Meet the Censored: Mark Crispin Miller
The NYU Professor becomes the latest academic to fall afoul of idea police
Mark Crispin Miller, author and longtime New York University professor, has unconventional views. Even work he’s done that’s won mainstream praise is unconventional, upon close examination. If you came of political age during the Iraq war years, you probably remember him for The Bush Dyslexicon, a witty, challenging book that took a deep dive into the speech patterns of George W. Bush.
Unwrapping the thought processes behind famed “Bushisms” like “The question is, how many hands have I shaked?”, Miller found a metaphor for the broad illogic under American society. However, that book’s central idea — that “we Americans have been tricked out of our democracy by a vast and very smart conspiracy of stupid talkers” — was too rich for some mainstream commentators.
Crispin Miller argued that when people like Donald Rumsfeld told us that “victory” in Iraq may not come “in a month or a year or even five years,” that in fact even fighting forever might be a “victory, in my view,” the joke was not that this message was garbled by Bush, but rather that it was conveyed clearly by “producers, anchors, editors, journalists, and pundits,” who were “fatally dyslexic in doping out the very spectacle it presents to us.” Presenting madness as sanity required a brokenness of mind that just happened to come of the president’s mouth as laugh lines.
Since then, Crispin Miller has become known for blogging about official deceptions, and his attentions are often focused in directions that make even hardened skeptics like me nervous. On MarkCrispinMiller.com, he posts headlines like, “The Official Story of 9/11 is Based on a Gigantic Lie” and “‘Rogue’ Chinese virologist presents ‘smoking gun’ evidence that SARS-COV-2 was created in a lab.’” As noted in the interview below, he once suggested a student read Nobody Died at Sandy Hook, a book that inspired a $450,000 defamation award to the parent of a Sandy Hook victim.
At the same time, his observations about the nature of media in America remain poignant and rare in a country whose citizens are trained to believe that propaganda is something only other people consume. Crispin Miller tries to undo those thinking patterns via a course in propaganda at NYU that, he says, urges them to evaluate material independently, and is what got him in trouble.
There’s a paradox in the way we consume information in the U.S. Our country does not (yet?) insist that official lies remain accepted as truths forever. Even the U.S. Naval Institute is now allowed to write lengthy tracts about how “high government officials distorted facts and deceived the American public” in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and it’s accepted that similar lies were told about everything from WMDs to the pretext for the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Even the Zero Dark Thirty account of how we supposedly killed and captured Osama bin Laden was a mess, with then-chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan saying initially that bin Laden used his wife as a human shield, only to have the government retract the claim shortly after.
While already-proven deceptions are fair game, the penalties for those who raise the first questions grow higher all the time. The term “conspiracy theorist” is now applied equally to people like Alex Jones and Sy Hersh, whose objections to the story of bin Laden’s capture have been effectively memory-holed, as have his oft-denounced reports on reported chemical attacks in Syria (the subject of numerous recent whistleblower accounts claiming official deception).
Additionally, the term “conspiracy theory” is now often wrapped in accusations of bigotry. In fact, the spreading of conspiracy theories is understood to be a key element of racist movements. There’s obviously some truth to that, as theories about Jews in media or disease-ridden immigrants are among the most common form of the genre. However, it shouldn’t follow that because racists spread conspiracy theories, all people who investigate conspiracies are racist.
That faulty syllogism now means that the person who tries to take on an entrenched official story not only risks being called crazy, but a racist, sexist, Assadist, etc. The latter charges, if they stick, lead to an expanding array of consequences, from removal from the Internet to job loss. This effect has heightened during the pandemic, a period when we’ve been encouraged to forget how often conventional wisdom about Covid-19 has shifted:
Crispin Miller’s recent troubles stem from being a skeptic about mask use. He points out that until 2020, studies were unenthusiastic about their benefits in stopping the transition of respiratory illness, and even the CDC only recently changed its mind on the issue. When he broached the subject in class, a student responded critically on Twitter:
Criticizing Crispin Miller for sending links to a site that in turn linked to The Charlie Kirk Show, Zero Hedge, Technocracy News, Global Research, “and more,” the student went on to tag the University leadership and wrote, “I hope they take immediate steps to relieve him of these duties.”
