How the Alt-Right Seeks to Sabotage the University

BY WENDY LYNNE LEE

There is a great deal to be said about the rise of the Alt-Right over this past year, and while I understand the argument for identifying its platform with the ascent of white supremacism, I’d argue that “Alt-Right” encompasses something far more ambitious and dangerous, especially with respect to the country’s most vital institutions: free elections, a free press, an open public square, and academic freedom. The Alt-Right endangers all of these in ways both as flagrantly racist and anti-Semitic as “Unite the Right” rallies—and as quietly cancerous as the growth of organizations aimed specifically at recruiting a young cadre of future white nationalists. Despite their misleading “free market,” libertarian-sounding mission statement, Turning Point USA, and its McCarthyesque Professor Watchlist demonstrably belong to the latter. Make no mistake, while the former and its Daily Stormer sycophants offer an ugly spectacle, it’s the latter that’s postioning itself to undermine the critical—existential—value of the university: the freedom to pursue evidence, ideas, arguments, and artistic expression to ends uncensored and unimpeded by ideological or economic constraints.

The very moniker, “Alt-Right,” offers polite cover, however thin, for the bigot who sports a tie (or Steve Bannon’s polo shirts), spouting the populist rhetoric of “law and order,” “economic nationalism,” “deregulation,” “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” and the like. But the necessity for cover hints at the profoundly dark and paranoid worldview that lies beneath, one that quite literally operates according to a dichotomy of white and black—good and evil—to support the kleptocratic authoritarian objectives of its beneficiaries. “Alt-Right” functions as both dog whistle and prophylactic; it’s as cool as an Indy Band or a video game, a crucial ingredient for the young folks Turning Point USA seeks to recruit. Most importantly, however, “Alt-Right” comes with its own built-in mechanism for plausible deniability, and it’s this that’s poised to become a weapon of mass destruction in the academy. Here’s why: what Turning Point’s Charlie Kirk  (and his functional analogues at Project Veritas, Campus Reform, Truth Revolt, FrontPageMag, The Daily Caller, Breitbart, NewsMax, InfoWars, and even the Daily Stormer) has figured out is that the debilitating risk aversion endemic to university administrations virtually guarantees their complicity in the repression of academic freedom. Faced with the prospect of liability on the fictitious grounds that the refusal to offer formal recognition (and university largesse) to an organization somehow amounts to the denial of the free speech rights of its student chapter members, university bureaucracies not only hide behind the misleading mission statements offered by groups like Turning Point USA, in doing so they effectively choose the appearance of respect for free speech over its reality. Indeed, the sad truth at my own institution and many others is that while presenting the appearance of a commitment to diversity, inclusion, free expression, and even safety is crucial to the university’s brand, it turns out to have neither the capacity nor the courage to come to the defense of these values—at least where its faculty are concerned. I don’t doubt there are exceptions, but what’s also true is that within hours after I posted “Letter to my Colleagues” to my Academia.edu page profiling my own experience at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, I began to receive responses detailing the harrowing experiences of my colleagues not only with Professor Watchlist, but with administrations who chose the path of avoiding liability over the protection of academic freedom—indeed, even their faculty’s safety.

The very fact of Professor Watchlist puts the lie to any claim Turning Point can ever make to respect free speech. It exists for the purpose of repressing the speech, pedagogy, and scholarship of precisely that class of persons without which there is no university: professors. Indeed, it doesn’t really matter what my local chapter of Turning Point USA/Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania does; that they’re formally recognized on my campus has already generated a chilling and repressive atmosphere. And there’s irony: the effect that Turning Point/Professor Watchlist will have for my university can only redound to a less daring and worthy education for the university’s students. This certainly serves the authoritarian purposes of the Alt-Right who, under the insipid guise of protecting “conservative” students from predatory “liberal” professors, insures not that students will be spared indoctrination, but that education will be eviscerated of its central value: critical thinking. Fact is, projects like Turning Point USA are profiles in hypocrisy; they promote free market values all the while they seek to undermine the marketplace of ideas; they “defend” conservative students against attacks for which the evidence is scant or non-existent; they pretend to value truth, yet utilize entirely unfounded and bigoted Alt-Right sources in their efforts to castigate, intimidate, and defame professors. They profess respect for evidence yet deny climate change. They profess inclusion yet excoriate professors whose pedagogy and scholarship include feminist, queer, Muslim, Jewish, environmental, and animal rights voices. They’ve no place at all for the criticism of their preferred electeds, and plainly hold that there’s no place in the academy for this critique either.

