An August 2017 update:
Rereading this blog post after the terrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia reminds me that the media vogue for dismissing antifa and campus protesters as “fragile” or “fragile thugs” seems to be on the decline, thankfully. (On the other side of the coin, this Vox article explains the fragility of white men who join white supremacist protests.) Since white nationalist activities are surging, a more open debate of the tactics progressives can use to combat white supremacy is finally occurring, as it must. As Peter Beinart writes in “The Rise of the Violent Left,” progressives are facing the following question: “If you believe the president of the United States is leading a racist, fascist movement that threatens the rights, if not the lives, of vulnerable minorities, how far are you willing to go to stop it?” Beinart mentions an article that I had not seen when I wrote the blog post, Natasha Lennard’s pre-inauguration “Anti-Fascists Will Fight Trump’s Fascism in the Streets.” Clergy trained in nonviolent protest were also in Charlottesville, Cornel West among them. And Moises Velasquez-Manoff brings our attention to protesters who oppose white supremacists through outright, public mockery in “How to Make Fun of Nazis”.
It appears that in Boston yesterday, all three methods of progressive resistance were present. The number of counter-protestors reached 40,000 and dwarfed the number of “free speech” protestors. Boston is in the North with a capital “N,” however. The statues on the Common and in the Public Garden include George Washington, abolitionists, Unitarians, a commemoration of the Boston Massacre and Crispus Attucks, and General Shaw and the African-American 54th regiment that distinguished itself in the Civil War. Yes, the Public Garden’s George Washington was a slave owner, but the growing mainstream opposition to monuments has not yet focused on the likes of Washington and Jefferson. This is because Americans are still uncomfortable discussing how foundational racism was to our national founding, history, and “culture,” and the degree to which that is still the case. Progressives need to make sure teaching anti-racism, intervening in online recruiting, and deprogramming newly minted white supremacists is part of their strategy. After all, ThisIsUs, as New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb reminds us in his NPR interview on August 14. However, this is not who many, if not most, of us want to be. I invite you to share your thoughts on the way forward by clicking on the Comments button.
My original post:
Zagreb’s Kino Europa, a theater that shows art films and English-language films in particular on Tuesday nights, recently hosted a photography exhibit called “Faces of Resistance” as part of its Festival of Tolerance. (Yes, the title seems strange, but there are so many festivals in Europe and in Zagreb itself in any given month that I think the title intends to suggest that tolerance is also worth celebrating! The event used to be only the Jewish Film Festival but now has lectures and workshops added.) Fascism and totalitarianism are on the minds of Europeans for obvious reasons; the twentieth century saw the fascism of Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini and the totalitarian Communism of Stalin (whether Tito ran a totalitarian socialist state is debated), and the 21st century is witnessing the rise of far-right and fascist movements in response to the collapse of socialism, the failures of neoliberalism, and the rise of multiculturalism in response to globalization and migration. The photography exhibit spanned 1941 to the present and depicted peoples from the former Yugoslavia who have resisted in the face of “undemocratic phenomena, as well as the political and cultural violence of the repressive regimes of the 20th century.” One of these regimes was the Ustaše fascist movement that rose to power under the Nazis during WWII. (Their chant, “Za Dom spremni,” can unfortunately be heard at Croatian football games today.) Some resisters were famous and others obscure, but what they shared, according to the exhibit’s organizers, was “their virtues: courage and righteousness, freedom of thought and freedom of action, the virtues that set them on the path of active participation in the process of reaching the decision to resist, to consciously break laws and confront the authorities, regardless of the consequences that may arise.” I was interested to read the personal stories of these “faces,” many of whom were part of the Communist-led Partisans who resisted the Ustaše and the Nazis in World War II. Eva Akerman, for example, was a Jew who survived a Croatian concentration camp in Gospić and an Italian prison camp in Rab and went on to become a Partisan; others in her family died at Jasenovac, the largest of the Croatian concentration camps, and Auschwitz. Trajče Grujoski was a member of the Communist Youth, was involved in the anti-fascist movement in Macedonia, and became a Partisan during World War II. He was sentenced to death in absentia by the court in his hometown, Bitola, which was under Bulgarian rule at that time. He later became a professor and judge, and he held various political positions in the Yugoslav government in Belgrade and in Macedonia. In the context of the Homeland War, Vesna Bosanac was a doctor at the Vukovar hospital when it was attacked by the Yugoslav People’s Army. She was heavily involved in the search for missing persons after the fighting and testified in the Hague against Šljivančanin, Šešelj, Goran Hadžić, and others. A photo of a protest by Women in Black was also featured. Women in Black is a feminist, anti-militarist peace organization that has organized silent protests, marches, political street theater, and educational workshops in their efforts to protest war, the denial of war crimes in Serbia, nationalism, and neo-Fascism. All those photographed shared a commitment to protecting the “disfranchised [sic] and a dignified life for all those who were deprived of this right,” according to the wall text that accompanied the exhibit.
