Jessica Krug is canceled—she canceled herself. In a rare move, this celebrated author and professor of politics, ideas, and cultural practices in Africa and the African Diaspora at George Washington University confessed that she had been living a lie by passing herself off as a black woman and, for that, deserved to live in ignominy. Her wish has since been granted. Krug’s self-outing made national headlines, and the scorn to which she’s been subjected has been withering. And yet, the question on everyone’s minds is, how was it possible for Krug to evade critical scrutiny for this long. A survey of some of the material she was expostulating explains why she coasted under the radar: Krug was saying what her colleagues wanted to hear, and what they want to hear is apologia for violent radicalism.
One particularly execrable example of Krug’s pedagogy was on display at a 2019 Columbia University panel discussion, in which the professor appeared to justify the vicious murder of 15-year-old Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz. You see, the boy, who was chased down by a Dominican street gang and murdered with machetes, was a member of the New York Police Department’s youth program, Explorers. “The narrative around it was that he was an innocent kid,” she said. And yet, Krug noted that Guzman-Feliz’s murder fits within cultural phenomena like the South African practice of “necklacing,” in which black Africans who worked with the Apartheid government had a rubber tire filled with gasoline fitted around their necks and set ablaze. “That kind of violence toward people who are collaborating, or who are working against their communities,” she said, “we have to consider a radical moment in 2018 in which people are using machetes to hack apart a 15-year-old boy who’s working with the police.” After all, she observed, “snitches get stitches.”
It says a lot about both the academy and the culture within the nation’s humanities departments that this made no waves until it was discovered that the person issuing this vile rationale for mob violence didn’t have the right identity. But this was not a divergent personality type on display. Condoning political violence, or at least rationalizing it, has become commonplace in the nation’s humanities departments.
Consider the case of Clemson University professor Bart Knijnenburg, who made local headlines when a campus watchdog group publicized incendiary comments he posted online. “I admire anyone who stands up against white supremacy, violent or non-violent,” the professor wrote in 2017 alongside the hashtag “#PunchNazis.” The university apparently took no action. Three years later, Knijnenburg again found himself in the news after posting protest slogans like “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards) and “Burn it down” as part of his Twitter moniker.
Or take the example of Oberlin College assistant professor of politics Jenny Garcia, who made almost no headlines outside conservative venues when she celebrated the power violence has to focus the minds of politicians. “Protests, even when there is violence, right, can make it a more salient issue, and provide greater pressure on elected officials and candidates,” she postulated. “When we see the destruction of buildings, when we see violence—either by police, or by protesters themselves—we actually see greater response by elected officials.”
And then, there was the episode in which Texas A&M associate professor of philosophy Tommy Curry said, “In order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people might have to die.” Those comments, Curry’s colleagues and students claimed, were taken out of context. But Curry’s attempt to restore that context doesn’t dispel the notion that he regards certain forms of violence as restorative. “Black Americans’ right to defend themselves against white violence has historically been framed as hateful,” he insisted, “whereas white Americans’ right [to] self-defense, which is often understood as their need to protect themselves from blacks, Mexicans and Muslims, is thought to be constitutional and an exercise of freedom.”
Among the more famous apologists for violence within academic circles is Dartmouth College lecturer Mark Bray. Bray became an overnight sensation after authoring a book lionizing the loose amalgamation of sadistic malcontents calling itself Antifa. His deliberate efforts to blur the lines between aggression and self-defense compelled Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon to repudiate Bray in a statement, saying he was “supporting violent protest.” But it was this statement, not Bray’s incitements, that produced a backlash from college faculty. Over 100 of Bray’s Dartmouth colleagues rushed to his defense in an open letter that simultaneously insists Bray’s statements had been mischaracterized by his employer and, also, that he is correct insofar as “fascism has not been stopped by usual recourse to public debate and democratic electoral politics.”
This is a trend, and it didn’t begin in the age of Trump. In his book diagnosing the radicalism that is so freely propagated within identity-studies departments on campus, The Victims’ Revolution, Bruce Bawer notes the extent to which modern pedagogical instruction has been informed by theorists with an unhealthy affinity for revolutionary violence.
Paulo Freire’s often assigned 1970 manifesto Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which City Journal’s Sol Stern noted has achieved “near-iconic status in America’s teacher-training programs,” teaches students that “violence is initiated by those who oppress.” It is never “the helpless,” he adds, “who initiate terror.”
Freire is hardly alone. “The practice of violence binds them together as a whole, since each individual forms a violent link in the great chain, a part of a great organism of violence,” wrote the philosopher Frantz Fanon in his often-cited book, The Wretched of the Earth. “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.”
Even those on the New Left who were skeptical of “potentially liberating violence” (at least on a tactical level) like Herbert Marcuse nevertheless advocated “the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies” or “oppose the extension of public services…”
All of this has been internalized by the faculty and passed on to the student body. The rehabilitation of targeted violence to achieve political aims is a familiar project on college campuses. After all, “snitches get stitches” is just a more pedestrian way of communicating one’s opposition to what University of Washington professor Devon Peña called in 2010 “the structural violence that allows neoliberal capitalism to colonize every single gay, lesbian, trans-gendered, and straight body on this plant.”
This project is working. In 2017, one survey found that a majority of matriculated college students believed it was acceptable, even necessary, to apply a Marcusian maximalist view toward the suppression of views deemed beyond the pale. Almost one-fifth of students said they agreed that violence was an acceptable form of protest against speakers with whom they disagreed. Too often, the exploration of political violence less resembles an academic exercise and verges into the realm of advocacy. If the threat posed by political violence was once only theoretical, it isn’t anymore. And it is long past time for some accountability.