Noel Ignatiev’s visit to Council Hall this past Tuesday was, well, shocking to say the least.
The Marxist historian from the Massachusets College of Art advocated, among other things, the abolition of competitive exams (like the SAT), prisons, and “whiteness.” While I’m always up for a little feather ruffling every now and then, Ignatiev’s message, however genuine it may be, is dangerous and irresponsible.
Ignatiev criticized everything American, from the lack of culture to the War in Iraq to the capitalist system that drives, he says, white supremacy.
“I realize that some of what I say is unrealistic,” he said. “But what is unrealistic today could be realistic tomorrow.”
And that is exactly the problem with Ignatiev’s criticisms: they are unrealistic. They point out problems without an idea of how to fix them. By comparing his ideas to those of progressives that opposed slavery before its abolition, Ignatiev grants himself license to say anything and everything without repercussions.
He says he is not a communist or a socialist, and obviously not a capitalist. He insists on blaming the system for producing prisoners, and proposes that America do away with the prison system.
Ignatiev continually replaces ideas with nothing. Because of his doctrine of nothing, he is not just a nihilist, he is an extreme liberal ideologue that fills in the gaps in his logic with, well, nothing. He often runs into self-contradictory, far-fetched, lofty ideas that fall flat when faced with the most basic of questions.
“How do you plan on executing X?” he was often asked. His replies were filled with evasive phrases that failed to get at the heart of the question. When asked about education, he proposed raising funding – where that funding would come from, he could not say. When asked about fixing the capitalist system he so stringently opposes, he admitted that it would require unrealistic, drastic reform that he could not reasonably foresee happening in this country.
To boot, Ignatiev washes his hands clean of the problems he seeks answers for. He admitted to contributing tax dollars to a war he opposes, accepting a degree from Harvard University, and taking job offers that fell into his lap. He claims that all these practices are not necessarily wrong, but still add to the epidemic of white supremacy
His logic goes as follows: it’s not wrong to add to the system, but the system should be destroyed. By adding to the system, you’re letting it thrive, so you are simultaneously doing wrong and good at the same time.
Does this make any sense?
But maybe I’m being a little unfair. Maybe.
Ignatiev’s message seemed, if nothing else, genuine at its roots. That is to say that his effort to present alternatives to accepted norms is a noble one. His philosophy is complex and deconstructive, and is certainly the product of much arduous research and dedication. But he loses credibility when he uses inflammatory language to get attention, something he admits to doing often.
In an interview with MassNews, Ignatiev said, “I’m trying to destroy an oppressive social formation, not kill individuals with fair skin…I’m trying to challenge [the system] and I think the only way to challenge that is to make those people uncomfortable.”
But he also admits to preaching violence to achieve social justice. This is why he is so dangerous: he has no sense of accountability or responsibility, and seeks to get across an extremely radical, enticing argument, one that could potentially result in genocidal terrorism.
This is a man that once wrote a letter to a Harvard University dining hall manager asking to remove a kosher toaster from a campus cafeteria citing the “separation of church and state.” This is a man that despises phrases like “I earned my living,” yet once used that exact phrase to describe his progression through college and into his teaching career.
Like the editor of MassNews once said following an interview with Ignatiev, he is nothing more than a charlatan. His ideas are unworthy of serious discussion because he admits they are unrealistic. Heck, they aren’t worth the cost of the ink used to print this column.
But I guess nothing matters when you’re a nihilist.