A fictional account of academic cancel culture
mirrors a troubling reality on campuses today
By: Richard L. Cravatts
In 2017, a controversy embroiled Bret Weinstein, a self-described liberal, white professor at Evergreen State College, who was vilified by students when he refused to stay off campus on the School’s Day of Absence, an annual event during which Evergreen’s white students and faculty are urged not to come to campus. “On a college campus,” Weinstein told students, “one’s right to speak—or to be—must never be based on skin color.”
In response to what was perceived to be his astounding audacity in questioning what had become black students’ opportunity to banish whites from campus in order to promote their self-determination, Weinstein was denounced for his “anti-blackness,” faced calls for his dismissal, and even confronted threats to do him physical harm, as student thugs, armed with clubs and baseball bats, roamed the campus looking for Weinstein and other administrators who prostrated themselves before the social justice warrior hordes who virtually took over the entire campus and, as a reward for their criminal behavior, wrestled a bundle of concessions from the feckless administration.
Professor Weinstein was one of the first—and one of the most visible—victims in the cancel culture that has now engulfed many university campuses, paroxysmic moral orgies in which virtue-signaling students and faculty—usually, though not exclusively, on the left—censure and public humiliate anyone who has voiced unacceptable opinions, written forbidden thought, taught dissenting views that challenge or question the prevailing orthodoxy of race-obsessed universities.
This troubling trend forms the basis of a satiric, yet dark new novel from Professor Andrew Pessin, Nevergreen (previously reviewed at FrontPage Magazine by the insightful Daniel Greenfield), a book whose own title gives a nod to the Evergreen affair and which follows the tortured protagonist, J., a middle-aged, burnt-out professor who finds himself on the Nevergreen island campus as a guest speaker, and ends up in a nightmarish Orwellian pursuit by students who “hate hate” and wish to violently purge all haters from their midst.
Nevergreen is literally an island in the book and it is a fitting setting for this morality play since universities have been referred to as “islands of repression in a sea of freedom,” places, like Nevergreen, where coddled, virtue-signaling students take it upon themselves to purge their schools of dissenting thought—that is, any views not in lockstep with their progressive ideas of the power and sanctity of identity politics
The situation, though exaggerated in the novel to make its cynical point, has unfortunately been played out on dozens of campuses where faculty, and some students, have been maligned and made into pariahs for articulating views that are unacceptable to self-professed virtuous social justice warriors. In fact, the National Association of Scholars has compiled a revealing, though troubling, list of over 180 academic cancellations in the United States and Canada, outlining the professors, the alleged offenses, and the campus reaction in each instance.
None of the victims of campus cancel culture have had to face potential physical harm, as does the protagonist of Nevergreen, but the message of the exaggerated action of the novel is clear: that this troubling trend on campus which has students and faculty purging thought with which they disapprove, assuming their views are the only correct one, is what Rod Dreher as termed “soft totalitarianism.”
Not coincidentally, one of cancel culture’s victims is Professor Pessin himself, who found himself vilified on his Connecticut College campus, not only by a cadre of ethnic hustlers and activists, but by fellow faculty and an administration that was slow to defend Pessin’s right to express himself.
In August of 2014, during Israel’s incursions into Gaza to suppress deadly rocket fire aimed at Jewish citizens, Pessin, a teacher of religion and philosophy, wrote on his Facebook page a description of how he perceived Hamas, the ruling political entity in Gaza: “One image which essentializes the current situation in Gaza might be this. You’ve got a rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.”
That image of a pit bull did not sit well with at least one Connecticut College student, Lamiya Khandaker, who, not coincidentally, had founded a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the virulently anti-Israel, sometimes anti-Semitic student activist group. Khandaker complained publicly about Pessin’s old Facebook post, asserting that it was dehumanizing and racist, and claiming that Pessin was characterizing all Palestinians, not just Hamas, as pit bulls.
Faculty from the College’s History Department joined the fray (including the school’s newspaper) in vilifying Pessin and expressing their self-righteousness, announcing that “we condemn speech filled with bigotry and hate particularly when that speech uses dehumanizing language and incites or celebrates violence and brutality” and accusing Pessin of being complicit in a wide range of oppression, subjugation, racism, and even genocide– an odd accusation to make against an individual who had critiqued the behavior of a terrorist group.
As the 2020 academic year opened, as a more recent example, “anti-racist” Skidmore students presented 19 demands to the administration, including the predictable ones, such as “a zero-tolerance policy toward racism among faculty, staff, students and administrators” and “mandatory and reoccurring anti-racist training for all professors and students.” But perhaps most troubling on this list was the one very specific demand that called for two studio art professors, David Peterson, and Andrea Peterson, to be immediately fired. What was the grave offense that would have justified terminating someone’s academic career? The two professors, the triggered and indignant students revealed, “were seen protesting with Blue Lives Matter protestors, while Skidmore alumni and students were being teargassed and attacked on the other side of the street,” and this mere presence at the pro-police rally was clear evidence to these fragile students that the Petersons were “openly advocating and preaching exclusionary, racist, and fascist ideology.” [Emphasis added.]
Last November, eight McGill University student organizations not only outrageously critiqued the University’s stated policies on academic freedom, but also attacked Philip Salzman, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, demanding that he be stripped of his academic credentials and have his McGill connection erased. In their letter, they suggested that if members of the McGill community are able to express their views without restraint—and without considering how this expression may negatively affect victim groups and individuals on the McGill campus—then academic freedom must be contained and restricted to avoid “harming” these alleged victims.
