Dorothy Kim, PhD, a professor of English at Vassar College, recently wrote a blog post, “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy,” in which she addressed professors who teach about the middle ages (”medievalists”):
The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students. ... Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side. Doing nothing is choosing a side. Denial is choosing a side.
Rachel Fulton Brown, of the University of Chicago, responded with a blog post of her own, suggesting that Professor Kim “learn some f*cking medieval western European Christian history, including the history of our field.” The controversy between them has exploded, with hundreds of professors (including myself) signing a petition protesting Brown’s treatment of Professor Kim.
What is at issue here?
First, we have to understand the political climate in which this debate occurs. Unashamed, swastika-waving neo-Nazis are taking to the streets in the U.S., chanting “Heil Trump!” Many members of the president’s own party agree that he has been far too slow to denounce them and far too ambiguous in his condemnation of them. It is in this environment that professors making fairly innocuous and well documented claims about history (like the fact that some Romans living in Britain in ancient times were dark-skinned and that we have a misleading impression of Greek statues because they were originally painted) have been targeted personally by extremists who send them threatening messages in an effort to intimidate them into silence.
It is particularly common for female professors be targeted, as the cases of Mary Beard and Sarah Bond illustrate. I have female colleagues who are reporting symptoms of post-traumatic stress as the result of years of harassment for their political views. My own experience cannot begin to compare to theirs, but just to illustrate the problem: when I wrote an editorial calling for Confederate statues to be taken down, I got comments like this:
im southern born and southern bred, and if you cross my property line youll end up dead.
It is in this context that we have to understand the words and actions of Rachel Fulton Brown. Her arguments against Professor Kim show an amateurish lack of understanding of what is at issue. Professor Kim says that medievalists (like herself) need to be aware of and do something about the fact that symbols of the cultures they study and love are currently being co-opted by white supremacists. Rachel Fulton Brown responds with logically irrelevant comments that I would summarize as, “Oh yeah? Well, the period we study was multicultural, and here is one African-American guy who is a medievalist.”
Now, if people giving bad arguments were grounds for protest, I would do nothing else with my time but protest. However, Brown started to cross the line when she posted photographs of Professor Kim and of the African-American medievalist in question. Just ask yourself: why were photos necessary? And while resorting to sarcasm is something I have definitely succumbed to myself, it is a clear violation of basic academic professionalism to say to Professor Kim, as Brown did, “learn some f*cking medieval western European Christian history.” (It is simply weird that Brown says this after explicitly comparing herself to the Virgin Mary: “I want – like Mary – for you to know that you are loved.”) Nonetheless, if these were all the things Brown did, the disagreement with Professor Kim would not be of importance beyond the Ivory Tower.
Where Brown clearly and unambiguously went way too far was in recommending her blog post to the Facebook of a notorious right-wing provocateur. Since he seems motivated almost exclusively by the desire for attention, I shall not dignify him by mentioning his name. However, this person was formerly an editor for Breitbart, but resigned after public outcry over some of his views. (Let that sink in. Public outcry led to his resignation from Breitbart, which is infamous for headlines like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.”) However, he continues to have a significant right-wing following. His website soon featured a post on the debate between Professor Kim and Rachel Brown, siding with Brown, under the title, “Lady with a Sword Beats Down Fake Scholar with Facts and Fury.” Accompanying the story was an illustration that featured a woman, presumably Brown, wielding a spiked club (not a sword). For many of us, this image of a spiked club about to “beat down” Professor Kim was inescapably reminiscent of the spiked club used to beat to death the Korean-American character “Glenn Rhee” on The Walking Dead.
When Brown intentionally brought the provocateur in question into the debate, it could serve no purpose other than to encourage harassment of Professor Kim—and it did. And let’s return to the photograph of Professor Kim that Brown posted. Now all those rabid people of the far right know exactly what Professor Kim looks like.
The claim that medieval symbols, imagery, and even vocabulary are appropriated by white supremacists, going all the way back to the original Nazis, is actually not controversial. White male scholars have already made this point. The only difference is that Professor Kim, a woman of Asian descent, is being targeted for saying it. Scholars (like myself and like Professor Kim) must carefully examine evidence, and be open to passionate critique of what we believe. However, we must also not be blind to the political context in which we operate. As Professor Kim observes in her excellent post: “Doing nothing is choosing a side. Denial is choosing a side.”