White nationalist Richard Spencer is set to speak at the University of Florida on Oct. 19.
In response, Paul Ortiz, an associate professor of history at UF whose research includes African-American studies and social movements, co-wrote an op-ed about Spencer that appeared in the Gainesville Sun on Friday.
The op-ed highlights the dangers of letting Spencer speak, including how it creates an unsafe work environment for employees of the university.
Ortiz also conveyed his thoughts on Spencer’s appearance and ideology with WUFT News by phone earlier today.
What do you think about Richard Spencer coming to visit?
Ortiz: I think that, as a historian, one of the topics I teach is about the rise of the Holocaust, the rise of fascism, and Nazism in the ’20s and ’30s, so I think it’s deeply regrettable.
You can look at the United Faculty of Florida. We put out a letter that we sent to President [Kent] Fuchs back when the individual was going to visit originally in September, and our position on it is that it constitutes a potential worker-safety issue and the fact that we’re having to spend half a million, which is an indirect honorarium, which also implies that there is potential for unsafe working conditions.
So our opinions as a faculty union is that this event is a violation of working safety protections. Federal law is very clear on this issue: The employer is responsible for maintaining a safe work environment at all times, and therefore, this event, we believe, violates several labor laws because you have thousands of employees at the University of Florida.
President Fuchs encouraged students to stay away from the event. Do you agree with his position, or do you think counterprotests and demonstrations would be more effective?
Ortiz: I am telling my students … that we are not going to be holding class that day. I have a lot of students that I work with who are Jewish and students of color. I can not in good conscious ask them to be on campus that day in terms of a protest. That is someone’s individual right and responsibility, and I think that I support the work of students on campus and people in the community who feel that it’s important to bear witness and to protest the appearance [of] a person who advocated ethnic cleansing.
I think history states very clearly and speaks very loudly on this: You can not ignore evil. If you ignore it, you are complicit. This is the lesson the people of Italy learned in the 1920s and the people of Germany learned in the 1930s. Because back then, there were individuals and leaders who said, ‘Oh, just ignore Adolph Hitler. He’s so unreasonable. People will eventually learn about how wicked he is and then they’ll go away.’
And unfortunately, the world does not work like that, and so I respect people who say that they’re planning to be out of town and people are even going to be out of the state that day. They’re leaving Gainesville, and that’s fine. That’s their individual decision, but at the same time, I think we should be supportive of people who have the courage to stand up to evil.
What do you think of Spencer’s term “identitarian”?
Ortiz: The organization that backs [Spencer] actively advocates ethnic cleansing that is a policy that is genocidal in implementation. If you advocate for ethnic cleansing in a country like the United States — which is incredibly mixed and has been so from the very beginning in terms of race and ethnicity — the only way to carry out ethnic cleansing is by using force.
And ethnic cleansing [is] by very definition genocidal. That’s the important thing here. What that individual calls himself is beside the point. It’s the philosophy and ideology that he teaches that is the point. I can advocate violence and call myself non-violent, but what would that mean?
Spencer said that white people are discouraged from identifying as white. What do you think of that?
Ortiz: It’s ridiculous. We celebrate our heritage every day on this campus. We’re the Gator Nation, and individuals, fraternities, departments, cultural organizations of all kinds constantly celebrate their histories.
They honor their parents and grandparents’ legacies. We talk about being a nation of immigrants. We talk about strength in diversity.
Whatever he says about those issues, you have to understand is a misdirection away from the central ideology of ethnic cleansing. Everything is kind of designed to fool people to thinking that holding a forum on ethnic cleansing represents some kind of exercise of free speech. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. Anyone on campus would refute it.
The event is going to come and go, but the ideology is going to remain. What changes would you like to see to the political and social landscapes of our country right now?
Ortiz: … What I would like to see is more people getting educated about the history of Nazism and fascism, No. 1. I think there’s an appalling ignorance when I hear people say things like, ‘Oh well, just because someone is a Nazi or the espouse Nazi-type philosophies, that’s just like any other political philosophies.’
I disagree with that because Nazism is a philosophy that nearly brought this world to an end, and I’m talking about World War II, and I’m talking about the Holocaust. And so I would prefer or hope what comes out of this is people understanding what, at the core, these philosophies represent: What is ethnic cleansing, what is Nazism, what is racism? …
This individual coming here is kind of a wake-up call, and perhaps we need to have more of these discussions. It’s not a debate or a dialogue if you come at me with an assault rifle or body armor or a shield.
That’s not a dialogue. That’s not a debate. That’s just plain aggression. That’s why we’re having to spend hard-earned funds … which is kind of an indirect honorarium to this individual. That is money that could have been used to support the kinds of educational programs which you’re talking about.
We could have used that money to pay OPS employees who couldn’t work because of Hurricane Irma. We could have used that money to fully fund an African-American studies program on campus. We could have used that money to fund Jewish studies.
There’s a whole universe of possibilities that you could apply $500,000 to, and I’m sad and appalled that we’re applying it to one individual that advocates ethnic cleansing.
If I went back to talk to my grandparents who fought in World War II against the Nazis — I am a third-generation military veteran. I know veterans who were prisoners of war in Nazi prison war camps.
I’m glad they’re not alive now, to be honest with you, because if I had to tell them that my campus was hosting a talk by an individual like this and this nature, they wouldn’t believe it. They would be so shocked and appalled, they would say, ‘What is it? Do we have to fight the Nazis all over again?’
That’s kind of the state of mind in the veterans’ community, as well.
In regards to the First Amendment, what do you think about people like Richard Spencer having a platform to speak?
Ortiz: Oh yeah, but see, what you and I think doesn’t matter. Every time that individual wants an interview, CNN is going to be there. MSNBC is going to be there. Fox is going to be there.
All you have to do is Google that individual’s name, and then you tell me if he is denied a platform to spread his ideologies of ethnic cleansing and white supremacy.
And when I pose this questions to colleagues who says, ‘He needs a platform,’ my response is, ‘He has unlimited access to platforms. He has multi-millionaires backing him — not just one but more than one if you look at the National Policy Institute.
It’s not backed by poor people. It’s backed by very wealthy and affluent individuals who expect him to promote their viewpoint. He’s a mouthpiece, let’s face it.
As an individual, he is beside the point. If he leaves tomorrow, he goes to another country [and] someone else takes his place. He’s a cog in a larger philosophy of Nazis and ethnic cleansing, but the reality is, he has almost unlimited access to avenues of speech that you or I could only dream of because he’s backed by very wealthy individuals and interests.