Drexel University Bans Professor From Campus, Gives Alt-Right An Early Christmas Gift

I’ve signed and shared a statement of solidarity supporting George Cicciariello-Maher of Drexel University who has been placed on administrative leave by his employer, Drexel University. That statement begins as follows:

On October 9, 2017, Drexel University administrators sent a letter to Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher informing him that he was being placed on paid administrative leave, effective immediately. The reason, they stated, was based on considering professor Ciccariello-Maher’s presence on campus a significant public safety risk to the Drexel University community and to himself, after he received a number of death threats against him and his family. The threats followed Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s postings on Twitter about the shooting in Las Vegas. Prof. Ciccariello-Maher sought to answer the question: Why are these crimes almost always carried out by white men? by tweeting “It’s the white supremacist patriarchy, stupid.” The tweets unleashed the series of threats against him and his family, to which Drexel University answered by placing Professor Ciccariello-Maher on leave.

Drexel University has, by this spineless display of capitulation, sent an early Christmas gift to white supremacists and others of their ilk by providing them a blueprint for how they can silence those who might speak up against them: all you need to do is make a few death threats and the university will obligingly prevent the professor from teaching or even being present on campus. Ciccariello-Maher’s students have been denied their time in their classroom with their professor; and the alt-right can now turn its eyes elsewhere, looking for the next ‘loudmouth’ to silence. The tactical and strategic stupidity of their actions does not seem to bear too heavily on Drexel University; for now, they can hide behind the screen of ‘public safety.’ But such excuses will not wash, of course; Drexel has sought to silence Ciccariello-Maher previously as well.

A couple of weeks ago, I made notice here of a libelous postering campaign directed at Brooklyn College’s student and faculty, which accused me of being a ‘terrorist supporter.’ The college and university administration’s response has been tepid at best. (Our chancellor’s response descended into utter banality as he merely took note of some ‘troubling posters.’) These responses seem to be driven by the worry that responding in stronger terms will stir up a hornet’s nest, provoking more unwelcome attention. What they fail to realize is that the hornets are astir already, and will not be deterred by such pablum. They will especially not be deterred if universities cower and do their dirty work for them by banning and silencing those who have provoked this attention from the right.

It should be noted that Ciccariello-Maher does not have a First Amendment defense against his private employer; he is more vulnerable than those employed by public institutions (like me.) No matter how much you might disagree with his chosen rhetorical style or content, the fact remains that a dangerous precedent has been set, thanks to an astonishing capitulation in a political atmosphere that demands the very opposite of the actions chosen by Drexel University. Drexel should immediately reconsider and reinstate Ciccariello-Maher. (If you are an academic, please sign and share the statement of solidarity linked to above.)

The Tethered Eagle And The Refugee Refused Entry

A little over fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2002, shortly after I returned to the US after finishing my post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, I went to see the Yankees play at the old Yankees Stadium. I had arrived in New York City just a couple of weeks earlier; the Yankees were in contention for the post-season; a date had suggested a baseball game might be a good way to get back to city life; I agreed. I paid no attention to the date of the game she chose to buy tickets for: September 11th.

That evening, I showed up in time for the first pitch. Or so I thought. Once seated, I realized the significance of the date; a memorial ceremony was planned. It included all you might expect: flags, salutes to the military, anthems and paeans to the nation, all backed up by fierce chants of ‘USA, USA, USA!’ The grand finale of the show–one I predicted to my date–was a flyover by a F-15 Eagle fighter jet, which lit its afterburners with a crowd-pleasing ‘whump’ right over the stadium. The cheers grew louder.

That military jet was not the only Eagle on display that night. A little earlier, an American bald eagle had been brought out to the middle of the stadium–an American icon, a national symbol, a beautiful, powerful, bird of prey, used to soaring and pouncing and floating. It came out tethered with a chain to its handler’s wrist, unable to fly, confined to being a prop, and a confined and restricted one at that.

Irony hung heavy in the air.

I’ve never forgotten that sight. 9/11 didn’t just bring down three buildings and kill thousands of people, it also dealt a crippling blow to American liberty. Since that benighted day, the assaults on American civil liberties have grown. Along the way, the US committed war crimes in Iraq (among other countries), tortured prisoners, suspended habeas corpus for Gitmo detainees; and that was just overseas. At home, electoral disenfranchisement and assaults on reproductive rights were but mere samplers of the wholesale assault that seemed to be directed at any and all disempowered groups. (Along the way, America elected a black man whose middle name was ‘Hussein,’ an electoral result that sent enough in this country into fits of apoplectic fury. That fury has never abated; the backlash still reverberates.)

Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslim refugees entry to the US isn’t surprising in this context–indeed, it’s a logical terminus of sorts. The land of the brave and free was scared enough to shackle its icon of freedom (and preferred to grant wings instead to a military jet named after it)–that seemed to have said all that needed to be said already. Why wouldn’t this land turn its back on its other vital national principles, its supposedly defining moral foundations? This was a country built on the idea that it would offer shelter to the world’s benighted; that idea can’t fly any more either.

Note: The ACLU has obtained a stay order from the Federal Court in the Eastern District of New York against the executive order.  Stay tuned.

Drexel University Should Uphold George Ciccariello-Maher’s Academic Freedom

On Christmas Eve, George Ciccariello-Maher, Associate Professor at Drexel University, sent out a tweet which read as follows:

All I want for Christmas is White Genocide

There were no scare quotes around ‘White Genocide’ but the upper-case spelling was an indication that something less straightforward than calling for the genocide of white people was on the cards. (After all, Ciccariello-Maher could have just tweeted “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.’ Think I’m reading too carefully? What can I do–it’s an old habit of mine.) A little investigation–i.e., googling ‘white genocide’–produces the following link as the first hit:

White genocide is a white nationalist conspiracy theory that mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion are being promoted in predominantly white countries to deliberately turn them minority-white and hence cause white people to become extinct through forced assimilation.The phrase “Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white”, coined by high-profile white nationalist Robert Whitaker, is commonly associated with the topic of white genocide. It has been spotted on billboards near Birmingham, Alabama and in Harrison, Arkansas. [citations removed]

Was Ciccariello-Maher calling for ‘mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion‘ in particular communities as part of a strategy to render ‘white people…extinct’? I doubt it. (Though I don’t suppose he’d be unhappy with rights for immigrants,  the protection of abortion rights for women, etc.) Given the definition provided above, and given Ciccariello-Maher’s previous tweeting record, which includes many online spats with neo-Nazis, anti-semites, and an assorted army of trolls and deplorables, it is fair to surmise–indeed, it is an inference to the best explanation–that Ciccariello-Maher was cocking a snook at this army of trolls, throwing their term mockingly back in their face; he was, how you say, being satirical.

By way of related example, consider a Facebook status that I put up a a week or so ago:

Our campus safety officer sent us some ‘Holiday Safety Tips’ – you know, the usual, watch your purse and package etc. But no warnings about wearing earplugs for Christmas caroling, or avoiding wassailers like the plague. You may, if you like, consider this the opening salvo or broadside of the War on Christmas. By air, by land, by sea, and sometimes, by social network.

On one reading of my Facebook status, I seem to be declaring–by way of my suggestion that Chrismas carolers and wassailers require safety tips to be sent to those in their vicinity–a ‘War on Christmas’. Inquiring into the provenance of that phrase–which I have capitalized above–shows that it is a favorite of FOX News. I appear to be having a little gentle fun at those who would bemoan the secularization of the holiday season.

I provide this bordering-on-pedantic analyses of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, because the investigation I carry out above is in point of fact an elementary one; anyone with a modicum of intelligence would arrive at the same conclusion I did: Ciccariello-Maher was being satirical. But not Ciccariello-Maher’s employers, Drexel University, who in response to a predictable chorus of bleating complaints from a Breitbart-led army of trolls–who also sent many death threats to Ciccariello-Maher–issued a statement of reprimand and concern; disciplinary action might yet be taken against Ciccariello-Maher.

This is a familiar situation: an academic makes an extra-mural political statement; complaints from the butt-hurt issue; university employers, their commitment to academic freedom always shaky, overreact. (The American Association of University Professors operative standards of academic freedom protect precisely the kind of political speech that is at play here.) Moreover, Drexel, by condemning the content of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, seems to be taking on the position that it is ‘against’ ‘white genocide’–that is, it is against ‘mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion…being promoted in predominantly white countries to deliberately turn them minority-white and hence cause white people to become extinct through forced assimilation.’ I doubt Drexel has any such position–so why is it making such a claim?

The larger trend, on display here, is worrying too: as a new administration takes office, and installs Breitbart types in its administration, its faithful crack down on political speech they deem offensive. Drexel University should hold the line and protect the academic freedom of its employees, and not cave in as shamefully as they have here.

Note: The following is Ciccariello-Maher’s statement: Continue reading

How Many Constitutional Amendments Are There?

