Brandeis professor faces online threats as feud unfolds in medieval academia

Brandeis professor faces online threats as feud unfolds in medieval academia

September 21, 2018

Amid an oftentimes public feud over the direction of medieval academia, Brandeis Professor Dorothy Kim (ENG) told The Brandeis Hoot that her colleague, Rachel Fulton Brown, “crossed the line” when she tagged Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative writer and provocateur, in a Facebook post concerning Kim. Since being tagged in the post on Sept. 14, 2017, Kim says she’s been the target of threats and harassments on the internet.

“Because the alt-right broadcast my office location, I had to secure my physical workspace. I had to explain the situation, request security and plan safety measures with my university administrators, campus security, family, academic collaborators and students,” Kim said in an op-ed published on “Inside Higher Ed” last month.

“Brandeis has been very good about taking steps to address my online and physical security,” Kim said in response to questions from The Hoot. Due to the sensitivity of the subject, Kim would not discuss what measures the university has taken.

Kim and Brown, an associate professor at University of Chicago, have engaged in sporadic online debate which Kim says began in January of 2016 when she responded to Brown’s personal blog, “Fencing Bear at Prayer,” with a blog post of her own.

“I am writing this post today as a way to meditate on intersectional feminism and the difficulties that Medieval Studies seems to have with dealing with both gender and race,” Kim wrote in her response to Brown’s blog. Kim told The Hoot that this post was a response to Brown’s blog post entitled “Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men” which presented a numbered list of “talking points” about white men in the Middle Ages.

“When white women (see Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine) invented chivalry and courtly love, white men agreed that it was better for knights to spend their time protecting women rather than raping them, and even agreed to write songs for them rather than expecting them to want to have sex with them without being forced,” read Brown’s first talking point.

In her response to Brown, Kim asserted that Brown’s post “valorizes the supposed whiteness of the Middle Ages.”

Brown refused to be interviewed by The Hoot for this article, saying, “I think it better that I do not contribute to your article, given that you are writing for Professor Kim’s own institution.” She instead linked The Hoot to articles written by Yiannopoulos on the issue. Yiannopoulos is notorious for provocative comments about race, gender, and sexuality. Last year a video of Yiannopoulos singing a karaoke version of “America the Beautiful” as multiple people in the crowd raised their arms in Nazi salutes was published by Buzzfeed News.

“Both [Yiannopoulos] and I hope that his having covered the debate in depth will allow us all to put the matter to rest,” Brown told The Hoot in an email.

The Yiannopoulos articles which Brown linked to The Hoot in emails contained misleading and untrue claims that Kim’s “publication history is essentially non-existent,” and that she “invented stories about being harassed and threatened to destroy the reputation of a senior colleague.”

A review of Yiannopoulos’ Facebook posts about Kim as well as Kim’s Twitter feed showed numerous comments aimed at Kim, who is Asian, which used racial slurs or were threatening in nature.

Kim’s C.V.—a copy of which she provided to The Hoot but is not available online due to her ongoing security concerns—showed nearly two dozen published articles, reviews and edited volumes with works published every year since 2012. The C.V. lists three upcoming books and several upcoming articles and reviews. A C.V., or curriculum vitae, is a document common in academia which lists an individual’s educational background, teaching, and research experience. Kim’s C.V. totals 16 single-spaced pages.

Kim’s C.V. also listed work she did on a digital project from 2013 to 2017 while she was a professor at Vassar College. The project was funded by a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for Humanities. In his article Yiannopoulos erroneously claims that “in the six years since she received the money, Kim is yet to demonstrate any progress” on the digital project.

“The project was actually online and live,” Kim told The Hoot in an email. She said the project was taken offline “to prepare for potential attacks and increase their digital and other security.” She told The Hoot that the project will eventually be housed at Brandeis but that “it’s basically like the humanities version of moving a science lab” and setting up the completed project again will take some time. Vassar’s website lists the digital archive as a “completed project.”

The debate over whether white supremacy exists in medieval academia and how the field should respond is “a debate [that] kind of originated after the events of Charlottesville last year… but it, I think, it has been simmering for quite a while now,” Matthew Gabriele, a professor of Medieval Studies at Virginia Tech told The Hoot.

Last year Nazis and White Nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia in a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the city’s plans to remove a Confederate statue. During the event a protester drove a car into a crowd of anti-protesters, killing one woman.

“White supremacists were using medieval symbols in their rallies,” Gabriele told The Hoot.

He noted that this has caused some medievalists to ponder the “role we as academics have in how we teach this period—the Middle Ages—and how that can lead to dangerous or bigoted preconceptions.”

The other side of the debate holds that academics are just “outside objective observers who shouldn’t really play a part or don’t have a role to play in how these ideas, these discussions of the past, are being used outside of the classroom,” according to Gabriele. Gabriele noted a similar debate is unfolding in the field of classical studies.

Kim is among those academics who have called for increased scrutiny of how medieval studies is taught. “The medieval Western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/Nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students,” she said in a blog post which she has said was a direct response to events in Charlottesville. “Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers,” she said in the post, referring to medieval academics and professors.

Kim has been criticized for aiming accusations of racism and white supremacy at Brown. In an audio recording of Kim speaking at the Leeds International Medieval Congress in 2018, Kim can be heard giving a talk on how “medievalism, racism and internationalism surface in the public fascism of Rachel Fulton Brown.” The audio clip was published on Yiannopoulos’s website in the article linked to The Hoot by Brown. Kim has told The Hoot that recording the conference was against the conferences rules and that the recording was “illegally taken.”

“I am fighting to make sure that this field welcomes marginalized students—genderqueer, transgender, non-Christian, BIPOC, differently able, etc.,” Kim told The Hoot, in response to a question asking why she chose to speak out against what she sees as white supremacy and racism in medieval academia.

The feud between Kim and Brown has seen open letters from both sides.

The National Association of Scholars (NAS)—a conservative group which is concerned with, among other issues, “overemphasis on issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation,” the “declining study of Western civilization,” and trends of “multiculturalism,”  “diversity,” “sustainability” in higher education—penned an open letter on behalf of Brown.

“Professor Brown has argued fiercely against the invasion of social justice warriors into the field of medieval studies, where they make specious claims about the medieval past,” the NAS read in an introduction to the open letter, arguing that Brown’s “beliefs have provoked a host of false accusations against her character.” The letter urged “that public vindications of Professor Brown’s scholarly good character be made by President Robert Zimmer of the University of Chicago, Dean Amanda Woodward of the University of Chicago’s Division of the Social Sciences, Acting Chair Adrian Johns of the University of Chicago’s Department of History, and President David Wallace of the Medieval Academy of America.” The letter has received approximately 1,000 signatures.

An open letter to the Department of History at Chicago University from “a group of medievalists and other scholars deeply concerned about the recent words and actions of your faculty member Rachel Fulton Brown” garnered over 1,300 signatures, according to a blog post by Bryan Van Norden, a professor of philosophy at Vassar College. “To protect the signatories from harassment” their names were not included on the copy of the letter posted on Norden’s blog, the blog says.

“While tenets of academic freedom dictate that Professor Fulton Brown is allowed to express any opinion she wishes, we do not believe that doing so in a manner that puts an untenured scholar of color—or any scholar—in harm’s way is her right,” the letter reads. The letter goes on to say Brown’s “ignorance of basic theoretical principles of race theory renders her an ill-informed and substandard interlocutor in the rigorous scholarly discussion of this important subject.” The letter was sent in Sept. 2017.

Menu Title