Recovering the Remnants
Some years ago, I was in charge of an expedition for a small college that wanted to retrieve its 100,000-volume library from cold storage. The college, closed ten years earlier, had reopened. The library had spent the intervening decade crated on pallets in a former nickel factory in upstate New York. Retrieving them was a priority, but no one had visited that shuttered factory in a long time.
I didn’t know what to expect, but when I unchained the factory door, my heart sank. The stench was overwhelming. Standing water lay nearly a foot deep in places. The lower levels of book boxes were submerged. Skeletons of animals that had wandered in and expired among the debris lay atop the decay. I returned a week later with a crew equipped with face masks, miner’s hats, and lights, determined to rescue whatever we could from cavernous waste.
Miraculously, a few books did survive, but rather than rehabilitate them, a college official decided to sell them off in bulk to a dealer.
Lost and Found
Exploring abandoned buildings and forsaken places has become a trendy pursuit. New York City has old subway stops hidden in the maze of tunnels that intrepid seekers-out of past glories venture into. Such pursuits are popular in Europe, too, as evidenced by Henk Van Rensbergen’s photo-essay Abandoned Places (Lannoo, 2016). It offers the instant pathos of factories, power plants, houses, hotels, theaters, villas, train stations, amusement parks, a clinic, a dentist office, schools, and even ships left to the ravages of time. But nothing is sadder than the pictures of abandoned libraries in Italy and Detroit.
Van Rensbergen’s pages on Detroit include the Michigan Central Train Station and “the drafty corridors of the Packard Plant,” complete with a skeletal green truck, like a blade of grass poking through the monochrome ruins. Detroit opened the Mark Twain branch library on the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Seneca Street in February 1940. It closed in the summer of 1990 amid financial troubles for the public library system, reopened sporadically for a few days a week in early 1990s, and then was left to its fate in 1999 when the cost of repairs was deemed beyond reach. In 2000 a contractor sized it up as too hazardous even to inspect, and in 2011 it was finally pulled down. But not before Van Rensbergen captured his images of the books moldering on their shelves, fluorescent light fixtures dangling over rubble-strewn tables and desks.
Olivier Le Carrer’s Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations (Black Dog and Leventhal, 2015) joins a growing list of niche atlases for the armchair explorer, including The Atlas of Lost Cities, The Atlas of Improbable Places, and The Atlas of Remote Islands. In contrast to Van Rensbergen’s haunting photographs, Le Carrer supplies only maps—some sepia, others the faded colors of old geography books—each accompanied by a page or two of dire text. Most of Le Carrer’s cursed places are at least faintly familiar to educated readers. The Château de Montségur was the last bastion of the Cathars, captured by the forces of Louis IX in 1244, where some two hundred men and women were burnt alive for heresy. In the cemetery at Carthage the ashes of tens of thousands of children sacrificed to the pagan gods were interred. Here, too, are Scylla and Charybdis, the actual places rather than the monsters encountered by Odysseus. But Le Carrer also charts some lesser known locales, such as Adams, Tennessee, site of an Amityville-style haunting between 1817 and 1821, and Gur-Emir, the mausoleum built by Timur in 1403 for his favorite grandson, and the repository to the murderous Timur’s own remains.
I have taken a break from this column’s carrion feast of books on higher education. Much of the academic world remains in its swoon of despair over the election of Donald Trump. His electoral triumph, however, has been turned to good use by apologists for all manner of bad behavior on campus. When Middlebury College students rioted to prevent Charles Murray from speaking, some quickly explained that the students could hardly help themselves, this being, after all, the Age of Trump. Murray himself is an ardent critic of Trump, but that hardly stands in the way of the larger rationalization. The most distilled version of this explanation I have found came from Paul Fleckenstein, writing on March 13 on “What Happened at the Middlebury Protest?” for SocialistWorker.org: The protest of Murray isn’t the first disruption and cancellation of a right-wing speaker in the Trump era, and it won’t be the last. With the right wing on the offensive—particularly the emboldened far right—it is important for the left to discuss how best to confront the threat and build our organizational capacity to resist on campuses and elsewhere. Here are some starting points. The first is that we must resist the media-fueled backlash and defend the right to protest Charles Murray as both legitimate and necessary. It was outrageous that Middlebury College gave official sanction—through departmental sponsorship and an introduction by the college president—to a lecture by a right-wing hack whose lucrative career was built on legitimizing racism and reactionary politics. (https://socialistworker.org/2017/03/13/what-happened-at-the-middlebury-protest)
The protest of Murray isn’t the first disruption and cancellation of a right-wing speaker in the Trump era, and it won’t be the last.
