Against the Chill
Hopefully, someday my contribution to peace
Will help just a bit to turn the tide
And perhaps I can tell my children six
And later on their own children
That at least in the future they need not be silent
When they are asked, "Where was your mother, when?"
—Pete Seeger, "My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage"Faculty and grad students at my university are being targeted by right-wing groups who publicize their names and contact information because these faculty and students have criticized racist and sexist acts on campus. The Women's Studies department in particular has been attacked in the state newspaper for the crime of offering supplies to students who were participating in a protest against Donald Trump. The president of our university just sent out an email giving staff and students information about what to do if they are attacked. Numerous students have reported being harassed, spat upon, told they'd be deported, etc.
The right wing detests many segments of academia. The basic idea of women's studies programs, ethnic studies programs, queer studies programs, etc. are anathema to them, but right-wing vitriol is not limited to the humanities — ask a climate scientist what life is like these days.
These trends are not new, but they are emboldened and concentrated by the success of Donald Trump and the nazis, klansmen, and various troglodytes associated with him. Hate crimes are on the rise. The media, trapped in the ideology of false equivalence, terrified of losing access to people in power, besotted by celebrity, makes white supremacists look like GQ models and ends up running headlines questioning if Jews are people. Things will only get worse.
The chilling effect is already strong.
Within the last few days, I've heard from a number of academics (some with tenure) who say they are being very careful. They're changing their social media habits (in some cases, deleting their social media accounts altogether), making themselves less accessible, being careful not to show any political partiality around their students. They need their jobs, after all. They have bills to pay, kids to support, lives to live. Just yesterday, one of my friends was called in to a meeting with a dean to discuss a Tweet from her personal account, a Tweet I had to read three times before I could figure out what in it might ever be construed as "misrepresenting the university". She's got tenure, at least, so she might be safe for now. For now.
This is not to say that anti-Trump or left-leaning faculty ought to be celebrated as always correct and perfect. They're as capable of being incoherent, punitive, and authoritarian in their views as Trump is, and a few of the things some of my friends and colleagues said are things I completely disagree with. But they're human beings at a highly anxious moment expressing their views. They're not sending hate mail or harassing people, yet now they are targets of hate and harassment campaigns and many have pulled back, hidden, or deleted whatever they could of their public presence. These are wonderful people, teachers, and scholars. We need to hear their voices. We need them not to be strangled by fear. But they're scared.
Most teaching faculty in the U.S. don't have tenure, and tenure is often weak. The neoliberalization of academia has seen to that, and there's little reason to believe things will get better. The Wisconsin model is one the Republicans hope to make national, and with control of all levels of federal government and a majority of state governments, that goal is within their reach.
The series of moral panics that have been spreading through academia — and spreading even more in the discourse around and about academia — is effective in its work, and it is especially effective now in the Age of Trump. "Political correctness" is a powerful term within the discourse, one that the right-wing uses skillfully to stifle dissent and to create a new common sense that is more favorable to the right's perspective. State universities like mine are especially vulnerable to the interference of politicians, even though at this point we get so little funding from the state that the term barely applies anymore. The triumph of the right wingers means institutions susceptible to political pressure will adapt to the new rulers.
Moves toward fascism may seem inimical to academia, but they're not at all. Universities can adapt.
I don't have any original or even particularly insightful answers to this stuff. I've been reading lots of Stuart Hall, Audre Lorde, and Victor Klemperer. I sent money to organizations committed to standing against Trump and fascism. I'm matching my publisher's fundraiser for the ACLU. I'm adding Parable of the Sower to the readings in my First-Year Composition course in the spring. I stuck a pink triangle pin on my backpack; I hadn't done so for many years, but it feels important now to be visible.
I've got a lot less to lose than many of my friends and colleagues. (I'm a white male for one thing. White supremacist patriarchy lets us get away with more.) I'll protest, I'll speak out, I'll risk what I can see my way to risk.
Back in the good olde days of George W. Bush, I was a columnist for a local newspaper. My assignment was to be the resident left-winger. My first column ran just before the attacks of September 11, 2001. In March of 2002, I began a column with the sentence, "If George W. Bush really wants to clean up politics in this country, the best thing he could do would be to resign." I was a young teacher at a private high school, and readers of the newspaper called the headmaster to try to get me fired. He liked me and had no desire to fire me. He encouraged people who called him to give me a call (my phone number was public), since, he told them, I'm a reasonable guy. "Not one of them would," he said to me a week or so later. "They're cowards. And good for you for speaking up. You and I don't agree about everything, but so what? Why would I ever want to have a teacher here who wasn't truthful to himself? Write what you need to write." A couple readers wrote relatively polite letters to the editor denouncing me for my lack of patriotism. (Now they'd just send an email in ALL CAPS and filled with abusive epithets and maybe a couple death threats for good measure. Those were simpler days...)
I kept at it for a while, and indeed eventually got a few phone calls, and now and then somebody wrote to the school to complain about a person with such unpatriotic and subversive ideas teaching the young and impressionable children, and once a deacon came to the school to speak with me between classes because he thought I needed God. I didn't mind. (Heck, I was happy to know folks were reading what I wrote!) People were mostly polite, and expressing disagreement is good citizenship. I wasn't especially attached to writing those columns; it was just something that seemed like it needed doing, and I didn't have many other writing opportunities at the time. Eventually, I gave it up for blogging.
I don't think my words changed anybody's minds, I don't think I particularly helped anybody through writing those columns, and I am certain that I could have done more, risked more, donated more, written more. But I look back on it all now with some pride, because lots of people who later said they didn't support the catastrophic U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan really did at the time. It's easy to forget now how much cultural pressure there was after 9/11 to toe the line, to keep your radical ideas to yourself, to not make waves, not buck the trends or upset the ship of state. People said we had to support the President even if we didn't agree with him. People said we needed to be united, even if it meant being united around murder, destruction, and hatred. Some of us disagreed, and the proof of my own stand remains in the pages of the Record Enterprise of Plymouth, NH fifteen years ago.
There are many forces in my life right now saying it would be prudent for me not to associate my own name with seemingly radical beliefs or actions. I don't agree. I will not support Donald Trump or his minions. I will continue to compare them to Hitler and the Nazis as long as their actions and words continue to evoke fascism. I will continue to advocate for an academia that seeks ways to shed the neoliberalism that has so corrupted the academic mission, and I will stand with students and faculty and staff who are marginalized, oppressed, precarious. Solidarity forever.
I will do my damnednest not to risk collaboration with oppression. As an American citizen, it's impossible not to have some complicity in the wars and weaponry our taxes pay for, or in the many ways our lifestyles destroy the biosphere, or — well, the list of atrocities we contribute to is long, and the whole country was founded on the sins of genocide and slavery, sins still repercussing at the present moment. I know this. I'm not seeking to hide the double/triple/infinite binds except to say there are some things we do not need to go along with, even as deep in the swamp of complicity as we may be.
It's important to pay attention to attacks and to chilling effects, important to make your own position known, to try hard not to collaborate with a regime of repression. We do what we can, and protect what we must. Some people can only resist quietly. Others will put their lives on the line. What matters is the resistance.
What matters is being able to stand tall and answer honorably when the future asks, "Where were you, when...?"