Before anybody rushes to remind me that there’s already scholarship, legal theory, and jurisprudence on these issues–I know. I’m not making a legal argument.
Two precipitating events have me thinking about this topic.
The other day, our colleague and friend Sid Dobrin posted a photo on Facebook of somebody with a swastika armband bicycling around the University of Florida campus. He came back yesterday and drew a crowd. The swastika-wearing cyclist swears (O! Dear me! How could anyone think I have bad intentions?!?) the “protestors don’t understand my intentions” and that he doesn’t “mean to hurt anyone.”
Yesterday, at West Chester University where I teach, two “preachers” showed up on campus (this happens periodically) spewing incendiary bigotry at anyone and everyone within shouting distance. Unfortunately, a couple of students reacted strongly enough that they were arrested and are likely to be charged with assault.
So here’s the thing.
I understand what the First Amendment says, and that the jurisprudence around free speech has historically protected groups like the KKK and their right to speak. I understand as somebody who studies rhetoric and activism that sometimes groups need to create very uncomfortable spectacles and situations in order to mobilize people on behalf of issues. As somebody who was deeply involved in organizing our faculty strike last fall and has been doing activism of various kinds for 30+ years, I get it.
But I want to challenge people who defend the Nazi-bicycle-guy and the two “preachers” (who I refuse to acknowledge as Christian based on how explicitly hateful they are) to explain something to me.
The presumption free-speech laws and jurisprudence make is that such speech is necessary to the healthy functioning of democracy. Explain to me how riding a bicycle around a campus with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, waving a swastika around at people, is positively contributing to democracy. Explain how we’re advancing public deliberation about, um, anything at all by standing in the middle of WCU campus telling women that they’re sinning just by being at college, or that calling people “faggots and whores” accomplishes anything useful at all. And “because if we don’t use our free speech rights, we lose them” isn’t an answer. And “because they can” isn’t an answer either. The question is: what do those hateful incendiary utterances do to advance public discourse about anything at all?
Ten days ago, out of concern among WCU students and faculty that the post-election wave of violence and threats against marginalized people will likely our campus, a group of faculty decided to join a nationwide movement called #SanctuaryCampus that calls on colleges/universities to become havens for community members who may be in danger under the new political regime. Among other provisions, the campaign asks campuses to declare their unwillingness to participate in sweeps or raids fishing for undocumented people.
I helped to circulate the letter and organize this effort–i.e., I didn’t just sign but have recruited other signers–not because I want to “tell the university to break the law” or “demand non-compliance with federal policy” or other such nonsense, but because I want the university/system leadership to take a proactive stance on behalf of threatened populations before a new administration tries to execute policies that would harm people we’re supposed to support.
Speaking for myself, I don’t think the letter asks the university to break any laws–and it certainly doesn’t demand anything of the sort. The letter does ask the university to resist efforts at harming our students as strongly as we can–or more to the point, it asks the university’s leadership to commit to not enabling miscarriages of justices that we fear are likely given the campaign and post-election ethos. PASSHE spokesperson Kenn Marshall (who lost my trust based on his active propagation of disinformation during our contract negotiations and strike) thinks it might.
That’s what dialogue is for, y’all. If the university/system made the case that they can’t commit to certain terms in the letter but can do ___ instead, I think most of us are listening.
I also support the campaign because it asks for other commitments from the university as well, largely redoubling our commitments to diversity and inclusion in ways that are more than hortatory. There are students and staff and faculty who feel directly endangered, and we need to make sure they feel as safe as we can make them.
Yesterday the West Chester Daily Local ran a story about the sanctuary campus effort. Dr. Nadine Bean, who did most of the drafting of the letter, was the only faculty member who spoke to the reporter and has, unsurprisingly, become the focus of predictably nasty troll attacks against her as a result.
