Resisting ‘the new normal’

The nomination of Kenneth Marcus, President Trump’s choice for the position of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, will go to a vote next week, and he is expected to be shooed in, on a straight party line vote.   If he is confirmed, he will likely  become the latest member of a growing list of politicians, beginning with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, threatening academic freedom generally, as well our civil rights as women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people.

As more faculty, and students, come under attack, it is imperative that we grow our support networks, and that we make it clear we are many, and will not be intimidated.  

This is not to say the danger isn’t real.  Marcus has an utterly dismal record.  He comes “qualified” with a long history of targeting constitutionally protected speech, especially focused on Palestinian rights.  He has expressed open hostility towards affirmative action, which he has called “reverse racism.” As Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he has opposed investigations into violations of the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals.  And he has lobbied for withholding university funding to Middle East Studies programs that do not have a pro-Israel platform.  As founder and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, Marcus has spent much of his career endeavoring to suppress the free speech rights of students and faculty who support Palestinian rights.  

Late last year, during his Senate Committee hearing, Marcus said he agreed with Secretary Betsy DeVos’s decision to rescind detailed Title IX guidance on sexual assault, and increase protections for accused abusers. He also said he couldn’t name a single thing about Trump’s civil-rights record that he disagreed with.  At a time when the #MeToo movement is attempting to address endemic sexism and sexual assault, Marcus would undermine, rather than protect students’ rights.  

More recently, in what Palestine Legal has described as a McCarthyist media blitz, the Brandeis Center is doggedly suing scholars within the American Studies Association, whose membership voted by an overwhelming majority to endorse the Palestinian call for BDS.  “This is a harassment campaign at the highest levels,” Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, explained. “Professors targeted by the Brandeis Center have been subjected to death threats, rape threats and other misogynistic and racist hate mail.”

The lawsuit is particularly egregious because, from cyber bullying to physical assault, we are witnessing increased violence against anyone openly opposing the nefarious blooming of the alt-right.  As the  American Association of University Professors (AAUP) noted:  “Placed on watchlists. Harassed on social media. Threatened. This is becoming normal in an environment increasingly hostile to faculty.”

We cannot expect any protection from such threats to come from our current presidential administration.  But as we look outside of the Department of Education, high ranking university administrators still play a key role in creating a hostile or safer campus climate.  Some, like at Stanford University, have been utterly unhelpful, as David Palumbo-Liu, a long-term tenured faculty member, recently realized.  “Despite this new and alarming phenomenon on campus, university administrators seem loth to aggressively protect their faculty,” Palumbo-Liu wrote. Palumbo-Liu is a founding member of the Campus Antifascist Network (CAN), and for that, he has been accused of co-founding a group that, according to his attackers, “undeniably a chapter of a terrorist group.”   Stanford University has declined to offer him any support, despite a letter by six constitutional law scholars at the Stanford Law School, and a petition signed by 700 Stanford University professors.

Others, such as Colorado State University president Anthony Frank, have issued excellent statements that give hope in an another grim environment.  When anti-immigration flyers were posted on the CSU campus, attributed to the “Traditionalist Workers Party,” Frank gave a sober observation about freedom of speech, writing that “This university strongly respects the Constitution and the First Amendment, and the right of even repugnant viewpoints to be spoken and debated in the public space. But Colorado State University also has the right to publicly assert what it values and stands for – so I’d like to take this opportunity to do that here.

“The TWP goes by various names online, but let me keep this simple: a Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi. And the members of the Traditionalist Worker Party are unapologetic Nazis who advocate murdering all those who don’t align with their worldview,” Frank stated. 

Frank correctly observed that fascists and Nazis are recruiting on campuses, which are proving to be fertile grounds for neo-conservative views.  Indeed, the Campus Antifascist Network (which Palumbo-Liu co-founded) was launched shortly after Donald Trump’s election in order to counter this sinister new trend.

Faculty as well as students who advocate for justice for Palestine have long been targeted for their political views and moral integrity.  For us, this is not “the new normal,” but the way it has always been.   With Marcus as Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, however, and with the likely reinstatement of the misleadingly named “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act,” which criminalizes political criticism of Israel,  our activism will come at an even higher price.  And many others will be caught in the McCarthyist net, as they speak out against various forms of injustice, beyond Palestine.  

But there is reason to hope that, just as most organizers said they would not stop their BDS activism when Israel announced it will officially deny them entry into the country, so faculty and students, and hopefully more high-ranking university administrators, will also persevere in denouncing the rapidly growing fascism in the nation generally, and on college campuses–the fertile recruiting grounds.  This should not be “normal,” and we have  to ramp up the resistance.