Michigan, Please Heed The Cautionary Tale of Evergreen State
Note: Typically I would write this reaction as a post on Facebook, hoping to start an online dialogue with my friends and family not physically near me. Anyone who knows me knows that I like to debate and discuss. But lately, my posts have fallen on deaf ears. My Facebook friends are either not interested in the topics, not interested in engaging in a public debate, or simply not seeing my posts. Most likely some combination of the three. But I want a discussion, so instead of posting to the small group of freinds I have on Facebook I am going to be moving more of those discussions here in (typically) quick 5–10 minute posts. The whole point is to create a dialogue, so if you read this please share your opinion. I would love to hear it and discuss.
I just came across this video on Facebook. It was live recorded and posted by The Michigan Daily yesterday, September 26th.
It’s not encouraging.
For anyone famliar with the controversy that unfolded (and continues to unfold) at Evergreen State College over the past several months (if not read my post on the topic) this video will look eerily familiar. Admitantly, what this video shows is not as bad as the events that played out at Evergreen, but the direction and tone is troublingly similar. Many of us who watched the events at Evergreen or Berkeley are hoping that these schools’ ordeals serves as a cautionary tale for our alma mater, but based on this video, it seems like this is not the case at Michigan. I recommend you watch the video in its entirety, but I have transcribed most of it and will address it point by point here as well.
The video begins on the first floor of The Michigan League, students congregated in the hallway. There is a debate/discussion on the potential renaming of the CC Little building scheduled to take place in the adjacent room. If you are unfamiliar with the CC Little renaming debate, there is a summary from a Michigan Daily article written after a previous panel discussion from last April. For my purposes however, the renaming controversy is itself a secondary concern. What’s most alarming is the inability of the protestors to engage in a rational discussion. As Professor Weinstein learned at Evergreen, debate and dialectic are off the table. This meme has aparenetly spread to these protestors at Michigan with this particular group of students seemingly comprised of campus BlackLivesMatters and “antifa” groups, among others.
A woman, who appears to be a protest organizer, informs the group that they are not there to engage in the debate, instead they are protesting the debate. (begins at 5:20 in the video)
“Also know that this is a protest so we’re not really like supporters of the debate. We here to like, just like last year, like our lives are our ancestors’ lives are not up for debate. So this is not really something cooperative. That don’t mean we about to tear up the league. But just knowing that this is not hand in hand with the panel, we not hand in hand with what’s going on here.
Unlike at Evergreen violence and physical disruption was thankfully not a part of the plan. But their disinterest in engaging in a discussion about the building name while simultaneously holding a very strong opinion on it is reminiscent of Evergreen’s crisis. It’s prima facie obvious to them that “(their) lives and (their) ancestors’ lives” is what the debate is about. Not only is this not clear to me, but it’s an absurd claim. There is no legitimate debate at the University of Michigan about the value of black people’s lives. Reframing the CC Little debate this way is, at best, misunderstading the other side’s position, and at worst, willfully dishonest.
After some discussion about moving the debate to a larger room (the upstairs League Ballroom) they are given access. She informs the crowd.
“Alright we got the ballroom so if y’all wanna go ahead and head up. Amber just told me we got the ballroom so go ahead and head up. If there are seats, I don’t know if I want seats I would rather just move the seats and sit on the floor or something. You know, let’s be a little defiant. But don’t go in there and destroy anything, you feel me? Let people of color and black people get to the front please, allies, but y’all can go up there now since y’all in the hallway but just let black people and people of color go to the front when you get there.”
Again I’m glad to see that, unlike at Evergreen, physical violence is discouraged. But the troubling meme here is the segregation of people based on their race. Just as at Evergreen, “people of color” are given special status and are instructing “allies” (white people) what to do. They should let the people of color go first. THEY CAN go upstairs now if they want but make sure the people of color go into the ballroom first. Permission for white people to go upstairs, granted.
As they begin a procession up to the ballroom (begins at 7:05 in the video) the students chant “Black Lives Matter!” and you can hear several reminders to let “black people and people of color go first.” As the camera approaches the entrance to the ballroom we see a row of white students standing along the wall, presumably following instruction and waiting for the people of color to enter ahead of them. In this row of students there are several men wearing bandanas to cover their faces and holding signs (at 9:24 in the video). One reads “Abolish Amerikkka: Revolutionary Student Alliance” and features a hammer and sickle. The one next to him features a hybrid of the hammer and sickle and transgender symbols. These totalitarian communist symbols can be seen being proudly displayed in the ballroom during the debate as well. Based on the footage from this video no one takes exception to them despite their genocidal history.
After some introduction the event organizers ask the audience to share their ideas at the podium.
