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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Elephant on the Hill

Content Warning: extreme racism, misogyny, xenophobia

Hamilton College proclaims that, “At Hamilton, we embrace diversity, commit to work against systemic racism and bigotry, and support a community where all individuals, without exception, feel valued, empowered, and treated fairly.” Nowhere on its “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” page, however, are the threats to that theoretical community named. The page implies a kind of anti-racism where, within Hamilton, there are no racists to confront and no systemic racism to deconstruct. The page is a performance. It even goes as far to assert (emphasis added), “Some members of our community feel that they are not treated equitably due to their [identities]. That’s not acceptable.” The bigotry which exists at Hamilton is framed only as an emotion experienced by marginalized people, not as a series of violent actions for which individuals and institutions bear responsibility. Is it any wonder, then, that the College has taken no action to confront the organization down the hill with numerous ties to hate groups, the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, just as it pretends no one is responsible for marginalizing the marginalized in its own “equity” commitments?

The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) was founded independently of the College in 2007 following its rejection by an overwhelming majority vote of the faculty. Its founders were Professor James Bradfield, Professor Douglas Ambrose (who still works at Hamilton in the History Department, and is still listed as a Charter Fellow on the AHI website), and the most outspoken among them, Robert (Bob) Paquette, who retired from Hamilton in 2018. He still has his Hamilton email.

AHI’s charter, found on its site, starts by saying, “A heritage, at its most basic level, speaks to the journey of persons from there to here. It identifies the signposts, monuments, and ruins left behind by human beings as they sought individually and collectively to define who they are and what they aspired to be. [AHI] proceeds on the premise that the reasoned study of Western civilization, its distinctive achievements as well as its distinctive failures, will further the search for truth and provide the ethical basis necessary for civilized life. The AHI aspires to create an educational environment of the highest standards in which evidence and argument prevail over ideology and cant.”

Multiple issues already appear. It says a specific study of Western history and its ethics should be, and is even a necessary prerequisite for, the foundation of “civilized life,” and therefore implies other non-western societies are uncivilized. This usage of “Western civilization” both in the charter and name of the organization is peculiar given its adjacency to Hamilton College, where there are departments for American Studies, Classics, Philosophy, Government, Economics, History, and more, that all draw heavily on European thought. The charter and institution’s existence implies an extra need to study “Western civilization,” as if it isn’t taught enough. Indeed, this is one of AHI’s primary critiques of education in the US. AHI is explicit in its view that “Western civilization” is superior to other forms of civilization, and this is consistent with a broader usage of the term as a rallying cry to decry the inclusion of the study of Black and Brown societies in curricula. That AHI has the explicit mission to promote “Western civilization” as the penultimate form of societal structure already makes laughable the idea that the organization prioritizes “evidence and argument” over “ideology and cant.”

AHI and its representatives’ actions also belie this supposed commitment to free academic debate and inquiry. Multiple instances of targeted harassment that can be traced back to them have occurred over the years. AHI exists as a part of a much larger right-wing network and an “Internet Outrage Machine” that directs online vitriol and harassment towards perceived enemies of the right, in particular people of color. It is also useful to define stochastic terrorism, a form of terrorism often referred to as a “lone wolf” attack where one individual, motivated by the actions and words of media and/or public figures egging them on, commits acts of violence of their own volition and without any relationship with those manufacturing their alarm.

In spring of 2021, the President, Vice President, and Vice President-Elect of the Student Assembly (disclosure: this article’s author) sent a notices-all email to Hamilton calling for defunding the police in the wake of the Derek Chauvin verdict. Not long after, a student at the University of Wisconsin Madison working for the right-wing publication The College Fix contacted the authors requesting comment for an article they were working on, meaning someone must have shared the statement with them, as it was only distributed via email. When the piece was published, it had heavy quoting from Bob Paquette, who lamented that, “Basically for them, a white supremacist is anyone who disagrees with their agenda” and that Hamilton has moved “sharply left.” Paquette also went on a local radio station to attack the statement and its authors.

