How much more can be said? It seems like all the words have been used up.
I’ve been struggling with a new blog post for this site: one trying to tangle explicitly with self-promotion and brand in academia. Ironic, isn’t it, given that this site is basically an instance of these things? Well, regardless of how we feel about it, I think that academic self-promotion and brand is part of the landscape today, and I’ve been thinking about what to make of that. I’ve also been taking a little time off with my family, a last breather before the semester begins and the craziness comes with it. Of course another sort of craziness has come to this country. Although not surprising, recent events in Virginia (August 11, 2017) have been a stark and sharp reminder of my own white, male privilege – and of the contrasting reality for others around me.
A massive, right-wing, white Nationalist, college-campus rally openly and proudly called on Nazi and Confederate imagery and rhetoric, shouting “white lives matter” and “Heil Trump.” The event led to multiple injuries, the death of two state troopers and one counter-protester. Just a few things bear saying from me – particularly given the other post that remains half-way finished at this point.
Politics and Brand and Justifications
I consider this site as a repository for my academic work, and not really a space for my political views. Power and politics do figure into my academic work, but I usually separate these out from political views about current events, issues, candidates and so on. There are several reasons why I’ve made this conscious decision. There are also reasons why I can no longer abide by that decision.
Others are Saying It
First, I don’t share my political views because I find that many others are saying what I am thinking already – in fact, better than I could. For example, this blog post captures some of my own outrage and exasperation at events in Virginia. Dozens of other posts, articles, editorials and tweets capture some of my own position. Adding my voice just seems like self-indulgence, and a bit of narcissism. Scholars are trained to become “experts” in particular and narrow fields, and one need only peruse my institutional profile to get a sense of where I see my expertise. Although it is important to me, it feels like I am not an expert in these current, political events, and thus I should leave it to those who are better suited to the task (even though the blog post above does not seem to be from an “authority” either). I often feel that others are far better suited than I to explain why Black Lives Matter is not problematic while White Lives Matter is. It can be better to defer to others who know better than I do.
Another reason why I tend not to cover these areas is that I have found them either enraging or emotionally draining, particularly since the November 2016 election, when I was shocked to discover how little I knew about my own country. There was also a barrage of open-aggression, harassment, and vandalism against students of color on our campus, and any veneer of hope was violently torn away for me. Even if I am speaking with those who agree with me, I find myself raising my voice – I can almost feel the ulcers forming. The election caught me off guard, but nothing since then has been surprising; each day has brought the sort of misery that I would expect from a Trump administration. It is exactly what one would expect given the way Mr. Trump ran his campaign and the way he was received by certain elements of his base. But this is draining. I decided therefore that I needed to unplug from social media and from current events to maintain some semblance of sanity.
And finally, beneath all of this is a layer of fear. It’s the quietest layer for me, but I have to admit it’s there. It’s the fear that since I am not on a tenure track, some right-wing group might identify me as an “un-American subversive” and begin a campaign to destroy my life – to make me unemployable. Academic freedom is for those with tenure, and my present role is largely administrative. Even further down, is another little thought that gnaws at me: the same folks who would identify me as un-American are also the ones who tend to collect firearms like baseball cards – and who seem to live in a strange little media-bubble as insulated as my own. There is some fear here of actual violence, although I logically know that the odds are minuscule. What a time we live in. Have we ever been this divided? When every figure is either a savior or a devil? I think you’d have to go back to the Civil War to see cultural fissures this stark, this harsh.
Regardless, I have also since come to see the above justifications as cowardly.
The Privilege of Silence
The above sentiments are all true: others are saying everything I am thinking, it is hard and it is scary. But that’s just too bad. These things bear saying, and they bear saying by as many people as we can possibly get to say them. It is privilege that lets me put up a clear and clean boundary between my academic work and my political views. My whole being is not on the line here – I can take a “vacation” from social media and current events because I know that there will not be some new legislation that strips away any of my basic rights. I can talk about my intellectual work without talking about my politics because my very being is not politicized. I can bury my fear in justifications, and kids’ recitals, and episodes of Game of Thrones, because I really have very little to fear.
This is not as true for my colleagues of color, lgbtq colleagues, or even women colleagues (and, of course, those who identify as all three at once). I can’t imagine the emotional work required to keep a cool and steady voice in the face of those who seek to harm you or your family. I can’t imagine what it would take to focus on some densely written social theory or read through students’ papers while seeing photographs of torch-bearing mobs seeking to intimidate you into silence. I can obsess over little things, but I know I have colleagues who have received actual death threats on their voicemail – would I be able to function at all in these circumstances? How can such colleagues take the time to think about “academic brand?” How hollow the notion seems.
My silence may be mistaken for some form of consent – or if I were to be brutally honest, it may be a form of complicity. It is saying “I can’t deal with it – someone else deal with it” when there are those who do not have that choice. It is their own lives and the lives of their families on the line. As Naomi Shulman, a Northampton writer, has so poignantly said about her mother who grew up in Nazi Germany:
Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than ‘politics.’ They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.
Some of my original reasons for silence still stand. I am not an expert on these matters, and so I will not crowd out those who know better than I do. But that does not mean I should be silent. I will sometimes need to take a break from media and current events for my own mental health (as everyone should), but I also need to be prepared to plug back in to take a stance on pressing concerns about our democracy. And it is a little scary for me – but not nearly as scary as it is for others. I therefore cannot be silent.
I don’t know where things are going. It seems that some conservative public figures are backing off. But others may be doubling-down. Will the alt-right propaganda machine spew out nonsense about all “mainstream” journalism and media being exaggerated or “fake” news? Will they soon be saying that the entire event was staged by the left and that the “victims” were a complete fabrication? Photographs were staged in liberal Hollywood with special effects crews, they may argue nonsensically. This is wholly in line with the conspiracy gibberish they’ve pulled at Sandy Hook – accusing grieving parents whose children were gunned down of inventing their children just to pursue some anti-firearm political agenda. I’ve heard some crazy conspiracy theories from the left, but it seems like at some point the alt-right took their conspiracy theories mainstream as they obsessed over their supposed victimhood.
I’m not saying anything new here. And I am not sure if I am saying this as well as I can, but let me say it again.
Heather Heyer was murdered by an American Nazi. Although she was white, this act was part of a campaign of hate that declares Black lives don’t matter. “Hate” groups that have a long history of using violence to intimidate civilians to achieve political aims are not “hate” groups – they are terrorist organizations. Right-wing, white nationalist activity (like the “Unite the Right” rally on August 11) is the most pressing face of home-grown, terrorist threat in 2017 America. Many of the white nationalists at the August 11 event blended Confederate, Nazi and Trump images, and many of these organizations proudly proclaim their support of Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump, who is quick to blast anyone in the media who bruises his fragile ego, has only vague things to say about these home-grown terrorists. He was “coerced” by the media to issue a more forceful statement, which was immediately recanted in another rant about how unfair it is that this billionaire was pushed to say something forceful to Nazis. Clearly, many of those who voted for this man did not vote for this. But all of this is part of the package of a man who regularly encouraged violence even on the campaign trail.
Homeland Security should give these terrorist organizations the attention they deserve – before more innocent, civilian lives are lost in the pursuit of political agendas. I am not an authority or an expert in this matter – just another pair of eyes and ears – proclaiming what is clear to anyone with common sense: that these groups are a clear and present threat to peaceful and patriotic American citizens.