It’s hard to imagine a better example of just how far the far right will go to weaponize the first amendment to the ultimate ends of repressing dissident voices than Candace Owens’ appearance at University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), April 2019. While we might be tempted to merely point out that her race-baiting name-calling of ANTIFA as “the new KKK” is as historically false as it is morally obscene, the issues are actually far greater and they begin with University of Pennsylvania’s administration. I’d like to make an argument that may be as unpopular on the left as it plainly is on the right (despite the latter’s patent mendacity on this point) that I think makes clear some of the real issues with the presence of Turning Point USA (TPUSA) on college campuses—including my own—but also reveals something far larger and more menacing in scope, namely, the face of contemporary American fascism on the battleground of the university.
First, Candace Owens has a right to be invited and to speak at UPenn. And at any university campus.
Second, university administrations have the crucial responsibility not merely to vet speakers, but to advertise for them honestly and forthrightly. I don’t know with what due diligence university decision-makers approached the possibility of Owens’ visit to U. Penn, but what I do know is that, if they’re like my own university when TPUSA tried to establish a chapter here, it didn’t extend much beyond a gander at the TPUSA website mission statement. UPenn’s advertising of the event suggests something less than what a cursory vetting would require. As I’ve shown, TPUSA’s mission statement is profoundly deceptive; it’s aim is to provide cover for university administrations who can use it to claim innocence if things go bad. It allows for universities to claim they’re giving equal time to conservative voices. The problem is that Candace Owens is not a conservative—not, at least, unless “conservative” now means “racist,” “anti-Semitic,” “misogynist,” and rabidly anti-Islam.
To invite Owens on the basis of the TPUSA mission statement is thus manifestly dishonest. Owens is not merely a “controversial” figure, and she is not a conservative. If UPenn wants to invite an Alt-Righter applauded by Paul Joseph Watson, Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, and Jeanine Pirro (less loved now by Ye), who actively promotes conspiracy theories, grotesquely distorts the history of slavery in America, claims that the Democratic Party is actually worse for African Americans than being commodified as human chattel, and is, according to Joshua Shanes of Haaretz, beloved by the Trump GOP because she “sells their brand of fascism,” fine. But UPenn has a critically important duty to tell us who Owens is, and advertise her appearance with the facts. They didn’t.
Here are the facts. Candace Owens:
· Is cited as the primary inspiration for a terrorist massacre of Muslims.
· Feels comfortable making an approving claim about Hitler’s “if he’d just remained with Germany” intentions.
· Is affiliated with a host of conspiracy theories whose ideological agendas are white nationalist, ethnostate racist, and nativist—including the absurd view that the Christchurch, New Zealand terrorist attack on a mosque was motivated by the “Left.”
· Has tweeted images that include white genocide conspiracy theorists.
· Denies the historical reality of the Southern Strategy.
· Promotes the “Democrat Party Plantation” conspiracy theory and the view that being a black Democrat is tantamount to selling oneself into slavery.
It’s no accident that Owens would come to U. Penn ready to take advantage of the opportunity to call ANTIFA the new KKK—however laughably contrary to fact and a text-book example of the fallacy of projection. Moreover, it takes little more than a perfunctory Google search to locate every bit of this list and so much more. It’s simply morally incumbentof UPenn administration to inform its campus community what exactly “controversial” means, and to direct the sponsoring student organization, the College Republicans, to do the same.
There are, in fact, two critical questions here:
1. Did decision-makers at U. Penn perform their due diligence vetting Owens and TPUSA? If so, what governed their decision to give the green light to the College Republicans? The right answer is “respect for first amendment rights.” But that respect absolutely is not permission to engage in false or misleading advertising. And that suggests that UPenn administration did not perform their due diligence, or at least that they didn’t follow up with council to the College Republicans about what honest advertising requires.
2. If due diligence by UPenn was conducted, why do the College Republican advertising posters make it appear as if Owens is a conservative—that is, just another Republican sponsored by college Republicans? Why don’t they reflect some semblance of in just what “controversial” in her case actually consists? This Campus Reform (a far right hit machine whose raison d’etreis to harass, vilify, and silence professors) copy of the poster implies Owens is a patriot, and presumably a Republican. It quotes Kanye West’s earlier tweet, but it offers not even a hint of what a “conversation” with Owens might be about, or that some of the possibilities of that conversation may involve precisely the racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric for which she is known. Students becoming acquainted with Owens and TPUSA for the first time would have no idea from this misleading poster what #BLEXIT is really about. They might not be aware of Owens’s Tweet about Cesar Sayoc insisting that his multiple package bomb threat was a leftist conspiracy. They might not know about the McCarthy-esque Professor Watchlist.
Members of Philadelphia ANTIFA, of course, know exactly what Candace Owens is all about, and their protest was to make sure the public knew what Candace Owens and TPUSA is about. I do not condone the use of violence under any circumstances. Full stop. And ANTIFA committed no act of violence. To thus accuse ANTIFA of violence in this instance—to claim that that they’re the new KKK—is absurd not merely because they’rethe anti-fascists, but because the worldview actively promoted by Owens is both violent and fascist—indeed, violent precisely becauseit is so profoundly fascist.
