[Marxism] The Far Right’s ‘New Offensive Against Academia’
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Thu Jan 12 07:22:15 MST 2017
Chronicle of Higher Education
The Far Right’s ‘New Offensive Against Academia’
By Goldie Blumenstyk
“What’s really, really terrifying is that organized white-supremacist
groups organized a campaign, and that campaign pressured the university
George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor of politics and global
studies at Drexel University, says he was being satirical when on
December 24 he posted on Twitter: "All I Want for Christmas is White
A scholar of revolutionary movements and a self-described social
activist, Mr. Ciccariello-Maher is no stranger to Twitter furors. But he
says the internet maelstrom that quickly engulfed him, his friends and
family, and his university reflects "a new offensive against academia"
by far-right and neo-Nazi groups.
"White genocide" is a term invoked by hate groups and white supremacists
against interracial marriage and racial-diversity efforts. Mr.
Ciccariello-Maher says many of those who reported on his tweet either
deliberately or out of ignorance failed to explain that, or to indicate
that his tweet was mocking the concept.
Drexel itself was among those that appeared to miss the context. In the
first of two statements, the university actually condemned the
professor’s comment as "utterly reprehensible" and "deeply disturbing."
A few days later the university acknowledged Mr. Ciccariello-Maher’s
rights to free speech but reiterated that his tweets did not represent
Drexel’s values. Platforms like Twitter, the statement said, are
"limited in their ability to communicate satire, irony, and context,
especially when referencing a horror like genocide." Drexel’s response,
the professor counters, "put wind in the sails of fascist groups."
Mr. Ciccariello-Maher spoke with The Chronicle about what had prompted
his tweet and how academe must brace itself for the fight of its life.
Q: So, it’s Christmas Eve, you’re sitting with your family, getting
ready for the holiday. What set you off?
A: My tweet was a response to the virulent, racist backlash against a
tweet from State Farm Insurance that showed a black man proposing to a
white woman. I study these things, it shouldn’t be a surprise to me, and
yet I was taken aback by the incredible racist content in reaction to
this image. Many of these responses, which were saying, "This marks the
end of the white race, you’re contributing to the downfall of your
people," were hashtagged "white genocide."
It’s an idea that circulates in far-right-wing racist circles. It was an
attempt to mock this nonexistent thing, which for these right-wing
sectors means multicultural policies, it means intermarriage. There are,
famously, the billboards that say, "Diversity is white genocide." Any
policy that is not rooted in affirmation of white superiority is
understood to be a contribution to the downfall of the pure white race.
What were the responses like?
The initial response was what I expected. It was an immediate backlash
from people who knew perfectly well what I was talking about. In other
words, these right-wing sectors who, I could tell, I had touched a nerve
with. This is their code word for everything that’s bad in the world,
and so making a mockery of it led to that. Usually these sorts of
backlashes are Twitter feuds, They don’t last very long. But by the next
day, clearly, this had taken on a life of its own, and we really need to
think hard about why that was, what kind of machinery was set into
motion, what kind of sectors picked it up and pushed it out and made it
into the phenomenon that it was.
This began with organizations like Breitbart, websites like Infowars,
these far-right white-supremacist news outlets, but also discussion
groups like Reddit, where I found pages and pages of people not only
complaining about my tweet but also organizing what became a campaign of
harassment against me and my employer, and my family — posting
addresses, posting email addresses, and encouraging people to see what
they could do to get me fired.
Q: How personal did it get to you and your family?
A: It was almost entirely personal. This is part of what’s very
revealing. Some people who have spent time online, for example, know
there’s a word, called "cuck," which has become a catchall insult of the
right, for what’s perceived to be the soft men of the left. Without
going into it, in its explicitness, it reveals a very deep sexual and
racial anxiety among these groups. I was called cuck. I was called "low
testosterone." They speculated that I’m Jewish, that I looked and act
like a Jew. Of course, these things begin from the personal because
they’re rooted in a certain idea of what it means to be white.
Q: They didn’t come just at you, right?
A: A number of pictures were taken off family members’ public profile
pictures on Facebook and put on these right-wing websites. Many family
members were contacted via Facebook message with many threatening
messages, through Twitter. Anyone who retweeted me or tweeted any kind
of support was then subject to a barrage.
Q: Did you feel that your family was actually in danger?
A: Yes. But when you’re getting more than a hundred death threats, it’s
difficult to know which, if any, of those are serious.