Fascism should be on the minds of Americans, too. Whether we agree with their tactics or not, progressives must see anti-fascist activists in the U.S. as a part of this larger history of resisting those who seek to abridge human rights and crush dissent. Those whom they resist are anti-intellectual and anti-fact, they deligitimize the press and the judiciary, they deny structural racism in institutions ranging from public education to law enforcement, and they exhibit xenophobia and racism. If progressive protestors and resisters share anti-fascists’ abhorrence for the likes of Congressman Steve King, the Donald Trump administration, or white supremacist demonstrators, they must figure out a way to debate the best tactics for opposing these forces without dismissing antifa philosophy and tactics out of hand. There should be a way to oppose the type of violent actions that are the result of this passion and well-grounded fear—for example, the throwing of a Molotov cocktail that caused a French police officer to be engulfed in flames during the May Day anti-Le Pen riots in Paris last week—and still agree that fascism is an existential threat to democracy, not just an abhorrent viewpoint, the expression of which should be protected. On college campuses, students and faculty have the particular job of confronting the rhetoric of far-right academics, think tank researchers, media pundits, and alt-right leaders when these people are asked to speak by conservative campus clubs or when they reserve event space without such an official invitation, as Richard Spencer did at Auburn University. When these proposed speaking events are met by protests, as were those of Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray, Heather MacDonald, and Richard Spencer, media outrage soon follows. However, while the fact that violent protests resulted in physical attacks in the case of Charles Murray and Heather MacDonald is deeply troubling, the absence of articles deploring the violence but recognizing that protecting free speech is an insufficient response to this ideology is unconscionable. Journalists and political strategists need to spend more time exploring and historicizing political strategy, reviewing the historical arguments for nonviolence and the arguments for violence, and comparing Americans’ response to white supremacist movements to Europeans’ responses. Only rarely does a journalist even explore the beliefs and tactics of anti-fascist groups in a sustained way (though here is a helpful article from Salon.)
Instead, the American media focus on student protestors’ supposed “fragility.” David Brooks, in his New York Times op-ed from late April, oxymoronically calls protesters “fragile thugs” and blames the American educational system, which has supposedly abandoned the teaching of Western civilization in K-16 classrooms. This analysis may seem absurd, especially if you have a child who is learning about Greece and Rome in a blue state public school or teach at a college where of course Western civilization is taught in history, philosophy, political science, and many other disciplines. Unfortunately, however, it is all too common for journalists and pundits to see our educational system, and in particular our college professors, as the cause of students’ supposed inability to debate viewpoints with which they disagree and confront actions and ideas that cause trauma. Article after article bemoans college students’ desire to be educated in a conflict-free zone that contains no experiences or words or readings or statues that might cause offense. And this hand-wringing has been going on for some time, well in advance of Trump’s election. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warn in their 2015 Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind”, students are trying to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” Some of the examples Lukianoff and Haidt give are certainly regrettable; any law program that does not teach rape law would not serve its students well. However, these examples are extreme and not representative of either the education most students receive or the objections to microaggressions and requests for safe spaces that students are requesting. Depite this, Lukianoff and Haidt do not hesitate to use them to make overgeneralizations, charging that oversensitive students and the faculty who support them are “creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” Actually, I practiced thinking twice before speaking when I had to take parenting classes at my daughters’ coop preschool, and I do it every day at my community college, where I work with a diverse set of students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Sometimes I even rethink or apologize for something I have already said. Imagine that! Thinking twice may be great preparation for our students as they endeavor to thrive within a diverse college setting and prepare to enter a diverse, globalized workforce. (Incidentally, thinking twice may have prevented Pepsi and Kendall Jenner from their own trivialization of this generation’s activism.)
