Editor’s note: In 2017, Lars Maischak, a history lecturer, was removed from teaching in Fresno State classrooms after he posted a tweet that said, in part, that “Trump must hang.” Maischak’s courses were shifted to the university’s online program.
You may have been upset when you heard Fresno State professor Randa Jarrar called recently deceased first lady Barbara Bush a racist.
The social media world and many people in Fresno are now targeting her with hostile comments in response and she is defending herself against calls for her to be fired, personal insults on her looks and much much worse.
Last year at this time, I was in her place, so I have a clear understanding of how ugly this drama over words can become.
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Perhaps you heard that I made comments to friends on social media identifying President Trump as a fascist and predicted he would face execution if he continued to dismantle American democracy. I would love to have that debate with you, so you can tell me why you think I have it wrong, or why Jarrar was not justified in her assessment.
But the wish to deport, rape, kill, fire, arrest and drive out of town on a rail those whose opinions upset you is the clear marker of an authoritarian mind. It does not help that government-friendly media outlets amplify these sentiments, while remaining within the limits of plausible deniability of incitement to illegal acts.
The “righteous anger of the people” was, of course, the justification for the first waves of arrests in Germany in 1933. Or rather, not arrests but the rendition of individuals into protective custody, where the justifiable anger of the people could not reach. This was the birth of the concentration camp. Coincidentally, the first inmates were liberals and Marxists.
One of those first inmates was my great-grandfather, Heinrich Paulens, local president of the shipbuilders union at the Vulcan Ship-Yards in Bremen. If we were speaking in person, you would hear a trace of a German accent in my English. This is not purely a historian's detached point of view. This is personal, a horror lived out by my family in our native Germany, and retold time and again when my family gathered for coffee and cake.
Anyone with factual knowledge of 1930s fascism will find the parallels too obvious to elaborate. Consider the forthcoming book by Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, for example, called “Fascism: A Warning.”
But in the present climate, where respectable individuals will advise you that having a critical opinion poses a health risk, speaking truth to power is not always welcome.
In a social media age, the online network of character- and career-assassins functions for Trump, as the brown-shirted thugs did for Hitler. They are the boots on the ground, and on the neck of the dissidents.
This is the time to speak out against the campaign of death threats and public vilification. Unfortunately, many who pride themselves on being level-headed, respectable leaders in this city have decided that the targets of this campaign have only themselves to blame.
Consider Fresno State president Joseph Castro.
When I was attacked, he called the federal authorities to investigate my tweets, and let the public know he did. He embraced the language, and repeated the accusations, that originated with the right-wing propaganda sources. He has since refused to acknowledge that the Secret Service found me innocent, after a thorough investigation.
When Fresno State professor Greg Thatcher was set up by a serial provocateur who chalked clerical-fascist propaganda slogans on Fresno State pavement, Castro sided with the attackers.
But that was early in 2017. Joseph Castro might have gone through a learning process since then. He might have read the accounts of like attacks on professors at other schools. He might have studied the organizations that promote a concerted attack on academic freedom.
And then came the case of Randa Jarrar. Once again, Castro is taking the side of the attackers. There is not a word about the outrage of hundreds bearing down on a harmless individual with vicious, murderous hatred. Instead, condemnation of the incriminated statements of the professor, and thinly veiled threats of termination.
Castro had a choice. Other universities dealt more wisely with similar situations. Castro should have been prepared for a fresh attack on this one. But rather than defending academic freedom against the fascist threat, Castro once again offered to serve as parade marshal for the lynch mob. Shame on him.
Fresno State should take a clear stand against the fascist threat to academic freedom. If its leadership is unable or unwilling to take this stand, it should make way for better leadership.
If you believe the fascist propaganda outlets, universities are places where Marxists, liberals, and feminists poison the minds of the young with their un-American ideas. This notion is as resistant to facts that contradict it as any other tenet of the Republican sub-culture in the age of Trump.
But if the facts do not support your views, there is always the option to keep telling yourself stories that do. To identify, condemn and ultimately remove professors with critical opinions – especially if they voice them in public – is the express purpose of well-financed, right-wing organizations like Turning Point USA, the people who assemble the Professor Watchlist. They supply the public with the stories of dangerous, deranged and demagogical professors that confirm every worst fear.
Every now and then, these groups, with the enthusiastic support of a loose network of online trolls and vigilantes, will succeed in mounting an orchestrated campaign of violent threats against a professor. Egged on by the Breitbart, Fox, and Sinclair organizations, the targets of these campaigns can expect to receive hundreds of messages by social media, email, mail or phone from individuals demeaning them, insulting them and threatening them.
The American Association of University Professors is keeping track of these campaigns and the groups that facilitate them.
Pause to call to your mind the enormity and monstrosity of this process. Suddenly a harmless individual will be subject to a storm of hostility, hear their name trumpeted across the nation as a byword for villainy by TV and radio stations, and often threatened in their livelihood by a cowardly, skittish employer.
If you want to live in a country where this kind of thing happens regularly, I have nothing further to say to you.
If, however, you believe that this country is better than that, and that it should live up to its best traditions of freedom of expression, vibrant democratic debate, and constructive dialog in the service of arriving at truth, you should speak out now, before it is too late.
Lars Maischak, Ph.D., is a lecturer in American history at Fresno State.