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UNITED STATES
The far right’s ‘new offensive against academia’
George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, says he was being satirical when on 24 December he posted on Twitter: "All I want for Christmas is white genocide". A scholar of revolutionary movements and a self-described social activist, Ciccariello-Maher is no stranger to Twitter furors. But he says the internet maelstrom that quickly engulfed him, his friends and family, and his university reflects "a new offensive against academia" by far-right and neo-Nazi groups.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

"White genocide" is a term invoked by hate groups and white supremacists against interracial marriage and racial-diversity efforts. Ciccariello-Maher says many of those who reported on his tweet either deliberately or out of ignorance failed to explain that, or to indicate that his tweet was mocking the concept.

Drexel itself was among those that appeared to miss the context. In the first of two statements, the university actually condemned the professor’s comment as "utterly reprehensible" and "deeply disturbing". A few days later the university acknowledged Ciccariello-Maher’s rights to free speech but reiterated that his tweets did not represent Drexel’s values. Platforms like Twitter, the statement said, are "limited in their ability to communicate satire, irony, and context, especially when referencing a horror like genocide".

Drexel’s response, the professor counters, "put wind in the sails of fascist groups".

Ciccariello-Maher spoke with The Chronicle of Higher Education about what had prompted his tweet and how academe must brace itself for the fight of its life.

So, it’s Christmas Eve, you’re sitting with your family, getting ready for the holiday. What set you off?

My tweet was a response to the virulent, racist backlash against a tweet from State Farm Insurance that showed a black man proposing to a white woman. I study these things, it shouldn’t be a surprise to me, and yet I was taken aback by the incredible racist content in reaction to this image. Many of these responses, which were saying, "This marks the end of the white race, you’re contributing to the downfall of your people", were hashtagged "white genocide".

It’s an idea that circulates in far-right-wing racist circles. It was an attempt to mock this non-existent thing, which for these right-wing sectors means multicultural policies, it means intermarriage. There are, famously, the billboards that say, "Diversity is white genocide". Any policy that is not rooted in affirmation of white superiority is understood to be a contribution to the downfall of the pure white race.

What were the responses like?

The initial response was what I expected. It was an immediate backlash from people who knew perfectly well what I was talking about. In other words, these right-wing sectors who, I could tell, I had touched a nerve with. This is their code word for everything that’s bad in the world, and so making a mockery of it led to that.

Usually these sorts of backlashes are Twitter feuds; they don’t last very long. But by the next day, clearly, this had taken on a life of its own, and we really need to think hard about why that was, what kind of machinery was set into motion, what kind of sectors picked it up and pushed it out and made it into the phenomenon that it was.

This began with organisations like Breit­bart, websites like Infowars, these far-right white-supremacist news outlets, but also discussion groups like Reddit, where I found pages and pages of people not only complaining about my tweet but also organising what became a campaign of harassment against me and my employer, and my family – posting addresses, posting email addresses, and encouraging people to see what they could do to get me fired.

How personal did it get to you and your family?

It was almost entirely personal. This is part of what’s very revealing. Some people who have spent time online, for example, know there’s a word, called "cuck", which has become a catch-all insult of the right, for what’s perceived to be the soft men of the left.

Without going into it, in its explicitness, it reveals a very deep sexual and racial anxiety among these groups. I was called cuck. I was called "low testosterone". They speculated that I’m Jewish, that I looked and act like a Jew. Of course, these things begin from the personal because they’re rooted in a certain idea of what it means to be white.

They didn’t come just at you, right?

A number of pictures were taken off family members’ public profile pictures on Facebook and put on these right-wing websites. Many family members were contacted via Facebook message with many threatening messages, through Twitter. Anyone who retweeted me or tweeted any kind of support was then subject to a barrage.

Did you feel that your family was actually in danger?

Yes. But when you’re getting more than a hundred death threats, it’s difficult to know which, if any, of those are serious.

Did you expect this magnitude of reaction?

Absolutely not. Any of my past tweets could have been picked up in the same way, but this was the one that was. It was fed into a machine, and that machine put it in there, pressed it into the mainstream, and made it a national story. But it doesn’t become a national story without that machinery.

