Are You Now or Have You Ever Been Political

Monday, October 6, 2008

posted under , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Dan Colson (English)

In my literature classes, I teach authors like John Dos Passos, Michael Gold, Jack London, and Jack Conroy. We talk about socialism, communism, fascism, and democracy and invariably someone in the class (myself or one of the students) draws a comparison between the events and ethos of the pre-WWII United States and our present situation. The idea of teaching the literature I study without discussing politics is comic: “Students, please skip the last section of Native Son, do not ask me to define words like ‘proletarian,’ ‘fellow-traveler,’ or (to be safe) ‘fascism,’ ‘democracy,’ and ‘war,’ and also ignore the time period in which all of these texts were fact, let’s just pretend they were written during the Jurassic Period so we don’t have to touch on the complications of industrial capitalism and American democracy.” Recently, however, this humorous exercise in avoidance has become a looming reality.

Those of you at the U of I recently received an email outlining “prohibited political activity,” and you may be aware of the various responses by faculty and graduate students.* The university’s clarification of state law (it remains to be seen if their interpretation is tenable or not) raises serious concerns about free speech and academic freedom. But perhaps more importantly, these events reveal a floating definition of “political” speech/activity that can restrict what we teach and how we teach it. As a graduate student, I’ve been struck by the harsh truth of working for a public institution and I’m scared. The state seems to want to redefine the nature of the university and there are those locally and nationally who would go even farther.

Over the last week, I have repeatedly expressed my concern that extending the “prohibited political activity” restrictions to all university property places a special burden on graduate students: we move in and out of our roles as employees and students throughout the day. The Ethics Office’s guidelines, however, draw no distinction. So long as we are on campus, we are employees. Thus, when we take classes, meet with other students, or write portions of our dissertations in the library, we must censor our political expression. Clearly few of us will be writing “vote Obama” in our dissertations, but what counts as “political?” I posed this very question to ACLU attorneys and was disturbed by the answer.

We used the graduate seminar as our test case and the attorney claimed that any “electioneering”–that is, any support of a candidate, a party, or a referendum–should be suppressed by the instructor. In other words, it is the faculty’s responsibility to police the classroom and be sure that no inappropriate “political” content is aired. Presumably the same would be true for teaching assistants in their classes. Most of us carefully monitor our class discussions, being vigilant so no one is attacked or discriminated against, but now we must be even more controlling.

This restriction is frightening enough in itself, but the ACLU attorney was evasive when I pressed him on issues that I consider “political,” but that may not lend themselves to electioneering. Are there issues so intimately tied to party platforms that expressing a view on them would imply support of that platform? No real answer. Do issues of equality, human rights, social justice count as political? Maybe. I received no definitive answer, but I will cite one chilling example: if there comes a day when Illinois or the nation must vote for or against the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, we will not be able to express an opinion in our classrooms. LGBT studies? Good luck. And, if these laws are taken to their extreme logical conclusion, graduate students should be wary of using university resources (property, computers, etc.) to write papers that support or oppose any overtly “political” issues. Don’t expect the line to ever be overt, either. The ethics laws (like many academic freedom issues) function on a complaint basis: you’re free to express yourself, until someone takes offense.

I would rest easier if our vocal detractors were our only opposition. While they may be a larger part of American culture than I care to admit, I can dismiss critics like those who respond on the Daily Illini’s comment board. “Dough Boy” says,
“ an Illinois taxpayer I pay your salary and God knows what other untold benefits, I do not want you using your time and MY MONEY to spread your own political thought. Were it up to me, all of those who participated in yesterday's protest [the Barack Obama rally / free-speech protest held on Thursday, October 2] would be fired, period. They knew what they were getting into before they gathered and they should suffer the consequences of their stupid actions....SHUT UP and TEACH!”
I suppose we will always face this argument: “you are paid to teach, and politics have nothing to do with your subject matter [regardless of the subject matter].” But it is not only the proprietary taxpayers who should concern us.

Perhaps everything is politics, but few beyond the academy believe so. Who gets to define politics? The university says that support for John McCain is political, yet support for anarchism is not. The Office of the Executive Inspector General [the state agency responsible for executing the Ethics Act] claims that everyone, even students, are prohibited from political expression on campus, but they do not define politics. Even the ACLU–which has been supportive in our recent battle–has trouble drawing the line between political and apolitical subjects. Reproductive rights? Gay rights? Human rights?

