The Trolls of Academe: Making Safe Spaces into Brave Spaces

By W. J. T. MitchellJanuary 5, 2018

The Trolls of Academe: Making Safe Spaces into Brave Spaces
IN THE LAST YEAR, the University of Chicago, along with dozens of other universities across the country, has undergone a severe test of its commitment to free speech and academic freedom. Defamatory posters naming students and faculty as “Terrorist Supporters” have appeared on numerous campuses across the country. The posters are linked to social media via the hashtag #StopUniversitySupportForTerrorists and the website for the David Horowitz Freedom Center. If one visits the Horowitz site, one finds it linked to an entire network of sites, including Frontpage Mag, TruthRevolt, and Jihad Watch, which are collectively committed to “identify[ing] the enemies of America and free societies generally.” It doesn’t take much browsing on Horowitz’s website to come across an online blacklist known as, which provides profiles of all the persons named on his posters, along with many others who have publicly expressed criticism of Israel, or solidarity with Palestinians, or joined groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine, or the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement (BDS). Horowitz equates mere association with these groups with anti-Semitism and support for terrorism. His accusations have no foundation in logic or evidence. They are pure slander; they aim to harass, intimidate, and do harm to the job prospects of vulnerable students and faculty. They are a parody of “free speech,” designed to stifle speech and to suppress all criticism of the state of Israel. “Our mission,” declares Canary Mission, “is to ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.”

I have to confess that I was only dimly aware of the existence of David Horowitz until the first week of classes this fall, when his posters hit the University of Chicago campus. But there I was, with a caricature of my face on the posters as the designated terrorist supporter among Chicago’s senior faculty. More alert friends reminded me that Horowitz is one of the most notorious turncoats in American political history. The offspring of communist parents, a committed radical in the New Left, and an editor of Ramparts Magazine in the 1960s and ’70s, he turned to the right during the Reagan era and steadily moved to more extreme positions in the ensuing years. After some years of obscurity and exile during the Obama era, he has reemerged in the time of Trump as a leading partisan of the alt-right’s internet assault on American universities.

Horowitz’s poster with the names of others redacted

The ready access to private information provided by social media makes it easy for a determined, well-financed organization like Horowitz’s to steal not just your credit cards, but your reputation. At first I assumed that the basis for smearing me as a terrorist supporter was my essays on the politics of landscape in the occupied territories of the West Bank, many of them published in Hebrew by a respected Israeli publisher. [1] Since 1987 I have been a frequent guest of universities in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, speaking as an invited lecturer at Hebrew University, Shenkar University, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Birzeit University, and the International Art Academy Palestine in Ramallah. I have numerous friends on both sides of this long-standing conflict, and have seen my role as that of someone trying to find a peaceful resolution, largely through cooperation between artists, intellectuals, and moderate political forces. My prominent position on the posters may also be because during my editorship of Critical Inquiry, a respected peer-reviewed journal in the humanities, we published numerous essays on the subject of Israel/Palestine by eminent scholars from a variety of fields and points of view. We have tried to stage the debates in as even-handed a fashion as possible, balancing a critique of Frank Gehry’s Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem with a response from four scholars from the Wiesenthal Foundation and from Gehry himself; pairing Edward Said’s critique of Zionism (which he refused to call racism), with a response from Robert Griffin, a staunch defender of Zionism. Our forthcoming winter 2018 issue will feature an essay by Saree Makdisi on the appropriateness of the term “apartheid” for the conflict, alongside a dossier of five Israeli scholars reflecting on their studies of the occupation.

