The Ghost of Senator Joe McCarthy Haunts a Philosophy Graduate Student (guest post)

The following is a guest post* by Charles H. Seibert, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati. It is about his experiences as a politically-minded graduate student in the 1960s—and the professional consequences that followed.

The Ghost of Senator Joe McCarthy Haunts a Philosophy Graduate Student
by Charles H. Seibert


1. Preface

This essay relates some personal experiences as a graduate student that may shed light on the consequences of the McCarthy era for philosophy [1]. Relating these experiences in this public forum raises several preliminary questions. This Preface acknowledges, though it may not resolve, some of those questions.

This narrative is limited to my perspective. Where possible, I provide verifiable references (e.g. to The Daily Northwestern, February through April 1965) that link my account to a specific time and place in the public sphere. Limitation to my perspective may reduce the foundation for wider generalization, and my narrative may therefore seem less important and interesting to some readers. It is often opined that “Anecdotes are not data.” Nevertheless, personal narrative retains high hermeneutical value when we are thinking about humane issues.

Most of this narrative is limited to events I experienced as a graduate student at Northwestern University (NU) in Evanston, Illinois. Because these events were harmful, their memory is still, over 50 years later, charged with passion. Like other humans, being harmed generates in me the urge to return the harm. However, the exchange of harms, also known as the revenge cycle, has a dismal record in human history. At the same time, describing the harm is required for rehabilitation of self-respect. To the best of my ability, therefore, I focus on accurate description instead of fueling revenge.

With these thoughts in mind, I refrain from naming persons other than myself. It would serve only the desire for revenge to drag through the mud the names and reputations of philosophers and academic administrators who are, I believe, now dead. However, the reader can benefit from this account by regarding it as “a cautionary tale” in the traditional sense.

I have no qualms about naming NU. A university is in part a public space for the free and responsible pursuit of inquiry. Northwestern eventually provided a forum for inquiry into publicly recognized problems. But in my experience, institutional virtue was soiled when individual faculty members, accountable to nobody, acted in arbitrary and harmful ways against powerless students holding contrary political views.

Conversations with graduate students suggest that students in the 2010s may be better organized and able to protect themselves against the kind of harms that I will describe. And the McCarthy era is past and will not return in its old form. But there is still reason for telling my cautionary tale. Books like David Horowitz, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (2006) and websites like “Turning Point USA” and “Professor Watch” suggest that everyone is better organized these days, and able to reach a far wider audience.

Finally, there is continuing sad evidence that humans, whether university faculty, politicians, students or “the man in the street,” are still prone to force and to enforce their political beliefs on more vulnerable compatriots. And as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. Scribner’s, 1905: 284).


2. The Beginning: Discrimination in Student Housing

I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Philosophy at NU in the fall of 1964. I had earned the MA at Tulane University (1964) and came to NU hoping to study with faculty members who were making a name for themselves and NU by bringing Continental philosophy (then referred to as existentialism and phenomenology) to American shores.

I became involved in student civil rights matters in response to blatant housing discrimination against an African American student enrolled at NU. This student used the Dean of Students’ bulletin board to identify Evanston residents who advertised “Student Room for Rent.” When he appeared in person he was universally turned down, usually with the explanation that “Oh, I just rented that room an hour ago to another student.” The NU student body was almost completely white at that time, so discrimination against the infrequent African American student was not widely recognized as such.

A group of us complained to the Dean about the obvious discrimination. The Dean replied that Evanston residents were free to use their private property in any way they wished, and that NU had no grounds to criticize. We replied by inviting the Dean, as a representative of the University, to open discussion in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. His tone suddenly changed, and we were invited into the office for conversation. As I recall the matter, a note was posted atop the “Housing” section of the bulletin board that refused any advertisement based on discrimination by race, religion or ethnic origin. Following victory at the Dean’s Office, a small group formed Northwestern Students for Civil Rights (NUSCR). I was chosen President.

We were elated. Naively, we thought we had discovered an almost magical cure against housing discrimination called “Transparency,” i.e. calling out the villain. NUSCR began a program of test cases to evaluate the extent of housing discrimination against students — and to change it where possible. These activities were reported on the front page of the Daily Northwestern (Vol. 85, No. 64) for Friday, February 12, 1965. [2] A mass meeting was held on May 11, 1965 to report findings to the student body. This was reported in the Daily Northwestern (Vol. 85, No. 102) for May 11, 1965.

Progress was being made; or so we thought. But by late 1965 I had been refused future enrollment in the Philosophy Department of Northwestern University. But this gets ahead of the story.


