Criticism of safe spaces unmasks white supremacy

The debate about campus free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and related topics in schools and universities is very old. Indeed, modern campus activism traces to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, where the student body fought against an administration that wanted complete control of conduct.

Though safe spaces have been placed in direct opposition to campus free speech in many discussions, I will point out that the University of Chicago’s stance against safe spaces is the same sort of administration power play that free speech coalitions have fought against. Issues differ, but it is all rooted in the same power dynamic

Well, the University of Chicago has always embodied the Slowpoke meme. Always relishing its anachronisms. Thus, it’s not surprising that they take fairly regressive stances on campus issues. Students and former students like Cameron Okeke have criticized the university’s stance, saying it has no appreciation of how safe spaces can improve campus function and dialogue, not hinder it. They’re right.

Within education there is a bizarre, unresolved contradiction. Schools, especially universities, are supposed to be about open exchange and freedom. Yet these institutions often serve to bolster white supremacy and obscure historical injustice. Whatever your age, if you were born and raised in the United States, what was the first thing you ever learned about the indigenous people of the Americas? Probably the first Thanksgiving, which occurred over a century after contact. We are told there was harmony, while the systematic extinction of the original inhabitants starting with Columbus is taught much later. Humans tend to believe the first thing they are told about a subject, even if it is later proven to be false (in psychology this is called anchoring). Thus many people think Thanksgiving, not the forced mining or Trail of Tears. If you grew up in California, you spent a whole half-year talking about the mission system. I’ll bet subjugation of natives to serve as labor was probably glossed over. Same with focusing on the Founding Fathers crafting a republican form of government, rather than how it excluded anyone who wasn’t white and wealthy.

So if primary and secondary education fail us, universities have to serve as the counterpoint. But eliminating safe spaces doesn’t make the discussion better, it makes it worse. In most elite schools, black and Latino/a students are under-represented. The strain of often being the only black or brown student in a class, or on the floor of a dorm, is huge. Universities that historically had no people of color (or women, for that matter) are not welcoming, especially if no effort is made to change. Safe spaces, trigger warning, etc. are an effort. U of Chicago is nailing its feet to a place between the beginning of the civil rights movement, and now. It can only fall further behind.

Cal State Los Angeles has recently gotten attention for offering campus housing that is designed for students interested in black culture and issues. This has been called segregation (it’s not), but this all seems to be about comfort. Namely, sacrificing the comfort and safety of students of color in favor of the comfort of white people, who would rather not be reminded of how the university works for them but not for others. That lofty concepts like academic freedom are being dragged down is distressing, as it’s just a fig leaf. Administration wants control, nothing more and nothing less.


Thomas Paine: an always-relevant radical

The birthday of Thomas Paine just happened, January 29th on the Julian calendar. But since he doesn’t turn 279 years old until February 9th on our Gregorian calendar, there is still time to pen a retrospective!

As a political figure, most Americans learned in middle school US History that he wrote something called Common Sense, and it was a big deal when everything was starting to pop off in the Thirteen Colonies. The trajectory of his life after 1776 showed how different his political philosophy was with the bulk of Founding Fathers. A feature in Jacobin written last year emphasized that until his relatively recent rehabilitation, Paine was the icon of rogues and radicals only. If the establishment hated you because you wanted to abolish slavery or have a trade union or whatever, you probably looked to Paine as a source of wisdom.

Paine, before injustice gave him grey hair. Portrait by Matthew Pratt

What stands out with Paine, and makes him a superior model compared to fatally compromised thinkers like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, is his consistent denunciation of all systems of exploitation. His argument in Common Sense was for independence, yes, but it was more importantly an argument aimed directly at the monarchy and aristocracy. Many Founders fought a war against a monarchical colonial power, but they weren’t necessarily republican in their thinking. The Declaration of Independence is an indictment of a particular king; Common Sense is an indictment of the whole idea of kings. Indeed, there was much ambiguity about the new American executive initially, with many wanting Washington to become king, or at least king-like. Gordon Wood talks about this aspect of the early republic, additionally his chapter “A Monarchical Republic” in Empire of Liberty is a summation of how conservative many Founders and Framers were about the break from hereditary rule.

So even in this first step, Paine was outpacing most of the other Founders. After colonial rule, he took on a whole spectrum of society. He went after the institutional church in The Age of Reason. He defended the democratic revolution in France, almost ending up a casualty in the purge-y portion. Agrarian Justice is the most substantial critique of private property and institutional privilege of its generation. He was one of the early abolitionists. And he stood against the majority of the National Convention that wanted the King executed- because he saw the death penalty as another archaic injustice not suited for a democratic age.

Indeed, Paine’s consistency is refreshing. Not only compared to Jefferson’s incoherent views on freedom and slavery in his own time, but today. Many people call themselves lovers of liberty, but only advocate for a part of Paine’s philosophy. Conservative Americans love the talk of liberty above tyranny in Common Sense, the irreligious enjoy the broadsides against Christianity in The Age of Reason. And it’s easy for liberals to like Paine’s argument for a welfare state in Agrarian Justice. Of course, this was the case in his own time- he was loved and reviled by the same people at different times. Even today, with many progressive developments, Paine remains radical. Where other Founders have calcified into marble, his fight is not yet finished.

Paine seemingly never wrote anything that didn’t make at least some powerful people mad.

The living character of his writing made him one of the few figures that benefitted from 1960s-era historical revisionism. In my generation, the pedagogy of the Founding has been complicated- how can the Virginia planters that dominated politics be lauded, when their leisure was the result of human bondage? Even now, the critique is hesitant and usually after-the-fact. Paine is in full color, waiting to be embraced.