The short answer: the number of times the Supreme Court has ruled on a constitutional question. Every time the Supreme Court grants certiorari, allows a case to move ‘upwards’ from state and Federal courts to its chambers, and then proceeds to rule–keeping in mind the supposedly relevant precedents, and on the basis of a coherent theory of the interpretation of legal texts–it offers us an amended constitution. Every act of interpretation–sometimes plain literalist, sometimes originalist, sometimes purposive–adds meaning and texture to the text of the articles of the Constitution. Thus the content of the Fourth Amendment is not to be found in the Constitution; it is to be found in the cumulative history of all Supreme Court rulings on cases that have rested on contested interpretations of the Amendment. What does ‘unreasonable’ mean? What does ‘search’ mean? What does ‘seizure’ mean? What does ‘persons’ mean? What does ‘effects’ mean? What does ‘probable cause’ mean? To decipher this meaning, scattered over thousands and thousands of pages of Supreme Court rulings is an almost insuperable and intractable task; it is much easier, therefore, to fall back on the simplest formulation of all: ‘The Fourth Amendment says that…’. But the filling out of that particular that-clause will call for the expenditure of considerable ink, and in the end, it will appear that the protections of the Fourth Amendment are considerably more ambiguous–in several dimensions–than previously imagined, by both its detractors and proponents alike.

These considerations show that talk of ‘constitutional protections’ must always proceed hand in hand with talk of constitutional interpretation, with the history of actual supreme court rulings on the constitutional question under discussion. Such inclusion is especially necessary when giving someone legal advice; as Justice Holmes sagely pointed out many years ago, the law is what the judges say it is: “The prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious.”

Our nation is entering a period of great legal uncertainty; there is much talk of taking cover under constitutional protections, of seeking refuge from an authoritarian government under the covering canopy of the Bill of Rights. But the text of the Bill of Rights is not sufficient to provide such protection; the Supreme Court rulings on Bill of Rights cases are far more germane. To look only to the Constitution is dangerously complacent; talk of legal rights without actual legal protections is hollow.

Many a patriot is disappointed and disillusioned to find out that in point of fact the Fourth Amendment is almost hollow in content; its protections systematically eviscerated over the years by repeated weakenings through selective, ideological, and politically motivated interpretation. Mass surveillance; warrantless searches; stop and frisk; the list goes on. Where is the Fourth Amendment?, the patriot asks. The answer is: not in a small booklet, but in that section of the law school’s library that deals with constitutional law.

Constitutional conventions, two-thirds majorities, ratifications by state legislatures–such is the machinery of the constitutional amendment by legislative fiat. Such convolutions are kludgy compared to the awesomely efficient method of Supreme Court rulings; there, in the foundry of the Supreme Court’s chambers, new meanings are forged every year, every Supreme Court season.

Colin Kaepernick Will Not ‘Behave’ And That’s A Damn Good Thing

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers will not stand during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games. As he put it, after refusing to stand during the 49ers against the Packers this past weekend:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color….To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way….There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

And he is prepared for the consequences, for after all, his employer, NFL fans and sponsors, and the media could, and almost certainly will, turn on him:

I have to stand up for people that are oppressed….If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

There are several interesting aspects to Kaepernick’s stance. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is no ambiguity about his stance. This is not a call to ‘come together,’ to ‘heal,’ to ‘forget and forgive’; this is not a bromide or a platitude to split the difference and maintain a quiescent state of affairs. This is a combative gesture of protest, one designed to be provocative, aimed against a symbol that is all too quickly used as protective cover by insecure patriots. They will soon issue the usual furious canards about how Kaepernick has ‘insulted’ those ‘who have died for the country defending our freedoms.’ Second, in so doing, Kaepernick is not merely taking aim at the police; he is indicting a much larger set of institutions, cultures, and practices. Indeed, by rejecting a classical gesture of respect for a national symbol, Kaepernick is rejecting the claims of the nation upon him, one to whom he feels his allegiance should not be directed as long as it does not fulfill its end of the citizenship bargain.

Athletes taking a political stance are not unknown. Some professional athletes have to be pressured or shamed into doing so; they speak up quickly and retreat, worried that their livelihood as will be jeopardized. The First Amendment will not protect them against their private employers. Others–like Mohammad Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics–made more explicit gestures of protest and paid the price. In the American context, because so many athletes are African-American, they can expect that the responses to their political statements will be infected by a racism and anger and contempt that they know is never too far from the surface of their most dedicated fans. They know they are expected to be ‘good blacks’: do your act, entertain us, and when you are done, leave the stage quietly; do not stick around to torment our conscience or force introspection upon us; we like our athletes compliant and docile; do not remind us of where you came from and what you might identify with; indeed, you have no other identity than that given to you by your contract and your employer.

Colin Kaepernick has just refused compliance with these orders. He deserves our respect and admiration and support.

