A (Hopeful) Pre-Professor’s Ponderings on the Potential of Critical Pedagogy

When people ask me what I want to be when I “grow up,” I have become comfortable with telling them I want to be a professor. After all, I see a career in higher education as one in which I can engage in what is professionally most meaningful to me: transformative research, critical pedagogy and collaborative community engagement. When I imagine myself as a scholar, I envision striving to engage students in critical thinking, assumption-questioning and engaging in difficult, but meaningful conversations, concerning important issues of difference, oppression, privilege and social justice. Thus, I have become an aspiring critical pedagogue. However, current events in my personal life, our country and around the world, have prompted me to reflect afresh on the potential of critical pedagogy.

I recently revisited the central tenets comprising my teaching philosophy and some of the authors who have informed those, including bell hooks and Henry Giroux. Reviewing hooks again has reignited my desire to engage students of all social strata in education for liberation by creating a “space for constructive confrontation and critical interrogation” for each of them (hooks, 1994, p. 36-37). Rereading Giroux has renewed in me an appreciation and respect for critical pedagogy as “a moral and political practice” that can contribute to a much-needed “discourse of educated hope” (2011, p.6). At the same time, and in line with critical pedagogy’s spirit of generative critique, Giroux’s text has also stirred in me a revitalized awareness of the potential of the “cultural apparatus” that is pedagogy to be “largely hijacked by the forces of neoliberalism” (2011, p. 7). Similarly, Giroux’s discussion of Gramsci’s concept of “the organic intellectual” has renewed my hope that multiple forms of knowledge can receive broad social recognition, particularly with understanding that is created and experienced outside of academic institutions.  Still, I am wary of the possibility that this intrinsic or experiential way of knowing can be coopted and used to patronize and subliminally degrade “other” knowledges.

Thus, I felt hopeful as I recently revisited the liberatory possibilities inherent in education that reading Giroux, Freire (2000) and hooks have inspired me to ponder since my undergraduate years. Yet, I remain unable to ignore the despair I feel as I am reminded daily how recurrent and seemingly embedded are the perspectives and assumptions that maintain oppressive forms of “education”—or more precisely, ensure cultural reproduction of dominance. This said, reading Giroux once more reminded me that, “critical pedagogy has always been responsive to the deepest problems and conflicts of our time” (2011, p. 8). As a result, I have lately found myself wondering whether critical pedagogy has the power to do more than critique. Criticism, however powerful and apt, may not be enough to overcome the longstanding oppression now assaulting public and higher “education,” whose “teachers and faculty [have been] increasingly removed from exercising any vestige of real power in shaping the conditions” in which they work (2011, p. 7).

I do sometimes wonder whether critical pedagogy will ever stimulate educators to challenge the status quo and establish, as Giroux has framed the issue, a

politics of educated hope, responsive to the need to think beyond established narratives of power, prevailing ‘commonsense’ approaches to educational policy and practice, a widening culture of punishment, and the banal script of using mathematical performance measures as benchmarks for academic success (Giroux 2011, p. 9).

I am deeply saddened by how frequently I witness in practice Gramsci’s view that today’s schooling too often “surrenders pedagogy to dull routine” (Giroux 2011, p. 56). Giroux has similarly suggested that today’s education institutions at all levels work to acculturate learners to become “cheerful robots” (Giroux 2011, p. 2). I am also keenly aware that this educational model allows those now in power to maintain oppressive control of the public (particularly marginalized “disposable populations”), on the basis of a claim that doing so represents a “commonsense” approach to maintaining law and order.

Reflecting on the potential of critical pedagogy has reaffirmed for me that education can constitute a “site of struggle” and hope, but it may also serve as a seemingly immutable mechanism for reproducing dominance and oppression. I am thankful that learning can and does occur outside of schooling, in social justice movements, the arts and community-based projects as, even when formal education fails to liberate, these contexts harbor potential to engage the public in knowledge-creation, celebration, healing and cooperation. Nevertheless, I dream of one day undertaking transformative and liberating work on the “inside” of the formal higher education system.

Though my hope is enduring, it is not naïve. I wonder what the role of critical pedagogy is for our particular era, which has been crippled by inequality, hate and institutional racism. I wonder how that approach can work to support all students in their development and questioning of ideas, while recognizing that,

all voices within the classroom are not and cannot carry equal legitimacy, safety, and  power  in  dialogue  at  this  historical  moment, [and that] there are  times  when  the  inequalities  must  be  named  and  addressed by  constructing alternative ground rules  for communication (Ellsworth 1989, p. 317).

I grapple continuously with issues related to “voice” and “safe space” as a part of my pedagogical stance and will continue to strive to continue to develop and interrogate my understanding and realization of these aims.

As I reflected recently on critical pedagogy and my own teaching philosophy, I was reminded that hooks (1994) has argued that to engage in liberatory pedagogy, educators must work to understand their students as well as themselves. hooks has suggested that many professors are “not the slightest bit interested in enlightenment,” but are rather “enthralled by the exercise of power and authority within their mini-kingdom, the classroom” (1994, p. 17). She has contended that educators concerned with teaching to liberate must be prepared to move away from notions of neutral “safe” spaces and work instead to create caring spaces. In hooks’ view, professors must also abandon a “condescending devaluation of experience” (1994, p. 88), as well as their “collective academic denial and acknowledge that the education that most … received and were giving was not and is never politically neutral” (1994, p. 30). hooks has challenged academics to go beyond the ways they were taught and to recognize that they must work instead to “build community in order to create a climate of openness and intellectual rigor” (1994, p. 40). It is only when the professoriate confronts its “complicity in accepting and perpetuating” disempowerment in the classroom, a microcosm of society, that its members can teach to liberate—in their classrooms and beyond (hooks, 1994, p. 44).


Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-325. doi:10.17763/haer.59.3.058342114k266250

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000, 30th Anniversary Edition). New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Giroux, H.A. (2011). On critical pedagogy. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress. New York: Routledge.

Natalie E. Cook, from Brooklyn, NY., is a PhD student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership and Community Education at Virginia Tech.  She is interested in the intersections between program evaluation, cultural relevance and social justice. Natalie earned her MS in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership and Community Education at Virginia Tech in 2015. She received her BS in Human Development from Cornell University in 2012, where she studied youth development, cultural identity and intervention. As an undergraduate, Natalie served as a research assistant in the Cornell University Office for Research on Evaluation. Her experience in that role inspired her to share her evaluation knowledge with the broader Ithaca community by creating an evaluation capacity building program for aspiring leaders. Natalie is currently developing her dissertation proposal, which will involve social justice-centered evaluation capacity building with family service workers. Natalie aspires to become a professor who engages in transformative research, critical pedagogy and collaborative community engagement.

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What lessons can Hurricane Harvey teach us?

Harvey was definitely not the first hurricane to cause devastation on American soil. Indeed, Harvey follows several such major storms that caused billions of dollars in damages including Katrina (2005), Sandy (2012), Ike (2008), Wilma (2005) and Andrew (1992). Hurricanes are certainly not a new phenomenon. In fact, Christopher Columbus encountered one in 1495 near Hispaniola (SunSentinel, 2017). We have had 522 years to prepare more effectively for huge storms and, yet, we are often not ready or, at least, not as prepared as we ought to be. The question is why that is so.

Hurricane Harvey is said to have caused a once in 500,000-year flood in parts of Texas that are already flood-prone, such as Houston (Ghose, 2017). Some have argued that no measures could have been taken to soften the blow of such a rare disaster. I would beg to disagree. It is true that the amount of rainfall dumped by Harvey was epic, but the damage that precipitation wrought did not have to be as bad as it turned out to be.

In a nutshell, Harvey’s massive rain fall in low-lying Houston had nowhere to go, which is why so much of the city experienced such damaging flooding. This geographic challenge was only exacerbated by the approach, or, rather, non-approach, to urban planning taken by city officials for roughly a century: e.g. “let’s build anywhere we can and THEN we can think about the consequences and take corrective measures.”  For instance, the city had long permitted building in low-lying flood-prone areas (Grabar, 2017) and also broadly increased impermeable surfaces across the community in the name of expansion. That choice alone made it difficult for rainwater to permeate, which led to widespread flooding. Remarkably, in modern-day city planning (as evidenced in Houston), too often, the potential impact of natural disasters remains an after-thought.

More generally, ongoing climate change all but guarantees that the number and intensity of major storms and hurricanes that will affect Houston will rise in the future at an increasing rate. In light of this growing likelihood and past political unwillingness to stop construction that would help to allay the future consequences of that likely trend-line, what can analysts learn from Harvey that will help to prepare Houston for its next super-sized storm?

There is no single solution to address effectively what happened in Houston when Harvey hit and deluged the city and its metropolitan area with 33 trillion gallons of water that ultimately covered at least 444 square miles of surrounding Harris County and caused at least 60 billion dollars in economic damages (Witthaus, 2017). Nonetheless, it seems likely that a more holistic view of disaster preparation and mitigation could have helped the City of Houston and its surrounding environs at least soften the hurricane’s blow to some degree. Here are some possible steps that might help the nation’s fourth most populous city manage future hurricanes more effectively:

Stop building in flood zones

City officials must begin to limit and, in some cases, disallow, construction in low-lying and flood prone areas and concentrate instead on encouraging expansion on higher ground. More, when building permits are issued in such locations, Houston’s public decision-makers must ensure that business owners and residents fully understand the risks they are taking by building or living there. Such a step would at least modestly diminish losses from flooding damage.

Pervious = impervious

A pervious surface, such as an undisturbed plat, allows rainwater infiltration. Pervious = impervious indicates that one acre of green space should be allotted for every acre of building footprint. In addition, single family/multifamily residential housing, office buildings, commercial and industrial spaces should make use of “green roofs,” rainwater harvesting systems, raingardens and open green spaces whenever possible. Such an initiative would require public and private sector cooperation and implies shared responsibility for storm response planning between city officials and property owners of all sorts in the city. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has tried multiple times to encourage land-use controls to avert or diminish flooding in Houston, but local officials and politicians have rejected those proposals (Vartabedian, 2017).

Increasing Houston’s resilience in the face of major storms

In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) assigned the state of Texas a D grade for its flood control planning overall as part of a review of the state’s infrastructure. That body assigned a C- to Houston’s efforts to plan for flood control and ensure effective drainage of heavy rain and run-off  (Infrastructurereportcard, 2017). The main culprit for the D grade was the lack of a “central authority” in Texas to manage the state’s flood preparation plan. The report argued that the City of Houston and Harris County flood management infrastructure needs to be updated, such as, planning for more frequent storms and more rainfall.

While resilience and some measure of self-reliance normally go hand-in-hand to strengthen and sustain a community, the ASCE report contended that making Houston more resilient to major storm events will also require increased collaboration with neighboring counties and, indeed, the state, in planning and preparation for flood control and mitigation. The City, should also upgrade its existing storm infrastructure by increasing the number of existing channels and creating new ones in flood sensitive areas  (Vartabedian, 2017). City efforts to raise residents’ awareness of potential flooding and needed storm water mitigation would also increase the likelihood of their compliance with, and support for, major infrastructure projects.

City, county and state officials need to be prepared by shifting from the “old” mantra of “we can do this on our own” to “we have to get public-private cooperation in the planning and preparation for major storm events” hat happened to the City of Houston could very well happen to any coastal community prone to hurricanes, including many urban areas along the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, mainly because 1) most of the infrastructure in the U.S. is old and not well maintained, hence the ASCE D+ overall grade for storm water infrastructure in the country and 2) even when large investments are made to upgrade flood control measures, officials too often fix on engineering as a solution rather than involving all affected stakeholders to effect significant change. For evidence, one need only observe that New Orleans flooded in 2017 despite the 14.5 billion dollars spent on fortifications to prevent that possibility since 2005 (Burnett, 2015; Domonoske, 2017). Hurricanes are increasing in number and intensity; a Harvey-scale storm will happen again and planners and elected officials in affected communities need to work together to prepare their communities better for these calamitous events. 


Burnett, J., 2015. Billions Spent On Flood Barriers, But New Orleans Still A ‘Fishbowl”. [Online]
Available at: http://www.npr.org/2015/08/28/432059261/billions-spent-on-flood-barriers-but-new-orleans-still-a-fishbowl
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

Domonoske, C., 2017. Hit By Flooding And Pumping System Crisis, New Orleans Braces For More Rain. [Online]
Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/08/10/542606964/hit-by-flooding-and-pumping-system-crisis-new-orleans-braces-for-more-rain
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

Ghose, T., 2017. Hurricane Harvey Caused 500,000-Year Floods in Some Areas. [Online]
Available at: https://www.livescience.com/60378-hurricane-harvey-once-in-500000-year-flood.html
[Accessed 2017 September 2017].

Grabar, H., 2017. Houston wasn’t built for a storm like this. [Online]
Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/business/metropolis/2017/08/houston_wasn_t_built_to_withstand_a_storm_like_harvey.html
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

Infrastructurereportcard, 2017. 2017 Report Card GPA: C-. [Online]
Available at: https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

SunSentinel, 2017. Hurricane timeline: 1495 to 1800. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/weather/hurricane/sfl-hc-history-1495to1800-htmlstory.html
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

Vartabedian, R., 2017. For years, engineers have warned that Houston was a flood disaster in the making. Why didn’t somebody do something?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-harvey-engineering-20170828-story.html
[Accessed 2017 September 21].