Crispin Miller’s department responded by promising, “We have made this a priority and are discussing next steps.” This in turn led to a now-standard cancelation ritual. A denunciation letter from academic colleagues asked the school to complete a review of Miller’s “intimidating tactics, abuses of authority, aggression and microaggressions, and explicit hate speech, none of which are excused by academic freedom and First Amendment protections.”
The faculty letter began with complaints about Crispin Miller’s blog, which they said includes “direct mockery and ridicule of trans individuals” and a “characterization of transgender surgery as a eugenic form of sterilization.” They went on, however, to say that no matter how “damaging” these very “visible” views may be to the department, he has a “right to his opinions” that we “must uphold.”
The signatories then shifted and argued that by mentioning that tweeting student, Crispin Miller moved out of the realm of mere damaging opinion, and into the crime of creating an “unsafe learning environment.” Through this bait-and-switch, the opinions on the blog that colleagues only a few paragraphs before said must be upheld, were now re-entered as part of the argument against him.
The letter says Crispin Miller through his blog “used his position of authority to intimidate students who choose to wear masks and abide by NYU policy,” which implies but does not exactly say he was telling students not to wear masks. Crispin Miller insists he did not do the latter, and notes that he wears a mask “in discharge of his professional duties.”
Near the end, the signatories wrote:
We support the queer, transgender, and non-binary members of the NYU community. We support those in our community who are Black and Indigenous people of color, and immigrants, and who come from marginalized and historically underrepresented communities, particularly those who have been targets of ongoing and systemic racism and violence. We unequivocally condemn white supremacy, anti-trans/nonbinary bias, and any hate speech.
With this language, protesting faculty moved the Crispin Miller issue from a technical violation of campus mask policy, or even just an accusation of unsound or “non-evidence-based” teaching, and into an argument that positioned him additionally as a defender of white supremacy. This double-whammy construction has become a regular part of the accusatory formula in such cases.
Crispin Miller responded with a petition to defend his academic freedom that so far has gained over 26,000 signatures, as well as a lawsuit against academic colleagues for libel and defamation, charging among other things that the letter by faculty members, in espousing their liberal credentials, led “any reasonable reader to falsely believe that plaintiff holds regressive views, opposing social equality for insular minority groups and espousing hatred toward them.”
I disagree with a lot of things Mark has written over the years, but he’s exactly the kind of person whose teaching style tends to benefit college students: a smart person who thinks for himself and challenges students to do the same. By encouraging the school to sack him over a complaint, Crispin Miller’s colleagues are telling students that it’s faster to eliminate or suppress unpleasant ideas than find successful arguments against them. This feels like the opposite of teaching.
Katie Halper and I interviewed Mark for Rolling Stone’s Useful Idiots podcast. An abridged transcript of the interview is included below:
MT: What happened?
MCM: I've been teaching at NYU since 1997. Media studies is my field basically. And one of the courses I've taught every year, every semester, really, and sometimes even more than that, is a course on propaganda…
I began the course, as I always do, by making clear that my approach to the subject of propaganda is not to treat it as some ancient thing where we look at the Nazis, we look at the Bolsheviks, maybe we talk about World War I, maybe we talk about McCarthyism, right?
We definitely look at those earlier examples, but the focus of the course, the mission of the course is to try to teach students how to recognize it in real-time, make an effort to assess its claims impartially, even if you agree with them, and then see if you can discern the hallmarks of a propaganda drive, because it always comes disguised as news or entertainment or something like that. Figure out who's behind it, and what its purpose is.
And I make this abundantly clear, it is a difficult thing to do, intellectually difficult. It can even be socially and psychologically difficult to be skeptical, to that degree. So I said, as I always do, we would naturally focus on some of the things that are going on now. For example, look at the way we're meeting. We're meeting via Zoom. This is an eloquent testimony to the success of the whole COVID crisis propaganda. And propaganda does not have to be—
MCM: Right. Pejorative… Nefarious, as you said. A campaign to get you to wear your seatbelt in a car, that's propaganda, but propaganda it is anyway. And so we would want to deal with it. For example, we might want to look at the mask mandates. I would encourage you to look at a body of very interesting scientific studies, eight randomized controlled studies conducted over the last 15 years or so among healthcare professionals of the effectiveness of masks against respiratory viruses, because the consensus of those studies, and those are the most rigorous kind of scientific study, randomized controlled studies. The consensus is that they're not really effective. I would encourage you to read those…
I also think you should read more recent studies finding otherwise. And I gave some guidance as to how a layperson can assess the soundness of scientific studies because I mean, I'm not a scientist, right? And they're not scientists, most of them. I said, for example, there are scientific reviews of these studies. You can find them. In some cases, there's actual press coverage of very public objections to studies. And you'll want to look at the universities where these studies were done and see if they have financial arrangements with big pharma companies or get money from the Gates Foundation, because this might suggest some kind of conflict of interest. I said, all this. I want to add, I said pointedly, “I am not telling you not to wear masks.” NYU has a strict rule. I observe the rule. This is an intellectual exercise, or would be, if you did it.