I will soon write a dissertation that I find unquestionably political; I continue to teach classes in which politics are unavoidable; and I believe in social justice that is politically at odds with large swaths of American culture. I don’t know if any of these “activities” are prohibited, because I don’t know who in my uncertain future will define the “political.”

*On Thursday, October 2, graduate students organized an on-campus Barack Obama to protest the free-speech restrictions. On their own time, grad students and faculty wore Obama buttons, attended a political rally, and distributed campaign materials, all of which are prohibited to employees on university property. [Chicago Tribune]


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Anonymous said...

Since I’m not living in C-U this semester, I can only share in these developing concerns through these venues, so I’m grateful that Kritik is using its space to confront such a dismal issue. I only want to add one slightly different way into the problem.

The prohibition against “political activity”—coded in the typically neoliberal jargon of not violating one’s “individual freedoms”—is an age old one at this university. Beginning with the passage of the Clabaugh Act (1948) in the incipient years of the Cold War (Illinois’s more local substantiation of the federal Smith Act), this university has dedicated itself consistently to silencing free speech. Often, however, these measures are instituted not so much to prohibit the particular political expressions they delineate—wearing a button, working an Obama booth, etc.—but (far more important to the university’s ideological capital) to protect a notion of the university itself as a halcyon sanctuary committed only to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. To give just one example, the U of I used the Clabaugh Act to prevent Chicago-7 lawyer William Kunstler from speaking here in 1969 and 1970 under the auspices of maintaining political neutrality. At the same time, however, it was actively working to maintain open channels to the university commons for Dow Chemical and General Electric to extract future employees for napalm production and weapons manufacturing. That is, the pretension toward “objectivity” that these measures dramatize is instrumental to eliding the university’s larger, structural embeddedness in the highly political interests of the national security state and the military-industrial-educational complex. They don’t really care about your button; they care deeply about not politicizing the purportedly de-politicized work of the university itself. As long as they can maintain the fantasy of “neutrality” and “objectivity,” they can rest assured that they have maintained the “ethical” equilibrium necessary to maintain social order. That’s, it seems to me, their broader discursive function.

The University of Illinois is militarized space. This isn’t paranoid; it’s simply a political fact. Most of us in the Arts and Sciences demimonde can snake our way through a degree program here without ever really confronting the messy political realities of this university’s wider research initiatives in the “applied” engineering and computing fields. Well over fifty percent of the funding for the Applied Sciences at the University of Illinois now stems directly from the Department of Homeland Security if not the military outright. Along with MIT, Texas, Michigan, and such “liberal” havens of incorrigible activity as UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois is engaged in national programs that constitute some of the most explicitly political activity on the planet. The issue, then, for me orbits not so much my personal political desire to wear buttons of my choosing as to have the administrators that institute such mindless decrees acknowledge that banishing “politics” from university space (and “time”) is a ludicrous mischaracterization of the political environment we cohabitate–a displacement of epic proportions if there ever was one.

Jonathan Vincent

matthew hart said...

I've just come back to the office after attending my first University Senate meeting on the Urbana-Champaign campus (or any campus, for that matter). I was pleasantly surprised that the meeting featured a vigorous discussion about the State Ethics Act and its implications for academic freedom and First Amendment Rights. The conversation featured discussion of President White's amended version of the policy (released today), which several Senators nevertheless oppose. It also included calls for official sanction of the State Ethics Office, not least for the shame and embarrassment it's caused our institution. Finally, we heard news that the hateful Ethics Quiz is soon to be revised by (someone on) our own campus. The idea is that we'll actually have to answer questions of some relevance to our working practices and ethical principles.

So, notwithstanding Jonathan Vincent's really excellent polemic about the limits of such individual rights, I encourage you all to view the streaming video of today's Senate meeting at:

Matt Hart

Dan Colson said...
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Unit for Criticism said...
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Michael Rothberg said...

Bravo to Maggie and Dan for great posts.

