There’s quite a controversy brewing within academic circles about a tenured full professor of psychology at Cal State U. Long Beach, Kevin McDonald, that raises important questions about the creation of knowledge, the academic enterprise and race. McDonald, who is an evolutionary psychologist, contends that Jews are a separate race driven by genetics and evolution to band together, both for “group survival” and to undercut white, Western culture. Further, he asserts that the Third Reich’s Nazi movement developed specifically to counter “Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy.” He claims to be “agnostic” about whether or not the Holocaust happened, and yet, testified on behalf of infamous Holocaust-denier, David Irving. Not coincidentally, McDonald says that he testified in support of Irving because he was motivated by a desire to defend academic freedom, not deny the Holocaust. Although McDonald includes a disavowal on his website that he does not “condone white racial superiority, genocide, Nazism or Holocaust denial,” his actions – and his research – suggest otherwise, as Scott Jaschik demonstrates in his piece in Inside Higher Ed (Feb.14). Jaschik points out that a favorable story about McDonald’s work appears on Vanguard News Network, a white supremacist website. And, in Heidi Beirich’s thoroughly devastating piece on McDonald for SPLC’s Intelligence Report, she notes that his work is more popular than Mein Kampf with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. In fact, David Duke draws heavily on McDonald’s work for his own antisemitic and racist autobiography, My Awakening, and the condensed version, Jewish Supremacism. And, according to Beirich’s report, in 2004 white supremacists David Duke (former Klansman and Louisiana legislator), Don Black, Jamie Kelso (of Stormfront, the main online portal for white supremacy) and Kevin Alfred Strom (of the neo-Nazi National Vanguard) all attended a ceremony in which McDonald was honored by The Occidental Quarterly, a white supremacist journal. McDonald is pictured here receiving the award, alongside Virginia Abernethy, a self-described “white separatist.”
As you might expect, the controversy is widely being framed as an issue that tests the bounds of academic freedom. This is both an obvious, and a deeply problematic, way to frame this particular case. On the one hand, McDonald is an academic with tenure (and a promotion by his peers to full professorship) who has controversial and unpopular views and should, within the rules of the academy, be allowed to express those views.
On the other hand, framing McDonald’s vile “scholarship” as within the bounds of what is acceptable and even protected within the academy is deeply problematic given the context of his position within a public university with a commitment to human rights, diversity, and to offering an equal educational environment for all who enroll there. I’m generally quite critical of absolutist defenses of “free speech,” and am persuaded by critiques of the first amendment grounded in critical race theory.
Yet, I find this particular case vexing and troublesome precisely because of the protections supposedly afforded by tenure in the academy. Recently, I was contacted by colleagues at other universities (not my own and not CSULB) who were concerned about McDonald’s antisemitism and who urged me to take some action to help “build a case” against McDonald’s views. I hesitated to reply. I hesitated because while I abhor his views such a request seemed to breach the edge of academic freedom. When I taught briefly at another university, I was the target of harassment by another faculty member in my department who objected to the gay/lesbian content I included in course. He sent a formal complaint to the Dean about the assigned readings for my course, arguing that what I was teaching was “dangerous.” As an untenured faculty member that does sometimes unpopular work, I felt – and still feel — particularly vulnerable to ideological attacks by colleagues and especially sensitive to what I perceive as incursions on academic freedom.
But, prompted by the email from colleagues, I began investigating at various white supremacist online outlets and confirmed what Beirich and Jaschik are reporting about the troubling nature of McDonald’s work and its popularity among neo-Nazis. At this point, I’m not sure I can add anything else to Beirich and Jaschik’s first-rate reporting on McDonald’s popularity in far-right circles, except to confirm what they’ve already written, and add my voice to the growing chorus, including some of McDonald’s colleagues at CSULB, who argue that his work is not scholarship but hate-mongering. Beyond that, I think that what those of us who toil in the academy need to explore is not whether McDonald’s speech is protected now that he’s tenured (it is), but rather we need to examine how exactly McDonald rose to tenured, full status and what this reveals about the institutional mechanisms that are designed to serve gate-keeping functions in the creation and legitimation of knowledge. In my view, framing the McDonald case as solely about “academic freedom” does not address the more difficult questions it raises about the roles of academic institutions, university departments, and peer-reviewed presses and journals who simultaneously want to engage in the creation of knowledge (what we used to quaintly refer to as the pursuit of “truth”) and the maintenance of a commitment to social justice. In the current academic system, these two notions – truth and justice – work in opposition to one another.