This became important to certain sectors – so important that they were going to make a stand over it. It has to do with the moment, a moment in which the far right would feel empowered – and they stated this – in which they feel encouraged by Trump’s election and they’ve said that this is their time to shine. This is them acting on that.

The anti-Semitic website the Daily Stormer celebrated Drexel’s condemnation of me as a victory. It said, "This is what winning looks like". They clearly understand that this is the time to begin to push, to begin a new offensive against academia, and to really try to expand their influence by both attacking lefty profs on the one hand, and then pushing these campus tours by Richard Spencer, and Milo [Yiannopoulos], and others in an attempt to provoke conflict over questions of freedom of expression.

When do you think this moment began?

The moment has been running throughout the electoral season because it’s not just Trump as an individual. It’s about what Trumpism, as a certain form of nativism, has provoked and unleashed and encouraged. Debates about whether Trump himself is fascistic or not are important. But the bigger question is what he’s unleashing and what he’s letting out of Pandora’s box without being able to close it, even if he wanted to.

The official university response, particularly the first one, has been much debated. Had you communicated with administrators offline before that came out?

I’d spoken with representatives of the university prior to that, but none of those conversations made it sound as though that’s the kind of statement I was going to see. I want to draw attention to the material impact of that statement, which made no attempt to understand my tweet. But to come out and denounce it put wind into the sails of fascist groups. Because if my own institution is saying it’s "reprehensible", then it must be reprehensible.

This gets to the bigger question of what really is going on in the world that the university cannot divorce itself from – the rise of these right-wing sectors that are pushing on faculty and on universities. What’s really, really terrifying is that organised white-­supremacist groups organised a campaign, and that campaign pressured the university into acting. I think a lot of people got hustled.

You did get strong support from faculty at your university and elsewhere, right?

Yeah. What’s good is the pushback that occurred in this case, hopefully, will be a lesson to many universities that we’re organised, that we’re capable, that even if an organised campaign comes against one of us, we’ll be able to and we will counter-organise resistance to it and push back.

At the same time, you’re certainly aware of the gulf of understanding between people in academe and typical Americans who don’t belong to a hate group but still might not realise that "white genocide" is code for something else. Were you concerned that you might just be feeding into the narrative of the smug professor?

It’s possible for any tweet to be misunderstood. But equally important is this question of the voluntary misunderstanding. Many people, white people in particular, are primed to interpret that tweet in a certain way. Why? Because, when someone tweets something very inflammatory – "Kill all white people", for example – my first reaction is not to be angry because, first of all, it’s preposterous. It’s clearly not serious.

But second of all, because I don’t, in any way, feel victimised by society. And yet part of what the dramatic shift in the narrative of the past few decades – very deftly charted by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s recent book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, for example – is the sense of white victimisation as we shift toward the so-called colour-blind society.

This "white victim" narrative has been very effectively deployed, and so to interpret my tweet in that way is in some ways to buy into the idea that white people have ever been historical victims in this country, which is not the case, which is preposterous, and which of course sets that apart from the other phenomena – for example, black genocide, indigenous genocide, ongoing historical realities that no one really wants to be talking about or be outraged about. And yet these are real things in the world that we live in as opposed to this mythical idea of white genocide.

If you had it to do again, would you have tweeted differently?

I don’t think we can avoid the fights that are coming. The idea that we should be trying to avoid these debates and discussions and conflicts is not one that’s going to be very sustainable for universities.

You’re not likely to be the last professor attacked by the so-called alt-right. What would you want others to know and do if this happens to them?

The most important thing is to realise that this is a legitimate fight, to realise that the temptation to retreat is a very strong temptation, especially when your life is threatened, but these fights are inevitable and the alt-right is not going anywhere.

So on the one hand, we need to shut down these ideas, push back on them, but we also need to be more than academic in the sense that we need to be building movements that are going to be capable of weathering this storm, that are going to be using intellectual space to make these arguments, but also organising in the streets.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.

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