Two weeks after the article’s publication, the President (disclosure: personal friend of this article’s author; name not shared to avoid more targeting) received a letter from a man in Wisconsin with no affiliation with Hamilton. The man, mistakenly thinking the Student Assembly President was President of Hamilton College, wrote to them with fake statistics on the intelligence of different races, arguing that Black people were racially inferior, and that he hoped that “majority Black rapists” would use Hamilton as a “hunting ground.” He goes on to suggest that all in the Hamilton community be (emphasis added), “educated to the fact that Western Civilization (Which includes all real colleges and universities): Is vastly superior to all other cultural models; And, was invented, nurtured and developed by White, Christian, males in Western and West-Central Europe.” The author of this letter previously wrote another threatening letter to a student at the University of Wisconsin advocating for the shooting of protestors so bodies could be identified. Had he not misidentified who he was writing to, his language likely would have been much harsher. This is only one example of targeted harassment of many; another narrative of personal experiences may be found in this issue of The Monitor.

In August 2017, the country was shocked by the white supremacist pro-Confederate-monuments “Unite the Right” rally violence in Charlottesville, VA, which led to the murder of an anti-fascist protester and many injuries to others by a white supremacist, along with significant street violence. Only a few months later in fall semester 2017, Professor Alfred Kelly invited Dr. Paul Gottfried to speak to his class, and AHI also invited him to attend events in their building. Gottfried is most well known for his coining of the term “alt-right” with his colleague and mentee Richard Spencer. Spencer went on to become one of the most influential white nationalists in the US, and was a lead organizer for the Unite the Right rally.

While Gottfried says, “Richard Spencer might use my work, but my differences with him are a matter of public record,” he also makes clear he is no fan of “non-traditional mass immigration” and his actions speak louder than his words. He founded the white nationalist HL Mencken Club (Spencer has spoken at their conferences) and has contributed his “scholarship” regularly to white supremacist publications and websites like VDARE and American Renaissance, both of which Spencer and his organization, the National Policy Insitute, have extremely close ties with. AHI has made no effort to distance itself from Gottfried; rather, it has openly and continuously embraced him. The AHI website contains a ringing endorsement of their work from Gottfried himself: “It is an honor to be endorsing the Alexander Hamilton Institute as a center of open intellectual and political discussion. Under the bold leadership of Professor Robert Paquette, this institution has been a beacon of light in an increasingly bigoted academic world that rages against any politically unacceptable dissent… Would that all self-described American conservatives were made of [Paquette’s] mettle!”

Despite Paquette and AHI’s proclaimed commitment to academic freedom, they spend a significant amount of time both in their professional and personal lives attempting to remove an accurate recounting of history from American K-12 and college classrooms. Perhaps AHI’s second most prolific figure is Resident Fellow Dr. Mary Grabar, who has spent much of her “academic” life attempting to debunk historian Howard Zinn’s work, particularly his A People’s History of the United States. In the book, Zinn, “tells U.S. history from the point of view of — and in the words of — America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.” His work is highly regarded and often used to teach AP US History classes. More recently, she has attempted to discredit the New York Time’s 1619 Project, a history of the US focused on and starting with the exploitation of Black people. She has been vocal about her desire to remove both works from educational curricula. Grabar’s personal website includes praise for her work from anti-Muslim, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant David Horowitz, founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Center think tank and its associated far-right media apparatus: “Mary Grabar has done Americans and the freedoms they have championed a great service by writing a definitive exposure of Zinn’s treasonous life, along with a damning refutation of his dishonest, malignant, and ignorant work.”

She recently submitted testimony to the South Carolina legislature “in support of bills against ideological coercion and for parental rights in education” according to the AHI site. These bills are, in reality, harsh limitations on academic freedom and are active censorship, including barring K-12 teaching of critical race theory (CRT) and discussion of current events, gender, systemic racism, sexual orientation, and more. For the record, there is no K-12 school in the US that teaches the graduate-level legal theory of CRT; rather, anti-“CRT” protests have become a stand-in for any kind of education regarding America’s exploitative history. Also according to the AHI site, Grabar has presented to multiple “Moms for Liberty” groups. Moms for Liberty has been one of the primary groups occupying school board meetings over the past year, demanding an end to COVID-19 protections and the removal of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, for example claiming that books on Martin Luther King Jr. are too “divisive.”

