The Devil Comes Home to Cal State Northridge
I have received a number of communiqués asking me to take a position on David Klein, a fellow CSU Northridge professor who finds himself in hot water with Jewish anti-defamation groups. He uses university resources to showcase the movement to boycott and sanction Israel.
Why would my opinion matter? Well, our controversies have a few faint parallels: he is Jewish and criticizes Israel, while I am bisexual and oppose same-sex parenting. We hold unpopular opinions and look like traitors to our own communities.
Some people want me to justify my continued employment at Northridge, given that fellow conservatives are calling for Klein to be punished. Others want me to defend Klein's freedom of speech, given that Provost Harry Hellenbrand has been truly stellar at protecting my academic freedom -- it is because of Harry that I still have a job.
I'll get to all that after I tell you a tale, Hawthorne-style.
Remember the gullible Puritan?
A classic Hawthorne short story is "Young Goodman Brown," in which a Puritan sets out one night, still a hopeful newlywed, but comes back a ruined man. He ventures into the forest late at night. He sees all the people from town worship the Devil.
"With excellent resolve for the future," Brown sets out while the sun is setting. But the text shows a different man entirely by the tale's end:
Be it so if you will; but, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain.
What he sees breaks his faith forever.
Call me Ishmael...on second thought, call me Middle-Aged Goodman Brown
In 2008, I drove a U-Haul 2,549 miles from Buffalo to Los Angeles, to begin a professorship at Cal State Northridge, in the department of English. As I rolled through the gorgeous red canyons of Utah, I was the most pitiable of all things: a believer.
Perhaps I was lulled too much by university websites, always plugging lecture series, roundtables, and grants. I thought that the gospel of academic freedom was real, and professors could pursue truth without censorship. I thought the CSU was going to protect the free exchange of ideas.
In very little time, unfortunately, I saw the witching hour.
I was not even finished moving into my office when Obama's face was plastered everywhere. It was election 2008; for me, the season in Hell. At the mere mention of Sarah Palin's name, seven colleagues at a table literally foamed at the mouth and moaned that only someone mentally retarded could respect such a "self-loathing bimbo."
I'm like Goodman Brown, only I called the Devil out
I confessed that I admired Palin to a colleague, and he immediately compared me to Hitler.
Afterwards, strange things began to happen. People became rude during cursory social interactions. Application after application for course release, teaching support, and other benefits came back rejected. Everything I sent to the department newsletter vanished into cyberspace. I couldn't get on committees, I was summarily removed from faculty groups like the Center for Sex and Gender Research, and I received bizarre communications at the rate of about one per week, which began with "it has come to my attention" and ended with some threat to punish me for the slightest deviation from the most picayune and arcane university regulations.
Within fourteen months of starting the job, I'd been hectored directly at a department retreat and denounced on the faculty listserv. A trio whom I'll call the Marxist Brothers -- one devoted to a lifelong crusade against the ghost of McCarthy, another obsessed with African-American literature, and another the darling who compared me to Hitler -- started having closed-door meetings with my chair, and the fun began.
Suddenly one of the Marxist Brothers unveiled a play about a Puerto Rican academic who narrowly avoided being jobless in budget cuts by working in intelligence and going to Afghanistan. The dean assured me that this was purely a coincidence and couldn't have anything to do with me -- the only Puerto Rican in the department, the only person working in intelligence, and, as the college's only faculty reservist, the only one facing deployment to Afghanistan. I was expected to take it in stride when the reading of this unwritten play was unexpectedly scheduled for nine days before a symposium I had organized on campus about gender and national security.
Friendly outreach to Gender Studies and Queer Studies was of course met with hostility and denunciations, even recriminations. I received threatening e-mails two days before the symposium, and a few days after the Fort Hood shooting, but the university police denied my requests for help because they felt that Fort Hood was a freak occurrence with little connection to a conference on campus that had been denounced, protested, and sabotaged by students and faculty, to which a host of military and intelligence professionals were invited.
By my third year on the job, I'd had people carve threatening lines over the Army stickers on my door, tear my American flag, and throw flyers at me. Still no luck with the department newsletter, although it was useful to know each time the Marxist Brothers had an interview with local media (no promo is too big or too small!), published a poem on a former student's blog, or chaired a roundtable. It was made clear to me that I was not allowed to use university resources for anything political. Such was the law, they said.
