Hours after the George Zimmerman verdict, I found myself at my computer, calling to mind a text I had first read in seminary. The text, Is God a White Racist, By Rev. Dr. William Jones, is still studied by theologians and academics and taught in institutes of higher learning. The book called into question the chief construction of black liberation theology: that God is on the side of the oppressed.
Jones’ thesis was simple: God wasn’t on the side of the oppressed, and that the tortured history of African Americans’ experience in America with slavery, violence and the civil rights proved it. The theme resonated with me as I sat down to write a piece reacting to the Zimmerman verdict for the online magazine Religion Dispatches. Little did I know that the book’s title alone would cause an avalanche of vitriol against me, my race, my institution – even my hair.
The screeds came via Twitter, email to myself and my university, conservative blogs, and – the coup de grace – Rush Limbaugh’s airways. The piece was hijacked and “repurposed” from its original meaning to show that I was a racist because I had dared to talk about race. I had dared to talk about an “American god”, which was clearly not GOD.
In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, several Black academics have received the hate tweet and email treatment from those disgruntled with our analysis of the role of race in the trial. Some, like Mark Sawyer of UCLA, even had social media accounts hacked. I created a Tumblr of racist tweets and emails to both chronicle the racist missives of my detractors, both for campus security and as a teaching tool. Several theologians wrote responses buttressing my piece, but the right wing spin machine portrayed me as a racist, liberal professor with bad ratings who should be fired.
What is the role of a public intellectual in the age of Twitter and soundbites? Is it to share your thoughts for the public good, or is it to curate the heaps of hate emails, tweets and right-wing articles that trash your intellectual and social work?
As an academic who occasionally appears on television and writes both for the academy and the public, these questions are at the forefront of my mind as I both teach and mentor graduate students. It is one thing to endure the ire of your peers, quite another to have hatred heaped on you publically. Tenure was a walk in the park compared to the harassment I receive. Since September of 2012, when I made a comment on Twitter about a movie that was then thought to be the reason behind the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, I have been routinely subjected to screeds from Fox news, Weazel Zippers, Twitchy, News Busters, and a myriad of other sites that have targeted me for my “liburl” viewpoint.
The University of Pennsylvania, and my wonderful colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies have been routinely sent hate emails about me. Calls to fire me are numerous. Some have even come from within the university. The Penn Switchboard is flooded with calls, and the more conservative alums threaten to stop contributing.
In this age of pseudo parity, when everyone, anyone with a computer can critique one’s work and life, what passes for knowledge? We know how to measure the worth of articles and books in the academy. The public has another standard altogether. In the age of conservative grievances about education however, how many people will be willing to go through what I do every time I publish an op-ed or in order to share what they have spent a lifetime to learn?
Not many. Because of what David Frum so aptly referred to as the “conservative entertainment complex”, the feeding frenzy on the web to be the first to soundbite words and opinion pieces to get page hits and followers is fierce. Spin, spew and repeat is the name of this game. In the hopes of silencing me, they are willing to attempt to deny my first amendment rights through a barrage of hate in order to preserve theirs. Religion, race, and sexuality are all subjects they feel free to weigh in on, and these are the ones they so often attack when the viewpoints expressed are not conservative ones.
While I am a tenured faculty member, many younger scholars are being stymied from sharing with the public because of these types of attacks. There are plenty of battles within the academy about race and racism. When the right-wing echo chamber comes together to disparage and shout down voices engaging the public by accusing us of racism, they become the race baiters they so desperately seek to call me. I only wonder what William Buckley or Barry Goldwater would say if their could see their intellectual heirs today. I have no illusion that either man would like me, but I could imagine we could have a more civil conversation than what I experienced in this last academic year.
America is in a fragile place right now. Those on the right believe that they want to take their nation back, and those on the left believe that what our nation stands for is being eroded away by the policies of those on the right who want to return to the good old days. Universities and colleges are one of the few places in America that we can engage these ideas in the classroom without cursing and denigrating those we disagree with. Whatever side you find yourself on, ask yourself if the present state of discourse in print and on the air is what you want your children and students to grow up with.