Picked off by the right-wing thought police

January 17, 2018

Ohio State University associate professor Pranav Jani writes on the case of George Ciccariello-Maher and the lesson the left must draw: If university officials are willing to sacrifice the principle of academic freedom in the face of the far right's campaigns against left professors, it is up to faculty and students to defend what administrators can't or won't.

THE NEO-NAZIS and white supremacists have drawn blood in their recent wave of attacks on outspoken and left-wing professors and campus dissent generally.

On December 28, George Ciccariello-Maher announced that he was resigning from his tenured position at Drexel University, where he had been associate professor of politics and global studies since 2010.

In his statement, Ciccariello-Maher stated that his situation at Drexel had become "unsustainable" after "nearly a year of harassment by right-wing, white-supremacist media outlets and internet mobs, after death threats and threats of violence directed against me and my family."

And all because of some highly publicized anti-racist and antiwar tweets, an interview with a right-wing blowhard on Fox News, and his refusal to be silenced when Drexel University suspended Ciccariello-Maher rather than stand up to the harassment.

Land of the free, indeed.

Thankfully, Ciccariello-Maher soon announced that he had received a visiting scholar post at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, which is affiliated with New York University.

George Ciccariello-Maher
George Ciccariello-Maher

But the fact that a tenured professor can be ousted from his position is a chilling reminder that the war on left-wing academics by white-supremacist media and politicians is ongoing.

Ciccariello-Maher's experience also shows how university administrations and institutions are not reliable defenders of academic freedom when it comes to left-wing professors. Campus bosses care much more about public relations, donor attitudes and alumni comments.

These administrators mumble platitudes about free speech, yet spend their energies accommodating the Richard Spencers and Milo Yiannopouloses of the world instead of taking principled stands in defense of their own professors.

CICCARIELLO-MAHER, A scholar and an activist in his own right, came under the scrutiny of the far right when in December 2016 he tweeted: "All I want for Christmas is White Genocide."

Ciccariello-Maher was clearly being satirical, mocking the white-supremacist narrative that calls diversity "white genocide." The professor was making the apparently controversial point that a State Farm insurance ad in which a Black man proposes to a white woman was not a sign of "white genocide."

But the right had its opening--and turned the satirical tweet inside out to serve its own purposes. Portraying Ciccariello-Maher as a hate-filled professor who wanted to kill all white people, they unleashed the racist mob against him and his family.

Drexel's "defense" of the professor was shameful. While giving the requisite nod to free speech, the administration scolded Ciccariello-Maher in a public statement, calling the tweet "inflammatory" and "utterly reprehensible."

Drexel bosses thus gave an early indication of how they would respond--or fail to--as the attacks snowballed in the year that followed. Every time the right-wing media and their minions publicized Ciccariello-Maher's comments, Drexel would condemn and undermine him.

It was a downward spiral, with supposedly liberal university administrators continually ceding ground to the far-right's attackers, thus giving them more and more confidence and legitimacy.

THE PRESSURE ratcheted up again after March 31, when Ciccariello-Maher appeared on the set of Fox News' Tucker Carlson.

If you aren't familiar with him, Carlson inhabits the extreme right of the spectrum considered "mainstream media" in this country, thus regularly doing his part to deny the obvious racism embedded in the pronouncements and policies offered by Trump and the alt-right. Case in point: Carlson defended Trump's recent racist diatribe against Haitian and African immigrants.

Following his usual script, Carlson deliberately trapped Ciccariello-Maher in the 13-minute "interview." Beginning with a "discussion" of the protests against reactionary ideologue Charles Murray at Middlebury College, Carlson made a flimsy attempt to engage with Ciccariello-Maher's scholarly work on Latin America--which proved nothing except that Carlson needs to work harder on basic reading comprehension skills.

But then Carlson unveiled Ciccariello-Maher's non-ironic tweet from March 26 about "trying not to vomit or yell about Mosul" when seeing a first-class passenger in a plane give up his seat to a soldier.

