Greg Lukianoff on the recent history of campus free speech

December 15, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Over at the Reason site, Greg Lukianoff has an interesting article on the two (yes, two) ages of American political correctness. You’ll have heard of Greg, as he’s president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and co-author with Jon Haidt of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.  The present article is not on the FIRE site, so represents Lukianoff’s personal analysis rather than any official statement of FIRE. But it’s an interesting analysis, although some people may find it long. Click screenshot to read it.

I’ll give a brief summary. The article, as one expects, deals mainly with issues on campus

We’re noqw in the “Second Great Age of Political Correctness”, which Lukianoff sees as extending roughly from 2015 to the present.  This means that, as during the First Age (1980-around 1995), there was the the “political correctness” we see today: divisiveness between “tribes” on campus, a disconnect between students and administrators (but in the earlier years, the administrators were the censors), and approved language which was eventually mocked as “p.c.”

The period of quiescence lasted from about 1995-2015. Now, of course, we know what age we’re in, because it’s largely the subject of this website. Colleges have speech codes, approved ways of talking and thinking, punishment and demonization of transgressors, and restrictions on freedom of speech that causes speakers to be deplatformed. This trend has of course spread beyond campus, most notably into the media.

It’s Lukianoff’s contention that during the Great Quiescence, the ground was being laid for our present age of political correctness. What happened? First of all, administrators began burgeoning in colleges, and many of these came from schools of education, which are seen as the most activist educational institutions of all. Thus a flood of activist administrators was filling the colleges, as well as secondary schools. Universities then began hiring “more politically homogenous professors and administrators; and reframing speech policing as a crucial part of protecting students’ mental health.”

And there was this:

But it wasn’t just an increase in coverage. Something else had changed on campus. During the previous two decades, administrators were usually the leaders of campus censorship campaigns. Students, in turn, resisted those efforts. In late 2013, however, there was an explosion in censorship that was student-led. The infrastructure built during the Ignored Years was producing downstream effects.

The generation hitting campuses in 2013 had been educated by the graduates of those activist education schools. In some cases they were literally the children of the students who had pushed for (or at least were OK with) speech codes in the ’80s and ’90s.

This generation also grew up with social media; it had a genuine awareness of how hurtful and nasty speech can be, especially when anonymous and online. But it had not been taught that freedom to engage in nasty speech is necessary to the functioning of our democracy and to the production of knowledge.

This all sounds plausible, and a lot of Lukianoff’s article goes to documenting the deplatformings of speakers (now largely but not exclusively to the Left), the Right’s attempt at censorship by passing anti-CRT laws, the firing of professors for saying verboten things and making Nazi salutes (yes, the salute thing really happened, and is not a fantasy of “The Chair” t.v. show), the creation of Pecksniffian “bias response teams” to police campus behavior, and the increasing polarization and liberalization of campuses. Here are some data just for fun:

More recent statistics paint a starker picture. A 2019 study by the National Association of Scholars on the political registration of professors at the two highest-ranked public and private universities in each state found that registered Democrat faculty outnumbered registered Republican faculty about 9-to-1. In the Northeast, the ratio was about 15-to-1.

In the most evenly split discipline, economics, Democrats outnumber Republicans “only” 3-to-1. The second most even discipline, mathematics, has a ratio of about 6-to-1. Compare this to English and sociology, where the ratios are about 27-to-1. In anthropology, it’s a staggering 42-to-1.

In the Ignored Years, higher education became far more expensive and considerably more bureaucratized. From 1994–95 to 2018–19, the inflation-adjusted cost of public college tuition nearly doubled. Meanwhile, the administrative class expanded, from roughly one administrator for every two faculty members in 1990 to nearly equal numbers of faculty and administrators in 2012.

What’s more, preliminary research showed a “12-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative college administrators,” wrote Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College in The New York Times in 2018. His conclusion: “It appears that a fairly liberal student body is being taught by a very liberal professoriate—and socialized by an incredibly liberal group of administrators.” Following the Times article, Abrams was targeted twice by students in an unsuccessful campaign to get him fired for speaking out.

So much for history. Lukianoff’s peroration is a genuinely valuable list of things that we should do “to save higher ed”. And these should be read by all college administrators and faculty:

Amid the Second Great Age of Political Correctness,American higher education has become too expensive, too illiberal, and too conformist. It has descended into a period of profound crisis wrought by shifts in hiring, student development, and politically charged speech codes developed during the Ignored Years, when too few were paying attention. American campuses should be bastions of free expression and academic freedom. Instead, both are in decline.

We cannot afford to just give up on higher ed. College and university presidents can and should do the following five things:

  1. Immediately dump all speech codes.
  2. Adopt a statement specifically identifying free speech as essential to the core purpose of a university and committing the university to free speech values.
  3. Defend the free speech rights of their students and faculty loudly, clearly, and early.
  4. Teach free speech, the philosophy of free inquiry, and academic freedom from Day One.
  5. Collect data and open their campuses to research on the climate for debate, discussion, and dissent.

Those who donate to colleges should refuse to do so without demanding these changes.

#3 and #4 particularly interest me, as I want to make sure that colleges can defend free speech, which means preventing violations of it. And this means having some kind of policy like the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, which, by preventing university administrators and departments from making official statements about politics, ideology and morality (except in specially delineated circumstances), prevents the chilling of speech by those who disagree. #4 should be a part of all orientation at colleges, and also taught in secondary schools: a unit on the reasons for our First Amendment, what it means, and why it’s valuable. Watching Hitchens’s video about free speech should be mandatory.

At the end, Lukianoff touts “alternative models to traditional higher education”. He mentions the recently-discussed “anti-woke” University of Austin, for which I have little hope, and Khan Academy, which is much better. As Lukianoff argues, “It’s not too hard to imagine a future in which employers value a mastery level from the Khan Academy or a degree from Minerva more than a degree from a middling traditional university.” I have no quarrel with that, though I’m a fan of the traditional university where you interact with your professors and fellow students online, and can have small group discussions in which people learn from each other. “Mastery” is not just the goal of college; one goal is to awaken a love of learning and dispute, an inculcation of critical analysis, and the production of students who know how to analyze evidence and come to rational conclusions. You can’t get that with an online education.

