Four years ago I wrote that we in higher education had a responsibility to protect freedom of inquiry and expression when it is attacked by politicians and political movements. This does not mean we should be consistently partisan — on the contrary, it means that we must be protect our mission to pursue research and creative practice without political interference. In this piece published this week by Inside Higher Education, I argue that in our time of populist authoritarianism we have a duty to be anti-fascists. We can do so, I argue, while also protecting the intellectual diversity necessary for liberal education.
Historian and author Ibram X. Kendi has powerfully argued that it is not enough to be “race neutral” in the United States. It is not enough to say “I am not a racist” and to hope for a position of neutrality. “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle,” Kendi writes. “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’” Trying to ignore race contributes to white supremacy. Antiracism is necessary for combating it.
The same goes for fascism. There is no neutrality with respect to the resurgent populist authoritarianism one sees in this country and in so many others. It is not enough even to say one is for freedom, or for greater equality, or for peace and justice — for if those things are the case, one must now step up as an antifascist. This is particularly true in higher education.
Fascism has taken different forms in various times and places, but it consistently has certain core ingredients. It promises the return to a mythic greatness and an escape from the corrupt, weak and feminized present. It creates an enemy or a scapegoat whose elimination or domination will allow for those true, full members of society to thrive. And it attacks ideas, science and education in the name of a deeper, pure belonging.
The philosopher Jason Stanley has recently described these aspects of fascism as the “politics of us and them.” Decades ago, Italian novelist and theorist Umberto Eco underscored that for the fascists reasoned inquiry is seen as an enterprise for the weak — for losers — while philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that fascism “relies on a total substitution of lies for truth.” For the fascist, disagreement is treason, and fascist politicians attempt to co-opt law enforcement and the military for their political purposes. Sound familiar?
The appearance of fascist politics in the United States is not exactly new, but what is new is the alignment of this politics with the force of the federal government. For those of us who work at colleges and universities, this raises the stakes in our efforts to provide students with the tools of intellectual critique and creative practice. Many faculty members will want to continue “their own work” because it seems to have little to do with contemporary political issues. While not supporting what they might see as a populist authoritarianism, even nascent fascism, they may not think politics directly relevant to their teaching and research in mathematics, microeconomics, neuroscience or Victorian literature. These folks would rightly reject being themselves labeled “fascist,” but they might see no reason to take a stand and become antifascists.
Same goes for university administrators, especially presidents, like me. College presidents are supposed to be nonpartisan, and they generally agree that it is vital for the educational enterprise that campuses should accommodate a wide range of political views and encourage meaningful conversation among groups with different values and ideas. But it has never been enough to simply declare one’s campus a marketplace of ideas in which truth wins out. One must work actively to ensure intellectual diversity and robust discussion about enduring questions. Given the strong tilt of professors to one side of the political spectrum on many campuses, faculty leaders and administrators should proactively encourage the study of serious issues related to the themes from libertarian, religious and conservative traditions. The defense of freedom of speech or of intellectual meritocracy alone does not do the job. We need to curate broad conversations so as to create greater intellectual diversity, and some people in higher education have started to do so.
Today intellectual diversity is threatened by forces much more sinister than the leftist musings of tenured humanists, and so today, we administrators and professors must become antifascists. Supporting free inquiry and expression in the abstract is all well and good, but when peaceful protesters are being beaten and gassed, we need to do more. Being open to people of different backgrounds is certainly a virtue, but when the forces of order are encouraged to dominate the streets, we must become sanctuaries for those targeted by the state because of their race or ethnicity. We must call out and reject appeals for the violent suppression of dissent, and we must interrupt the appropriation of religious traditions to legitimate a regime that persecutes others in order to animate its political base and hide its own corruption. We must defend free inquiry and scientific institutions from their abuse by political hacks fueled by myths of macho violence. To try today to stand apart from these issues, to take the posture of the apolitical, is today to take the posture of complicity, whether that be in relation to racism or violent authoritarianism.
We can resist the anti-intellectual, tyrannical tendencies of the moment in many ways — without embracing the so-called Antifa movement, itself sometimes a bastion of intolerance. Some of us will take to the streets to protest against racist state violence; others will mobilize people to participate in local, state and national elections. In stepping up forthrightly as an antifascist, the student who is upset by growing economic inequality can stand together with the business leader concerned for the welfare of employees and customers; with the science professor appalled by the dismissal of facts; with the abused member of a scapegoated community; with the conservative distressed by the undermining of the Constitution; with the worshipper insulted by the use of religion for political purposes; with the law-abiding citizen disturbed by the threat to the rule of law; with the veteran made anxious by the misuse of the military; with the university president defending the integrity of the educational enterprise.
All these and many more can step up as antifascists while maintaining a commitment to listening to people with whom they might disagree. Such listening is a skill we cannot do without if we are to practice democracy. The alternative is to resign ourselves to currying favor with those who would dominate through violence and exclusion.
There will be those who disagree, thinking university presidents and professors should do their best to avoid the political fray. I certainly have sympathy with scholars and students who just want to study in peace. But just as now is the time to fight racism in our institutions, now the time has come to defend our very right to study, to critique and to create in peace. The time has come to become antifascists — while we still have the freedom to do so.