I think Jonathan also makes some extremely important points. It's crucial to open up our understanding of what kind of "political" activity is already going on on campus. Especially now that the administration seems to be backing down from certain aspects of these "ethics" regulations, the time may be right to push the question of corporate and state-military-security presence on campus. That's not a new question, as Jonathan makes clear, but it's worth posing again given the aggressively neoliberal, business-oriented nature of the current powers-that-be.

Jonathan Vincent, English said...

It might be of interest to some of you that the university actively asserts the history of the free speech struggles on campus as a research priority. We have a wonderful resource in the Student Life and Culture Archive Program, which documents the long, tortuous history of faculty dismissals, student expulsions, and other administrative measures surrounding the conflict over "free speech." It might help give some context to the current imbroglio. It's also a fantastic resource for students and makes for more interesting writing occasions than more nebulous frameworks like "the individual vs. the state."

The university likes to cast these histories as unfortunate residual anachronisms in a progressive teleology that (with patience) self-correcting liberal-democratic mechanisms like the university overcome (read: institutions create social change, not people). The archives tell a different story.

You may also be interested in the writings of an old history student here named Nicholas Wisseman, who has documented the history of the U of I’s suppression of free speech during the Cold War: “Falsely Accused: Cold War Liberalism Reassessed” Historian 66 (Summer 2004): 320-334.

As well as Bruce Tap’s assessment of similar incidents surrounding professorial dismissals here for protesting the U.S. involvement in World War I: “Suppression of Dissent.” Illinois Historical Journal (Spring 1992): 2-22.

Unit for Criticism said...

Two comments have been deleted because of a problem with tone. Please feel free to disagree, but don't make it personal or abusive. Ad hominem remarks are not tolerated. If abusive remarks are posted please do not reply; email the Unit for Criticism instead

Anonymous said...

There are those people, myself included, who may find the equation of the subjects of authors such as Dos Passos, Gold, London, and Conroy, writers writing about dire circumstances and struggles with the circumstances occurring recently on this campus, as this statement by Mr. Colson suggests, to be offensive. It belittles those authors, their subjects and their subjects' struggles as much as it seeks to polarize the current situation by taking a hyperbolic stance.

Additionally, the author leads his essay with a disingenuous characterization of the opposition, "The idea of teaching the literature I study without discussing politics is comic:" I don't think that anyone in the administration or in the ethics office is suggesting such a thing. However it is interesting to note that such a technique of mischaracterization is a common rhetorical ploy used by politicians in the United States during elections, though it is not one often used in the rhetoric of more scholarly disciplines.

I must say that I also find the idea that politics are difficult to separate from the content of lectures a disturbing one. I do think that this is difficult, but only if you are of the mind to use your classroom as a pulpit. Perhaps a useful distinction to employ would be the distinction between politics and political campaigning. The reason to make this effort would be to protect students from feeling they must agree with a professor's views on a current political campaign in order to successfully complete a course. This is a very real concern and should not be taken lightly. If we espouse diversity, we must entertain the possibility of encounters with it.

Yes, certain disciplines are political by their very nature, but they need not be joined to a current political campaign. Indeed, one might argue that the university itself is based upon the philosophy of Humanism, a philosophy which seeks to describe aspects of the world through different disciplines and discourse. This philosophy like any other has its political implications. But it is an approach that has proven quite useful. The pursuit of description and analysis with the employ of reason and citation rather than mere advocacy at all costs often leads to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the subject at hand. To put it another way, passion directed at truth rather than getting your way often is the more fruitful approach. Cannot one describe such concepts as communism, capitalism, proletariate, indentured servitude, and corporate welfare without espousing them? If we cannot I think we're in trouble, guilty perhaps of falling in love with the tune of our own voices rather than tuning our ears to the sounds all around us. Please let us make an extra effort to not use hyperbole, to refrain from mischaracterising those in opposition.

Though I was censored in my first post on this issue I do contend that my comments as to character were invited by Mr. Colson's rhetorical approach of personal appeal in his penultimate paragraph. As in our courts of law once a defendant has placed him/herself upon the stand, s/he must also face the rigor of cross examination. Mr. Colson and his advocates, I contend, are guilty of a lapse in the parity of discourse. My statements were no more shrill, personal, nor abusive than his own, but I will yield to their position of authority as I do not have a choice otherwise. Personally, I wish that they had given more thought before allowing the posting of Mr. Colson's essay.

