“Shocked but not Awed” by the 2016 American Election: Janni Aragon

vlcsnap-2016-12-07-21h46m26s405I first met Dr. Janni Aragon, political scientist and director of Technology Integrated Learning at the University of Victoria, as an undergrad student eight years ago. Her Gender and International Relations course greatly influenced my academic development by introducing me to questions of epistemology, knowledge production, and power dynamics. I am indebted to her for my interest in intellectual history and how people construct knowledge; and I will often invoke the likes of J. Ann Tickner and Carol Cohn when discussing gender difference and the absurdity of male-dominated language, such as “penetration” of the enemy and “payloads”, commonplace within the vernacular of those prone to enjoy a good “wargasm.”

Before Gender and IR, I took American Politics with Janni in the summer of 2008. I braved her aggressive pedagogical method of frontloading the class with difficult concepts and questions, designed to chase out unengaged students, and she rewarded me with a well-crafted and cogent course that profoundly altered my understanding of the American political system. It was a good year to take American politics; that fall, Barack Obama won a thrilling election and it appeared that the world was changing for the better.  Terrorist factions would be dealt with, the housing market-crash and health-care addressed and, importantly, minority rights held primary. After all, hadn’t the United States just elected their first African-American president? It was an exciting, rewarding, time to be a Democrat; especially a feminist Latinx Democrat like Janni… But that was eight years ago.

On 22 November 2016, Kaitlin and I met with Janni to discuss scholarship and activism in the context of recent political events in America, specifically the election of a certain xenophobic real-estate mogul who has just won the vote of the Electoral College:

“I don’t particularly like saying his name and president together,” Janni confessed. Given the election results, she stands “shocked but not awed” at the increased levels of Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, racism, and misogyny that have accompanied the rise of He Who Cannot Be Named. While there certainly has been an assault on left-liberal values and multiculturalism, Janni explained that she reserves the term “awe” for things she considers “awesome”. Thus, she is not awed by the “terrible examples of people insisting that they follow fake news” that have seemingly swayed public opinion to the right side of the political spectrum.

Janni noted a range of problematic aspects to this year’s election: the recent changes to the Voting Rights Act which has limited access to the polls, complacent Democrats, Clinton “baggage”, Obama “backlash”, the rise of conservatism and fascism in the US, and an overall resurgence of hate-speech and hate-acts. In this political climate of fear and distrust, Janni, an American Ex-Pat who has resided in Canada for twelve years, has seen a dramatic increase in fellow Americans seeking jobs north of the border.

Compared to her time teaching in the US, in Victoria Janni has felt safe to be vocal about her politics, ethics and values; but being in Canada does not preclude experience with similar examples of misogyny and racism. Though Janni hasn’t been “trolled” recently she has been accused of “brainwashing” students and labelled a “feminist version of a neo-Nazi.” She laughed at the “false comparison” but it is clear that these kind of political attacks raise the stakes in the relationship between activism and scholarship. The extent to which an academic can elucidate the connection between their personal politics, research methods, and pedagogy has been contested for years, but with the rise of conservatism south of the border we seem to be entering a new sort of culture war reminiscent of the 1990s. If a position at a Canadian institution is amendable to testing the relationship between scholarship and activism, Janni’s experiences make clear that, particularly in times like these, it takes work to defend our values even within spaces we might assume to be protected.

Janni sees a strong relationship between activism and scholarship. Her vision consists of challenges to the status quo: fighting for gender equality, religious tolerance, minority rights, and mutual respect. She strongly believes that academia is better served when injustices are addressed directly without vacillation. But while it is important to be strong in one’s convictions and to speak out against injustice in all aspects of life, activist scholarship must be approached cautiously. In the context of post-election America, Janni considered the role of activism in research and in the classroom in relation to the danger of exposure in our social-media-orientated world. Academics must now be wary of surveillance for watchlists.

For Janni, solidarity between individuals and groups dedicated to equality and respect is “extremely important.” We live in a very negative time and her remedy is to try to do something supportive for someone else every day. “Be a positive force,” she encouraged. This can take all kinds of forms; for example, Janni has sent baked goods to Canadian soldiers and fellow university employees over the last month. Little acts of kindness can go a long way and help prevent us all from wanting to “pull [our] hair out.” She explained that solidarity is also about action: You can wear the safety pin but do so in a conscious manner and don’t forget to be a good example for others to follow.

Our talk with Janni directly addressed the development of reactionary-politics that threatens every one’s freedoms by making the world a less safe place to live in. Instead of celebrating their first black president, we have seen a rise of racism which Janni described as a “stew of reaction” from people who “yearn for a time when people knew their place.” This is a scary observation which demands our attention. Ultimately, Janni’s message to young academics and activists is to remain vigilante and engaged in what is happening. Now is not the time for complacency.

Janni’s website can be found here or follow her on Twitter: @janniaragon

Shaun King, senior Justice writer at the NY Times, mentioned by Janni: @ShaunKing

– Gord L.

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