Another shattering few days of violence, at least a good part of which was inflicted on communities of color in the name of white nationalism. Terrorism has become a pressing part of the American political scene as choreographed racist resentment and fear mongering inspire members of already active fascist groups to use weapons of war to kill and create even more fear. As philosopher Jason Stanley has been pointing out, these are some of the ways fascism works.
Although I have written many times before, alas, about how these mass killings underscore the importance of gun safety laws, it is imperative that we see and come to grips with the ideological dimensions of right-wing terrorism. If verified, the El Paso shooter’s manifesto provides a chilling look into the mechanisms of creating violence to defend white supremacy. The fear is of an invasion, or of being replaced, and instead of seeing a demographic transition, the author envisions an apocalyptic threat. As historian Kathleen Belew wrote of the manifesto in today’s New York Times:
It has paragraphs that give rote gesture to not being white supremacist, even as the document invokes phrase after phrase, ideological marker after ideological marker, of the white power movement. These are all markers of the genre.
We can all recognize the similarities with the rhetoric of the president, who on the one hand encourages violence against immigrants, and on the other hand will condemn the El Paso shooter as “deranged.” We see the “markers of the genre” in Trump’s discourse.
These mass shootings are not just meaningless acts of isolated, troubled individuals. They are the product of ideological rage and the rhetoric that goes with it.
What are we to do after we mourn the victims? First, we understand the mechanisms for promoting domestic terrorism, and we ensure that our institutions disrupt them. Second, we organize so as to create civic institutions that respect the diversity of our country and protect its most vulnerable inhabitants. This will involve creating a public sphere that inspires trust rather than fear, that promotes connectivity among people across their differences rather than the isolation of one group from another.
Colleges and universities have a role to play here, too. We must promote civic preparedness so that our students can learn from those with a variety of political, moral and aesthetic views without this openness compromising their abilities to fight fascism when it rears its ugly head. Violence, pseudo-science and fear are being “carefully taught” to those who would abide ethno-nationalism. We can counter this by teaching how to recreate a public sphere that is open to democratic participation and is fierce in the determination to fight terror.
It’s been clear from the time Donald Trump ran for the Republican nomination for president, that he represents a force contrary to the goals of education. My personal political leanings aside, I feel obligated to speak up in defense of the values that animate Wesleyan and so many other schools—values that President Trump attacks on a regular basis. From the denial of science, to the politics of division and cruelty, his irrationality and downright nastiness have been a direct challenge to the research, teaching and inclusion that lie at the core of the mission of colleges and universities. This mission includes promoting intellectual diversity, but it can not abide the politics of racist divisiveness. Condemning President Trump’s attack is not about choosing “sides” in a debate about ideas. It is a defense of what higher education stands for, and of the kind of country in which higher education can thrive.
President Trump’s tweeting tirade against four congresswomen of color this past weekend, telling them to go back to their countries, is just the latest example of racism run amok at the highest level of our government. White supremacists and neo-Nazis are celebrating his administration’s insistence on hate as a vehicle for stimulating the most destructive energies of a sector of the American population.
As many of us plan our return to the campus at the end of the summer, let us imagine alternatives to the noxious brew of racism and xenophobia emanating from the White House. Let us imagine creating a vision for our country as a place of inclusive experimentation — a project that can be achieved only by considering a wide range of ideas that will help us create greater opportunity, freedom and justice. I know these words often conceal hypocrisies and worse, but let’s strive to find ways to make them more real — at least as a civic aspiration for our campus and beyond. We don’t have to live in President Trump’s country of carnage. Let’s return, or turn toward, a country, our country, that we build together.
There are some years when the celebration of America’s birthday is pretty straightforward. I know, things have never been perfect, but often July 4th feels to me a good moment to salute a country that gives the people who live in it opportunities to make it a better place. Today, though, the president of the country is creating a militarist spectacle in Washington while serious historians and less serious politicians are debating whether the United States is operating concentration camps (rather than merely ‘internment’ camps that make money for investors) at the border. I think of these lines from the great novelist Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive: “Euphemisms lead us to tolerate the unacceptable. And, eventually, to forget. Against a euphemism, remembrance. In order to not repeat.”
I like to write hopeful messages on July 4th. Normally, I’d find a way to cite Frederick Douglass, who wrote with pride of the best aspects of the American experiment:
A Government founded upon justice, and recognizing the equal rights of all men; claiming no higher authority for existence, or sanction for its laws, than nature, reason, and the regularly ascertained will of the people; steadily refusing to put its sword and purse in the service of any religious creed or family, is a standing offense to most of the Governments of the world, and to some narrow and bigoted people among ourselves.
But today the “narrow and bigoted people among ourselves” are in the White House, and they are running roughshod over the best of American values. They demonize the most vulnerable, and then they are offended when their cruelties are exposed. They are undermining inquiry in our universities, and they are taking steps to reduce access to the educational opportunities that are still are best tool for reducing inequality and promoting democracy.