But I digress. Frank Bruni’s article “The Dangerous Safety of College,” written last March about the protest of Charles Murray’s visit to Middlebury College, is one of the worst examples of reducing a complex problem to the fragility of Millennial students and the indoctrination they experience in their professors’ classrooms. Writing for the New York Times, Bruni quotes Lukianoff and Haidt’s description of Millennials’ and their professors’ “illiberalism” as a “religion.” Bruni charges that students think “they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them” and concludes with his “worry that in too many instances, the groves of academe are better at pumping their denizens full of an easy, intoxicating fervor than at preparing them for constructive engagement in a society that won’t echo their convictions the way their campuses do.” As a college instructor, albeit at a community college, not “in the groves of academe” exactly, a sentence like this offends me. Not because I am fragile, but because Mr. Bruni betrays his ignorance of what every professor I know does in the classroom. We teach critical thinking and teach students to see it and to recognize its absence. We teach students about the rhetorical moves writers make and to recognize when they are used to manipulate. We teach students some version of the “believing and doubting game,” an exercise created by Peter Elbow that forces them to write all the points in favor of and against an idea. And yes, many of us teach students to perceive the institutional racism, sexism, and heterosexism that masquerades as “fairness” or “merit” or “common sense.”
In addition, Bruni’s implication that we are indoctrinating our students as if we are high priests fails to appreciate that students’ offense is the natural consequence of being raised to expect better. Many of their Baby Boomer and Generation X parents raised them (or tried to, anyway) to strive for a society that treats everyone equally and perhaps event treats everyone with equity. The television shows they watched and books they read and sometimes even the textbooks ordered by their schools drove home this message. What does it feel like for students raised in a supposedly color-blind, post-racial society to suddenly learn that it is indeed neither of those things? What does it feel like when students who have known all along that our society is not color-blind or post-racial hear color-blind statements that they know are poor covers for discrimination, like “I just want to hire the most qualified person for the job”? Bruni, Lukianoff, and Haidt lament the fact that supposedly forthright statements like these are decried as microaggressions, but I see student criticism of statements like that as evidence of sharp critical minds that understand the lack of objectivity among employers looking for “fit,” the different access to opportunity that applicants may have had, the diverse skill sets that applicants will come with, and the subliminal prejudices that many interviewers bring to the hiring process. A student who knows these things and exposes the lack of critical thinking behind a statement like “I just want to hire the most qualified person for the job” is my kind of student. I hope that when students with such sharp critical thinking skills voice their opposition to such statements or to a campus speaker whose positions or body of work is divisive and anti-scientific that their opposition will take the form of principled dissent and rigorous debate—resistance and persistence. However, student or community opposition may sometimes get violent, as has occurred in previous moments of our history, where activists have used violence as a political tactic. We should be surprised by none of this. A societal challenge and upheaval as significant as this one will not come without a fight, as Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, and their ilk know. Columns that debate the best methods of registering dissent and making social change would not offend me; columns that complain about student “fragility” do. They frame resistance as the whiny complaining of timid snowflakes.
