Update, December 28, 11am CT: Drexel University has “reiterated their support for faculty who participate in vigorous public debate” and will not discipline Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, according to Ciccariello-Maher and his lawyer.
Breitbart Media initiated a smear campaign against a radical scholar of international politics and decolonization for a satirical tweet he published December 24 mocking white supremacists.
Instead of coming to the aid of George Ciccariello-Maher, who has received death threats, Drexel University issued a statement on Christmas condemning the scholar’s tweet. The official reaction spurred concerns that the post-election climate has opened political space for far-right attacks on leftist and anti-racist academics.
On December 24, Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor at Philadelphia-based Drexel, published a tweet stating, “all I want for Christmas is white genocide.” He then tweeted, “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a good thing indeed.” Ciccariello-Maher later deleted the first tweet and has since secured his account by making it private.
In a public statement, Ciccariello-Maher explained the meaning of the tweets. “On Christmas Eve, I sent a satirical tweet about an imaginary concept, ‘white genocide,'” he said. “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.”
Ciccariello-Maher, author of the new book Decolonizing Dialectics, said he had been inundated with abuse and death threats.
“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,” he continued. “Beginning with Breitbart.com — 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.”
He told AlterNet, “I woke up Christmas day to hundreds of emails, including many death threats directed at me and my family.”
The comments section of one article about the tweet, published on the white nationalist outlet Breitbart, includes death threats against Ciccariello-Maher, with one post reading, “Shouldn’t somebody kill him? Before he breeds?” The comments section also includes hateful remarks disparaging LGBTQ people and African Americans. The story was quickly picked up by websites and spread over social media.
Instead of condemning the threats made against Ciccariello-Maher, Drexel University said in a statement, “While the University recognizes the right of its faculty to freely express their thoughts and opinions in public debate, Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s comments are utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing, and do not in any way reflect the values of the University.”
“The University is taking this situation very seriously,” the statement continued. “We contacted Ciccariello-Maher today to arrange a meeting to discuss this matter in detail.”
Ciccariello-Maher called the university’s response worrying. “While upholding my right to free expression, the statement refers to my (satirical) tweets as ‘utterly reprehensible,'” he said. “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.”
Steven Salaita, who was fired in August 2014 from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for social media posts criticizing Israel’s military assault on Gaza that year, told AlterNet he agrees with Ciccariello-Maher’s assessment. “People tend to focus on tweets and personalities, but the basic issue is this: we cannot have Breitbart and similar sites arbitrating who can be hired and fired in universities,” said Salaita. “If Drexel University caves to the pressure, it will set a terrible and chilling precedent on the eve of Trump’s presidency.”
A petition calling for support of Ciccariello-Maher has already garnered hundreds of signatures. “Let Drexel know — in the midst of the deafening, organized troll-storm — that racist trolls deserve no platform in dictating academic discourse, let alone the off-duty tweets of academics,” the petition states. “They are being VERY noisy; we can’t be silent.”
In his public statement, Ciccariello-Maher emphasized: “As my students will attest, my classroom is a free-for-all of ideas, in which anyone is welcome to their opinions, but expected to defend those opinions with argument. I teach regularly on the history of genocidal practices like colonialism and slavery — genocides carried out by the very same kind of violent racists who are smearing me today. That violent racism will now have a voice in the White House is truly frightening — I am not the first and I won’t be the last to be harassed and threatened by Bannon, Trump, and co.”
Drexel University did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.