Education

No, George Ciccariello-Maher Doesn’t Believe in Academic Freedom

George Ciccariello-Maher (image via YouTube)
But he still deserves it.

George Ciccariello-Maher is suddenly worried about academic freedom. Before now, the concerns of the associate professor of politics at Drexel University trended mainly to spreading the gospel of the Bolivarian Revolution, the disaster that has reduced Venezuela to penury and violence. Ciccariello-Maher writes books with titles such as “Decolonizing Dialectics” — Marx was white, after all — and articles for Jacobin asserting that “the only way out of the Venezuelan crisis today lies decisively to the Left.” It’s a faith-based creed, and he is most comfortable evangelizing in the classrooms at Drexel.

Last Christmas Eve, Ciccariello-Maher tweeted: “All I want for Christmas is White Genocide,” drawing scrutiny from Drexel administrators, who issued an official statement calling the comments “utterly reprehensible.” And last week, after the massacre in Las Vegas, Ciccariello-Maher took a look at the scores of victims near Mandalay Bay and, on Twitter, blamed “the white patriarchy.” That caught the attention of the Daily Caller and Tucker Carlson Tonight, generating an uproar that impelled Drexel to place its professor on administrative leave.

This was the moment when Ciccariello-Maher, an erstwhile Communist who preaches Frantz Fanon’s militant theory of justice, rediscovered the virtues of good old-fashioned red-white-and-blue individual liberty.

In a Tuesday column for the Washington Post titled “Conservatives are the real campus thought police squashing academic freedom,” the tenure-protected Ciccariello-Maher told his story. “Hate mail and death threats began to roll in” after his tweet, he explained. Conservatives — who “breathlessly chronicle the supposed intolerance of the left” yet “smear professors like myself” — are hypocritical on the issue of individual rights on campus, he argued. He warned further that he “will not be the last target of this kind of smear campaign by conservatives aimed at academics.” It’s similar to the tone he struck last Christmas, when he said that “universities will need to choose whether they are on the side of free expression and academic debate, or on the side of the racist mob.”

Like his belief in free speech, his distaste for mobs is of uncertain provenance. When students at UC Davis shut down a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos in January, Ciccariello-Maher approved, saying that “free speech and academic freedom” do not mean “giving fascism a platform.” In May, students at Middlebury shouted down and then assaulted social scientist Charles Murray and professor Allison Stanger. Ciccariello-Maher complained when those students faced sanctions.

Some progressives take the position that certain speech is inherently violent and ought not to be tolerated. Emmet Rensin’s representative essay in Foreign Policy argues that the “intolerable pressure of a hateful and fearful world” causes — and may justify — left-wing political violence. But Ciccariello-Maher’s words show the danger of that approach: Even if we concede that Milo Yiannopoulos is among those making the world more “hateful,” the lines quickly blur. Murray is simply a controversial social scientist, and Stanger was simply a professor interviewing him. In the Post, Ciccariello-Maher warns that, by limiting his right to write and speak freely, Drexel is telling students that “you can control a university’s curriculum with anonymous threats of violence,” but it is the threats of violence defended by Ciccariello-Maher that do more to limit the bounds of discourse on campus.

For George Ciccariello-Maher is his own obsession: the angry white man with a violent fantasy. His words reveal the depths of his angst, the shallowness of his self-awareness. He is a faraway propagandist for the violent Maduro regime, insisting that “there is no coherent understanding of revolution that doesn’t involve defeating our enemies as we build the new society.” As for “corruption, bureaucracy, and the complacency of new elites,” the professor asserts, “we cannot defeat such dangers without weapons.” Can complacency be clubbed?

Tough talk for a man who complains about mean letters in his mailbox. As Venezuelans starve, malaria spreads, people leave the country, and storm troopers crack heads to protect Maduro’s rewriting of the Venezuelan constitution, Ciccariello-Maher, who has spent his academic career studying Latin America, writes that it needs more of the same:

The only path forward is to deepen and radicalize the Bolivarian process through the expansion of the radically democratic socialism embodied in Venezuela’s grassroots communes, which help to overcome the economic contradictions of the petro-state while expanding participatory political consciousness.

He advocates punching fascists on a message board while warning students that “speech is violence,” but predictably, Ciccariello-Maher himself has done nothing material for the cause he champions. That’s because he is a privileged white man working in one of the most exclusive sectors of the nation’s economy, a devotee of dialectical materialism who ignores material conditions when they are at odds with his ideology. He is, put simply, a hypocrite.

Of course, this doesn’t make him a criminal. Ciccariello-Maher’s words deserve mockery, but the academy is full of people who deserve to be mocked. Ciccariello-Maher was placed on leave not thanks to any consistent principle but because administrative mandarins at universities are motivated only by a desire to avoid public-relations problems and keep their fundraising bureaucracies alive. Drexel says it placed him on leave — an indefinite, paid suspension — to protect his own safety. But it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the real culprit is bad PR.

Ciccariello-Maher is an obnoxious man who should nonetheless remain a Drexel professor in official standing. That he scorns the values he has cynically latched onto for rescue is an indictment of his character, but hypocrisy should not imperil free expression, even at private universities. Conservatives would be ill-advised to celebrate his suspension today. Tomorrow, the condemned might be someone they admire. After all, on campus, conservatism is iconoclasm, and when administrators scour the campus for inconvenient ideas, it is the iconoclasts — and Ciccariello-Maher is hardly an independent thinker! — they tend to suppress.

So don’t be fooled. He who cries for protection in the pages of the Washington Post believes in freedom only for himself and his comrades. But the fact that a so-called revolutionary now seeks to save himself with a plea to the bourgeois values he customarily excoriates is argument enough for the worth of free expression. No, George Ciccariello-Maher doesn’t believe in academic freedom. But he still deserves it.

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