And I’m with Greg 100% in his conclusions:

The bottom line is that the opinions of professors and students should be ferociously protected, and that those who run universities must reject the idea that colleges and universities exist to impose orthodoxies on anyone. Over the past decade, too many academic institutions have grown used to promoting specific views of the world to incoming students.

Radical open-mindedness would be wildly out of place at most contemporary universities. Getting there will take substantial cultural and political change.

That starts with self-awareness. One lesson of the First Great Age of Political Correctness and the P.C. wars of the 1980s and ’90s is that it was a huge mistake to think that because a movie like PCU skewered campus culture, the problem had already fixed itself. As a result, the problem was allowed to grow worse.

We can’t make that mistake again. The ideal time for achieving real change in higher ed was 30 or even 40 years ago. The next best time is now.

Alternative and online colleges are not going to save us, for the rot has spread too far. We need adherence to the five points above, and a group of people who won’t financially support colleges who violate those points. Money talks, and colleges are already worried about the loss of income from miffed donors who aren’t down with extreme wokeness.

The “grievance studies” hoax: a forum at the Chronicle of Higher Education

July 26, 2019 • 2:15 pm

The “grievance studies” hoax conducted by Helen Pluckrose, Peter Boghossian, and James Lindsay is now so well known that it has its own Wikipedia page. I’m sure most of you know some details: the trio wrote and submitted 20 papers to journals dealing with what they call academic “grievance studies”: cultural, queer, race, gender, fat, and sexuality studies. At least seven of the papers were published, including the famous “dog park rape culture” paper, and one even won a prize.  And one of the accepted papers was larded with extensive quotations from Mein Kampf.

Just this week Boghossian, the only hoaxer who has a formal academic position, was disciplined by Portland State University, which, although it didn’t fire him, ordered him to take training in “protection of human subjects.” Until he does that and then convinces the University he understands the rules, he cannot do sponsored research, work on human subjects, or apply for grants. (I have no idea whether he’ll comply.) He had earlier been found guilty of not protecting human subjects—not the bogus subject in the hoax papers, but the reviewers and editors who were deceived by the trio’s papers. That’s a pretty lame accusation.

My own take on this is that while the hoax was duplicitous and deliberately so, it did expose the rot in some parts of the humanities in a way that would have been hard to do by other means. I can write critiques of papers on feminist glaciology or the othering, gendering, and fat-shaming of urban squirrels, but these paper-by-paper critiques showed only that an occasional howler slips through the cracks. (These papers are, however, seen as serious scholarship.) It’s another thing entirely to confect bogus papers that align with Regressive Leftist ideology, and then get these risible “studies” published in decent journals. (One remembers Alan Sokal’s famous Social Text hoax.) In other words, Pluckrose et al. got a lot more attention than I did. And that’s fine. For they did, to my mind, expose a creeping rot in the floorboards of academic humanities, which has becoming increasingly solipsistic, tendentious, propagandistic, and devoid of critical thinking but besotted with intersectionalist ideology. Were it up to me, I would not have punished Peter.

But academics went wild with rage, for, unable to stand the idea that the humanities has been infected with tendentious pomo junk scholarship, they performed what animal behaviorists call “displacement behavior”: they ignored the message and tried to kill the messengers. And you’ll see some of that in a discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the meaning of the Grievance Studies hoaxes. There are seven pieces involving eight scholars on both sides of the issue.

Click on the screenshot to read the pieces, and of course give us your own take in the comments. Below I list the authors and a snippet of their conclusions:

Quotes from the named scholars are indented; my few comments are flush left:

Yascha Mounk. a lecturer on government at Harvard University:

. . . after all, it is possible to glean valuable information from the immoral actions of evil people. And even if all of the charges laid at the feet of Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian were true, they would have demonstrated a very worrying fact: Some of the leading journals in areas like gender studies have failed to distinguish between real scholarship and intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit.

. . one thing remains incontestable in my mind: Any academic who is not at least a little troubled by the ease with which the hoaxers passed satire off as wisdom has fallen foul to the same kind of motivated reasoning and naked partisanship that is currently engulfing the country as a whole.

Carl T. Bergstrom, professor of biology at the University of Washington:

Peer review is simply not designed to detect fraud. It doesn’t need to be. Fraud is uncovered in due course, and severe professional consequences deter almost all such behavior. Nor is the peer-review process designed to weed out every crazy idea. Given the self-correcting nature of scholarship, it is far better to let through a few bad ideas than to publish only those that are so self-evident as to be without controversy.

. . . Attacking a field with satirical nonsense is ineffectual — and just plain lazy. If a field is intellectually vacuous, it is so because its central papers and most exciting conclusions are unjustified or even absurd. To effectively criticize a field, one must engage with its central tenets, its core assumptions, its accepted methods, and its primary conclusions. And then one must show where these are mistaken, incoherent, or preposterous. Sadly, the hoaxers chose a different path. They may have created a media splash, but their stunt is a hollow exercise in mean-spirited mockery rather than a substantive critique of the field.

I disagree—it does constitute a substantive critique of standards of scholarship in several fields.

Justin E.H. Smith, professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris Diderot:

Quite apart from whether “Sokal Squared” has accomplished what its authors claim, I confess I am astounded, though I really should not be by now, by the moralism and the piety toward rules and procedures that so many academics are expressing, as if hoaxing were always unethical and lacking in any potential salutary effects. These academics seem entirely unaware of the distinguished history of hoaxing, and to assume that it dates back no earlier than Sokal.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela,  associate professor of history at the New School:

In targeting journals that focus on women and minorities, they also channeled their ire at groups still struggling for representation in the academy, from faculty hiring to footnote citations, a quantitative reality that challenges the core assumption of the “Grievance Studies” crowd: that lockstep obeisance to social-justice orthodoxy is corrupting academia. This suggests more about the hoaxers’ arrogance and the limits of their intellectual vision than it does about any inherent flaw in, say, taking seriously feminist spirituality.

