The Right is Waging War on Academic Freedom
The resignation of Drexel University Professor Ciccariello-Maher following right-wing threats and harassment is the result of a broader, ongoing right-wing campaign to intimidate progressive professors throughout the U.S., and it’s having a chilling effect on academic freedom, says Trinity College Professor Johnny Williams
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. Intimidation and harassment of progressive and leftist university professors took a new turn this week when professor George Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel University announced his resignation. On his Facebook page, he made the following announcement: Quote, “After December 31st, 2017, I will no longer work at Drexel University. This is not a decision I take lightly; however, 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, my situation has become unsustainable. Staying at Drexel in the eye of the storm has become detrimental to my own writing, speaking, and organizing.”
Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s resignation is in some ways just the tip of an iceberg of attacks on academic freedom that have been taking place throughout the past year. Conservative websites such as Campus Reform and have been targeting progressive professors and launching media campaigns to get them fired. Other examples of harassment involved, for example, Mark Bray, a lecturer at Dartmouth College, Katherine Dettwyler, an adjunct lecturer of Anthropology at the University of Delaware, Lisa Durden, adjunct lecturer at Essex Community College and Johnny Eric Williams, a full Professor of Sociology at Trinity College.
While each of these cases is different, they all involve issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Joining me now from Hartford, Connecticut is professor Johnny Williams. As I mentioned, Johnny teaches Sociology at Trinity College. His most recent book is Decoding Racial Ideology in Genomics. Thanks for joining me today, Johnny.
JOHNNY WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.
GREGORY WILPERT: So, let’s start with what happened with George Ciccariello-Maher. He has been a target for a while now by right wing media outlets but it all came to a head last year when he made a comment on Twitter about favoring white genocide. If one does not know where this concept comes from, it certainly would sound outrageous but he himself clarified soon after that the concept of white genocide was a concept used by white supremacists to warn against inter-marriage and other forms of losing white so-called purity. George was then placed on academic leave and received many threats. Now with his announced resignation, and you Johnny, as someone who himself has been professionally attacked and intimidated for something you said in social media, what is your reaction to George’s resignation?
JOHNNY WILLIAMS: Well, I’m actually very, very sickened by it. I’m sad that it has come to this state, where professors, whose jobs are to profess and to provoke, to make us think about things we don’t want to think about, are now being basically summarily pushed out of the academy because of threats that the universities and colleges are not taking seriously. And I think that in itself is a problem that they don’t take it seriously.
GREGORY WILPERT: As I mentioned earlier, it seems to be part of a wave of intimidation against progressive and leftist professors that end up having very serious and real consequences for their employment and for academic freedom. As I mentioned, you were also a target. Tell us briefly about what happened in your case.
JOHNNY WILLIAMS: Well, in my case, I basically posted an article by a friend who goes by the name of Son of Baldwin on From Fusion as well as on Medium.com. He had made a piece about racial bigots and he was asked in a question, “What if black people, who the racial bigot directs their venom towards and their death and destruction towards us, what if we let them die if they were bleeding out instead of just trying to help them and sustain our humanity?” And as a result, then of that particular piece, people thought that I, myself, wrote that piece. They still do, which is a misconception. I merely posted it to give another point of view about how we should approach white supremacy in the United States. It is a destructive force, it is a crime against humanity that must be eliminated.
GREGORY WILPERT: And regarding these attacks, what happened? Tell us a little bit more. I understand that you [received] threats and then the university reacted, as well.
JOHNNY WILLIAMS: Yes. Shortly after I posted that, a fellow in Minneapolis, a police officer was exonerated from killing Philando Castile. So, I was pretty much upset about that as well as the article that Son of Baldwin had put out. Right away, I knew nothing about the subject matter of this congressman, per se, I was just thinking about the piece that he was saying about why should we revive a bigot, if that bigot’s aim is to kill us? So, then I saw what happened to Philando Castile’s murderer, the police officer who got off and then about two days later, Charleena Lyles in Seattle, Washington was also shot and killed by police because she was mistaken as the burglar. She was afraid that someone was burglarizing the house or attempted to burglarize it and she came out to meet the police, they mistook her as the burglar and shot her. And she was three months pregnant and she had four kids in the house.