Ciccariello-Maher defended himself, stating very clearly that he was angry not about the soldier per se, but the devastating accounts of civilian death from the U.S. attack on Mosul on March 17. But Carlson's maneuver made headlines, fanned the flames and led to more scrutiny from Drexel's Faculty Senate and more statements from the administration.

The administration response this time was not only to distance itself from Ciccariello-Maher, but to wrap itself in the flag, thus substantiating Carlson's attack.

Indeed, the administration cynically used textbook language about diversity and inclusion to make its case, asserting that support for soldiers and ROTC officers helped "create an inclusive campus culture that honors service and Drexel's deep connection to American military history"--while Ciccariello-Maher undermined these things.

Not surprisingly, no one wanted to talk about Mosul, which even the Washington Post described as "one of the most devastating attacks on civilians by American forces in more than two decades."

A NEW wave of attacks directed at Ciccariello-Maher's was unleashed in October 2017. This time, the Drexel administration used the alibi of "safety" as it again acquiesced to the further erosion of academic freedom.

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Ciccariello-Maher tweeted about the "narrative of white victimization" he said had developed since the 1960s, leading white people, particularly white men, to lash out when they didn't get what they felt entitled to.

In a column for the Washington Post, Ciccariello-Maher described in detail how the "contagion" of hate directed against his tweets that called attention to the toxic consequences of white entitlement moved from fringe right-wing outfits, such as The Daily Caller, Breitbart News, FrontPage, Milo Yiannopoulos's website and TurningPoint, to the more mainstream Fox News.

In this reactionary echo chamber, Ciccariello-Maher's nuanced critique of how white supremacy is linked to mass shootings was turned into the specter of an anti-white tirade. Death threats and hate mail began to roll in, Ciccariello-Maher reported:

"I will beat your skull in till there is no tomorrow." "Soon all you p-----s will get exactly what you deserve." "Do the world a favor, and kill yourself...I'll help you find death sooner than later." One called me a "pig f---er like Obama," adding homophobic slurs for good measure. Many called me a "cuck"--a favorite racial and sexual insult of the alt-right--while others urged me to move to North Korea or Venezuela. One "love note from a WHITE American" wrongly identified me as a "greasy South American a--hole."

What was Drexel's response? Shamefully, Drexel suspended Ciccariello-Maher and removed him from the classroom. In its statement, Drexel cited "[t[he safety of Drexel's students, faculty, professional staff and police officers" as well as Ciccariello-Maher and his family.

But as Dakota Peterson, one of Ciccariello-Maher's students, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Drexel was not being truthful, nor checking in with students or their professor about campus safety.

"By bowing to pressure from racist internet trolls," Ciccariello-Maher wrote in the Post column, "Drexel has sent the wrong signal: That you can control a university's curriculum with anonymous threats of violence. Such cowardice notwithstanding, I am prepared to take all necessary legal action to protect my academic freedom, tenure rights and, most importantly, the rights of my students to learn in a safe environment where threats don't hold sway over intellectual debate."

IN THE fight against the far right--on campuses and in general--Ciccariello-Maher's voice is one that needs to be heard. Well respected by his students and colleagues, he is direct about the right-wing attacks facing the academy and the need to take a stand against them.

In his statement about leaving Drexel, Ciccariello-Maher explains why universities are being attacked, and the need for unity and vigilance:

In the past year, the forces of resurgent white supremacy have tasted blood and are howling for more. Given the pressure they will continue to apply, university communities must form a common front against the most reprehensible forces in society and refuse to bow to their pressure, intimidation and threats. Only then will universities stand any chance of survival.

Connecting the fight against rising fascism to issues of academic labor, Ciccariello-Maher calls for the unity of students and tenured, tenure-track and contingent faculty in building robust organizations, like chapters of the American Association of University Professors and the Campus Anti-Fascist Network--and to make "our campuses unsafe spaces for white supremacists."

SocialistWorker.org stands with the struggle to defend those targeted by the far right and the principle of academic freedom.

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