Lucas Maiman: The new normal

Thursday, November 30, 2017 - 3:29pm

This Thanksgiving, I was upgraded from my perennial seat teetering awkwardly in between the kids’ table and adults’ table; I was given permission to officially enter a more sophisticated environment. Eat your hearts out, younger siblings and cousins. 

It was not long before I realized that the prospect of a table with candles and a centerpiece had made me too optimistic. The topic discussed in the big leagues this evening: college campuses and free speech — hardly the lighthearted conversation I wanted to have after gorging myself with food.

As far as I imagine political conversations at Thanksgiving dinner tables across the country typically go, however, the one at mine happened to be quite tame. There was little shouting, frequent laughter and not once did I think that anyone was having second thoughts about foregoing politically-affiliated assigned seating.

But there was one thing in the debate over the campus free speech conundrum I found unsettling. It was something equally as unsettling at the Thanksgiving table as it had been when it arose at the University of Michigan Board of Regents’ table two days prior and then at The New York Times’ news desk the next week. Free speech on college campuses was exposing the larger normalization of neo-Nazism in today’s politics, and liberals had become unwitting contributors to this.

Like the rest of the country, I had expected at least some degree of normalcy when a champion of white nationalists ascended to the Oval Office. Still, the throning of a Mexican-denigratingboth-sides shaming and Pocahontas name-calling demagogue exceeded expectations. The once-dormant Stephen Millers and Steve Bannons of the world were allowed to enter mainstream politics, bringing the “fringe” beliefs shared by their loyal acolytes with them.

Neo-Nazis have enough powerful allies as it stands today. The left — or anyone, frankly, who believes in fairness and equality irrespective of race, religion or creed — should not feel compelled to be one of them or sympathize with them. Articles like the softening profile of Tony Hovater, an Ohio-based neo-Nazi whose “Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother,” that The New York Times published last Saturday do just that.

Though these self-serving pieces most assuredly cause liberals to rejoice in their supposed show of tolerance, a shortcoming that conservatives have loved to attack, any victory is shallow and short-lived. Sympathizing with Nazi sympathizers is antithetical to ostracizing their brand of baseless bigotry. Liberals need not pat themselves on the back for legitimizing an outsider voice; when that outsider espouses white supremacy or Nazism, then anything short of rebuke merely continues to lazily promote the narrative in which unadulterated hatred is falsely equated with “political belief.”

Though this may be the reality of our current political landscape, the kicking-the-can-down-the-road attitude that humanizes, rather than ostracizes, America’s neo-Nazis, must be curbed at once.

Outlets like The New York Times hardly owe anyone a platform on their powerful pages, much less white supremacists and Nazis whose beliefs have as great a factual foundation as fake news. While the media may indulge itself in propagating hate under the guise of tolerance, the University of Michigan should not.

That’s why the Board of Regents’ and University President Mark Schlissel’s decision on Tuesday that moved Richard Spencer one step closer to speaking on campus was so disheartening.

In not allowing Richard Spencer to speak on campus, we would not, as University Regent Mark Bernstein (D) eulogized, be failing in our mission to promote free expression. Nor would we “provide even more attention to the speaker,” as University President Mark Schlissel wrote in a campus-wide email, if the University were to reject Spencer, as schools including Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Auburn University have done. These institutions have courageously challenged the new normal.

What we are doing is embracing it. We are overcorrecting for our past transgressions in which our student body wrongly denied far less odious figures the right to free speech by choosing the nuclear option. Richard Spencer gets a platform at the University. Tony Hovater has a spread in The Times. I discuss the merits of Nazi speech at the Thanksgiving table.

It is true that many students on campus need to realize that not all conservative speakers on campus are the devil incarnate. Heeding Elie Wiesel’s famous words that, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” would be an effective approach to combating this provocative strain of evil, because we cannot be complacent. But I am hesitant to use Spencer as the example for this re-education. When hate is as uniquely sinister and as far-reaching as Spencer’s is, we ought to be happy, not dismayed, that there is pushback from students and faculty on campus. For the administration, it is hard to say the same.

At what point do we draw the line? When men with even more hateful views and actual political power than Spencer inevitably request to speak at the University, will the University let them speak too?

Or will we continue to treat our adherence to the Constitution as a suicide pact until regrettable repeats of history emerge?

I certainly hope not, but I am not holding my breath. There’s a reason why Dictionary.com chose “complicit” as its word of the year for 2017. When Spencer and his gang of swastika-wielding, violent criminals roll into town, that reason will quickly become apparent.

Lucas Maiman can be reached at lmaiman@umich.edu.