With the right wing on the offensive—particularly the emboldened far right—it is important for the left to discuss how best to confront the threat and build our organizational capacity to resist on campuses and elsewhere. Here are some starting points.
The first is that we must resist the media-fueled backlash and defend the right to protest Charles Murray as both legitimate and necessary.
It was outrageous that Middlebury College gave official sanction—through departmental sponsorship and an introduction by the college president—to a lecture by a right-wing hack whose lucrative career was built on legitimizing racism and reactionary politics. (https://socialistworker.org/2017/03/13/what-happened-at-the-middlebury-protest)
Fleckenstein is a “longtime activist and socialist in Vermont” and a “co-op efficiency program manager” in Burlington, not an academic, but his account matches perfectly with what a good many Middlebury faculty members and students were saying. The election of Trump has “emboldened” people like Murray, who constitute the “Far Right,” and vigorous resistance is needed. The great danger, from this perspective, is that “the right to protest” will be weakened.
This right to protest is apparently much broader than many of us supposed. It includes the right to silence speakers, set off fire alarms in the absence of fires, block entrances and exits, wear face masks, and physically assault those who hold views with which we disagree. Extended to Berkeley, the right to protest includes the right to arson, to pepper-spray bystanders, and to vandalize private property for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
“Protest,” in other words, looks a lot like what radicals used to call “revolutionary struggle.” The adoption of a euphemism is worth noting in that it implies a certain sensitivity to public opinion that isn’t obvious from the roaring, profanity-clotted aggression of the mobs engaged in such “protest.”
Published in May 2016, before anyone in higher education had reckoned seriously with the idea that Donald Trump would win the presidency, Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice (Oxford, 2016) would seem on its title alone to be a book right for our times. Anger: we have much of it. Forgiveness: not so much. Resentment: claims are staked faster than those of the California Gold Rush. Generosity? Justice? Those are words of uncertain meaning today.
Oscar López Rivera, the Puerto Rican terrorist who participated in more than one hundred bombings and killed at least four people when he helped bomb Fraunces Tavern in New York City in 1975, had his seventy-year prison sentence commuted by President Obama in the last days of his administration. Mayor De Blasio supported having López Rivera especially honored in the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in June, but as sponsors and participants pulled out, the mayor reduced López Rivera from honoree to mere participant. The New York City Council, however, has reaffirmed that López Rivera will be among the honorees.
Does Nussbaum’s book help us comprehend these matters? I think not, but then I am the author of another book on the subject, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (Encounter Books, 2006), which argues a very different interpretation of the matters at hand. (Nussbaum makes no reference to A Bee in the Mouth, so the disagreement is one-sided.) Nussbaum’s basic argument is that anger is good: “Anger seems, quite simply, to be justified: outrage at terrible wrongs is right, and anger thus expresses something true.” But her basic position is complicated by her recognition that the “most successful struggles for revolutionary justice over the past hundred years…were conducted with a profound commitment to non-anger.” She is referring to Gandhi, King, and Mandela. Nussbaum’s path to “justice” lies through the creation of what she calls “trust.”
I argue in A Bee in the Mouth that, beginning in the post-World War II era, America experienced a profound cultural shift in its attitude toward anger. For centuries, the easy resort to anger was treated as a weakness in both men and women; children were taught to check the emotion; and when anger inevitably erupted, those who gave it voice were subject to a fairly fine weave of social controls. Shame, reproving, and ostracism came into play. And those who successfully mastered their angry impulses were met with public esteem, including that very angry young man, George Washington, who so completely took control of himself that today we forget he was once known for his towering temper.