Witthaus, J., 2017. Harvey’s impact: This is how much it’s going to cost Houston. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bizjournals.com/houston/news/2017/08/29/harveys-impact-this-is-how-much-its-going-to-cost.html
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

Mary Semaan is pursuing a PhD in Environmental Design and Planning at Virginia Tech. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Computer and Communications Engineering at Notre Dame University in Lebanon and her master’s degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Miami. She is interested in changing current water infrastructure planning processes by involving residents in all elements of such decision-making. She also loves traveling and hopes to visit all of the countries in Latin and South America during the next five years. She is seen in her photograph accompanying this essay at the top of the pre-Hispanic pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

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WWII Nazi Germany and White Supremacy in America: Father and Son?

The recent act of white-supremacy terrorism in Charlottesville and the Nazi flag I saw on TV carried by many of the Charlottesville marchers prompted me—or rather, terrified me—into contemplating the similarities between the German Nazi party and American white supremacism. White supremacists in America use Nazi symbolism and self-consciously evoke an association with the original German Nazi party. I wondered exactly what similarities American white supremacists and neo-Nazis might share with their historic German predecessors. Besides identifying with the belief in evolutionary Aryan superiority, today’s U.S. white supremacists seemed to me upon reflection to share additional social and economic similarities with Germany’s Nazis, so I decided to conduct some preliminary research to test my hunches.

Familial resemblance

Madden, by bringing together many previous and contradictory studies on Nazi profiles in Germany, has offered a thorough analysis of the social and economic factors closely associated with Nazism (Madden, 1987). He has argued that support for the Nazi party arose from Germans of differing social and economic strata, but was always most closely associated with the middle and working class. Even as he suggested that the common idea that the Nazi party took root among the middle class, called the “Mittelstand” thesis, had been blown out of proportion by previous scholars, Madden emphasized working class support for the Nazi party, or NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei):

From the beginning of the party to at least 1928 the leadership of the NSDAP made concerted attempts to attract the working class into the movement (Kele, 1972; Noakes, 1971:104; Nyomarkay, 1967:26; Orlow, 1969:123). During this period, there was never an issue of the main party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, which did not carry a minimum of one article appealing to German workers to join and lead ‘the movement.’ Another important party organ, Der Angriff, concentrated on appeals to workers above all other groups. Hitler’s speeches often contained direct pleas to the workers to join and support his movement, even though he insisted that the party transcended class and social barriers (Baynes, 1942) (Madden 1987, p. 274).

Madden also provided data showing that propaganda alone did not explain the higher propensity of members of the working class to become NSDAP members:

Propaganda alone cannot account for the sizable percentage of workers in the NSDAP. Other factors which must have attracted some workers into Hitler’s movement, including nationalism, anti-Semitism, and despair over the perceived failure of the Social Democrats and the Communists to adequately address the problems of workers. The super-nationalism of the NSDAP was attractive to workers who had been infused with patriotism since childhood (Langsam, 1950) and felt, along with other Germans, a deep sense of humiliation because of the lost war and the Treaty of Versailles (Madden 1987, pp. 274-5).

While certainly not as pervasive as it has often been portrayed, Nazism’s seduction of the working class, or Germans who faced, as Madden labeled them, “problems of workers,” was nevertheless a critical factor in the Party’s success. Both the prevalence of the working class in the Nazi ranks and the idea that Hitler’s Party addressed “the problems of workers” strike me as significant, when considering the fact that those most willing to join American white supremacy groups today are associated with the working class. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist who has undertaken pioneering research in the area of masculinity, has also connected white supremacy in America with members of the working class (Foste, 2014).

According to a summary of Kimmel’s book, “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era,” published in the Journal of College Student Development, Kimmel examined neo-Nazism and white supremacy in America in his final chapter, and concluded that there are indeed certain ways in which “social class, particularly downward mobility, unites such groups” (Foste 2014).  Yet, like the German Mittelstand thesis, labeling racists as generally working or lower-class citizens oversimplifies and misrepresents the reality that they come from other backgrounds as well (Coleman 2017; Cox et al. 2017). In fact, it is difficult to determine with certainty the extent of, and reasons for, the connection between racism and members of the working class. Here, I seek only to highlight that this appears to be a relationship worth contemplating, especially considering the relatively high level of working-class participation in the NSDAP and in the modern American white supremacist movement.

American white supremacists also share an ardent nationalism with their German predecessors, as evidenced in the U.S. by individuals such as Billy Roper, who sought to unite fragmented white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups beginning in 2004 by means of his nationalist party (Dentice, 2011 and Newsweek, 2004). Another notable similarity between today’s American white supremacist extremists and Germany’s Nazis is one which garners special caution: a sensationalized leader. A plethora of recent articles have argued that Donald Trump has either inadvertently or consciously bolstered support for white supremacists. A certainly thought-provoking article published by UNWIRE entitled, “White nationalists are America’s ISIS” pointed out: “The Alt-Right and the Ku Klux Klan believe Trump’s presidency has made huge advances for the white nationalist community, and this passion is dangerous … these are the people our democracy has to fear” (UWIRE 2016). This is a tricky comparison; without Hitler, there would arguably have been no Nazism. He was literally and figuratively the head of that movement. The issue with Trump is more difficult, as he has not intentionally or overtly (depending on whom you ask) led any facet of the white supremacy movement in the U.S. What can be said is that white supremacists have usurped the image of President Trump, employing the president as a means of recruiting support and encouraging boldness. A conservative myself, I propose that this fact highlights the need for conservatives across America, especially those in public positions, such as President Trump, to distance themselves energetically from and condemn human rights violators who use their ideological agendas for sinister purpose, and to keep in mind that Hitler was able successfully to use and abuse the socialist party as a vehicle for his own aims.

Lastly, there is the issue of women. Overwhelmingly, neo-Nazis and white supremacists in America are anti-feminist. Although German women supported the Nazi regime in many different ways and were even in many cases deeply involved, those individuals were both understood to be and treated as “politically invisible;” their job being to support men (Nelson 2014; 2, 91). Similarly, Kimmel’s research revealed that white supremacists often disapprove of immigrants, individuals of other ethnicities and women in the workplace (Foste 2014).

What do these broad similarities mean? Do the discontent and strongly nationalist outlook of many working-class men in the United States constitute significant elements for the emergence of racism? What role do various levels of support from authority figures play in mobilizing white supremacy terrorism? How do treatment of and the role of women factor into and provide an indicator for potentially racist groups? More expertise than I possess, and extensive, thoughtful research certainly are needed to address these concerns. I have just skimmed the surface of potentially significant similarities and differences between Nazi party members and their modern American counterparts.

The Holocaust stands in world history as a reminder of the horrific darkness of which the human heart is capable, a darkness that knows no borders or boundaries. It is easy to hope that the Holocaust could not be repeated. But while America is not 1930s Germany, the similarities I have sketched suggest that we collectively must remember that past evils could surely be replayed on the modern stage, and that fresh atrocities similar to the Holocaust in aims, if not in scale, are not impossible, to imagine. To ignore any similarities might give genocide a proverbial foot in the door, and that potential is what I aim to emphasize here. An effective hedge against racism and genocide is always worth examination. It is surely worth contemplating more deeply, too, the apparent relationship between an animosity toward non-white races and the economic factors that may possibly fuel its ugliest expression (Madden 1987, Foste 2014), the potential dangers of nationalism (Madden 1987, Dentice 2011), leaders’ roles in mobilizing racist aggression (UWIRE 2016) and the connection between the abridgement of women’s rights and deeper anti-democratic actions (Nelson 2014, Foste 2014) as these phenomena were reflected in Nazi Germany and are now afoot in modern America.

Two differences that offer hope

To end this essay with the point just suggested, would be to leave the comparison between Nazi Germany and the current U.S. situation only half sketched. I would like to conclude by pointing out two striking differences that came to mind as I considered Nazi German perpetrators and modern American white supremacists. First, our nation was explicitly founded on the principle that all people are created equal and our laws and regime rest on that foundation. Irrespective of religious, social or cultural background, Americans are bound by the belief that all individuals are created equal, with unalienable rights and entitled to the dignity owed any and every individual. Our nation’s most fundamental ideals and values contradict the doctrine of white supremacy that has nonetheless plagued America since its birth.

From the Declaration of Independence onward, we have charted a course toward and fought in the interest of achieving a greater expression of equal rights and guarantees of human rights. If their adoption of Nazi flags were not already an indicator, we must insist to racist groups that although they may claim to be patriotic and nationalistic, they are betraying the very foundations of the nation they purport to love. As Cunningham has observed, “You can be Nazi or you can be American. You can’t be both” (Cunningham 2017). Nonetheless, slavery, (an evil so embedded that it was originally included in the U.S. Constitution), displacement and genocide of Native Americans (the Trail of Tears, was just one example) as well as other human rights infringements (Japanese internment camps, unjust persecution of Germans and communists, among others), highlight the continuing shortcomings of the American attempt to secure equal rights for all. They also remind us that a country’s intentions and ideals may be one thing, and its deeds quite another. With history as our guide and the admission that we have repeatedly and sometimes miserably fallen short of our noblest ideals, the importance of condemning any movement that refuses to recognize the human and civil rights of every person must always be recalled.

A second difference between the Nazis and today’s home-grown white nationalists, is that the nascent Nazi party was largely ignored, while millions in our nation (and many others, including many citizens of modern Germany) were outraged at the recent Charlottesville act of white-supremacy terrorism. Today’s general citizenry is surely more educated about the cruelty of genocide and racism than Germans were in the early 1930s prior to the Holocaust. The public outcry following Charlottesville ought to give Americans hope, as it implies that most U.S. residents know better than to embrace the hate on offer there. The outrage many Americans voiced in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy is exactly the kind of patriotism and expression of free speech that keeps our nation good and betters her.

In sum, it is worth reflecting on the similarities and connections between Nazi Germany and American white supremacy in order to remind our nation’s citizens that hate and its most horrific product, genocide, must start somewhere. While offering a lecture during my undergraduate studies, scholar and historian Lady Ester Gilbert observed, that if there is one lesson to take away from the Holocaust, it would be that, “there is no such thing as a small encroachment on human rights” (lecture at Hillsdale College, 7 February 2017). We cannot fail to be vigilant.



Cox, Daniel Ph.D., Rachel Lienesch, Robert P. Jones, Ph.D. 2017. “Beyond Economics:   Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump    PRRI/The Atlantic Report.” PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and The  Atlantic. (9 May 2017). Accessed September 2, 2017.                                                         https://www.prri.org/research/white-working-class-  attitudes-economy-trade-            immigration-election-donald-trump/

Cunningham, Paul. 2017. “Cunningham: You can be Nazi or you can be American. You        can’t be both.” TheTucsonSentinel.com. 18 August. Accessed September 13, 2017.

Dentice, Dianne. 2011. “The Nationalist Party of America: Right-Wing Activism and              Billy Roper’s White Revolution.” Social Movement Studies 10, no. 1: 107-112.               SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost.

Foste, Zak. 2014. Review of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an     Era by Michael Kimmel. Journal of College Student Development 55, no. 6 (2014): 633-635. Project Muse. Accessed 2 September, 2017.

Gilbert, Lady Ester. “Moral Dilemmas of Those Under Siege: Three Examples from the        Holocaust.” Lecture at Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI. 7 February 2017.

Madden, Paul. 1987. “The Social Class Origins of Nazi Party Members as Determined by      Occupations, 1919-1933.” Social Science Quarterly 68, no. 2 (1987): 263-80.

Nelson, Courtney D. 2014. “Our Weapon is the Wooden Spoon: Motherhood, Racism,      and War: The Diverse Roles of Women in Nazi Germany.” M.A. Diss., East Tennessee State University. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed    September 2, 2017.

Newsweek staff. 2004. “A Racist on the Rise.” Newsweek.com. 9 May. (accessed 17         September, 2017). http://www.newsweek.com/racist-rise-127859

Ross Coleman, Aaron. 2017. “Timid Reporting On Racism Skews Our Political And                Economic Debates: The truth behind ‘economic populism’ and ‘identity politics.’” The Huffington Post, 30 May. Accessed September 2, 2017.                         http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-timid-reporting-on-racism-skews-the-       american-political_us_592c1e0ee4b0a7b7b469cc17

“White Nationalists are America’s ISIS.” UWIRE Text, November 9, 2016, 1. Infotrac           Newsstand (accessed August 28, 2017).   http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/ps/i   .do?p=STND&sw=w&u=viva_vpi&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA469579567&si            d=summon&asid=c2ffd9e4aade79fa75b0d4f792d57137.


Rebekah Molloy is now pursuing her Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. She also serves as a graduate assistant for the program and, in that role, assists Dr. Joel Peters, its Chair. She obtained her B.A., majoring in English and German, from Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan in 2017. While at Hillsdale, she was involved in the International Club as secretary, foreign language coordinator and also served as its English and essay-writing tutor for international students. She is interested in Just War Theory, national defense, conflict resolution and Holocaust commemoration. Rebekah grew up in a military family and is deeply grateful to have had the eye-opening opportunity to live overseas and experience other cultures.



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After Cairo 2050: The Spatial Politics of Regime Security in Umm Al-Dunya

The popular mobilization that brought the resignation of Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, on February 11, 2011, injected new hope among many of that state’s citizens, especially those in its sprawling capital, Cairo. While many believed Mubarak’s removal would result in a transformed city, government and country, this brief article traces the continuity of Mubarak-era urban plans for Cairo. I argue each of the three successive administrations following Mubarak’s fall—those of Mohamed Tantawi (2011-2012), Mohamed Morsi (2012-2013), and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (2013-Present)—adopted strategies outlined in the Cairo 2050 masterplan, first released by Mubarak’s government in 2008.