Grabar’s own words and what she chooses to share on her Twitter are often more than enough to prove her true motivations. Recently, as only one example of many, she minimized the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II by saying:

Tweets by Dr. Mary Grabar, Resident Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute. Screenshot taken March 4, 2022.

It is not just the staff and associates of AHI who work to propagate their hateful message, however. Many students at Hamilton College have been avid supporters of AHI’s mission, writing a variety of pieces in the publication the Enquiry, a paper not subject to Hamilton College Media Board guidelines because it is an off-campus publication funded by AHI and its writers are paid. In the past few years, the Enquiry has published pieces that describe Black Lives Matter protestors and formerly incarcerated people (both of which are disproportionately Black groups) as “rabid dogs” (and more! see more details here), encouraged Republicans and conservatives to blame migrants for climate change to promote anti-immigrant policies (“Conservatives Conserve,” 2020), argued in favor of removing many elements of democracy in the US and that, “There should still be democracy in our American system, but its current ubiquity has troubling consequences” (“Democracy as Default,” 2020), and said that a teen woman being killed by her obsessed stalker was the result of her “manipulation” of him by “seemingly boast[ing] about her sexual promiscuity,” causing his “frustration” that led him to murder her (“The Internet and Cultural Rot,” 2019), among other pieces of varying degrees of extremism. Each of the students who wrote these pieces is a current student at Hamilton College. They are not named here because multiple individuals associated with AHI have a history of threatening lawsuits against students who critique them publicly. The author of the final piece was permitted by the College to oversee at least one disciplinary hearing before the Student Assembly even voted on his nomination to the Judicial Board (as is required by College policy and the Student Assembly constitution), a vote which went 20 to nothing against.

Though AHI is an off-campus organization, it reaps many of the benefits of Hamilton’s name and funding. The AHI Undergraduate Fellows are a student organization with access to Student Assembly funding, a Hamilton Google account with email, the ability to book spaces, and all other privileges afforded to student orgs. This is how they often distribute the Enquiry to the campus. Despite the Student Activities Organization Manual saying all clubs must be, “led completely by Hamilton College students without direction, interference, obligation to, any entity external to the Hamilton Community,” the AHI website dedicates a page to them. It says fellows participate by (emphasis my own), “visiting the AHI at Leadership Luncheons designed specifically for Fellows, attending the annual AHI Colloquium, presenting papers at national events under the auspices of AHI.” It then lists AHI’s official phone number for more information. If the AHI Undergraduate Fellows work almost exclusively with AHI, represent AHI in an official capacity at national events, and their primary contact info is AHI itself, it becomes clear that the organization is in explicit violation of Student Activities policies, yet has for some reason been able to do so with the support of the College.

The above is but a tiny glimpse of the extent of AHI’s extremist positions and affiliations; a full dive would require a book. This brings us to what is ultimately the main point of this article: Hamilton College knows what this organization is and does. Many students, faculty, and staff know exactly what this organization is for, and even if they do not know the specifics, many have heard the worst stories. Yet, the President of the College, David Wippman, the Dean of Students/Chief Diversity Officer, Terry Martinez, and Dean of Faculty, Suzanne Keen, have knowingly permitted it to cause harm on this campus by refusing to acknowledge it.