. . . And that’s because the greatest crisis in academia is not the peer-review process of some small, specialized journals, but the defunding and devaluing of the humanities — including not just feminist and ethnic studies, but also history, philosophy, literature, and other fields these pranksters would likely deem worthy of continued existence. It is a sad fact that this process will only accelerate, thanks in part to a new rhetorical weapon: “grievance studies.”

Perhaps these areas of the humanities have devalued themselves. In fact, I suspect that’s the case.

David Schieber, doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles [Schieber reviewed and rejected one of the hoax papers, on masturbation as a form of violence.]

In their article announcing the hoax, the writers used selected quotes from my review to argue that I supported this paper (despite recommending a rejection). This selective use of my comments seemed disingenuous. They were turning my attempt to help the authors of a rejected paper into an indictment of my field and the journal I reviewed for, even though we rejected the paper.

Heather E. Heying, former professor of evolutionary biology at Evergreen State College:

Consider what led you into academia in the first place. If you have anything of the creator or discoverer within you, remember those drives and recognize that the rising quasi-religious zealotry from those in Grievance Studies has liberty, creativity, and discovery in its cross hairs. For the practitioners of Grievance Studies, the scientific method is a tool of the patriarchy, while beliefs outside of the narrow band of conformity required by the authoritarian left are evidence of fascist, alt-right leanings. This will sound like hyperbole to those without direct experience, but I and many others have observed it firsthand.

. . . Projects like the hoax reveal character, both good and bad. Whether out of error or expedience, many in the academy will dig in on behalf of Grievance Studies. Others will be driven by fear into silence. But if you share a deep commitment to rigorous inquiry, be one of the people who stand up and say: “This is wrong. It must stop. I will help.” Speak up in faculty meetings and in hallways. Join Heterodox Academy. Support FIRE. And when you encounter this distorted pseudo-scholarship delivered as insight, proclaim as loudly as you dare: #TheyDontSpeakForMe.

Laurie Essig, professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Middlebury College and Sujata Moorti, director and a professor in the gender, sexuality, and feminist studies program at Middlebury College:

Finally, even a cursory reading of the hoaxers’ work shows that much of what they’re claiming as proof doesn’t in fact implicate the field in anything but collegiality. Their claim that their article on the pedagogy of chaining white students received positive feedback? That’s just untrue. It was rejected. Perhaps the reviewers were simply trying to be helpful. That point gets lost in the media coverage and academic trolling from outside the field.

This “Grievance Studies” hoax belongs in a larger political and historical context. Feminist and gender studies are under attack, in Hungary, Russia, and right here in the U.S. As scholars working in the field, we should know. Our own program was attacked by the right for “causing riots” when Charles Murray came to give a talk on campus — which was untrue. This allegation was then used to bring a broader attack on the field, demanding it be shut down.

Many of us in the field receive death threats, rape threats, and calls for our non-existence. The “Sokol Squared” attack sits squarely within this larger assault, whatever the hoaxers profess of their political views or goals.

This is the ultimate displacement behavior: an attack on the hoaxers for participating in an attack on the humanities, and, of course, a victimization narrative that professors in gender and feminist studies receive death and rape threats. The latter is unfortunate, but in this case besides the point. How often do we see people cite their death threats as a substitute for defending their ideas? Of course these scholars are in feminist and gender studies, and of course they’re at Middlebury College, aka Woke University.

PC culture on the wane?

October 21, 2018 • 12:30 pm

Well, I don’t know if it’s really on the wane, but it seems to be a lot less pervasive than most people think. According to a new article in The Atlantic by Yascha Mounk (screenshot below), based on a new study by an organization called More In Common (click on green screenshot below, and see pdf here), fully 80% of Americans think that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” First, though a bit about the author and the study, both of whom seem to be on the liberal side.

Yascha Mounk is described on his own website as “one of the world’s leading experts on the crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism. The author of three books, he is a Lecturer on Government at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at New America, a columnist at Slate, and the host of The Good Fight podcast.”

And “More in Common” describes itself like this:

More in Common [is] a new international initiative to build societies and communities that are stronger, more united, and more resilient to the increasing threats of polarization and social division. We work in partnership with a wide range of civil society groups, as well as philanthropy, business, faith, education, media and government to connect people across the lines of division.

Let’s just say I’ll accept the study’s results for the time being, though I’ve only glanced through it (it’s 166 pages long). The Atlantic article gives a decent summary.

Click on green screenshot below to see the study:

The authors divide Americans into seven “tribes”. The figures below are from the study:

You can read the report to see how these figures are derived, and most of the report is devoted to how tribal membership predicts a number of political views and actions that contribute to the polarization of America. The reason several readers sent me the article, however, is because of one small part of the study: the part about how Americans dislike “political correctness” (henceforth “pc”).  In fact, the authors don’t really define the term, but it appears to mean, to both them and the respondents, social strictures about saying what you think if what you think isn’t a widely accepted and liberal opinion.

One might think that if 80% of the American populace are concerned by “political correctness,” then they’d be in favor of free speech. And they are. But in fact most Americans of all seven tribes also feel that “hate speech” is a serious problem (“hate speech” isn’t really defined, either, but I take it to mean speech that demonizes minorities or members of groups to which the speaker doesn’t belong). The figure below shows where each group sits on the pc axis vs the “hate speech is bad” axis:

On average, conservatives tend to think that political correctness (henceforth “pc”) is less of a problem, with “progressive activists” largely rejecting that idea. Conservatives, and moderates, as expected, see pc as more problematic. The two extremes are, then, “progressive activists” (8% of the population) and “devoted conservatives” (6%). That leaves 86% of Americans outside these tribes, and among those, 75% or more, including “traditional liberals” and “passive liberals”, see pc as a problem. The conclusion here? Those who assert that political correctness is a canard, with few people thinking it’s problematic, are dead wrong.

