The Tragedy of the Political

I’m writing this the day after two men had their throats slit for refusing to watch a white supremacist berate two women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. These men – we now know them as Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, and Ricky John Best, 53 – intervened. The man who killed them, identified as Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, was yelling slurs at the women. Details are scant, but we know that Christian slit the throats of Namkai-Meche and Best, killing them and stabbing a third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, who is being treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

It feels insensitive to write about this the day after their deaths. All across this country, people are grieving. Tens of thousands of people are telling Namkai-Meche’s mother that her son was a hero, that she is a hero for raising a man who intervened on behalf of strangers. I don’t mean to claim I have a clever take that you must listen to; I’m grieving too.

To quote an essay written after the 2015 attacks that left over 100 dead in Paris, “If it’s barbarism to write poetry after Auschwitz, then it’s also barbarism to write think pieces after Paris.” Surely the same can be said after Portland. But if so many acts of violence these days are political, Namkai-Meche and Best’s deaths feel over-determined, inflection points in a time of upheaval where our days are over-saturated, each news cycle overflowing, delivered breathlessly, as if we now exist in a present that is somehow both too fast, impossible to keep up with, even as each day stretches onward like a horizon, full of too many hours, as if time itself is at fault, offering up irresistible opportunities for horror to the world, whose villains can’t help but drop tragedies into our day.

Donald Trump is the president. His election has intensified a lot of problems but after Portland, none feels more suffocating than the recognition of how much Trump’s administration empowers the far right, vigilantes like Christian, a denizen of those idiotic free-speech rallies who would of course never murder someone, until he did.

And he’s not alone. One week ago, on May 20, Sean Urbanski, a white man, murdered Richard Collins III, a black man who would have graduated from Bowie State University this week, was murdered by Sean Urbanski. He stabbed Collins in the chest and fled the scene. We later found out Urbanski, like Christian, followed the far right.

Then there’s Adam Puriton, 51, a white man accused of killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, and wounding Alok Madasani, also 32, in a bar in Olathe, Kansas on February 24 of this year. At least one bystander claims Puriton shouted “get out of my country” before shooting the victims, who were Indian. Puriton is also accused of wounding Ian Grillot, 24, who was shot while trying to intervene.

These are all racist attacks. Dave Zirin was right to call Collins’s death a lynching. These are all hate crimes. The men who are killing our friends and neighbors are empowered by the election of someone who imbibes fringe far-right beliefs about people of color, then spits them out as policy.

These policies are being challenged in the courts and on the streets across this country, but they’re having an effect. Despite courts overturning Trump’s “Muslim ban,” visas issued to the six countries targeted by his March 6 travel ban – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen – declined by 55 percent compared with a year prior.

As was widely reported yesterday, airstrikes from the US-led coalition killed at least 106 civilians, including 42 children, in Al Mayadeen, a city in eastern Syria. This news broke the same day Christian murdered the two men who dared stop him from shouting anti-immigrant slurs on a Portland train. When Islamophobia is state policy and racism is preached from the Oval Office, it’s no surprise the far-right’s shock troops kill people in cold blood. When the leader of the United States has your back, what is there to lose?

Which is not to let the administrations before Trump off the hook: George W. Bush instituted the PATRIOT Act, putting massive resources into the surveillance and harassment of Muslim communities, not to mention the atrocities perpetrated abroad. Obama perfected drone warfare, normalizing the practice of killing civilians without it tarring his “progressive” or “anti-racist” legacy. But Trump crystallizes these precedents, taking them to their logical conclusion and refusing to couch them in the denialism and technocratic language preferred by our political elites. He admits to what he’s doing and doesn’t apologize for it, emboldening his grassroots following to act on the ideas driving his administration.

For those of us who oppose racism whether it’s coming from the state or vigilantes, the question arises: what can we do? The answer seems more straightforward, if also more challenging, when it comes to the racism of the state: we oppose Trump’s policies, push for reforms that protect our communities, and challenge the American war machine no matter how it tries to explain away its actions.

But at the grassroots? After all, the two heroes in Portland were killed while intervening to prevent racist harassment. And Grillot, the young man Puriton shot in Kansas – he was intervening. Are we to put our lives at risk to stand up to bigotry?

I wish I had an answer to that. At one level, the mode of action remains the same: you have to intervene if it feels like the right thing to do, even knowing that this could cause violence to escalate back onto you. I did this just two days ago: a woman was preaching Islamophobia at a diner, and I weighed the costs and benefits to inserting myself into a situation from which I could easily walk away. I intervened. The goal wasn’t to convince a bigot to give up her bigotry, but to make her think twice about spouting it publicly, and to show bystanders that they have comrades who won’t abide by racism. And I’d done it the night before, at a bar in Brooklyn, when a man brought up the Manchester bombing and insisted it was reason to tighten our immigration policies. Fortunately, the bartender was on my side, and told the man he could either shut up or leave, and the man choosing to leave. If this happens that often in New York, bastion of liberalism that it is, I can only imagine those in the country’s heartland are now forced to make these calculations on an increasingly frequent basis.

These recent murders may change that calculus for many of us. That’s natural. The more pressing consideration then moves to the collective level: how do we challenge the far-right as a movement, without restricting our challenges to the occasional rally or march?

That’s a question being discussed now in organizations across the country. How do we prevent racist violence without asking people to risk their safety? How do we broaden the consensus that declares the far right unacceptable, that prevents them from berating our friends and families in a way that isn’t voluntaristic or premised on a willingness to confront the right individually?

