Exalted Slogans

The curse of radical academic discourse


If you believe press coverage of The State of Higher Education, campuses across the nation have taken on the character of Hogwarts under siege by the forces of Voldemort. Somewhere, the voice of Rufus Scrimgeour, grim-faced Minister of Magic, intones, “These are Dark Times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today.”

Of course, for many on the broad left-liberal-progressive bandwidth, Donald Trump is the Dark Lord himself, albeit a version that is mocked for sport rather than truly feared—despite his wizardly ability to put entire populations at risk. But his ascension has also meant the rise of a newly visible and much more physically violent contingent of the Extreme Right. Last August, in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a protest against this extreme neo-Nazi right, counter-demonstrator Heather Heyer was killed, mowed down by a white supremacist. The stakes, let’s be frank, are not just higher, they’re deadly.

Still, the rise of this new right has seen a predictable Newtonian reaction on campuses. In early 2017, the University of California, Berkeley, a school with no small part in the storied history of student activism, saw protesters clash over a proposed visit by Milo Yiannopoulos (then a darling of the so-called alt-right). A few months later, in August of 2017, the Campus Antifascist Network (CAN) was formally announced by way of a brief statement whose introductory words rippled with Scrimgeourian direness: “The time to take action is now.” It continued, “We come together to stand with threatened members of our campus communities and oppose fascist mobilizations.”

But what exactly, we might ask, are we to take action against? Certainly, campuses have long been the target of right-wing watchdog groups, including Zionist operations like Campus Reform, that have sought to eradicate what they see as an overly liberal and left agenda in higher education. But who now, in campus communities nationwide, counts among the victims of fascist mobilization?

One group ready to be threatened by fascists are the proponents of a hazily described doctrine of “academic freedom and free speech.” This contingent’s modern-day patron saint, George Ciccariello-Maher, formerly a tenured associate professor at Drexel University, became notorious to the right and meritorious to the academic liberal-left on Christmas Eve of 2016, when he tweeted, “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide.” Soon enough, Breitbart and other right-wing organizations and individuals descended upon this context-free remark for probably obvious reasons—it seemed disparaging to white people. Meanwhile, Ciccariello-Maher and his supporters insisted the tweet was intended to mock the concept of “White Genocide.” The problem, apparently, was that a deep, Twitter-refined irony had been lost on unlearned and unsophisticated readers. With an obvious rolling of the eyes, Inside Higher Ed clearly sided with the professor, explaining that “Ciccariello-Maher has also written of white genocide as a fiction, as something that white nationalists imagine and promote as a real threat in the United States, when it is not in fact a threat.” At the time, too, Bret Grote, then acting as the lawyer for Ciccariello-Maher, said that his client was “taking a very consistent and principled opposition to those whose identity, ideology, and political platform is based on the systematic suppression of the rights and humanity of people of color.”

Who now on campus counts among the victims of fascist mobilization?

Verily. While all this sounded lofty and true, it was in fact unclear, from the start, exactly what the point of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet was, or even who its intended audience might be, and it was even less evident which marginalized groups he intended to represent. Was there perhaps an indigenous tribe somewhere that had called upon Ciccariello-Maher to come save it, tweet by tweet, from persecution? None came forward to express gratitude for his bravery on their behalf.

Over the many weeks and months following the controversy, the dominant view among supporters was that anyone who understood Ciccariello-Maher as actually calling for white genocide, instead of seeing the enormous and invisible quotation marks around his words, was just too stupid to know better. What caused so many to side with Ciccariello-Maher was the opportunity it gave to prove their theoretical sophistication—their ability to spot vast histories and dense theoretical references behind eight words tweeted out on Christmas Eve.

But irony and satire lose their bite if one has to provide a short historical primer as an accompanying text. I’m not unfamiliar with race theory myself, and even I raised an eyebrow at the tweet, being unaware of the history behind the phrase “white genocide.” In contrast to the many extraordinarily learned respondents and commenters, my own response was deeply unsophisticated: “What the hell is this tweet even about?”

Despite mounting pressure from Drexel, Ciccariello-Maher continued to send out provocative tweets, each one further embroiling him in debates about the notion of academic freedom, allowing him appearances on shows like Democracy Now, and creating interest in his newly published books. But by the end of 2017, it appeared that he had worn out his welcome at Drexel, and both sides announced that he was resigning his position.


