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Tyranny of Accommodation: A Paradigm of Speech Control

My generation (or before) used to sing, “Love is sweeping the country,” but now a more pernicious force is sweeping America, speech control parading under the disguise of liberalism, racial and gender justice, a notch upward of humanism transcending the hatreds and discriminations of the nation’s past. Ah, feels so cleansing and good to protest again, proving our democratic mettle, reaching out to those amongst us the most victimized, Blacks and Women, in a political culture awash with consumerism and imperialism. Let the Voices of Oppression be heard once more, a Second Civil Rights Movement, American greatness and dedication to freedoms reaffirmed through the stand-up actions of the hitherto despised and/or neglected. A wondrous, joyful sight, its recent culmination the Black Justice League at Princeton and the protest against the House System at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, where the term “Master,” insidious in its reminders of slavery, is to be replaced by race- and gender-neutral language. Why not here? For university students are in our time the prototypic radicals mounting the barricades on behalf of all of us.

***

This invocation, an appeal to alleviate and rectify the condition of injured sensibilities, is unmitigated pusillanimous nonsense. I have used the imagery before, the woods are burning, by some playwright or other, to indicate and criticize the trivialization of fundamental human suffering at the hands of advanced-capitalism’s war machine bent on exclusive global dominance in an age where the remainder of the world is awakening to its dangerous consequences for the Earth’s peoples and lands, crops, animals sustaining them. In America especially, we politicize everything so as to deflect attention from the obvious, namely, that over the centuries we have been perfecting the machinery of degradation and exploitation awaiting our own working and lower classes and, by virtue of the dynamics of capitalist expansion, all whom we can bring down from without. In the bad sense, class trumps all else, class here being a still somewhat loosely amalgamated ruling group made up of industrial, financial, and of more recent origin, military, elites, with the so-called political class its mere servitors. Even now, we, as radicals, simplify, with our soothing rhetoric of the 1%, which, spit out suffices to do our thinking for us, rather than the hard analysis about what are the sources of wealth and power in America. A hierarchical structure of class rule cannot be neatly/symbolically summarized as the 1%, particularly where the apparatus of State Power, above all, in foreign policy, penetrates and controls the lives of the entire society. Yes, class rule = repression; class rule = what I have been terming the militarization of capitalism. Class rule is the incubator and enforcer of false consciousness. Class, then, in the bad sense, the harmful, destructive sense, sucking out the lifeblood of the polity in order to facilitate greater wealth concentration, monopolization of economic life and institutions, privatization of thought, conscience, feelings, each and all corruptive of human freedom and leaving in its place a wasteland of alienation and the inauthentic search for meaning.

But then there is class in the good sense, class democratized, class the weapon of human autonomy—and here we come back to the current state of race-and-gender protest in America. Simply, class must trump race and gender if all are to be free. This is neither to erase racial and gender identities nor therefore create a homogeneous mishmash honed into the Great American Synthesis. True diversity is the precious possession of a social order which thrives on variegation as the catalyst to self-expression and collective bursting forth of creativity. I would maintain, then, class trumps race, class trumps gender, not as some irreducible, irresistible Marxian force of supra-identity, but as recognizing there are greater problems in the world than the gratification of self-identity and ego-fulfillment. Large numbers of people starve every night. Large numbers of people die prematurely, even in infancy, due to lack of clean water, proper sanitation, necessary medicines. AND large numbers of people die, violently, agonizingly, from saturation bombings, drone assassinations, the steady application of force which topples elected governments and raises dictatorial regimes. Death has been inscribed in public policy for some time, no flinching, perhaps even ghoulish delight on the part of the business-political-military elite, all in the name of preserving the American Way of Life. At home, not much better conditions obtain, a rancid public opinion—often composed of those most victimized, as a species of plebeian fascism now seemingly preponderant in political life—yet, as the obfuscation of class interest, the poor mired down in seeming apathy as unemployment continues apace, welfare provisions originating with the New Deal dismantled brick by brick, regulation of banking and industry a travesty of justice, a society beginning to come apart at the seams. To paraphrase Brecht’s “Arturo Ui,” yesterday Colorado Springs, today San Bernardino, tomorrow the World.