I began to track Turning Point USA/Professor Watchlist in 2016, and have assembled a bibliography of it and its many layers of association to organizations and persons identified as the Alt-Right. From David Horowitz’s 101 Most Dangerous Professors to Ben Shapiro, from websites like Truth Revolt to characters like Ann Coulter, Steve Bannon, Ivan Throne, James O’Keefe, and Lucian Wintrich, I has come to a pretty good understanding of Turning Point’s objectives. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the unfettered viciousness of its attack on my character and career, and nothing could have prepared me for my administration’s failure to protect me and worse: their knowing concession to everything Professor Watchlist represents for my campus, my colleagues, and my students. As the AAUP’s Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students makes clear, the conditions under which students are afforded the opportunity to learn depend vitally on the protection of the academic freedom of teachers to teach. Like many others, my own account begins with the effort to alert my university administration of the real motives of Turning Point USA/Professor Watchlist (see the full account and a bibliography here), but the upshot is this: Bloomsburg University administration refuses to rescind the formal recognition of the BU chapter of Turning Point USA/Professor Watchlist despite the fact that:

  • It is fully apprized of Turning Point USA’s demonstrable connections to the Alt-Right.
  • It acknowledges that the university’s vetting criteria for the admission of new student groups would have permitted the Ku Klux Klan on the assumption that the KKK had offered a similarly misleading mission statement, and that requests made to rescind that recognition would have been refused to avoid liability.
  • It has been presented clear evidence of Turning Point’s assault on BU’s own faculty members.
  • No student’s free speech rights have been or are likely in the future to be impeded via their association with Turning Point regardless the latter’s formal recognition (or lack thereof).
  • No student in the university’s history has ever filed a complaint against a professor for intimidation or indoctrination on the grounds of the student’s conservative views (or any other view).

If university administrations are unwilling to take a stand against this kind of assault on academic freedom, even the protections of tenure will soon ring hollow since, while targeted professors may or may not be fired by their institutions, repression comes in many ways to the same ends, as is clearly demonstrated by the evidence:

  • Driving good professors out of the academy.
  • Creating the potential for negative evaluations of professors seeking tenure and promotion premised on false accusation, unjustly negative anonymous class reviews, public shaming, etc.
  • Encouraging professors to alter their syllabi such that content which challenges students to think critically about their society, its institutions, it geopolitics, etc., are less likely to be included.
  • Discouraging professor from developing course materials (or entire courses) that deal with controversial subject matter.
  • Discouraging graduate students considering entering the professoriate for fear of abuse by organization like Turning Point/Professor Watchlist, especially where no administrative protections are likely.

For all of these reasons the reference to organizations like Turning Point USA/Professor Watchlist as a potential weapon of mass destruction is neither hyperbole nor merely metaphor. We in the professoriate must, in fact, now become more than vigilant. We must become an organized insurgency. This is not about turf. It’s about the future of one thing no aspiring democracy can survive without—an educated citizenry capable of realizing its commitment to inclusion, diversity, and free speech as a matter of justice.

Wendy Lynne Lee is a professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

 


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22 thoughts on “How the Alt-Right Seeks to Sabotage the University

  1. My early life was determined by the anti-university sentiments of the early 1950s that forced my father into the life of an academic gypsy up to the time I entered college in 1969. The Professor Watchlist is, at best, an attempt to take us back to that time. At worst, it is part of a new American movement toward totalitarianism. Thanks, Professor Lee! We need to be watching, ourselves.

    • Jeez, in our days on campus, Aaron, students would not have tolerated this kind of academic repression/oppression coming from the mouths of confessed bigots and facists. We, as students, would have shunned and shamed these people–the right thing to do under these dire circumstances–until they gave up and left school.

    • Thanks very much, Professor Barlow. I fear that you’re right on both scores, but I am also determined to begin organizing a more concerted resistance to Professor Watchlist. I have attempted to contact (via the “Letter to My Colleagues” posted at my Academia.edu page) every professor on the list–and I have received some very positive feedback. I’m not certain yet what the next move is–perhaps a Google Group to use as an organizing platform–but if you’d like to be included in that discussion, please let me know at wlee@bloomu.edu

  2. Although Professor Watchlist is morally wrong and a threat to academic freedom, that is not a good reason for a university to de-recognize a student group associated with it. Free speech applies even to those who oppose free speech. And the right of students to form organizations is an essential part of student liberty, even if that means criticizing faculty.