Nussbaum recognizes that anger can be misspent and that a “narcissistic” form of anger exists that “converts all injuries into problems of relative position, thus making the world revolve around the desire of vulnerable selves for domination and control.” Nussbaum glances dismissively at this kind of anger and moves on to her main topic: the harnessing of anger in the pursuit of “social justice.” Broadly, Nussbaum’s book is counsel to the effect that those who get angry for the right reasons (“normatively reasonable” anger “focused on the injury”) soon recognize that anger just gets in the way of “forward-looking thoughts of welfare” and “compassionate hope.” These enlightened souls then suppress their anger—a shift she calls “the Transition.”
Nussbaum and I thus converge on the idea that sustained anger is seldom of much value in advancing positive social goals. She and I no doubt disagree about the goals themselves, Nussbaum being one of America’s best-known champions of multiculturalism. Her book, however, aims at a universal treatment of anger, and spends zero time on the particularities of America or, for that matter, that great nursery and staging ground of experimental anger: the college campus.
One need not look far, however, to find accounts of how we nurture histrionic resentment in American youth. Some colleges even seem to specialize in a choleric curriculum. The Bret Weinstein affair at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, brought this to light. Weinstein, a biology professor, declined to participate in an April 12 “Day of Absence,” in which all the white students and faculty members were supposed to absent themselves from campus as an odd gesture of solidarity with minority students. Weinstein’s refusal eventuated in a mob of black students invading his class on May 23 to demand his resignation. The details were widely reported and discussed, including by me in “Angry Students Turn on Another Progressive Prof at Evergreen” (Minding the Campus, May 31, 2017, http://www.mindingthecampus.org/2017/05/angry-students-turn-on-another-progressive-prof-at-evergreen/), but among the many comments, the reflections of Mark Musser, a 1989 Evergreen graduate, stand out. In “What I Saw at Evergreen State College,” Musser summarizes the school as an anti-traditional college that prides itself on its anti-capitalism, socialism, radical environmentalism, postmodernism, and Marxism, with a special emphasis upon indigenous values that convert the old American melting pot ideal into a subversive form of racist multi-tribalism under the guise of progressive multiculturalism. (American Thinker, June 5, 2017, http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2017/06/what_i_saw_at_evergreen_state_college.html)
an anti-traditional college that prides itself on its anti-capitalism, socialism, radical environmentalism, postmodernism, and Marxism, with a special emphasis upon indigenous values that convert the old American melting pot ideal into a subversive form of racist multi-tribalism under the guise of progressive multiculturalism. (American Thinker, June 5, 2017, http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2017/06/what_i_saw_at_evergreen_state_college.html)
Evergreen lacks traditional academic courses, grades, and standards. The college’s “holistic” approach wraps many different subjects into long studies. Musser offers several examples, including a 32-credit course my freshman year entitled “Political Ecology” that was two quarters long. While it was largely a nonstop attack on Christianity and capitalism for helping precipitate the ecological crisis of modern times, all of the credits were divided among ecological studies, agricultural studies, Native American studies, geography, evolutionary biology, and creative writing, among other credits.
a 32-credit course my freshman year entitled “Political Ecology” that was two quarters long. While it was largely a nonstop attack on Christianity and capitalism for helping precipitate the ecological crisis of modern times, all of the credits were divided among ecological studies, agricultural studies, Native American studies, geography, evolutionary biology, and creative writing, among other credits.
Stripped to its basics, the Evergreen undergraduate program is an intensive four-year seminar in cultural resentment. It has resulted in a cohort of students who espouse violence as the most expeditious path to their political goals; a college administration that quickly capitulated to the demands of this faction; and a public demand by more than fifty faculty members that the college punish Weinstein for “endangering” the community by “making them targets of white supremacist backlash” (see https://www.thecollegefix.com/post/32946/). They declare, “We are angry and frustrated and concerned.” Naturally.