The following week, or maybe a little later, a student emailed me and asked to join late. And as I always do, I said sure, the more the merrier. And she joined us. And the second day she was there, she had spoken up at one point the first day about Edward Bernays's book, Propaganda, which we were discussing. The next day, the mask thing came up again. So that little bit resumed. And she didn't say anything. That was on a Thursday.
Early the next week, I get a call from my department chair asking me, in a kind of accusatory tone, if I had discouraged them from wearing masks, or did I have them read something that suggested they don't work? Whatever he asked me, I said, “Well, this is what I said, this is what happened.” And he said, "Oh, well, I'm going to have to tell the Dean’s COVID task force," or whatever it's called. I said, "Okay, what's up?" And he told me that a student had gone on Twitter and demanded that I be fired.
MT: Do you suspect that there are views that you've held previously that your colleagues disagree with, and that this has become a pretext? And if so, what might those things be?
MCM: First of all, I think my colleagues are sincerely outraged by some of my views or what they think my views are. Now see, if they were in my class, I could actually engage them in a conversation about some of the things they think I said. One of the things they claim in their letter is that on my website I've denied Sandy Hook happened. On my site, Markcrispinmiller.com, anyone can do a search on Sandy Hook, and they'll see that it doesn't come up once. I don't mention it.
What they're referring to, and what incensed them, apparently, [was] that in a class, in a propaganda class… someone mentioned Sandy Hook, which was the first in the series of school shootings that have been so high profile in this last decade. Columbine was much earlier, and that was very different. I said, "There is some very interesting research on Sandy Hook that is troubling and very challenging, and I dismissed it out of hand until I read it. And I have to say, there's something to it. And so if you're interested in this, you might read it." And I mentioned this book, a collection of essays. That was my denying that Sandy Hook happened.
So clearly, a student in the class reacted in precisely the way I urged them to try not to act in the class, i.e. just heard me say that about Sandy Hook, and went and told some of my colleagues, “He's denied Sandy Hook occurred.” And then they all said, "See? Typical. He's denied Sandy Hook…” So that's an example of what I take to be their sincere discomfiture with my engaging precisely the sort of subject that most academics and journalists and others are, sort of, trained to avoid, because you get in trouble if you talk about them.
But the whole course, as your question implies, is about that. We can always easily spot the propaganda that we don't agree with. You ask any liberal, what's propaganda? They'll say, "Oh, Fox. Fox News." You ask any conservative what's propaganda? They'll say, "MSNBC." They're both right. Both are propagandistic, but what they can't see is the propaganda that they agree with because they think it's just information. They think it's just the truth.
MT: Isn't the academic world struggling with whether the appropriate way to go about teaching is to encourage kids to read everything and discover things for themselves, or to just give them the right texts and tell them to avoid the wrong texts? There's a school of thought that believes strongly that some things are just aren't worth reading, versus the traditional notion that a student should read everything, even things that are horrible.
Katie Halper: Even Mein Kampf…
MCM: Calling it a school of thought I think is dignifying it because it's not thought at all. It's thoughtlessness, the school of thoughtlessness. And it's not a school, therefore, because you're not teaching anybody anything except groupthink, and that's what's happening. It's very oppressive.