Tahrir Square Protests, The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/middle-east-live/2011/nov/18/egypt-and-syria-protests-live-updates]

This continuity in urban management goals and practice suggests that, despite the revolution and different administrations, Cairo urban planning continues to be guided largely by priorities and logics first articulated during the Mubarak years.

Cairo as Gauntlet and Proposed Solutions

Cairo, home to more than 20 million inhabitants, is characterized by “high population density, traffic congestion, continuous increase of unplanned and unsafe areas [informal settlements], high air pollution rates and other environmental problems” as well as the intense urban sprawl beyond the Nile River Valley that creates and accompanies these conditions (MHUC & UN Habitat, 2012, p.10). The ever-expanding borders of the city have contributed to, and generated, a range of issues, including fast growth in informal housing, overburdened and often inadequate water and sanitation systems, overcrowded transportation infrastructure and the sprawl of “ghost” cities beyond the Nile River Valley, among others.


Googlemaps Screenshot of Nile River Valley and Greater Cairo Region.]


These deeply interwoven issues constituted some of the kindling that eventually led to mass mobilization to oust Mubarak from office.

The General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) office in the Ministry of Housing first released Cairo 2050, a 200-page document outlining a master plan for the city, in 2008.



Cairo 2050, Cairo 2050 Vision, p. 1]




The foundational principles of that vision were “decentralization” and “de-densification.”



Decentralization objectives from Cairo 2050 Vision, p.44]


The Mubarak administration pursued these objectives through “megaprojects;” large-scale “priority developments of regional and national importance (GOPP, 2008, p. 36).” These included relocation of government ministries and public institutions to areas beyond the city’s core (GOPP, 2008, p.36). While the Mubarak administration succeeded in developing the Six of October City and New Cairo megaprojects outside the boundaries of Cairo, the major ministry buildings—many that would-be sites for protest in 2011—were never relocated, perhaps due to the financial crisis of 2008 or the competition of other priorities.

The Mubarak administration employed public-private partnerships to lure Persian Gulf state investment as the fuel to expand the city. Indeed, by early 2012, half of the 26 most valuable real estate developments in Egypt were majority-owned by Gulf-based conglomerates (Deknatel, 2012).

 Post-Revolution Urban Management of Cairo

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) administration shifted the focus of the city’s planners from Cairo’s periphery to its urban core as they sought to manage post-Mubarak Cairo. Mohamed Tantawi’s SCAF erected concrete barriers around the Interior Ministry and police stations throughout the traditional core of the city. The military also actively regulated population flows in and out of centrally located Tahrir Square, particularly in the aftermath of the Mohammed Mahmoud Street standoff between Egyptian police and protesters that resulted in the deaths of 40 people in November 2011.


Barrier near Interior Ministry from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/31/149727510/to-keep-protesters-away-egypts-police-put-up-walls ]




SCAF Barrier Map from Ahram Online: http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/33929/Egypt/Politics-/Walled-in-SCAFs-concrete-barricades-.aspx


The June 2012 transition to civilian rule following the election of Mohamed Morsi to Egypt’s Presidency, brought new salience to the Cairo 2050 masterplan. The Morsi administration maintained many of the walls erected in downtown areas during the SCAF era and also embraced Mubarak-style megaprojects once more. For Morsi’s government, the showcase piece was the Nahda project, whose architects promised would “redistribute the population density of Egypt’s 80 million to 90 million people” and “get out of the Nile Delta Valley to new regional growth areas (Deknatel, 2012).” The government did not realize these aims as it was removed from office in the Egyptian Armed Forces coup d’état in July 2013.

For its part, the Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi administration announced two megaprojects on a scale that dwarfed Mubarak’s earlier aims: a Suez Canal expansion and a “New Cairo” Capital City. Al-Sisi’s public 2014 announcement of planned construction of an additional lane for the canal led to a series of contracts with European, Persian Gulf and American companies to collaborate with Egypt’s Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces to dredge for the expansion (Kalin, 2014).



Screenshot South of Ismalia, Egypt, Google Maps]



The New Cairo Capital City, announced in early 2015, fostered still more vigorous economic ties with China, Egypt’s largest trade partner, and looks set to contribute to additional sprawl in its planned location, twenty-eight miles outside of the city in the eastern desert (Kirk, 2016). China’s state-owned construction company has pledged $15B, and the China Fortune Land Development Company has pledged $20B to help to underwrite the proposed effort. Egypt must still raise its own share of the funds needed, an additional $10 billion (ibid.). Construction has begun. If completed, this new city will be located beyond the fertile Nile River Valley, prompting questions of whether sufficient water, sanitation and basic infrastructure can be made available to sustain it in systems already operating beyond their design capacity



Screenshot from The Capital Cairo website: http://thecapitalcairo.com/ ]



The new Capital City and Suez Canal expansion initiatives garnered headlines for the new administration and helped to shore up its legitimacy with Egypt’s residents, even as each effort helped the state expand its financial ties and networks in tough economic times.

The Cairo Capital City project also embraced the Mubarak-era goal to move the state’s principal ministries to the periphery of the city to make it more difficult for residents to mount major protests at them. The al-Sisi administration moved the symbolically contentious Interior Ministry to New Cairo in April 2016. All other major government ministries are slated to follow suit and will eventually be moved to the new Cairo Capital City on its completion between 2020 and 2022.

 Regime Security and Management of Cairo

The continuity in aspiration and content across the otherwise disparate recent Egyptian regimes highlighted here, points to close connections between urban planning and leaders’ perceptions of the security of their rule. While it would be too reductive to suggest that Egypt’s leaders’ self-interest alone has driven Cairo’s planning choices across the four administrations, there is little doubt that this motive appears and strongly, in their selected means to manage the city.

The various regimes’ attempts since Mubarak’s fall to manage Cairo through continued sprawl and internal partitions reveals the intimate relationships between space and power across geographies, institutions and the wider society. Power is always situated in space, and this brief examination of development and development policy in Cairo has sought to foreground the material manifestations of regime power. However, the nation’s mass mobilization during 2011 reminds analysts that the regime’s power is never absolute. Given this reality, it becomes possible to conceive of the projects of the recent successive Egyptian national government administrations less as arbiters of absolute control and power over land use and populations and instead, as evocations of the fear, insecurity and uneasiness within which their rulers have operated. Cairo’s stubbornly persistent urban transformation plans—both imagined and achieved—reveal more about the fears and psychoses of those leaders than about whether any of the efforts conceived might actually better serve the Egyptian citizenry.


 Allam, Hannah (2 Feb 2011). “Wednesday’s Crackdown was Vintage Mubarak,” McClatchy Newspapers. Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article24610057.html

Bel Trew, Mohamed Abdalla, and Ahmed Feteha, (9 Feb 2012). “Walled in: SCAF’s Concrete Barricades,” Ahram Online. Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/33929/Egypt/Politics-/Walled-in-SCAFs-concrete-barricades-.aspx

Cambanis, Thanassis (24 Aug 2010). To Catch Cairo Overflow, 2 Megacities Rise in the Sand,” The New York Times. Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/world/africa/25egypt.html

Daily News Egypt (19 Jan 2017). “Impact of Egypt’s Mega Projects Revealed at Cityscape Business Breakfast,” Daily News Egypt. Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2017/01/19/impact-egypts-mega-projects-revealed-cityscape-business-breakfast/

Deknatel, Frederick (31 Dec 2012). “The Revolution Added Two Years: On Cairo,” The Nation. Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): https://www.thenation.com/article/revolution-added-two-years-cairo/

General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) (2008). Cairo 2050 Vision.

Kalin, Stephen (18 Oct 2014). “Egypt Signs with Six International Firms to Dredge New Suez Canal,” Reuters. Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): http://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-suezcanal-idUSKCN0I70IC20141018

Kirk, Mimi (13 Oct 2016). “Egypt’s Government Wants Out of its Ancient Capital,” CityLab – The Atlantic. Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): http://www.citylab.com/politics/2016/10/egypt-cairo-capital-city-move/503924/

Kennedy, Merrit (30 Mar 2012). “To Keep Protesters Away, Egypt’s Police Put Up Walls,” NPR. Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): http://www.npr.org/2012/03/31/149727510/to-keep-protesters-away-egypts-police-put-up-walls

Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities (MHUC) & UN Habitat (2012). “Greater Cairo Urban Development Strategy.” United Nations Habitat. Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): https://unhabitat.org/strategic-development-of-greater-cairo-english-version/

Rios, Lorena (2016). “Egypt’s Capital Mirage,” Roads and Kingdoms. Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2015/egypts-capital-mirage/

Sims, David (2011). Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control. The American University in Cairo Press. The Capital: Cairo (2015). Available at (Accessed 9/10/2017): http://thecapitalcairo.com/

 Rob Flahive is a second-year PhD student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT). His research focuses on tensions in the preservation of international style architecture in North Africa, the Middle East and East Africa. He holds a Master of Arts in Political Studies from the American University in Beirut and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis.

Rob values learning from personal experience as well as from conversations with others possessing different perspectives. He cannot imagine life without espresso, pizza (manoushe) or Fairouz.


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Academic Freedom and Shared Governance: Does one protect the other?

In 2004, Delaware State University President Allen Sessoms suspended and initiated dismissal proceedings against Wendell Gorum, a tenured professor in the Mass Communications Department.  During a routine audit the university registrar had discovered that Gorum, “without the professor-of-record’s permission, had changed withdrawals, incompletes, and failing grades to passing grades for 48 students in the Mass Communications Department,” which he chaired from 1997 to 2004 (Gorum v. Sessoms, 2009, p. 182).  While Gorum admitted making the changes, he asserted that he had sufficient authority to do so and that such alterations by department chairs were common practice at the University (Gorum v. Sessoms, 2009).  After further investigation and multiple hearings, an ad hoc disciplinary committee concluded that “Dr. Gorum’s actions undermine the very tenets of the educational profession and rise to a level deserving condemnation by the academic community” (Gorum v. Sessoms, 2009, p. 183).  The group proposed that Gorum be severely disciplined, but not fired. President Sessoms, citing Gorum’s “unprofessional” and “highly reprehensible” conduct, nevertheless recommended to the University’s board of trustees that the professor’s employment be terminated, and the board unanimously approved the action and dismissed him (Gorum v. Sessoms, 2009, p. 183).

Gorum subsequently filed suit in federal district court alleging that his firing “was a retaliatory action to punish him for engaging in speech … protected by the First Amendment” (Gorum v. Sessoms, 2009, p. 183).  Specifically, Gorum claimed that Sessoms retaliated against him not for the acts investigated, but instead for three unconnected speech-related actions:

  • For his objection to Sessoms’ candidacy and selection to the university’s presidency;
  • For his actions as an advisor to a student athlete facing suspension; and
  • For his withdrawal of an invitation for Sessoms to speak at a fraternity’s prayer breakfast, for which committee he had served as chair (Gorum v. Sessoms, 2009, pp. 183-184).

When the federal district court granted summary judgment for Sessoms concerning these allegations, Gorum appealed to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.  Even though it considered the professor’s arguments unrelated, “makeweight attempts to counter his dismissal for doctoring student grades,” the appellate court nevertheless examined the professor’s speech-related claims (Gorum v. Sessoms, 2009, p. 188).  Applying analysis described by the U. S. Supreme Court in the Pickering-Connick-Garcetti (1968, 1983, 2006) line of cases, the appellate court upheld the district court’s judgment, arguing that Gorum had not engaged in speech protected by the First Amendment in the three matters under consideration, since he did not speak “as a citizen” on “a matter of public concern” in any of them (Gorum v. Sessoms, 2009, p. 185).  Put another way, the Appeals court concluded that Gorum’s speech related to internal university matters, those remarks directly related to his “official duties” as a professor and department chair, and “the First Amendment does not shield the consequences of ‘expression employees make pursuant to their professional duties’” (Gorum v. Sessoms, 2009, p. 185).  In short, the professor’s claim failed.  Relying particularly on the Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Cellabos (2006), the appellate court reasoned that the

official duty test [applies] because Gorum’s actions so clearly were not ‘speech related to scholarship or teaching,’ and because we believe that such a determination here does not ‘imperil First Amendment protection of academic freedom in public colleges and universities’ (Gorum v. Sessoms, 2009, p. 186).

Because of legal decisions such as Gorum, professors at some public colleges and universities in the United States question whether speech expressed in their governance role(s) is protected by academic freedom. That is, scholars within the profession differ concerning whether academic freedom affords protections to professors’ intramural speech undertaken as part of their responsibilities for governance of their institutions. Notably, the Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue, and so the question of whether academic freedom reaches shared governance remains unaddressed.

This essay examines the literature that has investigated the question of whether academic freedom protects intramural speech that arises as a result of a faculty member’s exercise of responsibilities on behalf of institutional governance.  The literature is, at best, mixed concerning this issue. Some analysts have contended that such professional activity is “inextricably linked” to academic freedom (Gerber, 2001, p. 22).  Other authors have refuted that argument, suggesting that expanding the concept of academic freedom to include shared governance goes too far and renders the construct meaningless (Yudof, 1988). At this writing, the issue remains far from settled.

Defining Academic Freedom and Shared Governance

In the United States, academic freedom is almost universally accepted as a valued principle of higher education (Kaplin and Lee, 2007).  However, “there is little consensus regarding the meaning of [the concept] although there is agreement that it is something worth protecting. … It is, at best, a slippery notion, but a notion worthy of analysis” (Kaplan, 1983, p. 6).  Indeed, Fish (2014) recently argued that five “schools of thought” concerning academic freedom exist and each defines the character and scope of the idea differently.

