Local view: Don't give any credence to right-wing propagandists
There are many things that could be said about the videotaped exchange at the University of Minnesota Duluth involving a representative of Youth for Western Civilization, or YWC, and several UMD students and staff. The incident -- reported by the...
There are many things that could be said about the videotaped exchange at the University of Minnesota Duluth involving a representative of Youth for Western Civilization, or YWC, and several UMD students and staff. The incident -- reported by the News Tribune Sept. 28 under the headline, "Diversity debate deteriorates at the University of Minnesota Duluth" -- undoubtedly will be viewed by some as confirmation that universities are bastions of left-wing radicalism where so-called conservatives represent an oppressed minority. Others, conversely, might see in the exchange the depths of the right's fantasies of victimization.
Regardless of one's politics, however, there is an element to this story that ought to concern us all. It is yet one more instance of a right-wing group purporting to show through edited video footage that the left seeks nothing less than, in the words of the YWC, the "deliberate destruction of our civilization." The forces arrayed against America have been numerous, these groups allege: Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio, the labor movement and ACORN, among others. The YWC, at its website, westernyouth.org, identifies the greatest threat as "radical multiculturalism."
When engaged in existential battle, as these folks apparently believe themselves to be, no tactic seems too unsavory. It should thus come as little surprise that the right has grown increasingly reliant on misleading video propaganda. From James O'Keefe's distorted footage of an alleged pimp and prostitute visiting the offices of ACORN to the more recent doctored video of two labor educators from the University of Missouri, these right-wing exposés have done tremendous damage to the health of American political culture.
Democracy relies on honest debate. But, abetted by insufficiently skeptical media, the right has learned to make a splash with videos that, in their manipulated form, purport to show serious malfeasance. By the time the footage is proved to have been doctored, the impressions have been made and the media largely have moved on.
This is deeply troubling. As a historian, I operate in a world of substantiation. This is something I consistently convey to my students. We all have opinions, I tell them, but what distinguishes a scholar from a sidewalk propagandist is that we must always support our arguments with evidence.
So what does this have to do with the incident at UMD?
The only visual record we have of the exchange is an edited video posted online. It already has been viewed by tens of thousands of people, some of whom have taken to harassing and threatening those involved. What strikes me as astounding is that this indisputably edited material -- it fades in and out and at one point repeats itself -- was reportedly said by the right-wing activist who recorded it to constitute the entirety of his footage.
This alone should have disqualified his testimony. Why? Because the video is transparently incomplete. Most obviously, we might ask, what happened to Susana Pelayo-Woodward, the director of UMD's Office of Cultural Diversity? At one point she is shown occupying a full frame before the edited video fades to black. When the footage resumes, she is gone. There are three possible explanations for her disappearance. First, Pelayo-Woodward quickly threw on a cloak of invisibility. Second, the YWC activist suddenly and inexplicably stopped filming. Or third, there is additional, unreleased footage. The first explanation is absurd and the second highly unlikely. This leaves us, then, with the third. If true -- and I can think of no reason not to believe the third explanation true -- the YWC representative was lying when he told the News Tribune the edited video was all he had.
So why is the media giving him any credence? How many more people or organizations must be harmed before we start to appreciate these right-wing propagandists for what they truly are? If one of the great accomplishments of the Enlightenment is the value it placed on reason, how sad to see this idea so grotesquely debased by those claiming to defend "western civilization."
Scott Laderman is an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota Duluth.