Thursday, May 2, 2019

Jeff Sessions at Amherst College: A Cautionary Tale


Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

One of the oldest buildings on the campus of Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts is Johnson Chapel, which has served as a gathering place on campus since the 1820s, when, as was true for so many New England schools, daily chapel was a part of the mandated curriculum. These days, it is used for fall commencement ceremonies, when first year students are welcomed by the faculty and president, and for senior class day ceremonies, when awards to outstanding graduating students are distributed. It is also a place where prominent speakers appear.

It is a venerated space. Portraits of all of the prior presidents of the College hang on the walls. And several luminaries among alumni, including the first Japanese graduate of a liberal arts college in the United States, Joseph Hardy Neeshima, who returned to Japan to found Doshisha University, Calvin Coolidge, a graduate of the College and a president of the United States, and the first female faculty member of the College, Rose Olver, have their portraits there.

Among the most prominent portraits is one that came about as the result of a campaign by African American alumni who graduated in the 1990s -- I recall, Willie Epps, Jr. and Chaka Patterson, of the class of 1991, being involved: Epps is now a Federal judge, Patterson a prominent attorney in Chicago. It is a portrait of Charles Hamilton Houston, who graduated from Amherst as class valedictorian in 1915, the only black member of his class. Houston went on to become a professor of law at Howard University, where he mentored such students as Thurgood Marshall and then resigned from Howard in the 1940s to help prepare the legal strategy for the NAACP challenge to Jim Crow, an effort that culminated in the 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. (Another prominent African American jurist, William H. Hastie, Jr. is also a graduate of Amherst College, in 1925. Hastie became Dean of Howard Law School. I hold an endowed chair at Amherst College that was established in his honor.)

On Wednesday, April 24, 2019, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, who until his recent forced resignation, was Attorney General of the United States of America, gave a speech in Johnson Chapel. How this racist, white nationalist, misogynist promoter of criminal immigration policies—the first prominent political supporter of our neo-fascist president—came to be standing in Johnson Chapel under the gaze of Houston is a telling story of the politics of our time, a sordid tale of power and corruption, the timidity of academic leaders, and the cynicism of the American right.

The story begins earlier this spring, when the College Office of Diversity and Inclusion—an office established to help integrate our increasingly diverse student body—ill-advisedly released a language guide, the intent of which was to educate students on how to speak inoffensively to each other about sexual, gender, class, racial and other kinds of differences. It contained overtones of Orwellian group-speak and overreach. Among other things, it chose to define “capitalism” as a system of exploitation and class oppression. This particular definition attracted the negative attention of the Amherst College Republicans (ACR), who immediately contacted right-wing websites such as the Daily Caller so as to subject the College to derision. The president of the College, Biddy Martin, withdrew the language guide, and the matter seemed settled.

But then the ARC overreached. Claiming that they wanted to meet with some transgender students to discuss elements of the guide having to do with descriptions of various elements of trans identity and sexual practices, they were caught on an internet application privately mocking the students they were about to meet. When the student newspaper, the Amherst Student, released screen shots of some their exchanges, the ACR as an organization was brought up on charges by the student government association, which defunded their activities, and in their own overreach, demanded that the officers of the ACR submit to sensitivity training. The president of the College again intervened, explaining that disciplinary proceedings of the College were the responsibility of the College, not the student government. She also issued a generic statement urging civility of discourse on campus.

These events occurred in the same weeks when the Amherst Student also reported that the men’s lacrosse team had held a private party in December in which members of the team (passed out drunk?) had had swastikas (and penises) drawn on their foreheads and then other members of the team had posed for photos with them, all of which, of course, found their way onto the internet. While this incident had been referred to the College’s athletic department and the dean of discipline, it was unclear whether the punishment that a few team members suffered, being benched for a couple of early season games, was enough, given the offenses. In short, Amherst College was enduring another spring in which youthful stupidity, ignorance, and moral righteousness were blending into an ugly farrago.

Sometime during this period, the ACR was put in touch with the Young America Foundation (YAF), a right-wing educational foundation that, among other things, sponsors outside speakers to speak at colleges and universities throughout the United States. If one goes to their website, one can see people such as Ben Shapiro, David Horowitz, Dinesh D’Sousa, and others of their ilk suggested as possible speakers on the issue of campus activism. (YAF has a deep history in the post-WW II American right, having some time ago absorbed another, similarly named group, Young Americans for Freedom, which had organized libertarian and more traditional conservative students since its founding in 1960 by William F. Buckley. The Young Americans for Freedom are now described as a “project of the Young America’s Foundation.) YAF offered to pay for Sessions to speak at Amherst College. This offer was made, it seems, within two weeks of the visit, and was seen by many, including the College’s president, as a cynical response to the attack on the ACR.