Scholars have determined the meaning and reach of academic freedom by examining norms related to it that have been established through custom and usage and by analyzing the public statements concerning it developed by relevant professional organizations, such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) (Kaplin and Lee, 2007).  For example, the AAUP has sought to describe and ensure academic freedom throughout its long history as an organization representing the academy in the United States (AAUP, 2015).  In its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, for example, the Association declared that faculty are:

(a) entitled to full freedom in research and in publication of the results, … (b) entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, … and (c) are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution.  When they speak, or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline (AAUP, 2015, p. 14).

In short, the AAUP has suggested that faculty capacity to research, publish and teach as they wish, within very broad boundaries, as well as enjoy free speech as citizens constitute core elements of academic freedom (AAUP, 2015). The AAUP’s 1940 Statement did not address the question of intramural speech—i.e., professorial speech linked to a university’s internal affairs or governance.

Universities typically operate two systems of governance simultaneously:  one is legal: it grants authority to trustees and the administration; the other is academic: it rests on the professional authority of the faculty (Birnbaum, 2004).  The term “shared governance” denotes “a tripartite arrangement among three major stakeholders—governing boards, administration, and faculty” (Austin and Jones, 2016, p. 138).  According to Hirsch, “Ideally, shared governance in universities assigns specific rights and responsibilities to its three stakeholders i.e., provides for a separation of powers, and establishes a structure and process for stakeholders to interact in specific undertakings” (2001, p. 147).

As with academic freedom, the AAUP has articulated what it considers to be a compendium of best practices of shared governance in its Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, adopted in 1967 (AAUP, 2015).  The Statement addressed each of the three major stakeholders involved—governing boards, administration and faculty—and suggested, “The variety and complexity of the tasks performed by institutions of higher education produce an inescapable interdependence” among these stakeholders (AAUP, 2015, p. 118).  Within this arrangement, faculty maintain primary responsibility for core academic matters such as curricular quality, rigor and content, teaching methods, faculty personnel matters and student-related issues directly related to the educational process (Dill, 2014).  The governing board and administration are obliged to secure and maintain adequate financial resources and to implement institutional policy and procedures effectively and equitably. Faculty, board members and administrators share responsibility for strategic planning, budgeting, establishing immediate and long-term program goals and participating in the presidential selection process (Dill, 2014).

Yes and No:  Scholars Debate Academic Freedom and Shared Governance

The AAUP’s position on academic freedom and shared governance notwithstanding, scholars have continued to debate whether that principle protects faculty members engaged in shared governance activities.  Some analysts, such as Gerber (2001), Finkin (1988, 1993) and Finkin and Post (2009), have argued that academic freedom necessarily includes professors’ role(s) in institutional governance.  According to these scholars, academic freedom protects faculty members from administrative discipline for their speech concerning internal university concerns.  Other analysts, such as Brest (1988), Fish (2014), Olivas (1993) and Yudof (1988), are not so sure. They have argued that academic freedom shields only the “core” scholarly activities of teaching, research and publication and faculty member rights of public speech as citizens.  Thus construed, the construct falls short of protecting professorial engagement in shared governance and intra-institutional (intramural) speech. I turn next to an examination of these competing perspectives.

Academic Freedom Protects Intramural Speech and Shared Governance

Intramural speech refers to faculty remarks that concern any action, policy or personnel decision of their university (Finkin and Post, 2009).  The term is frequently linked with the idea of shared governance, as Gerber employed it in a widely-read essay: “It is hard to imagine effective governance if faculty do not enjoy the right to speak freely without fear of reprisal on issues related to their own institutions and policies” (2001, p. 23).  For its part, the AAUP in a statement approved by its Committee T on College and University Governance in 1994, asserted that shared governance and academic freedom “are closely connected, arguably inextricably linked” (2015, p. 125).

One argument scholars assert for viewing the faculty role in institutional governance as protected by academic freedom involves whether professors are employees or enjoy another status in relationship to the university (Finkin and Post, 2009).  Since issuing its 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure (AAUP, 2015), the AAUP has contended that faculty members are more than mere employees with limited rights, but also appointees with broad freedoms, including academic freedom and its twin protections, tenure and a role in institutional (shared) governance.  In this view, as appointees and not employees, scholars possess a status independent of the university’s trustees and administration: in a university, “trustees hold an essential and highly honorable place, but … the faculties hold an independent place, with quite equal responsibilities—and in relation to purely scientific and educational questions, the primary responsibility” (AAUP, 2015, pp. 6-7).  Such standing “renders any institutional policy or decision a fair subject for faculty comment or criticism” (Finkin and Post, 2009, p. 124). In short, in this view, the status of faculty as independent appointees ensures their freedom of speech when engaged in university governance.  While not explicit in the 1915 Declaration and the 1940 Statement, the AAUP nevertheless sought to establish this contention through its committees’ investigations and via reports it issued throughout the 20th century (Finkin and Post, 2009, p. 116).

Another argument for including a broad conception of professorial speech under the protection of academic freedom suggests that faculty members may be seen as modern-day professionals analogous to the journeymen artisans of the early American Republic who were highly skilled, independent, professional and self-governing (Finkin, 1993). These early artisans, the argument states, practiced their craft in complete freedom, including the exercise of freedom of speech, intra- or extramurally.  College and university professors began to organize their profession at the turn of the 20th century, forming associations such as the AAUP that sought to codify and assert similar freedoms for the professoriate. Indeed, in 1940 faculty achieved a standing that journeymen artisans enjoyed in the early Republic with publication of the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (AAUP, 2015) jointly issued by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges.  Thus, just as “the mechanic of the new Republic asserted simultaneously an independence of craftsmanship that brooked no supervision, a vigorous defense of workplace rights—of artisanal dignity and self-respect—and a robust liberty of political association and expression” (Finkin, 1993, pp. 378-379), faculty now argued for their right to academic freedom: to teach, research and publish, speak as private citizens and engage intramurally as “officers of an educational institution” (AAUP, 2015, p. 14).   Accordingly, “the 1940 Statement resonate[d] against an older ideal” (Finkin, 1993, p. 379).

A third argument concerning affording academic freedom protection to intramural speech and shared governance asserts that American faculty are citizens not only of the nation, but also of the university with which they are affiliated (Finkin, 1988).  Within both realms, residents enjoy certain rights.  Much as a national citizen enjoys freedom of speech, a university faculty member enjoys academic freedom, including in their activities linked to institutional governance. Those pressing this view contend that since that right is a scholarly professional prerogative, professors enjoy protection for their intramural speech, the core claim of which, “concerns … freedom of professional utterance not shared with the citizenry at large” (Finkin, 1988, p. 1323).  As such, these advocates suggest that academic freedom protects faculty speech related to any matter of professorial concern, including, but arguably not limited to, admission standards, administrative leadership, appeals to accrediting agencies, awarding degrees, athletic policy, library policy, salary policies, presidential selection and petitions to the AAUP.

Furthermore, in this view, conceding that academic freedom did not cover intramural speech and “reserving the profession’s claim of freedom of expression only to narrowly defined disciplinary discourse, [i.e., only to teaching or research and publication,] … would produce a profession in a sense ‘half slave and half free’” (Finkin, 1988, p. 1341). Moreover, these analysts contend that the academic freedom of intra-institutional speech also flows from the principle of equality:  faculty are peers with and ought to share the same freedom of speech that trustees and administrators enjoy.  Additionally, limiting faculty speech within the organizations in which they work would inhibit institutional operations, since universities seek not only truth, the focus of research, but also wisdom, the object of governance.  The administration cannot possibly possess all knowledge when developing and implementing its educational policies.  Therefore, faculty engaged in governance-related speech ought to be considered “institutional citizen[s]” and not “officious intermeddler[s]” (Finkin, 1988, p. 1342).

A final argument some commentators have offered states that shared governance serves the needs of civil society and is necessary for two special reasons. First, it enables the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. Second, it provides a liberal education.  Notably, citizens require both such understanding and capabilities to engage actively in democratic civil society (Gerber, 2001). As a result, this perspective suggests that academic freedom and shared governance are “inextricably linked” and faculty members should enjoy the same protection in their workplace speech that they do when engaged in teaching, research and publication and their roles as private citizens.  Furthermore, these analysts argue, effective institutional governance requires that faculty have the freedom to speak “without fear of reprisal on issues relating to their own institutions and policies” (Gerber, 2001, p. 23).  Additionally, in the absence of a shared faculty role in university governance, especially in academic affairs, “liberal education, with its emphasis on the development of critical thinking and humane values, may eventually become an arcane concept” (Gerber, 2001, p. 24).

Academic Freedom Only Includes and Protects Core Scholarly Activities

However, some commentators do not accept these arguments.  They contend instead that faculty speech linked to internal university governance should be seen as separate from academic freedom and beyond the protections that construct affords faculty.  Brest (1988), for example, has suggested that “the claim that the penumbra of intramural speech is inextricably linked to the core of true academic freedom of inquiry needs a stronger argument” (p. 1361).  For Brest, employing a core and penumbra approach used in some legal arguments has been stretched too thin when applied to academic freedom and intramural speech.  Despite the “tendency to travel further and further from the core [scholarly activities]” that academic freedom protects (e.g. teaching, research, and publication), “at some point, most of us get off the train” (Brest, 1988, p. 1361). Analysts, such as Brest, contend that there is a significant difference between criticizing a university president “for her parking policy or the paint color she chooses” and making an unpopular or controversial argument within one’s scholarly discipline (Brest, 1988, p. 1361).  Engaging in the former encroaches on administrative rights and responsibilities, while the latter represents an appropriate focus, well within the realm of the professional activities of a scholar.

Some analysts have contended that extending academic freedom to the faculty governing shields “the scholarly enterprise from outside interference …, but only grants limited protection to professors’ intramural speech … against institutional interests” (Olivas, 1993, p. 1837).  This is so, these scholars argue, because academic freedom applies only to professorial speech that adheres to professional standards and is the product of “training, developed expertise, and scrupulous care” (Olivas, 1993, p. 1835).  That is, for these analysts, academic freedom should apply only to speech related to “scholarly” matters.  Furthermore, when protected, “non-professorial” speech should be shielded for all—scholars and staff alike.  In this view, professors engaged in non-academic speech should not be able to claim any more or less protection for such communication than can any other member of the university community (Olivas, 1993).

Similarly, another group of scholars has suggested that a conceptualization of academic freedom that includes intramural speech separates the idea from its conceptual moorings to the point of rendering it meaningless (Yudof, 1988).  In other words, placing all speech within the university under the shelter of academic freedom corrupts that umbrella concept by making it more about professional autonomy than pursuit of truth. Regarding this conceptual extension of the construct, one commentator has asked, “why [do] academics, with respect to matters not directly related to teaching and scholarship, have a higher order of liberty in the workplace than others?” (Yudof, 1988, p. 1355).  Questions about salary, working conditions, office space, parking and many other concerns are necessary to sustain a university.  But why, this argument continues, should faculty have a right to protected speech on these intramural affairs when others do not?  This question leads to the logical suggestion that any group claiming a professional status should also be accorded the measure of autonomy analogous to faculty academic freedom (Yudof, 1988).  Seen in this way, assertions of academic freedom become just one more way to promote “a progressive view of labor-management relations” (Yudof, 1988, p. 1355). That said, these commentators also caution that professors enjoy “academic” freedom because of their unique professional roles—discovering new knowledge and disseminating analyses of existing understandings—that require freedom that other occupations do not.  Therefore, “the temptation” ought to be resisted, “to bring all talk about conditions that have an impact on professional autonomy, no matter how far removed from teaching and research, under the umbrella of academic freedom” (Yudof, 1988, p. 1356).  To summarize this argument, “Academic freedom is what it is. … If academic freedom is thought to include all that is desirable for academicians, it may come to mean quite little to policy makers and courts” (Yudof, 1988, p. 1357).

Finally, some scholars have argued that the attempt to afford the protections of academic freedom to shared governance represents an assertion of faculty supremacy (Fish, 2014).  According to one such analyst, “professors cling to medieval privileges while demanding modern trade union benefits,” the effect of which creates “a status with the autonomy of a community member, the security of a corporate employee, and the obligations of neither” (Keller, 2004, p. 169). Furthermore, in this view, whether the management of university governance is top-down, shared or bottom-up is immaterial to the production of quality scholarship.  Rather, “teaching and scholarship could flourish or fail” regardless of the nature of the system of university governance (Fish, 2014, p. 41).  That is, for these critics, faculty members rightly have a responsibility for participating in governing the affairs of their profession and the institutions with which they are aligned, but the scope of those activities is limited as they relate to organizational governance.  Administrative decisions related to the greater university environment may affect academic work, but such decisions are secondary to faculty responsibilities and are appropriately the province of the administration (Fish, 2014).  It is enough for professors to engage in the academic work of their profession through teaching, conducting research and publishing (Fish, 2008).


Overall, commentators favoring the separation of intramural speech and shared governance from academic freedom appear to have a stronger case than those arguing that intramural speech and shared governance fall under the protection of academic freedom.  This is so in good measure because the claims for including intramural speech and shared governance under the rubric of academic freedom raise difficult questions. Two examples suffice:  Must all speech protected under academic freedom be academic?  If, as university citizens, intramural statements are protected for faculty, why not protect them for other university citizens, especially students and staff?  Moreover, while it may be laudable for faculty to enjoy freedom of speech as they participate in shared governance, that right can and should stand on its own, apart from academic freedom.  Free speech and participatory democracy are touchstones of American government.  Perhaps these freedoms should also be accorded to faculty (and others) within the university community, but it is not necessary to attach them to the concept of academic freedom to do so.

