Defend George Cicciariello-Maher

The Left must combat employers' enormous authority over workers' political speech.

Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA. Drexel University website

OChristmas Eve, George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at Drexel University whose excellent work on Venezuela and political theory you may know, tweeted, “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide.” The next day, he followed up with this: “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a good thing indeed.” The Right quickly rallied, dive-bombing Ciccariello-Maher with death threats and his employer with all manner of denunciations. Drexel responded in the way we’ve come to expect from nervous administrators. After pronouncing the tweets “reprehensible,” it declared, “The University is taking this situation very seriously. We contacted Ciccariello-Maher today to arrange a meeting to discuss this matter in detail.”

Folks, we’ve been here before. Over the years, it has become a pillar of our organizing that no one should be punished by his or her employer for political speech off the job. This is a cornerstone of academic freedom, but many of us believe it should be extended to all forms of employment.

I’ve been absolutely consistent on this principle over the years, even when it has involved employees expressing views I find abhorrent. I defended Glenn Reynolds, a right-wing professor at the University of Tennessee Law School, against calls that he be fired after he tweeted that car drivers should “run down” protesters blocking traffic in Charlotte, North Carolina over a fatal police shooting there. I defended a nurse — also in Philadelphia, as it happens — who was fired for posting awful racist comments on her Facebook page. (I am not equating or comparing George’s tweets with those of Reynolds or the Facebook posts of that nurse: I’m merely noting my bona fides here, sadly, because I have to.) The principle, as I say, is simple: no one should be fired — and suffer all the consequences of what that means in a country like the United States — for their political speech, particularly when it’s off the job.

I know there will be an impulse to forget, ignore, or temporarily suspend this principle in order to get into a long debate about the substance of George’s tweet, to assess whether he crossed a line or not, to examine the rules of irony and satire and whether they apply here. There will be an impulse to have a long debate about how far our principles of tolerance should extend, with a whole array of hypotheticals marshaled at either end to test the limits of our principles. Or perhaps we’ll have a long debate about the problems with the Left’s focus on race and whiteness.

From long experience, I ask you to resist that impulse and to recognize that there really are extraordinarily powerful forces, newly empowered by the results of this election, arrayed now against George. Breitbart’s site, for example, is all over this one. George’s statement, which I’ve lightly edited for brevity, testifies to this situation:

On Christmas Eve, I sent a satirical tweet about an imaginary concept, “white genocide.” For those who haven’t bothered to do their research, “white genocide” is an idea invented by white supremacists and used to denounce everything from interracial relationships to multicultural policies (and most recently, against a tweet by State Farm Insurance). It is a figment of the racist imagination, it should be mocked, and I’m glad to have mocked it.

What I am not glad about is that this satirical tweet became fodder for online white supremacists to systematically harass me and my employer, Drexel University. Beginning with — formerly the domain of special counselor to the president-elect, Steve Bannon — and running through the depths of Reddit discussion boards, a coordinated smear campaign was orchestrated to send mass tweets and emails to myself, my employer, and my colleagues. I have received hundreds of death threats.

Drexel University issued a statement on the matter, apparently without understanding either the content or the context of the tweets. While Drexel has been nothing but supportive in the past, this statement is worrying. While upholding my right to free expression, the statement refers to my (satirical) tweets as “utterly reprehensible.” What is most unfortunate is that this statement amounts to caving to the truly reprehensible movements and organizations that I was critiquing. On the university level, moreover, this statement — despite a tepid defense of free speech — sends a chilling message and sets a frightening precedent. It exposes untenured and temporary faculty not only to internal disciplinary scrutiny, but equally importantly, it encourages harassment as an effective means to impact university policies.

The principle is simple: If you don’t think the state should criminalize and punish a particular form of speech, then you shouldn’t support employers firing people for that speech, particularly if it’s off the job and/or does not compromise job performance. People still tend to view employment and the workplace as part of civil society, a sphere of personal association and sociability. It’s not. It’s a regime of governance, as Elizabeth Anderson argues in Private Government, a forthcoming book about workplace domination. And in the United States, it’s been one of the most potent means by which freedom of speech, including political speech, has been abridged.

Remember this: During the McCarthy years, maybe two hundred people at most were imprisoned for their political beliefs. Yet one to two of every five workers — as much as 40 percent of the workforce — were subject to political investigations. As we head into this new era, that’ll be one of the main places where we’ll see repression.