A Schism in Medieval Studies, for All to See

Medieval studies professors’ arguments on white supremacy lead to accusations of doxxing, racial insensitivity, as well as the use of expletives -- all on public forums, with concerns that one side has more power than the other.

September 19, 2017
 

No one -- besides fellow racists, perhaps -- is pleased that white supremacists have been using imagery from the Middle Ages to further their cause. However, as two professors disagreed about what was to be done about that trend, the dispute was laid out for the public to see, resulting in calls for civility from medieval studies organizations, and Facebook posts tagging far-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos.

Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of English at Vassar College, called on fellow professors who teach about the medieval period to overtly condemn white supremacy in their classrooms. Kim, who is Asian, wrote in a blog post for medieval studies blog In the Middle that unless white supremacy was explicitly condemned by the overwhelmingly white population of professors who teach on the subject, it would continue to be used by white supremacists, especially those who are young and college aged.

“If the medieval past (globally) is being weaponized for the aims of extreme, violent supremacist groups, what are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms?” she wrote. “Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers.”

“Neutrality is not optional.”

Kim’s viewpoint is not in isolation. In an interview, Jeffrey J. Cohen, an English professor at George Washington University who is part of the cohort of professors who run In the Middle, said that there is a small but stubborn minority of professors who insist white supremacy doesn’t have any connections to the medieval period. Another position is that if there is a connection, both sides ought to be listened to instead of having one side -- white supremacy -- driven out.

“We often hear this is not happening,” he said. “One of the reasons we hosted Dorothy Kim’s guest post is to get out there the way the Middle Ages are being deployed by white supremacists.”

Rachel Fulton Brown, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, doesn’t deny that white supremacists use medieval imagery in their protests or in attempts to invoke a mythical, purely white medieval Europe. However, she disagreed with Kim’s assertion that white professors needed to do more to call out white supremacy in the classroom.

“Richard Spencer and company that are making arguments bringing back a particular vision of Europe, they’re bringing back a fantasy that is their own making, and [that is] instantly punctured if you actually study the history of the Middle Ages,” she said. “We are creating a fear that is unnecessary.”

For Kim, however, that isn't enough.

"Medievalists need to take explicitly antiracist positions, and act in explicitly antiracist ways, in how they conduct themselves in the field," she said in an email. "To do so is the only way to work against white supremacy. Protesting that you yourself are not a racist is useless and ignorant."

Fulton Brown took issue with Kim’s post, writing on her own blog a post titled “How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist,” which challenged Kim’s blog post. Fulton Brown went on to say Kim’s post -- although it didn’t mention her -- was the latest in a series of public and private disagreements between the two, citing screen grabs of comments, allegedly from Kim, that were posted in a follow-up post titled “Why Dorothy Kim Hates Me.”

The very public -- and very direct -- argument wasn’t just contained to the niche world of medieval studies. Fulton Brown, who has written for far-right news site Breitbart, tagged Yiannopoulos in one of her Facebook posts about the ordeal, and subsequently an article was written -- “Lady With a Sword Beats Down Fake Scholar With Facts and Fury” -- about Fulton Brown and Kim’s exchanges. (Fulton Brown would be the lady with a sword.)

"Her post is not a discussion, it is not even clear why she thinks I am speaking about her. Instead it is an incitement of harassment and violence to me and my family," Kim said, adding that she has received hate mail since Fulton Brown's posts went up last week. "The problem is not that it played publicly. Scholars write public pieces; often other scholars reply in a debate. The problem is that she crossed so many lines. She did not debate; it was, as some have called it, an 'ad feminam' attack on me that does not address the piece I wrote with clear arguments, evidence and analysis. Then she decided to make it something for [Yiannopoulos’s] platform and 2.3 million readers to focus on."

Kim’s supporters have called out the violent imagery on Yiannopoulos’s site, as well as Fulton Brown’s decision to bring in Yiannopoulos and to use a picture of Kim in her post. They’ve also said Fulton Brown’s post was racially insensitive.

“It becomes an issue at the moment when she focuses not just her attention, and public attention, and potentially the attention of her right-leaning followers on an untenured scholar of color, in a way that is unprofessional and unacceptable,” Cohen, of George Washington University, said. “Everything I’ve tried to do is to make sure Dorothy Kim receives the support she deserves.”

Fulton Brown, who is tenured, said she was confident in Yiannopoulos -- whom she has said she considers a friend -- and his supporters.

“They’re trying to write in a livelier style,” she said. “I trust Milo and his team, and I trust my Facebook followers.”

She has also defended herself from comments and blog posts that have drawn criticism as the conflict has increasingly -- and publicly -- played out. Her conclusion to “How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist” said that, in contrast to Kim’s post, the best way to signal that antagonism for white supremacy is to “learn some f*cking [sic] medieval western European history, including the history of our field.”

“If you teach the history, everybody basically learns that it’s a very complicated story, and there’s nothing to support the white supremacist argument in it, which is why I used the phrase that I did at the end of the blog post,” she said in an interview. “And I meant to say that because, in fact, in our field, we have been utterly open to that kind of complication of understanding what the Middle Ages were like.”

Fulton Brown also wrote a blog post in 2015 titled “Three Cheers for White Men.” She said her blog has a certain nonacademic voice that shouldn’t be taken the same way an academic one is -- but at the same time, that post was written before the violence last month in Charlottesville, Va., and supported her argument that Western civilization supports women’s rights.

Her comments -- and the way they’ve publicly played out -- haven’t come without their detractors, however, namely from medieval studies groups.

“We, the undersigned members and friends of the International Piers Plowman Society, express our support for Vassar College assistant professor of English and medievalist Dorothy Kim, who became the target of a racially inflammatory blog post by medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown of the University of Chicago,” one petition to the University of Chicago read. Many are urging their colleagues to write to both Vassar and the University of Chicago in support of Kim and opposition to Fulton Brown.

Other statements -- which didn’t name either professor specifically -- called for civility among medievalists, including releases from the Medieval Academy of America and the New Chaucer Society.

“This is not harmless, this discourse is not harmless,” Cohen said. “Especially when it’s aimed at a vulnerable person.”

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