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Calling white supremacy something (anything) else

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A few days ago I wrote about the controversy over a piece in the ABA Journal, in which a visiting assistant law professor — this is someone trying to get a tenure-track job — at Gonzaga addressed the practical and ethical issues raised by a student wearing a MAGA hat to a black law professor’s class (His own. Apparently the student didn’t wear it to any of the student’s white professors’ classes).

This has led to, predictably, shrieks about political correctness in the academy from Donald Trump’s Big Fascist Fan Club, and, also with depressing predictability, much tut-tutting from centrist and liberal law professors.

Here’s Jonathan Turley:

The mere fact that some kid [ed. note: this “kid” is almost certainly at least in his mid-20s] wears a MAGA hat does not mean that he is a racist or that he is trying to racially intimidate an African-American professor. . . .

Omari assumed that the interpretation of the hat (which is not shared by many) was manifestly true. This is part of the trend that we have discussed on campuses where speech is being curtailed as racist or microaggressive based on how it is perceived by others as opposed to how it is intended.  In this case, the hat has different meaning to different people.

Here’s Howard Wasserman:

Frankly, I think the dean [of Gonzaga], who presumably knows something about law, has a bigger problem: One of his faculty members took to a national publication and called a student–unnamed but readily identifiable within a small institution (Gonzaga has about 350 students)–unprofessional, insensitive, disrespectful, and racist. For engaging in constitutionally protected speech supporting the sitting President.

Here’s the dean’s statement referenced by Wasserman:

“The School of Law diligently works to provide a respectful and inclusive environment that welcomes all students, faculty, and staff. We respect the points of view of all members of our community. This situation presents an opportunity for our community to listen to and learn from each other,” 

The right-wing screeching on this subject (check out the fascist word party in Turley’s comments, if you have a hankering to go upriver) isn’t worth commenting on. What is worth commenting on, maybe, is the overwhelming need centrists like Turley and liberals like Wasserman have to pretend that what the political movement that has put Donald Trump in power is open to multiple interpretations, in regard to whether it’s actuated by good old-fashioned American racism, and bad new-fashioned contemporary American authoritarian white supremacy.

The key tell here, I think, is this phrase: “For engaging in constitutionally protected speech supporting the sitting President.” A pedant would point out that Gonzaga is a private school, and that it’s therefore free to ban MAGA hats from the classroom if its professors or administrators are individually or collectively so inclined. But the more crucial phrase in that sentence is “supporting the sitting President.”

What Wasserman refuses to face is that the sitting president is a white supremacist with strong authoritarian tendencies, and that this also describes the conscious ideology of much of his base. Of course lots of Trump supporters object to this characterization, as do some squishy Trump opponents. In the former case, people who aren’t conscious white supremacists are predictably outraged if you point out that they support a white supremacist leader and his political movement. In the latter case, lots of Trump opponents — although fewer every day — are incapable of facing up to what this country has become.

These are the people who think there’s some huge legal difference between banning a swastika and banning a MAGA hat, because if there wasn’t that would mean that it would be wrong to treat “the sitting President” with some sort of minimal respect and acknowledgement of his political legitimacy.

This is also the spirit behind the dean’s statement, which is a classic elaboration of “liberal tolerance” in its most meaningless and incoherent form. “We respect the viewpoints of all members of our community,” if taken seriously, means “we’re not a serious institution, in either academic or political terms.” (Here’s an explanation of why that’s the case.)

The answer to the question about what to do about a student wearing a MAGA hat to a black professor’s class, while he doesn’t wear it to any of his white professors’ classes, is a difficult one, in both pedagogical and and political terms.

It becomes an “easy” question only if you’re either a Trump supporter, or somebody who is still capable of pretending that Donald Trump and the political movement he represents are something other than what they now so clearly are.

If you want to tolerate open displays of racism in your classroom, knock yourself out, and go ahead and make the argument for doing so. But don’t pretend that those displays are something other than what they are.

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