As for hate speech, and free speech, most groups are strongly in favor of free speech, but nearly equally in favor of “protecting people from dangerous and hateful speech”, with devoted conservatives having the greatest disparity between the two figures (86% in favor of fully free speech, 43% saying we need protections against hate speech). The more liberal one is, the more protection you want against hate speech.

The figures below are a mystery to me. How can so many American be in favor of free speech—even offensive free speech, and yet want protections against “dangerous and hateful speech”? The two elements both fall under the First Amendment—unless you consider “dangerous speech”  to include things like workplace harassment or speech calling for immediate violence. All I can conclude is that Americans either don’t understand the First Amendment, do understand it and disagree with it, or don’t see the manifest contradiction between allowing speech when it offends people and preventing speech that is “dangerous and hateful.” For, as we know, a vast amount of “offensive” speech is considered not just “hateful”, but “dangerous”. Witness the cry that people are actually harmed when offensive speech occurs, like criticism of Islam or the use of the “n-word”. Or when people like Ben Shapiro or Charles Murray speak.

Here are the data from the survey:

A few more counterintuitive findings:

  • Young people are as wary of political correctness as old ones: 79% of those under 24, for instance, are uncomfortable with pc.
  • Nonwhites, surprisingly, are often more uncomfortable with pc than are whites: 79% of whites are pc-averse compared to 82% of Asians, 87% of Hispanics, and 88% of Native Americans. However, blacks are 75% pc averse; still a substantial majority, but only 4% less than whites (I would have expected a bigger difference).
  • The rich are less wary of pc than the poorer: 83% of those earning less than $50,000/year are pc-wary compared to only 70% who make more than $100,000/year.

In general, then, the pro-pcers comprise only the “progressive activists,” who tend to be rich, white, and college educated. These are precisely the people who are running American universities, which explains a lot.

So what does this all mean? The authors, as well as the article below, think it means trouble for much of the Left, for if we ourselves act in a pc way, as many do, you’ll find many of the populace aren’t sympathetic. On the other hand, there is that overwhelming desire for protections against “hate speech”, and I don’t know how to reconcile that with pc-hatred.  I’ll let you hear Mounk’s conclusions:

It turns out that while progressive activists tend to think that only hate speech is a problem, and devoted conservatives tend to think that only political correctness is a problem, a clear majority of all Americans holds a more nuanced point of view: They abhor racism. But they don’t think that the way we now practice political correctness represents a promising way to overcome racial injustice. [JAC: this confuses me, because one way we practice political correctness is to call for restrictions on hate speech or dangerous speech—precisely what most people think should be regulated!]

The study should also make progressives more self-critical about the way in which speech norms serve as a marker of social distinction. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the affluent and highly educated people who call others out if they use “problematic” terms or perpetrate an act of “cultural appropriation.” But what the vast majority of Americans seem to see—at least according to the research conducted for “Hidden Tribes”—is not so much genuine concern for social justice as the preening display of cultural superiority. [JAC: I’ve often said that Authoritarian Leftism, of which pc is a symptom, can damage the Left, and may well have damaged Clinton and helped Trump in the last election. Clinton’s characterization of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables“, for instance, is a prime example of this, and my guess is that her remark cost her dearly.]

. . . The gap between the progressive perception and the reality of public views on this issue could do damage to the institutions that the woke elite collectively run. A publication whose editors think they represent the views of a majority of Americans when they actually speak to a small minority of the country may eventually see its influence wane and its readership decline. And a political candidate who believes she is speaking for half of the population when she is actually voicing the opinions of one-fifth is likely to lose the next election. [JAC: Are you listening, HuffPo and New Yorker?]

In a democracy, it is difficult to win fellow citizens over to your own side, or to build public support to remedy injustices that remain all too real, when you fundamentally misunderstand how they see the world.

Finally, the article below, by Tyler Cowen on Bloomberg view, is relevant to the above (h/t: reader Barry), for it suggests that by focusing too intently on identity, the Left is eating itself: a job that Republicans then don’t have to do.

A few quotes:

Of course there is a lot of racism out there, which makes political correctness all the more tempting. Yet polling data suggests that up to 80 percent of Americans are opposed to politically correct thinking in its current manifestations. Latinos and Asian-Americans are among the groups most opposed, and even 61 percent of self-professed liberals do not like political correctness.

The PC weapon reared its head again this week when Senator Elizabeth Warren made a big show of her genealogical test showing she is some small part Native American. To someone immersed in the political correctness debates, this obsession with identity might seem entirely natural. But the actual reality is more brutal

The reality is that many Americans already think that the Democrats talk too much about identity. Warren would have done better to drop the topic altogether, as both right-wing and left-wing critics agree. Instead, she has kept the identity issue in the limelight, and reminded Americans that elite, mostly Democratic-leaning institutions, such as Harvard, like to pat themselves on the back for their diversity in ways which seem phony to most of the rest of us.

Cowen’s ending:

Here’s another ugly truth. The biggest day-to-day losers from the political correctness movement are other left-of-center people, most of all white moderate Democrats, especially those in universities. If you really believe that “the PC stuff” is irrational and out of control and making institutions dysfunctional, and that universities are full of left-of-center people, well who is going to suffer most of the costs? It will be people in the universities, and in unjust and indiscriminate fashion. That means more liberals than conservatives, if only because the latter are relatively scarce on the ground.

Another bout of political correctness is about to dominate the headlines, and that is the lawsuit against Harvard for allegedly discriminating against Asian-Americans in its admissions decisions. Whatever you think Harvard did, or however the court rules, this issue is not a winner for the left. It at least appears to pit the interests of Asian-Americans against those of African-Americans, and thus it fractures what might otherwise be a winning coalition for Democrats. It makes a mockery out of phrases such as “people of color,” because in this case like many others the aggregation obscures some very real and important differences. The lawsuit also will remind Americans that attempts to be more fair to one group will, in practice, involve hypocrisy and unfair treatment toward other groups, in this case the Asian-Americans who found it much harder to get into Harvard because they were not a targeted minority.

