“Because I don’t even consider them guilty; it’s the organization that’s guilty, it’s the high officials who are guilty.”
—Franz Kafka, The Trial
Richard Spencer’s 2017 Campus Tour of Hate is coming to the Great Lakes. Spencer is, of course, known as one of the founding figures of the alt-right; he’s also gained no shortage of media notoriety for leading a crowd in “Hail Trump!” chants while flashing Nazi salutes, for preaching “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and the establishment of a “white Ethno-State on the North American continent,” and for eating an atomic knuckle sandwich during an interview. Spencer has slimed his way into the mainstream through various channels, exploiting any chance he gets for publicity (good or bad), but time and again, his battleground of choice has been American colleges and universities.
This strategy was on ugly display last summer, as he led a torch-wielding mob of fellow white nationalists, neo-Nazis, KKK members, etc., through the University of Virginia campus for the Unite the Right rally. Bubbling with white rage, Nazi salutes, and chants of “Blood and Soil” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” that dismal August invasion culminated with one attendee, James Alex Fields, committing an act of terrorism by driving his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, injuring nineteen and murdering thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer. Spencer and his minions used the same playbook in Gainesville, where, despite the University of Florida shelling out nearly $600,000 for security and Governor Rick Scott declaring a state of emergency, Spencer’s campus talk was followed by still more mayhem: three of his supporters broke out into Nazi salutes, fired a handgun at protestors, and subsequently faced charges of attempted murder.
Beyond these outbursts of despicable (and predictable) violence, though, Spencer has lately stepped up his crusade against academic institutions into the legal sphere, in the vein of other professional campus trolls of the right like Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray. This phase began to take shape when Spencer joined forces with the likes of Cameron Padgett and former KKK defense attorney Sam Dickson to successfully sue Auburn University in April, forcing it to reverse its cancellation of his planned appearance.
Riding high in the wake of their attention-getting antics in the South, Spencer and his crew are now plodding their way through the Midwest.
Riding high in the wake of their attention-getting antics in the South, Spencer and his crew are now plodding their way through the Midwest. In rapid-fire succession, they’ve filed requests to rent space at public universities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Even more rapidly, they’ve slapped lawsuits on any institution that denies their request on the grounds that the school in question is infringing on Spencer’s First Amendment rights and that the violence at his events, which universities cite as the primary reason for denial, is the fault of “radical leftists,” not Spencer.
It goes without saying that Spencer, vile troll that he is, has already captured far more national attention than he deserves. I won’t waste more time or ink here revisiting his loathsome profile (if you want to delve deeper into Spencer and the alt-right, read my fellow Baffler writer Angela Nagle’s book). One thing to remember is that, like Trump, Spencer is both a raving narcissist and a skilled opportunist. And like Trump, he’s managed to weld his cult of liberal-baiting personality to a patently dangerous racist ideology by cannily exploiting the many cultural soft spots where our collective cultural anxieties and prejudices have already been festering.
Aided by a broad chorus of useful idiots—not just the usual suspects like Trump and everyone at Fox and Sinclair, but state lawmakers, federal agencies, liberal pundits, and a whole mainstream media apparatus that is uniquely obsessed with university politics—Spencer has so far succeeded in leveraging popular concerns about “political correctness” and “free speech” into an all-purpose rolling alibi of first resort. While Spencer preens as a would-be martyr to the cause of free speech, he can continue fomenting white supremacist violence while painting those who oppose him as the real monsters.
Because such popular concerns are so regularly, specifically, and intently focused on colleges and universities, it’s no wonder that American campuses are now the chief focus of Spencer and his movement. Our institutions of higher education are not the only front in this war, but they do command the lion’s share of national attention; they are culturally unique in their capacity to absorb and reflect people’s competing notions of what democracy should look like, what steps need to be taken to protect it, and what (or whom) it needs to be protected from. And make no mistake: this is precisely what is happening at this very moment. From students and grad students to faculty, community members, administrators, lawmakers, pundits, etc., Richard Spencer’s campus crusade has unleashed a firestorm of competing campaigns to define what a democratic university is. For this reason, it matters immensely that the institutional foundations of universities have become increasingly undemocratic over the past decades.
At the University of Michigan, my home institution, things have been moving very quickly since Spencer’s team filed a request to rent space at UM at the end of October. News of the request spread quickly, prompting a number of individuals and organizations from the university and from the surrounding community to kick off efforts to raise awareness on campus and to pressure the administration to deny the request. At the same time, all interested parties—especially, one presumes, the university administration—were keeping a close eye on the legal actions that Spencer’s team had taken against Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State for denying their initial requests. All the while, the UM administration made no public pronouncements about the decision-making process, nor did university leaders announce plans to hold public hearings. Then, on November 17, Spencer’s lawyers threatened UM with a lawsuit if the school did not give an answer within a week’s time. On November 21, as many were already gone or leaving Ann Arbor for the long holiday weekend, and with only a few hours of advanced notice, the UM Board of Regents announced that it would be holding a public meeting to announce its decision and to hear comments from people who signed up to speak on the controversy beforehand.
