Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 27, 2016

Defend George Ciccariello-Maher

Filed under: Academia,repression,technology — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

George Ciccariello-Maher

Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher is under attack right now from the alt-right for Tweets supposedly targeting whites.

Although I hold Slate.com in pretty low regard, they have an article today that is quite useful for background:

George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, provoked the wrath of the internet’s worst people on Christmas Eve when he tweeted, “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. In a follow-up tweet, he added, “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a very good thing indeed.” (The tweets are no longer available online, as Ciccariello-Maher has since made his Twitter account private.) In context, it seems clear that he was tweaking white supremacists for their repurposing of the term “white genocide,” which is disingenuously invoked nowadays to pretend that uncontroversial things like interracial dating are as threatening as the slaughter that took place in Haiti in 1804. But Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets were as good a reason for a witch hunt as any, and what better time to hunt witches than Christmas?

Breitbart, as usual, was the most openly racist about it; their writer Warner Todd Huston went out of his way to link Ciccariello-Maher to the largest university in Mexico, apparently as a disqualifying factor, and characterized his Twitter feed as “filled with hateful, obnoxious messages, anti-Americanism, slams of President Donald Trump, attacks on Jews, as well as pro-Black Lives Matter and pro-communist sloganeering.” The story quickly went as viral as dysentery, spattering its way all over the right-wing media—there are currently four separate stories about it on The Daily Caller alone—and the customary wave of obscenities, calls for Ciccariello-Maher’s firing, and death threats crashed into Drexel.

Read full article

There’s a petition defending George at Change.org that I have signed and I encourage all my readers to sign it as well. The fact that Breitbart.com is spearheading the McCarthyite attack on him should be reason enough to speak out. With Breitbart editor Steve Bannon serving as Donald Trump’s chief political adviser, there is little doubt that witch-hunts against the left are on the agenda.

While I am completely in solidarity with George, who is a Facebook friend, I do want to switch gears a bit here and say something about the problem with radicals using Twitter for political commentary.

As should be obvious from the Steven Salaita affair, tweets are made to order for rightwing attacks since they are easier to rip out of context than blog posts or any other medium that does not force you to express yourself in 140 characters. That Twitter is Donald Trump’s favorite way of reaching the public might give you pause. Just the other day Trump tweeted about nuclear weapons but in such a cryptic manner that 140,000 words have already been written to wring out their meaning.

Here’s the NY Times attempting to decipher Trump’s words: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

For them, they had one of three possibilities:

  • Modernize existing nuclear forces, in line with but upgrading President Obama’s plan
  • Expand qualitative nuclear capability by developing faster or more powerful delivery systems, like cruise missiles
  • Deploy existing weapons systems closer to adversaries, for example in Eastern Europe

Now it doesn’t matter much whether Trump is purposely sowing confusion to keep friends and enemies alike off-balance or simply too foggy-minded to express a clear opinion. After all, he is 70 and not much of a thinker even when he was 40 years younger. Plus, as the most powerful man in the world, he has liberties that most of us do not enjoy, especially a college professor who unlike most is not afraid to express himself in uncompromising terms.

There was another such college professor who was victimized for his tweets not so long ago. Steven Salaita was denied a job at the University of Illinois he had already been accepted for after the Israeli lobby singled some tweets out of context. For example, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” was simply a cry of anguish not an invitation to abduct anybody.

Others less known have also run into static as Inside Higher Education has reported. On November 21, there was an article about Rutgers University adjunct Kevin Allred, who had been placed on leave and barred from over this tweet: “Will the Second Amendment be as cool when I buy a gun and start shooting at random white people or no …?” Rutgers ratted Allred out to the New York City cops who forced him to be evaluated by psychologists and then released him. Twitter also ordered him to remove the tweet.

