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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