Reclaiming the Watch List

Professor Watchlist faces challenge from Watchlist Redux, where being named is intended as a badge of honor and where "radical" applies to Socrates, Jesus and Alan Turing, as well as those singled out today.

December 6, 2016
 
"Radicals" on a new website include Socrates, Jesus, Alan Turing and Anna J. Cooper.

Some professors were troubled by Professor Watchlist when it debuted last month, viewing it as a serious threat to academic freedom. Yet others saw the site -- which names and monitors professors “who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom” (the “promoting anti-American values” criterion has since been removed) -- as more annoying than dangerous. Some submitted complaints about Indiana Jones, Professor Plum or other fictional academics, for example. Others joked they wished they'd been named, saying they’d wear it as a badge of honor.

But now Professor Watchlist has met its match in a new blog, Watchlist Redux, where being named is intended as a badge of honor.

“This site is dedicated to showcasing and championing courageous thinkers and teachers -- and at the same time saying ‘shame, shame, shame’ to those who would insinuate that these people are dangerous,” reads Redux. “Those of us who decided to start this site have taken -- sometimes taught -- courses in logic. We know bad logic when we see it, such as this: Radical equals bad equals dangerous. But [Professor Watchlist] won’t tell you what they mean by ‘radical.’ They trade in innuendo.”

So, Redux says, “We professors would ask students who use such bad logic, ‘What do you mean by radical?’ Wasn’t Socrates in his time, or Thomas Paine in his, or Gandhi (or [Martin Luther King Jr.]) radical in his? Yes, indeed they were. … The word ‘radical’ means ‘at the root,’ so to be a radical intellectual is to be one who gets to the root of problems. High time for more of that!”

Redux includes two lists of radical thinkers: those of the past and present, respectively. The past list includes blurbs about influential thinkers from Socrates to Thomas Jefferson to Anna J. Cooper to Alan Turing, with some perhaps unexpected entries. An entry on Jesus of Nazareth, for example, reads, “Notorious radical and troublemaker, taught the poor, executed by the state.”

The blog was created, with assistance from some online communities of friends and colleagues, by Noëlle McAfee, professor of philosophy at Emory University. In an interview, she noted that Jesus also destroyed a lot of property in his time. While Redux is intended as a satire, she said, it’s also a way to honor the original sense of the word “radical” and those who pursue getting to the root of problems across disciplines and political persuasions.

“Some of these people were, in the past, seen at that time to be very radical and dangerous and, in retrospect, they were doing really important things,” McAfee said. “So I started this website as a positive response to this scary [watch list] nonsense. It’s intimidating, as people have said, to be put on a watch list where the innuendo is that you’re dangerous.”

McAfee noted that many of the profiles on Professor Watchlist are drawn from blogs that haven’t been checked for fact, yet the claims against the named professors -- especially allegedly discriminating against conservative students -- are serious. It’s another layer of “truthiness” and “fake news” that deserves refutation, she said.

Redux’s list of contemporary scholars includes dozens who have in some way challenged the disciplinary status quo. They include George Yancy, a professor of philosophy, also at Emory, who was also named to Professor Watchlist. His profile there flags an opinion piece called “Dear White America” published last year by The New York Times. In it, he asks white readers to acknowledge the ways they benefit from racism, and acknowledges that he’s been guilty of sexism.

He wrote another Times piece responding to being named, saying Professor Watchlist is “essentially a new species of McCarthyism, especially in terms of its overtones of ‘disloyalty’ to the American republic. And it is reminiscent of Cointelpro, the secret FBI program that spied on, infiltrated and discredited American political organizations in the ’50s and ’60s. Its goal of ‘outing’ professors for their views helps to create the appearance of something secretly subversive. It is a form of exposure designed to mark, shame and silence.”

Yancy said Monday that he never found the original watch list, funded by Turning Point USA, a conservative youth organization, “silly,” both due to his knowledge of history and the current political climate. He said he’s received emails from academics and nonacademics from around the world since being named, writing to express their solidarity and shared anxieties.

“I’ve had people say, ‘I was a teacher once, so I know what it means to be censored.’ They’re all feeling as if their ability to be creative intellectually and to speak against oppression at this moment is under siege -- it’s being truncated or limited in some way.”

“I see Turning Point USA as kind of totalitarian in its orientation -- no one should be mocked in this way, quite frankly,” he said.

Yancy’s much more comfortable with his Redux profile, however. It reads, “Points out what ought to be obvious to white folks but, because of white privilege, isn’t.”

Professor Watchlist could not immediately be reached for comment.

Eva Feder Kittay, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the State University at New York at Stony Brook, was named to the Redux list of contemporary scholars for “teaching us a lot about what it is to be human.” Much of her work centers on disability and moral status. She isn’t on the original watch list but said via email that it’s “appalling and contrary to everything we want this country to stand for. Teaching -- especially, but not only -- philosophy (my intellectual home) must wake us from our slumbers, must provoke, excite, cause us to reflect and, when possible, to act to make the world a better place. If not, then what is love of wisdom for?”

Kittay said she worried about current political rhetoric and cited Eugène Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros. In the play, a rhinoceros charges through a town, causing residents to argue about how it got there. One by one, the villagers all transform into charging beasts. “If we don’t speak up against watch lists, we might all become raging rhinoceroses,” she said.

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