Given this reality, it would be better to declare that faculty have a general right of free speech, including intramural utterances, or a delimited freedom of speech when fulfilling a specific role in university governance and discharging their governance responsibilities.  By securing these freedoms separately, in addition to, but apart from academic freedom, faculty would avoid muddling important distinctions. Ensuring these rights independently would also provide stronger support for claimants such as Gorum, who argued that the administration retaliated against him for his activities while engaged in intramural speech and university governance.  As Gorum discovered, judges currently decide such cases in accord with existing First Amendment jurisprudence.  Under these precedents, judges are inclined to view faculty members at public colleges and universities as they do other public employees, who neither benefit from academic freedom nor freedom of speech when speaking or acting within the scope of their “official duties,” leaving faculty intramural speech and shared governance unprotected.  Today’s faculty seeking to protect speech offered in their governance role can surely articulate mechanisms that would afford such protection, but stretching the concept of academic freedom to do so should not be among them.


American Association of University Professors [AAUP]. (2015). Policy documents and reports. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Austin, I., and Jones, G. A. (2016). Governance of higher education: Global perspectives, theories, and practices.  New York: Routledge.

Birnbaum, R. (2004). The end of shared governance: Looking ahead or looking back. In W. G. Tierney and V. M. Lechuga (Eds.), Restructuring Shared Governance in Higher Education (pp. 5–22). doi:10.1002/he.152

Brest, P. (1988). Protecting academic freedom through the First Amendment: Raising the unanswered questions. Texas Law Review, 66, 1359-1362.

Connick v. Myers, 461 US 138 (1983).

Dill, D. D. (2014). Academic governance in the U.S.: Implications of a ‘commons’ perspective. In M. Shattock (Ed.), International trends in university governance: Autonomy, self-government and the distribution of authority (pp. 165-183). London: Routledge.

Finkin, M. W. (1988). Intramural speech, academic freedom and the First Amendment. Texas Law Review, 66, 1323-1349.

Finkin, M. A. (1993). “A higher order in the workplace”: Academic freedom and tenure in the vortex of employment practices of the law. In W. W. Van Alstyne (Ed.), Freedom and Tenure in the Academy (pp. 357-380). Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

Finkin, M. W. and Post, R. C. (2009). For the common good: Principles of American academic freedom. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Fish, S. E. (2008). Save the world on your own time. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

. (2014). Versions of academic freedom: From professionalism to revolution. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006).

Gerber, L. G. (2001). “Inextricably linked”: Shared governance and academic freedom. Academe, 87(3), 22-24.

Gorum v. Sessoms, 561 F. 3d 179 (3rd Cir. 2009).

Hirsch, W. Z. (2001). Initiatives for improving shared governance. In W. Z. Hirsch and L. E. Weber (Eds.), Governance in Higher Education: The University in a State of Flux (pp. 143-154). London: Economica.

Kaplan, C. (1983). Introduction. In C. Kaplan and E. Schrecker (Eds.), Regulating the intellectuals: Perspectives on academic freedom in the 1980s (pp. 1-13). New York: Praeger.

Kaplin, W. A., and Lee, B. A. (2007). The law of higher education, student version. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Keller, G. (2004). A growing quaintness: Traditional governance in the markedly new realm of U.S. higher education. In W. G. Tierney (Ed.), Competing conceptions of academic governance: Negotiating the perfect storm (pp. 158-176). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Olivas, M. A. (1993). Reflections on professional academic freedom: Second thoughts on the third “Essential Freedom,” Stanford Law Review, 45, 1835-1858.

Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968).

Yudof, M. G. (1988). Intramural musings on academic freedom: A reply to Professor Finkin, Texas Law Review, 66, 1351-1357.

Jerald H. Walz completed his PhD in Higher Education at Virginia Tech in May 2017.  His dissertation research focused on academic freedom in colleges & universities.  He has earned a B.A. from Asbury College, a M. A. from the Johns Hopkins University, and two graduate certificates from Virginia Tech.  While serving as the Vice President of Operations at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Jerald taught public policy in Pepperdine University’s Washington, DC program.  With his wife, Anita, he enjoys reading, classical music, light gardening, travel, and activities at The River Anglican Church.

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Ethics Versus Efficiency in Global Healthcare -by Rebecca Powell (MPH)

The recent shifts in the U.S. political climate and the questionable ethics of some in U.S. political leadership have led me, like many others I would imagine, to reflect on my role in politics, as an advocate for change, a representative for how I interpret the concept of justice, and perhaps most importantly, on the professional path I have thus far chosen. I have spent the last thirteen years surrounded by and involved in biomedical research and clinical medicine, experience I hope one day to apply to international development initiatives. Being intimately involved in biomedical research means that I, like my peers in the field, am required to have an in-depth understanding of the ethical responsibilities associated with such inquiry. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) requires proof of ethics training for funding eligibility, and every facility in which I have worked has had the additional requirement of yearly updates to ensure individual awareness and facility with that guidance. Trainings that fulfill this obligation cover and review everything from the United States Public Health Service Tuskegee Syphilis experiment in which African Americans who contracted that disease between 1932 and 1972 were left untreated, so as to examine its effects, and the wide variety of abhorrent human experiments conducted by the Nazis during World War II that led to the Nuremburg Code and the principle of voluntary consent (U.S. Government Printing Office 1949). Updates also address the Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations General Assembly 1948) and the Helsinki Accords (Riis 2003), the Belmont Report (the report of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research released in 1978) with its four key ethical principles for human-related research, and the rights and protections for non-human research animals (National Commission 1978). As violations of the current standards of ethics outlined in the Nuremburg Code, the Belmont Report and elsewhere continue to occur, the vast majority of scientists nonetheless, I believe, daily make every effort to uphold and often surpass those requirements. This essay explores an issue that seems to have escaped today’s medical research ethical safety net and which has been justified on the basis of cost and efficiency.  I offer an Aristotelean argument concerning vertical and horizontal justice as both a rebuke to the global healthcare community for permitting this situation and as a means to rectify it.

During the course of a recent literature review, I came across a curious subset of the human rights literature that highlighted the rather appalling idea of a health care and research ‘double standard.’ This scenario arises from a debate concerning whether a ‘placebo’ group is appropriate when testing a new pharmaceutical, combination of pharmaceuticals, or any other medical treatment not yet approved for general use by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States. The currently agreed upon ethical standard, known as clinical equipoise, is that a placebo group is not appropriate if an approved treatment for the same disease or condition exists, and indeed, should a pharmaceutical company attempt to bypass this requirement in a study taking place in the United States, regulatory intervention would be swift and the penalty or cost imposed would be significant. Biomedical researchers are required to provide the existing standard as a baseline of care and determine whether the new treatment constitutes an improvement compared to the old, rather than with respect to nothing at all (a placebo). The ethical principles governing this specific issue are beneficence (efforts to ensure that benefits outweigh risks) and non-maleficence (do no harm). There is no proviso in the Belmont Report or in current regulations for an exception to these principles.

Those who attained majority before the mid-to-late 1990’s may well remember the Pfizer case involving the now withdrawn antibiotic Trovan, a (then) new treatment for meningococcal meningitis. A lawsuit, that was settled out of court for $75 million, asserted Pfizer, in a 1996 meningitis outbreak in Nigeria, gave a reduced dose of the gold standard ceftriaxone to a control group to skew a study concerning the efficacy of Trovan to maximize the likelihood of demonstrating the superior efficacy of the new drug.

Plaintiffs also argued that Pfizer had falsified documents that indicated it had obtained informed consent from patients to participate, as well as general approval from the Nigerian government and their own institutional review board (IRB) for the clinical trial to take place. The study participants were children, and eleven of them died while many others suffered blindness, deafness and paralysis. It remains unclear whether those who acquired chronic conditions did so as a result of their disease (meningitis) or as a result of Trovan’s side effects. The drug was discontinued shortly after its regulatory approval, as evidence emerged of severe liver toxicity associated with its use (Petryna 2006).

When the situation that occasioned the lawsuit came to light, the public outcry was substantial and swift condemnation of Pfizer by the World Bank (WB), World Health Organization (WHO), and the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee followed. Given this history, one can be forgiven for surprise at learning that the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both vigorously defended a series of drug trials in 1994 in sixteen African countries that tested a shorter dosing regimen of an anti-retroviral (ARV) drug designed to reduce vertical (mother-to-child) transmission of HIV-1 by using a placebo group, as opposed to the longer-dosing regimen then considered the gold standard treatment for the virus. The rationale? Both funding organizations asserted that a placebo control was acceptable because the trials took place in ‘resource-poor settings’ and that the current standard of care in those countries did not include ARV therapy (Landes 2005). In another surprising example, Nicholson et al. have demonstrated that the WHO actually officially recommended a placebo in lieu of a gold standard treatment for multiple drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) between 1993-2002, but only for pharmaceutical trials taking place in low-and-middle-income countries (Nicholson 2016). The justifying rationale for this course of action was once again that these nations were ‘resource-poor’ settings and the gold standard of treatment was not, in fact, customary in them.  This was so according to WHO officials because insufficient infrastructure and government systems made it too difficult and costly to implement the standard of care enjoyed in the developed world.

This assertion failed to address the question of how individuals who were not treated adequately for MDR-TB affected the global fight against antibiotic resistance in general and whether their lack of care put the rest of the world’s population at greater risk of contracting these diseases. Sadly, there is no shortage of other examples similar to those I have presented here. While the neo-liberal celebration of unfettered free-market enterprise in which development and business currently operate may explain such instances as the Pfizer fiasco, it by no means offers a rationale for why three global flagship healthcare organizations would forego ensuring the basic ethical premise of medical and pharmaceutical research of beneficence that they had a significant hand in establishing.

The argument can be offered, and likewise rejected, that competing values and donor interests play a greater role in determining what projects and studies are funded and how they are designed than does ethics (Gonzalez-Block 2004). However, regardless of donor interest, government relations, resource availability or literally any other proffered rationale, WHO (and NIH and the CDC) purport to uphold specific ethical baselines in their work and are (or should be), therefore, bound by them.

Ethical principles, particularly with regard to how to treat large groups of vulnerable people in medical and health research, are not a new phenomenon. Indeed, they date at least back to Aristotle, whose work provided a simple, rational test for how to apply such standards as non-maleficence, beneficence, justice and autonomy (per the Belmont Report) (Landes 2005 and Culyer 2015). Aristotle offered a two-point evaluative approach to making ethical judgments: vertical and horizontal equity.

Horizontal equity requires that individuals who are similar in relevant ways (i.e., individuals who have MDR-TB, HIV-1 or meningitis, as in the examples outlined above) must be treated in the same way. Vertical equity, meanwhile, demands that people unlike one another in categorical ways must be treated differently in proportion to their differences. One example of how such can be practiced is the use of a sliding scale for fees at a health clinic in which wealthier individuals pay more for their care to help subsidize the treatment of those who cannot afford to pay, or cannot pay as much. Culyer has argued that this idea is not only Aristotelean, but also appears in the works of Karl Marx (Culyer 2015). I find it notable, too, that this ethical premise is taught in very nearly every major world religion.

Paradoxically, however, in the clinical trial examples sketched above, the WHO, NIH and the CDC, rather than interpreting the vertical equity principle as a directive to provide increased aid to those at greatest risk, instead concluded that need constituted a rationale for decreasing assistance and adhering to lower standards of care for such individuals. Notably, this convention was not adopted during a moment of crisis, as with the recent Ebola virus outbreak, during which officials waived the traditional process of approval for potentially viable vaccine candidates in light of the gravity of the situation underway. Even in such a moment, however, the ethical imperative of beneficence was arguably met in the Ebola crisis in that the course adopted was implemented in the view that those receiving a potentially lifesaving vaccine could possibly yield greater benefit than the risk(s) associated with its use, especially when compared to the risk of contracting (and dying from) the virus.

A straightforward course correction for these three major health organizations and any others that have elected to violate ethical principles in developing nation contexts is, quite simply, to apply the standards of care that they employ in trials and projects conducted in high-income countries. It is important to emphasize that such uniformly applied ethical criteria in ‘resource-poor’ settings may be very expensive indeed. However, this stance is firmly based on the human rights claims (as they pertain to human medical research) of the Helsinki Accords and the Belmont Report principles these organizations (and their major Western state sponsors) claim to uphold. This fact suggests that compliance with this approach is a non-negotiable imperative if WHO and other medical research organizations wish to retain any semblance of moral authority and ethical legitimacy.



Culyer, A.J., 2015. Efficiency, equity and equality in health and health care. Center for Health Economics Research Paper Series 120, University of York, pp.1-20.

Gonzalez-Block, M.A., 2004. Health policy and systems research agendas in developing countries. Health Research Policy and Systems2(1), p.6.

Landes, M., 2005. Can context justify an ethical double standard for clinical research in developing countries? Globalization and Health1(1), p.11.

National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biome Beha Resea and Ryan, K.J.P., 1978. The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research-the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. US Government Printing Office.

Nicholson, T., Admay, C., Shakow, A. and Keshavjee, S., 2016. Double Standards in Global Health: Medicine, Human Rights Law and Multidrug-Resistant TB Treatment Policy. Health and human rights18(1), pp.85-102.

