McCarthyism is back
Today anyone can be accused of anything, without basis in fact or evidence, and that accusation can be instantly trumpeted over the airwaves unchecked by any journalistic standard. That is the painful lesson I have had to learn this year.
As a scholar-activist working on issues such as sexual assault, Palestine, and anti-fascism, I am used to receiving abusive messages and being publicly maligned. Now, however, attacks on me have reached troubling new heights.
Last month, the Stanford Review, a rightwing publication co-founded by Peter Thiel and based on my university campus, wrote that I have helped set up an “organization [that is] undeniably a chapter of a terrorist group” and demanded my resignation. Their article was picked up by groups like JihadWatch, Campus Fix, Campus Reform, Fox & Friends, and other rightwing media outlets.
The organization I belong to is called the Campus Antifascist Network. We advocate for organized resistance to fascist violence on campus, and for educating our communities and others as to the nature of fascism today. We claim solidarity with a proud tradition of anti-fascism dating back to the early 20th century.
The group was founded shortly after the election of Donald Trump, and responded to the steady rise of a well-funded rightwing campaign on college campuses. We do not – and never would – advocate – for initiating violence.
The attack on me is part of a broader phenomenon noted by the American Association of University Professors, which claims that college campuses are the new battleground for conservative groups, far-right organizations andwhite supremacists. These groups are all trying to intimidate faculty and students, to recruit members, and to attract publicity. Not just careers and reputations are on the line – often personal safety is as well.
Today, we are seeing the resurgence of a wretched phenomenon we thought we had put behind us – McCarthyism, which involves “the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges”.
In recent years, there have been well-publicized cases of academics who have had their syllabuses or social media cherry-picked for allegedly inflammatory statements, and then found themselves on the receiving end of orchestrated harassment campaigns.
CNN ran a story on the increasing numbers of professors like myself who have faced death threats for their political statements and activism. But it’s not just political progressives and radicals who are being hit. Scientists are under attack, too. Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, has received death threats for his work on climate change.
Despite this new and alarming phenomenon on campus, university administrators seem loth to aggressively protect their faculty. My own university has left it to me to press charges, and has chosen not to make any public comment on the Stanford Review’s defamation of my character, despite an open letter supporting me signed by nearly 700 members of the Stanford community.
Besides those who signed letters of support, six constitutional law scholars from the Stanford School of Law wrote a letter to the editor of the Stanford Daily declaring that there was no evidence that I had advocated violence, nor that I am a member of a terrorist group. These then were my sources of support, not the university. Yet this has not stopped the attacks on me.
I don’t have the resources to bring a libel suit – I cannot out-lawyer a newspaper that has an ally in its founder and major contributor to the university, Peter Thiel.
The troubling question is: who does?