We may surmise, from his relentless quest to remain in the public eye, that this is by no means the end of the saga of Ciccariello-Maher, who is now widely known by his mononym, “Geo.” But even if he were to vanish into obscurity (he has effectively given up tenure), Geo’s flamboyant career in tweets, not to mention his knack for maintaining a high profile buttressed by his new position as a dangerous (and now jobless) academic, will mean that we may not have seen the last of him. This, above all, is the lesson to learn from his moral tale: Ciccariello-Maher is an embodiment—perhaps the exemplar—of a new species of cult hero, the Radical Professor. And, at least until the next Radical makes his or her presence known, he is likewise the putative leading proponent of Radical Academic Discourse (R.A.D.), of free speech for a new breed of curiously stunt-driven “radical” academics.

Which is to say he’s not alone. Ciccariello-Maher is but one of many academics who are rushing to don the mantle. Cornel West has recently made his bid, too, through grandiose and unsolicited attacks on Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom he accused of not being a radical in a widely circulated Guardian op-ed. Coates, bemused and bewildered (partly, we might suspect, because he has never called himself one), simply tuned out of Twitter, taking the lightly worn path of dignity over online squabbling. As if to bait some clicks, the New York Times, during the fallout of the non-affair, inaccurately titled it a “feud.” Yet the fight was entirely one-sided, with West initiating and then carrying on much of the charade. It’s worth noting that the op-ed was published on December 17, 2017, nearly coincident with the publication of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of West’s seminal book, Race Matters.

What may already be obvious about the seemingly disparate cases of Cornel West and George Ciccariello-Maher is this: much of their chatter about radicalism is nothing more than an attempt to earn cultural capital, alongside some actual capital in the form of visiting professorships, paid gigs, talking-head and expert status, and the selling of books. But if we fail to scratch the surface, to go beyond merely ascribing motives, we miss the opportunity to think through what the real stakes are in this fiasco. And we miss seeing the vast canyons of inequality and poverty yawning in the background as we obsess about these disputes over “academic freedom and free speech.”

But before we proceed, we might also consider that, in fact, academics and academic discourse are under threat, as specific cases illustrate. We might look to the instance of philosophy professor Tommy Curry, whose words on a radio show in 2012 were excavated by a white supremacist in 2017, five years after the program aired. On the original broadcast, and in the midst of a controversy surrounding the actor Jamie Foxx, who joked about being able to kill every white character in the film Django Unchained, Curry had pointed out the need to have a more explicit public conversation about the political necessity of Black people rising up in arms, which would mean, inevitably that, yes, “some white people may have to die.” Those six words made their way around the internet in 2017, dissociated from the conversation in which they were spoken, which was itself a part of a larger discussion that saw Curry critiquing the delusion among Black and white liberals “that we can, in fact, talk about American racism without mentioning the . . . violence of social revolution at all.” Curry also offered that Black violence against whites had been necessary in times not unlike our current moment “where white vigilantism against black people, murders, state violence were all deemed normal.”

It’s important here to draw some distinctions: in the case of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, the context—ironic “White Genocide”—was all but invented; in Cornel West’s example, there simply was no context, no immediate reason for calling out Ta-Nehisi Coates. Conversely, Curry’s contentious words deserved to be understood with the grounding he provided: the history of armed struggle and revolution, and the differences in how white and Black people are valorized or stigmatized (and worse) for their turn to violence in the interest of ending oppression. Yet, tellingly, Curry’s opponents cast his words as a direct call to end the lives of white people.

So, yes, there can be no doubt that academics are targeted for what we might consider radical perspectives and political work, but each example is distinct, and the current left-liberal response to various instances tends to flatten out significant contextual differences. Headlines are now trumped up from decontextualized tweets, bits of language that lack the complication and nuance of historical conversations about actual radical movements—and the potential ripples of consequence they can bring about.

What’s R.A.D.?

