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What’s Behind the Surge of State Repression on US Campuses in the ‘Land of the Free’?

US Campuses Face 'Transnational Repression' (Credits: VOA News)

The backdrop of recent social media footage capturing heavily armed law enforcement officers detaining peacefully protesting students and professors at various university campuses across the United States, shockwaves reverberate globally.

The nation, often heralded as the “land of the free and home of the brave,” appears to be neither free nor brave—except for the courageous protesters who persist in confronting state and university repression.

While governmental repression of student protests is not a novel phenomenon in the U.S. or this particular era, the current surge of state repression vividly underscores the crisis facing liberal democracy. Caught between the pressures of illiberalism and neoliberalism, liberal democracy finds itself increasingly squeezed.

US campuses in revolt for Gaza (Credits: Counterfire)

Taking a moment to reflect, tensions on university campuses escalated following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th. As Israel’s response in Gaza escalated to levels deemed genocidal by the United Nations, student protests emerged on several campuses.

Despite isolated incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia, the protests, on the whole, were neither antisemitic nor violent. Nonetheless, the far right seized upon these events to intensify its assault on universities.

Portraying universities as “hotbeds of terrorist sympathizers” and the epicenter of threatening “wokeness” to core “American values” such as freedom of speech, the far-right narrative demonizes higher education.

In their propaganda, universities represent a dystopian future for the entire country, where individuals who do not conform to a white, Christian conservative identity are marginalized. This propaganda has yielded results, tarnishing the public perception of universities in the U.S.

In 2015, a majority of 57% of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. However, by 2023, confidence plummeted to just 36%, with the most remarkable drop observed among Republicans (-37%), alongside decreases among independents (-16%) and Democrats (-9%).

Campus protests for Gaza are proliferating (Credits: +972 Magazine)

This shift is not entirely surprising, given the amplification of far-right narratives by ostensibly “liberal” media outlets like the Atlantic and the New York Times. Ironically, the discrepancy between perception and reality could hardly be more pronounced.

Academia has traditionally been a bastion of conservatism, and universities in the global north have seldom been hotbeds of radicalism. However, since the advent of the neoliberal university in the 1980s, higher education has become increasingly commodified, with universities transformed into “edufactories” governed by market principles and managed by professional administrators.

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