Petryna, A., 2006. Globalizing human subjects research. Global pharmaceuticals: Ethics, markets, practices, pp.33-60.

Riis, P., 2003. Thirty years of bioethics: the Helsinki Declaration 1964-2003. New Review of Bioethics1(1), pp.15-25.

UN General Assembly, 1948. Universal declaration of human rights. UN General Assembly.

U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949. Permissible Medical Experiments. Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10: Nuremberg October 1946–April 1949. U.S. Government Printing Office 2(1), pp. 181-182.


Rebecca Powell-Doherty is a second year MPH student from Charlotte, NC. She previously received her B.S. in Biology from NC State University in 2005 and her PhD in Immunology from UNC Charlotte in 2010. After graduation, she spent some years teaching undergraduate science courses and conducting post-doctoral work in the areas of inflammation and hemorrhagic shock. During her time at Virginia Tech, she has developed an interest in combining a scientific understanding of disease with social applications for improving the lot of those disproportionately affected by it.

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Evaluating the Meaning of Consent in the Gig-economy

Last week, Gerald Davis, the Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Business Administration at the Ross School of Business, and Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan, gave a talk in the Virginia Tech Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) Series, on the topic “New Institutions for a New Economic Order.” In his view, the increasing financialization of society has had tremendous impacts not only on the for-profit sector, but also on households and the state.

Nikefication, a term that he used to refer to a branding strategy without actual industrial processes behind it, is a direct implication of such irrepressible capitalist forces. Just imagine several American fashion brands such as Nike, Kate Spade, Michael Kors, and GAP that market their products in the United States, but produce most of what they sell abroad. Moreover, and similarly, many government programs are implemented by contractors today. Davis asserted that the way multi-national corporations now work and the contractorship of various jobs, has resulted in a deepening income inequality in the United States. With the advent of application-based businesses, such as Uber, AirBnb, Lyft, and Booking.com, investment models have shifted from a corporate-based and heavily industrialized process into peer-to-peer transactions organized by a programmatic application. In this regard, industrial organizations have also turned increasingly to a contractorship organizational model. For example, AirBnB, an online community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book accommodations, provides a platform for residence owners who want to rent their unoccupied rooms to earn extra income by signing up as lodging providers. This model requires zero physical investment on the part of the firm and creates no new full-time employees either. I here seek to analyze the meaning of consent in these sorts of firms by employing Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony and Marcuse’s concept of one-dimensional man.

There’s an App for That!

The Economist published a review entitled, “There’s an app for that,” [1] in January 2015 and it brought widespread attention to the fascinating changes in consumer behavior and expectations associated with the new form of exchange represented by that technology. Despite the lack of a widely-accepted definition for this new form of trade, which has been variously labeled the gig-economy, on-demand economy or sharing-economy (Petropoulos 2017; Burns 2017), it has expanded at an incredible rate and its reach is now global. This said, the fact there is no shared definition for the phenomenon has made it more difficult to determine the precise extent of consumer use of this form of exchange (Burns 2017).  An online organization, ‘The On-Demand Economy,’ consists of members of this emerging industry and now includes a variety of companies, whose foci range from delivery (e.g., Eat24 by Yelp, Postmates, and Ebay Now), to family care (e.g., Heal, Care.com, and Urbansitter), to parking reservations (e.g., Parking Panda, Spot Hero, and Luxe). According to officials at On-Demand, the United States alone has at least 682 firms operating in the gig economy, mostly in densely populated metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C.[2] The simplicity of the system makes it seductive for consumers. Because the demand for this type of service has increased exponentially in a short period, it is no surprise that a platform-based company such as Uber is now valued at $62.5 billion. However, despite their unprecedented growth, these firms have faced resistance and criticism for their unregulated character (Schofield 2014; Martin 2015).

Puzzled in Cultural Hegemony

An online poll conducted by Future Work Initiative, Time Magazine, and Burson Marsteller, between November 16-25, 2015, sought to capture the views of a representative sample of 3,000 Americans concerning the on-demand economy.[3],[4]  Because the survey sample was representative of the U.S. population, its developers argued that its results suggested that the equivalent of an estimated 45 million American adults have provisioned goods and/or services through popular on-demand economy models such as ride sharing (Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar), accommodation sharing (Airbnb, VRBO, Homeaway), service platforms (Handy.com, Care.com, Taskrabbit), car rental (Car2go, Zipcar, Getaround) or food and goods delivery (Instacart, Postamates, Caviar). Demographically, the survey found that 61% of those who have offered such services (often called offerers) were male, 55% were members of a racial or ethnic minority, 51% were ages 18-34 and 41% were urban residents. Moreover, the majority of the offerers claimed that they were in a better economic situation compared to the year before. Slightly more than 60% of those responding believed that their economic standing would continue to improve in the year ahead. Fully 71 % of survey respondents working in the industry in some capacity indicated they felt positive about doing so, while only 2% indicated the opposite. The remaining 27% of those responding claimed to be neutral concerning their employment experience.

Nonetheless, 58% of those responding also suggested that the industry exploits the fact it is unregulated. As Burns (2017) has contended, the gig economy is not as simple as accepting jobs through an app on the phone. It is, rather, a growing portion of the economy whose workers “… work with no benefits, no job security, and no unions” (2017, 89). Furthermore, by using the rhetoric of attractive self-employment and low barriers to entry, companies such as Uber and Postmaster can easily hire drivers and/or handymen as independent contractors, without investing large sums to provide what a traditional company would offer its employees, namely training or a safety net. In doing so, these firms in effect ask individuals to forego benefits and a measure of security for flexible working hours and the freedom to conduct business relatively autonomously. This fact confirms Davis’s observation that economies of scale are no longer applicable under this scheme. This is because a platform-based company creates its equity in the form of computer programs and applications, which are much less costly to produce than large scale machines or industrial infrastructure. What these companies do is basically (re)create a niche within the existing market by employing infrastructure and/or expertise owned by the “workers” it employs (e.g., Uber drivers use their own cars).

Furthermore, the gig-economy also influences some high-skilled professions by challenging the traditional business model on which they have long rested and by suggesting that those jobs could be accomplished or approached differently. For example, a platform called HEAL is designed to bring a doctor to a patient’s home simply by tapping on a smart phone screen, without the need for cash.[5] The system’s founder, Nick Desai, has argued that the $3 trillion healthcare industry in the U.S. is fundamentally broken. Doctor shortages cause long wait times, which prompt patients to use urgent care, options, which provide fewer treatment options and at higher cost.[6] By shifting to a peer-to-peer transaction model, Desai has suggested, doctors ideally could have more time to care for fewer patients with greater efficiency. Since physicians would see patients in their homes, they could offer more nuanced treatments, since they would have direct knowledge of the environmental conditions and lifestyles of those they are seeking to assist.

This essay was prompted by my sense of puzzlement regarding the reigning ideology that has encouraged the establishment of this sort of demand-economy in the U.S. Today’s pseudo-self-sustaining culture encourages individuals to monetize every dimension of their lives. Such is certainly true of the gig-economy. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian neo-Marxist theorist who lived in the early part of the 20th century, offered a theory of cultural hegemony that sought to explain how those advantaged in capitalist society use cultural institutions to maintain their privilege and power. He defined hegemony as

the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production (Gramsci 1971,12).

The shared-economy model exhibits two important elements of hegemony as Gramsci defined that condition––it allows both consent and domination to coexist by means of the way offerer/worker-company relationships operate—and thereby legitimates the coercive power of capitalism. Consider Uber, for example. Popular consent for this new form of business activity has been relatively easy to achieve because it requires few background checks, does not demand much by way of qualifications except for two very basic ones, i.e. a driver’s license and an automobile with four doors, and provides the offerers convenience and competitive fares for their (under-employed) resources. Marcuse (1964) argued that the advanced industrial society has created false needs that trap individuals into the one-dimensional role of seeking to fulfill unbounded desires. In his view, one-dimensional thought and behavior wither ones’ ability to think critically and behave appropriately when confronted with capital-induced oppression. Seen through this lens, society has fallen into the following conditions: a relentless cycle of production and consumption mystification exacerbated via mass media; common contractorship of goods and services provisioning; and the emergence of a contemporary mode of thought, which in the on-demand economy, is clearly affirmed as especially practical.

A case study of Tom,[7] a 24-year-old bicycle courier in London who works for an app called Deliveroo that appeared in the Guardian newspaper, demonstrated that he confronted an employment situation with only limited options available to him as a member of the working class. When he signed up to be a part-time cycle courier, the company that employed him assigned him to work for at least three-hour shifts and offered pay of £7 an hour and £1 per delivery, without health insurance, paid time off or sick pay. The firm also expected him to provide and maintain his own bicycle and to ride in heavy traffic and all weather conditions. He told the author of the news article concerning him that he believed his employer wants citizens to perceive that its delivery riders, “are all young, middle class-men who wear trendy clothes, making a little extra cash”[8] which is simply not true, given that most of the workers are doing it full-time and as their primary position. Though he is very critical of the unfair conditions under which he works, Tom remains in his role because he loves cycling and because he believes he does not possess adequate qualifications to obtain other jobs.[9]

As many gig industry firms treat their “workers” in quite similar ways (i.e., no sick leave, no health insurance, flexible hours, etc.), I support Gramsci’s argument that Tom’s tacit consent, and that offered by millions of other workers in similar situations, preserves capitalistic domination.  Furthermore, this also renders repression as economically and socially natural for all workers who choose this form of employment. My judgment is that these values are not natural, but instead are created by people with vested interests in particular social, economic, and political orders. Lastly, the idea of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” —that one can succeed if one just tries hard enough—is a false aphorism that has achieved the status of received popular wisdom. This claim is untrue because it masks what is, in fact, a system of structural sexism, racialism, and ableism that prevents disenfranchised populations from effectively pulling bettering their conditions. The logical follow-up question further to this realization is, is it possible to attain passage of laws aimed at minimizing the economic costs of such relentless cultural pressure, given the reality that the nation remains under the sway of a dominant neo-liberal public philosophy?


[1]  http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21637355-freelance-workers-available-moments-notice-will-reshape-nature-companies-and

[2] https://theondemandeconomy.org/about/


[3] http://www.burson-marsteller.com/what-we-do/our-thinking/on-demand/ondemand/

[4] http://time.com/4169532/sharing-economy-poll/?xid=homepage

[5] https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/heal. The company is financially supported by 17 investors including the pop-artist, Lionel Richie, and has collected $26.9M Series A venture funding within two years since firstly introduced in October, 2014.

[6] http://www.forbes.com/sites/katherynthayer/2016/10/20/why-the-doctor-will-see-you-at-home-now/#55f290d05ef0

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/money/2016/jun/15/he-truth-about-working-for-deliveroo-uber-and-the-on-demand-economy

[8] Ibid.

[9] Op. Cit.



Burns, Rebecca. 2017. Bargaining with Silicon Valley. Dissent 64 (1):89-94.

Gramsci, A. 1971. Selections from the prison notebooks (trans. Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith). New York: International Publishers.

Marcuse, H. 1964. One-dimensional man. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Martin, Chris, J. 2015. The sharing economy: a pathway to sustainability or a nightmarish form of neoliberal capitalism? Ecological Economics 121: 49-159.

Petropoulos, Georgios. 2017. An economic review of the collaborative economy. Policy Contribution 5: 1-17.

Schofield, H., 2014. Short-let apartments spark Paris row as Airbnb thrives (online). BBC News Available: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30580295 [Accessed February 28, 2017]


Putu Apriliani is a Fulbright scholarship recipient from Indonesia currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Planning, Governance, and Globalization (PGG) in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include diverse community economies and collectivist democracy and their intersections with race, class and gender.  She is also a certified trainer in microfinance. She earned her B.A. and M.A. in Economics from Udayana University in her native nation. She loves to participate in cultural events, Zumba class and volunteer work in her spare time.











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Is Climate Change real? Greenhouse Gases, Climate Science and the Human Outlook

The question of the immanence and character of climate change received attention in the recent Presidential election campaign in the United States.  In particular, the candidates debated how to view the growing concern among scientists and many in the general public about rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.  CO2, a greenhouse gas, has both natural and anthropogenic sources. Some of its natural causes include respiration, decomposition, volcanic eruptions etc. Anthropogenic sources include deforestation, power generation, agricultural practices and burning fossil fuels, to name a few.

Global CO2 levels have been maintained over time by a delicate process known as “The Carbon Cycle.” This is a biogeochemical succession in which carbon, a common element on Earth, is exchanged and recycled through biological, geological, hydrological and atmospheric processes. The carbon cycle occurs across millions of years, or longer. A very small input or output that strays from this fragile balance unleashes a domino effect that affects many other natural cycles and processes, which in turn influence life itself.

There is a misconception that anthropogenic sources are the lone cause of increasing CO2 levels.  Natural sources have always been a primary factor raising CO2 levels throughout Earth’s history. But, lately, the release of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere by anthropogenic sources has been increasing carbon dioxide levels considerably. Fossil fuel burning emissions, electricity production using fossil fuels and cement production accounted for 91% of human source carbon dioxide emissions in 2014. Deforestation is the second largest human source of CO2 emissions (Van der Werf et al., 2009, 737). While these processes have been emitting increased amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the land and ocean carbon sinks have seen a net decrease in the amount of that element they have been absorbing in recent decades (Le Quéré et al., 2013, 177). The main land sink for carbon dioxide comprises forests and other plant life that take in the gas and release oxygen. With increasing deforestation and land use changes, the amount of oxygen release and carbon absorption is considerably lower now than it was in past decades (Van der Werf et al., 2009, 737).