(Note: I am not going to transcribe the entire video. but instead highlight the parts I find interesting and concerning. I encourage you to watch the whole video for the full context.)
The first speaker (starts at 18:15) states his desire to rename the building after a black woman. He doesn’t propose any suggestions but makes it clear that the main criteria should be their gender and race.
“I think that we cannot allow the name to be changed to anyone other than a black woman, period.”
A member of the second group of speakers, again presumably the protest organizers dressed in “bloody” clothing, voices her concern that even debating this topic is an act of white supremacy.
“Protesting the name changing debate of CC Little has also allowed for us to show that white supremacy doesn’t always look like white hoods or confederate battle flags. It can also look like debating whether or not the name of someone that supported a movement that sterilized thousands of woman of color should be changed.”
This was maybe the most concerning part of the video for me, and something else reminiscent of the Evergreen fiasco. THE DEBATE itself is an act of white supremacy. Just as Professor Weinstein’s objection to the Day of Absence was prima facie evidence of white supremacy, so too is the debate about changing the name of CC Little. If the University of Michigan wasn’t a white supremacist institution it would have already changed the name. When the bar for “white supremacist” has fallen so low, what value does the term have? Do we all agree that this is an act of “white supremacy?” It seems to me that we need to agree on the definitions of these loaded terms before we can go anywhere else with the discussion.
The next speaker (starts at 24:00) echos the concerns over the framing of the debate itself.
“So first I want to make it clear that this isn’t a debate about renaming a building. This is a debate about whether black or brown women deserve to feel comfortable at this university. And something that I’m questioning is why is this conversation about black and brown women’s comfort is only worth having when white people want to have it?”
In this speaker’s mind, there is a debate at the University of Michigan over whether “black or brown women deserve to feel comfortable” on campus. If that’s true show me the people on the opposing side. Who thinks that they don’t deserve to feel comfortable? What do you mean by “deserve to feel comfortable?” Reframing the debate this way is both disingenuous and unhelpful for remedying any real injustices, particularly in achieving the supposed desire of the protestors in changing the name of CC Little.
After this the event host takes the microphone back to explain the purpose of the panel discussion (starts at 25:15).
“Thank you so much. First off we want to move on to the panelists for a little bit so they can describe more, for anybody in the room who doesn’t know much about this issue, more about the issue. And then after that we’ll be able to break out so we can hear all of everybody’s voices. Is that okay with everyone in the room?”
The protestors respond negatively to his question. It’s not okay to them. They don’t want a discussion because that is itself an act of white supremacy. He must not have been listening. His cohost (it appears) takes the microphone (starts at 25:43) to reaassure the protestors that they won’t need to hear any opposing ideas.
“Hi. I just wanted to let you know that this is not going to be a debate where people are actually going to support the idea of keeping CC Little with its name. This is more, just an event for people to kind of learn about who CC Little was, because theres quite an uncomfortable amount of people who still don’t know who he is. And so you’re not really gonna hear that side.”
This recieves sparse applause. The need to shelter and protect these students like children reminds me of equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers’ expereince at Oberlin College where after her speech on their campus students were encouraged to retreat to a safe room to “decompress.” Apparently 30 students and a therapy dog did so during and after her speech.
After this initial round of audience speakers the panel begins to share their ideas on the topic (starts at 26:00). The first explains how the people assembled on stage have been working all summer to start the process of changing the name of CC Little. She talks about how they made an intellectual case online for why they should change it and is asking the audience to endorse the case so when they present to the regents it is backed by the weight of student support. She also explains how she wants this case to be an opportunity for public education on CC Little and the history of eugenics in America. Good. This sounds constructive. Basically, she is saying that she’s on their side. As the panel host said earlier, there is no debate going on in the ballroom, everyone there agrees that the name of the building should be changed. However, her efforts are not warmly received. After the panlelist, another student protestor shares his ideas (starts at 28:38).
“Hi Okay. (States Name.) Thank you so much for saying these things. However, I think policy is fucking dumb. Too many of my friends have been exploited time and time again, paid or unpaid, by the university for things that they won’t see realized at their time at the university. And so I think we can change the name of CC Little right now, we can do it tomorrow, if there was enough institutional support here. Ya know?”
I don’t know. And I think the panelist also doesn’t know. One of the panelists later says she has been working on this issue for 15 years, writing pieces every 3–4 years to keep the debate in the public conciousness. If she was able to change the name of the building overnight, I’m sure she would have opted for that option.
Perhaps showing the true, underlying desires of the protestors, the same student protestor then lists the names of the other buildings he wants changed. They include Angel Hall, Tappan Hall, Ross School of Business, and Weiser Hall. As he lists all of these names he receives loud applause from the audience. He explains why.
