When the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened on September 11th, 2001, a friend called me in the morning to turn on the television. Many others found out in a similar way that day. I don’t need to explain more about the changed atmosphere that happened after that day. A common theme was that it had a “chilling effect” on free speech and speaking out. The specter of terrorism was made to justify many repressive legislative acts, and justified the creation of a climate of fear and caution. In Albuquerque at the time, one thing that this brought out was what happened to a UNM professor, Richard Berthold.
On the morning of 9/11/2001, it was reported that Berthold told two of his freshman undergraduate history classes: “Anybody who can bomb the Pentagon gets my vote.” With the hyper-patriotic and Orwellian atmosphere in the aftermath of the attacks, the biggest loss of American lives on United States soil, the reaction was deep. Berthold received national criticism, over a thousand hate e-mails, calls for his firing, and even death threats. One time a biker even threatened him in front of his driveway. He got an official reprimand from the university, but that wasn’t enough for many right wing forces in New Mexico at the time.
Who is Berthold?
First, lets give an idea of who Berthold was. He was a history professor at University of New Mexico, who taught at the university since 1972, and at the time of the controversy a tenured professor. Berthold’s focus was in classical history, with his classes in Greek and Roman history being extremely popular. I never took his classes, only some classes just after his, and recall the chalkboards being fully covered with his writings, giving a sample of his enthusiasm for teaching.
His politics were a mixed bag, both right wing and left wing. For one, he was a member of the National Association of Scholars, a right wing national group that opposed what it saw as multiculturalism and political correctness on United States campuses. In some of his frequent letters in the campus paper The Daily Lobo, he attacked the existence of official student service centers that served specific ethnicities. When Hispanic Student Services changed its name to El Centro De La Raza, he attacked this with the literal translation of La Raza, which is The Race, and compared it to advocating Nazi racial ideology. This ignores the history of the word La Raza, and also the history of racial oppression that brought on the need of student services that recognized oppressed peoples different needs, no matter the bureaucratic problems these institutions have.
While espousing typical right wing views like this, some of his other views were of a left wing bent. Berthold was a supporter of the Palestinian people and their struggle, and a frequent critic of Israel. From that he was also critical of U.S. foreign policy. This latter position is what brought him trouble in the aftermath of 9/11.
With the strong reaction against his statement he made that day, the university gave him and official reprimand, and he publicly apologized profusely. But this was not enough for the far right die-hards, who wanted his head, from talk radio to the New Mexico legislature.
On September 24th, 2001, John Trainor of Albuquerque filed a lawsuit in state district court to have Berthold fired because he “advocated violence and treason against the United States,” which under his reading of state law justified his being removed from his teaching position. (1)
The next day, Richard Toliver, a member of the UNM Board of Regents, called for Berthold to be fired. He called Berthold a coward, “hiding behind the blood-stained banner of the First Amendment.” Toliver was also a retired Air Force colonel who also claimed a close friend’s daughter died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Toliver was also a well-known right wing activist, previously head of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, and keen on playing the role of a black conservative.
One state legislator, Rep. William Fuller, an Albuquerque Republican, called for Berthold’s firing on the floor of the state House. Fuller was a retired army colonel who’s son it was reported in the media worked at the Pentagon at the time. (Interesting that two retired colonels who claimed to have connections to the 9/11 attacks led this attack on Berthold). Fuller and Rep. Rob Burpo, another Albuquerque Republican, met with UNM president William Gordon to call for Berthold’s firing. Fuller later threatened to withhold the state funding for UNM unless it forced Berthold out or fired him.
The Albuquerque Journal quoted Fuller as saying “I may very well hook a floor amendment on the budget bill this year saying that as long as (Berthold) is an active member of the faculty – that he’s not retired or fired – that UNM can’t spend a crying dollar of the money that’s in the budget until he’s gone.” (2) One thing that happened after 9/11 was that the Right was in a bigger position of influence in society, and they used it to bring on greater hegemony in American society. They went after critical thought in the universities in many ways, and Berthold was a convenient scapegoat.