Recently, with the resignation of multiple faculty of color describing an environment of intolerance, harassment, and targeting, one professor going public and inspiring hundreds of students to attend a teach-in on the issue on Friday, March 4th, these issues have become all too clear. As this woman of color professor with an academic background in race and racism explains (her name is left out to avoid creating opportunities for increased targeting), she made her experiences of targeting by AHI well known to everyone who is theoretically responsible for protecting her in the college. They failed to act. The College could enforce its own policies on student organizations, but it chooses not to. The College could enforce the law on harassment and discrimination, but it chooses not to. The College could decide to not put people closely associated with the institution with track records of bigoted behavior in positions of power, but it chooses not to. The College and David Wippman could publicly rebuke white supremacists like Paul Gottfried, but they choose not to. In choosing not to say anything, to ignore the massive elephant on the hill, Hamilton College has exacerbated and tacitly endorsed racism, sexism, xenophobia, and all other forms of hatred that AHI promotes. Hamilton College could decide to take action to confront bigotry on campus by going beyond using marginalized individuals’ faces on advertising materials, but they choose not to.

The narrative most commonly used by students, staff, faculty, and administrators alike to defend AHI is that they are just a harmless conservative think tank engaging in freedom of speech—that pushing against them amounts to censorship or “cancel culture.” They argue that while they may disagree with some of what AHI has to say, the organization is not hurting anyone and is protected by freedom of speech.

While the bulk of this piece and recently-publicized incidents of targeted harassment should be more than enough to address the first point, the second merits more analysis before even getting its response. Is censorship not what AHI is engaging in when it calls for curricula to quite literally be banned from ever being presented in classrooms? Why is the chorus of (white) voices that raise in defense of AHI so rarely raised in defense and promotion of anti-racist curricula? Were the students and administrators who prominently defended the aforementioned Judicial Board nominee’s writing and association with AHI running to defend the woman of color professor pushed out of the College by that same institution? Of course not– some of them were even directly named or referenced in her resignation letter as not doing anything. The defense of the extremely well-funded AHI and its associates as victims of cancel culture or censorship is rarely—if ever—made in good faith.

To engage with the argument directly: “censorship” would imply AHI has some kind of relationship with Hamilton College that merits its activities being protected from interference by some higher institutional power. That is not the case. Hamilton and AHI are wholly separate legal entities with similar legal standings. Hamilton, even if it wished, does not have the power to prevent AHI from existing in its own building down the hill and publishing whatever it wishes, inviting whomever it likes, and generally doing what they want. However, Hamilton is under no obligation to provide platforms or resources to this outside entity. Would it be censorship to tell a salesman at your front door “no” were they to ask to come in, have you pay them to stay in your bedroom, and berate your children every morning? Obviously not, but this is what defenders of AHI are saying when they argue cutting off all institutional connections with this outside organization is censorship.

As for cancel culture, it is unclear what these individuals even mean. Is it cancel culture to call racists racist? Is it cancel culture for students of color to feel uncomfortable around other students who have described them as “rabid dogs,” and therefore avoid them and encourage peers to do the same? No one has gagged individuals who have vocalized their hateful views; instead, people have done what they have always tended to do with people they do not like: they avoid them. This argument, in its most charitable interpretation, holds that people who say or do hateful things should always be given the benefit of the doubt no matter how many times they repeat it. It is an argument that says people should be insulated from the consequences of their own actions. If anyone is a victim, it is those that have been targeted on the basis of their identity and commitment to anti-bigotry.

In the end, almost every defense that has been trotted out for AHI amounts to ignorance of their actual actions and beliefs or sanitization of them. This is particularly true for the many people who only speak about AHI when defending it from critique. Make no mistake: AHI is fervently committed to both a history and future dominated by and for white men, and both the avoidance of discussion about that issue and defense of its current relationship to Hamilton only serves to advance those goals by allowing them to continue spreading their extremist propaganda to students and bringing harm to their selected targets. AHI has been able to escape the critique it deserves as an organization that forwards white supremacy not because it has many ardent supporters on campus, but because it has hundreds of administrators, faculty, and students committed to looking the other way and defending hate speech as a valuable form of discourse. It is long past due that students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents break the silence about AHI, acknowledge its presence for the hateful force it is, and begin the real discourse about what to do about it. The brave students who organized the Our Hamilton teach-in and protest in the library and science center are taking the first step toward that end.

Updated 6/20 to correct hyperlink.

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