By Theodore Kupfer • National Review Online
George Ciccariello-Maher is suddenly worried about academic freedom. Before now, the concerns of the associate professor of politics at Drexel University trended mainly to spreading the gospel of the Bolivarian Revolution, the disaster that has reduced Venezuela to penury and violence. Ciccariello-Maher writes books with titles such as “Decolonizing Dialectics” — Marx was white, after all — and articles for Jacobin asserting that “the only way out of the Venezuelan crisis today lies decisively to the Left.” It’s a faith-based creed, and he is most comfortable evangelizing in the classrooms at Drexel.
He also stumps online for the proletariat. Last Christmas Eve, Ciccariello-Maher, striving to goose the bourgeoisie’s Yuletide mood, tweeted: “All I want for Christmas is White Genocide.” That attracted the gimlet eye of Drexel administrators, who issued an official statement calling the comments “utterly reprehensible.” Last week, after the massacre in Las Vegas, Ciccariello-Maher took a look at the scores of victims near Mandalay Bay and, on Twitter, blamed “the white patriarchy.” That caught the attention of the Daily Caller and Tucker Carlson Tonight, and the resultant uproar impelled Drexel to place its professor on administrative leave.
This seems to be the moment when Ciccariello-Maher, an erstwhile Communist accustomed to preaching the militancy of Frantz Fanon’s theory of justice, rediscovered the virtues of good old-fashioned red-white-and-blue individual liberty.
In a Tuesday column for the Washington Post titled “Conservatives are the real campus thought police squashing academic freedom,” the tenure-protected Ciccariello-Maher told his story. “Hate mail and death threats began to roll in,” he explained, having reacquainted himself with the sanctity of life and the inconvenience of being cast as an enemy of the people. Conservatives — who “breathlessly chronicle the supposed intolerance of the left” yet “smear professors like myself” — are hypocritical on the issue of individual rights on campus, he argued. He warned further that he “will not be the last target of this kind of smear campaign by conservatives aimed at academics.” It’s similar to the tone he struck last Christmas, when he said that “universities will need to choose whether they are on the side of free expression and academic debate, or on the side of the racist mob.”
Whence his distaste for mobs? When students at UC Davis shut down a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos in January, Ciccariello-Maher approved, saying that “free speech and academic freedom” do not mean “giving fascism a platform.” In May, students at Middlebury shouted down and then assaulted social scientist Charles Murray and professor Allison Stanger. Ciccariello-Maher complained when those students faced sanctions.
Confused souls on the left have taken the position that fascist speech is inherently violent, and fascists thus ought to be targeted with commensurate violence. Emmet Rensin’s representative essay in Foreign Policy says that the “intolerable pressure of a hateful and fearful world,” which is “felt most acutely among the poor and the oppressed,” causes — and may justify — left-wing political violence. But Ciccariello-Maher’s words show the danger of that approach: Even if it is conceded that Milo Yiannopoulos is a fascist, Murray remains just an academic whose research makes some people uncomfortable. In the Post, Ciccariello-Maher warns that, by limiting his right to write and speak freely, Drexel is telling students that “you can control a university’s curriculum with anonymous threats of violence,” but it is the threats of violence advocated by Ciccariello-Maher and given glitz by Rensin that do more to limit the bounds of discourse on campus.
Indeed, George Ciccariello-Maher is his own obsession. He is the angry white man with a violent fantasy. His loose tongue reveals the depths of his angst, the shallowness of his self-awareness. He is a faraway propagandist for the violent Maduro regime, insisting that “there is no coherent understanding of revolution that doesn’t involve defeating our enemies as we build the new society.” As for “corruption, bureaucracy, and the complacency of new elites,” the professor asserts, “we cannot defeat such dangers without weapons.” Can complacency be clubbed?
That’s tough talk for a man who complains about mean letters in his mailbox. As Venezuelans starve, as Caracas grows malarial, as people take to the mines, as storm troopers crack heads to protect Maduro’s scheme to rewrite the constitution and consolidate his power, Ciccariello-Maher, who has spent his academic career studying Latin America, writes that the country needs more of the same. The situation in Venezuela is clear, shameful. But not to Ciccariello-Maher, faithful to the mystic dialectic:
The only path forward is to deepen and radicalize the Bolivarian process through the expansion of the radically democratic socialism embodied in Venezuela’s grassroots communes, which help to overcome the economic contradictions of the petro-state while expanding participatory political consciousness.
He advocates punching fascists on a message board while warning students that “speech is violence,” but predictably, Ciccariello-Maher himself has done nothing material for the cause he champions. That’s because he is a privileged white man working in one of the most exclusive sectors of the nation’s economy, a devotee of dialectical materialism who ignores material conditions when they are at odds with his ideology. He is, put simply, a hypocrite.
But he is not a criminal. And the Drexel administrators have made a mistake.
Ciccariello-Maher’s words are obnoxious, easily refuted and deserving of mockery. Academe is full of easily refutable, unintentionally comic figures: Should they be placed on leave, too? Administrative mandarins on campus are motivated by a desire to avoid public-relations problems and keep their fund-raising bureaucracies alive. They care little for free expression. Their justification for placing him on leave (an indefinite suspension that is generally paid) is to protect his own safety. Administrators, however, shouldn’t enjoy the benefit of the doubt, and it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the real culprit is bad PR. Though Ciccariello-Maher’s tenure does not appear to be vulnerable, a tenured professor has still been barred from the classroom — and tenure exists to protect the expression of controversial positions.
There are no charges that Ciccariello-Maher has done anything to justify punishment. His words are his own, not plagiarized; Drexel does not claim he mistreated students or absconded with school property. By the lessons of experience, and the lights of reason, his ideas are wrong. Yet tenure protects the right to be wrong, and Drexel awarded him tenure knowing the nature of his convictions. No matter the discomfort of its administration, the school ought not to reverse that decision.
This obnoxious man, this revolutionary of the quadrangles, should remain a Drexel professor in official standing. Weaving his tenure into a declensionist narrative about modern academia evades the point. Ciccariello-Maher was punished by his university for his speech. The fact that his words cast a harsh light on the university that formerly found them fetching is just too bad. Sure, he scorns the values he has cynically latched onto for rescue. That indicts his character, but his hypocrisy should not imperil a culture of free expression even at private universities.
Conservatives would be ill-advised to celebrate his suspension today. Tomorrow, the condemned might be someone they admire. After all, on campus, conservatism is iconoclasm, and when administrators scour the campus for inconvenient ideas, it is the iconoclasts — and Ciccariello-Maher is hardly an independent thinker! — they tend to suppress.
So don’t be fooled. This man who cries for protection in the pages of the Washington Post believes in freedom only for himself and his comrades. But the fact that a so-called revolutionary now seeks to save himself with a plea to the bourgeois values he customarily excoriates is argument enough for the worth of free expression. No, George Ciccariello-Maher doesn’t believe in academic freedom. But he still deserves it.