First, let’s take the academic institution in this controversy: CSULB. In 2006, CSULB was awarded a “University Committed to Diversity” designation from Minority Access, Inc., for its efforts at inclusion. I lived in Long Beach during a break from teaching one semester and I know that the student body there is similar to the students I teach in the CUNY system; many are working class, first-generation college students, and a signficant proportion are students are Asian, Black and Latino/a. CSULB is to be commended for the kind of institutional transformation that made it possible to be the home of one of the first Women’s Studies departments and among the first Asian and Asian American Studies, Black Studies, and Chicano/Latino Studies departments in the U.S. Yet, this commitment to promoting social justice and transforming the institution in ways that make it more welcoming to those of us who have traditionally been excluded from the academy are at odds with a definition of “academic freedom” sanctions antisemitism as scholarship. Beirich (of SPLC’s Intelligence Report) gets to the heart of this dilemma when she asks Craig Smith, who runs CSULB’s Center for First Amendment Studies, about the apparent conflict between the ideals of academic freedom and diversity. Smith replied that the school is “hamstrung in reacting” until formal complaints are made against MacDonald by students or faculty members. Smith did say that MacDonald’s work and associations with hate groups should “certainly be looked at” by the university. However, CSULB’s president, F. King Alexander, takes an even more removed stance, as he described in an interview with IHE’s Jaschik:
“I do not reprimand people for their beliefs. We do address behavioral issues, but as a university, we have to respect the vast spectrum of beliefs that exist on our campus, no matter how much I might disagree with them.”
Here, Alexander makes the distinction between “beliefs” and “behaviors” that critics of absolutist definitions of “free speech” have pointed out is often a false distinction. Alexander goes on to say that while he does not personally agree with MacDonald’s views, he thinks that the psychology department or other faculty bodies are best positioned to evaluate the situation — and that presidents and institutions should not speak out about faculty members. So, at the college and university level, administrators are handing-off the issue of McDonald’s antisemitism saying it’s not within their purview to evaluate individual professor’s research. (Someone tell that to Ward Churchill, I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to hear it.) The fact is: a content-free notion of academic freedom works often works against the support of equal protection. It’s a difficult issue and there is lots of work still to be done about how to effectively balance academic freedom with an institutional commitment to social justice and diversity. Yet, instead of taking on this difficult task, the administration at CSULB basically punted to the department level.
Next, let’s look at the departmental level. How is that someone with such questionable scholarship gets promoted not just once (tenure) but twice (to full)? This is where Beirich’s reporting gets really interesting for those of us who find the internecine battles of academia periodically fascinating. As it turns out, the psychology department at CSULB contributed to McDonald’s rise because it was so preoccupied by its own internal strife. From Beirich’s story:
“The department where MacDonald found a permanent home turned out to be a good place for someone interested in publishing things they might not want others to notice. Long troubled by internecine political battles, in 1994 CSULB’s psychology department was criticized by an external reviewer for being ‘devoid of open discussion of tough issues.’ Professors in that department, most of them only willing to speak on background because of fear of retribution from their colleagues, told the Report that the environment hasn’t changed much. The department hasn’t held faculty meetings in more than a decade, they say, and decisions, including those concerning academic tenure, are made by a small committee of full professors. ‘There’s always a lot of surprise among younger faculty that you don’t interact with your colleagues,’ one assistant professor told the Report. ‘We are all independent contractors, we have no department meetings, no social gatherings, and we don’t even know a lot of the senior faculty, let alone something about their research.’ “
Part of the function of academic departments is the exchange of ideas among colleagues and putting those ideas out for professional peers to critique. Clearly, this did not happen to McDonald within the department at CSULB. So, did everyone across the political spectrum in the psych department getting the benefit of being left alone as “independent contractors”? It appears not. Beirich continues:
“Professor Michael Connor seconded those comments, telling the Report that it made sense someone like MacDonald had prospered in his department. ‘It’s not surprising that this happened here,’ said Connor, the first black professor hired in the department, in the early 1970s. Connor pointed out that most of his senior colleagues were well aware of MacDonald’s views and that MacDonald, in line with his dislike of minority rights, had been very outspoken over the years against ethnic studies programs and diversity efforts. Saying that he would not have taught all these years at CSULB if it weren’t for his love of his students and the Black Psychology Students Association he advises, Connor labeled the department ‘a hostile work environment’ where he had ‘experienced any number of racist incidents.’ MacDonald faced no such challenges. In 1994, in fact, he was promoted to full professor.”
So while the university administration hands off the responsibility for reviewing McDonald’s scholarship to the department, the department does nothing to stop McDonald under the guise of “academic freedom.” Yet, at the same time an African American professor in the department experiences a “hostile work environment.” Once again, the supposedly universal protection of “academic freedom” runs counter to the equal protection of all. The professor espousing antisemitism is “protected” while the professor who supports minority rights is left vulnerable to racist attacks. And, no one’s talking about this — or anything else — because they are not even holding departmental faculty meetings. As anyone knows who has sat through a faculty meeting, these are rarely lofty exchanges of ideas, and more often a painful exercise in discussing bureaucratic miniutia, but the fact that McDonald was never subjected to any sort of intellectual scrutiny from his closest peers means that the content of his scholarship got tacit approval from them. And, his department colleagues followed that implied approval with explicit, formal approval in the form of tenure and promotion to full. Since then, there has been action on the part of departmental colleagues to bring some sort of action against McDonald, but as one CSULB told Beirich of her investigation:
“You are 6-7 years too late … “
And, within the rules of the academic freedom, this is true. The challenge of finding ways to counter McDonald’s antisemitism now that he’s tenured is much more difficult than having that same discussion before he was promoted. Usually the way it works at the department level is that there is a rigorous review of a candidate’s scholarship before recommending them to the university for promotion. The move to tenure is a seal of approval that the scholarship this person is engaged in, even if unpopular, is within the bounds of “knowledge creation,” rather than say, propaganda or “pseudo-science.” Those in the field outside CSULB, such as Steven Pinker, in psychology at Harvard University, have not reviewed MacDonald’s favorably; indeed, Pinker says his work fails “basic tests of scientific credibility.” Yet, at the department level just as at the university level, no one was talking about what constitutes “knowledge,” or having the hard discussions about how to balance academic freedom with a commitment to social justice and diversity. No doubt many of those on the promotion and hiring committee assumed that because McDonald was publishing in peer-reviewed journals, his scholarship must be legitimate.