My personal support for BDS is based in its adherence to the time-honored tactics of nonviolent protest pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. I am opposed to violence on both sides — both the desperate suicide attacks of Palestinians, and the massive Israeli military interventions in Gaza and the illegal settlements in the West Bank. BDS is, to my mind, not so much a single, unified set of obligatory tactics, but an opening for critical thought on the future of both Israel and Palestine. It is, so far as I can tell, a loosely organized movement that embraces a wide range of perspectives. Many progressive Jews belong to it (which only earns them the label of “self-hating Jews” in Horowitz’s fantasy world). But those of us who support it do have to reckon with the horror it provokes among some right-wing Zionists. Benjamin Netanyahu has declared the boycott a greater threat to Israel than Iranian missiles. The truth is, BDS is still relatively weak as an economic or political force. It has almost nothing going for it except a relentless focus on moral issues. But we should not underestimate the capacity of an ethically rigorous form of nonviolence to produce a radical change in political and legal structures. My sense is that BDS could be the salvation of Israel. The two-state solution has been the carrot in front of that donkey known as the “peace process” for quite a long time, and, Trump’s actions on Jerusalem suggest that the one-state condition of Israel/Palestine has now become an undeniable reality. Israelis and Palestinians will have to find a way to turn this condition into a solution, to live together in a civil society, and nonviolent tactics such as the boycott are one signpost on that way.

None of this matters to a troll like Horowitz, for whom any criticism of Israel and any association with groups who support Palestinian interests launches a simplistic equation: criticism of Israel/support of Palestine = anti-Semitism = terrorism = specific links with Hamas. Of course this “logic” would be laughable if it were not so insidious. I am not now and never have been a supporter of terrorism in any form. It is strange to be saying this phrase that I heard on radio broadcasts of the McCarthy hearings when I was eight years old. And it is a nice irony that in the same week that the defamatory Horowitz posters appeared at University of Chicago, I was being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among the highest honors that an American scholar can receive. As a securely tenured professor, I could easily ignore Horowitz’s attacks. But in a strange and complicated way, it feels like an honor to be attacked by an odious character like David Horowitz; a number of my senior colleagues even confessed to a bit of jealousy. If nothing else, the free publicity provided by the Horowitz attacks will perhaps lead more people to read my books. His poster artist, Bosch Fawstin, famous for his violently Islamophobic cartoon strip Pigman, has even done me the favor of making me look like Salman Rushdie, which I presume means that I am now the target of a Horowitz fatwa.

In addition to my portrait, the posters include the names of two dozen students and recent alumni, along with the face and name of an untenured colleague. These individuals are conspicuously vulnerable to attacks of this sort. Any prospective employer who looks up their names will find a profile of them on Canary Mission, right at the top of their Google results. All the data available about them on the internet, including pictures, is framed inside a claim that they “are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses across North America.” This prominence in the search engine is partly a result of the fact that students do not have a very deep set of achievements or associations in their profiles. But it may also be because Horowitz’s considerable financial resources from right-wing funders like the Olin and Scaife foundations allow him to pay Google to push these defamatory profiles to the top of its search pages. I don’t know this for sure; I would like an investigative journalist to find out. Does Horowitz pay Google? He brags about his web presence, and sees himself as conquering the frontier of streaming video in the coming years: infomercials for bigots, fake news, tweets, endless conspiracy theories rooted in a rich loam of enemies — Blacks, gays, Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians, and the Master Signifiers: Immigrants.

Horowitz is a “birther,” so of course Barack Obama heads his enemy list as a dangerous radical and secret Muslim, the leader of “the most dangerous administration in American history.” When Akiva Gottlieb wrote a profile of Horowitz around the time of Obama’s reelection in 2012, Horowitz described himself as a has-been who had been banished to a ghetto with his wings clipped. After a long career, first as a professional extremist on the left, and then on the right, Horowitz had resigned himself to living out his days on the trash heap of lost causes. No one took him very seriously when he published books attacking “The 100 Most Dangerous Professors” in American academia. Most of his targets were what we used to call “tenured radicals,” professors whose research involves traditions of progressive thought and critical theory in the humanities and social sciences. Feminism, critical race studies, and venerable figures like Marx and Freud were suddenly dangerous once again. Stanley Fish was denounced as a communist. But these attacks backfired for obvious reasons: the problem with tenured radicals is that they are tenured, hard to get rid of. It became a point of pride to be on Horowitz’s enemies list.

The turning point for Horowitz came with the election of Donald Trump. Stephen Bannon, Fox News, Breitbart, and the alt-right media brought Horowitz out of retirement. Trump did not have to invent characters like Horowitz. He simply turned over the rock they had been hiding under.


