The Amiable Guy with the Portfolio Briefcase

The posters and stickers appeared on the campus of Brandon University seemingly overnight (CBC; Winnipeg Free Press). They are emblazoned with phrases like “European Brotherhood,” “Time to Fight,” and “Join the Resistance.” They are stamped with a version of the “sun cross,” an obvious derivative of the Celtic cross that European and North American white supremacist groups have claimed as their own.

No one has yet come forward to take ownership of this propaganda. No modern-day brownshirts have organized a march or a protest in support of their vile ideology. No fascists have descended upon the university’s main courtyard to denounce the institution’s mission to contribute to a liberal society and a diverse, democratic polity.

In the absence of such concrete actions that go beyond a cowardly poster campaign, how should individuals respond? How should the city respond? How should the university respond?

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I remember working this one Saturday at my mom’s used bookstore back in 1990 or 1991, when a guy with a portfolio briefcase stopped by the store. I didn’t recognize him as a regular customer, but he was quite friendly, and we started chatting. He seemed to get really engaged in the conversation when he found out I was a university student, but when he realized I was studying Political Science, his interest and focus sharpened with laser-like intensity.

At that point in my life, I was still passionate about debating politics, and we got into a discussion about the role of the university in society. At first, the conversation was interesting and engaging, but he soon started talking about how institutions of higher learning were becoming increasingly controlled by people with their own agenda. These were people, he argued, who couldn’t be trusted to act on behalf of everyone, who were also exerting secret control in other areas of society.

At this point, I started to think the fellow was pretty unhinged, and I ended our conversation. He left the store very politely, but not before opening up his portfolio briefcase and leaving me with some “literature” that he felt would explain his concerns in more detail. His pamphlet was, of course, filled with contemptible and bilious anti-Semitism.

This guy never showed his edge the whole time we were talking. He appeared genuinely interested in my opinions, and his demeanor was entirely respectful and engaging. He was feeling me out, trying to gauge how receptive I might be before giving voice to his poisonous beliefs. Had I evinced even the slightest bit of curiosity, I’m certain he would have set about trying actively to groom me.

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The racist poster campaign at Brandon University is the amiable guy with the portfolio briefcase.

It’s designed to feel out the university. It’s a tentative toe dipped into the water of the campus community. In this sense, it’s an invitation to those who harbour the same detestable views to emerge from the shadows and voice their support. Ultimately, it’s an opening move designed to cultivate more followers.

It’s also a trial balloon to test the resolve of the university community. And if our community – students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, donors, neighbours – fails to respond in a unified and unequivocal condemnation of this hate propaganda, then we effectively give license to its further growth. Our silence contributes to the ongoing normalization of xenophobia and racism that has been creeping across Europe and North America. Our silence forsakes the motto that has adorned Brandon University’s coat of arms since 1948: “Aletheuontes de en Agape,” or “Speaking the truth in love.”

Most crucially, our silence betrays our obligation to our students.