This post originally appeared on Counterpunch.
To my classmates in the Class of 2007,
I remember Stephen Miller as a classmate, but my memories of him and of Duke differ from the depiction in your open letter, which praises Duke as home to a plurality of differences, indeed, as an institution so committed to diversity that it did not tolerate (to say nothing of how it might have enabled) the racism and sexism Stephen has articulated and authorized in the ten years since his (our) graduation, and especially as Donald Trump’s speechwriter-cum-advisor.
I recall his bi-weekly tantrums in column entries for our undergraduate student newspaper, The Chronicle, and especially the things Stephen wrote therein about Mexicans, about affirmative action, about Palestinian solidarity, and about black students’ response to former Education Secretary William J. Bennett’s statement that a black genocide (i.e., the abortion of “every black baby in this country”) would dramatically reduce national crime rates—to say nothing of the things he wrote about black women, or of his disdain for Durham’s mostly-black local residents.
Stephen’s opinions about black women, whom he condemned as liars, and about local residents, whom he caricatured as parasites—parasitic in his revisionist reading because Durham’s mostly-black locals exploit Duke’s mostly-white students—are particularly noteworthy; they converge in testimonials he penned (here, here, here, here, here, especially here, and here, and that’s only recounting his column entries) to redeem the white Lacrosse men who sexually assaulted Crystal Mangum, a single black mother from Durham, on March 13, 2006.
Stephen’s exaltation of the Lacrosse team’s toxic white masculinity was typical of his posture as a Duke student, as self-appointed champion of white supremacy—a strange allegiance, because his access to white privilege, as an ethnic Jew, was then, as it is now, tenuous—and high prince (err, peddler) of what he, instructed by David Horowitz and befriended by Richard Spencer, appropriated to mean “academic freedom”: the preference, in today’s jingoism, for ‘Alt Right’ perspectives in a liberal arts classroom, specifically, in the political makeup of Duke faculty.
In claim after hysterical claim Stephen made to bolster the reputations of the indicted men, this Stephen, like Trump’s Stephen, lamented the fate of white men who in an ostensibly ‘post-racial’ age feel themselves dislodged from atop their perch as vanguards of the social order. His was an appeal not just to the fragility of their white male egos but also to our (Duke’s) liberal need to uphold their rank and file, lest the entire edifice (liberalism itself) come crashing down.
Recall that in the inauguration speech Stephen scripted for him, Trump pledged to white Americans—white nationalists—”You will never be ignored again.” His was (is) a promise to right the alienation whereby they, the proper subjects of the American polity, no longer feel themselves hailed as the protagonists of its story. Stephen thus puppeteers today, on a world stage, what he rehearsed for us, his peers, in the four years we gave him an audience, at Duke.
Lest we forget (and it seems, you have) we were the first to indulge—to publish (The Chronicle is student-operated), read, and share, if only as a piece of salacious gossip—Stephen’s panicked rants about white vulnerability. Consequently, in the ten years since graduation and especially as our reunion looms, I have wondered not how Stephen “became such a horrible person” but about where your (our) outrage was at the moment he opened his mouth to speak, for the first (or the second, or the tenth) time, out loud, the hate by now definitive of his political brand.
I have wondered, too, if Duke’s administrators, who were complacent at the hour of Stephen’s becoming (as an undergraduate) and Richard Spencer’s, too (as a Ph.D. student in the Department of History), have paused in the last year to consider how it came to pass that Duke engendered the ideologues of Trump’s hate; that is, about how the animosity Stephen and Richard fomented as Duke students and which by now exasperates our national culture governs, as a matter of fact and not an inconvenience of circumstance, Duke’s campus culture.
Regrettably, it appears that the administration has not paused to reflect on how it might intentionally curate a different kind of campus culture: one committed to generating the ideas that can induce an/Other world. Instead, it continues to produce students who (at best) are politically apathetic, steeped in a privilege that goads them to entertain even the most vile and violent of ideologies under the liberal democratic guise of a free and open debate of ideas.
We might compare, for example, student reactions to eugenicist Charles Murray’s visit to Duke’s campus on March 21st with the reaction of Middlebury College students on March 2nd. While Middlebury students refused the ruse of a liberal exchange in which Murray’s ideas would, supposedly, be made available to scrutiny—an alibi that assents to the validity of scientific racism precisely because it accommodates a free exchange of ideas on the topic—to make their campus inhospitable to Murray, only four Duke students protested Murray’s appearance on their campus, if they can be said to be Duke students at all; according to some eye-witness testimonials, the protestors were in fact local Durham community members.
As Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Buffalo State and Duke alum Christienna D. Fryar points out, the premise of a “marketplace of ideas,” as that model that prompts us to accommodate Murray’s and Stephen’s biases, does not account for how “exclusionary ideas are seductive beyond their ‘objective’ (if there is such a thing) merits or faults.” Exclusionary ideas like theirs “provide something that is not easily debunked by appeal to reason and argument” because they appeal, instead (also), to our libidinal and affective registers, that is, to the protocols of our visceral, gut, and instinctive reactions—like disgust, which is sutured by the discursive knowledge that persons of color, especially black Others, are accumulable and fungible object-things and not human persons—and by the need for a rationale or logic (an argument) that justifies our unreasonable, stubborn reactions to persons-cum-things of color.
Fryar continues, “choosing not to give someone” like the Stephen Millers and Charles Murrays of the world “a platform,” more to the point, choosing to disrupt and/or make impossible the free exchange of their ideas, does not amount to “squashing their ability to share their ideas.” One “can find [their ideas] in countless forums. [Their] ideas are out there,” poisoning our minds and especially our hearts without the addition of a university’s or college’s endorsement.