3. Organizing Against Racism

We widened our scope of activity. Civil Rights activity in Selma, Alabama, was becoming intense. We organized “Northwestern Answers Selma,” a fund-raising rally that was held at McGaw Hall on Central Street, Evanston.[3] At first, administrators withheld permission to use University facilities on the ground that we were not a recognized student organization; but we prevailed, using our transparency tactic. Rev. James Bevel and Mr. James Orange, Associates of Dr. Martin Luther King, and rights activists in Selma, were the featured speakers. The event was covered in the Daily Northwestern (85 / 81) for April 02, 1965. The Rally raised $1,500 (Daily Northwestern, April 09, 1965). All proceeds were sent to Rev. F. D. Reese, President of the Dallas County (Alabama) Voter League in May, 1965.

Needless to say, these activities stimulated controversy among students. Concerning the above-mentioned mass meeting, an Editorial in the Daily Northwestern for May 11, 1965, asserted that Student Senate “. . . must never allow a rabble-rousing minority to thwart the cause of freedom for the undergraduate.” On May 14, 1965, I responded with a Letter to the Editor. I refuted first the notion that NUSCR was a “rabble-rousing” minority (though we surely were a minority). Second, I pointed out that our survey data indicated that “housing freedom for students” in fact meant freedom for some without justice for all.

Activities of NUSCR made us aware that there were direct connections between prejudice, lack of educational opportunity, and poverty, on one hand, and unfair selection of soldiers for the Vietnam War on the other. Young African American, Latino and poor white males who lacked the opportunity to go to college landed on the battlefield in numbers far out of proportion to their numbers in the population. Even if I had believed in the Vietnam War (which I didn’t), our manner of selecting those sent to fight it was all wrong.


4. Backlash

Today (in 2017) I see that I was politically naive in 1964. I had no experience of political favoritism and aggression operating among university faculty; and I thought that the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy were either extinct or so much in retreat as not to be dangerous. Besides, I thought I was being encouraged to practice my critical skills, as if in training for the post-degree benefit called “academic freedom.” I was indeed being prepared, but not in the benign way I imagined.

During this time one event happened which gave me a shock. I was sitting with a friend in a restaurant and bar in Chicago frequented by NU faculty and students. A Professor from the Philosophy Department came in and sat down. He proceeded to tell us that we were “dupes” or “fellow travelers.” He never used the word “Communist.” But the remark left little doubt that we had been branded in that manner.[4] I was amazed at the distorted idea this Professor had of our actions and intentions. I was suddenly aware of having been dealt a gratuitous social and professional harm. In time I learned that this harm was long lasting.

Late in spring quarter, 1965, I was called into the office of the Philosophy Department Chair. He simply told me that in just a few months, in September, I must sit for Ph.D. Preliminary Exams. I objected that this was much earlier than the usual practice. He agreed, but said that the Department had decided on this at a recent meeting. I did not believe I was ready for this major examination, and I said so. He would not elaborate further on the reason for the accelerated schedule; and he would not discuss any delaying the schedule.

I failed the examination. I received a short letter from the Chair saying that I would not be allowed to stay at Northwestern after spring 1966. My request to see the exam, especially to see readers’ comments, was denied flatly by several Faculty members. I was counseled by one Professor not to “kick against the pricks.”[5] I was also told that I stood no chance of passing if I stayed and took Prelims again. Two other Professors, for whom I had served as Teaching Assistant, said the same thing. Another Professor, commenting on the August 1965 riot in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood, told me that I and others like me were responsible for such unrest. (The facts surrounding events in Garfield Park simply do not allow any conclusion about me. This Professor was sincere in what he believed; but I never again viewed him as a reliable source of reasonable analysis.) I was told by the then-Dean of the Graduate School that he was powerless to change an academic decision of the Philosophy Department. The whole assault appeared designed to be professionally deadly. There had been no warning, no shot across the bow; there was just one well aimed torpedo.

Graduate students in those times simply had no intramural rights to appeal unfair decisions. Neither were graduate students recognized, or their rights protected, in professional guilds like the American Philosophical Association.

I believe the consequences of Northwestern’s hidden aggression against me at the graduate student level have been career-long. I resolved early in the job-hunting process never to hide my official enrollment at Northwestern. When job interviewing, in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, I always answered in short, plain sentences any questions about why enrollment did not result in a degree. My explanation was usually met with silence and, “Thank you for coming in; we will contact you.”

In 1968, I enrolled in DePaul University’s Ph.D. program. Nobody asked about NU, much to my relief. The Ph.D. was awarded by DePaul in 1972. By then the job market, especially in Philosophy, had worsened considerably. Job seekers who have attended annual meetings of the American Philosophical Association may be aware of the desperation involved (“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”[6]). I learned, furthermore, that a Ph.D. in Philosophy is a dis-qualification for many other jobs on the national job market.[7]

My employment history, between 1972 and 1994, was filled with part-time teaching and non-teaching jobs, and some full-time work; all of this being under the condition known legally as “at-will” (dismissible without cause) employment. There were several long periods of unemployment. One day during this time, I found myself standing in line at State National Bank in Evanston with the Chairman of the NU Philosophy Department behind me. I had been unemployed for a long time. When he asked, I told him this. He frowned and, to my amazement, referred back to the events before Preliminary Exams at Northwestern. He apologized personally and said that he thought I had been treated unfairly, and that my difficulties in finding a teaching job would probably not have happened had my progress not been delayed. Why had he gone along, if he thought the process unfair? I never again took seriously his modeling of scholarly integrity.

