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Update | Much more about Derrick Bell.

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Video has surfaced from a speech President Obama gave at a campus rally in 1990, the first of a series of videos that conservative activist Andrew Breitbart claimed would reveal the president’s true radicalism to the American people.

Only a little over a minute of the speech has appeared so far, but Breitbart’s website promises “additional footage that has been hidden by Obama’s allies in the mainstream media and academia” is yet to come.

In today’s video, Obama — then a 29-year-old Harvard law student — is seen introducing Harvard professor Derrick Bell, who had taken an unpaid leave from the law school to protest the absence of women of color from its tenured faculty ranks. Bell, who had been a prominent civil rights lawyer in the 1960s, was the school’s first black tenured professor and a prominent scholar in the field of critical race theory.

Here’s the clip, followed by a transcript and a bit more background.


“And I remember that the black law students had organized an orientation for the first year students. And one of the persons who spoke at that orientation was Professor Bell. And I remember him sauntering up to the front, and not giving us a lecture but engaging us in a conversation. And speaking the truth, and telling us that he [cut] to learn of this place that I’ve carried with me ever since. Now how did this one man do all this? How has he accomplished all this? He hasn’t done it simply by his good looks and easy charm, although he has both in ample measure. He hasn’t done it simply because of the excellence of his scholarship, although his scholarship has opened up new vistas and new horizons, and changed the standards of what legal writing is about. [cut] Open up your hearts and your minds to the words of Professor Derrick Bell.”

In a February 9 speech Breitbart, who died unexpectedly on March 1, said that he was going to “vet” the president with videos “from his college days to show you why racial division and class warfare are central to what hope and change was sold in 2008. The videos are going to come out, the narrative is going to come out.”

After alluding to Obama’s relationship with “silver ponytails” like former Weather Underground leaders Bernardine Dorhn and Bill Ayers, Breitbart said that when Obama was at Harvard “he was advocating for the worst of the worst to join the faculty. Radicals. Radicals at Beiruit on the Charles.” (If Breitbart’s “worst of the worst” reference was to Professor Bell, he was taking some liberties with the timeline — Bell was hired by Harvard in 1969, when Obama was seven years old. He was tenured there in 1971, left in 1980, and returned in 1986, two years before Obama enrolled.)

All should be revealed soon, however, as the Breitbart people say they’ll play the “full tape” on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show tonight. I’ll be watching, and I’ll update this post if anything interesting turns up.

Update | PBS’s Frontline website has posted what it says is the “full archived tape” of the speech as recorded and edited by local affiliate WBGH in 1990. Though no additional portions of Obama’s speech appear on that tape, which consists of 4-minute report on Bell’s withdrawal from teaching and an additional seven minutes of raw clips from the protest, Frontline says “no other footage of the event exists at WGBH.” Excerpts from the tape appeared in a Frontline documentary on Obama in 2008, and have been available online ever since.

Second Update | The Breitbart site has posted its first purported evidence of what they call Bell’s “radical … bizarre … racialist, antisemitic” views, a short story he wrote called “Space Traders.” (You can read that story and judge it for yourself here.) Unfortunately for their attempt to tar Obama with the contents of that story, however, it was published in October 1993, some three years after Obama’s Harvard speech.

Third Update | One amusing moment from the WBGH tape: Professor Bell is seen at 8:52 noting that while he himself relied on a written outline for his address, “the student” — future president Obama — “delivered a mighty address without notes.” Given Breitbart’s fondness for making teleprompter jokes at Obama’s expense, that one’s got to sting a little.

Fourth Update | Unsurprisingly, the Breitbart gloss on Bell’s short story, “Space Traders,” as antisemitic is unwarranted. In the story, a sci-fi allegory which imagines space aliens offering the United States untold wealth in exchange for its black citizenry, a group of Jews object to the trade. The Breitbart site quotes an op-ed by a federal judge as saying that in the story, the Jews are motivated not by “empathy from another group that has suffered oppression” but “instead” by fear “that ‘in the absence of blacks, Jews could become the scapegoats.'”

But this is a tendentious misreading of Bell, who describes the Jewish leaders as denouncing “America’s version of the Final Solution to its race problem” and promising to disrupt it by ” all possible nonviolent means” if necessary, including by hiding black families in their own homes “until the nation returns to its senses.” Jewish concern that they could become scapegoats should blacks disappear is offered by Bell as an additional fear, not as a true, duplicitous motivation, and it is a fear that Bell presents as justified in “a system so reliant on an identifiable group on whose heads less-well-off whites can discharge their hate and frustrations for societal disabilities about which they are unwilling to confront their leaders.”

Great writing? Maybe not. Subtle writing? Probably not. But antisemitic? Not that either.

Fifth Update | Okay, I watched Hannity. They found a two-second clip of Obama hugging Bell after introducing him at the rally, and a clip of Harvard professor Charles Ogletree joking that he hid that clip from the media during the 2008 campaign. That’s it. That’s the whole thing that they have.