It was at this meeting that UM President Mark Schlissel stated that he had “made the difficult decision to begin discussions with Richard Spencer’s group to determine whether he will be allowed to rent space to speak on the University of Michigan campus,” adding that “If we cannot assure a reasonably safe setting for the event, we will not allow it to go forward.” Ensuing statements from the individual members of the Board of Regents were in near-unanimous alignment with President Schlissel’s. “The only thing worse than Richard Spencer being on our campus,” according to Regent Mark J. Bernstein, “is stopping him from being on our campus.” “I must give full faith to my duties under the Constitution,” Regent Andrea Fischer Newman added, “especially the principle of free speech embodied in the First Amendment.” The lone dissenting voice on the Board came from Regent Denise Ilitch: “I agree with the position of Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Penn State, The University of North Carolina and Auburn University in DENYING his request to speak on their campuses . . . [W]hile I am a staunch proponent of the First Amendment and stand firmly in support of our Constitution, I remain very concerned that it is unsafe to allow him to speak at the University of Michigan. Violence follows him wherever he goes.”
These statements were followed by a string of impassioned, emotional pleas from students, grad students, and staff members. The speakers unanimously urged the Board to consider the track record of Spencer’s public appearances—namely, the way that they’ve flooded campus communities with violent supporters of his bigoted views, and incited lawless action against protestors and people whose race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc., are deemed “inferior” in the alt-right worldview. How could students of color, some asked, continue to live and learn at a university that gave a platform to someone who would deny their very right to exist?
After all speakers had gotten their time at the microphone, the Regents adjourned the meeting and quickly left.
This is not the first time the University has had to face such tough questions. In 2013, UM invited Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Alice Walker to speak at an event celebrating the 50-year anniversary of its Center for the Education of Women (CEW). Soon afterward, though, UM rescinded the invitation. According to CEW director Gloria D. Thomas, the dis-invitation resulted from “further research,” which revealed that Walker was not “the optimum choice” for the occasion. Walker told a different story. Relaying the news from her agent, Walker posted on her blog that her invitation was rescinded in response to “the removal of funding from the donors, because of their interpretation of [her] comments regarding Israel.” After much outcry within and beyond the university, Walker was eventually re-invited and spoke on campus a year later.
Moreover, in 2007, the University of Michigan Press caved to pressure from the “pro-Israel” group Stand with Us and cancelled its distribution of Joel Kovel’s Overcoming Zionism, originally published in the U.K. by Pluto Press. “There was an outcry, however,” as John Mearsheimer writes, “as soon as these controversial decisions became public knowledge, and the University of Michigan Press reversed itself and said it would publish Kovel’s book. However, it severed its ties with Pluto Press in 2008, when the contract between the two presses expired.” Unfortunately, such occurrences have become all too familiar in American academia—just ask Steven Salaita.
In our current political climate, right-wing and alt-right extremists like Richard Spencer largely dominate popular discussions about free speech on college campuses—a fact that is both telling and immensely consequential. Because, as these cynically staged appearances provide more publicity and sympathy for white nationalists, they’ve also effectively swamped from view the terrible resurgence of political censorship in academia, especially for students and faculty whose views peg “too far” to the left. Across the country, faculty members are being censured or dismissed for expressing views that set off the bells and horns of the right-wing outrage machine, from Campus Reform and Breitbart to Fox and everywhere in between. At the same time, lawmakers in a number of states are currently pushing (or have already passed) policy changes that would make it easier to dismiss tenured faculty for political purposes, to defund universities in retaliation for their support of certain unpopular political views, and to discipline or even expel students who try to prevent people like Spencer from speaking on their campuses (Republican Senator Patrick Colbeck has introduced such legislation here in Michigan as well). This is also to say nothing of current congressional attempts to tax graduate students into extinction. At the same time that right-wing apparatchiks decry radical faculty and student “crybullies” who allegedly stifle free speech on campuses, many on the right, together with many of their liberal enablers, are forging ahead with efforts to completely redefine that freedom as the propagation of ideas exclusively on the center-right.
Surely, then, this is all the more reason to take seriously the somber declarations of the Michigan Board of Regents about the dangers of denying Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus? Surely, that is, the current climate proves President Schlissel’s point that, “If we refuse to rent space to this odious individual, it is easier to imagine our government at some point in the future deciding that some of your ideas are too dangerous, or too ‘opposed to our values’ to allow others to hear. We can’t let this happen, even though it means we must allow vile speech.” As a matter of bitter fact, though, it proves the opposite.
President Schlissel’s entreaty dangles on a horribly hollow “if,” which he and the Regents believe they have the administrative power to arbitrate—a hypothetical scenario that those who are begging him to deny Spencer’s request know all too well to be anything but. Indeed, thanks to the exploitative tactics of Spencer et al, it is already happening, and they are all too happy to capitalize on university administrators’ refusal to acknowledge it. This is the inevitable, banal, historical evil of the administrative mindset: a wholehearted belief in safeguarding the integrity of the form, and a world-breaking blindness to the reprogramming of the function. The rise of Trump and the alt-right have proven just how disastrously mistaken well-meaning, liberal-minded administrators like Schlissel are in their unquestioned belief that they’re protecting a sacrosanct tradition of open intellectual inquiry at the very moment that this tradition is being refashioned into a monstrous weapon.