I used long unemployment periods to translate Eugene Fink and Martin Heidegger, Heraklit: Seminar Wintersemester 1966/1967 (Frankfurt am Main, Vittorio Klostermann, 1970). My translation was published by the University of Alabama Press in 1979, but went out of print after a few years. In 1993 my translation was re-published by Northwestern University Press in its series of “Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.” Ironically, the Northwestern Professor who had been the most aggressive against me was on the editorial staff of NU Press, and must have known who I was.

During another period of unemployment I translated Martin Heidegger, “Die Kunst und der Raum” (St. Gallen: Erker Verlag, 1969). My translation appeared in Man and World: An International Philosophical Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, February, 1974.


5. Climbing Back Out of the Ditch [8]

My first and only offer of a tenure-track teaching job came in 1994 from the University of Cincinnati, three decades after events at Northwestern. It was not the job I had dreamed of when I decided that I would try to live “an examined life,” and that earning a Ph.D. was my chosen way to this end. But by 1994 the possibility of substantial employment teaching philosophy far outweighed other considerations.

I did not talk about my experiences at Northwestern. I know how much damage can be done if the slightest suspicion is planted in the minds of “colleagues” who are competitive and aggressive.

Moreover, I now realize that I quietly blamed myself for what had happened. There is a subtle but demoralizing trick at work here which deserves attention. Of course, I made mistakes. I took on more than I should have; a full-time graduate course load and leadership of a student political group was more than I could do with distinction. And I was naive about my political surroundings. Nevertheless, these are not faults that should have cost my place in scholarly training and left me in debt. And here comes the “trick” mentioned above: because an established professional authority had found fault with me I tacitly and uncritically assumed the fault. For years following I felt as if I were damaged goods, as if I had an intellectual failing that could not be repaired and needed to be hidden.

In fact, my activity was not subversive or damaging to the university or to the nation. I was attempting to do what philosophy at its best has always done – to call out the faults of individuals and cultures, and to focus energy on mending those faults.

I have just celebrated my 76th birthday. As the future gets shorter, I no longer choose to hold my tongue. I no longer regard this as merely a private story. Rather, it is one version of a pattern of events that has been repeated over and over again. Some people who are located in a socially, politically, economically stronger position will work to resist change, even when change is justified. When resistance is encountered these people will use their advantage to harm and dis-empower the resistors. No matter how it is dressed up, that is the pattern. And when we see it, the ideal of an examined life requires us to call out the villain and to apply our personal and socially organized power to stop the process.



[1] Joseph R. McCarthy lived from 1908 to 1957. He was an American politician and U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957. McCarthy rode to fame on Cold War era fears of Communist infiltration of the government and of American culture. He was famously put to shame in the “Army – McCarthy Hearings” in spring 1954. In many American households, including my own, it was excitement over these Hearings that eventually convinced my parents to buy a television set. My introduction to political theater was the famous scene in which Joseph N. Welch, chief legal representative for the U.S. Army, lost patience with McCarthy’s bogus claims and character assassinations and cried out, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

[2] Back issues of the Daily Northwestern have been archived here.

[3] This was modeled after “Broadway Answers Selma,” a benefit event for the families of slain civil rights workers Rev. James J. Reeb and James Lee Jackson.

[4] That “dupe and fellow traveler” meant “Communist” is undoubted. Readers not alive in the McCarthy Era may usefully access Life Magazine for April 4, 1949 (Vol. 26, No. 14) pp. 42 & 43. Readers were treated to a list and pictures of 50 people who, according to Life, were “prominent people who, wittingly or not, associate themselves with a Communist-front organization and thereby lend it glamour, prestige, and the respectability of American liberalism.”

[5] New Testament, Acts 9:5 and 26:14, King James Version.

[6] Dante, Inferno, Canto III, line 9. This is often translated, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

[7] A Job Counselor at the Illinois State Unemployment Office in Evanston made this point memorably. Reading my resume he paused half way down the page, looked at me in silence, and then laughed out loud, asking “What the Hell are you doing here?” He only stopped laughing when I reminded him that I was an out of work tax-payer, and thus a (former) payer of his salary.

[8] My thanks are to John McCumber for this reference to the “ditch” into which philosophers fall when they are caught unawares. See his “Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era” (diacritics 26.1: 33-49) 1996. See also McCumber, Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy in the McCarthy Era (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001). See also McCumber, The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).


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