    • Hello Mr. Wilson,

      With respect, you’re committing a fundamental mistake here. There was absolutely no threat posed at all to these students free speech rights. There is a world of difference between the exercise of first amendment rights and formal recognition of a student group. I argued that the later should be rescinded–not that the former should be restricted or censored. Indeed, TP/PWL exists to realize the repression of faculty free speech rights. For a fuller account of how and why I argue this case at my own institution, please see: https://www.academia.edu/35322691/Letter_to_My_Colleagues_Concerning_Turning_Point_USA_and_Professor_Watchlist_Its_Time_for_Courage_and_Conviction.

      • Both the Supreme Court and the AAUP (https://www.aaup.org/report/joint-statement-rights-and-freedoms-students) recognize that students have First Amendment rights to freedom of association and students “should be free to organize and join associations to promote their common interests.” It is suppression of free speech to ban organizations based on their opinions, and it’s a dangerous power to give to the administration. Should a feminist student group be banned for trying to repress the free speech rights of faculty to sexually harass students? Student groups have access to all kinds of things — funding, room reservations, table reservations — that individual students don’t have, and these are important for free speech on campus.

        • Again, with respect, Mr. Wilson,

          No one has denied any of these students freedom of speech or association in any fashion whatever. They can apply–just like any other group–for permission to have a table, sponsor events, etc on the BU campus. AND they should receive that permission. THAT is a VERY different thing than affording them permanent recognition and the use of the university LOGO. I recognize the AAUP’s official position here is that recognition is not endorsement. But it IS endorsement. In fact TP/PWL’s presence of my campus has already had a chilling effect on my colleagues–especially my un-tenured colleagues. Why? Because the BU administration has given the stamp of approval not just to an organization–but to one whose reason for being IS academic repression. We MUST come to see that this is different. Indeed, in one sense it would be better to just go ahead and recognize the KKK. At least that organization doesn’t run a witch hunt for professors. Moreover, none asked any administration to ban anything. “NOT recognizing” does not mean “banning.” These are two very different things.

          The comparison with a feminist group is specious. No feminist group I know of would take this route; we’d head right for education. Moreover, every campus I know of does have anti-harassment policies. Can this fictional feminist group protest a faculty member? SURE! But they don’t need official recognition for that.

          Question: my administration’s current vetting processes would have let in–by their own admission–the KKK. AND would have preserved that recognition even if it had been challenged. Should universities officially recognize the Ku Klux Klan? Should universities recognize ANY group? If not, what ARE the criteria?

          Wendy

          • I very much doubt that student organization status provides no benefits. Even if you’re right, it’s still wrong to ban student groups (and you even seem to suggest that if a feminist group did protest a professor, they should be denied official recognition, which is banning their existence as a recognized student group). I also doubt that Turning Point would agree that their goal is academic repression, and the notion of putting student groups on trial to determine their “real” beliefs is alarming. So what are the criteria for student groups? In general, any student group willing to follow the neutral rules for student groups should be approved. A KKK group might fail the requirements for non-discriminatory membership, but if a KKK group (or other white supremacists, perhaps naming themselves “Students for Trump”) follows the rules, then they should be approved. What stops KKK student groups should be the outrage from the community, not bans by the administration. If you think only your political enemies will be subject to censorship by administrators, I think you are very mistaken.

          • Wilson’s reasoning confuses licensing with censorship. Universities license certain student groups and not others just as states license drivers, hairdressers, and so on. Censorship, on the other hand, bans expression. Universities engage in many different kinds of licensing, in fact licensing is central to academe.

  3. The alt-right, in whatever organizational form it takes, is merely the appearance of the end game for a fascist, revanchist revenge on any venues that might occasionally harbor independent, critical thinkers. The plan was put forth in the 1971 Powell memo. Now, their total victory is in sight. There are a few good historical studies of the demise of Weimar academe under the Nazi onslaught. Their lessons are 1. Don’t expect protection from administrators and 2. Faculty will capitulate and sell out their colleagues at the first oppotunity. The sell-outs are always accompanied by the typical rationalizations we have all come to know so well.

    • Hi Geoffrey,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. You certainly make a valuable point–and offer a cautionary that I’ll certainly heed. I am happy to report, however, that the response to my original “Letter to My Colleagues” has actually received modest–but very positive response, and even some offers of help to organize a more deliberate and collective resistance from among the 412 “hits’ the piece has seen so far. I am deeply gratified by this, and hopeful that I (with others) can build upon this momentum. I’s be delighted to hear any ideas you might have: wlee@bloomu.edu.

