Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Undeserved Awards

 Department of Appreciated
But Undeserved Awards and Accolades 
(And Two Unexpected and Striking Parallels)

I have received a number of letters in the following vein, each offering a similar kind of compliment about my conduct at Boston University and my blog postings. My truth-telling about the moral lapses and blindnesses and ethical agnosticism of Boston University administrators has been compared by various blog followers with the statements and actions of Nick Merrill (the head of the Calyx Institute who defied an order that he hand customer information over to the FBI), Cody Wilson (a coder for unSystem and the author of Dark Wallet for Bitcoin), Edward Snowden (the whistle-blower who worked for the National Security Agency), Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman (courageous journalists with The Guardian and The Washington Post who published many documents the United States government attempted to suppress), James Risen (a New York Times reporter who did something similar there), Julian Assange (the founder of WikiLeaks), Thomas Drake, William Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Edward Loomis (former NSA employees who revealed unpleasant facts about the agency), and dozens of other whistle-blowers, truth-tellers, and defenders of academic and other forms of free expression. I thank my readers one and all for the flattering comparisons, even if the accolades are undeserved and the comparisons seem, to me, grossly exaggerated. I know they are offered with the best of intentions, based on the highest ideals of professional conduct. I only wish Boston University President Robert Brown, Provost Jean Morrison, members of the legal department who have behaved so unethically and unprofessionally, middle-level administrators like the Department of Film and Television Chairman and College of Communication Dean, and members of the Board of Trustees embraced the same ideals. But that is clearly not the case, or there would be no reason for this blog—or for it to continue into the present. (To see how far both past and present ethical problems at Boston University are from being addressed even in mid-2014, after almost a decade of confidential memos and more than a year of blog postings pointing them out, see the entries for March and April of 2014. They are available via the menu on the right margin of the page.)   –Ray Carney

 Subject: Speaking truth to power

Dear Prof. Carney,

I just read about something called the John Adams Award for “speaking truth to power” or that’s what they said it was. I intend to nominate your name. I hope you don’t object. As far as I am concerned you’re just as much a hero as Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Captain William D. Swenson, and Ladar Levinson. Only you’ve done it in Boston University. You told the truth and reported ethics problems even when you knew bad things would be done to you for doing it.
People are too afraid to speak up when their jobs ask them to do wrong things. Or when wrong things are done to them. That’s the cause of a lot of the world’s problems. People who won’t take a stand right where they are. If everyone spoke up when they saw bad things and everyone who worked for a company refused to do bad things to their customers or the people around them, the world would be a better place.
You are the exception that is willing to stand up and take a stand. Keep it up. Your students should thank you. The faculty should thank you. Boston University should thank you. You are doing it for them. Keep fighting the good fight!

Karen [last name withheld to protect her confidentiality]

Ray Carney's reply:

 Subject: Ethics and Tribal Instincts

Dear Karen,

Thanks. I appreciate your note, even if I don’t think of myself as being in the same category as Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald. (I’m sorry but I don’t know the other names on your list.) Snowden and Manning are American heroes—albeit in different ways and to different degrees. Manning, in my understanding of things, was less mature, more impulsive, and more careless in the actions he took, and Snowden was more reflective, thoughtful, and morally responsible. Even if I’m not at all in the same league with him, I’d like to think I’ve been closer to Snowden in my level of thoughtfulness. In fact, in some ways I’ve acted even more carefully and responsibly than he had the luxury of doing—since, for something like a decade, I kept my reports of ethical misconduct and professional misbehavior at BU completely “inside the system.” Every single memo I wrote, both those later published on the blog and dozens of others I have not yet posted, was written as a private communication to a BU administrator. I stayed strictly within “the chain of command”—reporting event after event, privately and confidentially, to BU administrators with the expectation that they would investigate the problems I was reporting. I kept the reports strictly confidential. I never mentioned the memos to any of my colleagues, never sent them to a journalist, never posted them on the internet. I only went public something like nine or ten years into the reporting process, after not a single memo I had submitted was acted upon. If you want to know the truth, looking back in time, I can hardly believe I was so patient, that I waited so long, that I had such trust in the system.
So that’s one difference between me and Snowden and Manning. And maybe it’s not to my credit. Howard Zinn (a BU professor who experienced some of the same things I have in terms of institutional abuse and retaliation for taking principled stands) once said near the end of his life that the only thing he regretted was not being more radical. Maybe I was too patient, too ready to believe in the good faith of administrators to correct things if only problems were pointed out to them. I think Snowden, young as he is, understood the world better than I did. He understood that nothing will be done unless you go public, or in his case go to the press, as the first step.
Of course the main thing that separates me from Manning and Snowden is the scale of what they did and the scale of the punishments they face. When Snowden released the NSA documents, he risked his life. And make no mistake about it, if the U.S. ever catches him, he will almost certainly pay with it. That’s what the espionage laws are about: execution or a life sentence in Leavenworth. All I’ve risked is losing my job (a threat I’ve received on numerous occasions from my bosses to try to force me to shut up and stop my ethical reports—the Boston University lawyers have proven themselves to be diabolically adept at getting around the putative protections of the academic tenure system), being verbally abused and treated nastily in meetings and memos (there’s more than you want to know about that in the blog postings), and having big bites taken out of my pay, my annual evaluations, and every other form of support that a university customary provides a faculty member. All of that hurts, and the financial stuff has really affected my life and work, but it’s hardly comparable to the sacrifice Snowden may have to make.
So, as much as I appreciate your kind thoughts and compliments, I respectfully decline the honor you want to put me up for. Please don’t nominate me for anything. And don’t worry about me. Even if a good number of the faculty that work at BU are either too demoralized and fearful (after four decades of astonishingly vindictive abuse and disrespect under the last President, John Silber) or too pathetically grateful for the tiny pay raises they have been awarded (by the President who replaced the thuggish one) to speak up, I have tens of thousands of supporters outside the university.
But before I end, I can’t let the second paragraph of your email pass without singling it out for comment. It’s really the most important part of what you wrote. It’s so true. I think I must have been born on another planet because my view of morality is so different from that of most of the people around me. And, the stupidest part is that I got this far in life and never realized I was different! :) The past ten years have been a real eye-opener: to see what people are capable of, how willing they are to lie and deny to protect themselves.
I couldn’t agree with you more. Morality really should be something that guides our words and actions, everyday and everywhere—and not just our thoughts on Sundays and holidays. But self-interest gets in the way, and tribal instincts—the instinct to circle the wagons, defend the way things are, and expel and criticize anyone who says anything you don’t want to hear or have to deal with—are as powerful as they were 100,000 years ago in evolutionary history. It’s in our DNA to hate, punish, and retaliate against anyone who doesn’t have the same values we do.
Boston University is in a bad way, but just hates being reminded of the fact. The institution has a long path to walk before it will see the daylight of administrative respect for independent-minded faculty—or fair pay and fair treatment for its staff as well. Thanks to forty years of benighted leadership under the dictatorial President who preceded the current one, it is still back in the dark ages administratively—with many of the middle-level managers from the old era unfortunately still filling the middle-management positions. Institutional culture is slow to change. It will take a long time for Egypt, Iraq, and China to get real freedom of thought and expression. But that’s why the struggle is worth waging.

All best wishes,

Ray Carney

A note from Ray Carney: As I said above, at the point I wrote the preceding reply, I had never heard of Army Captain William D. Swenson or web site developer Ladar Levinson. I subsequently looked them up. To my complete surprise, I discovered a series of interesting parallels with the treatment I have received at the hands of Boston University administrators: In the case of Captain Swenson's treatment by his U.S. Army superiors, the parallel involved the administrative denial of a series of indisputable, proven events in an effort to punish him for speaking the truth about the individuals over him. In the case of Levinson's treatment by the National Security Agency, the parallel involved the institutional use of legal threats and financial pressures to censor his publications, shut down his web site, and suppress his life's work. There is a pattern here, in terms of institutional intolerance for independent thought, expression, and action, and it's not very hard to make out.