Every time identity politics is in the headlines — rather than, say, wages or health care — Donald Trump’s re-election chances go up. As Tony Blair said recently: “If you put right-wing populism against left populism, right-wing populism will win.”

Were I Warren, I would have demurred and moved on; I now think that campaign video she issued makes her look a bit ridiculous, even if Trump is far more ridiculous. And the three paragraphs above ring quite true to me. The “people of color” fight mentioned below is especially distressing because it shows the shattering of the Left most clearly. Predictably, the Left is against the Harvard lawsuit with Asians claiming they are discriminated against in college admissions (as I believe they are), but yet Asians are also considered people of color, and are treated as oppressed minorities in other ways. One example is when the New York Times and many of its readers defended the racist lucubrations of technology editor Sarah Jeong because, they claimed, she was simply responding to being attacked as a female person of color. An ethnic group can’t be both oppressed and privileged!

h/t: Grania, Barry

The unbearable whiteness of pumpkins: more po-mo lunacy

October 2, 2016 • 9:30 am


In the attempts of the Regressive Left to make everything part of identity politics, and to instill in all The Privileged an unspeakable sense of guilt, no object or behavior is off limits. And so, as Halloween approaches, we have a new paper in the journal GeoHumanities called: “The perilous whiteness of pumpkins” (reference and free download below). And it’s not about pumpkins bred for a lack of coloration, either: it’s how this seasonal gourd bears a horrible burden of racism and oppression. This is right up there with feminine glaciology and racist Pilates as one of the craziest po-mo papers I’ve seen.

The authors are Lisa J. Powell, a postdoc in the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and Elizabeth S. D. Englehardt, the John Shelton Reed Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies in the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The paper, as usual with these screeds, is so abysmally written that it’s hard to make out its thesis, but I’ll try.

It begins by locating the pumpkin as a message of racist oppression, and to do that it uses the “Pumpkin riots” in Keene, New Hampshire in the fall of 2014, in which a largely white group of college students became unruly at a pumpkin festival, setting cars on fire, breaking windows, and running amok. Eighty of them were arrested and 170 disciplined by their college. This was about the time that the Ferguson riots took place in Missouri, and many saw the police as acting more leniently toward the white New Hampshire protestors than toward the black Missouri protestors (see the story here). Some of the Missouri demonstrators wrote slogans on pumpkins and took them to the St. Louis County Justice Center, and that’s all that Powell and Engelhardt need to write a paper showing that pumpkins are freighted with racial significance. The rest they just make up. (By the way, everybody’s forgotten about the pumpkins here except for these po-mo authors.)

The authors then take up three pumpkin-related issues (with ancillary points as well) to locate pumpkins in the sphere of oppressive whiteness. Here’s the word salad introducing their paper:

To explore race, culture, and food, we turn to three recent moments in the narrative of pumpkins’ whiteness: the pumpkin spice flavor industry and rhetoric connecting particular middle- or upper-class female whiteness to pumpkin spice lattes; the Internet phenomenon, “Decorative Gourd Season,” and lifestyle magazines’ fall embrace of class-aspirational pumpkins; and the working-class reality television Punkin Chunkin contests. Along the way, we briefly examine agricultural pumpkin production and pumpkins in U.S. history. Finally, we return to the Pumpkin Riot to consider how a deeper understanding of urban–rural divides in current U.S. cultures reveals what is so perilous about the equation of pumpkins and whiteness. Our aim is to make more legible the consequences of ruptures among food, race, class, gender, and place.

Their main points are in bold. I’ve put quotes from the paper in quotation marks.

  • The racism of pumpkin production. This part is a real stretch, but there’s some po-mo gems here as they desperately find ways to make pumpkins symbols of White Privilege:

“The relationship between the pumpkin’s position in contemporary U.S. culture and its role as an edible crop is complicated. Nevertheless, pumpkins are real, material food plants in addition to being cultural symbols.”

Amazing insight! And there’s this:

“Although people in the U.S. pumpkin-picking and pumpkin-processing labor force should not be lumped into one homogeneous group, labor guidelines and commentary on labor issues indicate many are migrant workers and many are of Mexican descent. In 2007, for example, 417 pumpkin growers in Colorado despaired after a state “crackdown” on undocumented immigrants disrupted their fall pumpkin harvest labor force (Rodriguez 2007). Labor controversies in other states, including Texas and North Carolina, suggest seasonal laborers primarily of Mexican descent pick their pumpkin fields (Lutton and Einhorn 2006; Henneberger 2008; Shaffer 2013).”

This issue isn’t brought up again, and they don’t present any real data. But certainly, like many mass-harvested crops, pumpkin-pickers must be heavily Latino. But this doesn’t make the squashes symbols of racism per se; it merely gives the authors an excuse to write their paper.

  • The racism of pumpkin spice lattes. I have never had a pumpkin spice latte (the authors abbreviate this as PSL), as I despise flavored coffees and that one sounds particularly noxious. But Powell and Englehardt strive mightily to make PSLs symbols of the privileged and affluent, ergo of whiteness. To do that they link them with Ugg boots because Buzzfeed once published an article showing PSLs, a candle, and Ugg boots as “signifiers of basicness,” which the authors take as an index of female consumerism seen as a sign of white superiority. (Oy!):

“Starbucks introduced the pumpkin spice latte (PSL) in 2003. The company claimed sales of more than 200 million by the start of PSL’s tenth season, noting that fans had established it as “the company’s most popular seasonal beverage of all time” (Starbucks 2013). Although the PSL was celebrated as a company and cultural success in 2013, one year later it was firmly hitched to discussions of white female identity and consumerism as both a dismissive, racially coded slur and a rallying counterpoint.

PSLs as a racially coded slur! Now I’m glad I never bought one.