On May 14, 2015, there was another article about Saida Grundy, an incoming assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Boston University. Socawledge.com, a Breitbart-like website, had collected some of her tweets in an effort to at least scandalize her and worse. Like the Drexel administration, Boston University allowed the ultraright to dictate the terms of the controversy with its spokesman Colin Riley telling Fox News that the university “does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are deeply saddened when anyone makes such offensive statements.” One of the offensive statements was “Why is white america so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” With so many racist incidents taking place on college campuses around the country, this does not seem like an unreasonable question.

The problem with all of the tweets cited above is that they are utterly lacking in context. When George Ciccariello-Maher made a cogent defense of his Swiftian tweet, it should have convinced anybody outside of alt-right ranks that he was making a satirical commentary about the notion that white people are facing an existential threat such as the Jews faced under Hitler. But that was not exactly obvious from the tweet. Speaking for myself, a Marxist for the past 50 years or so, I had no idea that “white genocide” was a term peculiar to the alt-right so what would a Drexel administrator know?

It boils down to this. The left has to abandon Twitter as a form of political commentary. I use it but very sparingly, most of the time as an automatic feed for my blog posts. By and large, very few academics have either the time—or more importantly—the inclination to write political analysis unless it is directly related to their job. They might write an article every year or so for Historical Materialism, New Left Review, Science & Society or some more specialized JSTOR type journal but would never dream of pumping out 2000 words on “white genocide” in a blog. There’s no pay for that nor room for it on your CV. Except for Juan Cole, Michael Roberts and the left-liberals at Crooked Timber, I can’t think of any other academic radical off the top of my head who blogs on a regular basis.

On September 2nd, 2015, Times Higher Education, a trade journal having no connection to the newspaper of record, published an article titled “The weird and wonderful world of academic Twitter” that was impressed with how “Twitter … acts as a virtual water cooler, a place where academics go to build community, have some fun, and let off steam.’ Let off steam, indeed.

The article singles out the Twitter account “Shit Academics Say” as a representative of academic tweeting at its best. This is typical:


What a waste of 10 years getting a PhD.


  1. This post is right on the mark. Isn’t it the duty of those who have spent years learning to think, analyze, write, and teach to always put what they say in context? Twitter reminds me of “bar talk,” what you might hear in a bar after those talking have had a few drinks. People say things they might not say in a classroom or in a public forum. Or even on a picket line. And wouldn’t it be better for teachers to organize on their campuses and communities in whatever ways they can? Why waste time on twitter? The racist trolls are out there looking for tweets that can be taken out of context and then put out there for all those who will howl for the tweeter’s head. These are dangerous times. Let’s make our words (and actions) count. Of course, Professor Ciccariello-Maher must be supported and Drexel put on the spot not to damage him. But tweets shouldn’t be confused with radical politics. When we use it to post provocatively, aren’t we really trying to become celebrities in our own tiny worlds? Fitting right into the hegemonic power of the very system we’d like to overthrow?

    Comment by michael yates — December 27, 2016 @ 5:06 pm

  2. I believe the lack of context and ambiguity was deliberate in an attempt to be “edgy,”

    Comment by abe (@silus_2000) — December 27, 2016 @ 6:32 pm

  3. I agree, as well, While I am in complete solidarity with Ciccariello-Maher against Drexel, I think we should focus on addressing the political needs of the public. Don’t pick a fight in any venue where there’s nothing to gain and where you’re likely to be misunderstood and certain to be misrepresented . . . Politics isn’t “performance art.” And the issues aren’t symbolic. Remember that you can never win any battles in academe that you won’t have to refight with the next administrator . . . . or the next week. We don’t need to look for fights over academic freedom, because they come stalking after us regularly. Wouldn’t it be much better if Left scholars would be pointing to real issues in the public sphere–Standing Rock, BLM, etc.? Of course it would.

