Isolating radicals: America's new academic blacklisting

Isolating radicals: America's new academic blacklisting
Comment: Whether they are challenging whiteness, settler colonialism or capitalism, 'disruptive' intellectuals are being blacklisted and even sacked from America's academic institutions. This practice must stop, writes Steven Salaita.
8 min read
27 Jul, 2017
Deploring structural racism has caused many to lose their jobs in US academia [Getty]
An emboldened right-wing media industry, long hostile to what it considers a disproportionately liberal academe, has ramped up its efforts to punish radical scholars in the wake of Donald Trump's election.  

While its proponents often conflate "liberal" and "left", there's now a long list of leftist academics who have been reprimanded or disciplined by their employers, many of them black, all of them deploring structural racism in the United States. 

Nothing raises conservative dander quite like condemnation of whiteness, a mainstay of certain humanities and social science disciplines. 

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 inequality. 

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.

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

Conservative scholars certainly provoke controversy, but it's almost always for unambiguously racist speech or unethical behaviour. Anyway, as the war criminals who have found prestigious teaching 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 problem.

Recent controversies at Drexel, Trinity (Hartford), Claremont, Princeton 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 campus. 

Well-known academic Norman Finkelstein and around 20 other
demonstrators were detained during a protest against the Israeli 
offensive in Gaza in 2014 [Anadolu]

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 violence. 

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

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 cultures. 

Read more: 'You should know that I am a mosaic': The legacy of Rula Quawas

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. 

Dozens of websites profile offending faculty, warning universities that the listed individuals come with the potential for trouble

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.  

Dozens of Palestinian scholars exist in job market purgatory, known to be troublemakers by virtue of claiming an ethnic identity

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.

'Don't be political' really means 'Don't be committed to justice'

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 staff.