“. . . But why did PSLs become the symbol of basic white girlness? Why did they stick even more than UGGs, yoga pants, or scented candles? The context and composition of the PSL might be revealing. Prior to fall 2015, PSLs did not actually contain pumpkin. Luxury items, they cost far more than plain cups of coffee, yet do not provide tangible extra nutrition other than that in milk. Actual pumpkins, in contrast, contribute vitamin A, beta-carotenoids, fiber, and potassium (Savoie and Hedstrom 2008).”

“. . . Extending Simon’s frame to pumpkins and race, the excesses of calories, profligate sweetness, whipped cream, and heady aroma position them solidly as luxury items. PSLs are quintessential “postneed” uses of pumpkin. We no longer need to consume pumpkins for caloric subsistence. Instead, we demonstrate consumer savvy and gleeful excess by choosing the particular comforts of status-demonstrating Starbucks PSLs. In fact, had they significant actual pumpkin, had they strong associations with healthy vegetables or vitamins, PSLs would fail these consumers.”

“. . . The status symbol is not any over-the-top caloric, sweet drink, nor does it come from just any place. Starbucks PSLs are products of coffee shop culture, with its gendered and racial codes.”

Having established that drinking a PSL in public is equivalent to wearing Klan robes, the authors move on to magazines that feature “decorative gourd season.”

  • Touting decorative gourds and pumpkin carving is also a sign of white privilege and racial bias.

“Gone are days when a kitchen knife making triangle eyes, nose, and an uneven grin sufficed for pumpkin carving. Stencils, paint, specialty gourds, and dedicated battery-powered or leather-encased artisanal carving tools combine with multilevel displays, electric lights, or expensive candles to mark the season. Even when people are absent, labor (of self or paid others), leisure, and aspiration are implied. We move from a pumpkin-spiced world where race was (over)stated to one of allusions, implications, elisions, and obfuscations of race, class, and imagined rurality.”

“. . . Even more than PSLs, pumpkins of decorative gourd season and lifestyle magazines signal privilege—class privilege certainly, but also white privilege—encompassing power, lack of worry, and leisure. Like lattes’ power, this privilege needs work.”

Yeah, work on the part of the authors, desperate to have Their Own Original Thesis, a requirement for joining the Regressive Club. Finally, there’s this:

  • Pumpkins were the subject of a television show, Punkin Chunkin, that identified the destruction of pumpkins with fun “whiteness”. I’ve never seen this show, but apparently it involves a bunch of guys who use elaborate methods to destroy pumpkins. Here’s a video clip:

What’s the significance of this? Well, pumpkins. Here we see Powell and Engelhardt becoming theologians: simply making up stuff to buttress their preconceived thesis. (This confirmation bias is characteristic of the po-mo papers I’ve highlighted about glaciology, yoga, and similar attempts at mass guilt-tripping.)

“When rural reality shows feature working-class residents in the South, itself an othered place symbolizing in shorthand fraught race relations, viewers can be twice-distant voyeurs. Portraying the behavior of characters in such shows as not only atypical, but also located in dark and scary versions of rural landscapes, reality television can trade on shame and fascination (Stewart 1996; D. Bell 1997; McPherson 2003; Romine 2014). But the nonthreatening, idealized, and normalized settings of Punkin Chunkin and its pumpkins position both viewers and competitors as safe, fun, and, as with PSLs and decorative gourds, predominantly white.”

That paragraph has every trope of postmodernism, including “othering”. And how they manage to make these show into a celebration of whiteness is beyond me. Seriously, the authors have drunk the Kool-Aid here, for one could easily, just based on the clip above, make the opposite case.

So what’s the conclusion here? What have the authors accomplished? Or, as H. L. Mencken said about Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (one of the funniest and greatest book reviews of all time), “What are the sweating professors trying to say?”

You got me. The whole point, it seems, is to associate pumpkins with whiteness. And even if you buy that tortured thesis, what are you supposed to do? Stop drinking PSLs? Stop decorating pumpkins at Halloween? The authors don’t tell us, for they are content to associate a squash with race privilege and move on to their next paper. The ending:

“Whiteness associated with pumpkins marks who resides where on the spectrum of U.S. social power. The entrenchment of such associations in daily lives and the spaces and places in which they are lived create the environments of Keene versus Ferguson—specific perils of today’s pumpkins. Accumulation of critical, relational, and contextual analyses, including things seemingly as innocuous as pumpkins, points the way to a food studies of humanities and geography, that helps make visible the racial, gendered, classed, and placed politics of contemporary life in the United States.

When Ferguson activists wrote RACISM and WHITE PRIVILEGE on pumpkins, they destabilized the whiteness of pumpkins and the comfort and normalization accompanying it. Bringing pumpkins into the demonstration, and then smashing them on the ground to show outrage at injustice (as opposed to the “holiday mischief” generally ascribed to pumpkin smashing), activists brought pumpkins into a space where racial inequality and instability could not be ignored or glossed over. Their actions made the white privilege encoded in pumpkins explicit and challenged its future.”

The unbearable heaviness of privilege

Powell, L. J. and E. S. D. Engelhardt. 2016. The perilous whiteness of pumpkins. GeoHumanities 1:414-432. DOI: 10.1080/2373566X.2015.1099421

On the correction and improvement of people you meet on the internet

August 11, 2016 • 10:30 am

by Grania Spingies

Elizabeth Warren tweeted about the latest Scandal Du Jour involving Donald Trump. (Don’t worry, this post is not about him or what he may or may not have meant – I personally think you would need a Ouija board to divine the true meaning and intent of his words).


I was entertained to see male Democrat “feminists” telling Warren off for her misogyny.



[JAC: See how lightly “misogyny”, which means “hatred of women”, is thrown around these days? Warren is certainly no misogynist!]



Who knew that there were so many brave individuals out there, calling out dog-whistle everyday sexism of Senator Warren on the internet?

And, yes I considered that some of them were being facetious. But of them went on to elaborate at length, making it clear that they were absolutely serious. They have been told that it is Good to call out anything that could be construed—or in this case woefully misconstrued—as sexism.