      Wendy

    • It’s important to point out three things about Ivan Throne’s visit here:

      First, am more than happy to allow Mr. Throne–Dark Triad Man–to speak for himself and let readers draw their own conclusions:

      “The principle of hypergamy often drives, to the dissolution of the female, an unattractive carousel process of bedding male after male while in her attractive young adulthood and her sexual glow is at its prime. This does wonders for her self-esteem and sexual experience but detracts from her market worth and severely degrades the calculation of her wife value.” ~ 10 Ways to Calculate Her Wife Value

      And:

      “Committed feminists are nearly universally unhappy, bitter and complaining whiners who refuse to accept the reality of the dark world and insist on subservient behavioral and intellectual conformity with their silly and obnoxious ideology.” ~ 10 Ways to Calculate Her Wife Value
      “Bit by bit, the damaged and deranged woman will assuage her abandonment fears by insidiously infecting your life and your time with her control.” ~ 3 Red Flags of the Damaged Woman

      And:
      “Everyone knows that becoming a feminist makes a woman less marriageable, more crass and generally just unpleasant to be around. But does it also make them uglier?… This may explain why so many angry, lesbianic placard-wavers look like they’ve been hit by a bus.”

      “Men on the other hand dominate high paying STEM majors like Electrical Engineering. Women are free to study engineering, and often make fine engineers. But why on earth would feminism feel the need to shoehorn women into studying a subject they don’t want to?”
      “Feminism is like the Netherlands: it owes its existence to a network of dykes fighting the forces of nature.”

      Second, readers might also find this of value: https://itsgoingdown.org/turning-point-usa-enlists-milos-alt-right-understudy/

      Third, Mr. Throne has utilized not only this venue to try to make sure I know he’s stalking me, but my university email as well. For that please see: https://www.academia.edu/35495303/Letter_from_Turning_Point_USA_on_Bloomsburg_Campus.

      It is ironic indeed that Mr. Throne advocates for the absurdly misnamed “safestreets” project, for whatever one’s view of Antifa, what Mr. Throne personifies–particularly in his use of intimate terms like the “Much Love” of his unsolicited email missive to me–nothing less than the extremely creepy and uninvited. What Mr. Throne does not apparently comprehend is that I’m just not that easily intimidated, especially by what seems to me little more than a caricature of manliness–like Throne’s Dark Triad Man.

      So, nice try, Mr. Throne, but once again–misogyny isn’t sexy.

      Professor Lee

      • “Third, Mr. Throne has utilized not only this venue to try to make sure I know he’s stalking me, but my university email as well.” Posting on your academia blog is stalking you ? Is everyone that posts on here stalking you ?

        • No, Mr. Hardacre, posting me here is not stalking. But, as I’m sure you’d agree, posting unsolicited to my university email and using the words “much love” as he did there clearly IS.

          Thanks for writing.

  4. The academy is sabotaging itself with its own behavior, it needs no assistance from the nebulous “alt-right.”

    Also, sites like Safestreets and Profwatch would not exist in the first place if it were not for the behavior of some in academic circles.

    If the extremists in the academic ranks (and there *are* extremists in academia) were kept in check by their peers, those sites would not be necessary.

    • Dear Mr. Dietzler,

      Thank you for your comments. Unfortunately, they commit the fallacy of begging the question in that they presuppose without any provision of evidence that there are “extremists” among the ranks of academia, AND that these “extremists” are on the Left–again, without evidence. You then use these unproven assumptions as evidence for the claim that “Safestreets and Profwatch would not exist in the first place if it were not for the behavior of some in academic circles.” In essence, you’ve just repeated the claim that Safestreets and Profwatch are needed because they’re needed. That, of course, is no argument at all.

  5. The current US academic system is doomed to fail. It does not allow freedom of enquiry: try a textual analysis of the Koran, or deconstructing the work of the second wave feminists and then get it published.

    A fair amount of good research is sitting in bottom drawers., particularly in the Arts facult.

    It costs too much.

    And the environment on campus is toxic. Most faculty (me included) avoid the main campus and stay in our professional schools.

    But I work in a more sane system, that shuns prequisites, and keeps the Marxists nicely caged up in socioligy,which we are slowly defunding…. but then, I;m not american.

    There are other models, and they will take over.

  6. Pingback: Do not be them. Laugh instead. | Dark Brightness

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