And as stated previously, it may be of interest that these comments come from a person on the Left, not the Right.

Unit for Criticism said...

To the author of the latest comment: please claim and sign your comment. Anonymous comments will be deleted if they are not claimed, as noted on the front page.

Lauren said...

Dear Anonymous Poster, Thank you for your interest in responding to Dan Colson's post on the subject of campus ethics. Although you raise several legitimate topics of debate I must disagree with your characterization of Colson's writing as shrill, personal, and abusive. I am the Interim Director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory and I take full responsibility for the editorial decision to publish the Colson and Flinn posts on Kritik. If you have any further comments to express on that decision, I ask that you direct them to me at

As the student who moderates this forum has correctly advised you, Kritik does not allow anonymous comments by writers who do not identify themselves. Moreover, commentators on Kritik are asked to avoid personal remarks of any kind. We ask that commentators debate the arguments as they are presented rather than remark upon or speculate about the individuals who make them.

If you wish to email me and identify yourself we can discuss the parts of your last post which need to be modified in order to observe our protocol of avoiding ad hominem attacks. If I do not hear from you in 24 hours I will assume that your preference is to remain anonymous and I will ask the moderator of this forum to delete your post.

Many thanks,
Lauren Goodlad

Michael Rothberg said...

I have to admit I don't really understand the long anonymous comment responding to Dan Colson's post. It doesn't seem to me that Dan is seeking to eliminate the distinction between politics and campaigning, but rather suggesting that such an elimination could be the effect of the blanket prohibition of political speech and activity by the Ethics Office.

What is most troubling in all of our interactions with the Ethics People over the last years is their utter lack of understanding for the kind of space that a university is and the kinds of work that constitute scholarship and teaching. You may not agree with Dan (and I may be misrepresenting his argument), but I think it's certainly valid--and not particularly exaggerated--to argue that the recent regulations could easily have a chilling effect not just on perfectly legal, outside-the-classroom "campaigning," but also on the kinds of political discussions that are essential to what we do in a university and what we need in a democratic society.

And, really, if we're going to have an open and democratic dialogue, I'd like to think we don't have to do it anonymously.

Anonymous said...

I for one found the ACLU’s response to Dan very disturbing, despite their support for us on this campaign. In claiming that instructors have an affirmative obligation to shut down debates about political candidates, parties, and referenda, ACLU is taking a position arguably more chilling than the one recently taken by the Ethics Office. This position (which seems reminiscent of Stanley Fish’s) is a recipe for humanistic study that is both divorced from social reality and artificially circumscribed in its scope of inquiry. If we are told that our job is just to “teach the texts,” we are already beginning with a normative and, I’d say, political judgment—that the texts we teach are divorced from political concerns, or at least can be meaningfully discussed without reference to politics.

More importantly, this position in effect forces critical intellectuals in the humanities to unilaterally disarm, while the myriad other ways in which the university is deeply politicized (as Jonathan Vincent discusses) remain intact—Homeland Security and military funding, economics textbooks that preach the wisdom of financial deregulation and neoliberal trade policies, and the history of intimidation on this campus of instructors who challenge US imperialism. The appropriate position, it seems to me, is not to condemn political engagements in the classroom, or to idealize the academy as an apolitical space, but to call attention (as Jonathan does) to the myriad ways in which the university is already a fundamentally and inescapably political place—however broadly or narrowly we define politics.

Turning to Anonymous’s post--The distinction between “politics” and “political campaigning” is, I’d argue, basically formal and arbitrary; the two bleed into each other. While I would reject turning the classroom into a space to advocate one political candidate over another, I could see encouraging students to debate the merits of different candidates, or supporting or defending a referendum or proposition, as pedagogically useful.

Even if the distinction between politics and campaigning is intellectually coherent, in practice bans on discussions of political campaigns could easily lead into broader prohibitions on discussion of political issues. This is possible not only in the examples envisioned by Dan (for instance, a public referendum, or an issue associated with a party platform) but in virtually any discussion of race, gender, class, international affairs, sexuality, etc. in which exclusionary practices are exposed to critique and in which some aggrieved student perceives a covert political endorsement. Giving university administrators or, worse, state politicians the license to decide when a given instructor crosses the line is a dangerous solution.