    Comment by Mark Lause — December 27, 2016 @ 7:39 pm

  4. oh-ho! every comment made online for the past 5 years is fodder for the thought police, and now someone calling for “white genocide” wants to bring CONTEXT back into the lexicon!

    im all for it– i never voted to get rid of context in the first place. but it has to be for everyone, not just a privilege of the left. also: i was “left” before the left made it so hopelessly stupid and superficial and destructive to free speech and honest, open, not always double-plus-good thinking. im only as “right” as the left says i am– *whatever!*

    Comment by codeinfig — December 28, 2016 @ 5:01 am

  5. “Don’t pick a fight in any venue where there’s nothing to gain and where you’re likely to be misunderstood and certain to be misrepresented . . . Politics isn’t “performance art.” And the issues aren’t symbolic. Remember that you can never win any battles in academe that you won’t have to refight with the next administrator . . . . or the next week. We don’t need to look for fights over academic freedom, because they come stalking after us regularly. Wouldn’t it be much better if Left scholars would be pointing to real issues in the public sphere–Standing Rock, BLM, etc.? Of course it would.”

    I understand the reasoning here, but a couple of things: (1) I follow Ciccariello-Maher on Twitter and he does “point out real issues in the public sphere” frequently; and (2) this prompted me to remember something a friend in journalist told me years when a coworker observed that another worker of color had failings, and she responded, “Why do we have to be perfect, whites don’t.”

    I think the same logic is applicable here. Why does Ciccariello-Maher have to censor himself, and conform to a manufactured, polite persona, when millions of others on Twitter don’t? There was nothing wrong with what he tweeted, and he should be defended on that basis. Furthermore, there are real consequences to having people abandon Twitter, it is a social media platform where a lot of information is disseminated and a lot of organizing takes place. For example, Twitter was essential during Ferguson and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. If academics aren’t there, maybe they should be.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 28, 2016 @ 5:11 pm

  6. Looks like Ciccariello-Maher has prevailed. Cory Rubin has some insight as to why

    Corey Robin

    22 hrs ·


    This is excellent news: Drexel is standing behind George Ciccariello-Maher, identified here as a “white associate professor,” and affirms he will not be subject to any kind of disciplinary action. (That that even constitutes good news is a sign of the times, but I digress.) All of us should study closely how George has handled this attack because he’s done a masterful job of dealing with controversies that have become routine for some academics (particularly women and scholars of color) and will become even more routine in the coming years. First, he went dark: shutting down his Twitter account to the public and his Facebook account to everyone. (That’s important because it prevents trolls from mining material from the past and manipulating it to their nefarious ends.) Second, he rallied his friends and supporters to spread the word. Third, he wrote a very sharp, taut statement, in which he didn’t back down, didn’t apologize, but simply explained what he said, without rancor or remorse, and implicitly rebuked the university but also held out an olive branch to them, affirming their support for him in the past, and cast the controversy in the broadest light. What’s more, he didn’t stray from that statement but stuck to it: in every single story on the matter, when the press reached out to him, George obviously emailed them the statement and that is all that got reported from him. Fourth, he got a lawyer. Going into this, George had the advantage of tenure (I believe; correct me if I’m wrong) and a wide circle of devoted friends and followers. But those advantages aren’t always utilized to their fullest. In George’s case, they were. Bravo!

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 28, 2016 @ 8:28 pm

  7. Good piece. Thanks for directing me to it. I wasn’t familiar with the term “white genocide” either, so while I am a staunch defender of free speech, I had some sympathy for the reaction of Drexel’s administration. I don’t think progressives need to abandon Twitter, but I think they need to be really careful how they use it. I use it mostly to post links to pieces I like. I’m going to do that now, with this piece.Thanks again!

    Comment by M.G. Piety — January 2, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

  8. […] Twit­ter forces its users to write dis­crete dis­patches of 140 char­ac­ters or less, which prac­tic­ally begs to be taken out of con­text — and godaw­ful word­ing not­with­stand­ing, they may have had […]

    Pingback by L’affaire Ciccariello-Maher: “White genocide” and beyond | The Charnel-House — January 4, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

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