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The surveilled campus
A professor is no longer teaching after criticizing "childish, stupid, homophobic, dumb, racist twits."
This is a story about the professional outrage machine on American campuses, and how it targets faculty and students. It is both a small and silly story and a microcosm of what is happening in campuses across America. In the name of free speech and opposing cancel culture, people are surveilled and reported to a supportive media, who then broadcasts their names and faces to the country in the hope of generating formal punishment and intimidation.
It is a story of people who look back at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and see themselves in the brave souls fighting authoritarianism, even as they employ its tools on campus.
This story starts with Young America’s Foundation building a Berlin Wall on the Michigan Tech campus. YAF is run by Scott Walker, the former Governor of Wisconsin. As Governor, Scott Walker once tried to remove the words “search for truth” from the University of Wisconsin System mission statement, weakened tenure protections, and put a group of partisan hacks in charge of the system. He also dodged every invitation to come on campus. Walker is allergic to actual campus speech.
Along with a wider constellation of conservative campus activist and media groups, YAF has pushed the campus speech debate, with great success. Lets see how it works.
So, back to the wall.
OK, this is not a wall, this is a piece of plywood.
YAF franchises this type of campus speech theater like McDonalds. Since 2016 it has provided guidance on how to construct the Potemkin Walls with minimal effort. You can tell there are not theater or art major among their ranks that might generate some actual papier-mâché bricks.
This is the Berlin Wall in the same way that YAF is a free speech organization, a crude and non-functional facsimile of the real thing. It is a rickety piece of campus speech theater, a Potemkin village.
The local YAF chapter built the plywood board, and then, unsurprisingly, messaging consistent with YAF themes, including “trans women aren’t women,” “trans are mentally ill,” “sex w/a trans women is gay.”
Apart from the slapdash design, the folks at YAF seemed to have missed the point that the people putting up the Berlin Wall were not the good guys. That was the people tearing them down. But you can’t tear the wall down unless you agree with YAF. They posted a video and story to their 153K followers complaining about a “socialist sympathizer” who “vandalizes” (used graffiti) and tore down their Potemkin Wall (tipped over some rickety plywood).
In a statement, YAF said “The student who vandalized our display has the right to free speech, but went too far, endangering people and damaging property.” No-one ever warns you about the risks of plywood walls on campus!
The spirit of 1989 is not with the people who built walls, oppose graffiti, and record the actions of others in the hopes of punishing them. (The student was released after being questioned by campus police). The College Fix, National Review and Fox picked up on the incident, replaying the video.
Then a Michigan Tech professor went on a rant about how stupid the wall was. Continuing the pattern of surveillance, he was, unknown to him, being recorded by one of his students. The recording became the basis for posts by YAF and College Fix, part of the new campus media surveillance system that arose since about 2010. College Fix was created in 2011, Campus Reform in 2009, the Federalist in 2013, the Daily Wire in 2015, the Daily Caller in 2010, the Washington Free Beacon in 2012. All focus extensively, or in the case of Campus Reform and College Fix, exclusively on college campuses as sources of culture war fodder.
Here is what the professor said. Please bear in mind that the recording came from a source seeking to discredit him, so assume this is the worst possible version:
For those of you who weren’t aware of it, good. For those of you who were aware of it, it was childish, stupid, homophobic, dumb, racist twits. That’s the polite version…We in the Senate are going to minimize our response because there are, quite bluntly, certain faculty members who are hoping that the students will be censored for this so they can go off and pretend "Oh we're victims, you're restricting our, you know, freedom of speech, we should have, we have a constitutional right to be insulting, violent and threatening. How dare you restrict our speech?” Strictly speaking they are right. They did not target [inaudible] student groups. It was wrong. It was tacky. Its not illegal. Bit they did it. Stupid, uncollegial. Really bad taste. And it shows what a bunch of yingyangs they are. Its too bad you all have to deal with things like that. Wasted half my morning dealing with things like that. It’s annoying. That's not what college should be about. It should be a place where you can learn, experience, do interesting things, have interesting opportunities, hint, hint, study away rather than waste your time having to address idiots. They’re idiots out there. Sorry. Thats life.
In the background you can hear a student whispering, presumably the person doing the recording. First they say “Oh, he’s going to hear about this one” when the professor starts his speech, and then later “…coz he just targeted them as a group. He called them all racist bigots.” (Racist bigots, are not, in fact, a protected class).
Next, the story jumps up the outrage food chain, to the Daily Mail and Fox News.