Anonymous posits an opposition between advocating and neutrally “describing” social practices and institutions, but most of what academics do is somewhat between the two—exploring issues, facilitating discussion, challenging assumptions, making connections, engaging the weak points in an argument. This seems more intellectual vital—and more useful to students who want to make up their own minds independently—than merely “describing” the attributes of communism, fascism, etc. (I do agree with Anonymous that in facilitating these discussions we need to be aware of the danger of assuming that we already have access to the true or correct position and our students, for instance, don’t—it does need to be a genuine conversation).

Finally, I believe Anon’s first post presents a false choice: either do critical work within the academy or challenge the status quo outside of it. No critical intellectual I’m aware of would take seriously the first option; rather, they would all agree that the point is to use the work done in the academy to support struggles at other social sites. (And just for the record, Dan did not “equate” the recent events on UIUC’s campus with the social conditions described by Dos Passos, London, etc.)

Of course it’s a truism that sometimes Left (but not only Left) academics could do a better job of engaging with and listening to people outside the academy. I just don’t undestand why that means we should abandon critical work on class, gender, race, etc. in the academy, particularly when the Right is all too conscious (in their support of think tanks, endowed chairs, watchdogs like David Horowitz, programs like the Academy for Capitalism here) of the importance of an academic presence as a key tactic in the very real electoral victories they’ve been racking up over the last 30 years.

Michael Verderame

Dan Colson said...

I think the anonymous post raises some interesting questions about the intersections of the personal and the political. Recently, I have been the subject of some vicious personal attacks (granted, these attacks are on places like the Chicago Tribune comment board--which is easy enough to avoid--but they aren’t fun to read, regardless) based on my recent political actions. Everything from my own political beliefs to my upbringing have been mischaracterized. This public aspect to both the personal and the political has seemed like something new, but perhaps it isn’t.

The classroom is a public space infused with the personal. Often, I have no idea what my students REALLY think about me. Their conjectures about my background, my personal life, and my political leanings sometimes reach me, but most of the time I imagine students aren’t particularly concerned with who I am outside the classroom. Nevertheless, this entire personal-political nexus is complicated when we teach.

For example, why do I choose the novels I do? Partly because I like them. I enjoy Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Michael Gold, and Jack Conroy; I think their work is useful for teaching writing skills, critical thinking ability, and engagement with social issues; so I am teaching them this semester. The choice to teach any author is political: we reinforce the canon or challenge it; we choose “radical” or “conservative” texts (both problematic terms); we focus on issues like race, gender, and class. Once we expand our definition of politics beyond the current election and false left-right/liberal-conservative dichotomies, everything we do in the classroom has political import. No matter the “truth” we seek to illuminate, that truth will always carry political baggage.

I’m clearly not the first to point out that the personal is political, but this elision of the space between constructs like “aesthetics,” “taste,” "preference," "values," "beliefs," and “politics,” reemphasizes the question my original post raises: who defines the political? One simple answer is: everyone. I might choose to teach John Dos Passos for his formal experimentation, but when the class discussion moves to his positive portrayals of labor figures and scathing critiques of people like J.P. Morgan, has my choice morphed into something else? Does my intention to focus on literary politics (experimental American modernism) invalidate my student’s reading of an economo-political critique of capitalism? What if a colleague claims I’m teaching the text to espouse Communism? Does my intent matter in the face of these competing, yet coexisting “political agendas?”

To return to the anonymous post: can my contribution to Kritik be read as a personal attack? Of course it can. Anyone invested enough in a position might be offended by a challenge to that position. I’ve seen the vitriol directed toward me and learned that these personal attacks are themselves political. I can’t explain myself to everyone; my political actions and my personal beliefs will be articulated to causes I don’t espouse and decried by those with whom I agree. And that’s part of the point: our students are not empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge and truth we possess, nor with the personal-political stances we necessarily take any time we step in a classroom. They are young adults who have accepted or rejected inherited values and will do the same with what we try to teach them. Some will be offended and some will attack, but I continue to believe that the instructor is in the best position to determine the appropriateness of “political” discussion. There are those inside and outside the university who disagree with this position, but as other responses have convincingly argued, the university is a political space before we even reach the classroom.

Dan Colson