Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, in a recent tweet, highlighted the rather disturbing views of one Rachel Fulton Brown. To be completely clear from the outset--I have never met Rachel Fulton Brown. She is a noted medieval historian at the University of Chicago whose work has a stellar reputation. That is, in large part, why I was so alarmed by what she wrote recently. Brown is, in addition to being a scholar of medieval religion, a staunch conservative in the Trumpian mold, contributing to Breitbart "news," and serving as academia's prime cheerleader for one Milo Yiannopoulos. She recently published a short piece in Sightings, a newsletter released by the divinity school at the University of Chicago. In this piece, and in several posts on her personal blog, professor Brown proceeded to characterize Milo Yiannopoulos as some form of comedic genius and social satirist, out to expose the left for perceived slights. Professor Brown's reactions and interpretations of this man are downright terrifying, and any scholar, particularly one of her work and reputation, should know better.
I want to address three key points made in the recent posts by Brown: her notion that Milo Hanrahan is some sort of transcendent genius, her claim that universities were founded on debating theology to the borderline exclusion of everything else, and her clear perception that Christians are a targeted and persecuted class on college campuses. First up, Milo Hanrahan and his perceived brilliance. These are two direct quotations from professor Brown's recent posts:
"Milo is an imp--and he relishes it. He is an imp, a clown, a fool. Or, as I prefer to call him, a holy fool. He is dangerous not because he incites violence (again, he never does, except against Dylann Roof), but because in being willing to make himself a fool, he forces others to recognize their own foolishness. Who really came off better in the exchange between Milo and Wilmore? Wilmore, who lost his cool and started cursing Milo? Or Milo, who thereafter happily egged all the other panelists on?"
"Milo, as I do, believes we are in a fight for the very existence of our culture. This is not a fight we, women, gays, minorities, all those who depend on America and the West for its ideals, can afford to lose. If on occasion he cracks a joke that makes some people uncomfortable, so be it. Jokes sting only our pride. If the joke hurts your feelings, it was something you were already anxious about yourself."
Floored yet? I sure was. Brown sees Milo Hanrahan as a "holy fool"--a person who champions his Catholic faith by pointedly mocking those who--in her view--transgress that faith. He, despite also claiming to be many things that ALSO transgress that faith, is a crusader in Brown's eyes, fighting the good fight and making people uncomfortable with his "truth." There is, of course, a problem here. That problem is that Brown judges Milo Hanrahan by what she chooses to see in him (like defining himself as a Catholic because he wears a "pair of gold crosses around his neck") and by taking his comments at face value. The issue is that Milo Hanrahan has said a lot of things, and many of them conflict with each other. At various points, he has claimed to be Catholic. He has also claimed to be Jewish. He has also claimed to not be a racist because of his long-standing relationship to a black man. He has also claimed to have been in a long-standing relationship with a Muslim man. He has also claimed to be an active prostitute who supplements his income via "sugar daddies." This may, of course, all be true. He might be a Jewish Catholic dating a black Muslim man who pays him for the privilege. It's hard to verify, since Hanrahan doesn't seem to ever be seen with such a man, nor has one been specifically mentioned in any of the articles and bios I've looked through today. But it's okay. I'm sure we can take what he says at face value. He seems like such a straightforward guy.
Speaking of, you may have wondered by this point why I've been referring to Milo Yiannopoulos as Milo "Hanrahan." If it makes you feel any better, I can also call him "Milo Andreas Wagner." He's gone by all three names--born with Hanrahan, and used the other two professionally. He used the "Milo Andreas Wagner" handle in England, where he founded a failed tech site--the Kernel--and ran it into financial chaos. Near the end of that debacle, his employees had to sue him for their wages. It seemed that when they wanted to be paid for work completed, Milo-the-Many-Named-One called them "prostitutes" (Lewis). This same Milo was expelled from his grammar school and dropped out of two different colleges. When his act didn't work in England, he brought his show across the Atlantic. So what we have here is a man with three different names, a checkered academic history, and a track record of running his endeavors into the ground and screwing people over. This same man is a self-professed Catholic when speaking about Christian issues, but a self-professed Jewish man when he is accused of being anti-Semitic. He has also, apparently, been dating a black man or a Muslim man or a sugar daddy for the better part of a decade, and boy does that man (men?) hate cameras, because there doesn't seem to be any indication that he exists. This is professor Brown's "holy fool" crusading to share "truth" with the corrupt liberal bastion of academia.