Whether they realize that conservative campus clubs are often funded and fueled by outside groups with their own agendas or not, progressive and fair-minded students know that hosting speakers like Ann Coulter and Richard Spencer is not just about free speech or welcoming “ideological diversity,” a seemingly innocent concept that Nicholas Kristof and others would like to see more of. Kate Knibbs, writing not for the mainstream media but for The Ringer, hosted by Medium, asserts that ideological diversity is a buzz-phrase that is not a “mere extension of calls for gender, race, and sex diversity” but a move to welcome “discredited, offensive, and abhorrent (often right-wing) fringe viewpoints” onto college campuses (and into our homes with cable news shows who bend over backwards to show both sides of an issue) and treat them “like they’re merely ‘ideologically diverse’ instead of poisonous.” Much has been written about the current tendency to make false equivalencies, to ignore the bad science of a book like The Bell Curve (We miss you, Stephen Jay Gould!) and give it a platform in our pro/con circus. The bringing of “fringe viewpoints” like climate-denial, conversion therapy, and white supremacy onto college campuses and the national stage in the name of ideological diversity is at best dishonest and at worst dangerous. Marine LePen’s candidacy for Prime Minster of France has gotten as far as it has because of her “dédiabolisation,” or de-demonization, campaign to make the white supremacist politics of her and her father’s party more palatable, to make them “banal,” as is argued by a recent article in The Guardian, “How Marine LePen Played the Media.” Knowing how this propaganda works, what can we on college campuses do?
In the wake of all these hand-wringing columns, a voice of sanity finally surfaced to write an op-ed that schools us all on what free speech should really be on a university campus. New York University’s Ulrich Baer, in an op-ed titled “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech,” argues that we need to understand that “a thorough generational shift has occurred” and not dismiss the rejection of “speech” that denies the humanity of minorities as oversensitivity. He reminds us that college campuses changed radically in the 1960s, when women and non-whites, groups who had been denied equal legal status and thus a common humanity in previous generations, started showing up on college campuses. Baer writes that freedom of speech “. . . means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.” He continues, “Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.” He provides a fascinating analysis of how Yale wrestled with these issues in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and then concludes, “Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute. When its proponents forget that it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters, and instead invoke a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present. We should thank the student protestors, the activists in Black Lives Matter and other ‘overly sensitive’ souls for keeping watch over the soul of our republic.” So no, Ann Coulter does not get to lament the death of free speech. University campuses just have high standards for how they should balance free speech with the health of the larger community.
I see no benefit to intellectual freedom, the dispassionate pursuit of knowledge, or the learning opportunities afforded by open debate in Richard Spencer’s appearance at Auburn University. Watching his speech and the question and answer session that followed online was a creepy experience—he is well-dressed, attractive, and measured in his tone for the most part, calming the occasional outbreak with an outstretched arm, but then he turns on a dime and spews hate speech and mocks those who disagree with him and ask him tough questions. He repeatedly calls his opponents “sick” for a number of reasons, including their choice to bring in black student athletes “to a school like Auburn that has a history of white identity, to bring in people who, let’s be frank, are not the greatest exemplars of the African race.” (And yes, he raises the spectre of these students’ sexual abuse of white women on campus, making such crimes representative of supposed black male hypersexuality and not of the kind of sexism and violence that is a problem for a minority of men across all racial groups.) He frequently spit out the word “tranny” as one example of a meaningless, randomly chosen identity that lacked the radicalism of a white identity; he referred to his opponents as “Communist scum” and said that whites are “fucking awesome” and that “there would be no history without us.” He portrayed African-Americans as primitives, people for whom identity comes naturally, “like dew comes in the morning,” and who don’t need an “intellectual ideological movement to create [identity.]” So when the first white male questioner thanked Spencer for coming because “students are supposed to be challenged,” I was doubtful. Students did, in fact, rise to the challenge Spencer posed, but he dismissed the validity of their questions and insulted them. For example, when an African-American student asked what was wrong with diversity, Spencer said, with no evidence or reasoning provided, that diversity “makes the world ugly. . . . It’s a way of bringing to an end a nation and a culture that was defined by white people.” Such a statement invalidates the right of his non-white listeners to be on our campuses and even in the United States. When another student complained of his failure to cite facts, Spencer replied, “Facts are lame.” He called those people “who want to be in charge of diversity . . . a bunch of moronic, fat, idiots. . . . They’re lame whites.” When asked by a white student how his movement was different from the behavior of “SJW,” or social justice warriors, he replied that he is a “collectivist,”saying that “individualism is for fags.” While Spencer surprisingly betrayed some knowledge of theorists like Benedict Anderson and brought up interesting critiques of consumerism, such insights were repeatedly undercut by the absence of logic and ad hominem attacks, perhaps fueled by his megalomania. Is this the kind of speech that should be protected on a university campus?