***

Let’s turn to the present wave of discontent, the injured sensibilities of Blacks and Women in our colleges and universities, who, if they unflinchingly broke through their solipsistic selves and looked about them at the political-structural-ideological depravity of the country’s ruling groups crushing the spirit and destroying the life-chances of those below them in the social structure and labor force (and doing still greater damage to those satisfying their military-economic-financial agenda abroad), perhaps might recognize the pathetic nature of their complaints, compared to the suffering of others, including of course overwhelming numbers of Blacks and Women themselves, because of name-calling and veiled references (like College “Masters” at Yale). I am not concerned with labelling the students, pampered, spoiled, etc., but I am, when it comes to self-indulgence precisely in the face of the tangible militarism, injustice, and exploitation to which they avert their gaze and studiously ignore. Their protest is hollow, easily met by cowardly administrations wanting to be loved and seen in the best light by their equally politically correct academic peers. Correct a derogatory word, but don’t challenge corporate power, the grinding war machine, imperialistic hubris—on which students, faculty, administrators, alike, are silent. The present student protest is fool’s gold, a lame excuse for accommodating to the reigning power. The woods are burning, and the affected groups are pissing on the fire, their mentors serving up lemonade to keep the stream flowing. How many of the protesters, upon graduation, and for many, further professional training, will join the ranks of the oppressors, Uncle Toms to Morgan, Chase or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or better yet, for which Yale is famously known, the ranks of the CIA, we’ll have to see. They already have a useful role model in Barack Obama, who in consequential ways has already sold out Blacks and all whom his policies have injured through his attention to war, intervention, a military budget designedly bleeding the ameliorative sectors so desperately in need of support, and his lavish care of Wall Street. Criticism of Obama, or for Women, Hillary, hardly. It’s much easier to go after the wife of the Master of Silliman College, Yale, of which I was a Fellow for three years. (Oops, the word “Fellow” is pejorative, and will have to be vacuumed out of mind, if the students at Yale and elsewhere put their shoulder to the wheel and compile a list of offending words.)

It was not always thus. I marched proudly with Dr. King on several memorable occasions, and once at the suppression of SNCC workers and others in Montgomery in the days leading up to the Selma March, I looked directly into his eyes from a foot away and could see even then this giant of a man living with the fear of assassination. Dr. King did not make the mistake of our college youth today. He knew where the sources of injustice lay, in militarism and capitalism, with racism the product not the cause of Black un-freedom. At the height of his powers he advocated for peace through his protest against the Vietnam War, and he advocated for class in his Poor People’s Campaign, the latter actually leading to his assassination. We forget. We spout names in seeming reverence and then undo the splendid, hard work of a meaningful consciousness of freedom by magnifying slights as though they were the equivalent of barbaric acts of lynching. Blacks and Women have been knocked down, actually and metaphorically spit upon, subject to the raw ugliness of intolerance, ignorance, bigotry, and today, there is still abuse daily evident, but the choice, the challenge, remains—cosmetic or systemic as the focus of protest and social change? A random look at examples over the last several weeks—a far cry from the ruthless police murders of Black teenagers all too apparent (ruthless murders abroad, with impunity, why not at home, for repression feeds on itself, especially when instanced and legitimated from on high, and is of one cloth)—will bear out my point, the contrast between unmitigated authoritarian/militaristic capitalist behavior and expansion on one hand, the campus movement of correct speech on the other.

Here is Nick Anderson and Susan Svrluga’s article in the Washington Post, “Can colleges protect free speech while also curbing voices of hate?”, (November 10), in which they first dance around the issue of free versus hateful speech, quoting university officers who themselves jive-talk the issue, as does Wallace Loh, president of the University of Maryland: ‘”We have a responsibility to advance the values that define a community. We have to take affirmative steps in education and outreach before these incidents happen.’” My reading between the lines—chalk one up for speech control, as a student who sent a “racist, sexist e-mail” to his frat members was called aside by Loh, asked to apologize and voluntarily left school for the semester, Loh asking “the community to forgive the student and start a dialogue to improve the campus climate in College Park.” The reporters, presumably approving this liberal comforting sentiment, nonetheless, citing an Atlantic article entitled “Coddling the American Mind,” point to the alternative view: “Schools nationwide, public and private, have grappled recently with controversies about speech and expression. Some critics wonder whether colleges have become too politically correct, obsessed with preventing ‘micro-aggressions’ and promoting ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces.’”