Any rational person living through these dark times in the land of the free, home of the brave must recognize that the prohibition against violence does notmean that we’re not well over-due for a profoundly important discussion about what constitutes “violence.” About one thing I am perfectly clear: violence is not reducible to the street brawls of which Owens, standing high up on a park bench to make her #Blexit pitch over the ANTIFA gaggle, had not the slightest fear at UPenn—but which she’d apparently solicit to distract us from the violence to which she is a party:
Violence is a planet suffocated by toxic waste.Violence is a woman forced to carry to term the fetus of the father who raped her.Violence is the police brutality routinely condoned by the far-right.Violence is a white-supremacist terrorist massacre at a mosque, a church, a synagogue.Violence is a country that values its guns over its people.Violence is the wrenching of children away from their refugee parents.Violence is a million species on the brink of extinction.Violence is dying from treatable disease because of lack of access to health care.Violence is a president who actively solicits praise and approval from autocrats and butchers.Violence is a country whose institutions have been expropriated by kleptocrats.Violence is a future of a planet burnt down to the ground by unrelenting human excess and greed.Violence is the worldview personified by Owens, by Charlie Kirk, by Stephen Miller, by Sean Hannity, by Alex Jones, by Donald Trump.
Such a worldview is, in short, fascist: an ideologically informed essentially kleptocratic ideology that utilizes a wide array of violence “justified” to carry out an array of “theories”—conspiracy, eugenicist, patriarchal, “free market”—that insure the maintenance of a hegemonic class of beneficiaries defined by race, class, sex, and access to wealth and weapons. The goal of its mercenaries is to subvert democratic institutions and practices through the union of corporate ambition and state power. In its current incarnation in the United States, we’re witness to the institutionalization of fascist objectives both as de-regulative, for example, the gutting of environmental protections, and regulative—for example, the obscenely repressive “fetal heartbeat” laws recently passed in Georgia and Alabama, apparently endorsed by Owens: “Pro-choice = Murdering your offspring.” (Tweet, 5.12.19)
Violence does not characterize the small cadre of ANTIFA activists on scene at Owens’ arrival at UPenn. They yelled at her, in some cases obscenities. They filmed her. Some folks—don’t know whether they were with ANTIFA or not—filmed her and tried to ask her questions about the infiltration of TPUSA by KKK operatives. The video Owens provides does not include the leveling of any audible threats, nor does anyone accost her in any fashion.1In fact, Owens obviously feels perfectly safe. How do I know? She climbs on top of a park bench, presumably, to be able to garner greater attention. Had she felt in any way threatened, she would certainly not have made her person so fully vulnerable. But she did. She remains there for more than a full minute. Then she gets down, and walks slowly, chatting along the way, into the building, calling out ANTIFA as the new KKK. She’s clearly afraid of no one.
These facts, of course, in no way prevent the white nationalist website Breitbart from running an inflammatory headline “ANTIFA threatens Candace Owens event at University of Pennsylvania,” or from posting ANTIFA tweets aimed at “shutting down” the event.2Someone even tweeted something about throwing a tomato at her. We don’t see that in the video. But if so, is that OK? No.Candace Owens has the same right to safety we all do. The incalculable irony is that the worldview Owens actively espouses is guaranteed to insure a world—in fact, a planet—vastly less safethan the one where she feels secure enough to climb up on a park bench and chat with those closest to her instead of answering tough questions. But answering tough questions would require courage and honesty—not qualities Owens is known for, although she does have the “guts” to blame African Americans for slavery.3
The Breitbart click-bait piece also cites an incident from last Summer where Owens and fellow TPUSA chief Charlie Kirk were allegedly harassed out of a restaurant because, claims Owens, she is black. The point, of course, was to bolster the demonizing of ANTIFA as the new KKK. The problem is that it’s groundless. ANTIFA’s protest of Owens is because she promotes a worldview that’s consistent with conspiracy theory driven white nationalism—that she is in fact the racist, and nothing supports the claim that ANTIFA promotes a racist ideology. Quite to the contrary, in fact.
Fact is, Owen’s characterization of ANTIFA’S motives as racist is false, but it’s also simply mercenary. That the protesters at UPenn were pelleting her with questions about her support for white supremacist conspiracy theories makes pretty clear where they stand. I’m sure Owens isn’t deaf. In fact, I’m sure she knows that calling ANTIFA the new KKK is intended to distract us from Owens’ own courting of white nationalist figures. It affords her the opportunity to make the racist politics of TPUSA appear rational by comparison; it makes her the victim—a theater performance she has perfected and knows will be filmed. She knows her faux-martyrdom will be front-page at outlets like Breitbart. The irony, again, is that if Owens seems to be just fine standing up on that park bench, it’s not only because she knows she’s safe, but because she knows she’s staged an incident to promote a political agenda that, given its own dangerously faulty or false premises, will make the world profoundly unsafe for the very people she’s chatting with at that moment—especially young black men. That is violence.
And it’s no wonder at all that it’s not only Breitbart, but the full weight of the white supremacist blogosphere that exploits the UPenn event, including Campus Reform,4Powerline,5and One American News,6 just for example.
