Ellen Lewin, Professor of anthropology and gender studies at the University of Iowa, has become the object of unwelcome attention in the past several days. After having received numerous emails from the Iowa College Republicans advertising various liberal-needling events, Lewin snapped. The author and co-editor of numerous valuable books and anthologies in lesbian and gay studies replied: “F**CK YOU, REPUBLICANS!”
What is OK — and not OK — to say to students? Let me speak from experience, having never sent a written message to a student or group of students that was as elegant in its simplicity as Lewin’s. Last fall I did write a much longer email to one of the students responsible for the “affirmative action bake sale” held at Zenith on October 29 2010. This was a cynical event that — in the name of anti-racism — articulated all students of color as unworthy of having been admitted to the school under the high standards set by we white folks.
Following an inspiring meeting organized by students of color, I wrote one of the leaders of the group that sponsored the “bake sale” about why I was critical of it. She passed the email on to numerous conservative websites which reprinted it with accompanying derisive commentary. One described it as a “rant” despite an accurate reprinting of the original message. (Interestingly, some conservative commenters on the same website disagreed, describing my email as respectful and reasonable.) At National Review Online, my message to the student was characterized as “logically bankrupt” and “obviously an attempt at intimidation.” The name of the student was redacted in this article, presumably to protect her from others like me on the Zenith faculty, although if you Google “Cardinal Conservatives” her name is perfectly available. The idea, of course, was to portray this student as a helpless victim of my excessive, unregulated power. The narrative goes this way: conservative students are brave for confronting liberal faculty on their candya$$ views; liberal faculty are not entitled to disagree with conservative students because it is inherently abusive for faculty to disagree with students about politics.
This is all to say that redacting the young woman’s name was strategic on the part of the author, Mytheos Holt, a former Zenith student who specialized in baiting people for publicity when he was an undergrad and now writes for NRO Online and other conservative sites. Holt is, perhaps, best remembered by the Zenith faculty for having used the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” in a campus newspaper article about the Obama victory and having to admit afterward that he hadn’t been aware that this was the famous phrase over the gate at Auschwitz (so much for a liberal arts education.) The original article that contained these words also included an attempt to explain the depth of Mytheos’s pain at John McCain’s loss with the following simile: “my response to this election is probably quite similar to the response of the death row inmate who finally finds himself obliged to sit in the electric chair: no matter how long you have expected something unpleasant, it still hurts when it happens.”
Having a private email, however dignified, reprinted multiple times taught me an important lesson that Professor Lewin has learned as well. It is a common strategy for conservative student groups to make every possible effort to get in the faces of faculty in order to provoke a response that will “expose” our inherent desire to oppress them and limit the expression of their ideas. Hence, when faced with such opportunities, however compelling, it is often best not to respond at all. The kind of emails Professor Lewin got about such things as “The Animal Rights Barbecue” ought to go straight to Trash, and to the Spam file if you are computer-savvy enough organize it. Looking back on it, I would still publicly support the students of color who organized against the “affirmative action bake sale.” They did a great job, and they deserved to know that faculty had their backs on an important social justice issue. But if I had it to do over again I would not write an email expressing my views to that conservative student, nor will I ever do so again outside of an exchange related to academics.
This is not because it caused me any official trouble, or because in retrospect I believe that writing a student about an action I disapproved of was actually abusive. I didn’t mind that the email exceeded its audience, although I did think it was dishonorable of the student to distribute it without my permission. I always like a little extra publicity from the NRO (it spices things up chez Radicale) or any other publication that chooses to link me. No — I would not write this email because it was a waste of time to accept an invitation to dialogue with conservative students when, in fact, all these groups want is more ammunition to pursue an endless culture war while the world burns down around all of us and Citibank turns our pockets inside out.
The student was not interested in generating a dialogue that did not privilege her point of view, with me or with anyone else. Similarly, Professor Lewin’s students did not genuinely want her to attend their event or talk to her about their opposition to animal rights. Of course, “F**K YOU REPUBLICANS” can, by no stretch of the imagination, be viewed as an invitation to dialogue either, but I think what Professor Lewin meant was “Please take me off your mailing list.” Activist conservatives, particularly young ones who are trained by skilled organizers, view themselves as crusaders, not as citizens working to build democratic alliances. They are only interested in generating publicity, not in working out solutions to common problems. Part of that crusade is to provoke liberal faculty into what can then be publicized as intolerance and discrimination which, in turn, “reveals” them as hypocrites and liars. So the next time you get one of these emails, imagine this voice booming over a loudspeaker: “Sir, move away from the computer. Now, sir….please…. step away from the computer……”
And if you can’t seem to do that, at least pry the “F” key off your keyboard.