* * *

       William D. Swenson was a United States Army soldier serving in Afghanistan who behaved heroically during a September 2009 battle (his actions were documented on video), but had the events astonishingly disputed and denied (despite the video footage documenting them), and the papers that had originally nominated him for a commendation mysteriously “lost,” after he criticized the officers above him for their own conduct during the same battle. His mortal sin, as far as his superior officers were concerned, was that he broke the code of silence that dictates that a soldier is never allowed to tell the truth about mistakes made by officers above him in the chain of command. With the higher-ups retaliating against him for his comments, trying to deny that his heroic acts ever took place, it took four years until his actions were finally officially acknowledged in a ceremony in October 2013.

Ladar Levinson founded an email service he was forced to shut down in the summer of 2013 when the NSA harassed and threatened him with legal action against him (because, among other things, Edward Snowden was using Levinson’s web site to communicate with Glenn Greenwald). Of all of the people listed in Karen’s note to me, Levinson’s situation actually presents the closest parallel to one aspect of my own situation at BU, insofar as five years ago I was forced to suspend postings on my Boston University faculty web site due to similar harassment and threats from the Boston University administration. Levinson was threatened with legal action by the NSA that would bankrupt him if he didn’t shut his site down, and I was threatened with legal action—by the Dean of the College of Communication and Chairman of the Department of Film and Television, with the backing of the Boston University Provost—that would similarly bankrupt me; as well as additionally threatened by BU administrators with having my name and reputation smeared on the internet via an official university posting, if I didn’t shut down my faculty web site. (See the November 2013 blog posting, “The Thought Police,” for more information about the administrative threats and pressures BU applied.) 
Levinson made a statement at the time: "I have been forced to make a difficult decision…. to walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit [the email service he founded and ran]…. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations." With the alteration of a word here and there, I might have issued the same statement about my Boston University faculty web site. After more than ten years of postings, and years of vicious administrative attacks and threats to destroy my reputation and bankrupt me with legal actions taken against me by the university, I was forced to suspend it in 2008.

Ray Carney
Prof. of Film and American Studies
Boston University

"Inside Boston University—A Faculty Member's Efforts to Defend
Academic Freedom of Expression" --

Ray Carney's observations about academic freedom of expression, the
censorship of faculty publications, and bureaucratic retaliation
against independent-minded faculty members at Boston University. Prof.
Carney reflects on the deleterious effect of corporate modes of
organization, business measures of value, and market pressures on the
life of the mind, academic research, and course offerings—and on the
distortions corporate values introduce into the faculty promotion,
pay, and support system.

Ray Carney is the author or editor of: Henry Adams, Mount Saint Michel
and Chartres
(Viking Penguin), Henry James, What Maisie Knew and The
Spoils of Poynton
(New American Library/Signet), Rudyard Kipling, Kim
(New American Library); The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism,
Modernism and the Movies
(Cambridge University Press); The Films of
Mike Leigh: Embracing the World
(Cambridge University Press); Speaking
the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer
(Cambridge University
Press); American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge
University Press); American Dreaming (University of California Press
at Berkeley); Shadows (British Film Institute/Macmillan); Cassavetes
on Cassavetes
(Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus); Autoportraits (Cahiers
du cinema), The Adventure of Insecurity; Necessary Experiences; Why
Art Matters
; and other books, essays, and editions, published in more
than ten languages.

* * *

To read a summary of the past decade of financial and bureaucratic punishments, pedagogical failures, violations of academic freedom, verbal harassment, threats to destroy Prof. Carney's reputation via web postings and to bankrupt him with legal actions, and a variety of other forms of administrative misconduct and academic misbehavior at Boston University, see: “A Summary—Ten Years at Boston University,” available under June 2014 in the side menu on any page.