[News] Isolating radicals: America's new academic blacklisting

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jul 28 13:11:57 EDT 2017


  Isolating radicals: America's new academic blacklisting

Steven Salaita - July 27, 2017

The outrage is helped along by a profound misunderstanding of the 
offending critiques. What many conservatives interpret as atavistic 
dislike of innocent whites, akin to - if not worse than - racism against 
black people and other ethnic minorities, isn't a rejection of their 
humanity, but of a system that reifies whiteness in order to maintain 

By treating whiteness as an ethnic category rather than a political 
identity, those conservatives uphold racial hierarchies that provide 
them a plethora of tangible benefits. That black intellectuals face 
recrimination for challenging whiteness as a political invention merely 
validates their critical enterprise.

US academe has never been hospitable to radicals, as evidenced by the 
kinds of speech most likely to land a professor in trouble: Criticism of 
the police and/or military, condemnation of Israel, analysis of 
structural racism, and rejection of capitalism. While the right has 
marketed itself as uniquely oppressed on campus, those on the left, 
particularly women and people of colour, most frequently suffer 
violations of academic freedom.

Conservative scholars certainly provoke controversy, but it's almost 
always for unambiguously racist speech or unethical behaviour. Anyway, 
as the war criminals <http://www.hoover.org/profiles/condoleezza-rice> 
who have found prestigious teaching 
<http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/albright/> gigs illustrate 
some controversy is negligible or beneficial. It depends on who's 
complaining.  On both the left and right, affirming state power isn't a 

Recent controversies at Drexel 
(Hartford), Claremont 
<https://townhallseattle.org/event/keeanga-yamahtta-taylor/> and Essex 
County College 
arise from the race politics that animate Trump's popularity among many 
self-identified white people. These days, whiteness doesn't signify the 
overconfidence of normality as much as it does the paranoia of a 
declining majority.

Few groups are more capable of hostility than those anxious about an 
imminent decline of their inherent advantages.

In any case, the misunderstandings don't justify the vitriol.

Targets of these public inquests face racist abuse, including death 
threats. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociologist at Connecticut's Trinity 
College, had to flee 
his home because of such threats. Trinity ended up briefly shutting down 

Inundated by promises of harm, Keeanga-Yamhatta Taylor had to cancel 
a speaking tour in the Pacific Northwest. Saida Grundy, of Boston 
University, had to work amid condemnatory flyers 
posted by a neo-Nazi group.

Jonathan Higgins, a student affairs professional, was fired for 
deploring structural racism by an institution reputed to be liberal.

We tend to think of these right-wing offensives as fundamentally 
ideological - that is, as the product of irrational fervour set on 
destruction - but they're not as mindless as we might imagine. They 
follow strategic principles that have proven effective, partly because 
university management provides them latitude.

Grundy and Williams, for example, were reprimanded by their employers, 
while Taylor's remained silent, which can be read as indifference or 
tacit approval, neither option helpful in a moment promising racial 

The goal of conservative media luminaries who whip their audiences into 
frenzies isn't merely to punish radical scholars, but to render 
themselves indispensable to campus governance. They have succeeded 
insofar as they define the parameters of public debate and mark their 
targets as deviant.

Controversy isn't an event, but a condition. In academe, overcoming that 
condition is remarkably difficult. Upper administrators loathe 
controversy, a sentiment that bleeds into the faculty who control 
systems of merit and promotion. In this industry, punishment is often a 
lifetime proposition.

Agitators exploit this feature of academe to interject themselves into 
spaces where they normally have no influence, rendering themselves 
omnipresent despite their formal absence. Dozens of websites profile 
offending faculty, warning universities that the listed individuals come 
with the potential for trouble and providing guidance to patriotic types 
eager to share feedback with seditious professors.

They limit mobility within and beyond campus. The situation amounts to 
blacklisting because conservative mobs generate a permanent state of 
disputation even when they fail to get their targets fired.

Management normally doesn't take a firm stand against conservative 
attempts to punish faculty. Not a single university president, for 
example, has condemned Canary Mission, a website devoted to ruining the 
career prospects of students and faculty deemed to be inadequately 
enamoured of Israel, and none has stood up to /Fox News'/ Tucker 
Carlson, a principal purveyor of right-wing agitation.

