Trump and the rise of the new McCarthyites

December 15, 2016

Bill Mullen, a professor of American Studies at Purdue University and leading voice in the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israeli apartheid, reports on another initiative designed to silence left-wing voices on campus.

DONALD TRUMP'S election has unleashed new McCarthyite forces in American universities at a time when radical and progressive faculty--especially supporters of Palestinian human rights--were already under siege.

On November 21, a website called "Professor Watchlist" surfaced. The site invites visitors to report names of university professors with leftist political sympathies. "[S]tudents, parents and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls," it stated, before including a "submit a tip" link for prospective rats.

Since it appeared, the names of approximately 100 U.S. faculty have appeared on Professor Watchlist, their pictures accompanied by brief descriptions of alleged political thought crimes.

Professor Watch is sponsored by Turning Point USA, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that, according to its website, seeks to "educate students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, limited government and free markets."

Protesters defend Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Protesters defend Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Its founder is Charlie Kirk, a 23-year-old native of Wheeling, West Virginia. Kirk helped launch his career in right-wing politics by writing an article on liberal bias in textbooks for Steve Bannon's Breitbart News slander site.

The appearance of Professor Watchlist 13 days after Trump's election and the appointment of Bannon as a Trump adviser was no accident, and may be a weather vane pointing to the development of new campaign of McCarythism that the Trump years are likely to encourage. As the College Republicans of the 1980s and '90s were to elected Republican conservatives, so a new layer of young right-wing ground troops will be deployed as the junior varsity of the so-called "alt-right."

Significantly, Professor Watchlist has already earned some negative coverage from the mainstream media as a new blacklist.

One Emory University professor has created a blog, "Watchlist Redux," which satirizes the original by posting names of scholars and intellectuals past and present who have stood up for social justice. Additionally, more than 4,000 faculty have signed their name to an American Association of University Professors petition condemning the list.

PROFESSOR WATCHLIST is part of a wider wave of reaction against university faculty and should be vigorously opposed by academics and activists everywhere. The Watchlist replicates tactics used by the anti-Communist witch hunt of university professors during the Cold War, but also those of the ongoing campaigns against advocates for Palestinian civil rights.

Prior to Professor Watchlist, the most prominent recent online effort to smear university faculty and students was the "Canary Mission" website.

Founded in 2015, likely with pro-Zionist funding, Canary Mission has created profiles of more than 500 university students and more than 50 faculty who support Palestinian civil rights or the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel.

The website routinely accuses those it profiles, without evidence, of support for terrorism or of anti-Semitism. It explicitly seeks to get them fired from current jobs or to prevent them from being hired in the future by tweeting Islamophobic (and sexist) smears to employers.

Canary Mission itself was boosted into existence by one very successful example of university blacklisting: Steven Salaita.

Salaita, a widely-published author of books on Native American, indigenous, and Palestinian history and literature, was fired from a tenured position at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2014 after a local pro-Zionist group complained about Salaita's tweets criticizing Israel's bombings of Gaza that summer.

UIUC President Phyllis Wise, since fired for her role in the Salaita affair, justified Salaita's termination by arguing that his criticisms of Israel lacked "civility."

Immediately after Salaita's firing, a number of university and college officials released statements demanding that students and faculty adhere to standards of "civility" in public debate.

But as pro-Palestinian advocates argued, the "civility" standards were really a "Palestine exception to free speech"--as the title of a report prepared in 2015 by the group Palestine Legal termed it. The report documented more than 140 cases in just the first half of that year of campus administrations harassing or curtailing the political activities and speech of supporters of Palestinian rights.

THE POTENT combination of Salaita's firing, along with vague assertions about the need for campus "civility," has created wider latitude for university administrators to harass and fire faculty.

On July 28, 2016, Professor Jacqueline Stevens at Northwestern University (NU) was placed on administrative leave, banned from campus and forced to undergo a psychological evaluation. NU justified its actions by claiming that Stevens had demonstrated a "lack of civility" with her colleagues.

According to Stevens, NU used a dispute with a colleague as cover to punish her for research and writing critical of the university. Stevens wrote:

For several years I also have been a scholar and critic of the militarization of political science. In 2015 I published in Perspectives on Politics an article exposing NU's militarized Board of Trustees, including Boeing's side contracts supporting Doha's "Education City," where NU runs a journalism school the U.S. State Department tasked with changing Al Jazeera's anti-U.S. coverage.