The “I hate my students” essay has long been a Chronicle of Higher Education staple, and for obvious reasons. The classroom can be a frustrating place, and sometimes a prof just needs to vent.

The problem with venting in the Chronicle, though, is that you open yourself up to rebuttal.

Meet Ann Hassenpflug.

Hassenpflug is a professor of education, and she doesn’t like it when her students bring their kids to class. Because she doesn’t like it when her students bring their kids to class, she has a “no kids in class” policy in her syllabus, and she gets mad when that policy is violated.

Fair enough. But some of the reasons behind her rule — a child might sit in a student’s regular chair  — seem trivial, while others arise from problems that could be easily dealt with in other ways.

I myself allow students to bring their kids to class as a last resort. Most of my students are women, many of them are moms. Stuff comes up. But yes, kids can be disruptive, so I have rules:

  • Don’t make it a regular thing. A kid in class isn’t an ideal situation.
  • Sit in the back of the room. Even a quiet child can be distracting.
  • If the kid starts acting up, slip out quietly and address the situation.

In addition to those rules, I have a warning: My class is a history class, which means we’re going to be talking about serious, difficult topics on a pretty regular basis. I can’t and won’t alter the content of the course to accommodate a child, and I won’t ask students to censor themselves either. If you choose to bring a kid along, what they hear is on you.

That’s it. That’s what I tell them. And about once a semester a student shows up with a kid in tow, and about ninety percent of the time it’s not a problem at all.

Now, Hassenpflug’s class isn’t my class, and she’s not me. What works for me might not work for her. I’m not saying she should open her doors.

But I will say that it doesn’t really sound like she makes a habit of explaining the reasons for her policy to her students, and that I suspect that decision may be causing some of the problems she’s having.

I’d love it if every one of my students memorized every element of my syllabus, but because I know that that’s never going to happen, I deal. I remind students at the end of class that if they came in late they should see me to get marked present. I mention my office hours several times during the semester, and encourage students to take advantage of them. I announce the date and time of the final exam at the last class session.

And if something is really important to me, I say so, and I say why, and I say it clearly and emphatically. (I’ve got a whole big speech on cheating. The better that speech gets, the less cheating I see.)

In her Chronicle essay, Hassenpflug gives no fewer than eleven reasons she prefers to have her classroom be child-free, but by her own admission she’s never shared any of those reasons with her students. “The students in my graduate education courses are teachers themselves,” she writes. “They should understand why bringing children to an adult classroom is inappropriate.”

Maybe they do, professor, and maybe their “understanding” isn’t the same as yours (mine certainly isn’t). Or maybe they understand that it’s not ideal, but think of it as the least-worst option in certain circumstances. Or maybe they’ve seen other students do it in other classes (or even yours), and they consider it part of the institutional culture of your program. Or maybe they’re just not aware that it’s one of your pet peeves.

I honestly just don’t get it. It’s your classroom. You’re in charge. You set not only the rules, but the tone. If this is such a big deal to you, take a couple minutes to say so, and to say why. The professorial whine about students’ lack of socialization to academic etiquette is ubiquitous these days, but of all the problems besetting our profession this seems like the easiest to fix.

Just talk to your students. Why on earth wouldn’t you?

Just when you thought the Arizona legislature was out of bad ideas.

SB 1467, newly introduced in the Arizona State Senate, would force schools and universities to suspend, fine, and ultimately fire any teacher or professor who “engage[d] in speech or conduct that would violate the standards adopted by the federal communications commission concerning obscenity, indecency and profanity if that speech or conduct were broadcast on television or radio.”

For the first offense, you’d get a one-week suspension without pay. For the second offense, two weeks. For the third, a pink slip.

As Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education notes, this law would not only block the teaching of such classics as Ulysses, The Canterbury Tales, and Catcher in the Rye, it’d prohibit historians and law professors from competently discussing campus free speech regulations, since the most important Supreme Court case in that field hinged on a jacket with the slogan “Fuck The Draft” written on it.

It’s also worth noting, as Lukianoff does, that the bill would regulate professors’ actions outside the classroom, which means that merely writing the paragraph above — in a blogpost, a scholarly article, even a private email — would get you suspended.

But it’s even worse than that.

Note the language of the bill: You’re violating the law if you engage “in speech or conduct” that would violate FCC standards if “broadcast on television or radio.” Not public speech or conduct. Speech or conduct, full stop.

If this law passes, it will be illegal for any “person who provides classroom instruction” in the state of Arizona to have sex.

Or pee.


January 19, 2012 Update | Hugo Schwyzer has taken down the two blogposts mentioned in this essay. The original confession can, for the moment, still be found at this cache, and the followup post is cached here and duplicated here

January 23, 2012 Update | More on the Schwyzer controversy, and on the harm he’s still inflicting on the feminist movement, can be found here.

