Randa Jarrar, a professor of English at California State University at Fresno, became an infamous character when she previously celebrated the death of former first lady Barbara Bush. The horrific tweets by Jarrar led to calls for her termination, which I previously opposed
on free speech grounds. Now, Jarrar is back after calling for the resignation of all white editors everywhere
because The Nation published a poem that some viewed as “ableist.” In the meantime, the editors of the liberal magazine have been on a public campaign of self-flagellation over the publishing of the short poem.
The outpouring of liberal angst and handwringing was triggered by the publishing of a poem entitled “How-To,” by Anders Carlson-Wee. The 14-line poem
has this line “If you’re crippled don’t flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice.” Carlson-Wee appears to be discussing social norms and roles but the poem was denounced as “ableist” which defined below and distinguished from “disablism”
– The practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. A set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.
Disablism – A set of assumptions (conscious or unconscious) and practices that promote the differential or unequal treatment of people because of actual or presumed disabilities.
The Nation editors immediately went prostrate before their readers in pledging to bar such writers in the future. They said (as many do) that they did not read the poem as a celebration or advancement of “ableism” but a social critique but then declared themselves as reeducated by the outcry of irate readers:
Editor’s note: On July 24, 2018, The Nation and its poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, made this statement about the poem below, which contains disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities:
As poetry editors, we hold ourselves responsible for the ways in which the work we select is received. We made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem “How-To.” We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem. We recognize that we must now earn your trust back. Some of our readers have asked what we were thinking. When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way.
We are currently revising our process for solicited and unsolicited submissions. But more importantly, we are listening, and we are working. We are grateful for the insightful critiques we have heard, but we know that the onus of change is on us, and we take that responsibility seriously. In the end, this decision means that we need to step back and look at not only our editing process, but at ourselves as editors.
For her part, Jarrar could not get past the race of the writer. In her signature style of embracing racial discrimination as a progressive ideal, Jarrar called for the resignation of white editors everywhere. She tweeted “At some point, all of us in the literary community must DEMAND that white editors resign. It’s time to STEP DOWN and hand over the positions of power.” She expresses impatience in having to actually wait for a reason to remove white editors: “We don’t have to wait for them to f— up. The fact that they hold these positions is f— up enough.”
Jarrar expresses utter comfort with adopting a purely racist position that judges all editors solely on the basis of their skin color. She has taken her Twitter account private so that she can only express such discriminatory thoughts to a select group, but her tweet was passed along by one of the viewers.
Jarrar’s views are not unique. They represent a growing acceptance of racial discrimination and intolerance disguised as advancing diversity and equality. My criticism of calls for Jarrar’s termination is not because I respect her views or her scholarship. Rather, there is a shrinking space for free speech for many employees in this country, including academics. I can certainly understand the feeling that Jarrar, who does not respect the free speech rights of others, does not deserve such considerations or protections. However, civil libertarians are often in a position to defend those who are the least compelling persons for such efforts. Jarrar is entitled to speak freely about her political and literary views. It is not simply an exercise of free speech but academic freedom.
In other words, Jarrar is worthy of condemnation but not termination.
Who knows, with the support of the free speech community, Jarrar might ultimately recognize the racism and intolerance of her positions as part of the school’s motto Lucem Accipe Ut Reddas (“Receive the light that you may give it forth.”)