I’ve looked at the comments, one of which I responded to (the commenter “wondered” how Dr. Bean would feel when one of those “rapists” attacked a female student: I replied that his comment demonstrates precisely why we needed to do this), but anybody who’s been publicly visible for doing any kind of social justice work has probably been here or nearby before. Getting flamed sucks. People who are willing to say the things those folks say (usually behind a wall of pseudonymity, which is probably a conversation for another day) are usually pretty good at being intimidating–which is what they’re trying to be.
If you read this blog back in 2007, 2008, you’ve seen what this kind of flaming looks like. I learned then, especially as it relates to threats about my job, that the best response for me was to invite flamers to watch my teaching and read my scholarship. If any of you trolls wants to scare me by threatening to “turn me in” to WCU and PASSHE bigwigs, they already know who I am. They know what my politics are. They know I’m a union thug. Now they know I’ve not only signed the Sanctuary Campus letter but helped to circulate it. If you want to have a conversation about how well I fulfill my professional obligations, let’s do, but you have to play by my rules:
- It happens here so it’s visible and archived for anyone who wants to see it.
- You know my real name, so I get to know your real name too. If you say the nasty things, you have to own them.
- I get to decide if you cross a line such that I won’t approve a comment. It’s my blog. If you want to say something I won’t publish, start your own blog. It’s free and easy.
The debate over wearing safety pins as a sign to potential victims of racial/anti-woman/anti-LGBTQ+/religious violence that the wearer is willing to intervene on their behalf has largely undone what I saw as a powerful opportunity. Not the first time something I thought was a good idea got washed away, not the last. So it goes.
I have to admit I had some trepidation about wearing the pin in public, which was inchoate until I read this piece (“So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin”), in which the author makes a strong case that even (especially) if the symbol communicates what was its primary message (not a generalized anti-bigotry message, but a much more targeted message to potential victims that they can count on your help if they need it), wearers need to be sure they can deliver what they’re promising. That might include putting yourself in physical danger, might even entail participating in violence if that’s what it takes. I was already having a hard time reconciling my own pacifism with that possibility, realizing both that it’s a deep personal/philosophical/political commitment and an expression of privilege that I get to decide whether to fight back, but the person who sees me wearing the pin on the bus doesn’t know that’s a complicated question.
I saw enough argumentation about how fraught the symbol has become–and arguments coming from the populations who I would be supporting by wearing it–that I decided not to wear one on my person. As one Facebook friend put it, no matter what I mean to be saying, I (and others, obviously) have lost control over that meaning, particularly in public settings where there’s not going to be time to talk about it.
However, I have decided that in conjunction with the hashtag #NotOnMyCampus, I’ll use the image designed by friend and comrade Kevin Mahoney as a signal to students, staff, faculty, and other members of our campus community that I’m doing more than announcing how anti-bigotry I am.
By posting this image as a sign at my office and having it visible in as many places as possible, I want community members to know that I’ll help them with anything they need in the event of a threat or act of violence or harassment–filing reports, finding a place to hide out, organizing public responses, talking to Public Safety or police, confronting bigots face to face, helping to raise money for anti-violence groups, helping to organize bystander training, and so on. I’ll do as much of that as I can without waiting for people to ask, but this sign tells them that they can ask without having to wonder how I’ll respond.
If there are members of the community who find it an empty gesture, so be it. I hope they’ll tell me that so we can talk about what would serve as a more meaningful contribution. In that case, it will still have accomplished something useful.
In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election victory, incidents of racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic nastiness are increasing. I’m seeing people reporting on Facebook that their kids are witnessing other elementary schoolers taunting Hispanic kids (“You’re gonna get deported! You’re gonna get deported!”). I’ve seen news stories showing swastikas painted on shop windows in downtown Philadelphia. A colleague just told me that a student got spit on and told, “I hope you they send you back to your own fucking country soon” when she jokingly said, “Merci” to somebody who held a door for her.