If Duke is analogous to the nation that voted for Trump, then Stephen’s hate is our (Duke’s) shame. Perhaps, too, his ascent is the shame of liberal ideology, which as an egalitarian social theory engenders multiculturalism, including its neoliberal variant: colorblind ideology.
The condemnation in your open letter hinges on a disbelief that Stephen might share a campus with marginalized peoples, including “migrants and refugees…who sought American shores for the promise of safety and opportunity,” “young women [who] were the leading lights of seminars and discussions,” “members of the LGBTQ community, some of whom were proudly public [and] others of whom remained in the closet due to fear and stigma,” and “students of color […] from all manner of socioeconomic backgrounds and locales”—specifically, black students who grew up in what today’s Stephen caricatures as “crime-infested, drug-ridden neighborhoods”—and still find himself unmoved to empathize with difference.
By this logic, Stephen’s hate defies his socialization at Duke, more to the point, the language in your open letter suggests that the institution of Duke did not birth Stephen as a “horrible person” because it birthed you as a good liberal citizen-subject of the multiculturalist state. This gesture seems to me insufficient, not least of all because Stephen’s political commitments today are animated, as they were yesterday, in his own words, by a steadfast faith in “the cultural value of individualism and liberty.” His is not, to invoke Ta-Nehisi Coates’ formulation, a “uniquely villainous and morally deformed…ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs,” but the banality of our liberal evil, which accommodated his racism and sexism without the slightest trepidation, to say nothing of how we (as a cohort, as a campus, and as a nation) expressly celebrated Stephen’s reprehensible comments about Crystal Mangum, a rape victim.
If multiculturalist liberalism is all Stephen has ever known—born in Santa Monica, California, he is a child of multiculturalist Los Angeles—then it is not exposure to a plurality of peoples that a young Stephen needed to learn how to emphasize with difference, but a kind of miseducation that explained to him how and why it has come to pass that peoples are not equally made. Such a miseducation would clarify that peoples are endowed with varying degrees and kinds of social capital (and that some, like Mangum, proscribed from access to even human recognition, are ineligible for social capital) because they are assigned to incongruous rungs on the social hierarchy Stephen has since high school vigilantly defended as the dominion of white men.
If black women like Mangum occupy, as Hortense Spillers elaborates in her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987) and as the Combahee River Collective before her argued in their Black Feminist Statement (1977), the lowest, most derelict rung of this social hierarchy, that is, if antiblack sexism is the paradigm on which racism and sexism as the structuring grammars of this world and its making wrest—stated another way, if the intersection of antiblack racism and sexism sutures the social-cum-pecking order of this world, including our libidinal energies, or our visceral, guts, and instinctive reactions to persons and things (and persons as things)—then perhaps it was precisely because Stephen’s most vile comments came at the expense of black women, specifically, at the expense of a black single mother, that we, the Class of 2007, were unmoved to stand in his way at Duke, empowering him to articulate the hate that has since given rise to the nation that voted for Trump.
Rather than applaud all the ways in which we are not Stephen Miller, we might interrogate now, especially because we owe our black peers this debt, why of all the ways we are able to empathize with difference, as evidenced by the parade of social groups you identify in the open letter, we still, as a cohort, hold steadfast to the belief that Mangum was not raped by the Lacrosse men who, we seem so conveniently to forget, penetrated (violated) her not with their body parts but with a broomstick—a fact obscured when we recount, in our defense of the indicted men (really, of Duke’s good name, in other words, of our own reputations), that no DNA was found in Mangum’s rape kit. We might additionally recall and repent for the fact that we stood idly by as the Lacrosse men further demanded Mangum be “skinned” and “killed”.
Perhaps the reason why so many of us where silent at the dawn of Stephen’s rise is because we, as good liberal citizen-subjects of the Duke-cum-American polity, like Stephen and his bedfellows in the Alt Right, felt our libidinal energies cathected by the objectification of Mangum’s vulnerable body, doubly sexualized precisely because she is black. We were happy to make the Lacrosse men our heroes if doing so would further marginalize black women (to say nothing of how it criminalized the black locals from whom we distinguished ourselves), in other words, because the violation of her person and psyche functioned to authorize our visceral, gut, and instinctive reactions (of disgust) vis-à-vis black persons and especially black women.
I could not sign your letter, which responds too late and without any self-reflection about your own response to Stephen’s nascent claims as a Duke student (as your peer) about the precarity of whiteness and the dereliction of blackness. I could not bring myself to trade Stephen’s fascist violence with your liberal violence, and I suspect that I am not the only one. We might instead take some accountability as a cohort and Duke might as an institution for providing Stephen with his first podium. Against the liberal democratic doctrine of free speech to which we uncritically subscribe, which as a theater or marketplace of ideas prompts us to entertain a breadth of valuations—a band, it seems, that only ever manages to stretch in one direction (the right’s), more to the point, which has not (cannot) accommodate(d) the radical call for a world that might be Otherwise—another reaction is possible: one approximating the reaction at Middlebury College, in which not every worldview (certainly, not those that embolden indignant white men to assault persons of color, like Stephen’s and Murray’s) is abided.
I am haunted by the knowledge that we could have shut Stephen down at the moment of his becoming, had we been more interested in the psychic and material health of the marginalized peoples with whom we shared our campus than in the doctrine of liberalism; that is, if we had momentarily stepped outside of our own privilege to hold space for those others. This and not the empty gesture in your open letter is what it means to be an ally, specifically, to commit oneself to the response-able use of one’s social capital for the making of an/Other world.
M. Shadee Malaklou is Assistant Professor of Critical Identity Studies at Beloit College.