Commentary, so that everyone can see for themselves what took place.

Some of the other critics spend a lot of time complaining that Weinstein is impolite and brash, and uses “extreme language”. In the course of focusing on his intensity, they set aside and completely ignore his campaign, and all the good he has done for so many soldiers. Time and again, these military members refuse to acknowledge a systemic problem, refuse to have any sympathy for the plight of soldiers like Spc. Zachari Klawonn or any of MRFF’s other 18,000 clients, and through their disinterest lend their tacit support to a growing national security threat within the US military. These critics see no need for alarm that a hate-monger like Franklin Graham received an invitation to speak at the Pentagon—apparently having no concern for troops of theirs who might be Muslim. They are hell-bent on perceiving Weinstein’s fight as an attack Christianity, and no evidence to the contrary, no amount of support from other notable Christians like Elizabeth Sholes, or MRFF administrative board member Frank Schaeffer, seems able to change their minds. It all seems to me, a very deliberate misperception.

In dealing with Weinstein’s critics I have gotten a taste of the deceptive tactics they use. Many of the MRFF’s critics, like the “Christian Fighter Pilot” Jonathan Dowty, make a sport out of taking Weinstein’s words and twisting them. Dowty and others regularly portray Weinstein’s efforts as an attack on all military Christians. He even went so far as to completely misquote from my last blog post to paint this false picture.

In my post on the ACSC debacle I wrote:

He [Weinstein] explained that he views the attempts to intertwine religion into the military fabric of the most powerful nation in the world, vis-à-vis the National Day of Prayer Task Force, Officers Christian Fellowship, and groups like them, as a “national security threat from within.”

The Christian Fighter Pilot takes the words above and uses them to write:

The MRFF supporter quoted here freely admits that during this ACSC briefing Weinstein called military Christians “a national security threat from within”

This is one of the most willfully dishonest misquotes I’ve ever seen. Dowty takes a segment of one of my sentences, tacks on his own manufactured language to completely change the meaning, and attempts to sell it as my statement. Weinstein has never spoken this way about all military Christians, and in fact, spends the vast majority of his efforts advocating for his 96% Christian client base.

Two can play at this game, Mr. Christian Fighter Pilot:

According to his blog, Christian Fighter Pilot, Major Jonathan Dowty is “blinded by…zeal” and secretly frequents satanic bath houses in and around “Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama”.

Wow, it sure is fun to play fast and loose with other peoples words!

The rest of The Christian Fighter Pilot’s attacks on myself and the MRFF are transparent distortions of a similar nature, so I won’t waste space with them. You can view the blog here.

It should be noted that Dowty and his ilk seek to advance a view on religion in the military that is in direct contradiction to the Air Force’s Core Values, as specified in 1997. This document is worth reading in its entirety. It lays out a set of behaviors that comprise “Service Before Self”, with one of these key behaviors being “discipline and self-control”. One of the areas of self-control that is spelled out is religious toleration:

Religious toleration. Military professionals must remember that religious choice is a
matter of individual conscience. Professionals, and especially commanders, must not
take it upon themselves to change or coercively influence the religious views of subordinates.

It is this simple concept that so many in the audience at Weinstein's ACSC appearance seemed unwilling to comprehend. Instead of accepting this command responsibility not to "influence the religious views of subordinates", too many ACSC students refused to acknowledge it, and instead chose to engage in the embarassing behavior I described in "The Best and The Brightest"-- the piece that some members of Air University leadership sought to punish me for writing.

This experience should serve as a potent warning to anyone who is considering giving their rights away to anyone else. This country has some of the best protections for freedom of speech in the world, and such a decision should be given very thoughtful and purposeful consideration. As a military member you can easily find yourself being punished for simply saying the wrong things. Army soldier Marc Hall learned this lesson when the army came after him for criticizing its controversial stop-loss policy. It took a popular movement to challenge this abuse of power and save Marc Hall from being thrown into jail. Make no mistake about it, superior military officers and noncommissioned officers all swear an oath to a Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, but their respect for a vulnerable individual's rights is liable to fly right out the window if they feel offended, and they will use whatever legal advantage they have to stifle dissent. I think it is safe to assume that had I written a laudatory blog post praising ACSC for their handling of this event I never would have heard a thing about “academic freedom” and "non-disclosure". When an organization wields their power in this manner, and uses it to punish critics, and allows praise to be given freely, the end result is a kind of propaganda that flows from within. Here is a truism that applies in all places, in all times: if you give the powerful any sort of leverage over you, you can fully expect them to use it. The leverage that some officers on the AU faculty intended to use in this case was “academic freedom”.

In the end I was very likely saved from reprisal by a very senior flag officer who intervened with Air University to keep a leash on their attack dogs. I was refreshed to see that some key figures in the Air Force chain of command didn’t find it prudent to crush a Company Grade Officer for a dissenting blog post, but I have no illusions—I never would have gotten this protection from on high if it hadn’t been for the fierce advocacy of Mikey Weinstein, who started making phone calls as soon as I told him about Phil’s frantic warning. If I had been just another junior officer without a Nobel-nominated civil rights fighter in my corner, this could have been a very different story, and I quickly would have become a tiny bug squashed under Air University’s boot-- all for the contrived crime of reporting how a large group of USAF officers behaved like jackals and brigands when Mikey Weinstein bravely spoke at ACSC.

[The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has done so much to help so many military members who have faced religious harassment from their chain of command. Please see the website to learn more about building the wall of separation between church and state within the US military, and donate if possible]


  1. Chris --

    You are an officer this former Military man has the utmost respect for and I commend you for this article and the previous one. I can tell you that there are a lot of people is the USAF talking about this...even today!


  2. wow...i just spent probably an hour going through this and the previous post and is it okay that, out of all the language in my head, only "wow" comes to mind... :/
    you've simultaneously put me in my place, given me hope that there will be a more defined separation in our great country, and given me the courage to talk more about this same separation in the public school system (which, as you may remember, is where my passion on the matter lies).
    I'm glad to hear you had Mikey on your side immediately; and I'm glad to hear you have left the AF (as you were looking forward to for some time).
    Thank you for serving (as much as you may hate hearing that); but also thank you for getting out so that you can serve our country in an even more productive way - keep writing! =)