August 2, 2013 Update | Nothing more from me on Schwyzer for a while. Some final thoughts here.

Male feminist blogger and professor Hugo Schwyzer has been taking a lot of heat recently, much of it precipitated by a blogpost in which he detailed what he describes as “a binge episode that ended with my attempt to kill myself and my ex-girlfriend with gas.” (The incident took place in 1998, and he disclosed it publicly for the first time early last year.)

Schwyzer has put up a new post this morning expressing additional regret for the murder-suicide attempt, and apologizing for certain elements of the original piece. But his apologies evade many of his critics’ core complaints.

First, there’s the incident itself. The woman, his sometime lover, came to him for help after being tied up, raped, and abused by her drug dealer. They went back to his apartment, took more drugs, and had “desperately hot, desperately heartbreaking sex.” Then, when she passed out, he decided to kill them both. He turned on the gas on his oven, aimed its flow at his girlfriend, took some booze and pills, and lay down to die beside her.

Schwyzer now describes this act as one of “sheer monstrousness,” and it certainly is that. But it’s also something else. It’s a crime he construed and justified as an act of caretaking:

I looked at her emaciated, broken body that I loved so much. I looked at my own, studying some of my more recent scars. (I’d had a binge of self-mutilation earlier in the week, and had cigarette burns on both arms and my torso.) And then it came to me: I needed to do for her and for myself the one thing I was strong enough still to do. I couldn’t save her, I couldn’t save me, but I could bring an end to our pain. My poor fragile ex would never have to wake up again, and we could be at peace in the next life. As drunk and high as I was, the thought came with incredible clarity. I remember it perfectly now.

She was “fragile.” She was “broken.” But he was “strong enough” to do what she needed, what she didn’t have the strength to do for herself. He would bring her peace, a peace they would share forever.

It’s not enough for a feminist to describe this crime as horrific, though it is. It’s not enough to describe it as “something truly awful,” as he does. This was an act of a very particular kind, and Schwyzer never calls it by its name.

Because it’s not just the fact that Schwyzer committed an act of violence that’s of such concern, or even the fact that he committed an act of intimate partner violence. It’s that he committed an act of gendered violence, the nature of which he still hasn’t come to terms with.

Murder-suicide is a crime committed almost exclusively by men, with their intimate partners their typical victims. In the post he wrote this morning, though, Schwyzer refers to the woman he tried to kill as “another human being” twice, as “another person” once, as his “ex” six times, but never as his lover, his girlfriend, a woman.

In all his writing about this act he has never addressed its implications for his feminism — the feminism he professed when he committed the crime, or the feminism he professes today. And though he construes the story as the final dramatic act of his old life of addiction and irresponsibility, it’s a story that resonates powerfully with his current public presence.

Here’s how Schwyzer described his relationship to his students not long ago:

Go ahead, call me paternalistic. I’ll wear that title with pride, thank you. I see my students not merely as independent, autonomous agents whom I need to empower, but as vulnerable young people whom I — and others around me — need to protect. And I still have the nerve to call myself a feminist.

This notion that feminism calls him to protect the weak — to save them from themselves, to guide them to the right path — recurs again and again in his writing. As the co-organizer of the LA Slutwalk earlier this year, he referred to his role as “Herding sluts. In the best and most responsible way.” His students say he’s an electrifying lecturer, but complain that he severely restricts class discussion. And he frequently conceptualizes moral behavior as a matter of denial and restriction. (He has, for instance, described feminism as a “cold pool” in which “none of us can fully immerse ourselves forever.”)

I don’t have any reason to believe that Hugo Schwyzer is likely to attempt another murder anytime soon. But the man who described his girlfriend as fragile and broken and in need of his sheltering strength as he plotted her death has not gone entirely away. The paternalistic impulse to save that young woman from herself — an impulse that came to him with “incredible clarity” then, one which he remembers “perfectly” today — is still in him, still driving him. It’s an impulse he’s redirected, but it remains unexamined, unchecked, and dangerous. (It particularly inflects and infects his writing about sexuality, about youth, and about people of color.)

Like Hugo Schwyzer, I’m a white male professor teaching history in an urban community college. Like Schwyzer, I consider myself a feminist. Like Schwyzer, I work with young people extensively outside of the classroom. And it’s from that perspective that I offer him this piece of advice:

You’re doing it wrong. You need to stop.

Update | An old blogpost has surfaced that calls into question Schwyzer’s claim that he called a friend to warn her about the murder-suicide attempt.

Second Update | Hi to all the folks finding this post via Tumblr and the Feminists Against Hugo Schwyzer Facebook page. I’ve included pointers to a lot of the discussion of this subject in the followup post I linked above, so if you’re interested in reading more, that’s a good place to start.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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