BY RUSSELL RICKFORD
This article was originally published by Black Perspectives, and is reposted here with permission. Black Perspectives is a project of the African-American Intellectual History Society. Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination.
It is never easy to be a critical intellectual in a bourgeois democracy—a society that professes egalitarian values while aggressively defending the interests of the ruling class. Recently, however, the cost of dissent seems to have increased.
A host of progressive and leftist thinkers have been engulfed by controversy after doing precisely what they believe they have been called to do: exposing unjust power. George Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel University ignited a firestorm with a tweet mocking the self-delusions of white nationalism. Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor was targeted for lambasting Trumpism in a graduation address. Johnny Eric Williams at Trinity College was vilified after retweeting (with his own trenchant commentary) a statement by blogger Son of Baldwin that suggested bigots should be left to “f****** die.”
In each of these instances, the pronouncements of an outspoken academic prompted death threats, intimidation, and other forms of reprisal. Other cases of anti-imperialist and anti-racist expression (the Steven Salaita imbroglio comes to mind) have also led to dismissals and acts of discipline by campus employers.
Such scenarios often appear to involve genuine, widespread outrage against inflammatory speech. In reality, the hullabaloo is often generated by a collection of right-wing sites and organizations that have mastered a cynical style of attack journalism well suited for the mob mentality of the social media age.
The technology is new but the agenda is not. Recall that in the wake of the social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives and business interests launched a protracted campaign to neutralize colleges and universities as centers of radical influence. They sought to subvert ideological adversaries while nurturing an extreme market philosophy able to ease the transition to the relatively unregulated capitalism of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Decades later, the counterrevolution has largely triumphed. Today’s institutions of higher learning promote the virtues of global capitalism so assiduously that most college graduates can scarcely imagine an alternative. Universities increasingly mirror the logic and structures of the multinational corporations with which they are entangled. Among instructors, students, and staff, avowed anti-capitalists comprise a rather marginal minority.
Meanwhile, the myth of college campuses as sites of left-wing indoctrination—once the obsession of the rich and powerful—has been revived as populist doctrine. Tales of degreed provocateurs using tax-subsidized institutions to foment revolution and upend the moral order are guaranteed to inflame a segment of America’s aggrieved working- and middle class.
Yet any academic worth her salt recognizes that universities (especially elite schools like the one at which I teach) essentially reproduce existing social hierarchies and class arrangements. They are tools of the status quo far more than they are bastions of dissent—which is why bold social engagement by leftist faculty is both crucial and costly.
The truth is that most academics—even those who regularly address questions of social justice in the classroom—lead politically quiescent lives. Professors who actively support social justice struggles risk being isolated or chided by colleagues who lament inequality yet remain comfortably distant from the realities of oppression. The dangers of activism have only expanded in the age of contingent and disposable faculty, when protections of academic freedom, not to mention the relative security of tenure status, are fragile and imperiled.
When radical professors are attacked by the right, usually for making provocative statements that have been distorted or taken out of context, they often face recrimination not just from the public but from their own institutions as well.
College administrators generally accept the premise that it is the outspoken scholar—not the forces of reaction and systemic violence—that has ruptured the social equilibrium. Though such officials use the language of fairness and equity, pragmatism compels them to reinforce prevailing power relations even as they disavow all forms of bigotry. Inevitably they concede that the instructor in question has violated some high-minded principle of discourse. In so doing, they serve the larger goal of discrediting radical opposition.
Progressives must recognize in this sequence of events a technique of repression in which both conservatives and liberals play a part.
The recent escalation of neo-McCarthyism, however, may prove useful. Now is the time for the academic left to recommit to the practical tasks of organizing. As we do so, we must, as poet Margaret Walker once insisted, “speak the truth to the people,” fearing only irrelevance and detachment.
Elites and their proxies will always try to suppress radical expression. They understand that even within corporatized, neoliberal universities, the potential for democratic resistance remains.
No doubt a small cadre of insurgent professors will continue striving to transcend the ivory tower, using their expertise and energy to bolster the self-activity of the exploited. These scholars need and deserve the solidarity of those who value anti-racist and anti-capitalist pedagogy. We who see knowledge as more than bourgeois property must always defend our comrades against the hypocrisies of liberalism and the mechanisms of conservative attack.
Black Perspectives is a lively center for discussions of global black thought, history and culture. It brings together engaged scholars “deeply committed to producing and disseminating cutting-edge research that is accessible to the public and is oriented towards advancing the lives of people of African descent and humanity.”