Self-Policing In Response To Pervasive Surveillance

On Thursday night, in the course of conversation with some of my Brooklyn College colleagues, I confessed to having internalized a peculiar sort of ‘chilling effect’ induced by a heightened sensitivity to our modern surveillance state. To wit, I said something along the lines of “I would love to travel to Iran and Pakistan, but I’m a little apprehensive about the increased scrutiny that would result.” When pressed to clarify by my companions, I made some rambling remarks that roughly amounted to the following. Travel to Iran and Pakistan–Islamic nations highly implicated in various foreign policy imbroglios with the US and often accused of supporting terrorism–is highly monitored by national law enforcement and intelligence agencies (the FBI, CIA, NSA); I expected to encounter some uncomfortable moments on my arrival back in the US thanks to questioning by customs and immigration officers (with a first name like mine–which is not Arabic in origin but is in point of fact, a very common and popular name in the Middle East–I would expect nothing less). Moreover, given the data point that my wife is Muslim, I would expect such attention to be heightened (data mining algorithms would establish a ‘networked’ connection between us and given my wife’s own problems when flying, I would expect such a connection to possibly be more ‘suspicious’) ; thereafter, I could expect increased scrutiny every time I traveled (and perhaps in other walks of life, given the extent of data sharing between various governmental agencies).

It is quite possible that all of the above sounds extremely paranoid and misinformed, and my worries a little silly, but I do not think there are no glimmers of truth in there. The technical details are not too wildly off the mark; the increased scrutiny after travel is a common occurrence for many travelers deemed ‘suspicious’ for unknown reasons; and so on. The net result is a curious sort of self-policing on my part: as I look to make travel plans for the future I will, with varying degrees of self-awareness about my motivations, prefer other destinations and locales. I will have allowed myself to be subject to an invisible set of constraints not actually experienced (except indirectly, in part, as in my wife’s experiences when flying.)

This sort of ‘indirect control’ might be pervasive surveillance’s most pernicious effect.

Note: My desire to travel to Iran and Pakistan is grounded in some fairly straightforward desires: Iran is a fascinating and complex country, host to an age-old civilization, with a rich culture and a thriving intellectual and academic scene; Pakistan is of obvious interest to someone born in India, but even more so to someone whose ethnic background is Punjabi, for part of the partitioned Punjab is now in Pakistan (as I noted in an earlier post about my ‘passing for Pakistani,’ “my father’s side of the family hails from a little village–now a middling town–called Dilawar Cheema, now in Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, Tehsil Wazirabad, in the former West Punjab.”)

Writing Too Strong, Too Talented, To Endure

In Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Vintage International, New York, 2002, pp. 230), Martin Amis writes (on Maxim Gorky‘s relationship with Stalin and his death following his return from exile in Sorrento to a period of ‘recantation’ and self-debasement):

Writers were pushed, sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually, into all kinds of unfamiliar shapes by the Bolsheviks….Some more or less genuine writers tried to work ‘toward’ the Bolsheviks. Their success depended inversely on the size of their talent. Talentless writers could flatter the regime. Talented writers could not flatter the regime, or not for long….In general, writers never find out how strong their talent is: that investigation begins with their obituaries. In the USSR, writers found how good they were when they were still alive. If the talent was strong, only luck or the silence could save them. If the talent was weak, they could compromise and survive. Thus, for the writers, the Bolsheviks wielded promethean power; they summoned posterity and inserted it into the here and now.

 Amis’ description of the writer’s fate is romantic and optimistic in suggesting that a postmortem investigation into their lives and talents-by their erstwhile ‘audience’–is ever undertaken. Au contraire, sadly enough, even death does not rescue the writer from obscurity, it does not find the writer the readers he did not have while living. A great deal changes when a life comes to an end, but a writer’s anonymity endures. The few exceptions to this rule give us no reason to imagine that the stony silence which was the norm in a writer’s life will change to a clamoring reception in the graveyard; they merely highlight the fate of most.

This fact makes the possibility of an environment like the one Amis makes note of even more intriguing. It emits a reception so acute that it provides to the writer the most immediate, powerful feedback of all; it summons up the writer’s ultimate fate and makes it proximal. The proof of the writer’s talent lies in his ability to provoke a response, which such an environment provides: a gratifying confirmation–even if at some cost–that most other writers pine for. In such circumstances anonymity is precious, in ensuring the continuance of one’s life but it is also damning: every second of this stretched out existence is a perpetuation of a tale told by this world about your incompetence, your lack of talent, your inability to provoke a reprisal of any kind. Stick your neck out: this fame is the axe that does not fall. Imprisonment for the writer in such circumstances cannot be ‘enough’; he must be forced to stop writing, by death, or by solitary confinement. The restriction must be total; the freedom to be taken away must be the one that matters, movement of the mind, and not just the body, must come to an utter halt.

Here then, lies the most vivid confirmation of a writer’s greatness in his art: the enforced demand that it cease and desist.