My colleagues could invite keynote speakers from Code Pink, host conferences called "Queering Religion," advise the Young Democrats in the midst of campaigns, offer Marxist courses like "the Social Gospel" or "the African American Left," and found whole departments based on "social justice," but none of these were seen as violating Cal State's code about using state resources to advance a political agenda. The most recent university-wide awards went to the Marxist Brother who wrote the anti-war play and another literature professor who wrote a book claiming that John Milton was an atheist.
By contrast, anything I did, on the job or off, that alluded remotely to my not being a leftist counted as political and was therefore grounds for complaint and possible sanction. I brought Shirley Jones and Mickey Rooney to campus using a small grant that I got outside Northridge, and these events were never posted on the university homepage calendar of events, no matter how many times I sent the press releases to the appropriate offices. Instead, on the CSUN homepage, I've seen video clips defending same-sex marriage and reports of an art professor who built tiny replicas of Wall Street and set fire to them in celebration of Occupy.
The Marxist Brothers, along with potentially hundreds of nameless others who may have been behind the constant stream of "it has come to my attention" messages, complained about things on my Facebook page, tweets, blogs hosted on blogspot, listserv postings, private e-mails, conversations with students, conversations with colleagues -- with the hint that because I was an employee of Cal State Northridge, I might be violating California state law.
By my fourth year on the job, I had lawyers. I'd been accused of things (and found innocent, of course) by the feminists, the Latinos, the pacifists, and of course, who can forget the gays? I was still receiving the weekly "it has come to my attention" e-mails. By my fifth year, there were online petitions against me and national campaigns by gay rights organizations that pressured Northridge to take action against me. My e-mail account was subject to a public records act request. All communications with my dean, chair, or other university official were being screened by counsel, and I was avoiding campus for fear of being stabbed, shot, stuck in an elevator with the Marxist Brothers, or stalked by a Central American Studies professor who had goaded people to film me being "racist" for YouTube.
By the end of my fifth year, I had been tear-gassed in Paris and attacked by a mob in Brussels. Gay activists had gotten me on GLAAD's blacklist and Google-bombed my name and place of business. Pressure from gay activists who knew where I worked forced a French university to bar me from presenting at a conference. Members of my own family had been approached and pressured to denounce me publicly. I trusted nobody, taught online classes as much as possible, never used university e-mail, did no business with the bookstore, made no applications for grants, and almost never publicized my affiliation with California State Northridge. Having cultivated a following in England and France, I advocated for children's rights elsewhere and thought of nearly anything dealing with Northridge as a waste of my time.
Essentially, I am a ruined man, like Goodman Brown.
What do I think about David Klein?
Those who wish to compare my case to his are engaging in a false equivalency. I knew the Devil and called his bluff years ago. The perennial pitfall of those on the left is that they make deals with the Devil, to give indulgences to themselves that they deny to rightists. Then, when the Devil asks for his due, they don't have much to say.
Professor Klein was one of the faculty who protested against my symposium on gender and national security in November 2009 and incited a cohort of students to come and harass people. I respect his right to do this, but I suspect that such behavior from me would have ended in my dismissal the next day. I had to adhere to an almost unattainable standard of purity from day one, to avoid being not only fired, but possibly assaulted. I don't think Professor Klein ever worked under such legal stricture.
To be marginalized on campus because you are on the far right is very different from being marginalized because you are on the far left. When you are on the far left, there are still natural allies on campus -- just enough to make you feel entitled.
Professor Klein insisted on using a university website to present information about his views on Israel. He is a math professor, academically more removed from his activism than I am from same-sex parenting. Yet I never used university resources to promote discussion of same-sex parenting.
I regret that people at Cal State Northridge must be subjected to so much stress and conflict over Professor Klein's viewpoints. I am grateful to Harry Hellenbrand, the provost, for protecting me from what was probably one of the most vicious backlashes survived by any professor alive today. Cognizant of how lucky I am to have received tenure, I do support Klein's right to free speech and think he should be able to use university servers as he sees fit, because the state of California pays us very little for the work we do, and in my mind, he has earned the right to use those resources. But I reject the analogy of my situation to his.
Mostly, I mourn for the campus's lost innocence. Salem has been begging for the Devil to appear since as long as I've been there, and he's come home. I sleep with a clear conscience.
Robert Oscar Lopez edits English Manif. The views expressed here are his and do not reflect the official position of Cal State Northridge.