History professors note dangers of a possible visit from Spencer
As part of the #StopSpencer week of action, the Campus Antifacist Network hosted a teach-in Wednesday at the Michigan League. The teach-in featured history lecturer Anne Berg and LaKisha Simmons, an assistant professor of history and women’s studies.
Both speakers discussed their areas of study in the context of the possibility for Richard Spencer coming to speak. Simmons spoke about how certain speech gets censored through violence, and Berg discussed the genealogy of white supremacist thought.
Berg related the issue to Nazi Germany and talked about the history of national socialism and how Nazi racism has a longer genealogy. She also discussed how violence and use of visuals communicates on a subconscious level, where people learn at an early age to read racial messages. Racism can be embedded in them, the speakers argued, which was the case in the Nazis rise to power in Germany.
Simmons used an anecdote from her husband’s great-aunt, who lived in Tennessee during segregation and said people “did not know any better” back then.
“But then she moved on to current politics, and she said that what she finds frustrating is that things are worse now than they were before,” she said. “And this is something that I hear a lot from elderly informants who lived through segregation and lived through very difficult times in African-American history, how the particular moment that we’re in is pretty bad.”
Simmons said it seemed like the nation was “backtracking.”
Simmons also argued the terms of the debate over Spencer needed to change, and how there had to be more investigation into where the University received funding from to see if this would influence the administration’s behavior.
“I think it's been made clear that there’s real violence behind some of these speeches or demonstrations that he has been at where people have died, so I think that he shouldn’t come, but I think that it’s also an open question that we should be talking about on campus,” she said.
Ultimately, Berg also said Spencer should not come. She agreed with the idea the debate needed to be changed, saying she believed making the debate about free speech was distracting from the actual issue at hand.
“I also think that this is a discussion that at this point is a distraction from some of the real issues that we’re dealing with in this country, that now we’re spending time agonizing over the potential that some white supremacist is going to come here and blow our campus up, and the real danger that I see is that there will be people that will put their bodies on the line. Violence is going to happen because that’s what they are looking for, and it is certainly not in my interest to see my students harmed. To me, to allow this framing to stand, to make this about free speech, is really dangerous because this is about actual human rights and the physical safety of our students, and there shouldn’t be any other framing right now.”
Berg emphasized the violence that has followed Spencer debunks the idea both sides of arguments are equal.
“There is very recent historical precedent that when he shows up and speaks, things go wrong,” she said. “And the fact that our national administration has sort of responded in a sort of ‘two sides’ kind of way, and Trump in particular saying ‘there are always two sides to a story,’ no, as historians there are many more sides to any story than just two sides, but what is crucial here is that one side is looking for a fight.”
One of the students in attendance was LSA senior Kelly Garland, who noted the importance of knowing the context on issues such as these.
“Being educated on topics like fascism can offer some nuance to sort of work past some of these very divisive arguments," Garland said, "and I think both of the speakers today really showed the strength in the argument against Spencer coming, but did so in a way that is rooted in history, and they were talking about how it can’t really be ‘I’m right, you’re wrong,’ because there’s a lot of nuance in these arguments, but ultimately I think they both demonstrated their point really well.”
Garland also said her classes were canceled tomorrow and was happy to see her professors standing up for students. Despite this, she also said she had concerns for safety on campus.
“I know people who live in Charlottesville and were present at the rally that happened a few months ago, and I think that there’s just a debate beyond free speech, there's a debate of people’s immediate safety,” she said. “People are killed by the people that come out to see Spencer, so it’s really not just about one angry man screaming to our students. … That’s the kind of violence we’re putting our community at risk for, for these very abstract ideas that I think we just saw are not super central to the (free speech) debate.”
Berg said while it was scary for her to see the history of white nationalism facing her students, especially since she teaches on the subject, it is also important to avoid thinking that history is repeating itself. She said this rhetoric can be very dangerous, because it can undermine the potential for meaningful action, and that citizens have to remember that real change has been made.
“Yes, there is currently a movement of the resurgent right. But it is in reaction to a really strong and sustained movement for greater equality, better inclusion and more diversity,” she said.