The reality is that Milo Hanrahan is cut from the same cloth as Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin. All of them subscribe to the "Jerry Springer/sex tape/reality television" theory of fame and fortune. All three tried (and failed) to grab fame and success in a more legitimate manner. All three play clear characters (Coulter plays the bitch, Palin plays the soccer mom with a shotgun, and Hanrahan plays the sassy gay conservative). They are all also tokens. A token can be a powerful political tool. We saw it several years back when the Republicans trotted out "Joe the Plumber" to make it seem like they gave half a damn about blue-collar workers. We saw it in the minstrel show tradition that tried to use narrative and caricature to convince people that African Americans were awful people who were happier enslaved (and many social stereotypes from the minstrelsy tradition are still rampant today). Palin, Coulter, and Hanrahan are all caricatures of traditionally liberal voting blocs--soccer moms, women, and the LGBT community. By trotting them out on the national stage, the Republicans use them and their routine. It's their opportunity to point to people like this and say "see, women agree with us! Gays are MORE conservative than us!" This kind of schtick isn't a marathon crusade for 1st amendment rights as professor Brown seems to believe. It's a sprint to grab as much as they can for themselves before their act gets tired. Because there comes a point, as the Revenge Tragedy genre has shown us, where shocking statements and actions no longer become shocking. People start to tune them out and look for the next thing. Why do you think all three of them go on paid speaking tours and try to publish books at a breakneck pace?
The bottom line is this--Hanrahan isn't a Christian soldier marching on. He's the shill who panders to you in increasingly discordant notes until even you start to tune him out. Professor Brown defined him as a man who "holds out the possibility of conversion, of changing hearts and minds." He holds no such possibility, nor is that his goal. His job is to rile up the base by telling them what they want to hear. His job is to create an enemy by picking various targets (minorities, generally) and intentionally making statements that marginalize them. His ultimate job is to pit those two sides against each other and then light the fuse. What professor Brown fails to note is that words matter. People like Milo Hanrahan and Ann Coulter know this. They bank on it. They march that fine line between inciting violence and firing up a crowd. That's why Hanrahan does things like raising $100k for a "white male" scholarship fund only to not actually use the money for such a fund. Both actions fuel his identity as a cartoony villain (Resnick).
But enough about Hanrahan. He doesn't matter. As I tell my students, it's important to pick an audience that doesn't agree with you but might be persuaded. That's why arguing with a con like Hanrahan is a waste of time. He will always move the goalposts in order to keep the fight going. He seeks discord, not debate, which is why he has no place on a college campus (more on this below). Let's move on to professor Brown's claims that universities were founded on debating theology. She claimed that "the medieval university on which American colleges were modeled was founded as a place to wrestle with theology; all the other arts and sciences were intended to stand in the service of this task. Moreover, the freedom of speech enshrined in our national culture was established first and foremost as a freedom to wrestle with religion." The problem here is that this is just not completely accurate. Medieval universities were initially founded on community, rather than space. And those communities, while they did have a heavy focus on religion, were hardly solely devoted to that topic. If anything, they were designed to shut down dissenting approaches to theological thought. Peter Abelard is a prime example of this, as he was expelled from several teaching posts and brought up on heresy charges more than once in order to silence him. This is also true of the 15th century scholar Lorenzo Valla, who was vilified by the Catholic Church for exposing the forgery of the Donation of Constantine. Further, American universities were based more on the Humanist tradition of Renaissance universities--which looked back to antiquity. Professor Brown claims that "culture's wellspring is religion" and uses that presupposition to lament the lack of focus on said religion in modern universities. This is just incorrect. Culture existed long before the Christian religion, and the humanist tradition (which was the model for our modern universities) looked not to religion but to antiquity. If anything, I would argue that early American universities were inspired by a combination of English humanism and American Puritanism.
But professor Brown went even further, citing a Milo Hanrahan speech wherein he noted that:
"122 of the first 123 colleges in America were Christian universities. Think about Harvard University, one of the epicenters of liberalism today. This is the founding statement of Harvard: ‘Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3.’”
This quotation, and the way professor Brown uses it to bolster her perceived case demonstrates the problem. Hanrahan tells her what she wants to hear, and her deft analytical mind (meant completely in earnest) missed the con. A historian should know better. Hanrahan's stats lack context. Yes, most early schools were established as Christian institutions. Yes, the founding statement of Harvard was a Biblical passage. But when historical context comes into the picture, it muddies the narrative of "wondrous Harvard, jewel of Christian academia" (quotes added to convey sarcasm). Harvard, the school praised by Hanrahan and Brown, was founded in 1636. It did not admit black students until the late 19th century (250 years later). It did not admit women until World War II (300 years later). In 1920, Harvard held a "Secret Court" where they interrogated several young men accused of being homosexual. Most of those men were expelled, including some who were cast out not for being gay, but for having too much compassion for people who were. As a result of the actions and decisions of that secret court, several young men died via suicide. Harvard kept this chapter of its history quiet for 82 years. So forgive me if I see the words of Milo Hanrahan and professor Brown, wistfully recalling the whitewashed institutions of yesteryear and their superior Christian foundation, in a more negative light. That foundation was not used to engender faith and spirituality. It was used to exclude women, African Americans and to root out and persecute homosexuals. I much prefer today's Harvard to the one Hanrahan and Brown envision.