Evergreen’s descent, of course, falls into a growing list of instances in which angry campus leftists have turned on other campus leftists whom they accuse of betraying the cause. Middlebury professor Allison Stanger, assaulted by the masked anti-Charles Murray rioters on March 2; Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, forced to defend herself against Title IX charges for publicly criticizing the “sexual paranoia” of fellow campus feminists; and University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, attacked for his refusal to accept “non-binary pronouns” such as “zhe” and “zir,” exemplify this Left-on-Left anger. Left-on-Right anger is, of course, much more abundant and visible in anti-Trump demonstrations, disinvitations to conservative speakers, and protests whenever someone not explicitly aligned to the Left’s agenda does attempt to speak. The instances of Left-on-Left anger, however, bring the decay of academic virtues into even starker focus.
In the Laura Kipnis case, we now have her testament in the form of a short book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (HarperCollins, 2017). A large portion of the book deals with Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern University philosophy professor at the time, who was accused by an undergraduate student of sexual harassment. Kipnis argues the charge was unfounded and that Northwestern, operating under the pernicious Title IX interpretation promulgated by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights during the Obama administration, railroaded Ludlow. It was by arguing for his innocence that Kipnis herself ran afoul of the Title IX police. And after publishing her book, she now faces a lawsuit from the former undergraduate who accused Ludlow. Kipnis never identifies this student by name, but quotes extensively from her erratic and contradictory statements. Prof. Ludlow, it may be, was the victim of an unrequited crush, but he was the sort of relaxed, boundary-ignoring teacher who was ripe for the sort of attack the student unleashed. In Kipnis’s view, a “flirtation” became a career-ending disaster.
Kipnis ends her book with a call for “grown-up feminism,” but that sounds, on her own evidence, like a call for a more mature form of infantilization. “Educational measures [that are] leaving college women effectively crippled” by making them unable to cope with the ordinary vicissitudes of life and urging them to respond with unbridled anger at whatever provokes them are not likely to give way to requiring colleges to “teach freshman women self-defense.”
Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson’s The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (University of Chicago, 2017) looks at first glance like a book that might be calling for a return to robust debate in our public schools. Zimmerman and Robertson decry the reluctance of teachers to take up controversial issues. But no later than page 3 they begin to carve out exceptions: matters that should not be open for debate, namely “the existence of human-made climate change would not be a legitimate topic for discussion in our schools.” Why not? Because, as they see it, human-made climate change fails to meet the “standard” of a question “contested by its most informed scholars.” Too bad, Willie Soon, William Happer, Patrick Michaels, Matt Ridley, Fred Singer, Roy Spencer, Richard Lindzen, and all the other “climate skeptics.” Zimmerman and Robertson have written you out of the universe of “informed scholars.”
If this most exemplary of controversial issues—one with powerful arguments and evidence on both sides—is off-limits in a book arguing for teaching more controversies in public schools, what in the world do Zimmerman and Robertson think should be taught? The Case for Contention has an oddly disembodied quality. It mostly argues procedure, with only one slightly elaborated example: teaching about white privilege. In the concluding pages the authors break their reticence and suggest that teaching about Ferguson, the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush’s handling of the Katrina crisis, and same-sex marriage might also qualify as controversies that can and should be taught.
The Case for Contention perhaps best serves as an example of purblind liberalism, in love with the concept of open-mindedness but oblivious to its own closed-minded prescriptions.
All things pass; some things leaving scary remnants. Books swimming in a stagnant indoors sea. Skeletal green trucks in a gray Packard plant. The last redoubt of the Cathars, before they were burned. Is academic freedom likewise destined for the pyre? Will we burn the remnants of civilization in a pillar of angry fire?
I came back from the recent Heritage Foundation “Resource Bank” conference in Colorado Springs with a souvenir purchased at the Broadmoor Hotel’s mineral shop: a fossil tooth from the splendid megalodon, the giant (sixty-foot) sharks with serrated teeth that patrolled the Pliocene seas. In truth, I have only half a tooth, polished flat on one side and sold as a paperweight, but sharp enough on its edge to serve as a kitchen knife.
Today’s colleges and universities are breeding would-be megalodons. It is nice to be reminded that they, too, will one day be paperweights.