The ugly implications of the Professor Watchlist website in the age of Trump
According to Turning Point USA, I am one of two hundred professors, “who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Consequently, by way of its dubious Professor Watchlist, TPUSA contends that its purpose is to inform alumni, parents, and students of, “specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”
But TPUSA’s insidious real aim is to intimidate and single out educators. This complements President-elect Donald Trump’s rising number of like registries for their faith, in the case of Muslims, journalists, and employees within the State Department and Department of Energy who advocate, respectively, for the rights of women and the LGBT community as well as the health of our planet.
The creation of lists that target intellectuals and educators echoes loudly in history. One reverberation is described by historian Karl Dietrich Bracher in his classic work The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure and Effects of National Socialism (1970). Another is in the movie the Killing Fields (1984) based on New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg’s coverage of Cambodia’s civil war of the 1970s.
In the former, Hitler—who was no socialist but used the label to attract the left-behind working-class of Germany—and his Nazis killed targeted professors, intellectuals, and bureaucrats that he believed threatened his regime. For the latter, a scene demonstrates how Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge tricked imprisoned teachers and other professionals into identifying themselves only to be executed by suffocation.
There is a lesson here: thinkers threaten totalitarian rulers. So members of the intelligentsia must be branded and dealt with accordingly.
Charlie Kirk, the 25 year old Founder and Executive Director of TPUSA, culled my name for identification from a Campus Reform post written by Anthony Gockowski, who utilized a cooked version of my extra-credit assignment of the spring 2016 semester for a US History survey course. Gockowski also misrepresented its guidelines.
The exercise—one of several such opportunities I offer to promote civic engagement, critical thinking, and effective writing—encouraged students to contact their assembly and senate representatives in the California legislature to express how tuition of the California State University affected them and their families.
From this experience, I envisioned first-generation college students learning to format a business letter, discover (if they did not already know) who their elected representatives in the legislature were, and understand how to petition their government for a redress of grievances, if they had any.
Contrary to Campus Reform’s mendacious blog post, my instructions did not mandate the content of student letters. As context, however, I did provide essays I wrote on the subject that argued for a fully subsidized system of public higher education.
But in the Age of Trump and his gaslighting propaganda (i.e., a program of deception and deceit) and that of his surrogates, what does truth and accuracy have to do with anything?
Despite the disingenuous spotlight of TPUSA and Campus Reform, I again offered the business letter to elected officials as an extra-credit option this past fall semester. As in previous semesters, the letters articulated the economic and psychological stress that high tuition cost of the CSU places on them and their family. To stay enrolled in college, students work longer hours, incur unforgiveable debt in the tens of thousands of dollars, and their parents and grandparents burn through college funds, often in the first year, to provide their children with a higher education that my generation enjoyed at a fraction of the cost.
And this is just for one person in a family who dares to pursue a university degree.
As a graduate of the CSU in the 1980s, I cannot imagine starting my career or continuing onto graduate school as a twenty-something with $20,000, $30,000 or more in student loan debt. With this in mind, I wonder how many willing and able young people have decided to forego a college education altogether as a result.
But that is the goal of right-wing groups such as TPSU, Campus Reform, and their millionaire benefactors that include people and groups of the likes of investor and Donald Trump supporter Foster Freiss, in the case of TPSU, and Leadership Institute founder and also Trump supporter Morton C. Blackwell.
Like the idea of universal health care, this gaggle of Ayn Rand objectivist adherents wish to promote a market economy where oligarchs further enrich themselves in a fully privatized system of education off the backs of working-class students and parents saddled with intergenerational debt.
An educated citizenry that speaks to power, is civically engaged, and draws lessons from the past would expose the fictions that define the reality of such right-wing groups. In fact, in the late 1960s it was their demigod Ronald Reagan who proposed higher tuition costs and education budget cuts as California governor to stem student activism.
Moreover, such political conservatives dread people being reminded that higher education in California used to be virtually free.
So what’s the solution? Like the sponsors of TPUSA and the Leadership Institute, people of financial means who believe that an affordable public higher education is vital to the production of an engaged and informed citizenry need to develop, fund, and support the work of the counterparts of Kirk and Gockowski. Otherwise, publicly funded systems of education, health, and retirement will die. Gross profit margins will then be the sole priority of private sector run social services over the needs of people.
Meanwhile, I will continue my letter writing extra-credit assignment as well have my US History students study primary documents from the following list: James Madison’s Federalist #10, Henry David Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’sSeneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,Andrew Carnegie’s essay on Wealth, Emma Goldman and John Most’s Anarchy Defended by Anarchists, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, and the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Platform and Program.
Such informed dissent of the past is our only hope for a more just future.