The ocean sink consists of phytoplanktons and zooplanktons that absorb CO2 from the upper ocean and then carry it down to the depths as they sink, thereby becoming incorporated into oceanic sediments. The carbon dioxide then interacts with chemicals in the sediments to form mineral assemblages that sequester carbon naturally for many years (Raven and Falkowski, 1999). Repeated studies have shown that a substantial increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions accompanied the Industrial Revolution (1760 AD onwards). Assuming a steady state in biological carbon processes, an additional 30% increase in carbon intake by oceanic sinks has occurred since the Industrial Revolution (Raven and Falkowski, 1999).

Methane, CH4, another important greenhouse gas, also plays a role in the rise in global average temperatures that is resulting in climate change. Natural sources of CH4 occur mainly in wetlands, which produce about 78% of the chemical. Such marshlands are highly temperature sensitive (Christensen et al., 2004). Fossil fuel burning and livestock farming are important human sources of methane (Bousquet et al., 2006). One of the earth’s largest methane sinks is its permafrost, a thick layer of frozen soil that circles the globe’s poles. Significant spikes in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and resulting temperature increases are now causing the permafrost to melt, thereby emitting large amounts of CH4 back into the atmosphere (Christensen et al., 2004).

Increasing greenhouse gas concentrations could also eventually warm the oceans, leading to changes in currents that arise from the deep. This would change the microclimates of local regions that depend on those flows for their ways of life. When the deep ocean warms, this could also potentially release the carbon stored in its upper sediments.

Elevated carbon levels change ecosystems substantially, through direct and indirect effects. Certain plants have been able to adapt and increase their photosynthesis levels as CO­2 levels have increased, while others have not been able to do so. Rising carbon dioxide concentrations influence plant flower gestation rates, flowering times, longevity and seed quality. Such conditions are also likely to reduce the number of plant pollinators or change their characteristics (Bazzaz, 1990). Soaring temperatures might also lead to extinction of certain crucial species of plants, thereby changing entire local ecosystems.

Local, state and national governments and international organizations must take responsibility to educate the general public about the crucial and currently observable changes in climate that are already occurring. Existing evidence, samples, records, publications and facts must be assembled and presented in easily communicable ways that intrigue and enlighten audiences at the same time. Governments of all nations must assign science research related to climate change high priority. The recent U.S. President’s proposal to reduce the research budgets of agencies that focus on climate science and related issues is deeply concerning and disheartening. Should budget reductions of the magnitude proposed occur, such action could significantly set back the progress made so far to address climate change world-wide. And, unfortunately, President Donald Trump is not alone in his stance. Climate change doubters and skeptics claim to believe these misguided proposals represent a political “victory” in favor of “sound science.”

The general populace must become aware of the global phenomenon that is climate change and fight to preserve our Mother Earth, not just for us, but also for future generations. As mentioned above, the Earth is able to thrive by balancing delicate interconnected natural cycles and processes. A small imbalance in one cycle can potentially lead to a large counter effect that cascades and changes life and comfort as we know it. The approximately 7 billion people on Earth could make a substantial difference in ameliorating and ultimately reversing climate change if we all unite and take measures to preserve and conserve the bounty that we obtain from our Mother Earth.

I conclude with a quotation from the movie “Interstellar”:

We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.



Bazzaz, F.A., 1990. The response of natural ecosystems to the rising global CO2 levels. Annual review of ecology and systematics21(1), pp.167-196.

Bousquet, P., Ciais, P., Miller, J.B., Dlugokencky, E.J., Hauglustaine, D.A., Prigent, C., Van der Werf, G.R., Peylin, P., Brunke, E.G., Carouge, C. and Langenfelds, R.L., 2006. Contribution of anthropogenic and natural sources to atmospheric methane variability. Nature443(7110), pp.439-443.

Christensen, T.R., Johansson, T., Åkerman, H.J., Mastepanov, M., Malmer, N., Friborg, T., Crill, P. and Svensson, B.H., 2004. Thawing sub-arctic permafrost: Effects on vegetation and methane emissions. Geophysical research letters31(4).

Le Quéré, C., Andres, R.J., Boden, T., Conway, T., Houghton, R.A., House, J.I., Marland, G., Peters, G.P., Van der Werf, G., Ahlström, A. and Andrew, R.M., 2012. The global carbon budget 1959–2011. Earth System Science Data Discussions5(2), pp.1107-1157.

Raven, J.A. and Falkowski, P.G., 1999. Oceanic sinks for atmospheric CO2. Plant, Cell & Environment22(6), pp.741-755.

Van der Werf, G.R., Morton, D.C., DeFries, R.S., Olivier, J.G., Kasibhatla, P.S., Jackson, R.B., Collatz, G.J. and Randerson, J.T., 2009. CO2 emissions from forest loss. Nature geoscience2(11), pp.737-738.











Kannikha Kolandaivelu is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Geosciences. She obtained her Master’s degree in Geosciences from the same department. Kannikha earned a B.E. in Civil Engineering at Anna University in India.  Her interest in learning more about the inner workings of our planet Earth brought her to Virginia Tech. She is focusing on Thermal Geophysics for her doctoral research. In addition to science she is interested in short-story writing, mostly fiction; authoring blog posts; reading and pondering the purpose of life and human existence.

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Empires and Barbarians: The EU and Violence at its Margins

The Brexit referendum to leave the European Union (EU) has been applauded by some scholars and politicians as a victory for the sovereign people of Great Britain in response to the undemocratic and technocratic nature of the EU. These analysts consider the United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to withdraw from the Union a win for state institutions and political responsiveness at the state level (Cunliffe & Ramsay 2016). Brexit has been critiqued by other scholars, however, as a cynical and wishful attempt by UK elites and right-wing conservative politicians to resurrect Britain’s former imperial glory by strengthening the UK and its Commonwealth, or the so-called “Anglosphere” (i.e., its former colonies: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA), as an alternative to the supranational and globalized EU “invader” (Bell 2016; Morozov 2016). Yet, while proponents on both sides of this argument rightly criticize the EU bureaucracy as removed and even immune from popular and public contestation, neither scholarship critiques the EU’s increasingly illiberal external policies, whether successful or not, which I argue are quite evident if the Union is examined through a “EU-as-empire” conceptual lens.

Political theory and international relations have had difficulty as fields identifying the EU as a “political object.” Theorists and politicians alike have made various attempts to define this sui generis or “unidentified political object” (Delors 1985). In an effort to conceptualize the EU, scholars have theorized the entity as a “normative power (Manners 2002), “post-modern (Diez 1997),” “civilian power (Telo 2006),” or a “communion” (Manners 2013).

In contrast to the above conceptualizations, the “EU-as-Empire” argument, popularized by Jan Zielonka’s 2006 Europe as Empire, claims that the Union can, and perhaps should, be viewed as some form of empire. Former EU Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso buttressed this argument by labeling the Union a rather paradoxical “non-imperial Empire” (Mahony 2007). An important aspect of considering the EU-as-empire is what Behr has termed “governing from a distance” (Behr and Stivachtis 2015, 11). In essence, political entities that use policies “that are supposed to and organized to govern over vast geographical and territorial dimensions” are inherently violent because these strategies often ignore place-specific and contextual situations in favor of “universal,” and in this case, Western-based frames of reference (Behr 2015, 33-34). As a result, they recreate core-periphery relationships reminiscent of former imperial rule (Behr and Stivachtis, 2015). Thus, although this brief post does not seek to determine whether the EU can truly be considered an empire, it does argue that the “EU-as-empire” scholarship highlights the Union’s increasingly coercive policies in the developing world. This has been particularly evident in the EU’s efforts to prevent the migration of people, specifically sub-Saharan refugees, from moving into the Schengen zone. Even though disagreement between a share of the member states and the EU Commission concerning how to “solve” the so-called “refugee crisis” has seemingly fractured concord among them, the Commission and some of its member states, including Spain, Italy, and Germany, nonetheless continue to employ coercive policies in an attempt to halt the “flood” of refugees (Nail 2016).

While U.S President Donald Trump’s attempted immigration ban and the rising xenophobia in the UK, as well as in several other EU member’s states (e.g., Germany, France, Hungary) has garnered attention in the media, the Commission’s effort to prevent continued outmigration of people from several sub-Saharan African nation-states, including Eritrea, from which large numbers of refugees have emanated, has resulted in a number of EU agreements with several dictatorial regimes. For example, one of the primary refugee routes into the Union leads through Libya. While Muammar Gaddafi was in power, he accepted “aid” from Italy to halt the movement of African refugees through his nation and on into the EU (Macdonald 2017). After the 2011 Arab Spring, the Union’s Commission and its member states proposed not only new initiatives with Libya, but also with Sudan’s president Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (Plaut 2017). Moreover, Plaut has highlighted the fact that the EU has given the one-party government in Eretria, which has never faced elections, 200 million Euros in “development aid” without any strictures concerning how the money could be used (2017) in order to gain that regime’s cooperation in stanching migration.

While the EU Commission, member states and various other institutions continue to promote a liberal and cosmopolitan Union, their simultaneous efforts to “govern from a distance” reflect a political entity that is beset by contradictions. In addition to the policies noted above, the heavily militarized Spanish enclaves in North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, which play an integral role in preventing refugee movements, further evince the coercive nature of the EU’s attempts to “secure” its territory (Peters 2011).

In conclusion, while this essay did not seek to prove that the EU is an empire, it is my hope nevertheless that it reveals some of the contradictions present among the Union’s normative claims and its external policies. That touchstone should allow a more nuanced critique of the EU’s refugee policies.



Behr, Hartmut, and Yannis Stivachtis. 2015. Revisiting the European Union as empire, London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis.

Behr, Hartmut. “‘Empire’, ‘governing from the distance’, and the mitigation of violence.” In Hartmut Behr, and Yannis Stivachtis. 2015. Revisiting the European Union as empire, London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis.

Bell, Duncan. “The Anglosphere: new enthusiasm for an old dream.” Prospect, February 2017. Accessed February 2017. Available at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/anglosphere-old-dream-brexit-role-in-the-world

Cunliffe, Phillip, and Peter Ramsay. “Hard v. Soft: misrepresenting Brexit.” Defend Democracy Press, November 11, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2017. Available at http://www.defenddemocracy.press/post-uk-referendum-brexit-debate/

Delors, Jaques. “Speech by Jaque Delors.” Luxembourg: Office for official publications of the European Communities, September 1985, No 9. Accessed March 19, 2017. Available at http://www.cvce.eu/content/publication/2001/10/19/423d6913-b4e2-4395-9157-fe70b3ca8521/publishable_en.pdf

Diez, Thomas. “Postmoderne und europäische Integration: Die Dominanz des Staatsmodells, die

Verantwortung gegenüber dem Anderen und die Konstruktion eines alternativen Horizonts.’” Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen 3 (2), (1997): 255-281.

Macdonald, Alastair. “Libya not accepting Italy migrant deal: EU presidency Malta.” Reuters, January 16, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2017. Available at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-libya-italy-idUSKBN14X193

Mahony, Honor. “Barroso says Eu is an empire.” euobserver, July 11, 2007. Accessed March 19, 207. Available at https://euobserver.com/institutional/24458

Manners, Ian. “Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?,” Journal of Common Market Studies, 30, no. 2 (2002): 235-58.

Manners, Ian. “European communion: Political theory of European union.” Journal of European Public Policy, 20, n0. 4 (2013).

 Manners, Ian and Philomean Murray. “The End of a Noble Narrative? European Integration Narratives After the Noble Peace Prize. Journal of Common Market Studies, 54, no. 1 (2016): 185-202.

Nail, Thomas. “We are entering a new epoch: the century of the migrant.” Aeon, December 14, 2016. Accessed January 15, 2017. Available at https://aeon.co/ideas/we-are-entering-a-new-epoch-the-century-of-the-migrant

Plaut, Martin. “Europe’s African ‘wall’ now almost complete.” MartinPlaut Blog, January 16, 2017. Accessed March 1, 2017. Available at https://martinplaut.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/europes-african-wall-now-almost-complete/

Peters, Katharina Graca. “Ceuta and Melilla: Europe’s High-Tech Fortress.” Der Spiegel, August 10, 2011. Accessed March 18, 2017. Available at http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/ceuta-and-melilla-europe-s-high-tech-african-fortress-a-779226.html

Rexhepi, Piro. “Europe wrote the book on demonising refugees, long before Trump read it.” The Guardian, February 21, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2017. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/21/europe-demonising-muslim-refugees-legitimise-trump

Telo, Mario. 2006. Europe: A Civilian Power? European Union, Global Governance, World Order, UK: Palgrave Macmillian.

Viatcheslav Morozov. “Brexit Symposium: Brexit, Critique of Colonialism and the Crisis of Democratic Representation.” E-IR, September 10th, 2016. Accessed November 10th, 2016. Available at http://www.e-ir.info/2016/09/10/brexit-symposium/

Zielonka, Jan. 2006. Europe as Empire: The Nature of the Enlarged Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Johannes Grow is a third-year PhD student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) program. He received his Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs (MPIA) and a B.A in International Studies from Virginia Tech. His research interests include: Social and Political Theory, Empire, International Relations, Critical European Studies, Postcolonial Theory and Critical Geopolitics. He currently teaches International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech.



