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Davis, California

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The education of TPUSA

By JOSHUA CLOVER — jclover@ucdavis.edu


Seven Januaries ago, Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right grifter with a special animus for trans people, was chased off the Davis campus before a talk; a couple weeks later he received the same treatment at UC Berkeley. Between those two events, Richard Spencer, a far-right grifter and Hitler enjoyer, took the blow that made Nazi-punching a thing. But it was the closing of campuses to his presence later that year that helped push him off the public stage. This is what resistance looks like.

  Charlie Kirk is a far-right grifter who fronts Turning Point USA, an organization of Hitler enjoyers with a special animus for trans people. Kirk recently insisted about trans people that “someone should have just took care of it the way we used to take care of things in the 1950s;” he means lynching. Leading TPUSA figure Candace Owens’ misgivings about the Führer concern, well, overreach. She thinks genocide is fine within your own borders. TPUSA’s association with the Proud Boys, an officially designated hate group of “Western chauvinists,” is well-documented; they were last seen on the Davis campus serving as the TPUSA’s armed wing,  i.e. pepper spraying students. Photographs taken just this week show regular TPUSA speaker Stephen Davis posing with the very Proud Boys who attacked students that night. 

  TPUSA propagates the belief that universities are “a scam” devoted to indoctrinating students. They expend considerable effort targeting professors whose politics they don’t care for, threatening them with job loss and more direct violence (with a special focus on non-white teachers). They are, that is to say, profoundly hostile to education.

  A few days before spring begins, Charlie Kirk is scheduled to speak here at Davis on the invitation of the university’s own TPUSA chapter. Gary May, hand-wringing so hard he’s likely to break a wrist, intones that the university, a state institution, is obligated to host any speaker invited by a campus group. Free speech, First Amendment, marketplace of ideas, you know the line.

  Such an argument is not terribly compelling: admirable people have defied all kinds of unethical laws in pursuit of liberation, from Rosa Parks to the Atlanta Forest. We like to name holidays after them. An honorable person, a humane person, a person who cared about the well-being of the community, would not hide behind ethically repugnant laws. Are we truly to imagine then that Gary May would, for example, sign off on a recruitment event led by someone who called for ethnic cleansing or openly eugenicist violence? Surely he would not. And if he did, he should be removed from his position.

  But let’s stay with the thought experiment. Let us suppose a speaker of such vitriolic white supremacy that they advocated for the political position of the Buffalo supermarket shooter; of the Charleston Emanuel AME Church shooter; of the Christchurch mosque shooter; and of the Danish bomber and shooter who killed 77 and whose manifesto called for the deportation of all Muslims from Europe. Mass murderers all. And, as many scholars of the far right have noted, these figures are patently not some coincidence, some ceaseless series of lone wolves. They share a linked and deadly project following the same script. Each one of these and many more were set in fatal motion by their version of the “Great Replacement Theory.” This is the perfervid delusion that acts as the coordinating principle for murderous white nationalism: that the white race is under demographic threat as part of some global conspiracy and that white people must arm themselves to fight against imagined dark hordes crashing upon the nation’s borders.

  Perhaps you are saying, ‘But it’s just Charlie Kirk in his button-down shirt! He’s no frothing white nationalist! He says he doesn’t even know what the Great Replacement Theory is!’ Hmmm. Here he is on his own podcast a year ago, demanding that the U.S. is facing an “invasion,” and that we must arm a citizen militia, “put’em on the border, get it done.” A vast conspiracy is intent, he insists, on “diminishing and decreasing white demographics in America. We’re gonna say that part out loud.”

  The claim is… textbook. That’s who Charlie Kirk is: a Great Replacement Bro. And still, Gary May is sticking to his line.

  The thing is, the line does not actually exist. I asked a friend on the Harvard Law Faculty if there was settled law on this score. They directed me instead to an exchange between eminent legal scholars Erwin Chemerinsky and Robert Post. The former, a Berkeley professor, holds that hate speech is protected speech and the First Amendment says so; hateful speakers cannot therefore be barred on those grounds from speaking at a public university. Maybe so.

  The latter, a distinguished law professor at Yale, thinks quite the contrary. With an eye on exactly the situation before us, he writes about universities that “Unless they are wasting their resources on frolics and detours, they can support student-invited speakers only because it serves university purposes to do so. And these purposes must involve the purpose of education.” Charlie Kirk is a frolic and a detour, my new favorite expression for fashy twerps. Post’s position is clarion: “There is no 1st Amendment right to speak on a college campus.”

  Again, maybe so. I am not a legal scholar. But these people are. Specialists, even, regarding this particular constitutional law question. And the point is: they disagree. It’s a contested matter. There is no settled law that dictates what has to happen next. For Gary May to pretend that there is, and that he is acting under some legal compulsion rather than making a specific choice that he could make otherwise, constitutes an act of pure dishonesty. Signing off on Charlie Kirk is not a requirement; it’s Gary May expressing his preference through his acts, regardless of what he or his press office says.

The Great Replacement Bro is coming here to recruit on March 14, on behalf of an organization openly hostile to education as it exists, and hostile to UC Davis education in specific. There is no moral defense for this. And the hand-wringing legalistic requirement… doesn’t exist. It is worth recalling that confronting Yiannopoulos and Spencer would, it was widely said at the time, play right into their hands, granting them free publicity, free clicks. We know now that the ethical and uncompromising decision to chase them off campus was instead part of a sequence that effectively ended the political careers of both. History is educational that way. And this is a university after all. Perhaps it is time to teach Charlie Kirk a lesson.


Written by: Joshua Clover — jclover@ucdavis.edu


Joshua Clover is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Davis.

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