Yes, It's A Real Culture War--and The Casualties Are Mounting
Dissent from a right-wing consensus that lying, misinformation, and treason are legitimate politics are being denied employment: we need to not just defend them, but go on the attack
It’s Friday—here’s hoping your weekend is an awesome one. Several weeks ago, I changed my policy and started sending all posts to all subscribers, paid and unpaid. I also promised special events and content for subscribers down the road, and here it is: on June 18, 2021, from 12:00-1:00 pm, I will be meeting with paid subscribers to talk about the important questions about history, heritage, and race raised in Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book, On Juneteenth (W.W. Norton, 2021). I will also be inviting a special guest, to be announced next week when I send out event details.
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There has been widespread attention to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author of the path-breaking “1619 Project,” whose all but completed tenure case at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill was tabled by a Board of Trustees that refused to consider it. As many of you know, Hannah-Jones has been the object of a vicious right-wing disinformation campaign. It’s part of the current Republican strategy of winning white hearts and minds by emptying them of all useful information about race and racism in America.
Yes, there was a mega-donor involved. And yes, aside from the possibility of a lawsuit, this is far from over. Just this week, renowned chemistry professor Lisa Jones, who was to join the UNC faculty, sent her regrets that she could not join the faculty under these conditions. Let’s hope that this is the beginning of a much larger boycott of the UNC system by scholars and that if it is, all of the people we love who teach and work at Chapel Hill will forgive us.
But I also beg you to care about the people you have never heard of who are also being fired for political reasons: most frequently, they have no workplace protection of any kind and no means to hire a lawyer. Since the 2016 election, contingent faculty have been fired routinely for tweeting anti-MAGA sentiments. And it has happened everywhere: New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, and Connecticut all have cases that immediately come to mind.
This year my friend, historian Lora Burnett, lost her full-time job as a history professor because of a tweet. This was the third faculty member that Collin College, a network of two-year institutions based in McKinney, Texas, fired since January 2021. Lora was one of three faculty members—the other two are Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones—who urged President H. Neal Matkin to stop forcing faculty back on campus in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Following the GOP playbook, Matkin had declared that the danger from Covid-19 was “blown utterly out of proportion.” This flew in the face of fact. Slightly more than 1 million people live in Collin County today, over 90,000 of them reported Covid-19 infections, and 835 died. When Matkin was ordering his faculty back on campus, infections were spiking in Collin and everywhere else in Texas, and one of his own faculty members, who had been ordered back to campus, had just died of the disease.
Why Burnett was not fired at the same time as her two colleagues is, as yet, a mystery—one that may be answered in court, as litigation is pending. Instead, it was the backlash from a tweet she wrote during the vice presidential debate on October 20, 2020—“The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up”—that began the events that ended in Burnett’s termination from the college this spring.
These events included Campus Reform, a conservative organization that employs college students to attack college professors’ right to free speech, and by doing so, ginning up a howling mob of MAGA critics. It was a process that included a Republican state legislator telling Neal Matkin that Burnett should be fired and Matkin reassuring him that he would do it. You can read about the case here.
In an account from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization founded in 1998 with an unwritten but well-understood mandate of protecting conservative students and faculty from the excesses of campus political correctness. Today, in our new culture war, FIRE now frequently finds itself defending liberal and left-wing faculty from being punished by conservatives. It’s ironic—but admirable.
The monitoring of educators’ electronic communications by the right has become extreme. But now, they are going after students too. Just this week, FIRE came to the rescue of third-year law student Nicholas Wallace, who sent an email to classmates “mocking Sen. Josh Hawley, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and the law school’s chapter of the Federalist Society.”
Hawley and Paxton, you may recall, are firm supporters of Florida Man’s Big Lie about the election (Update: he is currently assuring his followers that he will be back in the White House by August.) Back in January, John Eastman, a senior member of the Federalist Society, tried to persuade Mike Pence that he had the legal authority to overturn the election. He also spoke at the rally that preceded the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and bolstered the Former Guy’s claims of massive voter fraud.
So Wallace might be forgiven for thinking that thee guys were obvious jokers, and he said so. Stanford then put a hold on Wallace’s graduation pending an investigation—of what?
They backed down on Wednesday, as FIRE described it, “belatedly determining that [Wallace’s] email was protected expression.” You bet your sweet bippy it was.
As a result, Wallace will graduate on time. But it is still not clear what the investigation was about, what policies Wallace violated—and, and, and— this is a frickin’ law school, people!
What do all these cases have in common? The “crime” seems to have been venting their disagreement with Republican officeholders with verbiage easily interpreted as disrespectful. Why is it easily interpreted that way? Because it was. Because neither of these well-educated individuals, both good citizens, don’t respect people who put our democracy in jeopardy and they don’t respect those who enable them.
But our employers, and university administrators, cannot legally enforce respect for anyone. They certainly cannot limit criticism of politicians who have consistently lied and consistently attempted to use their power to subvert justice in big ways and small.
But they are trying.
We are in the danger zone. Watch this space.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m Reading:
Nina Burleigh points out that the high focus on a J6 investigation ( wrote about this Wednesday) should not cause investigators to forget Trump’s criminal mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic—and the profits his cronies made from it (TomDispatch, June 3, 2021)
Texas Dems looked their GOP counterparts in the eye on a voter suppression bill—and the Republicans blinked on the “souls to polls” provision. (Judd Legum, Popular Information, June 3, 2021)
Can we be honest? The Olympics are terrible for host cities, and with fewer than 5% of Japanese citizens vaccinated, this summer’s Games are a disaster on wheels. (Emily Burland, Teen Vogue, June 1, 2021)
At Deb Haaland’s urging, Native American nations are rethinking why they exclude the descendants of those they enslaved. (Chris Cameron and Mark Walker, New York Times, May 28, 2021)