It's easy to attribute this inaction to cowardice, but doing so absolves 
senior administrators of their role in promulgating anti-intellectual 

Most deans and provosts are too genteel to embrace Republican 
operatives, frequently stereotyped as uneducated rubes, but those 
operatives provide cover for universities' less pastoral commitments: 
Dirty real estate transactions, awful labour practices, obscene 
administrative salaries, complicity in imperialism and settler 
colonisation, cooperation with the surveillance state, cover-ups of 
sexual assault.

That administrators often tolerate reactionaries who profess a desire to 
destroy higher education shouldn't be a surprise: university management 
and reactionary politicians often share the same class interests. In the 
past month, two colleges 
have laid off 
tenured faculty, something that promises to become a regular occurrence.

In both cases, the scholars put on the chopping block had been critical 
of their administrations. Fancy vestments can't conceal the resemblance 
of campus luminaries to right-wing demagogues who peddle visions of an 
authoritarian social order.

Scholars who challenge nationalistic orthodoxy can expect the same tacit 
approval from their bosses. Management rarely condemns vitriol and death 
threats against its employees unless doing so enhances their brand.

They're too beholden to the corporations, legislatures, and foundations 
from which they derive significant income, not to mention wealthy 
individual donors. It's lucrative, if only by negation, to bemoan the 
unhinged and pampered radicals they have to put up with.

Senior administrators would do well to heed the words of Simran Jeet 
Singh, who faced calls for dismissal 
over a phony allegation. Noting that his employer, Trinity College in 
San Antonio, had his "back in every single moment like this," he 
provided the solution to the problem of right-wing agitation: "I wish 
that other universities would do the same for their educators."

Many commentators in the West hesitate to raise this point, but 
pro-Israel groups pioneered the tactics now deployed with increasing 
success by alt-right agitators. They have also been the most vigorous in 
enforcing blacklists, which have a long tradition in the United States, 
in part because capitalist societies maintain obedience through strict 
regulation of livelihood.

Norman Finkelstein never got another job in the United States. Neither 
did Terri Ginsburg 
Dozens of Palestinian scholars exist in job market purgatory, known to 
be troublemakers by virtue of claiming an ethnic identity.  Being hated 
by reactionaries is seemingly their most notable accomplishment, and no 
amount of distinguished teaching, scholarship, or service will change 
that reality.

Instead of bemoaning the stupidity of conservative zealots, faculty 
ought to consider how they unwittingly maintain that zealotry on campus. 
Blacklists require the consent of people who claim to deplore them. 
Faculty can diminish the power of controversy by refusing to abide what 
they imagine to be administrative preferences.

Allowing public shaming to dictate curricular priorities can expedite 
institutional anxiety and augment the tabloid undertones of academe. 
Let's quit pandering to managerial sensibilities and recruit faculty who 
will upset the bosses.

In other words, faculty abet blacklists when they accept controversy as 
an insurmountable reality. Blacklists work only if they become 
self-regulating through a collective observance of common sense ("she's 
un-hireable"; "our administration will never go for it"; "I don't want 
to deal with controversy"; "our department's reputation will take a 
hit"; "he's too polemical"; "groups X, Y, and Z on campus will 
complain"; "I'm afraid of getting into trouble").

We cannot defeat the right if we allow its operatives and managerial 
enablers to mediate our professional conventions. We're also helpless to 
overcome the threat if we don't expunge whatever affinity we have for 
the racism at the heart of today's alt-right enterprise. I suspect this 
task will be more difficult for faithful liberals than they might care 
to admit.

Whether a reactionary ethos forces itself onto campus or actually 
corresponds to extant professional ideologies, that ethos informs some 
of academe's most enduring truisms.

"Don't be political" becomes a pragmatic mantra, the sage advice 
seasoned elders give to young firebrands who don't yet know the 
business. But being political is fine as long as it doesn't interfere 
with sites of power, in which case the politics can acquire the gravity 
of dispassion.

"Political" is reserved for words and actions that challenge capitalist 
and colonialist orthodoxy. "Don't be political" really means "Don't be 
committed to justice".

And if we cannot be committed to justice, then abandoning any pretence 
of critical thinking or compassionate pedagogy becomes the only ethical 
option. When reactionaries are in a constant state of apoplexy, we 
needn't accept it as a source of anxiety, but as affirmation of a job 
well done.

*Steven Salaita is an American scholar, author and public speaker. His 
latest book is /Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic 
Freedom/.  Follow him on Twitter:* @stevesalaita 

/*Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do 
not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or 

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