The letter specifically denounced Salzman’s writing because, the tendentious students wrote, he presented “opinions as if they are objective facts.” The students, of course, did the exact same thing by claiming that inclusivity, diversity, social justice, white supremacy, systemic racism, and Islamophobia, for instance—many of the terms that animate current progressive thought—are themselves absolute truths and not subject to vigorous debate, discussion, and critique, precisely what Professor Salzman’s articles do. And here the students reveal their primary, though flawed, view: that regardless of how legitimate Salzman’s viewpoints may be (a point which they do not, of course, even consider), the sensitivity and feelings of his purported victims is more important than the creation of knowledge and academic discourse.
Another target of virtue-signaling woke students is Charles Negy, an associate professor in the University of Central Florida’s Psychology Department. Negy’s thoughtcrime? In now-deleted tweets, Negy, who has taught at UCF for 22 years and presumably enjoys the protection of tenure, questioned one of the prevailing absolutes on university campuses: namely, that what is called “systemic racism” permeates and defines American society, and that even on university campuses—those places where the most enlightened and sensitive of all citizens reside—racism still shows itself in a dark undercurrent of bigotry, bias, and repressed hatred for non-white others.
Negy rejected the notion of rampant, systemic racism in American society and made the mistake of publicly questioning the idea that racism is so prevalent, so unrelenting that it defines all of our interactions and is the reason why, Negy mused, that Asians, as one visible example, thrive academically, economically, and socially while blacks do not.
“If Afr. [sic] Americans as a group,” Negy tweeted, “had the same behavioral profile as Asian Americans (on average, performing the best academically, having the highest income, committing the lowest crime, etc.), would we still be proclaiming ‘systematic racism’ exists?” What Negy suggested, of course, is heresy in the victim-centered culture of academia, where personal responsibility and initiative are discounted, and the oppression of the dominant white culture is assumed to be the principal impediment to the personal achievement of non-white groups.
Professor Negy also challenged the notion of “white privilege,” suggesting that decades of affirmative action, race-based preferences in hiring and college admissions, and set asides and other benefits of the welfare state have actually given black people advantages not shared with their white peers, that black people enjoy a type of privilege, too. “Black privilege is real,” Negy wrote in another now-deleted tweet. “Besides affirm. [sic] action, special scholarships and other set asides, being shielded from legitimate criticism is a privilege. But as a group, they’re missing out on much needed feedback.”
This was all too much for the sensitive and tolerant souls on the UCF campus, and a Change.org petition, which garnered some 30,000 signatures, was soon circulating in which Negy’s firing was demanded.
Negy’s experience—and the veritable inquisition he has endured as the administration marshaled considerable resources (including a 244-page investigative report) to force his resignation or build a case for his dismissal—is not, of course, unique, particularly in the Black Lives Matter era. At Harvard University, for example, one of the recent faculty targets was David Kane, Preceptor in Statistical Methods and Mathematics in the university’s Department of Government, who was the subject of condemnation for questioning some of the universally accepted notions about race when some of his assiduous students uncovered what they perceived to be racist posts he had allegedly written on his website EphBlog. over the course of several years under the pseudonym “David Dudley Field ’25.”
One of Kane’s posts suggested that, due to race preferences, over 90 percent of Black students at Williams College would not have been admitted if it were not for their “Black’ness” [sic], and questioned why, while Williams College publicly condemned a white supremacist group, the college did not similarly condemn the Black Lives Matter movement and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
Kane and Negy articulated opinions that caused great discomfort for many who want to reveal endemic racism where it may or may not even exist, primarily because academia is in the thrall of diversity and inclusion and is more committed to perpetuating the victimhood of minority students than it is to dealing with facts, statistics, and opposing views about personal responsibility and academic performance. Those moral heretics who dare to express alternate, even factual, views about race are summarily censured, maligned as racists, and sometimes even purged from the campus community.
In writing about the Kane situation, for example, the censorious Editorial Board of the Harvard Crimson actually called for the professor’s firing. “The posts are unacceptable,” the editorial said. “Our issue with them goes beyond mere differences in political opinion . . . [and] if the allegations that the posts authored by “Field” were written by Kane are true, the suggestion that 90 percent of Black students at Williams don’t belong there and the defense of literal Nazism have irreparably damaged Kane’s ability to serve as an instructor . . . He simply cannot serve as an effective preceptor — certainly not to the Black students whose belonging at higher education institutions (and evidently in this country) he allegedly challenges, but also not to anyone with a basic intolerance for bigotry. In short, David Kane, assuming the allegations are true, must be fired.”
That woke student perpetrators, in ideological wildings, do this out of some professed concern for the oppressed does not excuse their behavior because they not only violate the important values of academic free speech and expression, but their behavior is also antithetical to what the university was created for in the first place: an intellectual marketplace of ideas where debate, research, and dialogue can lead us to truths and knowledge, a situation sadly absent from most campuses today.
The notion that a vocal minority of self-important ideologues can determine what views may or may not be expressed on a particular campus is not only antithetical to the purpose of a university, of course, but is vaguely fascistic by purposely or carelessly relinquishing power to a few to decide what can be said and what speech is allowed and what must be suppressed; it is what former Yale University president Bartlett Giamatti characterized as the “tyranny of group self-righteousness.”
The novel Nevergreen, and the real-world unfortunate examples of canceled academics reviewed here, are both a warning and demonstration of how this tyranny has a high, and tragic, human cost.
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.