It is important to note that while these national news outlets quoted the professor’s comments in the most unflattering way, they provided no detail about what he was responding to, and why it might have generated his anger. Fox and the Daily Mail simply repeated the YAF/College Fix framing, which in turn is aligned closely with their mission of discrediting universities. Fox also baselessly repeated the YAF claim about the student who tore down the wall as being a leftist. How do they know? Maybe he really likes Ronald Reagan.
The only reasonably balanced effort came from a local newspaper, The Daily Mining Gazette. One basic difference is that the reporter at the local level interviewed sources from YAF and people who disagreed with them. Imagine that, actual journalism! The report mentioned that students were disturbed by anti-trans messaging. A white student who posted “Black Lives Matter” was approached by one of the Guardians of the Potemkin Wall asking why she was posting messages in support of another race.
Such detail is missing from the reporting from Fox and the Daily Mail. Consider how the Daily Mail presented the pretext of the Professor’s breakdown:
“Events entitled 'Celebrating Our Veterans' and 'The Victims of Socialism' prompted the archeology professor to lash out at students in class, seemingly unaware that one was recording him.”
The same day Fox and the Daily Mail wrote about the professor, students received an announcement that he would no longer teach his class. This is not a sign of due process, rather of an administrator making a snap decision in the context of outside pressure. While in invokes “Chicago principles” of free speech, the university rewards those who sought controversy rather than speech, who secretly recorded faculty and drummed up media pressure for punishment. And every time you reward such behavior, you can expect more of it.
YAF claimed a victory. Their pinned tweet marks the success of their media campaign that resulted in the professor’s removal, followed immediately by a tweet denouncing safe spaces. This is not a movement who will let trifles like hypocrisy get in the way of messaging.
Scott Walker piled on: “We need more wins like this all across America” he crowed about the professor being pulled from his class.
The contradictions between trying to get students and professors punished and a free speech mission are hard to square. A YAF spokesperson insists that they do not “target people online” despite spending days pasting the image of both the “leftist” student and professor across social media.
You see, the point was never about freedom of expression. The Professor, in his rant, got some things right, such as the idea that these stunts were intended to gin outrage and hopefully censorship. The point was to target your perceived political enemies. Provoke them. Record them without their knowledge. And then play the victim, stoking outrage until the authorities punish them. Legal, but damaging to any sense of community and trust on campus.
The university as an institution did not take the bait, repeatedly reiterating that the messaging on the plywood was protected. Earlier this year, the same university overruled the student government, compelling them to pay a $3,500 speaker fee to a Turning Point speaker accused of transphobia. Michigan Technological University has also been ranked the best university in America in Fire’s rankings of speech on campus. (At least from a faculty perspective, the rankings, which include Florida State and Texas A&M in the top 10, are a bit dubious).
At no point was anyone censored or punished for their speech. That is, until the professor was relieved of his teaching duties. Perhaps you think the professor behaved in an unprofessional way. I’d be inclined to agree. As a general rule, we faculty should not pontificate about issues not relevant to the topic of our class. On the other hand, we are often asked to acknowledge events that are happening on campus, and respond to student questions. His language is certainly insulting, but less insulting than, for example, telling people that their gender identity is not real. And the explicit purpose of the Potemkin Wall is to mock “microagressions” and “safe spaces” according to YAF. But as soon as a insult is directed their way, they flop like an Italian soccer player experiencing minimal contact in the penalty area.
YAF has led the dumbing down of campus conservatism. They are not actually interested in a dialogue, but in theater, once that allows them to get in the public spotlight on their terms, even if it means vilifying people who don’t want that spotlight. The speakers are meant to provoke conflict rather than insight, and their manuals for campus activism follow the same model. Henry Farrell quotes Amy Binder and Jeffery Kidder, who wrote the book, The Channels of Student Activism:
Many outside organizations encourage students on the right to plan events specifically designed to incite outrage among their left-leaning peers. Once outrage is successfully sparked, and progressive students demand that administrators do something in response, the front line of conservative politics shifts to protecting the speech rights of reactionaries and provocateurs.
Some words and people in this story were obscured. We know little about what was on the board that generated outrage. No individual student takes responsibility for anti-trans messaging or recording their professor. They are privileged with anonymity. Other words and actions - those of the professor - are carefully recorded, and his name and image is posted on national media. Intimidation and threats will predictably follow. This is by design, the outcome of a system of surveillance funded by wealthy right wing forces, where students with phones are selectively recording other students or faculty, looking for the clip or quote that a supportive media will broadcast, triggering punishment and intimidation. It is not about free speech.
In one respect, the professor was correct: “That's not what college should be about. It should be a place where you can learn, experience, do interesting things, have interesting opportunities.” But under a state of politicized surveillance, this is what American colleges have become.
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