“Change the name of Weiser Hall because he was one of the biggest fundraisers for Donald Trump’s campaign in Michigan.”
“Instead of having these billionaires, these conservative billionaires, donate money to have their names on buildings and to be elected into public office, let them donate, make them donate to free college tuition for our campuses (inaudible)”
“Make them donate” is an interesting euphemism. Beyond that, in this protestor’s statment, probably the most warmly received of the event, he explains exactly why the “white supremacist” institution of the University of Michigan cannot change the name of CC Little overnight. Because that’s not the endgame. The protestors’ insatiable need to dictate and create the campus they personally want won’t end at CC Little. It will include all political dissent from their approved groupthink. If you donated to a politician they don’t like, your name is tranished and unfit for the University as a whole.
After he finished, another student protestor takes the microphone (starts at 30:55).
“I also just wanted to say that last spring, or last winter, a ton of students of color from like primairly organized by (inaudible) came together to talk to the administration including you (panelist), I was at your table then. A lot of students of color came to talk to you specifically about changing the name of CC Little. So why is it that over the summer, and right now, we’re seeing a panel of all white people who (inaudible)…and respecting* black and brown bodies and people of color. I just think we need to really be looking at how you exploit student labor and then exclude us from the actual narrative.”
(*I couldn’t quite make that word out over the applause but I think it was “respecting.” The gist of her comment is clear regardless.)
To respond to this, the next panelist takes the microphone. She is the one who has been working on this renaming effort for over 15 years. She talks about how she cares about the students and wants to create a safe space for them. She then explains the process that is currently underway.
“With this university policy, the new policy emerged, it provided a vehicle for us to put together this report and to make a case. Which we’re at, you know, we’re at a university we wanted to get the evidence. So the idea was compile the evidence, go into the archives, get the documentation to better understand who CC Little was and the things that he did, when we look back at him we find, you know, and probably many in this room find, problematic.
She quickly ends her statment saying that this is ultimately a matter for the students and that the panelists have written these proposals in the spirit of helping their cause. She tells them that she thinks “we are all on the same side”, which receives an inaudible, but negative, shout from an audience member.
After the video ends, the protest was over and the panel continued as planned. There is a summary of the panel and protest in this Daily Article from today.
As I said at the onset, the debate over changing the name of CC Little isn’t itself concerning to me. Until this week I was unaware of the debate. I don’t yet have a position on the fitness of the name of “CC Little” for that building. The panel (as planned, without the protest) seemed like a great resource for people, myself included, to learn more about CC Little and his history and come to their own conclusion about where they stand. But these protestors don’t want people to come to their own conclusions. After all, individuals may disagree. Instead, they created A DEBATE OVER THE DEBATE. This is not constructive. We cannot reach any consensus if merely speaking about a topic or supporting a heterodox point of view on a topic is evidence of white supremacy, or some other loaded non starter. The only path out of this gordian knot they tied is 100% agreement with the collective groupthink consensus. But again (and crucially) not through debate. Then how do we reach consensus? You must accept their position, or you’re to some degree supportive of eugenics and thus white supremacy. Lunacy.
I feel safe making the claim that no one at the university opposed to this renaming effort is a white supremacist. Further, no one at the university IS a white supremacist. It’s more nuanced than that, but in the campus climate illustrated in this video that nuance has been completely removed. The, perhaps accidental, honesty of the student protestor who wanted Angell, Tappan, Ross, and Weiser changed in addition to CC Little shows the danger of ceding ground in this game of revisionist history. Where does it stop? By what year’s ethical and moral standards do we hold all future monuments accountable? How do we future proof all of our mouments and building names from here on out?
It’s clear that this game isn’t about CC Little, it’s instead about having control over the culture and being able to dictate what is acceptable for everyone else. There are certainly students on campus who voted for Donald Trump, what does it say to them if we rename Weiser Hall because Weiser was a donor to their candidate of choice? If his donation to a political candidate makes him unfit for a building name, does their support of the same cadidate make them unfit to be students at the university? How far does the moral purity test go? This is not a slippery slope argument, that suggestion was made by a protestor and cheered by his counterparts.
While it is important to recognize that this video does not mirror those filmed at Evergreen State in degree, the fundamental ideas are the same. The fiasco at Evergreen did not happen overnight and if we do not think intelligently and talk honestly about this problem in its early stage, it is more likely to metastasize and become a much larger, and potentially irreversible, cancer in the future. Evergreen’s inability to have a reasonable discussion and address the concerns of students in an adult manner is currently leading to the demise of the school. Let’s be careful and not let this happen to our University of Michigan.