I am sure that Senator Warren is now a chastened and enlightened woman. No, I’m kidding. I am sure that Senator Warren rolled her eyeballs if she even made the mistake of reading the responses to her tweet.

Rule #1: If you are going to call someone out on the internet for misogyny, make sure that they actually are a misogynist. Otherwise you are just a finger-wagging nag-bag who nitpicks language on the internet. Or as Shakespeare might have said in his play about misogyny: “Thou hast frighted the word out of his right sense.”

Rule #2: If you decide you are right and they are wrong and you are going to call them out, spare two seconds of thought about what you are hoping to achieve by your action.

  • Are you going to change the hearts and minds of people? (useful)
  • Are you going to start a constructive conversation with someone about the subject? (also useful)
  • Are you just announcing your disapproval so you will feel better? (go ahead)
  • Are you signaling what a good person you are? This is called virtue-twerking1: you will get people’s attention, but they may not respect you in the morning.

All of this brings me to another somewhat related point.

Hillary supporters2 don’t always realise how badly they serve their own candidate when they feel the need to lecture anyone who doesn’t show the required deference to their preferred contender.  Clinton needs all the votes that she can get, and the November elections need as high a turnout of voters as it can get. But a percentage of Clinton supporters don’t seem to think that people are allowed to vote for her only because they concede she’s the better candidate. Instead they insist that such voters speak more respectfully and praisingly of her. This probably needs a special hashtag #NotAllHillarySupporters

There are an awful lot of comments on the internet these days addressed to people who have chosen to vote for Clinton even though she was not their ideal candidate. They tend to go a little like this:

Clap louder and put a happier smile on your face! Show more enthusiasm for the dear leader3. Your faltering and slight hesitation has been noticed!

[JAC: I, too, have been chastised on this site for failing to show sufficient enthusiasm for Hillary, and for suggesting that her political record is far from stellar, that she’s too beholden to Wall Street, and that she has a history of dissimulation. And the disapprobation for saying this comes despite my promise to vote for her.]

No wonder US politics is so polarised. The tactic is as likely to convince a potential ally to shrug and stay at home as it is to persuade them to turn up and vote the way you want them to come Election day in November.

Wanting to change people’s minds is admirable. By all means, educate those around you with facts you believe they may have missed. But your stern disapproval on the internet probably won’t win your candidate any more votes. That’s a tactic that probably only works on TV shows.


1.  Like Virtue Signalling, only with more posing.

2. As most of you know, I am not an American. If I were an American, I would vote for Hillary Clinton, although I have reservations about some of her policy positions past and present.

3. No, I don’t think there is any resemblance between Hillary Clinton and Kim Jong-il at all.

2015: “Kimono Wednesdays” cancelled at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on grounds of cultural appropriation

February 24, 2016 • 10:00 am

Here’s one of the more ludicrous recent protests against “cultural appropriation”, one that actually succeeded in cowing a famous museum last year: the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was a harbinger of the “cultural appropriation wars” that are now raging on college campuses, in which, for example, improperly prepared General Tso’s chicken is deemed a cultural offense by Asian students (the dish is actually Asian-American, unknown in China).

The BMFA had scheduled what they call “Kimono Wednesdays,” in which visitors would be able to try on a kimono in front of Monet’s picture “La Japonaise,” a portrait of his wife Camille dressed in a kimono. The painting:

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 7.00.17 AM

As the BBC and Boston Globe reported in July of last year, as part of a celebration for the departing director of the Museum, visitors were encouraged to pose in front of the painting wearing a replica of the kimono worn by Camille Monet, to wit:

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 7.05.01 AM

There was also a Museum lecture, originally called “Claude Monet: Flirting With the Exotic.” (I do think that title is patronizing!) But this ignited protests that the kimono-wearing and touting of the “exotic” constituted “cultural appropriation and racist ‘exotification’ of Asian culture”. The title of the talk was changed to “Claude Monet: ‘La Japonaise,”, and they stopped letting visitors wear the kimono, though it remained on display. But the protests continued.

The BBC:

Some [protestors] stood with signs next to visitors who tried on the kimono.

“It’s not racist if you looks cute & exotic in it besides the MFA supports this!” one sign read.

Amnes Siyuan, one of the protest’s organisers, said: “A bunch of people tried to prove that they were not racist. That was not the point. We wanted to talk about why this event is cultural appropriation.”

Christiana Wang, another protester, said Asian Americans tend to be underrepresented and are forced into certain categories, such as the geisha or the quiet student.

Wang’s notion is one I don’t understand: are Asian-American women really forced into the category of “geisha”? If so, how? As for “quiet student”, if Asian-Americans retain a cultural tradition of not being loud or brash, surely that doesn’t force them to behave that way, and plenty of them don’t.

The protests:


Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 7.17.38 AM


As the Boston Globe reported on July 19:

The furor reached new heights on Wednesday as about two dozen protesters and half as many counterprotesters filled the MFA’s Impressionist gallery.

On one side, a group of mostly young Asian-American and white women gathered to protest “Kimono Wednesdays,” demanding additional context for the event and questioning views of Asians as “the other” in American culture.

They held signs with messages like “Not your Asian fetish” and “I have been assaulted, raped, harassed + stalked, denied my humanity repeatedly & you don’t want to think about me because I am just another Japanese woman.”

. . . Displaying a sign reading “Decolonize our museums,” a woman who gave her name only as Pampi, 36, spoke about the need to trace artworks to their first acquisitions, which she said were often violent, and charged the MFA with shirking its responsibility to curate the event for a diverse American audience.

I seriously doubt that the Monet was acquired or borrowed “violently”!

But, as the Globe reported, there were Japanese who supported the exhibit as well:

Stepping into the dispute this week were several counterprotesters wearing kimonos, including some older Japanese women, who advocated for the museum to return to its initial “Kimono Wednesdays” programming. One held a sign saying “I am not offended by people wearing kimono in front of French paintings.” Another sign read, in part, “I welcome museum exhibits that share Japanese culture with the community.”

