By Jo March
On January 20, the Trump Administration moved like lightning to capitalize on their unprecedented opportunity to undermine competing sources of political, economic and cultural power. It’s as if they took a page out of Richard Nixon’s original playbook, as Jonathan Schell wrote about it in his 1976 classic, The Time of Illusion. Nixon and his henchmen drafted the master plan. Trump Enterprises is now building the poison death’s head luxury resort.
Not surprisingly, universities are among the targets of this plan, public universities in particular. These days, we are to understand, campuses are full of over-privileged student “crybullies” who hate free speech, pampered faculty who teach only boutique courses, and overpaid bosses who flit from campus to campus, cashing their padded paychecks and taking tropical vacations.
Bannon and company have shrewdly exploited popular alarm at the rising cost of education, drawing on a deep well of populist anti-intellectualism, to poke hard at political and social tensions already brewing on our campuses.
As a university administrator myself, I can attest to the fact that those tensions are rooted in real problems. Bigotry is as American as apple pie. It did not begin with the election of Obama in 2008, but since that time, university presidents, provosts, and deans throughout the nation have labored—often awkwardly and unsuccessfully—to cope with jitteriness and rage over the rising tide of racism, sexism, xenophobia and all-purpose hatefulness.
Students, faculty and staff raise concerns and make demands. We try to do what we can to create a welcoming, equitable and inclusive academic community, to embrace racial and ethnic and gender and religious diversity, to combat sexual harassment and assault. But there isn’t much money, and there isn’t much trust. Sometimes the anger morphs into the belief that well-meaning university administrators are the enemy.
And now I hear the fire bell, ringing in the night. Now the far right is coming for us, throwing the bomb of outright hate speech into an already volatile mix: Milo Yiannopolis, pricking his way across the plain (to borrow a phrase from Edmund Spenser’s Faery Queen).
Milo is a guided missile from Breitbart/Trump, launched into academia’s heartland to destabilize, de-legitimate and bankrupt universities. As one campus after another explodes in protest and some see outbursts of real violence, universities are being held hostage by the far right and, to a lesser but no less dangerous extent, the anarchist left.
Milo has appeared on a number of campuses courtesy of chartered student groups like College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty who claim to be upholders of free speech. Some members are libertarians and some do find our campus culture stifling, for a variety of reasons. But collectively, they seem to relish a moment of notoriety and the chance to bring to campus someone who failed college and despises universities. The student sponsors do not appear to give a damn about the damage they do to our campus community, the credibility of the institution, or the value of civil society in general.
Some who protest the Milo hatefests do so in the name of upholding the values of the university: pursuit of knowledge, reasoned debate, equity, inclusion. They insist on making their voices heard. But in my view, they are too willing to concede the right to free speech, in their quest to defeat prejudice.
Then there are the anarchists, who, like the most fervent Milobites, sneer at knowledge, substitute rage for reason, and would subject you and me and all our lily-livered backsliding ilk to political purity tests we can only hope we would fail. They come to rumble, hidden behind masks, hammers and chains and smoke bombs at the ready. They may not be alone in using the cloak of anonymity to do harm; nobody can know who lurks behind a mask. For his part, Milo would love nothing more than a big fight between protesters and supporters, trashing the campus. Short of that, he is satisfied with having his events shut down as he drapes the mantle of free speech around his shoulders and struts off the stage, slithering on to the next campus confrontation.
Milo has arrived in the midst of something new. In the wake of the election, our campuses, like other places in the nation, have been deluged with reports of hate incidents. Jewish and black students have been targeted. Hijab-wearing Muslim students have been abused and assaulted, DACA students and visa-holding international students fear for their future.
University leaders find themselves in the position of either cancelling Milo’s appearances out of public safety concerns (thus imperiling freedom of speech), or hiring hordes of police, at enormous expense, to uphold the First Amendment and prevent violence.
Every Milo moment costs universities a fortune, in money and good will. Try accounting for police protection, for countless hours of high-priced time, setting protocols and planning logistics, meeting with (justifiably) angry students and defending their actions to furious faculty, who (rightly) object that the spectacle looks a lot like giving the university’s platform to a provocateur, and policing (and sometimes shutting down) other people and events. We plan endless counter programs that attract big local audiences and almost no media attention. All of this is keeping all of us from doing our day jobs. And that’s what the bad guys want.
University administrators maybe be defensive, over-privileged and sometimes clueless, but we are not the enemy. We support knowledge, the free exchange of ideas and access to education for all who seek to learn. So do you. Let’s use our right to speak freely, to resist those who would tear down public higher education, from Milo to the maskers to your and my newest favorite cabinet member, Mrs. DeVos. We are going to have to make strategic alliances, putting aside some of our most cherished goals in the service of a broader common struggle.
Consider your power to act, on campus, in your town, in the nation, in the world. Consider the urgency of our common crisis. And then act in your own ways, however and wherever you can.
Jo March is a professor and writer and a fierce advocate of public education and public humanities. In recent years, she’s joined the Dark Side as a university administrator. She lives and works somewhere in the Great American Flyover.
Featured image credit: Noah Berger (European Pressphoto Agency).