It sounds hyperbolic, but it's like going to school during the Cultural Revolution or Gleichschaltung, which was the Nazi term for streamlining. It's when they made all the cultural institutions, they Nazified them all. Of course, there was stuff you couldn't read. It would be a crime to read it or even bring it up, and it's kind of like that now. Many of the people who've been attacked by their colleagues, as I have, tend to be toward the right. Scott Atlas was attacked by the Stanford faculty for working under Trump on health policy, and Alan Dershowitz has been attacked by the Harvard faculty for his legal advice to that effort after the election…
But as my case shows, you don't have to be on the right to be attacked this way. I've heard from many people, professors at other schools, who've had their slings and arrows, had those shots at them, risked getting fired. Some have been fired. And they're long-time left people, but... the left today is… not the left that I remember, that I have long considered myself part of, which is antiwar, which is about rectifying grotesque income inequality, strengthening the working class, certainly civil rights… Those are, I see them as left issues. Many of them are also libertarian issues. So what the left has now become is a pro-censorship army. It wants censorship, so the left has changed immensely, and I think that I'm sort of a casualty of that.
The most amazing thing is that a student's single unsubstantiated Twitter post could produce a cascade that degenerates into a ritual public shaming and inquisition. That's a serious institutional failure on NYU's part and a personal ethical failure on the part of its leadership. They should have in place an administrative process that handles student complaints privately -- with step 1 being a fair finding of fact. Students should be asked to use that process, not make claims on Twitter as a first resort. If that process fails, then fine, go to Twitter. But claims made first on Twitter and without due process should be ignored by the university. Any university worth its tuition should do this.
Wow. Many of the comments here really underscore the prof's point. Whether you think he's a kook or not, he's right: people can't seem to recognize propaganda unless they strongly disagree with the message.
Masks are a great example. Until this year, plenty of studies--yes, even RCTs and meta-analyses--showed that masks (with the notable exception being a properly fitted N95) were of relatively limited effectiveness in stopping the spread of "influenza-like illnesses," a category that sweeps in common respiratory ailments. These studies have taken place not only in controlled health care settings but the question has also been examined more broadly as a possible public health intervention. We have years of data on this question. We have good data about their use in health care settings in the US and elsewhere. And since Asian countries have embraced wearing them in the broader culture, we also have data on the question of whether they are effective when used more broadly in the community. The upshot of most studies has been that they really aren't that effective.
Notice I didn't say "zero effectiveness." There is some limited evidence that even non-N95 options may be of some limited use during the outbreak of an influenza-like illness. So when the time came for public health professionals to recommend something OTHER than hand-washing and physical distancing, masks seemed like they fit the bill. After all, they seem to satisfy the precautionary principle, which generally counsels that it makes sense to recommend a non-pharmaceutical intervention--even if the data in support of it is weak--where the cost of taking the action is very low or even non-existent.
So far, so good. There is nothing wrong with recommending universal masking to the public based on the logic I just described. But I think we all know that hasn't been the pitch. Instead, the public health establishment has taken a different tact: if you question the "science" of masking you are an idiot Trump voter conspiracy theorist.
What has been used to support this new claim of masks as a panacea? Modeling studies and some controlled lab testing. As far as actually doing science goes, modeling studies are strictly inferior when you can actually test your hypothesis in a real-world setting. But even controlled lab testing fail to account for what actually matters when you are deciding whether to make a public health recommendation (or in this case mandate) : how will the NPI be used in the real-world?
That, of course, is where the value of this recommendation generally falls apart. Masks don't work as source control if you're constantly touching it, or adjusting it, or removing it. Or wearing it incorrectly. Or pulling it down to eat. Or smoke. Ordinarily, these and other real-world limitations would be balanced against the very real danger inherent in the masking recommendation--that the average Joe will come to think of the piece of cloth they are wearing as an impenetrable shield against viral particles.
Those downsides matter because that kind of mistaken assumption leads to riskier behavior. Physical distancing and self-isolation are proven methods of limiting the spread of a contagious respiratory disease. Instead, the public health establishment has told suburban moms everywhere that, hey, just put this cloth on your face and you can take worry-free trips to Wal-Mart and the grocery store every day. Twice a day if you forgot something.
With all that in mind, I could still put all of these limitations aside and say it makes sense under the circumstances to recommend masks, especially if we are going to warn people that they are NOT an impenetrable shield and should not be used as a substitute for physical distancing and limiting contact with others.
In other words, masks can be propaganda and still seem to have a net benefit to society. But is this body of evidence enough to, say, justify fining people? Arresting them? Tweeting that they should lose their job? Does the data suggest that masking leads to riskier behaviors? Is anyone collecting that data?
Those and other questions should be fair game for debate. But we all know they aren't.