When I told the Croatian Ph.D. students in my Transnational Dimensions of American White Identities class about Spencer’s speech, they were divided as to whether he should have been allowed to speak at Auburn. Croatia follows the EU in supporting free speech but asserting that it comes with certain responsibilities: Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights calls certain “restrictions or penalties . . . necessary in a democratic society . . . for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.” Hate speech and Holocaust denial has been prosecuted under this article, for example. Yet Europeans are divided over whether this has been effective. In the online magazine The Tower, Liam Hoare argues that “These laws give credence and cachet to the often self-pitying narratives of those who would propagate anti-Semitism, promote the boycott targeting Israel, or deny the Holocaust, that somehow they are saying the things that cannot be said.” That is certainly true in the U.S. Interestingly, Hoare claims that the declining fortunes of Holocaust-denier David Irving have little to do with his imprisonment for violating Article 10 and everything to do with the libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt that he lost. (The film Denial, about this event, was shown at the Kino Europa as part of the Festival of Tolerance.) Unfortunately, white supremaists will now avoid lawsuits as a strategy, but the incident does suggest that historians and scientists need to do more public relations work.
Writing about this issue of how best to combat white supremacy is certainly depressing; there seems to be no right answer. Perhaps all we can do on college campuses is support campus events as occasions for student and faculty learning and do more to draw the media’s attention when they succeed in enlarging students’ understanding of an issue. Auburn University students, for example, staged a parallel event, an outdoor concert, advertised under the hashtag #AuburnUnites. Drawing more media attention for these events and for strong examples of civil, intellectually rigorous discourse is also important. Those of us who are faculty and campus club advisors can encourage students to invite speakers who are not polarizing and hateful but engage in either respectful debate, or, when the situation calls for it, impassioned, evidence-based critique. Happily, I have attended multiple events on my campus that have achieved this goal. One in particular that I’m thinking of was planned by the Black Student Union, and the other was planned jointly by the Peace and Social Justice Club and Muslim Students Association. I can’t speak to how the BSU club advisor worked with the club president in planning the event, but the event was a model of civil discourse, even though the audience members and speakers had strong opinions. The BSU invited a law enforcement representative from Urban Shield, the training event that seeks to prepare LE to respond to terrorist threats, and Stop Urban Shield, an organization that objects to the use of the tactics learned against citizens who engage in civil disobedience. Both sides debated the issue forcefully but with respect, and the audience dealt with their disagreements with passion but also with care. The same was true of the panel on Islamophobia planned by the Peace and Social Justice Club and the MSA. The students really took the lead and planned an excellent event, working with a Muslim faculty member who addresses these issues in his classes and with Zahra Billoo, a representative from CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, whom I later saw speak, with a shock of recognition, at the January Women’s March in Washington, D.C. All we did as advisors was help the students choose neutral, not polarizing, language to describe and advertise the event; they did an excellent job of planning it and running the Q & A at the end. Students asked questions that showed they had been thinking carefully about the issues, and they got respectful, detailed, evidence-based repsonses from the panelists. Our campus paper covered both these events, thankfully, but the local media needs to pick up their stories about campus events like these to attract students and community members to similar events and view them as learning opportunities and responses to toxic ideologies like white supremacy. Perhaps the mainstream media can also start visiting college campuses and K-12 classrooms and watch teachers and students wrestle with the Western European ideals that have coexisted with Western European racism and ask historians to help us understand the history of protest and of resistance to fascism.