This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on May 31.
Evergreen State College Biology professor Bret Weinstein is surprised. Indignant. Alarmed.
Weinstein is the new Allison Stanger—the progressive Middlebury professor still suffering a concussion from the attack by the masked anti-Charles Murray rioters on March 2. Weinstein is also the new Laura Kipnis, the progressive Northwestern professor hauled up on Title IX charges in 2015 by her university after she published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she criticized the “sexual paranoia” of some of her fellow campus feminists.
Kipnis now faces a “Jane Doe” lawsuit from a former Northwestern student Kipnis called “Nola Hartley” in her book, Unwanted Advances. Weinstein also has some kinship with Jordan Peterson, the social democratic professor at the University of Toronto who has been mobbed by protesters for his objections to proposed legislation that would require faculty members to use “non-binary pronouns” such as “zhe” and “zir.”
Weinstein, Stanger, Kipnis, and Peterson are all left-of-center faculty members who are—or were—at peace with the progressive agenda whipping through higher education like a wind-driven prairie fire in a drought. And they all found themselves suddenly on the wrong side of the flames.
Year of the Shout-Down
Judging by his op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Professor Weinstein remains puissantly in favor of Evergreen College’s progressive approach to higher education and its octopus embrace of diversity, racial grievance, and victim identity. He is no backslider from the core doctrines of contemporary academe as advanced by the last generation of leftist ideologues. He just hasn’t kept up. He’s aware of the new positions, which have evolved from the old ones, but he somehow cannot get himself to march to the new music.
The essence of the Weinstein story is that he was perfectly good with Evergreen’s “Day of Absence,” when “students and faculty of color” left campus for a day to remind those left behind how much the community as a whole was enriched by their everyday presence. But this year Evergreen flipped the theatrics and asked the white students, staff, and faculty to make themselves scarce. Weinstein objected, and then met his classes as usual on the day in question, April 12. Nothing happened. But someone was keeping track, and on May 23, some fifty students invaded his class, yelling obscenities, calling Weinstein a racist, and demanding that he resign. He now lives under a threat of violence from these students, and Evergreen’s president, George Bridges, has allegedly told the campus police to “stand down.” Weinstein is left to fend for himself.
That last detail would seem hard to believe except that it so closely matches what has happened on other campuses. Stanley Kurtz has put together a nice compendium of “The Year of the Shout-Down,” and more than a few of the incidents involve college authorities simply deciding not to enforce their institution’s own rules against disruptions. Middlebury president Laurie Patton “vowed” accountability to the disruptors, but then handed out wrist slaps of a leniency similar to a mandatory application Oil of Olay hand cream.
Patton and the other presidents who stand by and do nothing are not just appeasers of the student mobs; they are diffident admirers. They dare not say outright that the raw authenticity of black students tearing the place up with the connivance of white “allies” gladdens their progressive hearts. They know the alumni wouldn’t like that. But these presidents will do all in their considerable power to protect their cohort of mischievous social justice warriors. Those mobs threatening conservative speakers and insufficiently enthusiastic progressive professors are a badge of honor for the college presidents whose greatest fear is that they will be left out of the Great Historical Moment.
White Racism—Is It Relentless?
Perhaps the biggest question for those outside the academy is: What is that Great Historical Moment? It is probably best grasped as Ferguson, though it could as easily be named Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter, or even the Obama Era. It is the moment defined in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, in which the fading residue of institutionalized racial discrimination is amped up to a belief that white hatred of blacks pervades every aspect of American society, and nothing short of a revolution will end it.
The less actual evidence there is of racial animosity coming from whites, the more important it is to conjure its insidious presence, and the more urgent it is to teach the coming generation of black Americans to ground their lives in victimhood, resentment, and robust resistance to surrounding society. This apotheosis of resentment, of course, is not limited to blacks. Any collection of people willing to band together into an identity group based on a history of victimization can do the same thing. Women, Hispanics, Native Americans, illegal immigrants, and sexual minorities of all sorts can adapt both the logic and the techniques of revolutionary existential despair. But black Americans define this territory; the others merely emulate.
The Great Historical Moment comes with the realization that this movement must discard all the old forms of civility that governed society in general and the university in particular. Willingness to listen to arguments on the other side is a sign of weakness. Toleration of dissent from the views being asserted today only vitiates the solidarity of the movement. Deference to the individuality of people in all their diversity dilutes the purity of the group’s will to power.
Professor Weinstein is blind to most of this. He persists in thinking that he is engaged in a defense of liberal or even progressive principles. In his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he sees himself as a critic of President Bridges’ campaign to substitute the principle of “equity” for the formerly reigning shibboleth, “diversity.” The “equity agenda” at Evergreen ramps up the demand for hiring people on the basis of race rather than ability or accomplishment. The diversity agenda, of course, did the same thing, but lightly disguised the proceedings with an appeal to the good will of all involved. “Equity” removed the velvet wrapper from the iron fist. And Weinstein sees this as finding support among the campus postmodernists.
Here Comes the Equity Agenda
He is not wrong about the postmodern element. He is speaking of those academics who can no longer credit the idea that there are foundational truths, and who instead see the world is little more than fragments of attention spent on a perpetual struggle for power and privilege. These folks, holding forth in the humanities, have no basis on which to stand against an organized grievance group. Unable to oppose it, they either accede to it or adopt it as their own.
Jonathan Haidt has drawn some plausible conclusions from the Weinstein affair, coming on top of other such descents. Haidt observes that the rules appear to be: (1) “Never object to a diversity policy publicly”; (2) “Do not assume that being politically progressive will protect you”; (3) “If a mob comes for you, there is a good chance that the president of your university will side with the mob and validate its narrative”; and (4) “If a mob comes for you, the great majority of its members will be non-violent, [but] you must assume that one or more of its members is willing to use violence against you.”
Alas, these are sound points. But they probably do not go quite far enough. What I have called the Great Historical Moment is a delusion that lives in the heads of a great many faculty members, college presidents, and even some trustees. It has found fertile ground in the minds of a generation of students who have been marinated for their entire education in progressive ideology and who have but the thinnest comprehension of human nature, civilization, the rule of law, and American history. They have a rage to destroy, and only utopian fantasies to put in place of what they would tear down.
Like all utopian movements, this one will also fail. The great Historical Moment is a figment of their collective imagination. But the failure is bound to be costly, not only to the students themselves but also to the institutions that have fostered it.
Evergreen College was a somewhat silly experiment when it was started in 1967. It belongs to a small category of “alternative” colleges opened in that era, including Hampshire (1970) and Prescott (1966), which replaced traditional curriculum with a surfeit of progressive novelties. What the Weinstein affair really teaches is that the experiment has run its course. But it may take a few years for Evergreen to realize that.