It’s a more pressing question than ever, and far be it for me to answer it on behalf of organizations or social movements. But ours is undeniably a present soaked in blood, steeped in intimidation, heavy and deluged, screaming with urgency.

A Spectre is Haunting College Campuses

A recent piece about trigger warnings is making the rounds online.

The article, written by Rani Neutill, details the escalating requests for trigger warnings she faced while teaching a college course on sex and film. She starts the semester providing trigger warnings before each film she shows in the classroom, but it isn’t long before two students leave in tears after a screening. They hadn’t done the readings for that day, leaving them unaware of the film’s content. After class, Neutill has a particularly odious encounter with one of the teary-eyed students, a white female African American studies minor. This student is a Good White Ally,™ scolding our author, a woman of color, about the importance of showing diverse representations of African Americans. It’s indisputable: this student is the worst.

At this point, we can see where the story is going: Neutill’s students request ever more contrived warnings about the course content, and she complies with their requests. This dynamic stifles the course, with Neutill eventually sending “a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included” each night before class. While she began the semester a proponent of trigger warnings, by the end, she’s had enough: these students refuse to engage positions they disagree with, using trigger warnings to foreclose any chance of their grappling with difficult ideas. Instead of developing analytical skills, Neutill’s students opt for coddling. The state of campus political culture continues to spiral downward and the front of the classroom is further lined with eggshells.

Now, the most important kernel in the article can go almost unnoticed – Neutill’s job security, or lack thereof. A “wandering postdoc” and “not so young woman of color,” Neutill is presumably under close scrutiny from her department. In her account, she’s challenged more often in the classroom and given more critical teaching evaluations from her students than her white male colleagues. These higher standards matter for her job prospects. While I won’t speculate on Neutill’s reasons for accommodating her students’ increasingly ludicrous requests, I can imagine myself swallowing the urge to abandon trigger warnings if it meant keeping my job. If I wasn’t confident that the university would back me up should these coddled activists file complaints against me, I might cede the ground to them, choosing the course of action that helps me keep food on the table.

And that’s the issue: I wouldn’t bet my paycheck on the university’s support. Workplace insecurity makes it hard for non-tenured professors, adjuncts, and graduate students to set boundaries in the classroom or challenge students on contentious subjects. The backdrop of eroding work conditions that disproportionately impact workers of color, women, and queer employees is central to Neutill’s story.

Articles like Neutill’s get a lot of play these days, not only from conservatives, but on the left as well. The question of whether there’s an instinct toward censorship among left-leaning campus activists has come up in conversations I’ve had with left-wing political organizers, journalists, progressive faculty, and campus activists themselves — and invariably, these discussions turn upon the spectre of an elite (nearly always female) social justice activist threatening our intellectual and political freedoms.

Now look, I’m a twenty-something who’s got a B.A. from one liberal private university and now works and studies at another — I’ve met this figure, she exists, and she does seem to be rolling increasingly deep on campuses. And by god, she’s easy to make fun of – after all, we’ve established that she’s the worst – privileged, too sensitive, always trying to prove herself the Best White Person in the room, even if that means potentially throwing actual people of color under the bus, or in Neutill’s case, out of a job.

That being said, she’s only one minor figure on campus. If we’re concerned about the stifling of campus intellectual culture, why leave out the other censorship-happy campus activists? Organized Zionists have been more successful than any other group at leveraging the censoriousness built into the university’s corporate structure — they cost Steven Salaita his job, are compiling a McCarthyite blacklist of Palestine solidarity activists, and continue to shut down SJP organizing across the country through appeals to administrative power. In addition, there are the white supremacists – it surely would be a mistake to leave out the guys who pressured Boston University to fire Saida Grundy for tweeting what amounts to critical race theory 101 (and while BU didn’t fire Grundy, the university definitely didn’t back her up either).

To focus on the social justice activist’s political shortcomings is to miss the forest for the trees – after all, the source of much of whatever power she and other campus censors have is the structural condition of the university; nothing silences a professor like the lack of a secure contract. Not even the biggest and baddest of college activists can hope to stifle discussion as pervasively as precarious working conditions do; to direct our ire at the activist but not the university misdiagnoses the problem from the start.

If we want the free expression of ideas, it’s legitimate to discuss the first figure, the lefty-liberal campus activist, but framing this conversation around labor conditions allows us to bring in the others who, not surprisingly, often go unmentioned in discussions of campus political culture. Perhaps even more importantly, this view demystifies the institution most responsible for this mess: the neoliberal university. Graduate students and faculty censor themselves for fear of being painted anti-Semites, hysterical man-hating feminists, “reverse racists,” and yes, to avoid being labelled “problematic” too. Yet, fundamentally, much of this censorship happens because we’re terrified of being perceived as too controversial and losing a job, or worse, not getting hired in the first place.

Making fun of misguided tactics from progressive campus activists is satisfying, but it isn’t constructive, not when the right already spills so much ink engaging in this flavor of activist-bashing. Instead, to the extent that students are using social justice discourse, intentionally or not, to jeopardize academics’ jobs, we need to identify and challenge this. If censorship and appeals to power are becoming instinctive tactics for college activists, we should advocate for bottom-up collective action instead. But most importantly, if more academics had access to collective bargaining agreements, long-term contracts, and tenure, attempts to censor difficult discussions, whether by social justice activists, Zionists, racists, or anyone else, would be much more likely to meet with just the sort of critical intellectual engagement we all so desperately desire.