I’m willing to accept that there are people who voted for Trump who are appalled by the direct expression of bigotry coming from some of his supporters. I hope that in very short order, those folks will begin confronting the bigots and racists forcefully. If you see somebody in a MAGA hat waving a Nazi flag around, SAY SOMETHING! If you see people bullying a woman in a hijab, or somebody in a turban, or a wheelchair, or…, SAY SOMETHING! If you want to dissociate from that crowd, you have to do more than say “Not it!” and run away. Over here on the left, lots of us are working to fight back against that kind of hate and violence. You’re welcome to join us.
To those of you who have done or said things that advocate or normalize violence (like the t-shirt advocating the murder of journalists; the Obama in a noose costume at the U of Wisconsin football game the other weekend; etc), and then when called out respond that they’re “just joking,” that people like me “should lighten up” and “stop being so politically correct”: there are two reasons why those kinds of “jokes” [sic] are bad. First, they’re just plain offensive. Second, and more significant, if you’re nervous about the increasing likelihood of violence post-election, it becomes impossible to tell when a threat is real when it’s among a bunch that (you claim) aren’t.
How am I (a Jew) supposed to know that your Nazi flag is “just a joke?” How am I supposed to know that the neighbor who’s waving it (no–I don’t really have this neighbor, but some of you do) doesn’t actually want to kill all my people? Why would my Hispanic neighbor believe that whoever spray-painted “Make America White Again” on a dugout at a nearby park doesn’t mean it? As more people report acts of real violence, how are we supposed to know who might really do it and who’s just kidding?
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish enclave in Atlanta. Some people in the neighborhood were actual concentration camp survivors/escapees (tattooed ID numbers and all), I’d guess as many as 30-40.
Around 1980, a bunch of local teens cruised the neighborhood one night painting swastikas on mailboxes–not all of them, just a seemingly random bunch. Imagine being one of those concentration camp survivors, walking down your driveway at 7 am to pick up the morning paper, and seeing a swastika painted on your mailbox. Or the one right across the street. Just take a second to imagine that. I’ll wait.
No big deal? Tell that to the the concentration camp escapee who had a heart attack and died on the spot.
Because of a “joke.” He should have just “lightened up,” not been so “politically correct.”
You may not mean to hurt anyone when you trivialize hate and violence. But chances are, it’s not trivial to people who see it. And it becomes increasingly difficult to discern real threats from “just kidding” when the people who pose them don’t know or care about the difference.
On HuffPo this morning: “Liberty University Students Denounce Trump”
My first reaction to the piece was to be really impressed with students who circulated a petition that rejects Trump, and even criticizes university President Jerry Falwell Jr for continuing to support a candidate whose values run counter to the articulated values of the school and church Falwell leads.
“So often we run into people that say, ‘Oh you go to Liberty, that’s that Trump school, right?’ When when you walk around campus, the students, we don’t embody anything that Trump advocates for,” [student Caleb] Fitzpatrick told The Huffington Post. “We’re not taught to value the things that Trump values. And so when the tapes came out last week, we felt like that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
So far so good. Speaking out against the president of a university isn’t easy, especially a university which works so hard to enforce dogmatic loyalty to the leader of both the school and the church that powers it. The students deserve kudos for that.
Two points, though, refract that sense just a bit. First (if you’ve taken a writing class from me you’ll recognize this), is with the idea of “just informing people” and making our voices heard.
The group doesn’t plan to take further steps against Falwell or the Trump campaign.
“We’re kind of moving on, because we believe we’ve done our job. That the world has seen and heard us raise our voices,” [Fitzpatrick] said. “That was our endgame, was just informing people. There’s no candidate that we want to endorse.”
The notion that anyone is “just informing people” makes me queasy as both an activist and rhetorician because it ducks claiming any real purpose. Nobody “just informs people” as an act of generosity. Giving people information isn’t the same as giving them money for food, or donating clothes to families that can’t afford them. You inform people to change their thinking and their behavior (h/t Karl Marx, “The point is to change it.”), and not to claim what your real goal is makes you disingenuous. Or, you’re just not thinking through the implications of winning your own argument, and that’s not very responsible.