Radicalism, in other words, is not a matter of gesture, of experimental tweeting or ad hominem editorializing; it requires speaking from and recognizing context. Consider the case of Steven Salaita, which very much cuts against the grain of our current dilemma. He was fired—not “unhired,” as some tried to spin it, but actually fired—from the University of Illinois at Chicago for “uncivil” tweets about Gaza and Palestine. He has since reached a settlement with the university in 2015, but remains without a tenure-track position elsewhere. This past year, he announced that he would officially end his search for a new academic position, stating that he was effectively blacklisted.

Read one way, Salaita’s case recalls Ciccariello-Maher’s. But where the latter’s tweet provided no legible politics (except after the fact), Salaita’s words were issued in response to unfolding events in Gaza. The argument can be made that, in each case, it was not the content of the tweet but the response to it that mattered, but if we leave aside arguments over free speech and/or academic freedom, we might think in more full-bodied ways about what all of this represents. The point here is not that one tweet was more genuinely political than the other, but that each instance raised different ways of approaching not “free speech” but the material conditions of the university itself.

To this end, Salaita writes, in his book Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, that

it[’s] more productive to think about academic freedom as an idea constantly in flux, whose practice is not always aligned with its ideals . . . The preservation of academic freedom as a rights-based structure, in other words, shouldn’t be the focus of our work. We should focus on the development and maintenance of just labor conditions and the disengagement of our institutions from the exercise of state violence. Academic freedom is important insofar as it protects our ability to do our work. When it doesn’t offer such protection, then it becomes just another exalted slogan, the type many administrators evoke to conceal the ugly side of university governance.

When tired and exhausted adjuncts teaching at multiple universities are trying to keep their meager jobs instructing tired and exhausted students, who are also struggling to make ends meet, the conversations are not charged with the “radical” politics of academic freedom.

Certainly, Salaita—having gone through more than his share of university administrators making life hell for him—can speak to the problems of governance. Just as crucially, though, his words on labor and state violence are worth heeding, and not just as statements about our current era of contestation on college campuses. Viewed in their proper context, they gesture toward a long history of legitimately radical action and discourse on American university campuses. Consider, for instance, the creation and existence of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960, or the Port Huron statement, written just two years later. Taken together, they are emblematic of a time when Black radical thought and politics—the sort that Tommy Curry was trying to provide a history for—was being formulated, when the very existence of the university, with its deep and dark and often literal investment in rapacious capitalism, was being questioned.

The point here is not to wax nostalgic about some idyllic time when academia was shot through with a radical discourse that mattered. Rather, taking all this together, and dispensing with the faux-radicalism of today’s academic posturing, we might consider what a serious reintegration of academic discourse, a materialist and analytic one, might provide.

But before we do that, we have to consider how far the contemporary American university has wandered from even its nominally held ideals of intellectual rigor and dynamism.

Blue State of the University

Despite the general perception of college and university students as over-privileged youths whining about sushi and Halloween costumes at private colleges, the stark reality is that, in 2015, approximately seventy percent of college students attended public universities and less than thirty percent attended private institutions. Enrollment rates have been declining at the undergraduate level. In terms of access, a rise in American-style inequality has meant a concomitant closing off of higher education to those from lower income brackets. This is coupled with an evisceration of public secondary education—in cities like Chicago, public schools have been gutted in favor of charter schools. Hyde Park, where I live, is proof that such inequality can exist in broad daylight. It’s home to the famous University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where both Obama and Rahm Emanuel sent their children. Emanuel closed fifty-four Chicago schools in 2013 alone, with more on the way.

Conversations about how to increase higher education opportunities for lower income students, especially those designated as “minority” students, are often premised on the very logic that sustains inequality in the first place. So, for instance, there is much talk about how institutions like Harvard might do better in recruiting and graduating more students from lower income brackets. But implicit—well, actually, explicit—in this conversation is the idea that a “quality” education can only be obtained by those students if they go to elite institutions, in systems that effectively replicate the conditions of inequality that serve to keep out the populations they represent. Similarly, in reporting on the feasibility of vocational training versus college educations that, supposedly, don’t benefit students, the general analysis goes something like this: there aren’t enough jobs that require, say, silly stuff like the humanities, with all that useless knowledge about poetry, and they’re coming from institutions that don’t prepare them well for college anyway, so . . . let’s just track them into vocations! STEM!

