In coming to terms with the Jessica Krug affair, it’s probably best to accept the verdict of her former students that Krug “created and compounded traumatic lived experiences for the members of the communities with which she interacted and claimed to represent . . damag[ing] the ability for scholars to build trust among communities that are largely ignored or misrepresented in scholarship.”
Moreover, we should have no problem agreeing with them, at least for the sake of argument, that Krug’s “appropriation of Blackness emboldened white supremacists to deny race, racism, and the value of diversity even as they use race to plunder and oppress.”
Given these are serious charges the question then becomes what kind of sanctions/punishment should be imposed if they are true. Should we join the students in demanding that Krug be terminated from her tenured position? Perhaps. But to determine what is appropriate raises a related question: What have been the consequences for others committing similar or worse transgressions of academic community standards?
How Bad is Jessica Krug?
For this purpose, I’ll suggest a person P whose career offers a useful basis for comparison. P, while not now employed as a professor, has held academic positions in the past, and could very well hold one in the future (more on that later). Most importantly, P’s offenses are comparable to Krug’s in that they surely did a great deal to “create and compound traumatic lived experiences. ” That applies in particular to those in the Middle East still mourning hundreds of thousands of husbands, wives, mothers and fathers whose deaths were a direct consquence of P’s actions.
Then there are the traumatic lived experiences of millions of African Americans P denigrated as “super-predators,” subjecting them to a racially discriminatory criminal justice regime P enthusiastically championed.
Added to these are millions of workers whose economic and social immiseration and declining life expectancy are directly tied to job-destroying trade agreements P played a key role in pushing through a recalcitrant Congress. Finally, P has been entirely unapologetic about her past conduct, manifesting a stunning, indeed pathological state of denial of her crimes, cackling with laughter when her role in mass murder is brought to her attention.
Pathologies of Power and Privilege
By this point, it should be obvious that P is former New York Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton–and while the comparison might seem distant, it is by no means unimaginable that it could become relevant. Former top-level politicians are hot properties in academic programs and it is certainly possible that Clinton will become a tenured professor at a prestigious academic program, even at George Washington University itself. Once there she will have a status roughly equivalent to Krug’s.
This raises additional questions. Would the GWU administration condemn her clearly demonstrated history of social pathology and moral turpitude? Would her students denounce her moral turpitude?
The answers to these questions are painfully obvious: Of course they wouldn’t. The administration would congratulate itself on having landed an authentic star, its board and donor network sure to be enhanced. There would be intense competition among students for limited seats in a Clinton “tough choices for American leadership in a globalized economy” seminar. Rather than shunning her, former students would strenuously aim to maintain themselves in her good graces, recognizing that a single phone call or email could result in a highly coveted first step into an NGO position, congressional office or media outlet, providing a point of entry into the elite political class.
Is it fully understandable that students would avert their eyes to Clinton’s disgraceful career? Of course. Is it in any way ethically defensible? Hard to see how.
Race, Racists and Racial Authenticity
The comparison should provide us with some direction on how the Krug affair should be negotiated, and I’ll return to this below. But before doing so it’s worth performing a similar thought experiment, this time with Clinton’s 2008 opponent, Barack Hussein Obama.
Here the comparison is even more direct in that Krug and Obama are similar in a key respect: both claim African American identity and have exploited it to advance their respective careers. Even so, the difference would appear to be stark: one’s claims are based on fraudulence the other’s based on fact.
But this distinction relies on a patently false assumption. There is no such fact. Race has no objective, scientific basis. It is an entirely subjective social construct. There are those who believe that there is an underlying essence which can validate claims of racial identity. They are entirely wrong and there is a name for those that do hold this belief: racists.
Even if we were to adopt the classically racist conception of white or black authenticity, Obama’s performance of race is highly suspect. He was, after all, raised mainly by his white mother in Indonesia and his white Republican grandparents, who, like Krug, hail from from Kansas. The main difference in their respective performances is in the degree of harm each caused.
Here the comparison is grimly revealing. While Krug’s antics inflicted some damage on her field the audiences for this toxically idiotic diatribe
are relatively small and so is the corresponding harm.
Meanwhile, the African American victims of Obama’s policies include the millions who lost their homes due to fraudulent subprime mortgages marketed predominantly in low-income urban neighborhoods. The result was the largest drop in aggregate African American wealth in at least a century, plunging many into homelessness and destitution. In comparison, Jessica Krug’s offenses against academic norms would seem to recede into near insignificance.
Learning From Jessica Krug
To return to the question posed above, this conclusion might be interpreted as arguing for comparatively lenient treatment for Krug. But focussing on it distracts the crucial lesson we should derive from what Toure Reed has called Krug’s “minstrel act.” The real problem, as Reed pointed out, is “the demand for this kind of performance in some liberal academic circles” one which “fulfill(s) their fantasies about the forever unknowable, forever exotic black other.”
I would go further and argue that the problem is our having become conditioned to actively or passively accept our role in these and other sorts of absurdist spectacles. Our participation is sometimes as spectators and more rarely as actors. In either case, our doing so has little to do with a reality defined by millions dying of an infectious disease, an economy increasingly incapable of providing even a subsistence standard of living for tens of millions, while anthropogenic global warming renders large areas of the planet incapable uninhabitable.
Insofar as political and academic theater does have a function, it is to distract. Those with real power and privilege surely recognize its value in allowing them to wreak destruction with virtually no meaningful opposition from a left content with its role in idiotic charades such as this one.