So, how did McDonald get his work published in peer-reviewed journals? Well, part of the way was through his own editorship the journal Population and Environment. As editor he stacked the editorial board with intellectual allies, including Virginia Abernethy and J. Philippe Rushton. This allowed McDonald, Abernethy and Rushton to all publish with the prestige of peer-review, and confirm each others’ findings in an endless tautology of antisemitism. Eventually, this intellectual shell game unraveled, quoting from Beirich again:
“During MacDonald’s editorship, there were several complaints brought about the quality of the journal’s scholarship and the fact that the publication seemed to have strayed from its mission, according to Landis MacKellar, who is on staff at the Vienna Institute of Demography and edited the journal after MacDonald. MacKellar told the Report: ‘Among the complaints were that the journal was publishing an unusually high number of papers written by members of the editorial board and that, contrary to most journals, the more controversial the piece, the less solid the scholarship often appeared to be.’ Kluwer Publishing commissioned an independent assessment that confirmed these problems. As a result, the publisher dissolved the editorial board and replaced it with new members before relaunching the journal.
While there is a currently a lot of fretting about the end of academic institutions as gatekeepers in the digital age, there is less attention being paid to the kind of Balkanization of knowledge production on the far-right that co-opts old (analog, rather than digital) forms of legitimation. Michele Goldberg talks about this in her book Kingdom Coming. In it she describes the way the emergence of a parallel system of knowledge production among right-wing think tanks that fund research designed to support an ideological agenda, peer-reviewed journals that publish this research, and finally, academic institutions where such work is rewarded. In many ways, McDonald crafted a similar parallel system of knowledge production by taking over the editorship of a reputable, peer-reviewed journal, stacking the board with cronies, then “reviewing” and confirming each others’ findings, although this doesn’t account for how his work got passed the reviewers at Praeger/Greenwood who published his antisemitic trilogy. This is where framing the antisemitism of McDonald’s work as within the bounds of “academic freedom” breaks down because it doesn’t rise to the level of scholarship. Presumably, scholarship is knowledge that gets vetted through a peer-review process, in which peers in the field critique the work. Yet, McDonald has consistently rejected the harsh light of rigorous peer-review, but not without notice in his field. McDonald’s writing has been criticized by a review panel of the leading organization in his field, the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES). The organizer of that panel Dan Kriegman, a leading psychoanalyst, produced a 50-page analysis that tore MacDonald’s work apart and deemed it “pseudo-scientific theorizing.” Referring to the fact that MacDonald became obsessed with Jews in college when he felt they were using or excluding him, Kriegman wrote in an email to Beirich:
“MacDonald is not the first person to avoid the narcissistic injury of having his ideas rejected by concluding that there was a conspiracy against him rather than becoming aware of the substandard nature [as evidenced in his trilogy] of his thinking.”
The inherent fallacy in McDonald’s work rests in the epistemology of white supremacy. The epistemology of white supremacy is, as philosopher Charles W. Mills has noted, “an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance,” which produces the ironic outcome that whites in general, are “unable to understand the world that they themselves have made” (Mills 1997). In many ways, this “epistemology of ignorance” is at the center of the conundrum around McDonald’s work. It seems clear that his work rests on an epistemology of ignorance as so many of his peers have said, including John Hartung, the associate editor of the Journal of Neurosurgical Anesthesiology and an associate professor of anesthesiology at the State University of New York, who said his work is: “quite disturbing, seriously misinformed about evolutionary genetics…” (quoted in Beirich).
The epistemology of white supremacy also extends to the broader academic enterprise I’ve examined here. In this instance, the peer-review process is implicated for what might be regarded as a foundational role in the epistemology of white supremacy. Alongside this, because the university and the department are so wedded to a contentless notion of “academic freedom” it renders them unable to “understand the world that they themselves have made,” that is, the way that an absolutist understanding of academic freedom without regard for an institution’s commitment to equality and diversity is necessarily and routinely give rise to a putative scholar like McDonald. And, under that system, if a university is going to grant tenure to someone like that, it must by definition defend their right to say what they want to. But, departments are not required to recommend tenure, and universities and colleges are not required to grant tenure. Universities and departments simply have to take more responsibility in extending their commitment to social justice to the process of vetting candidates for tenure and promotion. And, this means having those difficult conversations about how to balance academic freedom with a commitment to social justice. The fact is, academic freedom is not the same thing as free speech, and antisemitic pseudo-scholars should not be entitled to generate propaganda at a public university committed to equality.