Berthold was also aware of the corporate influence of the university, as many argued that their tax dollars shouldn’t be supporting his “sedition.” He said to The Nation, “There’s tremendous pressure from the business community that UNM should simply by filling jobs. Well, if you want that, then you’ve bought yourself a vocational school. It’s not a university. A real university is about knowledge and inquiry.” (3)
A Press conference
The campaign by the New Mexico Right against Berthold was kicked off at a press conference at UNM on September 25th. Myself and some others found out about it, and went to voice our opinions.
Leading off this press conference were almost all the players mentioned above, including Reps. Fuller and Burpo, Rep. Marsha Atkin, a Republican from Rio Rancho, and Toliver.
First up was Fuller himself. I never seen him before this, but I would call him Sergeant Buzzcut, albeit an older version of him. He sounded like a cranky old veteran, and his statement was no different.
For more evidence against him, they brought up a student who took some of Berthold’s classes. She was a freshman, blonde Barbie doll sorority girl type, and gave a list of offensive things that were said in his class. One I recall is something where he allegedly mentioned that Romans would touch each others testicles as an official greeting. She gave dates and times of each of the incidents listed. The Daily Lobo looked at the dates given, and showed that they were dates when Berthold did not have any scheduled classes. So one, they got the ditsy student to give out false information, at least in terms of the actual dates. Second, those incidents had nothing to do with the comments he gave on 9/11. These were merely to smear him. Another example of the new McCarthyism.
After this, a representative of the College Republicans gave a statement supporting the ouster of Berthold. This position from that organization should not be a surprise. But it is worth noting that Berthold himself was a former faculty adviser for the College Republican chapter of UNM for at least one year. Faculty adviser positions are usually just paper, where any professor can sign off their name so that a group can get chartered. Yet this fact is likely something embarrassing for the organization if it was more widely known.
At the press conference itself a few of us came by to protest. Bob Anderson of Stop the War Machine called Fuller out for not focusing on the military connections of UNM. I shouted something about this being the New McCarthyism. Someone else took him to task for not focusing on other issues at UNM such as the incidents of sexual assault on campus, for she herself was a victim. Fuller claimed to know nothing about the sexual assault incidents on campus that have been well covered in the press, showing what an ignoramus he was. After we voiced our protests Fuller then used the word treason in describing what Berthold did.
Treason. This is a loaded word. It gave a sense of where Fuller and the far right were coming from. Free speech, especially critical thought, was not important in the wake of terrorism. This was around the time that the USA PATRIOT Act was passed, where if you were labeled a terrorist you had no constitutional rights. The wave of fascism was around, and Fuller would have been a perfect fascist. And the rest of his crowd would have been good Germans.
Berthold gave a profuse apology for his remarks, but due to pressure from many he resigned in 2002. He later admitted regretting caving in and not defending his free speech rights. He came back to teach an honors class at UNM in Spring 2006 as an adjunct. Before that he taught adult classes for Albuquerque Oasis, which served senior citizens. He got in controversy again when he gave a lecture at a church owned conference center that doubted archaeological evidence for the story of Exodus, and was barred from giving lectures at the center again.
With the chilling effect of free speech after 9/11, many academics suffered. In Albuquerque, several high school teachers were kicked out around their anti-war views, most of which were not related to their classrooms. Even before 9/11, many academics were used to coasting along without rocking the boat. With the controversy over Berthold, it was a welcome change to have someone who was willing to speak his mind and challenge prevailing orthodoxy, which is what universities should encourage rather than be subservient to those in power.
1.Terrell, Steve. “Regent Calls for Removal of UNM Professor.” Santa Fe New Mexican. September 26, 2001
2. Uyttebrouck, Olivier. “Legislators May Seek Ouster of UNM Professor.” Albuquerque Journal. December 11, 2001. p.A1, A2.
3. Glenn, David. “The War on Campus.” The Nation. December 3, 2001.