I organized a teach-in this fall at the University of Chicago to find out whether it would make sense to respond to the attacks of a troll with such a dismal reputation. It brought together the students, faculty, and alumni who had been named in the poster, and it became clear that this was not the old Horowitz of futile name-calling. He had now found truly vulnerable targets, and, armed with the financial support of the alt-right, he was beginning to do the sort of damage that he only dreamed of back in the days of tenured radicals. Now he targets the untenured, seeking to ensure that they remain that way. Some of our recent graduates testified to a sharp decline in their job prospects in the wake of last year’s attack. They felt intimidated and harmed by the potential damage to their lives and career prospects. They wanted to fight back but felt that going public would make a bad situation worse. Suing Horowitz for libel is too expensive for most people, and especially for someone whose job prospects are being harmed by false public accusations, circulated widely on social media. All this shows how easy it has become to inflict harm by linking a local poster campaign to an international social media network armed with job-killing blacklists. Horowitz’s tactics are taken from the playbook of Joe McCarthy’s shameless red-baiting crusade of the 1950s, now enhanced by new media. You find yourself labeled as a public enemy, a terrorist, by a wealthy and powerful political movement that regards itself as fighting a war with your kind of person.

So what is to be done? People I respect have advised me that legal remedies are unlikely to succeed. Horowitz will claim that the posters and the blacklists are political speech protected by the First Amendment. They may be hyperbolic in tone, but they do not really qualify as hate speech, and even if they did, they would still be protected as political expression. The Nazi and Confederate marchers in Charlottesville had a perfect right to parade their anti-black and anti-Semitic slogans. So, I am told, the best strategy is to ignore him. Fighting back will simply play into his hands by giving him free publicity.

This is very tempting advice for me personally. I have better things to do than attend to the antics of a troll like Horowitz and defend myself against the charge of being a terrorist supporter. But on further reflection it strikes me that silence in the face of defamatory speech signifies assent. I have a right to talk back. More to the point, I have a real obligation. Unlike the students and untenured faculty attacked by Horowitz, I have the armor of tenure to protect me. His attacks do not threaten my employment, and if I remain silent, what alternative do the vulnerable victims of the Horowitz campaign have?

More important than my own right to defend my reputation is the question of institutional responses. What rights and responsibilities do American universities have in the face of this kind of attack? The Horowitz posters are not merely a local issue for the University of Chicago. David Horowitz is the tip of a spear aimed at the heart of higher education. The attack on graduate education embedded in the Republican tax bill makes this national strategy evident. So Horowitz is only one weapon in the arsenal of a broad-based campaign that threatens to destroy all the basic institutions of American democracy. Professional journalism is now “fake news”; the judiciary system is populated by “so-called judges”; elections are corrupted by trolls, hackers, foreign interference, unlimited dark money, and voter suppression; public education is under siege, along with the environment, unions, health care, and climate science. Higher education is one of the few safe spaces left for reasoned debate and the production of real knowledge. Horowitz admits as much when he complains that American universities are so completely in the thrall of liberal humanism and scientific rationality (of course he is a climate change denier) that they are probably a lost cause.

Populist ignorance and cynical demagoguery are now at the gates of higher education, demanding to get in under the banner of “free speech” and “civility.” It is particularly ominous when one of University of Chicago’s own administrators unilaterally declares that the University “does not condone safe spaces” where controversial subjects can be discussed respectfully, but must open its doors to every fanatic and con man that the alt-right has to offer. Does this mean that we must now engage in affirmative action for creationist scientists because, after all, “evolution is just a theory”?

As a strong free speech advocate, my answer has to be a reluctant yes. The whole purpose of creating a “safe space” for rational debate is to create a brave space where controversial ideas can be aired, and stupid, illogical, and hateful beliefs can be exposed as such. If my colleagues in biology decide they want to bring in a creationist for a lecture, it is fine with me. As an expert in creationist dinosaur paleontology, I would probably attend. If the Political Science department decides to bring in a white supremacist, I think they must be allowed to do it, too. And those who despise this ideology should be allowed to express their dissent as well.