Yes, these students are students, not professional activists, and are likely invoking the “make your voice heard” trope because they know it. My point is the one I wish Malcolm Gladwell had made in his infamous “Small Change” piece (New Yorker, 2010). Rather than demeaning social media’s use in activism, I wish he’d emphasized the safety-valve effect instead, i.e., doing something simple but low-impact makes people less likely to do something more difficult and high-impact because they think they’ve done their part. These students made a strong statement against Trump, and Falwell for violating their trust. And then… what happens next? Nothing really changes. Jerry Falwell, Jr still campaigns for Trump, and still–the students correctly note–uses the Liberty brand as a source of ethos, while he also says he doesn’t represent the institution when he uses its name. Huh?
[A side note: imagine a Liberty faculty member campaigning for Clinton or Stein and using their title as a Liberty faculty member while they’re doing it. “Professor Smith, YOU’RE FIRED!”]
The second point that made me think hard is a passing mention of thefaculty response to the petition.
About 2,500 people, including some faculty members, have signed the petition since it went up Wednesday afternoon …. Some faculty members have privately encouraged the group, Fitzpatrick said, but were hesitant to sign the statement. He believes they might be afraid of retribution.
Faculty members won’t sign a petition that students wrote and circulated because they’re afraid of retribution. They encourage students to take a principled stand that they themselves are afraid to take. My reactions to this are several and all over the place.
- Thank goodness for my union that makes retribution nearly impossible [knock wood].
- Those jerks are hanging students out to dry and hiding behind them while they do it.
- Some faculty probably did help the students’ process and efforts and warrant some praise for that even if they were afraid to be public about it.
- When APSCUF President Ken Mash, spoke to students here at WCU a couple of weeks ago and told them that they have some kinds of power the faculty don’t, he was right.
The question is what students do with that power. We hear you. Now you have to make that count for something.
I’ve been trying to sort out my mixed reactions to the jingoistic displays of patriotism at the DNC for a couple of days now. As a peace activist, I’m very unhappy about the gleeful waving around of military might. However, in some ways, the Democratic Party was giving the peacenik left what we’ve been asking for since, oh, about 2003.
I used to be one of the folks who stood at the central intersection in downtown West Chester every Saturday to vigil against the invasion/occupation of Iraq; the group that organized the vigils, the Chester County Peace Movement, also used to have regular meetings and other events at which we would talk in really wonky terms about how to do more than just witnessing and arguing with the proto-Tea-Partiers across the street. The question we almost always got stuck on was, “Why has the GOP been able to claim ‘patriotism’ for their side?” We love and respect the United States as much as they do, we said, and we believed that it was patriotic to fight back against an unjustly installed government committing unjust horrors against another sovereign nation. Hence the chant: What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like.
The last time I remember clearly being actively involved in that conversation was in the early days of this blog, 2007’ish, with a couple of the right-wingers who were furiously insistent that we were “traitors” because we didn’t “love our country” because we didn’t “support the troops” because we “criticized the war effort” because I’m one of those “dangerous radical leftist academics” because…. Point is, aside from a snarky cheapshot at people I hadn’t tried to talk to in years :), it’s been a long time since I’ve thought hard about what a Democratic Party committed to showing the larger voting public how patriotic it could be would look like.
And what I saw this week at the DNC wasn’t pretty. That’s not the patriotism we were hoping for. It is, however, an entirely predictable outcome of a process by which a mainstream US political party decides to show the country that it can outdo its main rival–especially when the rival party has given over its identity to a creature (OK, he’s a person, but I’m only willing to concede that grudgingly) whose patriotism extends exactly to the point where he’s willing to praise Putin and Saddam Hussein.
So in short–I’m not unhappy about the strategy of claiming, “We’re just as patriotic as you, GOP, if not more, and it’s possible to love your country while you support progressive economic and social policies.” I’m not very happy that there wasn’t any effort, not that I can see anyway, to make patriotism about anything other than threats–and acts–of mass violence.