The Far Right, Racism, and the Universities

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 2109 ... June 1, 2020

The Far Right, Racism, and the Universities:
Memories of Western, Kenneth Hilborn, and the Politics of Opposition

Bryan Palmer

Marx wrote presciently in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) that "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." Our current period is truly one of many bad dreams.

Slavery’s horrors and state policies of ‘Indian’ subjugation have universities apologizing for their 18th-and-19th century complicity in the transatlantic trade in human flesh and an historical association dropping the name of a Prime Minister from its annual book prize in response to research uncovering genocidal practices. Statues commemorating ‘great white men’ of the past have been removed from places of prominence, their eminence now tarnished by revelations of bad acts that were once regarded in ruling circles as paving stones on the roadway to progress. Apologies abound; reconciliations are promised; reparations even spoken of from the podiums of would-be candidates for the highest of bourgeois political office.

The COVID 19-cancelled 99th-annual meeting of the Canadian... Historical Association was supposed to have taken place at London, Ontario’s Western University, 1-3 June 2020, and to be focussed on the theme of addressing anti-Black racism. This unleashed something of the torment of the university’s dead generations, although they were not all that long buried. Racism at Western figured decisively in a series of posts on Active History, a website animated by left-liberal progressive politics seeking to connect historians to larger publics, build "community" among historians, and develop recognition of the responsibilities of historians.

Communications by Asa McKercher and Will Langford address, among other things, the University of Western Ontario’s (UWO) association with professors assailed for professing racist views, especially the Psychology Department’s Philippe Rushton, who gained notoriety in 1989 with his right-wing funded research on racial hierarchies of intelligence, and the more obscure case of the Department of History’s Kenneth Hilborn, whose main purchase on fame was his stock-market fueled personal fortune. Hilborn, who taught at UWO from 1961-1997, died in 2013, leaving Western a hefty $1,000,000. Much of this ($750,000) went to the History Department, where it was carved up into student awards bearing Hilborn’s name, an act of commemoration that McKercher and Langford raise questions about and which the current Department Chair, Francine McKenzie, answers by stating that the financial support offered Western’s History undergraduates and graduate students has nothing to do with any of the views of their benefactor. The dream of dollars/the nightmare of nullification.

Reading these commentaries, I was taken back to my brief stint as a University of Western Ontario undergraduate, a time when I had some minor dealings with Kenneth Hilborn, and was a part of a mobilization to oppose him. These memories address London, an environment in which I witnessed significant racism, and Hilborn’s significance, focussing on how the left can best challenge views it finds repugnant. They recall something of what it was like struggling to become a leftist in the London and Western of the very early 1970s, and offer some cautions about how quick we are to jettison commitments to academic freedom and freedom of speech.

What follows provides an introduction to Kenneth Hilborn, an obscure figure at best, whose place in Canadian academic culture of the 1960s tells us how much universities have changed over the years. This is followed by a brief commentary on London, Ontario, which has proven to be an environment in which fringe right-wing thought has often incubated. I then close with a discussion of opposition to Hilborn, and my reflections on that.

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