So I believe that the question of Paine’s place in the traditional Founders isn’t worth debating. He fits in with the Founding Fathers that represent the rest of the spectrum of the American people. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Frederick Douglass. Lucretia Mott and William Ll0yd Garrison. And even John Brown, who despite his troubling nature still was willing to die to make “all men are created equal” something other than a statement of hypocrisy. Their revolution was about more than white men and their property rights. I suggest a promotion to hang out with a much more fitting pantheon.

All Lives Matter? Like when the Founders said “all men are created equal”?

Tweet from
Tweet from

The rhetoric of “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter” is one of the most tired, toxic debates of the past year. My own opinion is relatively common- the latter is clearly not true in our society, and thus the former is clearly not true until things change.

“All lives matter” is the cry of people who in one way or another don’t see black Americans as equal to themselves. This stretches from dime-a-dozen racists to immensely powerful people. A politician can say “all lives matter”, then go to the floor and vote for mass incarceration, for cuts to social programs, against police accountability, and all matter of policies that reinforce white supremacy and create second-class semi-citizens. The victims of the War on Drugs are not only caught in a cycle of poverty, they have an inferior set of civil rights. American political and social leaders exalt freedom and liberty, but draw clear lines on who is to receive them and who is not deserving.

As the tweet states, perhaps my favorite summary of the issue, we should not be surprised by the disingenuous use of “all lives matter”. The United States is built upon hypocrisy. Of promising one thing and delivering another. Just like “all men or created equal” was based on a very narrow definition of who is a person- male, free, and white- it is abundantly clear that in 2015 the lives of people of color are not worthy of consideration. My previous post about police intimidation of activists saw a law enforcement official create a line between “true citizens” and those that challenge the system. I doubt the author of the email thinks that all lives matter equally.

Liberty and justice for all? Hardly.

Courts are a model of efficiency when they impose mandatory minimums for crimes of survival, but have no interest in capitalist looting of society. Property is valued higher than certain types of people. A CVS was damaged in Baltimore? Clearly people of color can’t control their anger. An irate officer tackles Sandra Bland after arresting her for nothing? Well, she should have just cooperated with the officer- the officer didn’t do anything wrong!

This is the latest of many episodes where the core hypocrisy of the American state is exposed- a state built on the bones of indigenous people, and fueled by the forced labor of people deemed unworthy of being included in the statement “all men are created equal.”

The many lies of national mythology

Presently I’m reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman. Originally I bought it as a present for my dad, chosen from Barnes & Noble because our symbolic ethnicity is Scottish, and it seemed like an interesting read. He finished it, so I stole it to read on my second trip north towards Canada.

Elaborate traditional opening of the Scottish Parliament.

One interesting aspect of the book is on the dirty, depressing method by which England and Scotland became united in 1707. Scotland, which was mostly out of the colonial game and among the poorest European countries, scraped together a bunch of money for what was called the Darien Scheme. In retrospect it was a terrible idea- it was already well-established that Europeans couldn’t survive in the tropics, the land was unpopulated but claimed by the Spanish, even though it was decades after Jamestown it still had the issues with colonists and cargo not being particularly useful. Scotland tapped out and joined the English rather than attempt to create their own international commerce system.

That’s interesting, particularly in light of the (not terribly likely to pass) independence referendum in six weeks. The origins of modern states are often messy and unpleasant; it’s why the modern concept of the nation was created. Leaders could rewrite history and craft a new, artificial culture. It helps to distract from how many countries, European and former colonies alike, exist due to treaty negotiations. The glorious struggle is often more like the tedious administrative wrangling.

What fascinates me about nationalism is how the recent can become the arcane and sacred in the minds of millions. Almost everyone probably thinks that French has been the dominant language in France for a very long time. After all, it’s called France. But until the last 150 years or so, a vast majority of citizens spoke little to no French.

At the time, French, although an official language, was still little used, even in France. It was the language of the court, the aristocracy and middle class, literature, and academia, but was spoken by fewer than one million out of the 20 million inhabitants of France, or 5% of the population. Given that nobles numbered only about 4,000 at the court, it was the middle class and merchants who, in absolute numbers, spoke French the most. (source)


The various languages in France and their extent, 1550 CE.

European history, as taught to me in the main high school textbook, was about how Latin was a language of the church and elite, and the big shift was to vernacular languages. This did happen, but the truth of the matter is that the big modern tongues we think of were far less influential than they are today. In fact, the rise of unified, centralized education was needed to demote languages like Occitan to secondary importance.

Just like how you could say that man made god, man made the nation. Traditionally both religion and nationhood have a sort of holy feeling, and a sense of destiny. In America, there is often a blurring between the Founding Fathers and the Framers as men, or as deities.

If the independence referendum fails, the reasons will go beyond pragmatic economic and political concerns. Part of it will be how a British identity has been fashioned. The marvel of the modern world is not how violent and destructive it is, but how countries that spent most of the last millennium trying to kill each other don’t anymore. For every Yugoslavia, where one identity became many, there are others were a disunited region became one.

What I’m trying to say in the end is that there are many histories. We tend to believe the dominant explanation of the past. That doesn’t mean it’s a good picture. For all its flaws, A People’s History of the United States was an attempt to disrupt the American mythology. Such work may be a sort of inconvenient truth- what ends up in textbooks and classroom lectures usually works, for some group of people.