Education

A Scholar Is Fired For Telling the Truth About White Supremacy and Gun Violence

He called the Las Vegas massacre white supremacist violence. Then he lost his job.

Loyola University Chicago - Day of Action January 23, 2017
Photo Credit: Loyola University Chicago Day of Action, January 23, 2017 (350.org_

An associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University was effectively forced out of his position after describing the Las Vegas massacre as a product of a "white supremacist patriarchy" that must be dismantled. This is actually a fairly standard narrative among progressives in response to mass shootings or political violence. However, George Ciccariello-Maher and his university found themselves facing a particularly harsh campaign of harassment, intimidation and coercion in the wake of these comments, in part because this was not their first run-in with the right-wing media outrage machine.

Although Ciccariello-Maher was intentionally trying to mock and provoke the right, what happened to him could happen to any progressive social researcher today.

Ciccariello-Maher was first thrust into the national spotlight for comments he made on Twitter in December 2016.

In response to a State Farm advertisement featuring an interracial couple, many far-right online personalities took to social media to lament the "white genocide" they believe is being brought about through immigration, interracial unions, multiculturalism and "radical" civil rights activism. In response, Ciccariello-Maher mockingly tweeted to them that all he wanted for Christmas was #WhiteGenocide.

These comments were deliberately taken out of context in right-aligned media, where it was implied that rather than merely trolling the racial anxieties of alt-right sympathizers, Ciccariello-Maher sincerely supported carrying out (violent) genocide against whites, sparking major backlash against himself and the institutions he was affiliated with.

At that time, Drexel University sharply condemned his remarks, but insisted that no action should be taken against Ciccariello-Maher because his comments constituted protected free speech.

Ciccariello-Maher found himself in the crosshairs of the right just a few months later, after declaring on social media that seeing a customer give his first-class seat to a uniformed soldier on a flight made him want to vomit. Right-leaning pundits once again blew up his comments, arguing that Ciccariello-Maher hated America, despised its men in uniform and that the sentiments he expressed were typical of what students were exposed to in the classroom—not just in his courses, but in colleges across the country.

As the threats and complaints once again rolled in, Ciccariello-Maher appeared on Fox News and insisted that this time his comments were not satirical: he was nauseated, he explained, by what he perceived as people “blindly” supporting wars abroad for the sake of supporting the troops, and also by the “smug and self-congratulatory” demeanor of the passenger who offered his seat. He argued that if people really wanted to support the troops they should work on providing better healthcare and services to veterans, and avoiding needless conflict abroad.

Although soldiers also regularly express discomfort with the kinds of symbolic gestures and platitudes Ciccariello-Maher was disparaging, and themselves emphasize that there are more effective ways to support them, this doubling-down by the embattled professor further fueled the public outcry, prompting three Pennsylvania state senators to call for his termination. Drexel University once again distanced itself from his remarks but refrained from punitive action.

However, Drexel provost Brian Blake told Ciccariello-Maher that the outrage over his statements was causing harm to the university, including loss of major donations and students who were choosing to avoid the school on the basis of the scandals. The provost went on to emphasize Drexel’s commitment to academic freedom for its faculty, staff and students, and its position that what members of the university do in their private time, as private citizens, is their own business. However, he argued, professors must also recognize how their affiliation with the university can create profound ramifications for others in the Drexel community. To his mind, this created a special obligation for professors to exercise their rights with a certain degree of thoughtfulness and prudence, especially in the public sphere.

Midway through the fall 2017 semester, Ciccariello-Maher found himself in a maelstrom again, this time over his comments on the Las Vegas massacre. He refused to cede any ground: In an interview on Democracy Now! following the massacre in Sutherland Springs, less than a month after the Las Vegas shooting, Ciccariello-Maher doubled-down on his claim that a sense of frustrated entitlement among white men seems to fuel these kinds of mass attacks.

During the interview, Ciccariello-Maher also confirmed that while he was allowed to finish out his fall 2017 course commitments via online instruction, he was not allowed on the Drexel campus at all for the foreseeable future. Beginning in spring 2018, he was slated for indefinite administrative leave, ostensibly for the sake of his own safety, and the safety of Drexel faculty, staff and students.

Benched from instruction and barred from campus indefinitely—while under surveillance by a right-wing media apparatus that seemed committed to distorting and amplifying potentially anything he said—Ciccariello-Maher came to feel that he had no choice except to resign. He could not continue on as a professor at Drexel, practically speaking, unless he cut out or severely censored his social media, public engagement and activism, at least not without subjecting himself, his loved ones, students and colleagues to unending scrutiny, harassment and intimidation from right-affiliated groups.

(Non) Crime and (Non) Punishment

Some facets of this case are gray. For instance, there is room for discussion about whether Ciccariello-Maher did all he could have, shy of violating his conscience, to protect his colleagues and students at Drexel from the negative externalities of his engagement. One could question the merits of some of Ciccariello-Maher’s positions and the methods he used to convey them. However, we should all be able to agree that happened to him was wrong. Indeed, even conservatives at the National Review found themselves disturbed by the precedent set here. 

An angry mob, egged on by political special interest groups, pressured university administrators into removing a tenure-track professor who, by Drexel’s own repeated admissions, had committed no obvious breach of the intellectual and ethical codes governing the institution. There was no due process, just an indefinite expulsion from Drexel’s intellectual community; an action the administration insisted was not a punishment, but allegedly with Ciccariello-Maher’s best interests in mind.

More troubling: the sentiments Ciccariello-Maher expressed disparaging nationalism and Trump, on dismantling systems of oppression including white supremacy and patriarchy, on the relationships between these systems of oppression and political violence, are widely held and commonly expressed among progressive scholars (albeit often couched in more careful language). That is, what happened to George Ciccariello-Maher could happen to anyone who conducts social research, comments on social issues, or aspires to social activism.

A House Divided Against Itself

In a Facebook post following his resignation, Ciccariello-Maher urged professors to rally together defending freedom of expression and freedom of conscience in the academy, especially for those who are not are not protected by tenure. Although Ciccariello-Maher has himself been an unreliable advocate for these causes in the past, he is absolutely right in underscoring their importance.

As Jonathan Haidt and I pointed out in a recent Atlantic column, while right-aligned trolls like Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich or Milo Yiannapoulos have tried to co-opt the causes of freedom of conscience and free expression, in reality it is progressives, especially those from disadvantaged, marginalized or otherwise vulnerable groups who suffer the most when these freedoms and protections are undermined on campus.

Many of the institutional policies and norms currently under threat were established in the first place following the McCarthy inquisitions and the civil rights movement, explicitly to protect minorities and those on the left from persecution, to allow them to challenge what they understood to be incorrect or unjust, to empower them to develop new modalities of thought and expression, and to ensure they were supported in these endeavors by their universities. It is of paramount importance that freedom of speech and conscience protections be preserved against the illiberal forces that threaten them today.  

Unfortunately, rather than rallying together against the renewed menace from right-aligned media, politicians and special interests and even hate groups on campus, a misguided contingent of the left has increasingly sought to dismantle protections of conscience and expression designed to protect progressives from the right, in the name of vulnerable populations no less. In a pyrrhic bid to cleanse universities of insufficiently progressive thought, they are doing the handiwork of their professed rivals: undermining their own institutions and research, inculcating a culture of fear, conformity and suppression on campus (even targeting fellow progressives), and empowering university administrators to remove professors without due process in order to placate mobs. In the resultant environment, any social researcher could end up sharing George Ciccariello-Maher’s fate. 

Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University and a research associate at Heterodox Academy. Visit his website to learn more about his research.

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