Severing the mind from reality (MC Potts/Getty Images)
JULY 24, 2020
Here's startling news: a major institution in American life does not cave to the left-wing cancel culture. The Wall Street Journal is not going to give the internal mob what it wants. In an editorial today (behind paywall), the Journal‘s editorial page editors write:
We've been gratified this week by the outpouring of support from readers after some 280 of our Wall Street Journal colleagues signed (and someone leaked) a letter to our publisher criticizing the opinion pages. But the support has often been mixed with concern that perhaps the letter will cause us to change our principles and content. On that point, reassurance is in order.
In the spirit of collegiality, we won't respond in kind to the letter signers. Their anxieties aren't our responsibility, in any case.
The editorial goes on to re-assert the traditional firewall between the editorial pages and the news pages.
Unfortunately, it appears that Princeton University is headed in a bad direction. A couple of weeks ago, in "Katz Showdown at Princeton," I wrote about how Joshua Katz, a popular Classics professor at the university, had become a target for the woke mob for publicly objecting to a quite outrageous faculty letter calling for huge changes in the university's life - including a de facto retraction of academic freedom - for the cause of making Princeton an "antiracist university." Katz quite reasonably defended free speech and free thought at the university. For this he became a pariah, and even the university's president threatened to investigate him.
Happily, there will be no investigation. I am told by multiple sources that because Princeton signed on to the Chicago Principles (to protect free speech and expression on campus) a few years ago, the university can't touch Katz. Let this be a five-alarm wake-up call to all academics: get your universities to adopt the Chicago Principles now, while you still can. If you still can; if your university will not adopt them, that's important information to know, because you will then be clear that your institution will not protect you when the woke mob comes for you.
I learned this morning that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have named Prof. Katz a "Hero of Intellectual Freedom." ACTA writes:
Although he was met with a fierce response in the campus newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, and from Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber, Professor Katz continues to speak the truth with reason, thoughtfulness, and dignity. His commitment to candor, fairness, and the free exchange of ideas makes him a Hero of Intellectual Freedom at a time when higher education needs to recommit to the intellectual freedom that is the lifeblood of the liberal arts and sciences.
But this appears in the Daily Princetonian - a letter from Brooke Holmes, a professor in the Department of Classics, and indeed its director of graduate studies. It's worth reproducing in full:
One month ago, President Eisgruber '83 circulated a message to the University community calling on all of us "reflect on our place in the world and challenge ourselves to identify additional steps we can take to fight racism." Recognizing the massive, ongoing protests for racial justice in the US, the message firmly committed Princeton to our nation's urgent, overdue reckoning with its racist history and "the ongoing reality of oppression and violence against Black Americans."
Less than two weeks later, an open letter detailing almost fifty ways that the University can "take immediate concrete and material steps to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus" was delivered with over 350 signatures from faculty and staff to the Princeton administration.
I'm a signatory to the open letter. I signed because I don't think we can wait a minute more to start taking these steps. I signed because it's critical at this moment, and going forward, to listen to Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous colleagues, students, and alums. I signed it as a member of Princeton's faculty appointed in the Department of Classics, a field that, as a statement issued last month by the Society for Classical Studies acknowledged, has long been complicit in "constructing and participating in racist and anti-Black educational structures and attitudes." I signed because it's past time to stop pretending things are okay around here.
And where are we at two weeks later? Most of the attention has been focused on Professor Joshua Katz's intervention in the conversation in Quillette for its racialized vilification of the Black Justice League. Last week Princeton alum Nicholas Bellinson '13 moved to reclassify any criticism of Professor Katz's incendiary language as a "bad faith" response to the op-ed's arguments. This line of defense led Bellinson to a point where, when faced with Professor Eddie S. Glaude GS '97's observation in an interview that reading the op-ed gave him the sense that "Professor Katz ... seems not to regard people like me as essential features, or persons, of Princeton," Bellinson accused him of "utter slander."
Let's get this straight. Bellinson was agitating not only for the right to use dehumanizing language against Black students in the name of academic freedom, he was insisting on our moral obligation to give its user the benefit of the doubt. And when a Black professor said that this language made him feel less than human, Bellinson invoked defamation, the small corner of unprotected speech under Princeton's Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities that is subject to disciplinary regulation. So much for free speech.
In the meantime, what has happened to the fight against racism? If the op-ed is, as its defenders have claimed, a constructive contribution to this fight, it's because of its arguments. These arguments cannot be criticized as unconstructive because Professor Katz has indemnified them with his claim that "racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process."
Never mind that the premise of the open letter, which is centered on the voices of faculty of color, is that the processes to combat racism on campus aren't working. What's worth paying attention to here, at the very moment of inoculation against the (minimal) charge of being indifferent to racism, is a little adverb: "already."
Yes, there are a handful of changes that Professor Katz thinks are unobjectionable. He's okay with giving all new assistant professors summer move-in allowances. But the recurring theme is: Things are fine just the way they are. Don't require classes on the history and legacy of racism because classes in American history already have enough in them about slavery and race. No one can pass a purity test, so why try to think critically about the past? The op-ed reads above all as a plea. Please don't ask me to think about racism, or change anything in the way I conduct my professional life at Princeton, or listen to people of color when they talk about racism.