Last year I was at ground zero of an effort by faculty, students, and alumni to block the appointment of retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry to run NU's Buffett Institute for Global Studies. Eikenberry didn't have a PhD or any peer-reviewed articles, but he did have excellent connections in the Department of Defense and State Department, not to mention China. The administrators said he'd help rotate NU faculty through government, like Harvard, they said. The CEOs and directors of Abbott Laboratories, Boeing, Caterpillar, and General Dynamics who run NU thought the China contacts would be good for business, a colleague with ties to the upper echelons of the administration told me.

Stevens filed a complaint against the university after it took steps to ban her from campus. The Association of American University Professors sent a letter of complaint to Northwestern saying it found "troubling" the university's failure to adhere to the AAUP's own Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The letter stated:

Professor Stevens was neither afforded such a process when she was placed on administrative leave, nor when she was suspended from participation in departmental governance activities upon her return to campus, even though such procedures were available to her under the University Disciplinary Procedures section of Northwestern's Faculty Handbook.

In early December, Stevens was notified by her department chair that her office in the Political Science Department was to be relocated. Stevens protested that the action was against her will and has appealed the mandated move to the faculty Committee on Cause.

While NU's administration continues to insist that the actions taken against Stevens are not disciplinary in nature, attorney Rima Kapitan, writing on Stevens' behalf, argued that the university's attempt to charge Stevens with a lack of "civility" and the subsequent relocation of her office did constitute discipline. Kapitan also said that the administration was attempting to "circumvent review of its decision by faculty committees."

IN ANOTHER recent case, Rutgers University adjunct Kevin Allred was taken into custody by New Jersey police, forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and put on leave after posting tweets critical of Donald Trump and comments about flag-burning and gun control.

The request to New Jersey police to arrest Allred came from the university. A Rutgers spokesperson, E.J. Miranda, said in a statement: "The Rutgers University Police Department responded to a complaint from a student and took all appropriate action. We have no further comment." Allred's case has drawn the attention of the American Association of University Professors chapter, which has promised to defend his academic freedom and free speech.

And in yet another case, a student at Orange Coast College in California recently secretly videotaped remarks critical of Trump by her professor. The remarks were made in class as part of question-and-answer exercise about the election. College Republicans posted the video to Facebook, writing, "Did you know you're a terrorist for having supported Trump? I didn't, but apparently that's what they're teaching in Orange Coast College's classrooms postelection."

This tactic is reminiscent of pro-Israel attacks by students on professors for teaching a "pro-Palestinian" point of view in class or even teaching about Palestinian history and culture. The use of social media, in particular, to single out left-wing and progressive teachers is endorsed by the Professor Watchlist group as well.

In another case, in November, Joy Karega, an African American assistant professor at Oberlin College, was fired by the college for her posts on social media. Karega had posted on her Facebook page that "Israeli and Zionist Jews" were responsible for 9/11 and for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. She also posted that ISIS was an "operation" of the CIA and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

As reported by the Washington Post, Karega was dismissed by the Oberlin College Board of Trustees on the grounds of "anti-Semitic and abhorrent" remarks, "for failing to meet" academic standards and "failing to demonstrate intellectual honesty."

Karega's Facebook postings are anti-Semitic and indefensible, but her firing on grounds of failing to meet vague criteria like "intellectual honesty" should be condemned by those on the left. Such loose standards could easily be used to fire other faculty deemed undesirable.

THESE OPEN campaigns against professors and the use of new tactics of intimidation by university administrators, including the threat of arrest, must be resisted by faculty, students and activists everywhere.

As with advocacy for Palestinian civil rights, progressives need to fix their criticisms of racism, capitalism and social injustice firmly to a defense of academic freedom, free speech and the protection of civil liberties and workplace rights. Academic unions, both local chapters and national leadership, must continue to stand up for faculty under siege.

Attempts by neoliberal university administrations to couch attacks on progressives as an issue of "civility" must also be resisted--that slippery linguistic slope is simply an excuse to fire people.

Especially as we wage opposition to Trump's presidency, the dissenting voices of teachers and students will be critical. We can defeat the forces of sexism, racism, homophobia and the 1 Percent, but only if we stand united and recognize that an injury to one as an injury to all.

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