The Fourth of July can remind us that if we don’t renew the American experiment, the possibility of “achieving our country,” others will do it for us. Historian Jill Lepore has recently has recently pointed out who is filling the void:
Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence.
We don’t have to allow the president to define Independence Day with militarism in Washington and with cruel dehumanization at the border. Whatever our political affiliation or ideological proclivities, we can use July 4th to imagine other ways to work for a better democracy and a more inclusive and just community.
But let’s be hopeful. Let’s end with the Sage of Concord. Here’s some excerpts from a poem of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, recited on July 4, 1857:
United States! the ages plead,—
Present and Past in under-song,—
Go put your creed into your deed,
Nor speak with double tongue.
For sea and land don’t understand,
Nor skies without a frown
See rights for which the one hand fights
By the other cloven down.
Be just at home; then write your scroll
Of honor o’er the sea,
And bid the broad Atlantic roll,
A ferry of the free.
A ferry of the free. Happy 4th!
News reports over the past several days indicate that President Trump may be contemplating the elimination of the program that supports hundreds of thousands of young people living in this country brought here without documentation by their families. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program (DACA) has helped so many continue their education, find work and, perhaps most importantly, live without fear of deportation. Eliminating DACA would be a terrible step backward, making more vulnerable young people who should instead be given every opportunity to make the most of their lives and contribute to their communities.
I want to reiterate that Wesleyan has welcomed and will continue to welcome students to apply for admission and, if accepted, to enroll regardless of their immigration status. We will continue to treat undocumented students, with or without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), who apply to Wesleyan identically to any other U.S. citizen or permanent resident in their high school. We are outraged by the current administration’s efforts to scapegoat immigrants, and we reaffirm that we will make every effort to help our immigrant students thrive. A campus-wide committee comprised of students, faculty, and staff worked the past year to make recommendations pertaining to undocumented students as well as those impacted by immigration policies targeting citizens of Islamic countries. We continue to put together resources to help members of our community impacted by these policies, and if you would like to become involved, contact Antonio Farias in the Office for Equity & Inclusion.
In November 2016, Wesleyan declared itself a “sanctuary campus,” and we stand by our pledge not to voluntarily assist in any efforts by the federal government to deport our students, faculty or staff solely because of their citizenship status.
We join many other institutions in urging the White House to maintain the DACA program, and we ask Congress to protect this program with legislation.
In the spring, we awarded an honorary doctorate to Cristina Jiménez Moreta, executive director and co-founder of United We Dream. In her remarks at Commencement, Cristina underscored how important it is that institutions of higher education support the dreams of young immigrants:
Because as we speak there are some powerful leaders telling people like me and my family that we are criminals and that we don’t belong here. They are doing everything to target immigrants, refugees, women, Muslims, and LGBTQ and black people. And thousands are being detained, incarcerated, and separated from their families because of deportation.
So to be honest, immigrants like my family and other communities are going to need fellow humans who are committed to standing in the way of injustice and racism.
And you know what, looking at all of you here out here today and knowing you came from this place, I am very hopeful.
I am hopeful that you will lead with boldness and idealism, just like the mission of Wesleyan, and stand for inclusion and dignity for all people.
We will do our best to acknowledge the important contributions immigrants make to our country and to Wesleyan. We will be the “fellow humans” standing up for justice. #undocujoy
In the face of administrative orders from the White House that deny entry to the United States to citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, we feel it is important to reaffirm Wesleyan University’s commitment to its students, faculty and staff, regardless of their country of origin or their religious beliefs.
Wesleyan has welcomed and will continue to welcome students to apply for admission and, if accepted, to enroll regardless of their immigration status. Despite threatening language from the White House, we will continue to treat undocumented students, with or without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), who apply to Wesleyan identically to any other U.S. citizen or permanent resident in their high school. We are appalled by the religious test that is included in this new immigration order, and we reaffirm that there will be no discrimination on the basis of religion on our campus.
Our international programs, our financial aid policies and employment programs comply with all applicable Federal and State laws. However, we will object to and oppose administrative dictates that violate the law and the Constitution and, if necessary, we will work with others to do so in court.
Our Public Safety Officers do not inquire about the immigration status of the members of the Wesleyan community, and they will not do so in the future. Except where we are required to do so by law, we intend to protect our ability to refuse to partner or assist ICE or law enforcement on questions concerning purely immigration status matters. In particular, we are committed to the privacy of all student information, including immigration status.
Since our very beginnings, our country has been immeasurably strengthened by immigrants. Turning our backs on those in need today is worse than heartless. Since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, discrimination on the basis of national origin has been illegal. The idea of a religious test for immigrants from some parts of the world is reprehensible, and we believe it to be unconstitutional. These are matters that will be resolved in the courts. Meanwhile, Wesleyan University will remain steadfast in our commitment to treat immigrants and refugees with the dignity and respect they deserve. This is what we mean when we say we are a Sanctuary Campus.
Wesleyan is an institution of open-minded inquiry and education, and as such we refuse bigotry and demagoguery. As I’ve written before, “being horrified is not enough.” We must take our revulsion against the politics of fear and scapegoating, and turn it into efforts to create inclusive communities that celebrate diversity while building compassionate solidarity.
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