Q: Did you expect this magnitude of reaction?
A: Absolutely not. Any of my past tweets could have been picked up in
the same way, but this was the one that was. It was fed into a machine,
and that machine put it in there, pressed it into the mainstream, and
made it a national story. But it doesn’t become a national story without
This became important to certain sectors — so important that they were
going to make a stand over it. It has to do with the moment, a moment in
which the far right would feel empowered — and they stated this — in
which they feel encouraged by Trump’s election and they’ve said that
this is their time to shine. This is them acting on that. The
anti-Semitic website the Daily Stormer celebrated Drexel’s condemnation
of me as a victory. It said, "This is what winning looks like." They
clearly understand that this is the time to begin to push, to begin a
new offensive against academia, and to really try to expand their
influence by both attacking lefty profs on the one hand, and then
pushing these campus tours by Richard Spencer, and Milo [Yiannopoulos],
and others in an attempt to provoke conflict over questions of freedom
Q: When do you think this moment began?
A: The moment has been running throughout the electoral season because
it’s not just Trump as an individual. It’s about what Trumpism, as a
certain form of nativism, has provoked and unleashed and encouraged.
Debates about whether Trump himself is fascistic or not are important.
But the bigger question is what he’s unleashing and what he’s letting
out of Pandora’s box without being able to close it, even if he wanted to.
The official university response, particularly the first one, has been
much debated. Had you communicated with administrators offline before
that came out?
I’d spoken with representatives of the university prior to that, but
none of those conversations made it sound as though that’s the kind of
statement I was going to see.
I want to draw attention to the material impact of that statement, which
made no attempt to understand my tweet. But to come out and denounce it
put wind into the sails of fascist groups. Because if my own institution
is saying it’s "reprehensible," then it must be reprehensible.
This gets to the bigger question of what really is going on in the world
that the university cannot divorce itself from — the rise of these
right-wing sectors that are pushing on faculty and on universities.
What’s really, really terrifying is that organized white-supremacist
groups organized a campaign, and that campaign pressured the university
into acting. I think a lot of people got hustled.
Q: You did get strong support from faculty at your university and
A: Yeah. What’s good is the pushback that occurred in this case,
hopefully, will be a lesson to many universities that we’re organized,
that we’re capable, that even if an organized campaign comes against one
of us, we’ll be able to and we will counter-organize resistance to it
and push back.
At the same time, you’re certainly aware of the gulf of understanding
between people in academe and typical Americans who don’t belong to a
hate group but still might not realize that "white genocide" is code for
something else. Were you concerned that you might just be feeding into
the narrative of the smug professor?
It’s possible for any tweet to be misunderstood. But equally important
is this question of the voluntary misunderstanding. Many people, white
people in particular, are primed to interpret that tweet in a certain
way. Why? Because, when someone tweets something very inflammatory —
"Kill all white people," for example — my first reaction is not to be
angry because, first of all, it’s preposterous. It’s clearly not
serious. But second of all, because I don’t, in any way, feel victimized
by society. And yet part of what the dramatic shift in the narrative of
the past few decades — very deftly charted by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s
recent book, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, for example —
is the sense of white victimization as we shift toward the so-called
This "white victim" narrative has been very effectively deployed, and so
to interpret my tweet in that way is in some ways to buy into the idea
that white people have ever been historical victims in this country,
which is not the case, which is preposterous, and which of course sets
that apart from the other phenomena — for example, black genocide,
indigenous genocide, ongoing historical realities that no one really
wants to be talking about or be outraged about. And yet these are real
things in the world that we live in as opposed to this mythical idea of
Q: If you had it to do again, would you have tweeted differently?
A: I don’t think we can avoid the fights that are coming. The idea that
we should be trying to avoid these debates and discussions and conflicts
is not one that’s going to be very sustainable for universities.
Q: You’re not likely to be the last professor attacked by the so-called
alt-right. What would you want others to know and do if this happens to
A: The most important thing is to realize that this is a legitimate
fight, to realize that the temptation to retreat is a very strong
temptation, especially when your life is threatened, but these fights
are inevitable and the alt-right is not going anywhere. So on the one
hand, we need to shut down these ideas, push back on them, but we also
need to be more than academic in the sense that we need to be building
movements that are going to be capable of weathering this storm, that
are going to be using intellectual space to make these arguments, but
also organizing in the streets.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher
education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new
book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter
@GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie at chronicle.com.
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