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October 23, 2017

Drexel prof: I can't let the alt-right's threats dictate my life

George Ciccariello-Maher talks about the war on academic freedom

Opinion Controversy
Drexel George Ciccariello-Maher Latin American Studies Program at Cornell University./YouTube

This screen capture shows Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher speaking during a lecture at Cornell University in April 2016. The former Drexel professor now works at New York University.

You may know George Ciccariello-Maher as the Drexel University associate professor responsible for such Twitter hits as “All I Want For Christmas is White Genocide,” “I’m trying not to vomit or yell about Mosul” and “liberal escapism means taking easy questions and proposing non-solutions rather than talking about who kills and why.”

I know him from afar as a brash individual who's spent the past 10 months skyrocketing to the top of the alt-right target charts for unrepentantly spitting his version of the truth on social media time and again.

It’s not so much that I necessarily agreed with everything he typed. I get how it’s jarringly offensive to some. 

Still, if you take the time to understand the context and purpose, you’ll realize his situation is a case study in why you shouldn’t back down from a snarling, ignorant contingent hell-bent on dragging the public discourse back to a time when hoods played the role of tiki torches.

I don’t think anybody’s free speech should be stifled – see: Roosevelt Boulevard sign guy  which made last week the perfect time to catch up with Ciccariello-Maher.

Last December, his academic and personal lives were first engulfed in a self-initiated maelstrom of controversy. The latest chapter came when Drexel placed him on administrative leave, citing threats against him and concerns for the safety of the University City campus.

“By bowing to pressure from racist internet trolls, Drexel has sent the wrong signal: That you can control a university’s curriculum with anonymous threats of violence,” he wrote in an October 10 op-ed in the Washington Post.

Here's how Drexel explained its decision:

Due to a growing number of threats directed at Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, and increased concerns about both his safety and the safety of Drexel's community, after careful consideration the university has decided to place Professor Ciccariello-Maher on administrative leave. We believe this is a necessary step to ensure the safety of our campus.

Now, I’m not some big-city university administrator, but I know the irony of overbearing, nanny state protectionism when I see it. I also know that threats should be investigated, and not instantly capitulated to.

That came into clear focus in the days since Ciccariello-Maher’s op-ed ran.

On a lighter side, it seems that some of the snowflakes, er, complainants to whom Drexel bowed, like to dress in diapers and threaten lawsuits (before deleting said threats) when mockery ensues.

On a heavier side, it seems that some of the complainants to whom Drexel bowed garner invitations to speak at other universities, thus allegedly inspiring folks to open fire on those with whom they ideologically disagree.

That latter example is exhibit No. 1 in the case of white nationalists living up to their promise to be “more active than ever," a worrisome trend that's emblematic of the horrible state of affairs in America Vers. 2017.

Should we be worried about politically related violence? Uh, yeah. We've already seen why numerous times.

Logic would hold that the best way to address this growing societal plague would be for the man who serves as a totem for the white-pride movement to offer up something more than wishy-washy-at-best messaging.

Instead, actions like those taken by Drexel represent cowering in fear at a time when pushback is necessary. If they think these threats are valid, they should step up security instead of waving a white surrender flag.

“Of course the threats are worrying, but we can’t let them dictate our lives.” --George Ciccariello-Maher

If Drexel’s going to cry safety, shouldn’t the prime target have a say in whether he needs to be shielded? Asked another way, if the alt-right's loathed target wants to stand up in the face of threats, shouldn't he be permitted to?

“Of course the threats are worrying,” he said when the topic arose during a Friday afternoon phone interview. “But, we can’t let them dictate our lives.”

What we also can’t let dictate our lives are social-media lynch mobs that zero in on certain public figures in blatant attempts to silence them.

This isn’t a Drexel-specific thing. My bosses get demands for my head when I write things that some people don’t like, and that’s tame compared to situations faced by others at every stop along the ideological spectrum.

But if we continue to allow this nation to become a place where words are misrepresented and subsequent idle threats warrant DEFCON-1 responses, it will cease to be America. 

Instead, it'll be the school that never opens its doors because some punk realized calling in bomb threats will get him or her out of having to do homework.


Ciccariello-Maher’s narrative, regardless of what you think of his message, is a case study in poking an adversary in the eye and not running away.

“The satirical ‘white genocide’ tweet in December put me on the map as a target of alt-right internet trolls,” he said, noting that that status left his words “misrepresented multiple times.”

That included false claims that he’d encouraged people to “slash the tires on ICE vans” and trollish critics missing the real point of his tweets about the Las Vegas massacre.

“It was about broader trends in mass shootings, and the role of white males,” he said. “This is not a controversial view. There are thousands of pages of research on this topic. But, since I was already in the crosshairs, it was misrepresented as me blaming Trump, blaming the people who got killed, which I never remotely said anything like.

“Drexel tepidly defending me chilled academic speech and encouraged more threats and outrage from a media mob spectacle driven by the same (outlets): the Daily Caller, Breitbart, Fox News.”

Sure, Ciccariello-Maher says and/or tweets some offensive things. And sure, most employers legally have the right to push back against their employees' social-media use. 

When that pushback takes the form of quashing an teacher's thought-provoking approach to the day's most heated issues (and it doesn't matter what political bend it's coming from), though, it's an attack on academic freedom that we can't afford in a time when the very notion of truth is under attack from the nation's highest office.

I'm not alone in feeling this way, nor should I be.

While Ciccariello-Maher remains “banned from campus on forced, involuntary administrative leave,” his students’ outrage helped get his classes reinstated in an online capacity.

He called the current situation a “strange limbo,” what with “open white supremacists who preach ethnic cleansing still being able to go on campuses,” meaning Richard Spencer's visit to University of Florida the day before our conversation.

Those vile voices are “seen as legitimate” courtesy of those invitations, he said.

“The biggest thing that’s happened is the distance between (school) administrations and the alt-right (has gotten smaller),” he said. “It frees these people to do what they want to do. It’s frightening that they would continue to do it.”

That a “Russia-linked Twitter account helped (his) White Genocide tweet go viral” only serves to bolster his position and reinforce what a crazy time we're living in. (“F***ing wild,” he said of that unexpected wrinkle.)

Ciccariello-Maher said he wasn’t, and isn't, living in fear. That should've factored in to Drexel’s campus-ban decision which now appears to double as a college surrendering to ignorance.

He said he sees the tide turning toward marking “the end of this resurgent fascist movement,” though it would turn quicker if people had more of a willingness to confront it rather than bend to its will.

“I think it’s a flash in the pan, honestly. Trump’s election is the last gasp of those aspiring to white power," he said. "It’s not going to last. We’ll see a return to some sort of normalcy.

“I don’t think I’ll be off campus very long. My students want me there. I want to be there doing the research and training that I’ve done and done exceptionally well.”

His return to campus would mark a small victory. The biggest issue here is precedent. 

Now that alt-right voices have seen they can effectively silence others by issuing threats, in America's birthplace no less, this sort of situation will continue cropping up across the country.

Ciccariello-Maher told me that's worrisome. 

“What we need is a united front where administrators refuse to tolerate these threats" as Drexel has, he said. “If they condemn me, they have to condemn the aggressive actors. 

"If they claim it’s a security concern, then that is an attack on Drexel University itself. If we believe in academic freedom, we shouldn’t give up and what we need to be doing. We need to refuse to allow them to spread and organize.”