In many ways, the life of a college professor is small and personal. You teach individual students in face-to-face situations where you talk and they talk. Sometimes you feel like you're connecting; sometimes you feel like they're texting. Most of the time, it's somewhere in between. I teach a big gen-ed class at Penn State called "The Art of Cinema," and over the years, I have experimented with different ways to connect with students and reach them where they are. In recent years, I have shown provocatively edited clips as class ends that use the film of the day to think with and about issues that loom large in American culture. Jon Stewart is a cultural hero of mine and these little clips, which I call "Parting Thoughts," are my amateurish versions of his "Moment of Zen." About 40 people out of around 450 stick around to watch them. The rest have to rush off to their next class.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished up a lecture on "D.W. Griffith and the Development of Cinematic Grammar" by showing the class a bit of The Birth of a Nation (1915). I talked about how the film, one of the first full-length feature films in America and one of the most profitable films of the silent era, changed the rules of the game. So powerful was its justification of the Klan's birth during the Reconstruction Era that it started race riots, was banned in many cities and is credited with kick-starting the rise of the modern KKK in the North after WWI. It is a stunningly sophisticated piece of cinema that uses every melodramatic trick in the book to get the audience to root for the Klansman riding to the rescue to save white southern culture. In its penultimate scene, having spent a third of the film showing the chaos caused by allowing freed slaves to vote, Griffith shows the heroic hooded horsemen intimidating black voters on election day and getting them to stay home. It is by re-establishing order by intimidating and suppressing the black vote, the film explicitly argues, that the South was reborn. And so, having read headlines all fall about new voting laws being passed all around the country that had the effect of suppressing the minority vote, I thought it might be provocative to use the film to think about the similarities between voter suppression by the southern Democrats in the 1870s -- which I had learned about from a wonderful documentary put out by Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies -- and the laws being passed in our own times. So, after class was over, I showed the stragglers a mash-up that brought the two together through the power of montage.
This "Parting Thoughts" clip attracted the normal level of interest and a couple of students stayed afterwards to talk. Later that day, however, I got an email from a student who was offended by my quick cut-away from the string of headlines about recently-passed voting laws to the voter suppression scene from The Birth of a Nation. He believed that I had equated Voter ID laws with the KKK. Naively, I emailed back that I had not equated them, but had certainly juxtaposed them so as to elicit a moral comparison. I said I was sorry that he had been offended by the mash-up, but that I was offended by systematic attempts to suppress the minority vote in a democratic system predicated on one person-one vote, and that I would continue to challenge students in class to think about such things. He didn't respond, and I put it out of mind.
Earlier this week, I started getting vitriolic emails from out of the blue. How strange, I thought, that the student would have shared this private email with people that had nothing to do with Penn State as far away as Louisiana. But when the emails started coming more often, loaded with phrases like "pathetic attempt to push liberal ideas on mush-minded students," I knew something was up. It turned out that the student was an activist for Young America's Foundation, the student group that invites folks like Ann Coulter and David Horowitz to rally true believers at campuses near you, and publicly shames professors like me who challenge their views. He had passed along our private email exchange to their "New Guard" blog. You could smell the "gotcha" in the air as the reporter wrote how I "openly admitted" making the comparison, and cited such luminaries as James O'Keefe, whose undercover-pimp activism halted ACORN's voter registration drives, to refute my claims that the justifications for the recent spate of voting laws were specious. The reporter hadn't seen the clip, mind you, and I had said nothing during class about the GOP or the KKK, but now the "j'accuse" was out there in the blogosphere gaining steam. At the bottom of the page I gulped: Breitbart.com had picked it up, as had redalertpolitics.com, two for-profit political entertainment sites that specialize in this form of sensationalist cyber-bullying. Now, though the campus controversy part didn't make sense -- no one I knew had heard about it here -- the vitriol and scary language did (take a look at the comments for a sample). The right-wing echo chamber needs scapegoats dressed up in ready-made cliches to function effectively. And it hit me: I had become an empty chair for angry men to rant at.
By the time I got done teaching Capra's Mr Smith Goes To Washington, which was very timely given the compromise on filibuster reform announced in last week's news, there were two messages on my answering machine. One was from a reporter at Fox News and one was from campusreform.org -- another well-funded conservative campus group dedicated to battling-back the liberal menace. They too had run a story that, like a game of telephone, was now about how I had said in class that the Voter ID laws were techniques used by the KKK. This story was complete with quotes from one of those rate-your-professor sites about what a no-good-horrible-bad-rude teacher I was. I have been reading articles about the fantastic claims of alleged liberal conspiracies in the right-wing echo chamber for years in journalistic and academic venues, but this was the first time that I had heard my name being distorted through its feedback loop and seen my picture posted on the cyber-pillory for public shaming; all for showing a clip after class that no one in the echo chamber -- save the student who had posted the private email -- had actually seen.
And so, in the spirit of the upcoming Oscars, and in the hope of muting the rant before I get turned into a right-wing cliche to be used and abused for sensationalistic copy and fundraising schemes, I present the following clip for your consideration. You decide. And may you never find yourself on the business side of the right-wing echo chamber.