Which brings me to professor Brown's third, implicit claim--her clear notion that Christians are a targeted and persecuted class on college campuses. She clearly feels victimized for her Christianity, arguing that "judging from my own experience of over 30 years in the academy, it is considered a terrible breach of etiquette, horribly rude even, to mention your religious faith if you are a Christian, never mind suggest that it in any way affects your work as a scholar." In fact, she doubles down on this claim in her response to her colleagues that were upset with her post about Milo Hanrahan, stating her belief that her colleagues have "decided that I need to be shamed for expressing my position as a Christian." I apologize in advance for being so blunt regarding a senior scholar, but this appears to be a bit of a persecution complex. She shares none of the messages critiquing her, only sharing the one message from a friend of hers that defended her (in its entirety). All due respect, but "Christian" is not a "bad word" in academia. Anyone who feels otherwise, I ask you--have you ever had to ask a professor for permission to miss class for a major religious holiday? No, of course not. The university is closed on every major Christian holiday. My Jewish and Muslim students are placed in a position where they actually need to seek permission to exercise their faith. Have you ever been encouraged to let people call you "Muhammed" or ""Fathima" because it would be easier for your instructor to remember/say your name? No, of course you haven't. But my Chinese students are actually taught to offer up anglicized--almost universally Biblical--"English names" to make it easier for their instructors and peers to call them by "name." The entire academy is built around privileging Christianity, and non-Christians have rarely (in my experience) had an issue with it. But this goes back to professor Brown's and Milo Hanrahan's earlier point--the idea that early American universities were so much better than the ones we have now. Those universities where Christianity was not just privileged, but actively enforced. The good old days before women, African Americans, international students, and LGBT students were "allowed" (or, in the parlance of Milo Hanrahan and professor Brown, before "multiculturalism" and "feminism" were mean to poor, persecuted Christianity). And I want to be clear before moving on--I have no problem at all with Christianity. I have a problem with politicized Christianity, where the only parts of the Bible valued are the ones that back up the alt-right conservative party line. I have a problem with the kind of politicized Christianity that sees a man like Donald Trump praising the religious views of himself and Hanrahan while dismissing those of Pope Francis. That kind of Christianity, to use professor Brown's own terminology, seems more like a "cult" than a religion to me.
Ultimately, this is the point of this blog post: I'm disappointed. Not angry. Disappointed. As a young scholar, I look to the big names in the field to approach situations analytically. But professor Brown has, in post after post after post, missed the point. The case of Milo Hanrahan is not about free speech. His goal isn't to "speak." It's to "incite." His livelihood is to troll for reactions and create fires in his wake and, like a professional athlete, he only has a limited time to do it before people tune him out (like Palin and Coulter). He's playing a role that only works if he incites one side and enrages the other. It's the sociological equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater. I love the First Amendment. I think it is crucial and the bedrock of our country. But that's not what this is about. College campuses are places designed to engender debate and discussion. For that to happen, both sides need to approach that space with ideas based on experience and research and with the idea that they are seeking knowledge as much as dispensing it. Milo Hanrahan does neither. He doesn't drop "truth bombs"--just bombs, designed to cause the chaos that follows, which he, as professor Brown showed, clearly enjoys.
Professor Brown's "holy fool" is in reality a token shill. His joke at his own expense on Bill Maher's show, praised by Brown as his ability to laugh at himself, only serves as one more shot at a favored target of the Right. They are using him, and he is gleefully allowing himself to be used. I don't hate Milo Hanrahan. He, like Palin and Coulter before him, is going to be a rich man when his run has fizzled. We may never find out who he really is or if he actually holds any of these beliefs. We have enough names and biographies for him at this point that he could be three people. But hey, he's getting his. I've ignored him almost completely because it seemed obvious to me what he is--an attention seeking internet troll who, in our current political climate, can turn said trolling into a fortune if he plays his cards right. If anything, I pity him. No, I'm disappointed by the fact that a respected scholar at an illustrious institution bought Milo Hanrahan's schtick hook, line, and sinker. You were played, professor. Nowhere is that more obvious than in this passage that you recently wrote:
"This is not how Milo, by his own account, expected things to turn out when he came to America. As he told Tucker Carlson on Fox News the night after the riot, Milo, who comes from the U.K., saw America as 'the land of the free, the home of the brave.' 'In America,' he said, 'I always imagined that this was a country where you could be, do and say anything.' Much to his dismay, he found America even more oppressive to freedom of speech than Europe. He has been particularly surprised by the atmosphere on college campuses, where he has encountered 'restrictions on the freedom of speech, groupthink and penalties, social and institutional and financial penalties for free expression like nothing I ever experienced before'" (Brown).
He found no such thing, professor Brown. Again, you are taking him at his word. The word of a man with a history of academic failure. The word of a man with three names. The word of a man who was an abject failure before he realized that he could come to a country that wouldn't see right through him. A country with plenty of free speech and a large audience ready and willing to buy his bullshit--including, unfortunately, an eminent scholar at an esteemed academic institution.
Passages about Hanrahan and Brown were pulled from the following sites/articles:
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