I then wrote a Facebook post as well as a Twitter post, saying that I was fed up with all of this kind of brutality directed as onslaught of killing of Black people in the United States by police, by vigilantes like Zimmerman and so forth and that we should do something about this. And if this venom is being directed towards Muslims, immigrants, Black people and also those who are sexually oppressed, right? People who are queer, genderqueer, or trans and so forth. This stuff needs to stop. And I used a hashtag of another tweet about white supremacy and whiteness. Which whiteness is an ideology and white supremacy is a system. And Campus Reform was trolling me, unbeknownst to me.
This is an organization that is funded by something called the Liberty Institute, which gets its money from the Devos family, the Koch family, donor trust, which is also part of the Koch family and so forth. And they did mischaracterize what I was saying, saying that I called for the death of all white people because I used a hashtag which I was in on a conversation on called “Let Them Fucking Die,” which was the name of the article that Son of Baldwin had written. And so, now people are constantly just, I came in my office just now and I had a message from yesterday on my phone calling for me to be killed. This guy was yelling that I should fucking die. So, thinking that I wrote, again, the Son of Baldwin piece. So, that’s where it is.
Now in regards to the response of my institution, I regarded it as problematic on many levels. It’s a violation of my academic freedom and in the state that which I’m in, it’s also a violation of my free speech rights, in the state of Connecticut. So, I had a real hard time trying to overcome the kind of lukewarm kind of response, the kind of setting aside of what the college was communicating to the public in its releases, saying that my use of the hashtag was reprehensible, buying into the idea that I was calling for the death of white people.
My thing is, is that I say that white is a myth. It is an idea. There is no such thing as a white race. And this is the same thing, I think that George was trying to communicate via all he wanted for Christmas was white genocide because whiteness doesn’t exist. It’s an idea. We attach meaning to phenotypical differences between human beings. The only race that exists is the human race and we’re all the same, 99.9% genetically alike. But this thing got to play and they started whistling, the Campus Reform people did, whistling to their racist base. And then it got picked up by Breitbart, The Blaze, The Daily Caller, Fox News, The Washington Times, all their press, this whole system that then started this onslaught, this kind of online mobbing that occurs and still occurs to me, calling for my death, calling for wife’s death, my kids’ death. And harassment. It’s just ongoing thing.
But I don’t know what to do about it except to say that I’m very frustrated with the fact that my institution wasn’t strong in their kind of support of me, saying that they supported my academic freedom which they have yet to actually assert to the public, that they strongly support my academic freedom.
GREGORY WILPERT: Now you’ve been a professor for a long time, for over two decades. Do you think that in the last year or two or the last couple of years, that these kinds of attacks on progressive professors have increased and especially perhaps, maybe in conjunction with Trump’s election?
JOHNNY WILLIAMS: Yes. It was already there before this with the election of Barack Obama. Actually, I mean there’s this narrative out in the public arena saying that, basically, Barack Obama gave birth to Trump and this white backlash that’s going on in the United States right now. And it is true to a great extent because these people thought that Barack Obama had taken over the country for Black people which was ludicrous to say. If anything, we suffered tremendously, under the presidency of Barack Obama and we continue to suffer.
And so, what we see is though that it has been amplified via social media, via these organizations that I just named. And they’re putting it out there, and it runs and so forth, and then it leads to all these threats. So far, AAUP has said, the American Association for University Professors, says that there’s literally over 100 or so death threats against professors this year because of social media, about being recorded in a classroom, and taking stuff out of context and so forth.
So yes, it’s been amplified but it’s been there all along. This stuff really started back in the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan, and really before that with the Lewis Powell amendment, memorandum, I’m sorry, back in the 1970s, where they sought to defund public universities because they didn’t support the market system as well as white supremacy in universities and colleges.
GREGORY WILPERT: I mean, I’m not sure but it seems like perhaps what might have changed more recently is that universities have become a little bit more timid with respect to defending academic freedom. Do you think that might be the case?
JOHNNY WILLIAMS: And that’s closely connected to this effort that has been going and going since the late 1970s to defund universities, publicly defund them. So, they’re not getting their money primarily from taxes that people pay to the university and to the state to fund these universities. Rather, the money is coming from the billionaires. These white reign, racist, libertarian kind of billionaires who basically then hold the university hostage by saying, “We’re gonna take the money away from you if you don’t hire professors who don’t toe the line of free market capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy,” that kind of thing. So, that’s what’s going on.
