Smeared for speaking the truth

April 26, 2018

Dana Cloud, a professor at Syracuse University who became the target of a right-wing campaign of abuse last year, challenges the criticisms, from across the political spectrum, of Fresno State professor Randa Jarrar and her tweets about Barbara Bush.

RANDA JARRAR, a professor of English at Fresno State, is in the crosshairs of a widespread public outcry from across the political spectrum and even including those who say they are defenders of academic freedom.

After the death of former first lady Barbara Bush, Jarrar tweeted that she was "an amazing racist, who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal." When she came under attack for this, she responded to the slanderers that she had tenure, so she could not be fired. Even so, the Fresno State administration is conducting an investigation of her and her remarks.

Everyone from journalists and commentators on the right to colleagues and friends of mine on the left have criticized Jarrar for a mixture of reasons: you shouldn't speak ill of the dead (especially when the deceased is a woman); Jarrar's remarks were crude and, in the words of a Detroit Free Press reporter, "petulant"; tenure is a privilege denied to other faculty; she jeopardized the credibility of tenure when it is already under assault by the right.

Award-winning Arab-American author and activist Randa Jarrar
Award-winning Arab-American author and activist Randa Jarrar (Fresno State Department of English)

I believe these condemnations of Jarrar ring hollow, if not hypocritical.

I PERSONALLY came under attack last summer when I tweeted to other activists during a protest against a white supremacist rally that if more people came out, we could "finish them off." My comment was metaphorical, of course, but it could be--and was--read as incendiary. Thankfully, I have tenure, or my job would surely have been in jeopardy.

Johnny Eric Williams and George Ciccariello-Maher weren't so fortunate.

Ciccariello-Maher received widespread support among defenders of academic freedom even after tweeting the provocative statement, "All I want for Christmas is white genocide." Those of us who were aware of the context for this statement knew that he was referencing the incendiary, paranoid complaint of white supremacists that identity politics and inclusion would lead to a "white genocide."

Without the support of Drexel University, and under constant bombardment by the right, Ciccariello-Maher left his position to defend himself and his family.

Williams wasn't fired outright, but was put on leave under administrative sanction at Trinity College when he forwarded a tweet with the hashtag #letthemdie.

The original article, titled "Let them fucking die," by Son of Baldwin, pointed out that pointed out that Republican Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was saved after he was shot at a baseball practice by a Black queer woman. Scalise is an anti-LGBT bigot and supporter of law enforcement in the murder of Black people. Son of Baldwin's article and the circulation of the hashtag were products of legitimate grief and outrage.

These are only some of the most visible cases--there are perhaps dozens of other critical, activist faculty without tenure who are facing a right-wing onslaught, as the New York Times reported.

In this context, Jarrar's declaration of her tenured status should be celebrated as the defense of a right that all faculty should have. It's a right that goes beyond a minimal commitment to free speech--tenure affords us the ability to have our own ideas and commitments, and speak about them, no matter how controversial they may be.

WHAT OF the claim that her remarks were inappropriate?

Jarrar did speak ill of the dead, as I have often done. When Ronald Reagan died, I wore a button reading "Gone but not forgiven." If I were granted--soon, perhaps--access to Henry Kissinger's grave, I would dance on it. I hope that I wouldn't be abandoned by my friends and comrades for any of this.

Barbara Bush shouldn't get special treatment because the media has settled on an image of her as a gentle, grandmotherly woman. She did indeed express racist ideas and supported racist policies, and her husband and son truly are guilty of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Erin White wrote at the Afropunk website put it:

Sorry, girl, but just because you're dead doesn't mean everyone has to pretend that your life was all kosher. So while liberals are bemoaning the passing of Barbara Bush, husband of George, mother of the even worse George, we think it's important to remember that Barbara was an old white lady who probably/definitely had racist white lady views.

Before the days of flagrant racism broadcast directly from the Oval Office, Barbara Bush vocalized plainly racist and deeply misguided sentiments throughout the decades. Most notably, back in 2005, during Hurricane Katrina rescue and relief, the former First Lady lamented about the mostly poor and Black victims who, she believed, had become better off in the wake of the historic storm and levee breach, saying: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

So let's not let the political amnesia of Trump's presidency--and the concomitant habit of rewriting all previous Republican regimes as benign--allow us to forget that not everyone who dies deserves our praise.

JARRAR USED profanity and was triumphal in her declaration of being protected by tenure. These characteristics of her speech were, according to many people I know, uncivil.

Quelle horreur! I have argued, to some appreciation on the Left, that the norm of civility is a threat to academic freedom. It is especially a form of discipline when applied to women, the alleged guardians of civility, and even more so when thrust upon women of color, from whom any controversial statement is bound to be regarded as unruly and threatening.

I have also heard the argument that we should be circumspect in our defense of tenure for two reasons: First, loud declarations of its privileges might bring greater negative attention from those who want to deny it to us; and second, since so many faculty in rapidly proletarianizing academia have precarious, untenured work, the in-your-face celebration of tenure is offensive.

To the first point, let's not operate under any illusions. No matter what we say out loud about tenure, they--the privatizers, the white supremacists, the corporate leaders, the craven politicians--are coming after it anyway.

As to the second: This is exactly the point. So many scholars face lives of precarity without tenure. The answer to that problem is not to revile people who have and defend tenure--no matter how "uncivilly," in your opinion.

Rather, we should demand--through organizing and demonstrating and editorializing and striking--that all faculty have the freedoms they need and deserve. And that all humans, no matter what profession, should be protected from precarity.

Am I aware that I am lucky to have tenure? Hell, yes. Does that mean I should keep quiet about it in public? Hell, no.

I ask my friends, many of whom are castigating Jarrar: Would you have left me out to dry? Would you throw Williams or Ciccariello-Maher or Steven Salaita under the bus?

We should all have the security to make the sharpest critiques of power. We are not under any obligation to do so with niceties and perpetual rhetorical finesse.

Once, upon my being arrested during an anti-death-penalty protest in Austin, Texas, I was asked by a reporter, "Aren't you afraid of losing your job?" I said to that reporter: "I have tenure. And this is how to use it."

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