Not so lucky as the Maryland student was Steven Salaita, his job offer rescinded by the University of Illinois “after critics took offense at the tone of comments he made about Israel on Twitter.” (The more cases I read about, the more fortunate I feel about retirement from the academic world, although in truth I still would have relished a good fight.) Then there was Williams College, its student club, Uncomfortable Learning, having invited Suzanne Venker, an outspoken opponent of feminism, to which students objected. “Reaction was so intense,” write the reporters, “that students canceled the event, concerned for her safety. A student then reinvited her, but she declined.” Chalk up another one for speech control. At Wesleyan—frankly I expect better from Williams and Wesleyan, which in former days had outstanding radicals and dissidents on their faculties—the student paper, the Wesleyan Argus, “faced a sharp backlash in September after publishing an opinion piece critical of the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement. The student government later took steps toward cutting the newspaper’s budget for next year.” Yale, however, deserves the spotlight for leading the charge for correct speech. Two mortal incidents guaranteed to shake the very heavens: first, “fraternity brothers turned black women away from a party, saying, ‘White girls only,’ a claim the fraternity’s president has denied. The university is investigating the incident.” (Disclosure: self-respecting women, regardless of race, had best stay away from these fraternity parties, at least as I recall an earlier day.) Second, the wife of Silliman College’s master, Erika Christakis (bless her!) “wrote an e-mail raising questions about a message from school officials that urged students to consider whether their Halloween costumes might offend someone by stereotyping a culture or race.”

Halloween costumes, while America has 800 military bases around the world, its DoD buzzing with geostrategic plans and operations threatening global confrontations, gun violence run amuck at home, businesses merging and consolidating at unprecedented rate, presidential politics reduced to a proto-fascistic base line, while the president himself is busily occupied with regime change and covert actions—Halloween costumes? Somebody, both students and administrators alike with their screw-ball prioritizing; she and her husband offered to debate the matter, but “their comparisons to debates about free speech and ‘trigger warnings’ only made students angrier.” Now, more briefly, to Yanan Wang’s article, “Harvard College ‘House Masters’ to get new titles because of slavery connotation,” also in the Washington Post, (December 2), in which the reporter explains: “Ivy League institutions adopted the term from British Schools, notably Oxford and Cambridge, where ‘master’ survives as a shorthand for ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘headmaster.’ But in the American context, the ‘Master’ moniker, which is also used at Yale and—until very recently—Princeton, has been criticized for its associations with slavery. Students and faculty alike have pointed out the title’s unsettling historical connotations. Its elimination has figured among demands from student protesters at Harvard and Yale. And now it’s becoming clear that the hoary title is on its way out.” I guess I’m too old, and the gesture quite utterly futile, to give back my Harvard doctorate, but again sounding nostalgic, Harvard was not like that years ago. We were, in addition to our studies, too busy picketing every Friday afternoon against nuclear testing and Saturday noon picketing in the Square Woolworth’s for lunch-counter desegregation in the South—that in addition to working under professors of all political and ideological persuasions, or none at all.

Nuff said. Rather than give a full account of what is transpiring on this issue at Harvard, I close with this terse statement, “Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana announced in an email to students Tuesday night [Dec. 1] that leaders of the university’s undergraduate residences have agreed to forego the title of ‘Master,’” now followed by his statement: “’I write on behalf of myself and my fellow residential House leaders [he could not bring himself to say, House master, in an earlier interview stating he has “not felt comfortable personally with the title”] to let you know that the House Masters have unanimously expressed desire to change their title. In the coming weeks, the College will launch a process in which members of the House leaders’ docket committee, working with senior College team members and the House leadership community as a whole, will suggest a new title that reflects the current realities of the role.’” The decision, he added, if “current realities of the role” did not already say enough, approved by Harvard president, Drew Faust, “has taken place over time and has been a thoughtful one, rooted in a broad effort to ensure that the College’s rhetoric, expectations, and practices around our historically unique roles reflects and serves the 21st century needs of residential student life.’” A process meticulously described with all of the care of an Eichmann. Orwell, tennis anyone?–as those of us so inclined retreat to our dormitories, classrooms, and offices, and perhaps sulk, while the rest of us continue the fight, the same fight for social justice, sans concerns about Halloween costumes, and oppose war, vicious wealth distribution, the cunning mind-set that gives us massive surveillance, a titillating consumerism, and essentially the evisceration of both nature and humanity.

More articles by:

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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