Erik Loomis is a liberal history professor at the University of Rhode Island and the kind of career dipshit we love to hate around here. In fact, Loomis actually competed in Heat 1 of our #BiggestLiberalAsshole2012 contest, for equating anti-Kill List opposition to Obama with racism and sexism. Loomis wrote that post as a blogger for the web site, Lawyers, Guns and Money, which Glenn Greenwald has accurately described as “a cesspool of unprincipled partisan hackdom. . .the online successor of [The New Republic] circa 2002.”
Immediately after the Newtown massacre, Loomis did what many careerist liberals did: he took to Twitter and, for several days, ostentatiously performed his passionate concern for spectacularly murdered children from wealthy Connecticut families. Naturally, these histrionics had the full complement of partisan anti-gun rhetoric, but Loomis cranked it up considerably, with repeated calls for draconian measures against gun advocates, particularly National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, whose “head” Loomis claimed to want “on a stick.”
In a way that should surprise no one except the clueless Loomis, some usual suspects on the right — chiefly the group Campus Reform, Michelle Malkin and Glenn Reynolds — made their patented fuss, with some even claiming that Loomis’s rhetoric about LaPierre was a violent threat. In the days since right-wing tongues started wagging, the Rhode Island State Police have questioned Loomis about his remarks, the dean has called him to account, and the URI president, David M. Dooley, issued the following statement:
The University of Rhode Island does not condone acts or threats of violence. These remarks do not reflect the views of the institution and Erik Loomis does not speak on behalf of the University. The University is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and equitable culture that aspires to promote positive change.
With the same robotic predictability as their right wing counterparts, careerist liberals uncritically closed ranks around Loomis, launching an advocacy campaign via this post on the web site Crooked Timber. They heaped opprobrium on the URI president in particular, reciting the usual talking points about how this isn’t just about Professor Loomis — who is not tenured — but about academic freedom and free speech as a whole. When you consider the history of the people involved, the stench of this campaign’s hypocrisy is very ripe indeed, but what’s most deplorable is how it unethically misrepresents Loomis’s detractors and whitewashes his Twitter frothing, which is now offline.
To hear the crowd at Crooked Timber and other advocates tell it, the dust-up is fundamentally about this one tweet —
@rmccrory I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.—
Loomis’s post-massacre keening began with this retweet of The Rude Pundit –
and progressed with many tweets by Loomis himself that were only slightly less brownshirty, since they called for state, rather than street, violence. They were also obsessively directed at particular gun advocates, especially LaPierre:
You are goddamn right we should politicize this tragedy. Fuck the NRA. Wayne LaPierre should be in prison.
Wayne LaPierre is a criminal and should be in prison for complicity with murder. 27 counts.
Can we define NRA membership dues as contributing to a terrorist organization?
I bet terrorist NRA head Wayne LaPierre will sleep well tonight.
Larry Pratt and the group Gun Owners of America are terrorists and should be dealt with as such.
On and on it went in a similar vein for many tweets. A few days later, after the alleged right-wing ‘witchhunt’ ensued, Loomis clarified his “head on a stick” remark:
Dear rightwingers, to be clear, I don’t want to see Wayne LaPierre dead. I want to see him in prison for the rest of his life. #nraterrorism
Now it’s obvious that “head on a stick” is a figure of speech, not a threat, but as far as I can tell, only Campus Reform said otherwise. Other complaints were much more detailed and reasonable. I really shouldn’t have have to quote Wikipedia to show that Reynolds’ use of “eliminationist” is indisputably apt. Putting aside personalities, and looking at merits alone, is it really terribly wrong to complain about Loomis’s rhetoric as such? Is it wrong to take it up with the University of Rhode Island and to urge others to do likewise? Emphatically no on both counts.
If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around this, just do a substitution analysis with some issue or group you feel strongly about – peace, reproductive freedom, B. Manning, Occupy, feminism – and an advocate you find vastly more sympathetic than Wayne LaPierre – perhaps David Graeber, Medea Benjamin, Cornel West, Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald. Then imagine yourself as one of Loomis’s students or colleagues, or perhaps a would-be history major considering URI.
We’re often told that the best remedy for toxic speech is more speech, not less, but this extremely obvious point always gets lost in ad hoc free speech campaigns like this one, where condemnation is equated with suppression. Yes, Loomis is free to shoot his mouth off about how certain people he disagrees with should be killed or declared terrorists and sent to prison. Others are equally free to say what an infantile, authoritarian ass he is for doing so. Among these others is URI president Dooley, whose rights to both free speech and academic freedom are no fewer than Loomis’s.
Nothing attests so much to the purely self-centered, painstakingly stupid and generally rotten character of today’s establishment liberals than that they will, with straight faces and indignant hearts, concoct something like this statement from Crooked Timber, without any qualifying remarks at all, in defense of something as irredeemably awful as Loomis’s stream of repellently authoritarian invective:
We are dismayed that the university president completely fails to acknowledge the importance of academic freedom and of scholars’ freedom independently to express views (even intemperate ones) on topics of public importance. This statement—unless it is swiftly corrected— should give alarm to scholars at the University of Rhode Island, to scholars who might one day consider associating themselves with this institution, and to academic and professional associations that value academic freedom.
As customarily defined and understood, the principle of academic freedom, which safeguards a professor’s right to make an ass of himself on Twitter, also safeguards his students’ and colleagues’ right to a civil intellectual environment free of intimidation and needless hostility. Therefore, not only is the University president completely right to repudiate Loomis’s unalloyed authoritarianism — as something distinct from his opposition to the NRA — principle obliges him to. While it’s arguably correct to fault Dooley for conceding to Campus Reform’s assessment of Loomis’s speech as overtly threatening, it’s hard to fault him for much else. Students and colleagues with misgivings about Loomis’s conduct should publicly repudiate him also.
Of course a purist might insist that by virtue of Dooley’s position, his repudiation contains an implicit threat to Loomis’s livelihood. But expecting Loomis’ superiors to keep silent for any grounds is certainly at odds with the kind of free speech absolutism that protects Loomis’s eliminationism. It’s also not compatible with academic freedom. What if Loomis had made disparaging remarks about his African American students, or claimed that feminism and good scholarship don’t mix? Would you really want University officials to say nothing?
These weighty matters might be worth haggling over if Loomis were at a private university. However, as a public employee, Loomis’s off-duty speech enjoys not only the customary protection of academic freedom, but Constitutional protection, which is more expansive. Any attempt to fire him or deny him tenure for this incident would undoubtedly result in a lawsuit he would almost certainly win. Therefore, absent any explicit threat of reprisal, Dooley’s repudiation is exactly what it seems, a simple exercise of free speech. As with so much else, Crooked Timber’s hyperventilating on this point is completely misleading.
All of this is a long way of saying that the campaign for Loomis is corrupt from top to bottom: a campaign to dominate debate and suppress criticism dressed up as a campaign to do just the opposite. Maneuvers of this kind have become standard procedure for a political class overwhelmingly dominated by authoritarian little fuckers like Erik Loomis. I don’t expect better from them. It is, however, profoundly disappointing, disgusting even, that people who should know better are eagerly climbing on board and exhorting me to do the same.