Commentary

CU trades an insurrection speaker for a Steve Bannon apologist

The university should eliminate conservative thought teaching position

September 20, 2021 4:50 am

A view from a walkway near the University Memorial Center on the University of Colorado Boulder campus, Aug. 14, 2021. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

What will it take for the University of Colorado to learn its lesson?

The position of visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy at CU Boulder was never a good idea in conception, and it has proved humiliating in practice. It launched in 2013 for the express purpose of injecting right-wing teaching into course offerings. As if to illustrate the folly of such an artificial approach to academics, the most recent past occupant of the position emerged as one of the villains of the insurrection.

John Eastman, who was the conservative visiting scholar last school year, appeared at the Jan. 6 pro-Trump rally that inspired a violent mob to storm the Capitol. “We know there was fraud,” he said about the November election during a speech at the rally, giving voice to the lie that President Joe Biden’s victory was illegitimate. “We know that dead people voted.” Only months before, Eastman, with a discredited piece in Newsweek, ignited racist claims that then-candidate Kamala Harris was ineligible to run for vice president because her parents were immigrants, even though Harris was born in Oakland, California.

After the insurrection, CU canceled Eastman’s spring courses and barred him from engaging in outreach on the school’s behalf.

Administrators should have canceled the conservative teaching position entirely.

Instead they found someone else to fill it. Eastman set the bar high on nuttiness. His so-called scholarship would rate unhinged at a backwater GOP caucus meeting, let alone Colorado’s flagship institution of higher learning. But his successor, Alan Kahan, shows promise as a fresh source of embarrassment for the university.

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Kahan is a professor of British civilization at the Université de Paris-Saclay in Paris, France. A running theme in his work is “mind vs. money,” the idea that intellectuals going back to the mid-19th century are in perpetual opposition to capitalism, and that this conflict today is expressed in how the “anti-globalization, Green, communitarian, and New Age movements” are hostile to capitalism. 

One of Kahan’s recent publications is an essay in the journal Society called “Why Steve Bannon is Not a Fascist.” The piece is a defense of former President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, a man who headed the alt-right platform Breitbart News, champions far-right and authoritarian leaders wherever he can find them, urges battle in defense of Judeo-Christian values, and, indeed, lauds a figurehead of the neofascist movement.

The basic point Kahan tries to make in the piece is that, while critics accuse Bannon of being a fascist, his “real intellectual affiliation” is with neoconservatives of the 1960s, like Irving Kristol. Bannon “criticizes immoral elites and an amoral version of capitalism in the name of traditional values. His criticism is a symptom of the long-running battle between Mind and Money, the war between intellectuals and capitalism,” Kahan writes.

He cites a 2014 speech Bannon gave remotely during a conference in the Vatican hosted by the conservative Human Dignity Institute, and quotes him celebrating a global populist movement of working people. What Kahan doesn’t mention is that speech is infamous for its extreme views of the Judeo-Christian West eroding under assault from secularism, crony capitalism and “jihadist Islamic fascism.” “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” Bannon said, calling listeners to the cause of “the church militant.”

Kahan quotes Bannon from a New York Times interview saying, “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States” — and Kahan adds that Bannon is “entirely correct.”

The problem here is not so much what Kahan wrote about Bannon but rather that what he wrote is precisely what got him a job at CU.

Nowhere in the essay does Kahan mention that only three months before its publication Bannon appeared at an event with France’s far-right National Front party, which has strong associations with that country’s historic pro-Nazi factions, and told the audience, “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists … Wear it as a badge of honor.” Nowhere does Kahan mention that Bannon venerates authoritarians like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, a democracy hater who Vox wrote rules with a form of “soft fascism” and whom Bannon called a “hero.” Kahan does allude to Bannon’s predilection for the philosophy of Julius Evola, but only to dismiss it, even though the significance of Bannon’s taste for this Italian neofascist is not so easily ignored. (“I do appreciate any piece that mentions evola,” Bannon once wrote in a leaked email during his time at Breitbart.) And Kahan might be surprised to learn that none other than the conservative doyen Bill Kristol — yes, the son of Irving — thinks Bannon is a neofascist fellow traveler.

If a university faculty member wants to defend a fascist, principles of academic freedom demand they be afforded wide latitude to speak their mind. The problem here is not so much what Kahan wrote about Bannon but rather that what he wrote is precisely what got him a job at CU.

Teaching positions at an institution of higher education should be awarded to scholars based on academic achievement and ability, not some ideological litmus test. A CU professor might express an extreme political view, and that in itself is often tolerable. The problem with the conservative scholar position is that views that might tend to be extreme count as a qualification. How would conservatives react if CU created a progressive visiting scholar position, reserved only for scholars who were prone to teach, say, the virtues of Lenin or the need to ban meat consumption?

Defenders of the visiting conservative scholar program argue that it ensures some measure of intellectual diversity on campus, where progressive views are perceived as dominant. But at a university, diversity of thought is supposed to occur naturally when the school creates fertile spaces for it to flourish. Manufacturing it only devalues academic excellence, and, in CU’s experience, repeatedly makes for disreputable associations.

The first visiting scholar of conservative thought, in 2013, was Steven Hayward. Today he’s an election denier who wants to see Republicans conduct “extensive committee investigations into election fraud.” Hayward also rejects climate change as a policy issue — “Climate change has run its course.”

Eastman, of course, outdid Hayward in shaming CU. The conservative thought position should have been eliminated upon Eastman’s departure, but instead the school went and found a Steve Bannon fan to succeed him. That’s an insult to students and the faculty whose jobs were predicated not on odious politics but academic rigor.

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