Don't let Bad Actors set the Terms
DEI, antisemitism, and the lies used to frame debate
I want to briefly thank Bill Ackman for giving the game away. In an absurd 2 a.m. Twitter rant the billionaire, who has become one of the faces of this campaign to get university presidents fired, said that DEI is the “root cause of antisemitism” at Harvard. And just like that all pretense and feigned seriousness is gone. Now many of you, like myself, probably never took the witch hunt of university presidents who had the gall to not crack down on students supporting Palestine too seriously. From the beginning it was evident that this crusade lacked meaningful substance. Unfortunately the results, and what’s likely to come next, are a pretty serious matter, despite the fact that the purported reasoning behind their attacks has always been a flimsy pretext for enforcing Zionism at elite institutions, attacking DEI, and increasing reactionary control over education.
I had hoped to avoid writing about this, because it is, in many ways, a distraction. Primarily it distracts from the genocide Israel is perpetrating in Gaza, where over 500,000 people are now starving. Of the human beings on Earth experiencing the most acute level of starvation, 80% are Palestinians in Gaza right now. It may take a minute to wrap your mind around that. Approximately 700,000 people on the planet at this moment are experiencing phase 5 hunger, or catastrophic starvation. 4 out of 5 of them are in Gaza. In other words Israel is starving Gaza to death.
And yet a number of billionaire donors, members of Congress, and media outlets have determined that the most important thing on Earth for the past several weeks has been the behavior of Harvard’s president. Articles about Claudine Gay were in the top 5 featured stories on the New York Times homepage at least eleven days out of the past month, according to Adam Johnson. This manufactured issue, which primarily sprung from weaponizing false allegations of antisemitism to defend Zionism, was given a spotlight in a very intentional way that both distracted from Israel’s very real crimes and furthered a deeply harmful agenda.
New Means is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Maybe the clearest sign, the clearest admission that all of this was part of the conservative push to attack education and build the muscles and power to limit academic institutions came from one of the architects of the plan himself. Chris Rufo is already known for working with Ron DeSantis to attack the New College in Florida, driving away numerous LBGT students, and making the school a far more conservative and repressive institution. On December 19th Rufo publicly tweeted out, “We launched the Claudine Gay plagiarism story from the Right. The next step is to smuggle it into the media apparatus of the Left, legitimizing the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple her. Then squeeze.” And his plan worked. He is now openly bragging about it not just on social media, but in the Wall Street Journal.
Just like Ackman, Rufo is no longer even pretending that this is about antisemitism, protecting Jews, plagiarism, or anything else with any merit. Ackman calls it attacking diversity at these institutions, Rufo calls it winning the culture war, and yet numerous major publications immediately went with the framing that these men really care about academic integrity, Jewish students, and seemingly whatever else these cynical and bad-faith actors wanted them to say. There could be any number of reasons for that, the most likely being that the Washington Post and New York Times ownership sides with these men on several issues, and the second being that their readership finds a scandal at Harvard very clickable, and disproportionately important.
But you and I do not need to concede the framing to bad actors. We do not need to trust a single word they say, we do not need to cede to them the dignity of pretending that they’re honest. We can’t. If we cede the framing, the battle is already lost. If we debate plagiarism with men who actually want to attack diversity, enforce Zionism, and build their power to police education, we have already lost the fight. When Bill Ackman said the truly egregious and absurd line that diversity, equity, and inclusion is the root of antisemitism at Harvard he did us all a favor. He tore the weak façade of legitimacy away from this whole crusade.
Now, to be clear, I argue that there never should have been a shred of legitimacy to this mess, but some rather powerful people clearly thought differently. Will those people suddenly acknowledge the truth, which is that these guys don’t care at all about Jewish safety or academic integrity or anything of the sort? No. Of course not. But we can double down on our commitments. We can double down on fighting for a Free Palestine, on fighting for education to be free from these reactionary attacks. All the way from public schools in Oklahoma, to colleges in Florida, to yes even private universities we should push these repressive and reactionary forces out of the picture. They have no place in our education system and should not have the power to shape any institutions to their liking. Even those of us who rightfully feel like there are major problems with elite institutions should know that letting this anti-education and anti-protest movement of wealthy donors build power bodes badly for all of us, especially those who are most vulnerable. As Marisa Kabas recently stated with great clarity:
“Whether or not you’re happy with the outcome for Gay is immaterial. Rufo, Stefanik, billionaire Bill Ackman, and their willing co-conspirators in government and the media do not in fact care about who leads the students at Harvard, and they sure as hell don’t care about Jews. They care about consolidating power and perpetuating white power, the hallmark of the conservative movement.”
So never cede the framing. Never debate on terrain crafted by dishonest actors. Fight for what you know is right and don’t get distracted. Don’t let this reactionary movement build even more power. We have to respond with clarity, and clarity about the terms and framing of these fights is paramount. Ackman, Rufo, Stefanik & co. have already turned their eyes to the president of MIT. But they have also taken off their flimsy masks and shown the world what this is all about. Do not let them put those masks back on, and do not let media outlets run cover for their scheme. These people do not care about Jewish safety, they don’t care about Palestinians, and they don’t care about you and me. Push back, refuse their framing, and most important keep fighting for Palestinians in the face of these underhanded attacks. Don’t concede an inch.
Thank you for reading. If you’re able to support my work it allows me to write more for you. In gratitude - Josh