And then the university hires then, administrators, and they have people on boards of trustees and so forth, who are part of that particular kind of way of thinking and that universities are basically businesses. And that professors shouldn’t say anything controversial to advance knowledge and human welfare. That they should be there, basically, for research and development. That’s what’s going on and that’s what this fight is really about. It’s contested terrain. Universities are like that. And that’s what we’re living through and that’s why this kind of …directed at people who are not toeing the line, the free market and the white supremacy line.
GREGORY WILPERT: And so, do you think this is actually having an effect on the level of the classroom? I mean, are professors letting themselves be intimidated or are they being excluded through academic procedures?
JOHNNY WILLIAMS: I think that it has a chilling effect for people who, 70% of the professors in the United States is adjunct and they are especially vulnerable. And they’re not full-time, they’re not tenured and so they feel like they can’t say what they need to say to teach someone in the classroom. People are recording, people are audio recording and so forth. People need to start to put in their syllabi that none of this can ever happen, that no audio, no visual recording anything, it’ll be a violation of your rights and so forth. But the thing is is that it’s chilling and it is having an effect. A lot of professors are leaving social media, ceding it to these hate groups, to these white supremacists, these neo-nazis, these fascists. They’re leaving it to them.
And so somewhat, they’re constantly trying to intimidate and take over but it’s really just not neo-nazis and fascists. It’s also people who are very liberal who also are racist, and sexist, and all these things, who are also leading this charge because white supremacy and neo-nazi stuff has become mainstream now with the election of Donald Trump. That’s what’s going on. I mean, it’s all over now. And so people are very much afraid, including in the classroom, including at universities but they must find the courage, muster the courage to defend their academic freedom because it’s just not an idea. It’s something that we have to practice in order to advance human knowledge.
It is crucial for our survival as a species on this planet to advance knowledge. If we can’t do that without being threatened, then we’re in a bad state of affairs and we’ll probably go extinct as far as I’m concerned. And that’s not hyperbole. That’s just the way I feel about it.
GREGORY WILPERT: Well, one thing though that, I mean, it’s kind of related, is that there have been articles in the press that compare what is happening to professors such as yourself and professor Ciccariello-Maher. And it’s being compared with the protest against right wing speakers on college campuses such as Milo Yiannopoulos, who in some cases have ended up canceling some of their speaking engagements, and of course, the right wing media are saying that their freedom of speech on university campus is being restricted. What is your reaction to such comparisons?
JOHNNY WILLIAMS: Well, that’s a bunch of malarkey. A bunch of malarkey simply because universities and colleges are some of the most conservative forces in the United States. And they would rather defend the free speech of people like Mr. Yiannopoulos than the free speech of George Maher, right? Or the other professors who are out there. So, they’re playing this dangerous game, right? The universities as far as I’m concerned, and what I know, evidentiary-wise, right? With evidence, is that universities are into basically supporting the ideology of conservatism and the right to be a white supremacist because universities as we know, through Craig Steven Wilder and many others who have written about Ebony and Ivy, and how basically universities come from this white supremacist, colonialist system and so forth. They are still churning that particular kind of message out via their teaching, via the professors, and so forth and administrators.
So, we’ve got to be clear about that. That universities are really not these kinds of radical, progressive places. They’ve never been that in our history. And as far as I’m concerned probably won’t ever, given the structural kinds of limitations that they have when it comes to funding them. They’re not publicly funded institutions anymore. They’re privately funded and they’re held to the demands of those who are privately funding them, the capitalists themselves who are funding them. That’s the nature of this business.
Now there is no assault on conservatives on college campuses. That’s a myth. That’s a lie promulgated to take away the free speech and academic freedom of people like myself and others who are trying to do our jobs.
GREGORY WILPERT: Well we’re going to leave it there. I was speaking to Johnny Williams, Professor of Sociology at Trinity College in Connecticut. Thanks for having joined us today, Johnny.
JOHNNY WILLIAMS: Thank you very much, Greg.
GREGORY WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network. If you like our news and analysis, please don’t forget to donate to The Real News this holiday season.