I have tried on a number of occasions to critically analyze various facets of the neoliberalization of American academia that has taken place over the past four decades. In so doing, I have joined a chorus of many others who have aimed to expose the causes and impacts of dramatic changes that have continued, for instance, to replace public subsidies for higher education with private funds, tuition hikes, and debt. This same neoliberal university regime has dramatically reversed the ratio of tenure-track jobs to contingent positions and transferred faculty and student decision-making power and resources to centralized administrations. And the leaders of this market-driven makeover of American higher ed have steadily redirected university priorities toward rankings, prestige, brand value, and endowments, and away from quality education and campus safety. Put simply, the modern neoliberal university looks a lot different from the university of decades past, no matter how much it is presented as the unshakable foundation for preserving our great and unchanging academic ideals. And as a result of this crucial change in its institutional makeup, the modern neoliberal university has no solid answer for someone like Richard Spencer.
The neoliberal university is an administrative apparatus whose morality is outsourced to the market. As such, its capacity to administer is dictated by the outside forces on which it depends: by donors and investors, by corporate sponsors, by public perception, by media coverage, by national and global ranking systems, by lawmakers who are themselves beholden to external interests, etc. When the mission of a university becomes a function of this administrative network, even the most well-intentioned and democratically minded administrators are pushed, by necessity, to adopt decision-making logics and practices that are dangerously undemocratic.
It is precisely for this reason that reactionaries have come to understand that they can censor the academic freedom of professors they don’t like if they can just stir up the one thing that universities can’t afford: bad publicity. It is for this reason that administrators remain stubbornly, laughably incapable of seeing that white nationalists like Spencer are not just “visiting” campuses, but participating in a much larger effort to take over and redefine academic spaces in their own image. (Read, for instance, the University of Virginia administration’s botched efforts to prepare for the Unite the Right rally, which include UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan claiming in advance of the event, “Of course we anticipate that some of them [i.e. the brigade of alt-righters, neo-Nazis, etc.] will be interested merely in seeing Mr. Jefferson’s architecture and Lawn.”) And it’s also for this reason that universities will ignore the voices of their students and their communities and sacrifice their safety by defending an interpretation of free speech whose terms have been set by those who have the power and privilege to believe that their subjective view of “open inquiry” is all that’s at stake.
At bottom, this institutional devolution is more chillingly, even radically, simpler than we may ever care to acknowledge. It really does come down to a question of us and them, ours and theirs. When they grant Spencer’s requests to speak at universities, administrators, regents, donors, and lawmakers across the U.S. imagine themselves to be defending and safeguarding timeless democratic principles. What they’re really doing, though, is administering their own, very specific view of what democracy means—or, as is increasingly the case in the everything-for-sale bazaar of our neoliberalized higher ed system, the view of other forces who’ve positioned themselves to dictate how university administrations should act. This is a view of a democracy in which the speech of a white man preaching “ethnic cleansing,” and inciting violent action from his supporters with his message, is inherently worth protecting over and above the safety, let alone the speech, of those of us who would be denied the right to exist in the schemes peddled by such racist demagogues. More important, this is a view of democracy that is cycled through and shaped by the demands of a market whose inherent logic is to chase power, not principle.
We are not, and never have been, administering a democracy in common. The defining quality of American democracy, in fact, has always been the ongoing struggle between different groups and individuals to define it, and administer it, in their own terms. Refusing to acknowledge this defining set of tensions, as I’ve argued before, was perhaps the greatest failure of the New Democrats, who celebrated the end of the Cold War and inaugurated the “end of history” by presiding over what they presumed to be the final, lasting form of liberal democracy. They, in turn, gave birth to a generation of faithful liberal subjects who, while living in a country that was perpetually at war, was largely oblivious to the internal war, now well under way, to reclaim history and to rewrite democracy as such. This very war has now commanded university campuses as a critical front for those in power (and their sympathetic subjects) to advance what they believe to be the real, perhaps even the very first, true democracy—a democracy that may very well see you not as its arbiter, but its impediment, its enemy.
Students, grad students, faculty, staff, and other community members know this. At Michigan this week, a broad coalition of organizations and individuals are executing a #StopSpencer Week of Action, involving walk-outs, teach-ins, and a campus strike, in the hopes of asserting their view for a more, not less, democratic university. Because there is no neutral option here. Doing nothing doesn’t “preserve” democracy—it surrenders it to those who are already doing everything in their power to take it for themselves and use it as a blunt instrument to silence others. If our administrators truly want colleges and universities to be the bulwark of a democracy worth fighting for, then they’re going to have to join us, and fight for it.