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I’m on the Professor Watchlist—and it’s exposed a radical truth about the future of social justice

Reuters/Yuri Gripas
People sign a huge copy of U.S. Constitution at an “Occupation of Washington” march camp in Washington, October 10, 2011.
  • Matthew Pratt Guterl
By Matthew Pratt Guterl

Professor of Africana Studies and American Studies at Brown University

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

A little over a week ago, a colleague wrote to me out of the blue to tell me that I had been added to Professor Watchlist. The list, compiled by the conservative group Turning Point USA in the wake of the US election, identifies university faculty who purportedly deserve close scrutiny for their liberal, “un-American” views.

I followed the link and saw my face—a photo a friend had taken in his living room hallway now repurposed into a mugshot of sorts. A brief description followed, highlighting an essay I’d written for Inside Higher Ed in the midst of the national debate over “safe spaces” on college campuses. The essay had gotten me on the list.

The Watchlist’s many critics have already spoken eloquently about the list’s threatening atmospherics. Branding the list “a new species of McCarthyism,” philosopher George Yancey issued a resolute refusal to be silenced. “Yes, I am dangerous,” he concluded, “and what I teach is dangerous.” “I will not shut up,” historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote on her Facebook page, “America is still worth fighting for.” More recently, over 100 faculty at Notre Dame, in a spirt of radical solidarity, have petitioned to be added to the list. 

The echoes of McCarthyism are persuasive. But there are deeper, and darker, reasons to be worried about the Watchlist and its creators. I don’t fear the hopelessly bourgeois neo-Nazis and white supremacists, with their slick hair and college degrees, saluting Trump’s bland, boring dream of “Make America Great Again.” But I surely mourn what they signify. Their resurgence means that we—those who would make a better world—are lost. It is a confirmation that those who believed progress was inevitable were wrong all along.

The Professor Watchlist is only a few weeks old. It seems to mark the beginning of a new era. It boldfaces the old battle lines of the culture wars between the left and right. But it repurposes them for a political agenda even further to the right, into the realm of white nationalism. And as the first list to be written and publicly released after Americans elected Donald Trump, the Watchlist also has the feel of brutal possibility. The president-elect himself recently asked the Energy Department to turn over a list of employees who had worked on climate change. In this context, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that the Professor Watchlist could be operationalized and acted upon.

This is a striking idea for progressives to contemplate. Generations of reformers have emphasized the need for patience and for faith when confronting injustice. In the great course of things, as years become decades, what once looked like an impossible challenge can be gradually overcome. Slavery, in this feel-good and faith-based approach, gave way to freedom. Jim Crow, by the same inexorable logic, gave way to a colorblind America. Over time, injustice would slowly unravel because the universe, or the Creator, or the zeitgeist demanded it. The righteous would always prevail.

This brand of optimism has served as an intellectual backbone to many radical social movements. Theodore Parker, writing against slavery in 1853, wrote: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.”

Over a century later, Martin Luther King, Jr., deliberately echoed Parker in his 1965 sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Neither man could see where all this was heading, but both believed in that arc – its length and its curvature.

It seems that we’re at the end of that arc now.

We are in the place that generations of dreamers and believers could not see. And we are confronting the idea that arc bends toward injustice, not the other way around. This means that we are not in the “upside down.” Nor are we in a second “nadir”—a reference to the decades after Plessy v. Ferguson, when race-based lynchings were all too frequent and white mob violence exploded. This isn’t a low point, to be followed inevitably by something better. We are, instead, right where we were headed all along.

Nativism and racism are on the rise globally. Black death goes unpunished and white murderers get mistrials. The gap between rich and poor has dramatically widened, even as populist movements across Europe and America have put exemplars of conspicuous (if not vulgar) consumption into office. Genocide has returned abroad. Xenophobia and scapegoating drift across the land like a fog, masking the vast gaps between the very rich and the masses of the working poor.

Someday, when they write the histories of all that is to come, they will remember how easily progress can be reversed or proven illusory. They will write detailed narratives of how Trump’s victory stripped away all remaining restraint from a white electorate conditioned to want a return to a racist dreamscape. And they will recount how, quite suddenly, racial slurs, swastikas, and other markers of prejudice thought to have been shunted from the mainstream for good returned to the status of ordinary, everyday speech and action.

The Professor Watchlist is one such relic of the past, returned to the present—a readily available archive of who should be punished, who should be surveilled, and who should be erased. There may be more to come: Lists of refugees and undocumented immigrants, ready for an official invocation. Lists of enemies of the state, both foreign and domestic. Lists of radicals, lists of community organizers, lists of scientists. Lists that reminded people of dark moments in American history; of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, and the Japanese internment camps in the US during World War II.

If we want to fight this fate, we must give up faith in the inevitability of liberal progress. We must stop hoping that Trump’s election is an aberration, and understand that he is the logical end point of American history thus far. When we stop believing in the arc of the moral universe, as Jelani Cobb notes, we are forced to reject American exceptionalism, open our eyes to the global rise of right-wing populism, and see ourselves caught up in it.

Only then can we begin to envision better futures outside of the logos of American nationalism, outside of what is currently legally, philosophically, and constitutionally possible in the United States. Better futures, that is, than those long predicted by the liberal tradition that stretches back to the nation’s founding.

Walking away from the mythic “arc of history” means seeing the world as a realist—and seeing history realistically. This is the worldview that can steel us for the long decades to come; for the hard, oppositional work of organizing and community building on the ground; and for the extraordinary amount of serious thinking and dreaming required to move forward when forward movement is itself marked as willful disobedience.

That is why the Watchlist matters. It is a reminder that progressives were wrong about a lot of things, including the arc of history. It bends in the other direction. If we want to fix it, we will have to break it, and make something new.

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