What's gotten lost in the talk about the right to free speech over the past couple weeks, as President Eisgruber recently emphasized, is the responsibility to maintain "a climate of mutual respect," as laid out in 1.1.3 ("Statement of Freedom of Expression") of the University's Rights, Rules, Responsibilities 2020. We all also have a responsibility to foster "an environment that recognizes both the distinctiveness of each person's experience and the common humanity that unites us all," as laid out at 1.1.4 ("Statement on Diversity and Community").
White members of the Princeton community, however, have a particular responsibility right now. We must do some searching self-examination about what this moment in the history of the fight against racism asks of us. We must try harder to hear what our colleagues of color are telling us before we demand the right to speak.
In the past couple weeks, I've been stunned by the repeated refusal to recognize the threats of violence that Black faculty, students, and alums routinely face when they exercise their rights to speak out, peacefully protest, and move freely. I believe Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor when she writes that after criticizing President Trump as a "racist, sexist megalomaniac" in a speech in 2017, she received a flood of emails threatening rape and lynching, and Princeton's Department of African American Studies "was so flooded with hate that the locks on the doors had to be changed." I believe Professor Tracy K. Smith when she reports that members of the Black Justice League saw "an uptick in death threats" after Professor Katz's op-ed. I believe students of color who have reported being physically menaced on Princeton's campus in recent weeks. If you defend the language of the op-ed against the charge of reckless endangerment, my question to you is this: "Why don't you believe them?"
Anyone committed to the conversation around race on campus, and in classics and historical linguistics in particular, should read the recent statement signed by ninety students and alums of the Princeton Department of Classics and Program in Linguistics, a number of them Black, Latinx, and Asian.
Especially unproductive is the attempt to keep the labor of faculty of color invisible by reframing it as privilege. We need to recognize and compensate this labor. We need to hire many more faculty of color. We need many more faculty of color in positions of leadership where their voices will be amplified and where they can implement their visions for this institution. And all of us on campus need to stop spending our energy fighting for the status quo and help take the spirit and the praxis of the open letter forward.
Here's a bit from that "recent statement" by ninety students and alumni of the Classics department and Linguistics program:
We applaud faculty members who have taken proactive rather than reactive stances, and we challenge the classics department and the University more broadly to bolster their commitments in reforming curricula, pedagogy, and hiring practices. The spirit of Katz's writing is not new for him, the University, or the field of classics. Yet when the institutional memory of an undergraduate concentrator is so narrow, many students only realize the unique complicity of classics in white supremacy and Eurocentrism toward the end of their undergraduate education. This is beginning to change, and it must change. A list of anti-racist policy changes is currently being drafted to submit to the department, and the implementation of these policies should take center stage.
This is barking mad. The Classics studies Greek and Roman cultures. How on earth could it not be "Eurocentric" and still be the classics? In what conceivable sense are the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans "white"? It's ideological insanity - and it is being taken up in the Princeton Classics Department.
In January 2019, I wrote a longish post about wokeness coming to the field of Classics. It included a statement by Prof. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a black colleague of Katz's at Princeton, who claimed that the field of Classics is unsalvageably racist, and that it must be destroyed. What kind of insane institution employs a scholar who wants to destroy his field?! You can read Peralta's entire rant here. And if you don't think he wants to destroy the field, read his last line to the Chronicle of Higher Education here.
It would appear that this radicalization is well underway at Princeton. Who knows what is going to happen to Joshua Katz? It's hard to see how he could keep working in that department, or why he would want to, as it appears the department is going to empower radicals like Prof. Padilla Peralta and ideologized white allies like Brooke Holmes to wreck the discipline and remake it according to ideological criteria. This is a warning to aspiring Classics scholars: stay away from Princeton, for the rot has set in.
I keep going back to this passage from Live Not By Lies, so very relevant to what's happening at Princeton today, and in so many institutions:
Heda Margolius Kovály, a disillusioned Czech communist whose husband was executed after a 1952 show trial, reflects on the willingness of people to turn their backs on the truth for the sake of an ideological cause.
It is not hard for a totalitarian regime to keep people ignorant. Once you relinquish your freedom for the sake of "understood necessity," for Party discipline, for conformity with the regime, for the greatness and glory of the Fatherland, or for any of the substitutes that are so convincingly offered, you cede your claim to the truth. Slowly, drop by drop, your life begins to ooze away just as surely as if you had slashed your wrists; you have voluntarily condemned yourself to helplessness.
You can surrender your moral responsibility to be honest out of misplaced idealism. You can also surrender it by hating others more than you love truth. In pre-totalitarian states, Arendt writes, hating "respectable society" was so narcotic, that elites were willing to accept "monstrous forgeries in historiography" for the sake of striking back at those who, in their view, had "excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind."For example, many who didn't really accept Marx's revisionist take on history- that it is a manifestation of class struggle- were willing to affirm it because it was a useful tool to punish those they despised.
Princeton - at least its Classics department - is relinquishing its freedom for the sake of the "understood necessity" of "antiracism." Its life is now going to bleed out. And you watch: it's going to accept "monstrous forgeries in historiography" for the sake of "antiracism." It's corruption, straight up. These people don't want to be free; they want to be masters and slaves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod's commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.