We know of the Red Scare. On campus, anticommunism during World War I and after World War II led to fired faculty and silenced opposition.
Today we live in the Gun Scare. If professors speak out against the NRA, they are drummed out of their jobs.The website Campus Reform is their McCarthyite shock troops. I of course experienced this last December. Luckily I survived for reasons I will get to in a moment. David Guth, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas may not be so lucky. In a fit of despair after the killings in the Navy Yard last week, he tweeted, “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.” Now Guth was obviously not calling for the murder of the children of NRA officials. What he was doing to desperately calling for the NRA to imagine this was their own children dying since these people seem completely immune to the thousands of deaths per year in the United States that come from the policies they support. There is evidently no limit to the acceptable casualties so that people can play with their shiny toys and feel tough against anyone they see.
Now Guth’s rhetoric was more unfortunate than my own. Whereas I used a common metaphor that no one could take seriously, Guth’s language was quite direct. But looking at the response to my situation and his shows very little difference from cowardly university administrations. Immediately, both URI and KU sought to distance themselves from unpopular opinions of their faculty that were a) not expressed in the classroom, b) were expressed on private twitter accounts, and c) had nothing to do with the university. It’s not the language or subject that bothers the administrations, it’s the idea that professors would speak up publicly on the sharpest and hardest questions of the day in ways that are not nice and thus draw attention to the university.
Guth is in real trouble. Of course he is receiving death threats from the same yahoos and idiots who sent me death threats. They’ve inundated his department, his dean, and his higher administration. I feel bad for all the people who get caught in the middle of this foolishness, as I did when it happened to me. He has been suspended with pay. He has state legislators calling for his firing. He’s at least tenured so he has some limited protection, but tenure doesn’t mean much when the rubber meets the road. Guth himself says that he agrees he should be removed from the classroom considering the situation. He’s putting up a brave front, but I wonder when or if he will ever return to the classroom. Or will KU fire him when the light moves on to something else?
Why do I have still have my job? Why was I not suspended? I think in the end I am lucky. First, I wasn’t just some dude tweeting, but I had prominent friends with access to other prominent friends and this led to real pushback that the URI top administrators did not expect when they distanced themselves their lowly assistant professor. Second, I had a union and my union rep was furious and really took it to the administration. Third, I teach in Rhode Island and not Kansas. Our state legislature can be nutty but it’s not filled with crazy Tea Party types who would do away with all the liberals in Lawrence if they could. Fourth, this happened to me at the very of the end of the semester and not the beginning. Had it, I don’t really know what would have happened.
It’s important that we push back against university administrations not supporting their faculty’s freedom of speech, even if you don’t agree with what Guth said. Because it’s going to be you next when you express any opinion, even outside the classroom. This is part of a specific right-wing war against the university. It is the last liberal bastion in America now that they’ve mostly crushed organized labor. Cutting German and French departments, devaluing the liberal arts and social sciences, and suppressing political dissent is all part of a larger project to undermine dissent and free thinking at the university and turn it into a training ground for what passes for the 21st century American economy. Faculty lack class-consciousness and a sense of solidarity with one another. Those who benefit from high salaries in business schools don’t think twice about the decline of the philosophy department. Our work is so atomized that we rarely talk to the people in our own departments, not to mention across the university. Schools with unionized faculty at least have that to bind us together and that helped me tremendously.
Unfortunately, Guth doesn’t seem to have that. His fate worries me greatly, because that could so easily be myself.