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This Machine Kills Authoritarianism

6 Dec 2016 16:03 | Tanya Monforte

"This machine kills fascists". These words were scrawled across the guitar of Woody Guthrie, the Oklahoma-born American folksong writer and author of the iconic "This Land is Your Land", along with other songs on class and injustice in the U.S. during the American dustbowl. Guthrie, an economic migrant himself, traveled across the country bearing witness to the deadly effects of economic inequality. He used the tools of his trade during a dark period in history as a metaphorical weapon against oppressive forces at home and abroad.

Woody Guthrie (cc)

There is a similar sense of urgency at this moment, as political dark times appear to be settling on us once more. From Trump to Duterte, a new authoritarianism, distinctly autocratic and comfortable flirting with populist violence, is being elected democratically. These and other "strong men" are emerging along with the rise of various shades of reactionary populism across the globe. Promises of a better tomorrow based on an idealized yesteryear have activated populist movements in many places. In the United States it is however not conservatism that has been championed. The American version of this seemingly transnational movement is an iconoclastic rightwing movement that has been built upon the wreckage of neoliberalism and set aflame by the so-called alt-right's politics of scapegoating.

The situation was already urgent before Trump's election. One would be hard pressed to deny that the global challenges we face have reached a critical state for some time. From climate change, environmental destruction, economic inequality, conflict and migration, we are witnessing a general shift, on both the right and left of the political spectrum, as people are decrying the inadequacy of the status quo and institutions in place to deal with the crises communities are facing.

Immediately following Trump's election, organizations in the United States, such as Greenpeace, the American Civil Liberties Union, or the Washington Post, received significant private contributions. In response to the election results, people are moving to strengthen institutions outside of government that are immediately under threat by, and are threatening to, the coming Trump administration. As they announced, those institutions will undoubtedly remain engaged in resistance in the form of activism, litigation and reporting. However, what has been particularly disheartening to witness is how frequently people have already reiterated their confidence that, because Donald Trump was elected democratically into a system of "checks and balances," the institutions would ultimately discipline and contain the worst of what could be expected from the rhetoric of the presidential campaign. It is, however, quite possible that governmental and legal institutions will instead absorb his, and his advisers’ positions, and formally legitimate what was precisely so abhorrent in the context of the electoral campaign.

Institutions are shaped as much as they shape. The University is in this context a less obvious institution potentially under serious threat in the United States. Universities and faculty are beginning to mobilize to affirm core principles of the university to cope with the coming Trump administration. MIT recently affirmed a commitment to scientific inquiry, a principle that is, however extraordinary it may seem, under increasing threat from the alt-right. Similarly, it was reported that one professor recently proposed a code of conduct that simply affirms, for example, that professors will not inform on their students. These measures may appear paranoid or extreme from the outside. But the University in the U.S. has become increasingly a site of political contestation as a rising shade of rightwing reactionary politics has mobilized against both Liberals and the Left. The organization Turning Point USA, self-described as committed to "free markets and limited government", has created a "Professor Watchlist" that names professors who "advance a radical agenda," along with their supposed offense and a photo. The American version of anti-elitism is taking on a peculiar shape as anti-intellectualism putting academia on the defensive. 

If the academy is the conscience of the nation, as a wise colleague of mine frequently stated, then in this moment of crisis the University will be a central coil of the machine combatting authoritarianism and autocracy, just as it comes under particular scrutiny by reactionary forces. It is the moment for faculty, staff and students to begin organizing and working towards a progressive form of resistance to reactionary forces.


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