Timed to coincide with her arrival in Taipei, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Washington Post op-ed, “Why I’m leading a congressional delegation to Taiwan,” was an unequivocal and impassioned declaration of US support for Taiwan.
Drawing an explicit parallel to Ukraine, a democratic state attacked by an authoritarian regime, Pelosi warned that Taiwan’s “vibrant, robust democracy — named one of the freest in the world by Freedom House and proudly led by a woman, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) — is under threat” from China.
I am an American professor in Taipei to study “academic freedom” in Taiwan’s universities and colleges. “Academic freedom” is a term typically understood to refer to the right of university professors to research and teach freely, without political interference. Were China to occupy Taiwan, Taiwanese faculty would lose this right, just as faculty in Hong Kong lost theirs after the National Security Law was passed in 2020.
This disastrous outcome — essentially, the end of intellectual freedom in Taiwan — is obvious to all the Taiwanese professors I speak with. What is not clear to them, and what strikes them as incredible, is that those of us who research and teach in the US are struggling with our own authoritarian incursion — and losing.
Taiwanese have heard about “the big lie,” former US president Donald Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. They know about the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol, and even the hearings recently conducted to investigate the attack, but they seem largely unaware of the authoritarian tactics to control knowledge at colleges and universities in the US.
This is hardly surprising, given all that is going on in the world, but for me here in Taipei, watching Pelosi come to Taiwan as a kind of standard-bearer for democracy has a certain irony when I know firsthand how deeply imperiled US democracy is from its own homegrown variants of authoritarianism.
Democratic societies build in protections for university faculty so that they are not at the whims of whichever political party holds power. The idea is that democracies, unlike dictatorships, recognize a distinction — however contestable in specific instances and at particularly volatile historical moments — between knowledge and propaganda. Knowledge remains knowledge regardless of what the king (or president) might prefer the citizens to believe.
Put another way: If I am a scholar who works on the history of slavery in the US, my research stays the same whether Republicans or Democrats have a majority in my state legislature. I can write about and disseminate my findings in the classroom even when those findings reveal aspects of US history that some Americans would prefer not to know.
Yet, shockingly, this is no longer true in 19 US states where legislative restrictions on the freedom to read, learn and teach are now the law. If I work at a public university in one of these 19 states, and my research and teaching is deemed to be “divisive” by a student or student’s parent, or some other so-called stakeholder, I am vulnerable to being fired or to seeing my program defunded.
Faculty in Republican-dominated states are self-censoring, changing their syllabi and altering their research agendas to protect themselves. This is the kind of thing that people raised in the US never imagined our professors and teachers would be forced to do.
I and my peers came of age during or soon after the Cold War, and 1984 was the novel we all read in middle school to congratulate ourselves on our democratic superiority. Americans never thought they would see laws banning the teaching of particular subjects such as “critical race theory” (which is not what red-state politicians would have you believe it is) or declaring that only one version of US history (sufficiently patriotic in its affirmation of American exceptionalism) can be taught.
The non-profit organization PEN America calls the laws that have been passed “education gag orders” and has done admirable work tracking their spread across the US. Faculty are mobilizing to fight these authoritarian tactics, but the long-term prognosis for academic freedom in the US is far from clear.
The US does not have an authoritarian bully looming over it the way Taiwan has the People’s Republic of China, but it has homegrown bullies increasingly willing to use authoritarian tactics to achieve undemocratic ends.
The US sees this in the flouting of the rule of law by Trump and others to corrupt elections. It is also seen in the denial of human rights in the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn a landmark abortion rights law, and in the education gag orders restricting research and teaching in areas pertaining to race, gender and sexuality.
Perhaps Tsai might consider visiting the US to rally support within the US for its own vulnerable democracy?
Jennifer Ruth is a professor in the Portland State University School of Film, and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs fellow in Taipei through September.
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