What’s most disappointing, however, isn’t that far right conspiracy theory machines would come out swinging in defense of Owens. It’s not that Owens uses her TPUSA platform to demonize whatever gets in the way of her Alt-Right propaganda program. She not only calls ANTIFA the new KKK, The Democrat party a “plantation,” she also heaps scorn on sexual assault survivors like Christine Blasey Ford (“Lock her up”), says the Me Too movement “makes women look stupid,” calls feminist “manhaters,”7and supports criminalizing the constitutionally protected right to abortion, yet calls president Trump “the savior of the West,”8itself a dog whistle to white supremacists.
What’s most disappointing—and laughable—is that the UPenn College Republicans, smart young adults who should know better, defend her as “a clear pro-black figure,” “a powerful Republican voice that advocates for the black community,” and as a victim of “social ostracization because of different political beliefs,”9She is none of these. That Owens legitimately bemoans fatherlessness and the educational achievement gap in the black community as issues that need to be addressed more effectively is undermined (for anyone who does the research) not only by her support for a president whose policies are patently racist, but by her flatly false claim that affirmative action programs have not benefitted African Americans. Such a claim does, of course, support the far-right call to abolish such programs.10Let’s not be fools. Owens mixes in just enough legitimate argument to make her appear credible so that when she begins to roll out the bullshit, the conspiracy theories, and the patent lies, we’re already suckered.
The UPenn College Republicans also applaud Owens for calling out “politicians who use fears of racism and exacerbate racial hatred for political gain” not apparently realizing that this is precisely the card Owens attempts to play against ANTIFA, or that it’s consistent with her particularly absurd CPAC claim that “racism doesn’t exist in America,” (although apparently an ANTIFA KKK does)—yet another otherwise incoherent position that supports the Alt-Right worldview with which she’s consistently associated.11Although the UPenn College Republicans insist that “a rudimentary knowledge of her [Owens’] personal history and #BLEXIT advocacy work reveals the ridiculousness” of claims that associate her with white supremacism, they neither bother to directly confront the mountainous evidence to the contrary, nor do they acknowledge that #BLEXIT is built on the unsteady sand of conspiracy theory and fear-mongering.
None of this, however, is surprising given that the Breitbart piece aims to sucker its readers from the outset by comparing an incident that specifically demonizes a Democrat with Antifa, referring to the latter as a hoard. The Young Republicans don’t apparently get it that Owens deploys a strategy in her public speeches (well, not CPAC) similar to that of Charlie Kirk: in order to effectively utilize public presentation as a vehicle for recruitment, reserve it to topics and arguments that preserve the veneer (however thin) of conservatism, all the while sprinkling in dog whistles (ANTIFA is the new KKK) aimed at confirming the worldview of your Alt-Right base, and making sure to craft a carefully-coifed public persona that makes you look like the victim.
And this all brings me back to where this essay began—with the right to free speech; with a right absolutely critical to a healthy democratic republic, a right that President Trump’s Trojan Horse of a free speech executive order would seek to quash. Candace Owens has a right to free speech. TPUSA should not be barred from giving speeches at universities. But university administrations have a solemn responsibility to be forthright with the campus community and the public about the violent worldview espoused by the speakers their student organizations sponsor. It seems this didn’t happen here. Indeed, had University of Pennsylvania or the UPenn College Republicans taken their responsibilities seriously, the non-violent protest would have been far greater—and the turnout of those ready to be suckered by Owens far fewer. And that would have been a first amendment success story.
2. Mastrangelo, Alana. “Report: ANTIFA threatens Candace Owens at University of Pennsylvania,” Breitbart, https://www.breitbart.com/tech/2019/04/15/report-antifa-threatens-candace-owens-tpusa-event-at-university-of-pennsylvania/.
3. Owens, Candace. Tweet. https://twitter.com/realcandaceo/status/988509707114569728?lang=en.
4. Aminov, Joshua. “Philly ANTIFA promotes “shutting down” Candace Owens event.” Campus Reform, https://www.campusreform.org/?ID=12110.
5. Hinderaker, John. “Candace Owens fights the new KKK.” Powerline,https://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2019/04/candace-owens-fights-the-new-kkk.php.
6. One American News, “ANTIFA targets college guest speaking event featuring conservative activist Candace Owens,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8ze6ooie_w.
8. Young, Cathy. “The trouble with Candace Owens,” The Bulwark, https://thebulwark.com/the-trouble-with-candace-owens/.
9. University of Pennsylvania College Republicans. The Daily Pennsylvanian, “Why we invited Candace Owens to campus,” https://www.thedp.com/article/2019/04/candace-owens-conservative-turning-point-usa-antifa-ivy-league-upenn-philadelphia.
10.Richman, Jackson. “No, Candace Owens” blacks are actually better off today than in the 1940’s.” The Washington Examiner, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/no-candace-owens-blacks-are-actually-better-off-today-than-in-the-1940s
11.Judge, Monique. “Candace Owens thinks racism is over because she has ‘never been a slave’.” https://www.theroot.com/candace-owens-thinks-racism-is-over-because-she-has-1833034080.