After professor Matthew Sears told Salon magazine MAGA hats will one day be viewed similarly to Ku Klux Klan robes, his comments sparked a firestorm of polarized politics.
His article received rebuttals from far-right media sites such as Breitbart; it was quoted and put up on screen on Fox and Friends; and popular right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh covered it on his radio show. Since then, the University of New Brunswick professor has spent much of his time deleting harassing emails and voicemails.
Beleaguering messages were also sent to the offices of UNB president Eddy Campbell and chancellor Allison McCain.
“The idea that a guy that studies Ancient Greece working in New Brunswick, Canada, can be this huge a threat to the American political landscape in Washington, D.C., is a little bit overwrought,” Sears said.
Sears is an associate professor in the UNB Classics and Ancient History department and has been known to cause political tension with his opinion pieces and tweets. He has written for The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and the Ottawa Citizen.
Following the Salon story, an individual actually mailed Sears a physical letter, using language such as “you will be defeated, shame on you” and other oppositional rhetoric. However, Sears found it funny that the sender of the letter didn’t quite understand proper margins and an even font.
“It takes some dedication to put two stamps on something,” he said.
Used to addressing highly contentious political issues, Sears does not shy away from controversy. He has almost 12,000 followers on Twitter and frequently weighs in on the hot topics of the day. In a Washington Post opinion piece published in January, he addressed the nature of the iconic, red Make America Great Again hats and the political symbolism behind them.
This controversial article invited significant criticism of Sears and his perspectives.
“I mean you develop a thicker skin, but it still wears you down,” Sears said. “Our current political atmosphere is incredibly divided and is becoming an outrage machine.”
With an academic background in ancient Greek and Roman history, Greek and Latin historiography and ancient warfare and society, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Sears to be a modern-day, active social justice advocate.
However, Sears said he’s “always been conscious of the relevance of studying ancient Greece and Rome.” According to Sears, these ancient societies still hold a lot of modern-day lessons.
University history departments across North America, whether modern or hundreds of years old, are trying to prove their relevance to contemporary issues in a society that tends to discount the liberal arts. In response to this, Sears said any education in history becomes important when history is misused to promote racist ideas or the oppression of others. This ranges from Donald Trump’s misconceptions about the War of 1812 as a reason for animosity with Prime Minister Trudeau, to Neo-Nazi holocaust deniers.
Sears has also noticed that online political arguments are often far removed from those materially affected by the policies in question. “The luxury to disengage [from politics] is a very privileged thing,” he said. While someone might be able to walk away from discourse about the necessity of welfare programs and the legislation that controls them, for example, those who depend on them for survival are not so fortunate.
Sears plans to continue to voice his opinions on political issues and engage in controversial debates.
While political backlash takes its toll, he said he senses his privilege as a white man and “by no means gets the worst of it.”