They Came for John Fea.

To Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and those who follow in their footsteps: Stop the madness. Just. Please. Stop.

Professor of history at The College of New Rochelle

First they came for the communists,

And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me

And there was no one left to speak out.

Martin Niemöller’s oft-cited words, of which there are many versions, speak to political apathy in a time of complicated politics. Even the most politically passionate can be myopic, and Niemöller reminds us to not wait until something specifically targets us before we are moved to action. While many social movements have embraced this lesson in order to recruit more to a cause, the words can strike as relevant even in the most mundane of pursuits. One need not be on the frontlines of combative war or marching with signs on the steps of the Supreme Court to bear in mind that politics can appear at the doorstep for many reasons.

Those of us within the academy are often accused of writing things no one reads, lecturing irrelevant facts to the uninterested, and holing up in our ivy-clad buildings to accumulate knowledge that has no bearing on anything. And while we fight that personification of what it means to be a professor—our publications are important, our students do evolve, and for structural reasons most of the ivy has been removed—sometimes we forget the safety our relative isolation provides us. We watched in horror as two seemingly irreproachable members of our group, Frances Fox Piven and William Cronon, were targeted for what their minds were producing. These kinds of attacks are not new, to be sure. Mussolini famously went after Gramsci because, as the prosecutor at the trial explained, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” In my own research and writing, I have focused on similar cases: the FBI targeted sociology professor Harry Edwards, leader of the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1968, and of course W.E.B. Du Bois became a favorite mark of the U.S. State Department. More recently, my friend Vijay Prashad, whose book The Karma of Brown Folk had an enormous influence on my own work, became fodder for Bill O’Reilly last spring. O’Reilly pounced on comments Vijay had made about the killing of Osama bin Laden, deeming them to be treasonous and bringing the wrath of Fox News viewers down upon Vijay’s head.

It is, then, nothing new for academics to lose their ivy-walled safety net when scholarly thought leaves campus. But it does seem to be occurring in a newfangled, electronically inspired way.
 Gramsci, of course, was imprisoned. Edwards came home one day to find his dog dismembered, its parts spread around his yard. Du Bois left, choosing to finish his days in Ghana. These are consequences that are, to be sure, high, and certainly they are but a few of the many many examples intellectuals of all sides, left and right, have faced in intense political climates.

For Piven and Cronan, national outrage and national glee surrounded accusations made against them. Both rose above it: Piven eloquently responded on Democracy Now, coping majestically with what it was like, at the hands of Glenn Beck’s followers, to turn on a computer to find the words “DIE YOU C*NT” filling her inbox. Cronon garnered massive support in his stance against Wisconsin’s attempt to use the FOIA to obtain his emails and sits even more securely at the top of his field, elected president of the American Historical Association. And Vijay, in perfect character, acknowledges the path he has chosen, one that he substantiates daily with his voracious appetite for reading and writing: “I have got it from the Right of all kinds, the O’Reillys and the Hindu Unity people – one crazier than the other.”

But then they came for John Fea.

I went to graduate school with John; our offices were next to each other. There was much that divided us: he was a colonial Americanist, I did 20th century cultural studies. He was married and en route to having two daughters; I stayed out until the wee hours of the night, consuming red wine and wearing grungy clothes and feeling ever-so-intellectual. He is an evangelical Christian and I’m, well, not even close to anything like that. But we also shared a lot: very dedicated to our work, very active seminar participants. I was writing a dissertation about the Olympics Games; he loved basketball. We chatted frequently and developed a mutually respectful relationship. And we both went on to secure tenure-track jobs, no mean feat, and through email – and eventually Facebook – maintained a solid level of being “in touch.”

I remember when he emailed to tell me that one of his daughters had an Olympic-themed birthday party. I swooned. 

John has in recent years become a very successful blogger in addition to a very successful historian (his second book, Was America Founded A Christian Nation?, was just nominated for the prestigious George Washington Book Prize.) From his office at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College, an evangelical liberal arts college with an excellent reputation, John writes his blog, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” which has featured my own work a few times and to which I’ve become a frequent commentator. We do not agree about a range of things, especially in terms of our politics and in terms of how we envision the role of the historian in broader society.