Etsuko Yashiro, 53, of Concord, who helps organize Boston’s Japan Festival, said she was there to share the beauty of kimonos with an American audience. Ikuko Burns, 79, who was born in Tokyo and has lived in Boston for 53 years, explained how she used to bring kimonos to local schools as a consultant for the Children’s Museum to teach introductory lessons on Japan.

“I’m a little bit disappointed by the other side,” she said, questioning what the protest had to do with Monet’s painting and chalking it up to the participants’ youth.

Here are some women, two in kimonos, confronting the protestors:

Matsuko Levin (center), Danyeun Kim, and Etsuko Yashiro were at odds with a group of younger women protesting at the MFA.. Photo by Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

And another defender:


Even the Japanese consul in Boston was puzzled:

“We actually do not quite understand what their point of protest is,” said Jiro Usui, the Deputy Consul General of Japan in Boston. “We tried to listen to those people who are protesting, but we think together with the MFA we should encourage that Japanese culture be appreciated in a positive way.”

But, as AsAm News reports, the Museum caved under the protest:

“We heard concerns from some members of our community, and as a result we’ve decided to change our programming,” a museum statement read. “The kimonos will now be on display in the Impressionist gallery every Wednesday evening in July for visitors to touch and engage with, but not to try on. This allows the MFA to continue to achieve the program’s goal of offering an interactive experience with the kimonos—understanding their weight and size, and appreciating the embroidery, material, and narrative composition.”

And, as a further concession to the protests, the Museum held a two-hour discussion about whether the exhibit constituted cultural appropriation. Listen to the discussion below if you must; I’ve heard only snippets. (The discussion includes both supporters and objectors to the exhibit.) Some of the participants get quite exercised.

My own opinion? This was neither racist nor cultural “appropriation” (except in the sense that non-Japanese wore a kimono), but a celebration of a beautiful garment. Now if the subjects had made their eyes slanted as a way to mock the Japanese, that would have been rank bigotry. That aside (it didn’t happen), how often does anyone get to wear a kimono?I can imagine why some women would like to try (I would were I a woman!)

I can see the point of protesting the title of the original talk, “Flirting with the exotic,” for kimonos, at least in the past, were not “exotic” in Japan. But the protests went way beyond that. It became unacceptable for Westerners to simply don a kimono. And if that’s the case, then it’s surely cultural appropriation for Japanese to wear Levis, as many do. As we know, Western dress has become the norm in Japan.

This reminds me of the protests against Halloween costumes on the same grounds. But there’s a difference between wearing costumes to mock a culture, to celebrate a culture, or simply to dress up as a character for Halloween. The BMFA display seems to me to fall on the “celebration” side, while the protestors largely fall into the class of Special Snowflakes looking for any excuse to be offended.

Certainly the U.S. has treated Asians poorly in the past: think of the Japanese first- and second-generation immigrants who, despite having become American citizens, were still put in camps in the Western U.S. during World War II under the suspicion that they might be spies. That was insupportable, for at that very same time soldiers of Japanese descent were fighting for the U.S. against Germany. But this exhibit doesn’t come close to that form of discrimination.

It’s curious that at 6 minutes into the discussion, an organizer invites the audience to a reception with “tea and other refreshments”. Isn’t tea a cultural appropriation from the Japanese (and Indians)?

I try to be sensible of real discrimination against groups of people (of course I don’t always succeed), but after long cogitation I can’t see anything in these protests beyond a desire of some young people to be offended by anything. If wearing a kimono is racist, then am I racist when I wear my Indian kurta and dhoti when I visit India? Or even in the U.S.? Is a woman who wears a sari to an Indian music concert engaging in unacceptable cultural appropriation, or even racism?

I don’t think so, nor do I think we must always cave in to those who demand that we not adopt parts of their culture that we like. Surely we can hear them out, but their demands needn’t always be met.

I can dimly discern a bit of a rationale for the protests in the title of the original lecture: Japanese-Americans are not “exotic,” but just another ethnic group that has joined and contributed to the melting pot. But people need to learn that there’s a difference between celebrating a culture and denigrating it. I really do fear what this country will look like in 50 years if the trend of decrying “cultural appropriation” continues.

John Cleese on offense and “political correctness”

January 31, 2016 • 1:30 pm

John Cleese has made a career out of offending people, for that’s the thrust of much of his comedy, especially with Monty Python. In this short Big Think video, he sounds off on the hyper-offensiveness plaguing today’s society (he singles out college students), showing that it’s a warped extension of a laudable concern for the dispossessed. (By the way, I don’t agree that all humor is critical, and I’ve put a joke at the bottom* that is completely inoffensive.)

The money quote: “If people can’t control their own emotions then they have to start trying to control other people’s behavior.” We’ve seen this going around the internet quite a bit in the last year, when it’s been deemed okay to mock some viewpoints while others are totally off limits, branding those transgressing those boundaries as ideologically polluted.

h/t: Cindy

*Here’s a joke that doesn’t offend anyone (except perhaps invertebrates):

One day a guy is sitting on his couch when he hears a knock on the door. He gets up and looks around and doesn’t see anyone. All of a sudden he hears a voice from on the ground. He looks down and sees a snail standing there without a shell. The snail says “Hey, Buddy, can I come inside and spend the night?….I don’t have a shell and it’s cold outside!” The guy looks at the snail and says “Get lost!” and kicks the snail across the street. Two years later the same guy hears another knock on the door. He opens the door and sees the very same snail. The snail looks up and says “What the heck did you do that for?!”


Bill Maher calls out the weaknesses of liberalism

March 30, 2015 • 1:00 pm

I have mixed feelings about this clip by Bill Maher decrying the “politically correct” Left, but I’m putting it up for comments. (Several readers sent it to me.)

I do think that the Left is in danger of fragmenting itself via identity politics, but some of the comments that people found distasteful—like Dolce and Gabbana’s remarks about “synthetic children”—do bother me. On the other hand, to blow those verbal missteps into huge rage-laden issues fragments what unity is left on the Left, and maybe we should just learn to hold our noses and focus.