Anatomy of a Smear

Scholars should speak out against those who have weaponized the language of “safety,” “security,” “acknowledgment” and “inclusion” to silence anyone who disagrees with them, argues Peter Wood.

September 10, 2018
 
 
Rachel Fulton Brown

For several years, Rachel Fulton Brown, an associate professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago, has been defamed by Dorothy Kim, a professor of English literature at Brandeis University, with such terms as “white supremacist,” “alt-right” and “racist.” Kim now continues to slur Fulton Brown in an article at Inside Higher Ed. Kim’s continued defamation, whose real purpose is to shut down the free speech of anyone who disagrees with her, underscores the necessity for professors, academic institutions and ordinary citizens to affirm Fulton Brown’s good scholarly reputation.

Kim’s opinion piece nicely illustrates the specious verbiage social justice warriors use to defame their opponents. Kim says in effect that because there are in our country of 325 million a handful of white supremacists who look back fondly to medieval Europe, medievalists must devote themselves to exorcising the demon of racism. Some stranger or strangers read what Fulton Brown had said on her blog about Kim’s defamatory remarks. That person (or persons) then sent Kim an unpleasant comment, which Kim now uses to indict Fulton Brown as part of an alt-right conspiracy. A principled argument that a scholarship restricted to “medievalists of color” is racist is transformed into what Kim calls “epistemic racial violence.” Kim wants to feel “safe,” so Fulton Brown must be forbidden from attending a workshop Kim organized for the International Congress of Medieval Studies. Love of academic freedom in Kim’s view is a deceptive “rhetoric.” “Alt-right” and “alt-medieval” apparently mean anyone who opposes her attempt to redefine medieval studies as a witch hunt.

What is at issue is that Fulton Brown loudly opposed turning medieval studies into a ritual castigation of racism and sexism, as so much of the rest of the humanities has become. She championed instead the traditional idea that it should seek out the truth about a time and place inhabited by the usual complement of saints and sinners. Kim retaliated by defaming Fulton Brown partly because she was unable to best her in argument, but partly because such defamation has proven an effective tactic both inside and outside the academy. To call Fulton Brown a “white supremacist,” “alt-right” or “racist” is to say she is so evil that she deserves to be shut up and, if at all possible, to lose her job. It is also a warning to everyone else in the profession -- everyone who does not have tenure at a relatively staunch institution such as the University of Chicago: Keep quiet or we’ll make sure you’re hounded out of the profession.

All Americans, but especially academic individuals and institutions, need to stand up to defend Fulton Brown’s good name. We can only defend academic freedom, and freedom of speech more broadly, if we affirm the good name of the slandered. Otherwise the Kims of academe will succeed in shutting up everyone who disagrees with them -- and ensure that no one who dissents will even dream of entering so shaming a profession. Shame is the handmaiden of fear.

Fulton Brown is not a racist. Fulton Brown is not a white supremacist. Fulton Brown is not “alt-right,” whatever that is. John K. Wilson, co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ "Academe" blog, aptly notes that “Kim accuses Fulton Brown of ‘intimidation at speaking events’ but provides no evidence or any details of what this is, or how it constitutes harassment.”

Put it in terms of the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics: Fulton Brown has fulfilled all "obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars," and she has never "discriminate[d] against or harass[ed] colleagues." Her fellow professors should say so. Her department, her division and her president at the University of Chicago should say so. The Medieval Academy of America should say so. The American Association of University Professors should say so -- after all, it condemns “efforts to intimidate or silence faculty members.” The Kims within the academy are the greatest practitioners of such intimidation and silencing, and the academy’s organizations should work to protect its members from them.

The principles of freedom of speech and institutional neutrality are no bar to vindicating Fulton Brown’s scholarly reputation. Common decency suggests it should be done as soon as possible.

The National Association of Scholars has published an open letter that scholars and “random laypersons” can sign. The letter affirms Fulton Brown’s scholarly good name and calls on the University of Chicago and the Medieval Academy of America to do likewise. More than 800 people have signed in the first two weeks, including several hundred professors.

Scholars of general eminence among the signatories include Robert George and Paul Rahe; colleagues of Fulton Brown at the University of Chicago include Charles Lipson, David Martinez and Malynne Sternstein; notable medievalists include Annemarie Weyl Carr, Jane Chance, Florin Curta, Richard Landes, Thomas F. X. Noble and Warren Treadgold.

We welcome more signatories. We welcome parallel letters by anyone who would rather articulate support for Fulton Brown in his own words.

Kim and her cohorts have weaponized the language of “safety,” “security,” “acknowledgment” and “inclusion” to silence everyone who disagrees with them. Scholars who wish to preserve their own academic freedom should defend Fulton Brown out of mere self-interest. But they should also speak out to vindicate Fulton Brown’s scholarly reputation because that is to speak the truth. And scholars should fearlessly seek to say what is true.

Bio

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.

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