All of this allows educators and politicians to abdicate their responsibility to ensure that education is maintained at levels of excellence across the board, not just at private institutions with enormous endowments. And it allows them to, in essence, create a larger secondary class of people, mostly poor, mostly people of color, who will be tracked into jobs that train them to repair the cars and appliances of the wealthy.

Where institutions exist to serve and provide higher education for “minority populations,” they are persistently under threat of complete erasure. In February 2016, Chicago State University gave pink slips to all nine hundred of its employees, inciting protests from groups like Black Lives Matter and Assata’s Daughters, who even shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway in protest. In the midst of financial troubles and scandals, the university hired Thomas Calhoun Jr. as its president and then, a mere nine months later, parted company with him and $600,000 in the shape of a settlement, for undisclosed reasons. In the fall of that year, only eighty-six students were enrolled as freshmen, and the university had laid off nearly forty percent of its staff.

The importance of CSU in the physical landscape of Chicago cannot be overstated. As Jennifer Delaney pointed out to The Chronicle of Higher Education, CSU is the only four-year institution in the far South Side. In a city like Chicago, where the racially configured (which is to say, racist) transportation system is designed to discourage black and brown people from making it easily from the south and west sides to the city’s tonier and much whiter north side, a trip across town can take longer than a car ride into Indiana. As Delaney put it, “Making that crosstown commute . . . it’s not an easy thing if you are low-income and place bound.”

This is a classic con of neoliberalism: it substitutes individual stories and sagas for larger, systemic considerations of the issues at hand.

The fate of CSU remains unclear, but what is transparent is that it has, despite its underfunded status, the exact same fiscal habits of more privileged institutions: throwing money at top administrators while neglecting its students. It may well end up becoming a university that skews its students toward the more vocational fields, despite having once been home to Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki Madhubuti. At this point, the public and the press have lost interest in the university, except to complain that the state spends too much money on students in times of continuing fiscal crisis.

Universities like CSU are effectively being disappeared from public sight, or being remodeled so drastically that their original intent—to serve first-generation college students and poorer populations with educations on par with bigger research institutions—shifts dramatically. The University of Illinois at Chicago was once such an institution, and it still has the largest number of Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant students among four-year institutions in the state. Today, with an increased emphasis on a more traditional (which is to say, well-off) student population and its rapid encroachment into surrounding neighborhoods, it has taken on the mission of the more prestigious and even more rapaciously gentrifying and privately funded University of Chicago.

Hogwarts on a Hill

Despite wider and, to some extent, deeper coverage of its issues, problems like those in the Chicago school system and universities go largely ignored within the “radical discourse” in academia. In the meantime, the general public’s perception of higher education is bound up in stereotypes, as well as the kinds of sexy clickbait that the press prefers, including those stories about supposedly radical academics who get into trouble for tweets. And when the coverage does include the marginalized—like, say, adjuncts—it’s often about the more salacious bits: Adjuncts perform sex work! Adjuncts sleep in their cars because they’re homeless! All of this is wrapped up in the idea that, somehow, people with degrees surely deserve better than schmucks without them.

There are effectively two academic worlds, with very little connective tissue between them. There’s a world where “academic freedom” is now a matter of argument, and where discussions of that freedom are not linked to the baleful conditions created, in part, by the universities themselves. (Yes, this is a world where students have the luxury to protest everything, including Halloween and sushi.) And this world obscures the other reality, where universities are simply beyond the reach of most—or else they freight poorer students with a lifetime of debt.

But these worlds should be understood as materially linked: as universities continue to overpay administrators and underpay adjuncts, they cut out those they consider the unnecessary middlemen, the tenure-track faculty who might effectively teach and advise those students most at risk of dropping out because of a lack of intellectual and financial support. But when tired and exhausted adjuncts teaching at multiple universities are trying to keep their meager jobs instructing tired and exhausted students, who are also struggling to make ends meet, the conversations are not charged with the “radical” politics of academic freedom. Students experience the same levels of apathy and neglect that they encountered in the public schools they came from.

The way to resolve this mess is neither to insist that campus Nazis (or their opponents) are the biggest enemies of the university system, nor to give up and ignore the threats posed by right-wing activists (who might also be students and faculty) who make themselves visible on campuses, effectively and literally endangering the lives of the most vulnerable. In placing so much focus on these matters, CAN and the professors in its mold refashion the university and its discourse in their own image.