The idea seemed simple enough. From the perspective of ACR, however the College responded to their request for a space, it would be a victory. Should the College allow Sessions to speak, it would be legitimating hate speech on campus, in open conflict with its own policies concerning respect for persons, and would incense students who think that such vile racist haters shouldn’t be given the imprimatur of the College. If, for any reason, the College was to decline to sponsor Sessions’s visit—for instance, the administration could have claimed that it was not given sufficient time (which, while true in one sense, would have been a value-neutral bureaucratic reason, easily seen through)—the rejection would have resulted in the sort of national publicity that attended UC Berkeley’s cancellation of Anne Coulter’s speech last year. (Coulter herself actually spoke at Amherst College a few years ago.) The one reason to reject Sessions that would have been fully consistent with the values of the College would have been the most straightforward one. The College policy is explicit in that its statement concerning respect for persons condemns hate speech. Sessions’s record is filled with examples of hatred, dating back from expressions of racial animus while he was a US Attorney, revealed in hearing when he was nominated to be a Federal judge in 1986 by Ronald Reagan. The nomination failed, and launched him on his political career in the US Senate.

Interestingly enough, rumors quickly circulated that should Sessions be denied his chance to speak on campus, the agreement that the ACR had made with the YAF would have required the ACR to pay Sessions fee, which was purported to be about $15,000. So, the stakes were high for the ACR, which would probably have had to dissolve as an organization were it stuck with a bill for that amount. 

President Martin agreed to sponsor the speech. Upon hearing this news, I sent the president an email. (It was written in haste and anger and was peppered with typos, much to my chagrin. And on my moral high-horse, I perhaps was not persuasive. You may judge for yourself.)

Among other things I said, “I hope you realize you are now sponsoring hate speech and action . . .
The luxury of being a private institution is that we can say no. Jeff Sessions is a documented racist, and he has directed national policies that have been extraordinarily cruel and inhumane, separating children from their parents, causing the worst sorts of pain, denying refugees their right, under international law previously agreed upon by the United States, to seek asylum.
This despicable man isn't coming here to speak, to try to persuade, but to collect a paycheck and to foment hate, and to troll our college . . .
I am aware of your calculations regarding the endowment of the college. . .  But those calculations, concerning who will continue to give to the college, and the people who are adding and subtracting, including you, are cowardly. . . The true endowment of this college is not the billions of dollars, but the adherence we may hold to our principles.
I, of course, never heard back from Martin. Few of my colleagues publicly condemned her decision over the next days, or called into question having Sessions on campus, or organized protests. 

Instead, a few colleagues suggested providing some counter-programming at the campus center to coincide with the time of Sessions’s speech. A few of us professors gathered outside of Johnson Chapel, one colleague with a sign that simply quoted from the College’s policy concerning respect for persons. We waited outside, knowing that some of the student inside would stage a walk-out (the College closed the event to allow only students, faculty and staff of the College to attend, preventing other members of the Amherst community from attending; campus police were supplemented by town police, who took photos of some of us. I took photos of them in return.) Eventually, about 100 students walked out (apparently, about half of the audience), and gathered on the main quad nearby, chanting anti-hate slogans and listening to each other speak. Inside, Sessions asserted it was time for the country to move past the Mueller report, implying that it was the report itself that had divided the country, and expressing his worry for conservative students on campus, who he claimed felt threatened by political correctness.

And so it went. 

The reluctance on the part of my colleagues to directly confront and condemn the purveyor of hate on our campus seemed to stem from a worry that we were being “trolled” by the Right, and that to condemn Sessions would be to “Play into their hands.” Such reasoning seemed to be based on the idea that there is a point at which placating, rather than condemning, will allow us to proceed in peace with our work, so that the hate machines and institutions of the far right will move on. But as has been becoming increasingly clear, we are being confronted in the United States with a major political party that embraces tactics of earlier fascist parties—of intimidation, voter suppression, personal threat, using the internet not only to troll but to dox those who speak against them, issuing death threats against public opponents of their hate, using instruments of state power to threaten defunding of programs. They will continue these tactics regardless of any placating tactics we may adopt.

These neo-fascists members of the Republican Party know that one of the strongest sources of opposition to their rule is, in fact, the professoriate of our universities and colleges. Political theorists such as William Connolly, in these pages and in recent books, and Jeff Isaac with his ongoing stream of analysis of the right on his website, are but two examples of the many in our community who have been raising the alarm against this rising authoritarianism. (Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, provides a useful frame for understanding the core anti-democratic thrust of this far right.) But even so, too many others are trying to pretend that Trumpism represents the last gasp of a fading movement, on its way out of power, employing, for instance, the theory of presidential cycles advanced by Stephen Skowronek to suggest that Trump represents the end of a political cycle that is quite normal, that the machinations his administration has undertaken is a sign of weakness. Trump, in this reading, is merely the latest disjunctive president, a new version of Jimmy Carter. But this reading ignores the fact that it is not only Trump, but the entire Republican Party at the national level that has at this point embraced lawlessness as the core of its governing strategy, breaking the cycles of ordinary politics by breaking with the laws and norms that have in past succeeded in somewhat constraining those who desire to retain power exceeds their adherence to any democratic ethos. 

These neo-fascists must be countered, confronted, loudly opposed, not appeased. For the tactics used by the far right are in service of a deep anti-democratic agenda, one that calls into question the very values of equal justice that is at the core of democratic values. We do not simply negotiate justice. We fight for it. Against the trolls, against the racists, against the haters. We call them what they are, and we fight against the ignorance they foment. Especially as professers of truth—let’s say professors of truth—that’s our job.




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