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“Fake News” in Informational Ecology

This essay grapples with the latest weapon in information warfare in the United States: “fake news.”  The introduction of “fake news” into the political discourse by the Donald Trump administration has exposed the fragility of the political reality constructed and disseminated by media outlets. I contend that the effects of this phenomenon within the informational ecology of U.S. politics are not new. Rather, fake news is the latest iteration of informational partisanship within our democratic capitalist society, the (re)production of which has been amplified and accelerated by the rise of social media. As a remedy, I suggest abandoning claims to objective knowledge supported by media sources.

To be exact, fake news as a term dates to the Progressive era in American politics when William Jennings Bryan (one of the first “populists”) used it in his publication, The Commoner to attack anonymous articles unfavorable to his campaign.[1] The term gained contemporary popularity after a bizarre incident in which a North Carolina man, having consumed “fake news” posted to Reddit, drove to Washington D.C. with an assault rifle to “investigate” an alleged child-prostitution ring run by Hillary Clinton in the basement of a pizzeria.[2] His arrest sparked national attention to the political implications of online media and the dissemination of less than reputable information through outlets more interested in serving as advertiser click-bait than watch-dogs of democracy. Since the incident, and ironically, given its provenance, the Trump administration and the American right have shown little restraint in using the term and have weaponized it to attack news outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, or as a label for any story potentially damaging to the image of the White House.[3] Most recently, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich attempted to connect “fake news” to “fake education” in an assault on American universities[4] through a sympathetic media outlet, Fox Broadcasting.[5]

Fake news, as a term, has been used to dismiss information, questions, inquiries and stories threatening to the perceived standing, credibility or legitimacy of the Trump administration. The President, employing Twitter,[6] has claimed that any inquiries into his ties with Russia, and its possible hacking of the November 2016 United States national election,[7] are motivated by fake news propagated by Democrats[8] to damage his administration and draw attention away from their election losses. The effect of the vacuity of “fake news” as a signifier is particularly dizzying considering the recent resignation of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, following a news account exposing his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyev,[9] after the Department of Justice had warned the White House that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to manipulation by the Kremlin.[10] Indeed, Flynn had allegedly deceived Vice President Mike Pence concerning the content, frequency and duration of his contacts with Kislyev for several months. Trump and several White House officials have repeatedly denied any ties to the Kremlin and Kellyanne Conway, councilor to Trump, has downplayed what this episode might suggest concerning the President’s judgment or ability to make prudent staff choices.[11] After NBC journalist Matt Lauer dismissed Conway’s comments as nonsensical, Trump used Twitter to condemn the news accounts of Flynn’s conversations, without elaborating on his relationship to Russia.[12]  Members of the press and Congress have repeatedly asked the President to approve an independent investigation of his relationship with Russia  (and that of his recent campaign) since he has maintained such an effort would reveal nothing, but he has steadfastly refused to do so.  Meanwhile, he has assumed a defensive posture and created a carnival-like spectacle as he has flung “fake news” charges against his perceived opponents calling for such an inquiry. Not surprisingly, his relationship to the mainstream media has descended into acrimony.[13] For example, Trump was forced recently by several journalists to clarify a comment concerning the media as the “enemy of the American people” that he repeated at the recent annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He defended his contention by asserting that his comment was directed at “fake news.” The difficulty with his clarification, however, is that he appears to consider any critical or unflattering press coverage as “fake,” so much of the mass media was included in his broad claim.

In vertigo inducing displays, left[14] and right-wing[15] media outlets have adopted “fake news” as part of their political and epistemic vocabulary. Fake news is not a new phenomenon— think The National Inquirer—but its virulence in our nation’s political ecosystem has been aided by the internet, as its transmission occurs at virtual light speed through social media. In fact, recent research has exposed an elaborate network of social media sites as dissemination points for misinformation, mixed with legitimate news.[16] Algorithms beyond the control of any single actor sort information based on popularity and user viewing habits, leading to an organic system of dissemination to individual viewers. This system is driven foremost by data analytics that are part of a pursuit of profits attached to website advertising fees. That is, “fake news” is, at bottom, propelled by capital interests and transmitted by the social media users’ consumptive choices.

Regardless of its purveyor, or the administration’s use of the term, fake news is a kind of deliberative pollution that preys on information bubbles formed based on internet users’ digital footprints. Sophisticated click-bait advertising entices users into confirmation biases already dangerous to democracy and creates more doubt concerning the veracity of information counter to their existing beliefs. Again, this is no new phenomenon. In his farewell address former President Barack Obama mentioned a “great sorting” of information through media outlets as dangerous to the exercise of democratic citizenship.[17]

Massive media conglomerates, for example, now move daily to capture the attention of viewers and hold their viewership by shaping information so as to ensure it is palatable to that audience.  The subtlety of such media frames prime the deliberative environment toward debates concerning taste rather than reason, as news comes to resemble entertainment, rather than cultivating citizens to serve as “the anxious, jealous guardians of democracy.”[18] To the extent this trend now holds popular sway, citizens are daily being molded into consumers of entertainment rather than true participants in the democratic process. The rise of the 24-hour news outlet and subsequent ratings war between CNN and Fox News have neatly split the polis into two broadly consumptive camps able to access information with the click of a TV remote. In the pursuit of profit, these news channels have created distinct identities that have become their brand signatures in their quest for ratings and advertising dollars.  Capitalism created the need for spin and each of these channels has catered to the subtle and specific tastes of broad swathes of information-consumers. Regardless of the side of the aisle one may personally prefer, this great sorting has continued and new skirmishes[19] between these institutions occur daily as they contest for[20] market preeminence.

President Trump’s distaste for specific media outlets is also nothing new. The Nixon administration’s bald hostility toward the media is well known.[21] However, Nixon stepped into an environment already charged with hostility toward the “mainstream media” and exploited that situation. Human Events, a well-known conservative publication, had already been at work carving out a conservative counter space in the media since 1961.[22] That journal’s greatest contribution to the national discourse was the idea of a “liberal media,” which claimed that major media outlet frames were strong and structurally biased political force in the national dialogue. The idea that the most widely cited and admired mass media outlets were “liberal mouthpieces” accelerated the rise of media partisanship and news consumers began to divide along ideological and party lines.[23] These differences are most conspicuous today when media organizations such as Fox or Breitbart claim to be “fair and balanced” because they will broadcast or print what other major organizations will not. This argument allows these news outlets to frame other journalism as biased as a part of their attempt to tear down the façade of journalistic objectivity. The counternarrative spun by their opponents is that outlets such as Fox serve the Republican party’s interests,[24] or, in the case of Breitbart, cater to white nationalist sympathies.[25]

The branding narratives and counternarratives mirror the challenges that fake news poses for democracy. Taste plays a role in citizen/consumer informational insularity and it appears to be working to undermine the foundational capacity of the demos to act in the public interest. The weightlessness of information transfer, the consumptive practices of viewing publics, the motive force of profit in producing informational bubbles and the clear partisanship of media outlets suggest that information transfer in our democratic capitalist society is inherently biased. Discerning “fake news” from fair and balanced representation rests on a citizen’s ability to parse reality and requires critical reflection. Fake news may represent the latest iteration of information challenge presented to the demos, but its effects, as I have argued, are not new. It is very easy to get turned around in the bewildering environment of online media. In order to see the forest for the trees, I suggest that readers and viewers abandon claims to knowing the absolute truth of any matter reported in the spirit of recognizing the limitations of their consumptive practices.

Recognizing that we are participating in a market when we read our standby publications and that this market will perpetually reinforce frames tailored to our tastes should help us remember that no news is objectively reported and that claims to objectivity fall apart when considering the larger political ecology of information. Rather than a weapon to demonize the opposition, the presence of fake news in our conceptual framework can humble our more rabid moments as it serves as a reminder of the power of the media in constructing our political reality.


[1] LaFrance, Adrienne. “How the Fake News Crisis of 1896 Explains Trump.” The Atlantic. January 19, 2017. Accessed March 02, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/01/the-fake-news-crisis-120-years-ago/513710/.

[2] Goldman, Cecilia Kang and Adam. “In Washington Pizzeria Attack, Fake News Brought Real Guns.” The New York Times. December 05, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/05/business/media/comet-ping-pong-pizza-shooting-fake-news-consequences.html?_r=0.

[3] Blake, Aaron. “Analysis | The White House’s big ‘fake news’ cop-out.” The Washington Post. February 26, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/26/fake-news-is-a-potent-political-strategy-its-also-a-cop-out/?utm_term=.3ef1b00a1663.

[4] “Gingrich: ‘Fake News’ Phenomenon Is ‘Extraordinarily Dangerous'” Fox News. February 27, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://insider.foxnews.com/2017/02/27/newt-gingrich-fake-news-based-fake-education-donald-trump-left-wing-press.

[5] Tani, Maxwell. “The timing once again suggests that Trump tweets after watching Fox News segments.” Business Insider. January 26, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-tweets-fox-news-segments-2017-1.

[6] Trump, Donald J. “Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!” Twitter. February 26, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/835916511944523777.

[7] Sanger, David E. “Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Election Hacking.” The New York Times. December 29, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/us/politics/russia-election-hacking-sanctions.html.

[8] “Trump blasts Dems for peddling ‘fake news’ Russian narrative.” RT International. February 27, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.rt.com/usa/378698-trump-fake-news-russia/.

[9] Phipps, Claire, Alan Yuhas, Julian Borger, and Sabrina Siddiqui. “Michael Flynn resigns: Trump’s national security adviser quits over Russia links – as it happened.” The Guardian. February 14, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2017/feb/14/flynn-resigns-donald-trump-national-security-adviser-russia-links-live.

[10] Smith, David, Sabrina Siddiqui, and Ben Jacobs. “White House was warned about Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia – sources.” The Guardian. February 13, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/13/donald-trump-white-house-michael-flynn-reince-preibus.

[11]Posted By Tim Hains On Date February 14, 2017. “Matt Lauer vs. Kellyanne Conway on Flynn Resignation: “Your Explanation Doesn’t Make Any Sense”.” Video | Real Clear Politics. February 14, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2017/02/14/matt_lauer_vs_kellyanne_conway_on_flynn_resignation_your_explanation_doesnt_make_any_sense.html.

[12] Trump, Donald J. “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N. Korea etc.?” Twitter. February 14, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/831510532318429184?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw.

[13] “Bill O’Reilly says acrimony between Trump and the media has escalated into ‘war’.” The Blaze. February 27, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.theblaze.com/news/2017/02/27/bill-oreilly-says-acrimony-between-trump-and-the-media-has-escalated-into-war/.

[14] Ingraham, Christopher. “Why conservatives might be more likely to fall for fake news.” The Washington Post. December 07, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/12/07/why-conservatives-might-be-more-likely-to-fall-for-fake-news/?utm_term=.caeaf6307a14.

[15] Lahren, Tomi. “Bathrooms go back to normal and the leftist mainstream media lets the fake news flow.” The Blaze. February 22, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.theblaze.com/video/final-thoughts-bathrooms-go-back-to-normal-and-the-leftist-mainstream-media-lets-the-fake-news-flow/.

[16] Ingram, Mathew. “What a Map of the Fake-News Ecosystem Says About the Problem.” Fortune. November 28, 2016. Accessed March 1, 2017. http://fortune.com/2016/11/28/map-fake-news/.

[17] “President Barack Obama’s Farewell Address (Full Speech) | NBC News.” YouTube. January 10, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://youtu.be/siyBp8Csugk.

[18] “President Barack Obama’s Farewell Address (Full Speech) | NBC News.” YouTube. January 10, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://youtu.be/siyBp8Csugk.

[19] Nazarian, Adelle. “Peak ‘Fake News’: Buzz Feed, CNN Target Trump with Admittedly Unverifiable Russia ‘Memos'” Breitbart. January 11, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/01/10/fake-news-avalanche-caused-cnn-buzzfeed-targeting-trump/.

[20] Nashrulla, Tasneem. “Here Are Some Of The Incendiary Stories Published By Trump’s Chief Strategist.” Buzz Feed. November 14, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/tasneemnashrulla/here-are-some-of-the-most-controversial-stories-published-by?utm_term=.vcda1OgDY#.itYBQEqeR.

[21] Major, Mark. “Conservative Consciousness and the Press: The Institutional Contribution to the Idea of the ‘Liberal Media’ in Right-Wing Discourse.” Critical Sociology 41, no. 3 (2015): 484. doi:10.1177/0896920514528816.

[22] Ibid, pp 487

[23] Hemmer, Nicole. “The Conservative War on Liberal Media Has a Long History.” The Atlantic. January 17, 2014. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/01/the-conservative-war-on-liberal-media-has-a-long-history/283149/.

[24] Easley, Jason. “Fair And Balanced Facade Blown To Bits As Trump Endorses Fox News As State TV.” Politicus USA. January 25, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.politicususa.com/2017/01/25/fair-balanced-facade-blown-bits-trump-endorses-fox-news-state-tv.html.

[25] Borchers, Callum. “‘Can you name one white nationalist article at Breitbart?’ Challenge accepted!” The Washington Post. November 15, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/15/can-you-name-one-white-nationalist-article-at-breitbart-challenge-accepted/?utm_term=.48c9d026edc7.


Alex Stubberfield is a second-year PhD student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT). He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Philosophy at SUNY Brockport and continued his education at Virginia Tech earning a Master’s  degree in Philosophy, and a Masters of Public and International Affairs with a graduate certificate in Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organization Management. His research concerns political theory, media, social theory, culture and corporate citizenship. He currently teaches American politics as an instructor in the Political Science department.

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