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In the decade I have known George Ciccariello-Maher – as a colleague, co-author and personal friend – he has always excelled at exposing and challenging injustices in sharp, uncompromising terms that highlight hypocrisy with passionate and often blunt wit. He inspires friends and enemies alike; while I openly count myself in the former group, it is unfortunately the latter group which has made George the topic of conversation this week. On Christmas eve Ciccariello-Maher jestingly tweeted “All I want for Christmas is White Genocide” – a clear and direct satire of a white supremacist trope through which neo-Nazis and other racist groupings argue that things like immigration and interracial marriage are “undermining the Aryan race.” Ciccariello-Maher’s simple, sarcastic comment stoked the ire of Breitbart (and the even further fringe-Right social media) bringing this manufactured controversy to the inboxes of Drexel administrators on Christmas day, who have thus far capitulated to this attack, an effort concocted in the cesspool of racial hatred attempting to re-brand itself as the so-called Alt-Right.
I am angered by this situation, but honestly not terribly surprised. This contrived ‘hate-speech’ controversy ironically stems from George pithily retorting to the long-established racism of the individuals and groups now attempting to repurpose liberal notions of political correctness against a longtime promoter of racial justice by trying to intimidate a renowned university into muffling one of their most important voices. Thus far they are succeeding.
“Make America McCarthyist Again”
This pattern of singling out progressive or radical thinkers who have a degree of social influence is longstanding, but it has taken on new forms in the era of social media. Like the House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s, these recent efforts to undermine free speech, disrupt the personal lives of prominent critical figures, while intimidating others into silence, today’s Red-baiting has become far more insidious and anonymous (and even less accountable) in the age of the internet and Right-wing news media echo-chamber. Recent hysterias produced by Far-Right media, and amplified through social media, brought about the ouster of President Obama’s Green Jobs Czar, Van Jones, as wells as Shirley Sherrod, a prominent figure at the Department of Agriculture. Both lost their jobs due to false accusations of ‘anti-white bias’ manufactured by Breitbart and later pushed by Fox News. You may also remember Breitbart’s role in destroying ACORN, with doctored videos which were edited to appear as if ACORN workers were helping an alleged pimp set up a prostitution business. Peddlers of both dog-whistle politics and plain-old overt racism such as Breitbart have little to lose by engaging in these hatchet adventures, while their army of assorted reactionary internet trolls have obviously zero accountability and nothing better to do. If they succeed in getting Ciccariello-Maher formally reprimanded, or worse, they can chalk this up as another victory and move on to the next target, maybe just go down the Professor Watchlist one by one. If this effort fails, they retain their ‘credibility’ with their base of ideological adherents and this farcical identity politics of white victimhood simply entrenches itself a little further.
Academic Freedom vs. Making Twitter a “Safe Space” for Racist Trolls
Within the academy there have been a litany of politicized attacks against proponents of a just settlement to the Israeli occupation of Palestine (Steven Salaita), the silencing of anti-war voices (Ward Churchill), as well as political campaigns against radical feminists and anti-racists that have exploited purposely-vague university codes of “civility” to silence critics of social injustice. Too often these efforts have proved fruitful, tarring the name of the institutions which deferred to them, inspiring further attempts to use refashioned political correctness to pursue an overtly reactionary political agenda. At an absolute bare minimum, it is the job of fellow academics, responsible journalists, and everyone who does not want to see the 4Chan troll army and the cowards sending Ciccariello-Maher death threats further empowered and emboldened, to speak and act in Dr. Ciccariello-Maher’s defense. This contrived controversy is not about whether or not you share George’s acerbic sense of humor. This is not a debate about appropriate academic standards of etiquette or professionalism. Whether or not his tweets disturb the liberal sensibilities or norms of comportment among some on the Left or in academia, failure to stand in active solidarity with Dr. Ciccariello-Maher, directly helps to further legitimize and empower the racist online cesspools that spawned this situation. Those that seek to further undermine academic freedom and free speech, primarily targeting radical anti-racists, are emboldened by Trump’s election and are looking to flex their muscles in the real world and see how far they can push. By no means will this be their last effort, but the stakes are presently high, as we await the Drexel administrations next move.
“White Genocide” is a term used exclusively by white supremacists, referring to what they see as the erosion of their supposed biological racial superiority through inter-racial marriage, immigration, diversity policies, and (ironically) political correctness. Dr. Ciccariello-Maher’s public mocking of the idea of “White Genocide” was obviously inflammatory, but its anti-racist message and satirical intent is clear to anyone familiar with the term and its longstanding usage within the political culture of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in the United States, dating back far too many decades. Dr. Ciccariello-Maher’s critique of a white-supremacist political culture is that much more necessary today as those beliefs have become increasingly normalized and emboldened by the election of Donald Trump. It is not hyperbole or a reciprocal smear to identify that Alt-Right, white-supremacist culture as the producer of this manufactured drama which has been foisted onto the desks of Drexel administrators, one they have so far taken seriously. My own current research focuses on the topic of politicized white victimhood, and how it is being used to undermine the achievements of civil rights movements past by using political correctness and the language of identity politics to pursue a white-supremacist political agenda – this effort is squarely an expression of that political project. These white victim politics, this contrived outrage Drexel is being asked to placate, the accusations of racial bias against whites, only has power if it effects institutionalized decision-making. Drexel President Fry, and other administrators, have an obligation to defend free-speech in one of the last institutional bastions of free and critical thought this country has. Those standards of free inquiry and debate within the academy are precisely the reason Dr. Ciccariello-Maher is under attack. Drexel’s response thus far has been an abysmal embarrassment to the profession, exposing just how easy it is for claims of reverse-racism to force the hands of university officials who should 1) know that there is no such thing as reverse racism and 2) have enough integrity to understand the broader precedents they are helping to set.
The objective of these attacks is clear: to undermine a vibrant anti-racist voice and celebrated decolonial writer while further legitimating fantasies of institutionalized anti-white bias and persecution. Breitbart, the website leading the charge for his removal, is effectively demanding a safe space for white supremacists on the internet when jokes are made about their racist ideology, while also steadily bemoaning and belittling actual university students from oppressed backgrounds when they demand safe spaces. Whether Drexel administrators value the hurt feelings of white supremacist internet trolls more than free and critical thought, academic freedom and the future of one of their best professors, should have been an easy decision – one that required no public statements of deep concern and no questions about disciplinary action. Whether Drexel capitulates to this sad assortment of racist internet bullies and conspiracy theorists, or stands by one of its strongest faculty voices, is unfortunately the situation George and everyone who values critical intellectual thought find ourselves in at present.