Here is yet another untheorized consequence: the intense focus on campuses as a battleground between left and right means that the value of higher education is framed in terms of fascists versus non-fascists. As a result, it’s now impossible to think about political and intellectual discourse as anything but “left” and “right.”

In fact, a viable radical pedagogy and discourse would be the sort that persuades us to think out loud in difficult, contentious ways, regardless of where that thinking ends up. In the present, when everything is Voldemort vs. Harry Potter, Good vs. Bad, “radical” is merely code for, “If you don’t think exactly like your lefty professor, you’re just another Donald Trump.” In this respect, teaching a class on prisons is designed to turn all your students into abolitionists, and teaching a class on the politics of race is meant to ensure that no one is a racist. Certainly, there’s a right-wing slant on all of this, which is to argue that students are being indoctrinated. But we could dispense with this tripe and focus on the real harm (and point out that conservative institutions have never had a problem with indoctrination—consider the rules of conduct at places like Wheaton College, which admonishes students to follow rules of scripture that ban homosexuality and premarital sex). Positioning academic and public discourse as a matter of “us versus them” ignores the structural elements of power—it’s always intriguing how lefty professors who talk endlessly about the power of the state ignore power dynamics in the classroom, perhaps influencing students to align themselves with the beliefs their professors espouse, for fear of not getting the right grade.

More critically, by concentrating on the influx of Nazis on campuses, we disregard the more insidious aspects of the state violence Salaita describes. The loss of public higher education to vast swaths of the population, not coincidentally people of color, more often women than men, is a form of violence—the violence of absolute exclusion. This is exclusion not only from the “opportunity” that higher education pundits like to talk about, but the exclusion from, dare we say, the life of the mind, the pursuit of knowledge—the useless knowledge engaged by areas like philosophy, the arts, the humanities in general. In recent years, the emphasis on STEM fields has also meant that the conversation turns more to the projected need to place “minority” students within those fields, and funding tracks and scholarship opportunities are geared toward this goal. But what happens to black and brown youth who want to choose otherwise?

The question for too long has been, “How can we make the university’s work more relevant to the real world?” Instead, we ought to start asking, “Why have we failed to make the relevance of what the university does more apparent to the world? And how has ‘the world’ always in fact been a part of knowledge production?” For that matter, how do we make that knowledge production central to discussions of the university’s role without returning to the exclusionary idea of the university as a walled city on a hill?

Abstract Labor

In this moment, the campus left’s obsession with the far-right forecloses on the facts—that most American universities have already been taken over by neoliberal forces, neither conservative nor left, that see higher learning as a cash cow and the majority of their students and faculty as dispensable in their quest for profits. But the persistence of the left, in insisting that the real problem is that Nazis are threatening to take over campuses, ignores the simple fact that many public institutions like CSU have such enormously depleted student populations that the right won’t even bother with them.

What if we foregrounded movements, not the cult of personality and celebrity?

This is a classic con of neoliberalism: it substitutes individual stories and sagas for larger, systemic considerations of the issues at hand. In the case of Radical Academic Discourse, we have only a lot of posturing, and matters are repeatedly framed in terms of “X Professor Who Said Y Faces Retaliation.”

What if we foregrounded movements, not the cult of personality and celebrity? What if we held on to abstract concepts? What if, instead of ceding our ground to Nazis by way of a belief that they threaten control of our bodies and minds, we start thinking about how to open up the university so that it shares its resources—forcibly gathered through land grabs and intellectual property theft from previous centuries—with surrounding neighborhoods? What if, instead of constantly trying to explain stray tweets, we sought to engage in long and complicated conversations about long and complicated matters like genocide as a founding national principle?

If academic institutions are to no longer be like a City on a Hill—or Hogwarts under siege—and if academic discourse is to integrate more fully into a vibrant public life and culture, academics will have to do better than simply casting themselves as heroes of their own sagas. R.A.D. indeed.

Yasmin Nair is a writer, activist, and academic working on her first book, Strange Love: Neoliberalism, Affect, and the Invention of Social Justice.

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