Howard Zinn is one of our sticking points.

But our exchanges are enormously instructive for me. John introduces me to many viewpoints that my own left-leaning world does not offer. He makes me think. A lot. And without question, my own views have become stronger for my relationship with him.

John also writes for Patheos, a website devoted to “balanced views on religion and spirituality.” Here is where they found him. In a recent column, John carefully and methodically argued that Barack Obama might be the most explicitly Christian president in U.S. history, despite John’s reservations that Obama “has failed to articulate the faith-based political vision he promised us….”

Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” did not like it. Calling out John’s “pro-Obama column,” the website condemned his take on the president, was particularly outraged that this came from an alleged Christian, and then concluded the attack by pointing out that Frances Fox Piven had spoken at Messiah last year. Enough said.

Instantly, a crisis for the extreme right had appeared: more than 800 commentators to the Blaze piece spouted their usual spurious screams of OBAMA IS A MUSLIM, adding FEA IS A LEFTY SOCIALIST (if only! I told him) to the battle cry. In his eloquent blog response to the furor, “The Culture Wars are Real”, John stated that he has received nasty emails and voicemails, in addition to the venom being spewed on the Beck website (with some comparing him to Hitler, Louis Farrakhan, and – somewhat inexplicably – Woodrow Wilson). There were demands for Messiah to fire him. Many wanted him cast into perdition. “How,” he responded, “can democracy flourish without civility, respect for those with whom we differ, and a sense of mutual understanding?”

This I found to be heartbreaking. Not only had the Blaze failed to represent his Patheos piece correctly, the way the fanatics went about their attack had left John in despair over the ability of American politics to take place via civil discourse any longer.

Few people have taught me more about how to disagree civilly than John Fea.

So here is what I civilly ask these people: Stop the madness. Stop looking for every and any opportunity to ask for the birth certificate. Stop saying Obama is a Muslim. Stop lying about the economy. Stop calling women who use contraception sluts and prostitutes (and seriously, Rush – which is it, because it can’t be both). There are plenty of us on the Left to come for, but when you chose John, a politically moderate, historically sound evangelical Christian, you chose poorly: he agrees with some of the saner things that you say, but you were too fired up to read it correctly. If you read it at all.

There are plenty to come for – plenty who are willing to go as far to the left as you are going to the right. But John Fea is out of your league.


Amy Bass is professor of history at The College of New Rochelle. She is author of Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. DuBois and Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete. You can follow her on Twitter at @bassab1.

On Those About Him Remained Silent:
“Amy Bass’s excellent history of ‘un-American activities’ in a pleasant New England town is another cautionary illustration of the banality of evil: in this case, the long, willful distortion of the progressive legacy of their greatest native son, W. E. B. Du Bois, by the people of Great Barrington in the service of a perverted patriotism.”
—David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963

On Not the Triumph but the Struggle:
“In addition to being competition, entertainment, business, and shared experience, Sport has often been a stage where significant social issues were played out. In the twentieth century, those issues often pertained to human rights and race. Sometimes the dynamics of sports served to clarify those issues, sometimes to muddle them. Here, Amy Bass sorts through the events and perceptions linked to some of the biggest names and moments in sports history, and assesses their meaning beyond the playing field.”
—Bob Costas, NBC Sports

One thought on “They Came for John Fea.

  1. Thank you for your article. I am as equally encouraged by the account of your friendship with Fea as I am discouraged by the current political tone in this country. I probably share more of John's views than yours, but I appreciate your work here. At the same time, and this is not a snake attack, I would like to know if you would equally decry the many vilifications that come from left to right rather than right to left. Both exist. Both are heinous. I've seen plenty of conservatives be \”witch hunted\” and plenty of progressive/liberals. But before we can move forward in America, I think, both sides need to fee up.

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