I would urge students not to engage in violent protests against these provocateurs. Such tactics have played into the hands of right-wing clowns and white supremacists like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer, whose whole strategy is to buy their way into an “invited” speaking engagement and leave a trail of destruction behind, with the university left to pick up the bill. My advice would be to exercise the right to peacefully protest such appearances, and make the sponsors of speakers who have a history of inciting violence pay for their own security arrangements up front. Defend their right to speak on campus, but challenge them on the steps outside in counter-demonstrations and teach-ins that expose the shallowness of their ideas. And be sure to have plenty of video cameras there to document the activities of violent provocateurs.


Much as I would like to, I think we cannot ignore the Horowitz campaign. It seeks to blacklist a generation of American and foreign students because of their Arab identity or solidarity with minorities and immigrants; it labels them as terrorists, at least as dangerous a smear as it was to be called a communist in the 1950s. It is coming first for the most vulnerable individuals — students, recent alumni, and untenured faculty. It will not stop there but will come for leading institutions of American higher education, all in the name of free speech, civility, and opposition “against the totalitarianism of political correctness.” People who say this sort of thing have never lived under real totalitarianism. Political correctness, which used to be a name for politeness and respect for the feelings of others, has now become a slogan for the alt-right, synonymous with thought control. Silence in the face of these assaults on academic freedom in the name of free speech is not just cowardly, it is dangerous.

The best example I know of a moderate, balanced institutional response to the Horowitz phenomenon is that of UCLA’s Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, Jerry Kang. Kang pointed out that the groups attacked by Horowitz, the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine, “are recognized student organizations.” He went on to condemn Horowitz by name, warning that the university can take legal action against those responsible for the posters because they violated university policies on unauthorized graffiti and postings. I am urging the University of Chicago to follow UCLA’s example, and to go well beyond it. In the coming weeks I will be submitting a petition to the Council of UChicago’s University Senate proposing that we join with other universities in calling out Horowitz by name and demanding that he cease his attacks on students, alumni, faculty, and universities themselves. Universities must make clear who the targets of his defamatory posters are — namely, critics of Israel and sympathizers with the Palestinian cause — and reassure these individuals that the university supports their right to free speech without in any way endorsing what they have to say. This is a critical point: no one is asking any university to side with the Palestinian cause against Israel or with Israeli hardliners against Palestinians, only to support the rights of students and faculty to speak freely and bravely about these issues. Finally, universities must offer help to students in the form of online reputation management, aggressive labeling of trolls, and alerting social media and search engines (Google, Facebook, et cetera) that are providing a platform for a campaign of harassment and intimidation designed to suppress political speech and attack academic freedom in one fell swoop.

Aside from his avowed intention to harass and intimidate our students, Horowitz’s campaign has a broader purpose, which is to corrupt the very foundations of American universities as places of reasoned debate. In a rare moment of clarity during his interview with Gottlieb, Horowitz enunciated his political philosophy in a sharp distinction between his principles and those of higher education:

In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability. Republicans often seem to regard political combats as they would a debate with the Oxford Political Union, as though winning depended on rational arguments and carefully articulated principles. But the audience of politics is not made up of Oxford dons, and the rules are entirely different […] Politics is war. Don’t forget it.

I think we can forget and forgive this bizarre picture of the Republican Party as a genteel debating society. It is the fantasy of an unhappy warrior who has inhabited the dogmas of both the extreme left and right fringes of American politics for half a century. But we should not forget his candid declaration of war on “rational arguments and carefully articulated principles.” When backed by political and governmental forces from the American presidency on down, it is a clear and present danger to higher education as such.


W. J. T. Mitchell is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. He has been the editor of Critical Inquiry since 1978, and his latest book Image Science: Iconology, Media Aesthetics, and Visual Culture was published by Chicago University Press in 2015.


[1] Holy Landscape, ed. Larry Abramson, a collection translated into Hebrew by Rona Cohen (Tel Aviv: Resling Publishing, 2009). See also, Landscape and Power (University of Chicago Press, second edition, 2005). A full listing of my publications is available at

LARB Contributor

W. J. T. Mitchell is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. He was the editor of Critical Inquiry from 1978 to 2020, and is the author of Image Science: Iconology, Media Aesthetics, and Visual Culture, published by Chicago University Press in 2015.


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